It was going to be easy.
The day's trail may have been in a ditch on the side of the road but Whiona had sliced and drained Barney while we ate breakfast and I'd learned to ignore the slab of meat that was my little toe.
And anyway our walk to Puhoi was only going to be 6 kilometres. Nothing!
The official nobo Te Araroa route goes from Wenderholm to Puhoi up the Puhoi River - but like a lot of TA hikers, we’re tight arses. Why pay for kayak hire when you can walk for free? The tide was against us too - we would have had to wait until two in the afternoon to catch the ingoing tide.
A NOTE OF THANKS
Ruru have become a bit of a symbol of Te Araroa for us. Pitching a tent on the trail usually means that we will soon be drifting off to the soft calls, and occasional squawks, of New Zealand’s only surviving native owl. The previous night at the Schischka Campground had played out just like that. It was our first northland tent night and we’d been lulled by our first rurus.
It’s not often you meet a ruru during the day - but as we left the campground in the morning, we came across one of our friends from the night before. It lay on the road, eyes open, still slightly warm. It hadn’t had time to go into rigor but it hadn’t had time to get flattened by the morning commute either. As a pathetic token of thanks for the song from the night before, we put it under a toetoe to rot in peace.
Whiona has always had a thing for gloves - which means that road walking is really entertaining for her because New Zealand's country roads are littered with the things. They’re usually flying solo, but she sometimes finds them in pairs. Now that she's got a fancy new phone, she's decided to take their portraits. I’ve decided to take photos of her taking those photos. It's good to have a hobby on the trail and our journey to Puhoi was a treasure trove for an avid collector like Fiona and a voyeur like me.
Most roadside gloves seem to come from roadworkers. They're usually single black rubber ones, but we haven't done any sort of statistical analysis to find out if careless workers favour discarding the left or right glove. That may have to come later.
A couple of k's out of Puhoi, Whiona struck gold...well red actually. Yep...she found her first red rubber glove. I usually convince her to leave gloves where she finds them, but her new red rubber glove was soon sitting proudly and probably pointlessly in her pack.
As we approached Puhoi, we got even luckier. A Golden Queen peach tree had discarded its delicious ripe fruit into the drain we walked through - we picked the best for our lunch as cars roared past oblivious to our delight.
Puhoi is a nice little town that doesn't seem to have houses. Amongst other things it does have a General Store, a pub, a block of toilets, a lovely wee library and a shop that sells Indian Dream Catchers.
The General Store is great - we bought a gas bottle to replace the one that had erupted on me the night before. They also sold us good coffees in our hiker keep-cups. This was important because our malfunctioning gas bottle had meant that we were severely decaffeinated by the time we arrived in town.
Unlike most of New Zealand’s ‘modern’ little towns, Puhoi even does Post - the General Store happily mailed a license (for free!) that we'd found in a gutter, to its startled looking owner in South Auckland.
AN AFTERNOON WITH DAMIANA
We sat with our coffees under the cool shade of a tree on the bank of the Puhoi River. We'd arrived in town too early to head off to our night's accommodation, so we spread out and chilled out with our strong flat whites and lunch. I wrote, Whiona did a few more lines of knitting, then Damiana turned up.
She'd been camping across from us the night before, but we hadn't crossed paths. I'd seen her in the morning from a distance as she'd wandered over to the toilets for her morning...toiletries.
My initial conclusion as I watched her in the distance had been that she was a retired German hair metaller who would be completing his transition once he got home from his cycle tour of New Zealand.
We all stereotype...we all like to suss people out before we actually meet them. People assume I'm a Scottish ZZ Top fan as I approach. This is totally incorrect, but I'm vaguely cool with that.
As Damiana came over to say hello it was clear that I'd made a mistake. Damiana had already transitioned. Her bright pink nails, lovely long ponytail and pink bike shorts, although stereotypically girly, were clear signals that she was her own woman. Her three wheeled recumbent with it's pink frame and rainbow of flags helped nail those conclusions to the tarseal.
It wasn't long into our conversation before I embarrassed myself. It wasn't long after that Damiana brushed my faux pas aside without a pause.
“I'm finding it hard to pick your accent.” I offered once the formalities were over. “Are you German?”
“No. That's my disabilities. I'm a kiwi, I just find it hard to pronounce words properly because of my…”
The list of Damiana's difficulties flew from her mouth in such a dizzyingly long list that I can't start to do them justice.
But to call Damiana disabled would be doing her a huge disservice. Yes she can't ride a two wheeled bike anymore. Yes she can't walk more than a kilometre a day. Yes she can't speak fluidly. But she can still get around with pride.
Before she transitioned, she walked Te Araroa. Before she lost the ability to ride a two wheeler she road the bikepacking version of TA - the Tour Aotearoa.
She's been knocked off her bike/trike. Run off the road. Left for dead in the gutter. She's sustained a brain injury (or possibly more than one). She's been bullied. Assaulted. Sexually assaulted.
When I asked her where she called home, she said her home was the road. She rides. Stops up at night. Then rides again the next day.
Our afternoon was filled with strangely cheerful, but traumatic stories from the road, but the most disturbing thing she said came when I asked her about the sun.
She is brown. Seriously brown. The day we met her she had already spent the morning riding in a blistering sun on scorching black tarmac.
“What do you do about the sun?” I asked. Are you naturally that brown?”
She showed us the skin under her singlet - it was pale white.
“I'm not dark at all...but I'm allergic to sunblock.”
A SPOT OF HISTORY
Puhoi is an interesting historical town, but it is also home to the Slow Water Trading Post. We’ve been traumatised by Indian Dream Catchers on Te Araroa before, so although we had room in our packs, we decided not to stock up on them. We also passed on the Indian Coyote Quiver Pouch with Arrows ($450) and the Handmade Red and Black Native Headdresses ($850). We did contemplate buying a Peace Pipe each but couldn’t decide between the large ($220) and small ($85) options so we went to the pub instead.
The Puhoi pub is a great spot to stop on a hot day. It's probably pretty bloody good on a cold one too. It's popular amongst TA hikers for obvious reasons. We had a couple of delicious cool ciders with all the other tourists.
With the cider doing it's magic we made our way up the road to Jason's place. We'd hosted him in Palmerston North three years earlier when he'd ridden the inaugural Tour Aotearoa, so we reckon that he probably felt duty bound to return the honour.
We spent a great evening with him, his wife Alex, son Hugh and their nutso, but cool dog Ascot - the not-so-good hunting hound.
As we lay in our tent at the end of an easy day both admitted that we were uneasy about the adventure we were on. It had been another day walking roads. Another day skirting around the edge of civilisation. We were enjoying the people...but were starting to crave some wilderness. As the dew dropped from the night sky we wondered if Northland was our kind of hike.
Then the ruru started to call...