My hesitance to leave Auckland for the last time soon disappears once I hit the road. A relaxing drive north-east to The Coromandel puts my mind back on track, and I reach a campsite on the east coast with plenty of daylight left to take my time setting up.
A curious young girl of four or five is sat on the steps of a motorhome on the adjacent site and asks if she can help me pitch my tent, so I let her hammer the pegs into the ground which she’s thrilled about. Once it’s up I invite her inside my tiny home and it’s refreshing to be in the company of a non-adult.
She wants to be my helper for the evening so I show her how to fold some clothes while I organise the car, then she helps to carry my heavy food bags into the kitchen. I teach her how to write my name on the food labels and leave her to practice while I make us some dinner, and when I come back to check her progress I find she’s written my name three whole times with a big love heart next to each one.
I take a quick trip to Hot Water Beach before it gets dark where the waves are unforgiving but I swim anyway, until a huge one swallows me up. I escape to the shore to sit in the hot pools where if you dig into the sand, boiling water spills up from the thermal springs below and I soak in my own little coastal bath until my fingers and toes go wrinkly.
On the drive back to the camp site, the scene is beautifully moody. As daylight grows dimmer and heavy dark clouds roll in, a patch of gold glows where the sun once shone and silhouettes of Kānuka trees stand tall over darkening fields. Raindrops start to patter the windscreen and the cows begin to kneel one by one, and as the last few birds skit across the sky to make their way home, a roll of thunder grumbles in the distance.
The morning carries a sombre tone and a sense of stillness, and it’s late afternoon before I get up and head to Cathedral Cove. Gloomy clouds overhead don’t help my mood and I’m feeling uninspired, so I listen to some of the music that Colby gave me: some beautiful Mexican acoustic from Chavela Vargas which is the perfect soundtrack for the walk to the cove, and when I reach the beach I fall asleep to the voice of Rodriguez.
When I wake up, the clouds are still grey and my mood unchanged. I lay still as ice, stuck in a motionless state except for my eyes which dart over the groups of couples, friends and families around me and I realise I’m the only one by myself. I can’t seem to rid this sense of gloom but I tell myself that the lows are just as important as the highs.
Tuesday morning finds me at a peaceful campsite in the sticks just south of Tauranga. After a long lie in of contemplation and trying to recall my dreams, I unzip the tent to discover the greyness of the weather and my mood have shifted. Feeling positive, I decide to test my camp stove for the first time, preparing coffee and a zucchini and chorizo pasta for lunch and it feels so great to have cooked a meal from scratch.
I arrive in Rotorua with lack of purpose and take myself to a remote side of the lake to be away from people. I head through a secret tunnel of trees that line the shore where dappled light dances through their leaves and the lake licks at their roots. I sit out at the edge of an old jetty, feet dangling just above the surface with book in one hand and my pasta in the other and it’s a relief to feel invisible for a while.
On my way south to Taupo I stop to bathe in some natural hot springs in the Waiotapu Stream which appear beautifully enchanted in the twinkling late afternoon sun. It’s almost dark by the time I reach Taupo and I drive around the entire lake trying to find a campsite to no avail, so I give up and park in a secluded spot behind some trees in hope that no one catches me. The last of the light drips away into blue and orange raindrops and with them I drift into sleep.
My thoughts are awake before the rest of me on Wednesday and I can’t remember where I am. I feel like a stranger to yesterday’s self, as if reincarnated into a new body and mind overnight. The air is still and empty of sound, the only audible noise a slow, faint lapping. My eyes begin to open and all I can see from the car window at the end of my feet is a bright, brilliant blue. Without wanting to burst this silent, azure bubble, I slowly sit up to see that the blue above meets even more blue below, and I remember I’ve parked on the shore of Lake Taupo!
My clothes are off before I can think twice and I sink into the clear, wet blueness, surprised to find it’s already warm, and watch the sunlight shimmer on the sand below and giggle as tiny fish nibble at my toes. I throw my legs forward and float on my back, looking up into more blue above with not a cloud in the sky. My, oh my, this is what I needed.
I leave the water completely cleansed and back to my normal self and make plans for the day ahead, accompanied by a cup of coffee boiled from the water of the lake, for which I make sure to say thank you before drinking. I decide to head to Tongariro National Park today to do the Alpine Crossing tomorrow, staying in a backpackers which organises shuttles to and from the start and end of the trail.
I’m up all night talking to S, reminiscing about what once was, and almost miss the shuttle at 6am. The drive is misty and quiet in anticipation of the 19.4km trek ahead. It’s busy on the trail but I manage to find space to walk in peace and pretend I’m walking the path through Mordor to Mt Doom. The day is tough with harsh sun and steep climbs but the ancient volcanic views are worth it, and I’m so proud to complete the crossing alone in 8 hours - although it would be nice to have someone to celebrate with.
I’m in Wanganui by Friday afternoon where I spend the evening and next morning catching up on writing and editing to clear my head a bit, and by Saturday evening I’m headed north west to meet Colby in New Plymouth on Monday.
I stop half way in a tiny town called Hawera where I wait for nightfall to find somewhere safe to sleep in the car which becomes more challenging than I anticipated; the visitor centre carpark appears deserted, until my eyes adjust to the shadows of a doorway where a frail, ghostly figure is staring straight through me; the KFC carpark is quiet so I curl up in the back and read my book by torchlight for a while, until waves of drunk people start stumbling past and I have to quickly shut off the light to avoid being spotted.
This continues until I finish my book at 4am, and out of nowhere a man runs up to the car to look inside - every fibre in my body freezes and my fist is gripped around my keys ready for whatever’s next - but his friends call him away before he sees me. I jump over the front seat and drive off into the night, chain smoking to keep me awake until I miraculously find a free campsite in the forest.
After catching up on sleep from last night, I get my bearings and set off for New Plymouth, grateful for daylight and excited to have some company tomorrow. When I reach town I get my nails painted dark blue with glitter all over to look like little galaxies at my fingertips, and spend the rest of the evening swimming at Fitzroy Beach where I’ve booked 3 nights at the campsite.
I’m in holiday mode on Monday with the summer sun full in the sky and nothing to do but relax for the next few days, so I spend the entire afternoon at the beach. After hours of soaking up plenty of sunshine, I skip down to the ocean to swim a while until I notice a man on the beach waving frantically for me to get out of the water. I make my way out and he says he thinks he saw a shark fin swimming near me, at which I laugh in utter disbelief. I turn around to see he’s pointing right where I was swimming, and sure enough a huge black fin emerges and sinks back down again, but followed by two others - and we realise that it’s a family of orcas! Everyone gathers at the shore to witness the rare sighting and I still can’t believe it’s happening.
Colby arrives in the evening and after a beautiful sunset swim we retreat to our tents where thoughts and beer flow into the night. We sleep in the next morning and laze about on the beach, then drive out to some deep forest in the national park to take some portraits of each other. We walk for an hour until I find a good location where I shoot an intimate self-portrait which involves him too and it’s strange having someone else witness the process for the first time.
We walk further and find a dry, rocky riverbed and I pose completely nude for him again, where he captures me on polaroid film laid over wet, mossy boulders and under waterfalls. When it’s too cold for me to bear anymore, we head back and spend the evening in town eating pizza and playing pool.
We bid each other farewell on Wednesday and I start the drive south, and although I needed this little break it feels good to be back on the road again. Despite feeling doubtful and slightly lost this week, I turn the music up and sing and shout to myself that I am strong and I am courageous, and I can do this.