I never really feel worthy of people's time on my Birthday. It feels foolish and deluded to expect anyone to genuinely celebrate the day I came into the world, so I'm usually happy just enjoying the day to myself.
This year, I decide to hike The Pinnacles in The Coromandel - To be at the top of a mountain the day I turn 24 sounds grand. The basic plan involves a 2-hour bus from Auckland to Thames, a 15-minute taxi from Thames to the start of the trail, then a 3-hour hike to the top, where I've booked a night in the trail hut.
I never like to plan very much - this is a tale of why I probably should.
I wake up and take my time enjoying that it's-my-birthday feeling, before packing my small backpack with a few clothes, some water, trail mix and my film camera and head to the city bus station, to discover there are only two buses that run per day and I've just missed the first one. After organising a shuttle which takes an extra hour picking up and dropping people off all over the place, I don't reach Thames until 4:30pm.
Although it's probably way too late to start hiking, I figure I've nothing else to do and it's my birthday after all, so I follow my tiny map I picked up from the bus station in the direction of the trail - It's the first day of Spring and the weather is incredible - A supposedly 15-minute drive can't take that long to walk, surely?
As I follow the winding river through the Kaueranga Valley, the late afternoon Sun casting it's yellow-gold light over the plains and the sweet smell of jasmine in the air, I feel like I'm walking just on the edge of freedom, like reading the last page before a new chapter; Birthdays always bring a sense of rebirth anyway, but with my time in Auckland almost over, this feels like the first few steps into my next journey, in age and destination.
I pass a tiny village which appears deserted except for the sound of clucking chickens and spitting sprinklers; an intriguing Christian camp that would make for some eerie shots if it weren't so intimidating; steep driveways up to huge farm houses lined with curious little mailboxes.
A guy in a pickup truck keeps driving back and forth past me every half an hour or so, offering to give me a ride and telling me it's way too far to walk, but I keep on walking out of determination and distrust.
I approach a herd of cows who all grumpily chant at me and I pretend they are mooing "Happy Birthday, Ellen!". I politely thank them and carry on my way, with no idea how much farther I have to go.
After trekking for 2 hours with uncertainty and haste as the Sun sinks lower, I ponder whether to hail one of the scarce passing cars and ask for a ride to the start of the trail. It's 6:30pm already and I still have to hike for 3 hours to the hut!
I admit defeat and wave down a maintenance truck - I figure if I'm going to stop anyone, this will be someone I can trust. The worker pulls over, a grey-haired, hard-worked man and I ask how much farther it is to the start of the trail, as I plan to hike The Pinnacles today. He laughs as if I'm joking and I explain that I need to reach the hut tonight. Shaking his head, he insists that it's much too far to hike at this time, and suggests I stay with him and his wife on their farm tonight and attempt the trail tomorrow morning.
I don't want to give up as I have my heart set on getting to the top for my birthday, but I realise it would be stupid to try to hike if it gets dark, so I gratefully accept his offer. He drives us back along the way I've already walked and we pull into one of the driveways with the colourful mailboxes that I remember photographing earlier.
The farm house looks homely and I can roughly make out the shape of worksheds and animal cages around the grounds, but the light has faded fast and it's difficult to tell what it looks like. I'm nervous about meeting Jim's wife. I take my shoes off at the door with my tail between my legs.
"Angela, I've found another lost traveller in the valley!", Jim announces. I enter the kitchen to greet Angela, a short, plump lady who pays me no mind as she's in the middle of cooking dinner. They take turns in asking me about my plan and what I'd brought with me and I tell them that I don't really have a plan and I just have a few clothes and some water. They both become more and more astounded when I explain that I didn't bring any food, I don't have a warm jacket and no, I didn't bring a sleeping bag. This is my first hike and I didn't think I'd need to bring much with me.
Jim suggests we head back into town to get some food for tomorrow, and I feel so stupid that I contemplate just getting the bus home tonight. Here I am on these strangers' couch in the middle of nowhere, my birthday's almost over and I've completely failed at what I wanted to achieve. I feel like a foolish little girl, what's the point of hiking tomorrow when the magic of the trip has evaporated?
After a quick trip into town I decided to retreat to bed, not wanting to be mocked any longer. Jim suddenly offers not only to give me a ride to the start of the trail at 7am tomorrow, but he'll also finish work early to come and meet me at the bottom around the time I should be back down. I'm on the verge of telling him not to worry and I'll just go home in the morning, but I tell myself that I came this far already and it would be silly to give up.
A rooster calls in the day before the Sun is even up, and despite feeling weary from what turned out to be a 12km trek yesterday, I'm up with excitement and ready to go. Jim drives us for a good 15 minutes through the valley (I could never have walked this yesterday!) and everything is stilled by a heavy mist and the slight glow of the first morning light. At the start of the trail, he bids me farewell with an almost fatherly hug and says he'll be back here at 3pm, but tells me not to rush if I end up taking longer.
It's still misty as I start to walk and I can hear everything waking up: the birds are beginning to sing, a soft breeze gently breathes through the trees and and even the faint trickle of the river nearby sounds as if it's been dormant overnight.
I take my time wandering along the track, climbing through a gap in the trees and ducking under spider webs to explore the rocky riverbank and stare up in admiration at the tropical foliage overhead.
The trail starts to steepen and I scramble over boulders and climb old waterfalls that no longer flow. I'm led across long swing bridges and around rock faces and I revel in the fact that I am alone here in the bush.
I climb higher and higher, the earth changing shades from a moist black to pastel white to burnt ochre. As I start to break out from the trees and stride across the deserted ridges, I get a view of where I've come from - a blanket of kauri trees covers the hills below and there's no way of telling where the trail is.
I reach the hut in good time, have lunch and refill my water. Jim & Angela were right about bringing a sleeping bag - the beds are simply long bunks filled with mattresses, and amenities are scarce. At least I know what to expect next time!
It's only another 45 minutes to the peak but it's a steep stretch of hundreds of steps and eventually to huge boulders with metal rungs sticking out to climb up. As I'm pulling myself up rock by rock and looking down at the vertical drop either side, it starts to sink in that I actually made it this far. Despite feeling like I'd messed everything up yesterday, I pushed myself to carry on and here I am, clinging on the side of a rock 750 meters up.
After spending some time at the top taking it all in, I make my way back down the trail and a boy catches up with me. He's also by himself so we continue the rest of the walk together. He tells me about his world travels, I tell him about being saved last night, and we discuss how we prefer being alone and doing most things in our own company.
We start to approach some other hikers coming up the trail, when to my surprise they start calling my name,
As we get closer I realise that it's Jim & Angela! What are they doing up here? They tell me that as it's a nice day they decided to come for a walk and see if they'd bump into me on my way down, but I can tell they were slightly worried as it was 4pm already. Not only had they taken me in for the night, they've also hiked an hour up the trail to come and check on me!
The four of us continue down the trail and I'm in shock at the kindness of these strangers. As we reach the truck an hour later, we bid the lonesome boy farewell and make our way back towards the house. They explain that before we get home, we have to stop by and feed the animals in their various pastures dotted through the valley. This trip just keeps getting better!
First stop is the horses who Angela explains compete in dressage, but one of them had it's tail eaten by the other so can't compete anymore.
Then we have to search for the herd of cows that Angela thinks has escaped as she doesn't remember closing the gate last night. We split up and trek the fields, and I spot them huddled down in a ditch, black all over except for a haunting white face, all looking clueless. We lead them back to the main pasture and Jim drags huge bags of hay out for them to feed.
Angela & I sit on some logs nearby and she tells me about all the work that's involved every day and how the industry is tough to make a decent living from. She says the hardest thing for her is losing livestock to sickness or stillbirth, especially the sheep.
We head back home for the final feeding and I finally get to see the yard in day light. A small aviary full of chattering parakeets sits opposite the wooden farm house. I spot three cats around the yard: one curled up on the porch, another hiding under the truck and the third taunting the caged birds.
Coming from around the corner of the house is a terribly hilarious racket, non-stop bleating "Ma-a-a-a-aam!", "Ma-a-a-a-aam!". Angela chuckles and says her babies are calling her, and takes me over to a tiny paddock of the most adorable lambs desperate for the bottles of milk formula in her hands.
As soon as they spot us, the 5 little darlings go beserk, bleating and jumping and pressing their noses through the chain fence. Angela hands me two bottles and tells me to hold on tight, and as I poke them through the fence they instantly suckle and pull violently on the bottles. I can instantly see why Angela might grow attached to her sheep.
The Sun starts to set so I wander around the yard in the golden light using up the last frames of my film and ask if I can grab a portrait of Jim & Angela. They kindly offer to let me stay the night again if I need to, but I insist they've done enough for me already and I'd better make my way home.
They drop me into town and we hug goodbye, and I can't thank them enough for everything they've done. I don't know what I would have done last night if it weren't for them.
On the bus back to Auckland I lay my head back, Bob Dylan singing words of wisdom in my ears, as I watch the light fade over the horizon and the hills behind me disappear. The events of the last two days start to sink in and I smile, grateful for the hospitality of two strangers and eager to see what other unexpected adventures my travels may bring.
Photos: Canon AE-1 / Portra 400
The first time I've shot solely analogue.