The first week of my travels takes me to the Northland, somewhere I hadn’t previously planned on visiting but a missing package and a lost passport require me to stop back in Auckland next week, so it makes sense to detour north for a while instead of going south and coming back up.
I’ve hand-drawn maps of both islands in my journal and pinpointed places to visit which becomes the only resemblance of a plan, so with no real destination other than meeting Dawn Chapman up in Pukenui, I casually drive up the east coast stopping overnight in Warkworth and Whangarei on Wednesday & Thursday.
The trip so far is burdened with organising passport forms, insurance claims and package tracking and so the sense of freedom I’d anticipated doesn’t quite hit yet. I spend the drives in the company of my thoughts and music, getting used to being on the road for this is my first time driving any real distance. Finally meeting Dawn at the campsite on Friday evening is a welcome relief from the solitude thus far.
Saturday morning, we drive up to Cape Reinga, the most northern point of New Zealand and I wave to the open sea in the direction of London. It’s strange seeing rows of waves that never break for they have no land to stop them, and it gives me a real sense of distance from the rest of the world.
We head to the Te Paki sand dunes, a huge stretch of rolling desert that seems completely out of place in the surrounding greenery. We ride boards down the huge dunes which takes a little bit of practice, getting facefuls of sand and being covered head to toe, but the thrill is incredible. The Sun cooks us from the sky above and the sand below, and we retire sweaty and burnt.
The ocean is calling us so we stop and swim at a remote beach on the way back and take photos of each other being wild and free in the waves and sand. For sunset we rush to 90-Mile Beach but the Sun has already disappeared, leaving only a faint glow of purple and orange on the horizon and barely enough light to spot the hundreds of jellyfish washed up on the shore.
Dawn leaves on Sunday morning for her own adventures in the South Island and I’m left in my own company again. I’m eager to get back to the sand dunes with my camera, but this time I wander past the sand boarders and into the desert away from eyes and voices. All around me is endless sand, high and low and near and far, nothing but sand. I have the sudden urge to get naked, so I strip off and dance about and do handstands, feeling the rush of freedom I’ve been waiting for.
I set my camera down on top of my bag and start to take some self-portraits, when out of nowhere two heads appear above the dune in front of me. They spot me and I jump into my clothes quicker than I ever have, laughing to myself at how ridiculous I must look to them.
I continue further into the desert, aiming for the biggest sand dune in the distance and pretend I’m on Frank Herbert’s planet Dune. I finally reach the top of the sand mountain and the wind is vicious up here. I throw my arms up and yell into the blue above, cheering and hollering for no one to hear.
That evening I start to head south, stopping in Mangonui for fish and chips at a beautiful spot overlooking the water. I spend Monday resting, recovering from sunburn and fatigue. Later when the Sun is not so daunting I walk to the beach nearby where a wooden seat has been built in between two trees and I sit reading my book and watching gulls washing the day away and the tide cover the shore, as if tucking it in to bed for the night.
On Tuesday I stop at Rainbow Falls in KeriKeri, desperate to swim and freshen up from driving. The falls are huge and a large, dark pool sits below. Dawn told me you can climb up behind the falls but being by myself makes me nervous. I tell myself I’ll only be here once, so I get straight into the water and start swimming. I have an irritating fear of not knowing what’s below me in deep water which tends to make me panic, but I swim and swim and make it across to the rocks.
The climb up is dangerously slippery with moss and the unavoidable pools of thick mud. I cringe as I plunge my feet into the gloopy brown stuff, clambering up on all fours until I reach the cavern behind the waterfall. It’s a wet, mossy wonderland, everything is glistening and dripping from the spray of the falls.
I find an ancient tree trunk that’s stuck on the rocks which must have fallen from above and got lodged there. I straddle it and shimmy forward as far as I can, pretending i’m a girl-Mowgli. I plant a kiss on to the tree and rub it in with a leaf in hope of healing it.
I climb off the trunk and move further along the hollow to perch on a rock jutting out of the waterfall. I sit cross-legged and attempt to meditate for the first time. Eyes closed, water spraying all over me washing the mud away, I am Queen of the wetland reigning over the pool below. I breathe in the smells and sounds of the waterfall, absorbing some of its energy and trying to become one with this little-big water world, but I cannot focus. I climb down off my throne and swim back across, feeling so glad that I pushed myself to do it.
Wednesday takes me all the way to the west coast to visit Tāne Mahuta, the largest living Kauri tree and I continue south through the forest with all the windows down despite the rain, enjoying the fresh fragrance of pine and wet soil.
I park near a remote gas station to take a photo and stop inside to grab some snacks. Just as I’m about to leave, the skies break open and rain pours and pours as heavy as the waterfall earlier. I wait outside under the shelter of the gas station as it’s too wet to run back to my car and the owner joins me to watch the rain. He’s old and weathered, the buttons of his Hawaiian shirt stretched to their limit across his protruding stomach and he’s a comical, colourful contrast to the grey downpour behind him.
I have my film camera around my neck and as we chat about photography and my travels, I desperately want to take his portrait but I’m too nervous to ask, despite the perfect conversation for it. I decide to make a run for the car and as I drive away, I’m kicking myself that I didn’t take his photograph. I realise what a fool I am to throw away that situation and even contemplate turning around, but I take it as a lesson learned. I tell myself that I must take every opportunity from now on for I’ll never be faced with the same circumstances ever again - there’s simply no such thing as “next time”.
From here I’m driving around aimlessly, feeling lost and without purpose. I pass a graveyard of charred trees, the earth blackened and scattered with dead wood. Despite the rain and distant sound of thunder, I pull over and set up for a self-portrait in the middle of the devastation. It only feels right to be nude again, so I strip off my wet clothes and ignore the cars driving past. I get soaked to the bone and thunder growls in disapproval but the rush of adrenaline is too good to ignore.
I feel empty on Thursday. I’ve been driving around non-stop trying to be strategic about how far I go because this package is still not in Auckland yet. I pass back through Warkworth, the first stop I made when I left a week ago and it feels strange to recognise a place again. I can’t go to Auckland yet so I try to find somewhere free or cheap to stop for the evening.
There’s a campsite in Mahurangi Reserve but it’s council run and the booking process is frustrating, so I give up and climb into a tree on the beach for a while. Below me a mother, father and son are setting up a picnic and the boy is so content, running about in the sand and chasing Dad around. As I watch them I try to remember what it felt like to be a young girl with Mum & Dad by my side, but I realise I’ve completely lost that perspective. I wish more than anything in this world that I could remember the times when we were a little family.
I drive back to Auckland on Friday as the package has apparently been delivered. I’m embarrassed at the smile on my face as the Sky Tower comes into view! As much as I’ve longed to leave this city for almost a whole year, I can’t deny that I’m happy to be back for the day - except it feels different now. I feel like a stranger driving through Ponsonby, despite calling it home for so long and only being away for a week.
I’m quickly on a mission driving here, there and everywhere getting things done. It’s nice to be back to a fast pace again. My last stop is the post office to collect the package but they tell me it’s not there - It’s apparently at the holding office which is now closed for the day… I fight the urge to scream as this has been driving crazy for almost a month now.
This now means I’ll have to stay in Auckland until tomorrow. Why can’t anything be simple? I drive straight to Cristina’s house in hope we can grab coffee so we can catch up and I can de-stress. I’m so happy to see a familiar face and she offers me her place to stay the night. We’re joined for the evening by her friends for a barbecue and beers and it’s a beautiful night of chatting, laughing and sharing thoughts. I’m extremely thankful to have a place to crash in the company of such vibrant souls.
In the morning I bid my friends farewell, silently comprehending that this is the last time I’ll see them in this country. The package is finally in my hands and suddenly I’m no longer chained to this city. I get a text from Colby Sadeghi who wants to head out west to Bethells Beach to shoot some portraits on film and with no where to be and a fascination for his obscure collection of cameras, I go and pick him up.