We had camped out first night in the tent. The pigs were friendly company and we learned more about our tent and its assembly instructions. Georges’ shoes, being GoreTex, were still wet from the day before. We decided, since it was the beach, he could probably hike well enough in his camp sandals. This was an awesome idea, and it wasn’t long before I swapped my shoes for sandals, too. The sand was solid and made for easy hiking. After a few kilometers, the trail cut inland. We found orange markers leading the way across a stream and up a grass-covered hill. This begin the most beautiful ‘beach’ hiking one could imagine. In the whole day, we hiked very little beach–a bit at the beginning and a bit at the end. The rest of the day we tramped though incredible vegetation and over breathtaking peaks. There was a section in the beginning of the hills/mountains that was sand–and that was unbelievable. Mountain climbing sand. Deep, soft, yellow sand. Hiiiiigh above the ocean and climbing at an incredible grade. It wasn’t a dune. It was a mountain covered in deep sand. And it sucked. Hiking in flat sand is usually like moon walking–fun on a dance floor, not good for getting anywhere. Hiking uphill in sand absolutely defied the principle of taking a step. But the shear awesomeness of the sand being there and the unbelievable views in all directions (except up) was still absolutely amazing. After the sand mountains (there were a couple peaks) we hiked through scenes from fairytales and Johnny Depp movies. The plants were neither flowers nor bushes nor shrubs nor trees. At times they towered above you, thick and impenetrable, and at others flowered delicately next to your feet. Cool stuff. The ocean, when we were by a cliff, crashed spectacularly hundreds of meters below, and on the trail wound.
After a touch of flat beach–Twilight Beach–we found the stairs to Twilight Camp just in time for lunch. The area was a hilly mowed grass camping spot with trees on all sides. We stopped at noon and had tortillas with rehydrated chocolate peanut butter. It turns out Georges doesn’t like chocolate peanut butter, so more for me. Camp Twilight also had a water faucet, and Georges wanted a bath (European). So after lunch we took advantage of the toilet facilities (pretty good comparatively) and Georges commenced the world’s tiniest bath–washing one small area at a time. I didn’t want to bathe–because we’re backpacking and had showers the day before–but, like eating garlic, you don’t want to be the only stinky one around. I settled with washing my hair and face.
After an hour and a half at the camp, we left to continue through the inland fairytale, becoming increasingly aware of how pink we were turning. We applied sunscreen again and again and again. Our day continued full of deep conversations, amazing views, good hiking and very little sand. We met a couple just before hitting Ninety Mile Beach who said they were tramping the Te Araroa without camping and taking five years to do it. They said they were in a hurry, though, because they were worried they’d miss their pick-up for the day. (This couple would become very important in the next days.)
We had finally arrived at the official Ninety Mile Beach. We hiked a little ways until we hit Te Paki stream, which was marked as “last water fill” on our trail notes. Though it was a bit early in the day, we decided to camp at the stream where we could do dishes and hydrate without worrying about water.
We crossed the stream and entered the dunes to find a suitable spot. On dune duty, I counted two dozen types of wild animal tracks and one very dry skeleton before finding one of the few large and flat enough places to set up our tent. We were worried about how soft the sand was and neither of us could remember the last time we saw a rock–but Georges felt confident he knew better how to stake the tent than the previous night and that he could make it work (as if we had any other option). We set forth in a beautiful example of team work to assemble and stake the wet outer tent without letting it touch the sand. This was accomplished with very strategic holding of the fabric on my end and very effective staking on Georges’ end. When enough of the stakes were set for the outer tent to stand on its own, I clambered inside to assemble the inner tent without getting any sand inside it. It was one of the coolest examples of a teamwork challenge someone could design.
After the tent was up, we resolved ourselves to the severity of our sunburns–mine in particular were unlike any I’ve ever had–so we got under the protection of the tent and it’s shadow to unload our gear and make dinner. We had a yummy, yet slightly crunchy, bacon and tomato rice dish–this being our first time using our awesome stove. It was still very early, but I did not feel like leaving the tent after we got in to ‘journal’ after dinner (I think Georges wrote the date and I managed to look at my pack within which my composition notebook lay). Instead, we talked about the days we’d had and the days we had coming. Because we couldn’t think of what else to do, and with our sunburns heating the tent, we went to sleep shortly before sunset.
I woke around nine needing to go to the bathroom and so adventured forth into the sand dunes with my headlight. I didn’t meet any wild animals–I had listened for a long time before leaving the tent to make sure nothing was nearby–but I did take the time upon my safe return to the tent to look up. Turning my headlight off and giving time for my eyes to adjust, I saw above us the most beautiful and foreign sky I had ever seen. Not just spattered with stars, it was smeared with glittering stones of all sizes and colors. “Awesome,” was all that was needed.
Another restless night, I woke about an hour after my potty excursion to begin my sleepless wondering if how we would die and/or be attacked in the night. Georges had done an absolutely brilliant job staking the tent, but the wind knows no champion. In the night I was sure, beneath the small flapping tent piece that had come loose in front of the tent, that there was a small and harmless mammal in our foretent. We had brought our packs inside the inner tent because I noticed most of the animal tracks were small animals, including cats, which could easily come under our outer tent–so I knew our gear was safe. I listened patiently all night as the curious animals visited and investigated. I woke Georges only once to check if, as a hunter, he supported my idea of shinning the light out of our tent to stop the small mammal that had begun pressing curiously against the tent wall by Georges’ head. Unconcerned, G said that was fine and went back to his sound sleep. I did shine the light, and I continued to strain my ears listening for the quiet animal under the sound of the rustling tent wall.
The wind picked up around 4 in the morning and became very aggressive. Though it added to my discomfort and stress for the next couple hours, I was hopeful it would dry the condensation from the tent. When we rose around 7, the tent was indeed dry–which was very satisfying.
Before I let G leave the tent we opened the door and laid there in our sleeping bags examining the sand in the front tent for the tracks all the night visitors had left. We found not a single track. Nothing had visited us and I had spent the night having conversations with the wind as it pretended to be a cat, a badger, a mouse and a small unknown New Zealandish mammal. Tricky wind. Ah well, at least the tent was dry.
We packed our bags and as we were about to pack the tent, the sky opened up and it began to rain. I was very upset with myself for not having been ten minutes faster to get the dry tent into my waterproof pack. We rushed about getting our rain gear on and finishing packing our gear. Lastly, we started on the tent, getting wetter by the minute. An even more impressive teamwork challenge, we dismantled the tent without letting it touch the sand. Just as we were taking the poles out, it stopped raining and the sun came out. Frustrated but grateful, we restaked the tent to let the sun dry it, knowing it would only take the sun and wind a few minutes to lighten my pack the burden of that water. We went to the stream and filtered our seven liters of water (last water fill up) and returned to pack a perfectly dry tent. Finally ready to go at 9 o’clock, we set off with unbelievably heavy packs for what would turn out to be a terrible, terrible day.