Tuesday night we made it to the beach and camped in the dunes of the pigs. Wednesday night we found sleep in the dunes of the stream where the mammals were merely shadows of the wind. Thursday morning we set off with a sun-dried tent and optimism toward Ninety Mile Beach. As we started hiking the view was entirely boring–yes the waves were massive and beautiful, but they never changed; yes the shells in the sand (what few there were) were pretty but they too never changed–but we knew it would be like that. Sadly, the sun didn’t greet us Thursday morning. It was nowhere to be seen; hiding behind thick thick clouds. The wind was to our backs and therefore unnoticeable. It was cold without the sun and windy, but we chatted about how that was a nice rest for our sunburns (we still had plenty of sunscreen on).While we were stopped so I could put on my shoes after a stream crossing (why did we carry so much water if there was a stream here??) we saw the couple from the previous day pass us. We waved and they hiked on. At least their footprints added to the diversity of the beach scene.
Still no sun. Still a strong wind at our backs. We walked on. Bored. The wind grew stronger and after a while I noticed the back of Georges’ pants were quite wet. I called ahead to him and said I thought I might be raining sideways. He felt his pants and turned around, confirming that there was indeed rain pelting us from behind. As it wasn’t falling down and the wind was so strong it was coming at us from behind, we didn’t notice the rain until we were rather wet. I pulled out G’s rain gear and he put it on, then he helped me put on my poncho. By the time we were getting my poncho on, the rain had become severe and the wind plowing.
As we started walking again, the rain started coming from above. A few more meters and it was coming from the ocean side. We stayed hunkered inside out hoods, protecting our faces from the diamonds of rain being pelted at us. It had suddenly just become a very, very wet and windy day. The rain lasted about an hour; we hiked on. The other couple that had passed us came out from a cut in the dunes soon after the rain started. Still ahead of us.
As the rain stopped the wind increased. No longer behind us or coming from beside us, it was now coming from head on. It wasn’t long before the wind was so strong that, despite the threatening color of the sky, I had to take off my poncho to move forward–the wind resistance was so severe I felt like a sail. We tried to keep hiking. Step, step. The wind was so strong; neither of us had ever experienced anything like this. Step, step. We stopped every once in a while just to shout how unbelievable the wind was. Step, step. Each pull of the leg forward was like moving 30 pound weights tied to our feet–our whole bodies underwater. Step, step. We could both be heard (vaguely) screaming or grunting at the wind and the amount of effort needed to walk through it. Step, step. Soon 100% of our efforts and attentions had to be completely directed toward walking. The wind was absolutely unbelievable. Every muscle of nature was working against us, to hold us back and keep us from gaining any ground. No sun. No rain. Just wind. We hiked for hours. No ability to spare toward anything but waking. Our packs were too heavy. Our legs not strong enough. I watched on my watch as the minutes gruelingly trudged by. We stopped maybe every twenty/thirty minutes for 60-90 seconds. Just to regain enough willpower to carry on. Maybe to look at the map hoping there was some sign of progress (there never was). Step, step, step. We stopped being strategic or careful at streams; we just put one foot in front of the other. Our heads were bowed so low we couldn’t see anything but one or two of the couple ahead of us’s footprints at a time. Who cares about wet shoes–we couldn’t even register such an insignificant detail. Step, step, step.
It became afternoon, but we couldn’t tell. Nothing had changed since the first sign of rain. If the sun was moving in the sky, we couldn’t tell. We didn’t stop for lunch. We were trying to make 34 kilometers, but at each hour our pace was unpredictable. We ate our muesli bars alone and with effort–trapped in the complete solitude of being underwater in the wind.
We decided we wanted off the beach. Neither Georges nor I have ever been confronted with a backpacking or hiking challenge that we couldn’t triumph with bragging rights, but on this day, neither Georges nor I had the physical strength or strength of mind to survive the beach. Because of the flight fiasco we experienced getting to New Zealand, we started the trail two days later than we had originally planned. To meet up with our first guest, we will have to find a way to cut two days somewhere on the north island. It didn’t take much for us to realize we would be completely happy to cut the next two days of beach–having seen all there is to see and now experiencing atrocious weather. We decided we would try to hitch the occasional bus or jeep that drove down the beach. None stopped. By mid afternoon we knew we were approaching the bluffs. I deduced that the (very fast) couple on the horizon would have to be getting off the beach to get to their evening accommodation at some point and that we could use the same escape route and try to make our way inland. Our maps don’t tell us what’s inland, but we wanted nothing but to get out of the wind. Surely we would be able to find a hitch to somewhere. Closer examination of the map, with the idea of an escape route in mind, showed us there was road access just around the bluffs. We followed the other couple’s footprints carefully to make sure we didn’t miss anything, but when we got to the bluffs (simply a point where the beach is rocky and turns a sharp angle), we bouldered over an inside passage and I found a random broken rock wall. Pointing it out to Georges, he stumbled over and collapsed on it. Georges was having an even harder day than I was. His pack was much heavier and his energy much lower. I sat next to him. 2:30 and our first break of the day. I examined the map–moving every part of my body as if in slow motion because of the strength of the wind–I saw the road access would be around the corner, but I thought maybe I could find a route through the dunes and off the sand. Maybe the wind would be less there. It was worth a try, so I lead the way over a sand cliff and into the dunes.
Dunes are weird. Still pushing through relentless wind, we found ourselves hiking (somewhat carelessly) through rolling dunes of wild beach flowers and aging sea oddities. I kept us as close to the major hill separating the beach from inland as I could and we realized we were following what might have been a jeep track for a jeep with very tall tires long ago. Continuing up the track, we suddenly hit a road. The wind was slightly less, the sun had come out a bit, and there was more hope for rescue than we’d seen all day. We collapsed onto a flattened area of plants next to the road and ate some food. Shaking and exhausted we focused on getting energy and guessing if we should take the road to the right or to the the left. We decided we could surely find a place inland to sleep and probably hitch our way down to Ahipara–the town at the bottom of the beach.
Then the beginning of awesome started. On this barely road heading to what is surely the entryway into purgatory, a car drove right in front of us. Shocked, I threw out my thumb and the jeep stopped!! A woman stuck our her head and we tried to talk, but couldn’t hear each other over the wind. Managing to stand, I ran over to her car and she said, “…I actually own a little bed and breakfast down the road a bit. Are you Linda?” I shouted back that I wasn’t Linda, that must be the couple who were always on the horizon and they must be further down the road at the beach. The woman said she’d be more than happy to give us a ride and she’s just go pick up Linda first.
Running back to Georges, I shared that she would drive us and that she happened to own a bed and breakfast. G stood up and said, “Well we are definitely doing that!”
Overjoyed, we rushed to the jeep when it returned a minute later and crammed into the remaining seats. Introductions flew, Irene owned the bed and breakfast and the couple was Linda and Marius. Irene said we could have a room and she was making steak and salad for dinner if we wanted that. By the time we reached her place, the sun was shining and the wind was normal again.
We had found the best shortcut on the Te Araroa.