"I don't know if I can go on," says Belle quietly, stopping in her tracks.
I wince. I've been dreading this moment, somehow sensing it might come. I think I felt it months before we even started. "Really?"
Our boots sink into the soft sand, weighed down by the bloated backpacks strapped to our bodies. Above us the sun blazes from a blue sky cut with a thin trail of cloud, mirroring the frothy line of surf beneath.
"What do you think it is?" I ask.
"I have no idea."
I can't see her face, hidden under a cap and oversized sunglasses but the wavering voice is a giveaway. It's serious. I shift my weight and look down at the shiny new hiking poles disappearing into the sand. Now what? My brain draws a blank, long since numbed.
We've only walked 18km. There's still another 3050 to go.
The faint call of seabirds floats on the breeze. Everything feels slightly distant, separate to me. Some autopilot mechanism has got me this far — to a beach in the middle of nowhere, with my life in a bag on my back — but now it, too, seems to have given up. I wait for her to continue, stranded by my own emotional exhaustion and a feeling that the situation is out of my hands.
"Maybe I can hitch out from Te Paki Stream and head back to Kaitaia. See if I can find a doctor who might be able to work it out."
Thoughts flash through my brain in the staccato of fireworks. What is wrong exactly? Will it get better? What should I do? Images from the guidebook come back to me — the dramatic and untamed wilderness ahead, all its inherent dangers — then conclude with one thought: I can't do this on my own.
"You could keep going," she says. "You walk Ninety Mile Beach and I'll meet you at the other end. Hopefully I'll have this sorted by then and we can go on together from there." Her face is blank, anaesthetised against emotion.
Greece: Castles in the sky — exploring the amazing mountainous monasteries of Meteora
Singapore: Return to Raffles — 'No longer like strolling into a sepia photograph'
I lift my gaze to the empty beach stretching all the way to the horizon and beyond — 85km of sand all the way to Ahipara. I've never walked that far before. I've never camped alone either. At least the beach is a relatively easy stretch to start on. All I have to do is follow the coast. Even I can't get lost.
I yearn to walk, desperate to move after so many months of anticipation but should I stick with her, give her moral support? At least she's offered me a choice. Can her injury be that bad? There was no fall, no awkward twist, no catastrophic moment, — just a limp that sprang up yesterday during our first three hours of trail. Surely that can be fixed. I just need to stay afloat for 100km, get this first leg done, then worry about what happens next once I get to Ahipara.
Beneath the disappointment, the seed of another emotion starts to sprout - tiny but there all the same. Excitement? I'm surprised at myself. Whatever this obstacle is, I stand at the frontier of an adventure, with at least five months of unknown ahead of me. There's not another soul around, only the thousands of kilometres of space and wilderness that I've craved. I'm a tiny blot on a vast ribbon of sand holding a key to the potential for who knows what. Anything could happen.
It is the adventure I've been looking for.
I turn back to her.
"Yeah, okay. I'll do it."
asked for this. I wanted to be tested, by a challenge that would let me see beyond where I was. I just didn't think it would start so soon. I'm not absolutely certain how I came to be attempting such an audacious goal. The thread of an idea dangled itself in front of me a year ago and I pulled on it and kept pulling, not really imagining that it could ever come to be. Yet here I am, on a beach, with a pack bulging with camping gear and a bundle of maps. I am, apparently, doing it.
The idea had begun in bed one night, while scanning the news section of a hiking magazine. The announcement rose from the pages, a brand-new, long-distance hiking trail. Te Araroa — the long pathway, in local Maori language — a 3000km route winding and rippling its way over mountains and forests, from Cape Rēinga at the northernmost tip of New Zealand's North Island to Bluff at the southernmost point of the South Island. A trail through a dynamic land formed by violent tectonic plate collisions and geothermal explosions. Two long fingers of rock and earth out in the middle of nowhere, exposed to the churning weather systems of Antarctica and the vast Pacific Ocean. A land that shifts and creaks and murmurs, sometimes loudly, where earthquakes and volcanic eruptions are common. A land unreasonably blessed with good looks and relatively unburdened by the paltry five million people who live there. New Zealand. I freaking love the country.
The announcement read like a proposal, slid across the table before me. This one's for you, Laura. There wasn't a doubt in my mind I should at least consider it. I ordered the guidebook and butterflies ruffled their wings in my stomach as I flipped through images of snow-dusted mountains, boulder-filled rivers and vast tracts of wilderness without a path in sight.
The trail descriptions were intimidating too, not only in the words themselves but because they were written by a New Zealander. "In places it's a hand-over-hand descent but without exposure in the mountaineering sense of hanging out over a drop." What did that mean exactly?
Kiwis are famously hardy. They wear shorts in the middle of icy winters and a group of retired ladies mountain-biking for four hours on a Sunday morning wouldn't raise an eyebrow. Kiwis invented bungee jumping, the art of leaping off bridges with only a rubber band tied to your legs. New Zealand is the country that bore Edmund Hillary, the first climber - along with Sherpa Tenzing Norgay - to summit Mount Everest. When a Kiwi says a piece of trail is not quite mountaineering, you can be sure it's pretty damn close.
I downloaded the trail map for the section in question so I could worry about it in greater detail. The contour lines appeared as an almost solid block of brown. I couldn't imagine what it would look like in real life.
First-hand accounts from the few who had completed it seemed to describe a trail that was raw and unpolished, made for proper adventurers familiar with forging across new territories.
With morbid fascination, I unearthed more and more things to be concerned about — the scores of unbridged rivers to cross, trackless tussock plains and exposed alpine passes — yet still I was pulled deeper into the idea, as though I were on some inevitable and unavoidable path, simultaneously scary and exciting.
I showed the book to friends and a work colleague scoffed at the idea, pointing out the first obvious hurdle. "Yeah, right, what are you going to do? Just ask Ben for six months off?" That's exactly what I'm going to do, I plotted with a single-mindedness I didn't quite recognise. I knew it was a big ask — I was an executive assistant to a chief executive, for God's sake — but I was going to ask anyway.
I needed someone to come with me. There would be countless challenges ahead, countless opportunities to get lost. I would need someone to watch my back, to share the responsibility of making decisions and, possibly, the burden of having made a wrong one.
Belle agreed after a week of consideration and my stomach dropped into a new level of butterflies as the abstract concept of hiking the length of a country suddenly became a lot more real.
When I asked him, Ben, my boss, didn't bat an eyelid at the request. "Sure, what do you need? Six months? A year?" He understood. This thing needed to happen. There was the purchase of new hiking gear, visits to the physiotherapist to try to strengthen my dodgy knees, months of training. One by one the hurdles fell until nothing stood in the way of the journey that had to be done.
Adventure was the driver — the urge for one my companion for years, lingering, patiently waiting for me to be ready. A kind of knowledge that I was capable of more than I had done and that I should find out what that more was even if it scared me. What was possible? What would happen if I jumped out of my box? I needed a challenge to push me to my outer limits of being tired, dirty and mildly lost, but hopefully not so radical as to inadvertently kill me. Te Araroa sounded perfect.
Adventure may have been the lure but something else soon swamped it, like floodwaters rising. A more pressing reason for escaping into the wilds. Over the last year a new companion had weaselled its way into my life, a monster I needed to shake off.
Even now, on the sand, staring at Belle as she stares at her feet, I feel it clinging to me. I hope if I walk far enough I'll lose it. Lose it among the tangled forests, blustery alpine peaks and empty beaches. Amongst the steaming volcanoes and tussock plains. Lose it somewhere along the 3000km ahead of me. I can't stop now.
An extract from Bewildered, by Laura Waters (Hachette, $33)