There is something a bit magical about a picnic at this time of year. You know it's the wrong season for al fresco dining, and you're hesitant to go out into the biting cold, but you're seduced by the promise of delicious food, and by the child in you, who's excited. You wrap up, and you warm up, and suddenly it feels exhilarating to be out and free.
The requirements of a good picnic are simple: a Thermos flask of something hot to drink, the more sandwiches the better, an orange, a bar of chocolate, and something to store your rubbish in. Make sure you have a thick blanket in your bag, and layer your thermals like you're a Kathmandu model. Grab a book on your way out the door, just in case.
We head out to Te Henga/Bethells Beach, and join the Te Henga Walkway, part of the Hillary trail, where the track takes you from a car park across a bridge, through some farmland, and finally up above the sprawling, dark stretch of beach itself, which is almost deserted, and where the waves roar and mist the shoreline.
Though occasionally steep, it's not a challenging walk — there are many places to stop and take in the view, and to watch the tui tumbling in the trees. It's a track I've walked most often in the summer, trailing a beach towel, barefoot and ready for a swim at the neighbouring O'Neill's Bay. In winter the bright cold air and salt gusts coming off the sea wake you up and shake out the dust accumulated from spending so much time indoors. The rain has finally arrived out West, bringing much needed green to the landscape, and the native bush we walk through is lush and luminous. New Zealand in wintertime is a green beauty.
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The Te Henga walkway will take you all the way North to Muriwai if you have the time and inclination to negotiate some steep terrain. There's something incredibly satisfying about leaving one wild black-sand beach and arriving at another a few hours later, a bit sweaty, a bit hungry, and more than a bit tired. Today we stick closer to home, walking the trail for an hour, before doubling back to where we can take in Te Henga on our left, and O'Neill's Bay on our right. The afternoon sun is dropping quickly and the sea is silver and gold.
We find a place to sit where the salt air can kiss our faces, lay out a blanket, and watch the birds, who come out as if they've been cued. The air has none of that summer haze, and the kererū that plummets through the sky in front of us is so clear I can see the feather line of delineation where cream belly meets green breast plate.
It is a fact that sandwiches taste better in the wild. We chew, appreciating every bite, watching two dogs down below on the beach drag a tendril of seaweed across the sand, their tails wagging furiously. We pour hot ginger tea into the Thermos cup and pass it back and forth to warm ourselves up. The gusts that come off the sea make my cheeks numb. We sit and take in the ocean and the big sky, undisturbed by other people, until we start to ache from the cold that is creeping up through the ground and into our bones.
I have always found home to be remarkable, but now I look at it with a new lens: one of a captive audience. Life in a Covid world has changed the way we travel. For some time we will all stay here, and dig in, while the world battles a pandemic, and life alters, perhaps forever. Our chance to travel is limited to our own shores, but rather than feeling nostalgic for international holidays, I feel excited. We can't all afford to get away to the snow, or spend a weekend in another city, but new experiences are just as important for your spirit as they've always been, perhaps more.
You can head out for a day and still come home feeling you've travelled. A walk and a picnic on a winter's day is like a miniature holiday crammed into a few hours. I'm going to find places to escape to that are close to home. I'm going to do micro travelling — finding short, wonderful experiences I can enjoy in a day, and I will catch trains and go by bus and ferry, taking my hands off the steering wheel so I can watch the country go by. I'm going to spend the rest of this year falling in love with Aotearoa again, and letting it woo me like the devastatingly good-looking suitor I know it to be.
For more New Zealand travel ideas and inspiration, go to newzealand.com