The date was October 24th, 2016.
“We went too far.” I exclaimed as I stared at my map, desperately searching for our next start point. Matt had offered to drive Kayla and I there after the doctors informed us that Kayla would have to take an easy in order for her toe to heal properly. We’d already lost six hiking days and after hearing about the muddy disaster that the Herekino Forest was, we decided that the best way to catch up was to skip the dangers of the forest all together. A day in there and Kayla may never heal.
We were heading to Helena Bay, but luck was not on our side. After driving for hours, having fun getting lost along the way, we’d found ourselves in Ngunguru instead. Skipping over almost three hundred kilometres of the trail.
“Where the hell does the trail even start from here?” Kayla asked, looking through the trail map on her GPS.
I looked out the window, mountain hills forcing the road to curve around every bend. The vegetation that grew all around us protruded onto the roads, shades of green welcoming us at every glance. It was a part of New Zealand that always took my breath away, and no matter how many times I saw it on my hike - it was perfect. Every single time.
Suddenly I was pulled out of my gaze. “Wait, Matt. Did you say we were in Ngunguru?” I asked, a moment of excitement in my voice.
“Oy, that’s what I said lady!” Matt answered, looking at me through the rearview mirror. “Why?”
I smiled, because I happened to know someone in Ngunguru. In fact, I knew two people.
I originally met Melva and Hilton online through the Te Araroa Facebook page. A wonderful couple who open up their home and garden to those in need - especially TA walkers. With an avid role in the community, and many messages of support and help when I was originally planning, I was excited to finally meet them.
“I know someone who can help us.”
I used Matts phone to find their address and we punched it into the GPS. In a matter of seconds, our route had changed and we were on our way to their house. I was excited and sad, all at the same time. I would finally be meeting two people who have already helped me so much, but I would also be saying goodbye to Matt; a man who had opened his home and his heart to us for the last six days.
“Check out that view!” Kayla shouted. “That is phenomenal!”
Once again pulling me out of my thoughts, I focused on where Kayla was pointing her finger. Out the left side of the truck was a beautiful scene of ocean and trees. A house was perched on a hill to our right, taking in the vast sea that lay just in their backyard.
“Matt, pull over!” I said, every worry fading away as New Zealand, yet again, reminded me how to live.
Matt pulled the truck to the side of the road and we hopped out. The wind caught my hair right at that moment and it spiralled around my face and through the trees that stood in front of me. The scene was so beautiful, even a photo couldn’t do it justice. I felt so free letting the mountain air hit me, green and blue as far as the eye could see.
After admiring for a bit longer, we got back in the truck and the moment was gone. There are many places in New Zealand that I promised myself I would see again in my life, and that would hold a spot on that list.
After driving for another ten minutes or so, we turned into a long driveway. A beautiful garden appeared on our right. Vegetables and flowers scattered across the lawn, fruits hanging from bushes and herbs poking out of the ground. My heart was full of longing, imagining having an exact replica of such a wonderful garden. It was like a fairytale.
We pulled up to a quaint house, a steep driveway leading up to a B&B. I hadn’t been able to contact them, so I wasn’t sure if they were home or even had available space for two hikers.
I got out of the truck and started walking towards an archway of trees where a large water tank sat vacant, pictures painted on it.
"Ah! Caitlyn!" Hilton cheered from his work shed, which was tucked in the corner. He was cutting a large piece of wood as I walked into the yard.
"You recognize me?" I asked, a bit taken aback.
"Well sure!" Hilton smiled, putting down his tools and walking towards me. "I don't know many Canadian women who are tall like you."
Being six feet tall, I can see how it's a dead giveaway. I smiled back and nodded as he gave me a hug. "It's so wonderful to finally meet you!"
"You as well, Caitlyn."
We waited by the truck while Hilton grabbed Melva, who was absolutely ecstatic to welcome us. They insisted that we have dinner with them, then offered us a camping spot for the evening since the B&B was already full. We happily accepted.
Matt stayed for a few minutes to make sure we were all set, then with a saddened smile we said goodbye. Our lives would never be the same because of each other, but that's one of the greatest things about travel. Him and his children will always hold a place in my heart.
After watching Matt drive off, Hilton and Melva took us into their home. We dropped our packs off in their garage as we passed.
"It's supposed to rain all day and night." Melva explained. "So why don't you guys set up camp in here tonight?"
Kayla and I sighed with relief. I've been shocked over and over again by the generosity of Kiwis. Their kindness is prominent and very welcomed. After leaving our bags on the garage floor, we made our way upstairs. Their home was full of beautiful art and natural decor. Home grown vegetables sat on the counter.
Big sliding doors made up one of the living room walls. When opened, the doors led to a deck which was surrounded by many different trees and bushes. Flowers grew everywhere and birds by the name of Fantails flew in circles, singing to themselves for all to hear.
"Those are the babies." Melva explained, a huge smile on her face. The Fantails were her favourite bird, and she loved how they'd chosen her garden as their home.
We spent the remainder of the day talking about our lives and laughing at stories. We took a walk around the vegetable garden, collecting different flower petals and vegetables for a salad to have with dinner. Strawberries grew in their own little gardens, made out of old toilets. We were also introduced to Raw Milk - which is delicious, may I add.
Hilton then showed us his work shed, where he was busy building a giant boat. He had plans sprawled across tables, wood cut in different shapes all over the place. The shed was huge and made out of old pieces of metal. In the middle of the room was a frame in the shape of a boat.
"Wow!" Kayla and I said in unison.
"Melva and I are going to sail across the sea." Hilton smiled.
I'd never seen such a project in progress. The plans were perfect, and the boat was going to be large.
"I can't believe you're making your own boat!" I said, excitedly.
Kayla and I took some time to walk around the work shed, looking at different pieces of the puzzle he called a boat.
For dinner, Melva prepared an eggplant quiche. It was one of the most incredible dishes I've ever had, especially since most of the ingredients were grown fresh in their own yard. For dessert, Melva made some tea and gave us each a chunk of dark chocolate.
"This chocolate is great for hiking." Hilton said, popping a piece in his mouth.
I held the piece in between my index finger and thumb, looking at it before putting a piece in my own mouth.
Whittakers Ghana dark chocolate would go on to be one of my favourite treats along the hike. It touched my lips and melted on my tongue, leaving the best taste chocolate could ever leave. If this stuff was good for hiking, you better believe it'd be in my pack.
With a glass of wine in each of our hands, we chatted the night away. Hilton showed us his writing and we talked to him about photography, a hobby he enjoyed. Melva told us all about the native birds, and all about the pests that endangered them. The biggest pest being the Australian possum.
After our glasses were empty, we were introduced to a special guest named Ratty. Ratty is a spunky little character in the form of a hand puppet. A grey rat with bulgy eyes and two felt teeth. A rugged thing he was, but a very creative conversation starter.
We cuddled with Ratty for a while while we discussed the next step of our trail. They told us that if we got an early start, we could make it to the next B&B run by a couple with a similar passion to Hilton and Melva. They pulled their map up on a desktop computer, showing us exactly where they would drop us off and which way the trail would take us.
That night, Kayla and I set up our sleeping pads on the concrete floor of the garage. Our stomachs were full and our minds were awake. I fell asleep smiling, only waking up once when a possum outside triggered the motion lights, which shined through the window directly onto my eyelids.
The next morning we asked Hilton and Melva how much we owed them for the evening, and Hilton simply said "Koha."
"Koha? What do you mean?" I asked, curiosity a norm for me now.
Hilton smiled. "Koha is a Māori custom. It simply means a donation or a gift from one person to another."
Th tradition of a Koha involves the giving of a gift from the Manuhiri - or visitor - to the Marae - the host. Generally food is given but every so often Taonga, a treasured possession, is given. These days, however, money is the most modern way of giving Koha.
Koha is an important stem in a relationship between giver and recipient, making a respectable relation between the two. Still to this day it is taken very seriously throughout New Zealand and the Māori culture.
The Māori culture will forever astound me. I smiled at Hilton. "That's absolutely beautiful."
In the end, all we had to give was money. We suggested they buy some more wine and have a glass for us, which they happily agreed.
After a few photos and one last hug to Ratty, we all got into their hatchback, bags packed and ready to go. They drove us about ten minutes to the beginning of a trail that sat on the side of the road. Up a dirt hill was a metal gate that led to the next stretch of Te Araroa.
With one last hug, we left Hilton and Melva behind. I will never forget their smiles, their respect for nature, and their creative minds.
Finally, we were back on the trail. After what seemed like an eternity, I was back to a determined attitude, trying desperately to push aside the kilometres missed and focus on the ones in front of me.
In the next few days, I would go on to having one of the hardest, most mentally draining, life altering realizations ever faced in my adult life.
But hey - that's what the trail is for. Right?