New Zealand’s Southland is a lot like its Northland, where our long walk began some five months ago. The forests here are deep, dark and remote; and the empty mountain valleys and distant beaches seldom see anyone other than the weathered Te Araroa tramper approaching the end of his or her 3,000km trek across this striking country.
Dad and I catch a ride out of Queenstown—a beehive of tourists bound for skydiving, bungee jumping, or one of the many popular hikes in the area. With us are two Dutch trampers also bound for the next trailhead on the other side of the glacial Lake Wakatipu. Our trail would quickly lead us away from the selfie-stick swarm and into one of the most sparsely populated regions of the country.
We had spent two days resting and restocking in Queenstown. The first day back on the trail after a good (and much needed) rest is always jarring. You’d think after walking day after day for nearly half a year, you’d be used to such a thing. But the weight of your pack is unfamiliar, the trekking poles are awkward in hand, and, my, how your legs need to wake up! But, by lunchtime, you’re back in the groove and plodding toward the not-so distant goal of Bluff.
The Southern Alps slowly dwindle with the conclusion of the island. The great, snowcapped spires of Canterbury and Otago become low, purple and grey peaks appearing, then disappearing in the mist. It’s cold. Fall has come and with each kilometer we grow nearer to the South Pole. The sun is shy. And the rain is unforgiving.
The effects of walking nearly 3,000 kilometers on rough and unpredictable terrain has finally begun to take a toll on my 67-year-old dad. Where I’ve gained 10lbs of muscle and feel stronger than ever, he’s lost well over 20lbs and each kilometer wears him thinner. He looks and feels ragged. There’s talk of him meeting me in Bluff; which I deliberately ignore. You can’t come this far and quit. Only a few more steps. Our days become longer and slower, but still, we doggedly cross lonely mountain valleys filled with golden tussocks, cold and muddy forests, and finally rich dairyland and the coast.
The end of the trail is only two days away. Like the last pages of a good book, I suddenly don’t want it to end. But, I can’t put the book down and not finish it. We spend a day waiting out a rainstorm in Riverton – delaying the inevitable – before putting our packs on and heading to the southern terminus of Te Araroa.
The signpost at Bluff is on every tourist’s tick list. Get your picture taken at Land’s End! Buses (yes, that’s plural) deposit tourists from all over the world in this small cul-de-sac. We wade through them to catch a glimpse of the bright yellow sign.
An old woman notices our packs.
“Have you gone for a bit of a walk?” She asks.
“Yes, ma’am, we have,” Dad replies.
Unlike the Appalachian Trail or the Pacific Crest Trail, you can’t keep walking. There is no more land at the end of New Zealand. This journey ended as abruptly as it began, at the tip of a remote island in the South Pacific.
Was it life changing? Yes. But, how I have no idea. I imagine most thru-hikers experience this odd feeling of being lost when they reach the end. There’s no more map to follow. It’s unchartered territory from here on out. And it’s kind of exciting to dream about the next adventure.