Pine Den on Invercargill Estuary to the Finish!!
Our pine den stayed warm enough last night, and when we emerge from it this morning, it is out into a chilly gloaming on the levee. Sun slowly sets the clouds on fire with pinks and oranges and fuchsias. The liquid colors reflect in the ditches on either side of our walkway, but the abstract visual beauty can’t quite make up for the smell.
We walk to the highway, then make coffee on the grass before committing to the frenzied asphalt. It’s a busy road, busier than I had hoped for. The wind is wild, the noise is grating, and there is not much of a shoulder. I plug in headphones and listen to Ted Radio Hour podcasts, and make a game of stopping for no breaks. One segment talks about the huge amount of digital data that will be left after any given person passes away and what to do with it, as people now record so much of their life, in one way or another. The 16 k goes by surprisingly quick.
We reach the sign for Bluff, which seems much more festive than the photos I have seen of the terminus post. Prana imagines it’s a low-rider motorcycle, and I climb onto the pretend pillion seat behind him.The home stretch. We continue on roads through the town, as the TA and more scenic option is closed due to aggressive ill-tempered bulls. Bluff itself turns out to be quaint to walk through, and has some creative quirky stuff going on. There are amazing murals and paintings scattered about, crumbling old buildings painted in fresh coats of Victorian colors, an entire gallery of melancholy gothic circus trash art dolls. There is much more to it than I had assumed from its size
We arrive at the Four Square and procure multiple green smoothies. I can feel my very cells crying out for megadoses of spinach and broccoli and spirulina. From the grocery we turn off the main drag and head up a steep highway to the top of the highest hill in town, named on the maps as ‘The Bluff’. This will add 5 k to our walk, but will allow us to take the Millennium Track down to the Foveaux Walkway, past the raging bull closure, and thus finish on true coastal track of the actual TA. We all agree this seems much more fitting an end than simply pounding the highway through town, and well worth the additional mileage.
The pavement winding to the pinnacle of The Bluff is steep, steep going, and the apex is crowned with a spiral sidewalk paneled with interpretive signs for the area, about the plants, about the birds, about the shipping history. I learn this is the closest port to Australia! I never would have guessed that. A few more steps, and there is the expanse of the ocean. Stewart Island looks both big and far, neither of which I expected from our glimpses from further inland.
We appreciate the views for awhile, and then barrel down the Millennium trail, which is a lovely manicured walkway through a charming, diminuitive, wind-blasted forest. Kanuka trees give way to open shrubbery and the green turquoise ocean is there, hurling itself against the southern cliffs.
The Faveaux Walkway is equally well maintained, and a plaque guards the memory of those who went down just offshore in a sight seeing plane crash.
We walk along the path, considering and savoring the last few k left of the entire trail. The surf roars and surges against the rocks, geysering up when it slams into the vertical cliffs, and huge strands of kelp swirl in the current, like the hair of some colossal ocean creature. Foamy water streams off the sea rocks in waterfalls that go on and on longer than seems scientifically possible.
There is a tiny island, Dog Island, off the end of Stirling Point, with a light house. Apparently these waters are known to be treacherous with shallow reefs and rough currents. I could see myself happily tending a lighthouse. The same way I can see myself happily tending a fire lookout tower overlooking the desert, if such an ideal job still existed. Especially after this long, joint-grinding hike.
I want to keep up with Prana for the last few k, but my feet hurt so badly, a deep bone ache, that I cannot. I desperately need new shoes. I need to spend some time stretching, giving care back to my body instead of just taking from it. I give up the chase. A few railings on the walkway have views straight down into the sea. I take time at each one, watching.
Prana is waiting for me on a bench just before the end point comes into sight, marked by a destination pole in a parking lot. We approach it together. An unexpected surge of emotion wells up in the back of my throat. Until now, on the hard days I have just wanted it to be done, mourning for the time spent on other trails I have felt more connected to; and even today, most of my focus for the last 2 hours has been to reach the end and find a bathroom, that hated but necessary town hindrance. And, perhaps due to a record of completion on past trails, I have felt very little mystery or even curiosity about whether I would complete this trail barring an emergency; I have already learned that I have the bull-headed stubbornness to get through the hard days, and with such little uncertainty, the idea of accomplishment holds little import or influence. But now, with the final steps in sight, this whole journey suddenly does feel like an achievement; an unexamined one. We slow our walk as we gain the parking lot. An enthusiastic woman with a small dog congratulates and corners us while she describes the hostel in town, and the medal we can get in great detail. We finally extricate ourselves and actually reach the pole.
We sit on a bench facing the end marker, contemplating it against its oceanic back drop. Not much between where I am sitting and Antarctica. For some reason, knowing this adds a certain formality and finality to the endpoint.
A girl parked on a bench next to her bicycle asks us about our trip; she is cycling and discontent, and not sure about why she is here. She takes a picture for us and then Mouse arrives too. She takes another finish photo of the three of us, together.
The cyclist wants to talk some more, and suddenly the space is filled with a crowd. Another hiker arrives, an older man, worn threadbare and disheveled. He wants to talk too, and I just want some time to have blank space in my mind, to sift through the yet-unnamed emotions that are swirling in there. Most people’s conversations orbit around moving on from the moment: “What next? What now? What’s the next logistic?” I want to get the hell out of the melee. The older hiker addresses Prana, “Well, did the girls behave in your charge?” I cannot believe my ears. I try to embrace the idea that he is joking, that maybe this is his way of starting a friendly bantering conversation? But in the raw layer beneath that, I am appalled at his presumption and furious at myself, that my first reflex is an excuse on his behalf, and for lacking my own appropriate and witty and confident response.
I want to escape up to Oyster Cove to see what it’s about, and Prana and Mouse want to come too. It’s a fancy restaurant, very fancy, with a gorgeous panorama of the ocean through a sweeping wall of windows. In spite of our grunge, we are warmly invited in. There is a large, beautiful, hand-crafted TA guestbook, and a large finishing medal hanging off of a fine photography coffee table book.
The people are all friendly and congratulatory, and we page through the books. Cat has already signed through. I somehow thought she was behind us, and a pang of stress rises, since we were loosely planning on their offered ride out. I’m sure everything will work out, as it always does, I just hadn’t been mentally prepared for the rush and constraint of catching the last bus.
I get antsy and begin to feel out of place standing in the restaurant, so we return to the street and start walking back toward town to find the Invercargill bus stop. I stick my thumb out just because, not really expecting anything to come of it, and the third passing car stops. It is piloted by a really nice guy with his beauty baby girl in the back seat, and he happens to be driving to the Countdown in Invercargill, if we would like a ride. He and Prana keep the chat going, the baby girl giggles and plays with Mouse and I. She spends a big chunk of the ride gumming my watch and delighted by it, and I feel soothed by the white noise of the wind coming in the windows, and then we are at the Countdown. We thank our benefactors, all wish each other well.
We procure some breakfast and lunch for tomorrow, the town usuals, some revelrous ice cream for now, and decide to stop for pizza on the way to the hostel for a celebratory dinner. Hell Pizza one more time! Bigfoot Mouse kindly treats, and we all toast the trip with ginger beers. It strangely feels as if we are just at one more resupply; it will probably take a few days for it to sink in that we have done it.
We finally make the Backpackers, a breathtaking Victorian house that is immaculately welcoming on the inside. A slightly frenetic woman named Brenda shows us about. Our quarters great, a room opening off of the backyard. The whole place is great. I take a much anticipated shower, and share some chocolate with Prana. I feel wired and restless, a side effect of the deep dissonance that fills my mind and being. Are we really done? Somehow I cannot absorb the idea. Maybe it will make more sense tomorrow. I read and can’t seem to get sleepy. The room is too hot for my cold-adjusted body, and my knee aches and throbs like a guitar string about to snap, even on this comfortable mattress. Maybe tomorrow, some of the lessons will crystalize, some of the finality will sink in.