It was the first day of our last section. We woke to a clear, blue sky. A gentle sea breeze and the cool autumn air made for ideal walking conditions.
As we walked the road out of town, we tried to ignore the ominous looking path that made its way straight up and over the only hill that lay between us and the Marlborough Sounds.
The sporadic signs that mark TeA throughout the country sporadicated out just before we got to the start of the walking track. As we stood on the corner of the road and the entrance to the Havelock dump looking confused, a car slowed and the driver aimed us in the right direction. But...
Walking is the new black these days. There are trails sprouting up all over the place which is BRILLIANT. Unfortunately it can get confusing as the new trails are bedded in - often without signs and pointers.
Our GPS didn't match the most obvious path and seemed to be telling us to aim for the electricity pylons that marched right up the side of the hill. New Zealand tramping tracks are well-known for taking the direct route up a mountain or hill, but they usually have some random zigging and zagging. Unlike humans, pylons don't give a toss about gentle cambers, sidling and zig zags (or switch-backs as they're known as in the US). They just want to get to where they're going as fast as possible. Why I don't know...electricity travels at the speed of light doesn't it?
We soon found ourselves travelling at the speed of slugs as we pushed our way up the steep and sometimes slippery, clay pylon-cutting that sliced its way through regenerating Manuka and degenerating gorse.
The cool sea breeze soon became a fond memory as we sweated our way over what felt like one of the hardest climbs we'd done since leaving Bluff. By the time we got to the top we were in a state of shock.
But we made it. Just.
At the crest of the hill our goal lay before us. We could see the start of the Sounds at the end of a long, fairly straight and quiet-looking stretch of road. We've grown to enjoy walking on empty country roads. No cars means no walking on rough verges, or in litter-strewn ditches. Even better, this road had a small village and the possibility of an ice cream half way along it.
THE PETROL STATION had seen better times. The quiet road it lay on may have been good for us walkers, but I doubt it's that good for selling petrol. We greeted the woman behind the counter cheerily and asked about the pies in the warmer - but there was something wrong. Her eyes darted around the shop in a seemingly desperate attempt to avoid having to sully themselves on us. Or was she making a quick inventory of the Indian Dreamcatchers that the shop seemed to specialise in?
The thought bubble bobbling above her head made it clear what she was thinking: "You're not going to get away with this, you walking weirdos. The more people like you come through here, the more prepared I am! I know how many dreamcatchers I have dangling in the window because I've been counting them for twelve years now! You'll never get them into your massive packs without me noticing so just pay for my fancy pies and leave!"
Or something like that.
All our questions were answered with single-syllable answers and our thanks and farewells were answered with even less.
As we sat outside on the rickety bench our initial "what the feck" reaction turned into sympathy when we bit into our stale pies. This place was on its way out.
"She wasn't hating on us in there...she was just really depressed because she sees so few customers that she's forgotten how to talk," I suggested as a piece of month-old pie crust scraped its way past my larynx.
As we started on our even staler Magnums a ute pulled up. The driver jumped out and wandered into the shop.
The dreamcatchers had obviously worked their magic because here was a customer the shopkeeper liked. Hilarity ensued. The two of them joked, gossiped and commented on world and village events as we finished our lunch. Fifteen minutes later he left without buying a thing.
It was then that we both realised we needed to take a pee. Bugger. Asking for the toilet would mean talking to the Ice Queen again. The possible humiliation of rejection and the sheer creepyness of the place meant we chose to move on. Hopefully there would be a friendly bush to duck behind somewhere up the road.
It was a long walk up that road for me and my weak bladder, but a few ks and a bend in the road later I was literally relieved to find what I was after. Whiona is made of stronger stuff and managed to wait until we got to Anakiwa for her comfort break.
ANAKIWA, THE START of the Queen Charlotte track for us Nobos, was where we were to meet our son Tom for the last stretch of our TeA journey. While we waited for the launch from Picton to drop him off we enjoyed another (but fresh this time) ice cream and a coffee from the cafe cart that waits patiently at the end of the track for tired and hungry hikers.
Unlike Dreamcatcher Inc., this business realises there is money in slow travellers. The owner of the cart chatted with whoever passed. We think we recognised him from the last time we walked Queen Charlotte a few years back, so assume his simple business plan of Just Being Friendly must be working for him.
The launch eventually arrived and we were with family again. Dolphins had followed the boat across the water from Picton so Tom's TeA trip had started well.
It was only an hour's walk to the DoC campsite at Umungata Bay. The site is split in two - most of the facilities, the cooking shelter and toilet, are set in a clearing about 300 metres from the beach where we chose to camp, a choice that meant a bit of a walk when it came time to eat.
As we started to pitch our tents it started bucketing down. Sheets of rain moved in off the dead-calm bay as we did our best to get things sorted before all our gear got wet. It was probably the heaviest rain we'd experienced on the whole trip but Tom and Whiona managed to keep pretty dry. I took it as an opportunity to "wash". Afterwards we went up to the shelter for coffee and a chance to drip-dry off.
It was starting to get dark, and rain threatened as we returned to the campsite. As we neared our tents, a figure emerged from the bush. He'd been checking out our tents...
"What's going on here then? You realise you're not allowed to camp here," he barked.
It started to rain again.
Our hearts sank as we imagined moving ourselves in the wet while the officious-looking clown smirked on.
But something wasn't right. As he moved closer, he grew familiar. It was Graeme. The first TeA walker we'd met all those weeks ago at Martin's Hut. The bugger.
We spent the rest of the evening catching up with our old trail friend. We'd only spent three nights together, but the months we'd spent trying to catch him since we'd parted ways over a thousand kilometres ago had meant that he'd become a big part of our lives. Our friendship had largely been built on seeing his name, and the occasional messages he'd left for us, in DoC logbooks. Sobos often carried news of his progress too.
We think he'd originally planned to walk until his time ran out, but had pushed on to the top of the South Island, spending time at the end with our other Nobo mates, Peter, Andrew, Nico and Lucy.
He had been on his way back down the island from Ship Cove when we bumped into him that night. He told us he was going to hitch back to Nelson from Anakiwa, but we wouldn't have been surprised if he just mooched off back to Bluff.
He'd lost a lot of weight, but still had a big TeA smile. The long walk really seemed to agree with him.