An ending had begun to fall on my South Island walk. Coming round Colac Bay toward Riverton I'd stopped to chat with a photography group out on assignment from the the Southland Institute of Technology. They'd gestured at the wide drifts of sand and stone, the surfers catching the wave. Landscape, said one guy with a Canon D60 hung round his neck. Incredible landscape, and as he'd said it I'd caught the flash of a stud in the guy's tongue. I was approaching a city.
Then at Riverton, Miriam and I had rented a waterfront crib, had looked out to see the distant sodium glow of Invercargill, and in the morning had seen Oreti Beach curving away to where Bluff Hill stood out to sea like an island.
By now I'd begun to arrange the media interviews and to worry. When I'd completed the North Island walk in 1998, I remembered going straight off the trail into Kim Hill's studio. Remembered waiting my turn in the holding pattern of her interviews that morning, listening to the scientist who'd cloned a sub-Antarctic cow from Enderby Island, using somatic cell transfer techniques from the cow and semen from a dead bull and -
It was a complicated world, and I'd wondered then if I was up to it. What personal changes, Kim had asked, when I was miked and under scrutiny, had I undergone?
"I've lost my complexity. I'm more primitive."
"More - feral," she'd said.
And there it was, then and now. I walked Oreti Beach, watching the pillars of light come down on the sea, the slant of distant rain showers on Stewart Island, the subtle change of whole atmospheres. This was the walk - big and small. These were the pebbles on the beach, each with a tiny seaweed attached by a minute holdfast, each with a runnel of black sand. This was the green slipper engorged with sand. This was the shag with his round eye and webbed feet, watching me go. But how big how small - how significant was any of it?
My mind was a blank, and it occurred to me this might be the actual, final, and happy condition of a long walk. All those long days when there'd been nothing finally but the light on the grass, the next turn, the glad hut. To walk, to eat and drink, to find shelter, to sleep. Those were the four corners of my universe.
A horseman came out of the distance, leading a second animal.
"Riding through to Invercargill?"
"Nope. Just exercising the horses for the Birchwood Hunt Club."
"The hunt club?"
"We hunt hares. We keep hounds at Ohai, and I'm the whip up front that controls the hounds for the huntsmen. Other days I do shifts at the freezing works."
Something here then that was more your own blankness. New Zealand in all its variety. Walking got you out there, opened it all up. Every day there was some amazement. But was that all?
Evening came on. I saw distant figures out for a stroll and I steered towards them. Why do we walk? It had become more urgent to know.
"It's the fresh air - it's not just the dog," said Paul. He'd recently arrived from Melbourne, to work at the Tiwai Point Aluminium smelter, he loved this wilderness on his new doorstep.
"Walking clears your head," said his companion, Lisa.
I intercepted a third tideline walker as she headed back towards her car -
"I walk because it gives me exercise," she said. "Because it means I can think, and because it's outdoors, not indoors like the gym.
"So," she said. "Why do you walk?"
"Some people walk to get away from something," I said. "They're chased by a demon. And some people walk to get some place - to reach a goal."
"So which kind of walker are you?" she said.
My mind went blank, and then the mobile phone rang, and rescued me. A single sodium light marked the turnoff from the beach, and I came in to Invercargill on the footpaths.
And so to Bluff. I walked the rail corridor where I could, and holed up in a small house on the waterfront. An old mate, James Walker, had driven down from Auckland, and picked up from a Balclutha second-hand shop a plaster of Paris model of a backpack. It was painted and detailed, a real little gem and James had engraved by pocket knife on its base my walk Cape Reinga to Bluff. Subtracting the time spent for writing internet stories, for rest and recreation and time out for jobs. I'd tramped 79 days in the North Island, 77 days in the South - 156 days to walk 2,500 kilometres.
Still, I wasn't there yet. In company with a band of friends now I picked up the trail again at the old Ocean Beach freezing works and walked around the base of Bluff Hill. Squalls buffeted us and the big waves in Foveaux Strait were churning the seabed. Up through the Glory Track's tall and elegant podocarps to the gunpit. Now I was just three kilometres from Stirling Point. I made a mark there and went back to the house to prepare a ceremonial finish.
Miriam and I drove to Invercargill that night to pick up our son Amos, and our daughter Irene who'd flown down from Auckland. Wind and rain lashed the car. The power lines were shorting and we drove an avenue that glittered either side of us with high voltage sparks.
Storm winds swept Bluff. The wind blew out the marquee that was to be the hub of the Bluff Oyster Festival. It pinned the oysterboats to their berths. Down on the waterfront it bowled the Anzac Day wreaths away from the war memorial and strewed the remembrance flowers along the shoreline.
We were a small intimate band. James hung out his washing over the heater, photocopied posters to advertise our event, and went off to paste them up. Miriam was out trying to get bread at the local shop and being told - Vogels? I don't know that one. She was off picking up a brand new Leki gifted to us by an Invercargill sports store manager Dave Butler for presentation to the mayor. I tried to write - the Sunday Star Times wanted a story on the walk but that was hard - the paper's Focus section deadline was Thursday and the walk didn't finish until Friday. I had underwear swinging above my head, stormwater pooling under the door, the deadline was pressing, and as usual when the pressure goes on, I couldn't find my start. Of course - poozle a construction from the best first line in New Zealand literature - Ronald Hugh Morrieson, The Scarecrow, out of 1963.
"The same week our fowls were stolen, Daphne Moran had her throat cut."
"The day I crossed the Rangitata River, the dogs of Mesopotamia were howling at the moon."
That was good. That was real. But I hadn't finished the actual walk yet. How did I end the story? The deadlines pressed, and I wrote -
"The Scottish piper who piped me in, the Bluff School pupils who sang for me a song of welcome, the handshake from Invercargill mayor Tim Shadbolt, were more finally than just a personal welcome."
I emailed the story off. Sank back. Had a beer. All that remained was to make the ending true. The big day dawned, the phone rang, and it was the Invercargill Pipe band manager.
"Your piper's pulled out. It's too dangerous. If the wind caught his pipes he'd be over."
I rang John Rule. He and his wife Robyn owned a big housebus, were doing a South Island tour, and we'd kept in touch during my walk. I knew he'd brought the bus into Bluff for the oyster festival and I knew he was a musician. My Scottish piper had failed - what could he do? He was Irish. He had a saxophone.
When the Saints Come Marching In. That was the tune, and that was John Rule who played it in a gale as I came on. I stopped before a triple line of windblown children with big eyes who sang a waiata and I loved them for it. The kids parted and I moved toward the Stirling Point signpost. About then Tim Shadbolt arrived.
"Sorry Geoff - a bit late but boy do I have problems," said Tim. "You try to organise a Bluff Oyster Festival when you can't have it in Bluff and you don't have any oysters."
I reached past Tim and gripped the sign.
"That feels just wonderful," I said and it really did.
And so my walk from Cape Reinga to Bluff ended. There was only Te Araroa left to do.