Jude and I awoke early on a fine mid-March Saturday morning. We were going on an adventure. Fiona Moir, a colleague in the General Practice department in our School, had invited us to her fiftieth birthday party which she was holding across a weekend on Motutapu, an island attached to the extinct volcano Rangitoto just outside Auckland’s harbour. We had told her we would stay overnight on Saturday and return on Sunday. Everything needed to be taken over: food, drink, our sleeping gear, a pillow, a torch…
I took off to the supermarket to stock up on provisions: some chicken thighs, rice, Moroccan seasoning, pistachios, salad, cereals, bread… do we need spreads? Plates? Cutlery? Cups? Funny Fiona hadn’t sent a list of things we’d need, though she did way we needed to bring everything. We squeezed all we needed into our two packs: clothing, sleeping gear, food, wine, washing stuff and other necessaries. I lifted my pack onto my shoulder; ahh, it’s heavy. I hope that knee injury won’t play up again.
We trailed onto the 10.30 Rangitoto ferry which was surprisingly full with day-tripping tourists. I didn’t recognize anyone. But how could I be expected to know Fiona’s friends? All I knew, from the email, was that Bruce Arroll and his wife Christine were catching the same ferry. We shuffled onto the benches in the open air at the top of the ferry. The sun was shining down and the tourists busied themselves with applying sunscreen. The crew started to prepare for leaving.
Where the hell is Bruce Arroll? Typical of him to change arrangements. He probably decided to take another ferry and not told anyone.
The ferry picked up speed down the harbour. What a magnificent day. A gentle breeze rippled across a flat sea showering everything in bright sparkles. We were both quietly excited about what lay ahead for us. As the ferry approached Rangitoto we could see the place was deserted. We disembarked and started looking around for some form of shuttle vehicle but to our dismay no vehicle was in sight. I thought Fiona had said something about vehicles picking up our packs.
The tourists disappeared quickly, heading up tracks to the Rangitoto’s crater. The road to Motutapu lay in the other direction. A young tattooed red-head couple with packs and supermarket bags full of provisions had set off walking in the direction of Islington Bay, the point at which Rangitoto joins with Motutapu Island. They looked the right types, so we must be on the right trail. We should talk with them, but they had left quickly and were walking much faster than we could manage. We walked along the road hacked out of the lava fields. It consisted of an uneven mix of rock and gravel, and wearing only light footwear, we struggled to walk steadily with our heavy packs. We caught up with a young women resting from the heat under a tree. She joined us walking and we struck up a conversation. Surprisingly, she was walking in jandals on the hard volcanic rock and carrying a pack with a recently purchased tent, still in its wrapping, flopping around in her half-opened pack. In response to our questions, she told us she was from Berlin and had recently graduated from a social work degree specializing in young people with disabilities.
“Don’t you want to walk up the mountain like everyone else?” I asked.
“Maybe. Some people I met yesterday were going to Waiheke, but I thought I would come here.”
“Do you see all those big stretches of lava over there?” I wanted to tell her a bit about the island.
“Lava?” she replied. “This is a volcano?”
“Yes. It erupted out of the ocean about eight hundred years ago. And these roads were built by convicts about a century ago.”
“Hmm.” She gazed around as though looking at her surroundings for the first time.
It struck me as a bit strange that a young person like her wouldn’t check out the place on the internet. It was such a simple task. One really needs to know something about the places one visits and to carefully prepare for the circumstances one is likely to encounter. She hadn’t even realized there would be nowhere to pitch a tent on the island. We reached an intersection at which we said goodbye to the young German. We struggled on in the heat intensified by the lack of breeze and the black lava. Jude asked me again if I got the right day.
“Yes,” I replied, “I remember checking and this weekend is the right date. Besides, I talked to Bruce Arroll on Thursday about the trip.”
She looked less than reassured. What I didn’t say was that Bruce had responded to my statement about the trip by saying something about us needing to have a dinner together sometime. In hindsight, it was a strange response.
We eventually reached the deserted cottages of Islington Bay and walked down to the tidal stream that separated the two islands. The dark green pohutukawa trees of Rangitoto contrasted dramatically with the rolling green paddocks of Motutapu. It had taken us an hour and a half to trudge here; a hot walk wearing light shoes traversing uneven ground, and my knee was hurting. Gratefully we sat under a tree on a bench overlooking the sandy banks of the stream and opened the tray of sushi we had brought before boarding the ferry.
“No truck or tractor here to pick us up,” observed Jude.
“Hmm, maybe we got here a bit later than the others. Maybe they came by sea-taxi; I remember Fiona wrote something about hiring a boat, but I thought that was on the way back.”
“Perhaps we should try phoning her on your mobile,” suggested Jude.
“I didn’t bring her number,” I replied. I imagined the crowd who would have already gathered at the recreation centre and what it would be like when we finally got there.
“What about a map? How do you know where we’re going?”
“I didn’t bring a map.”
We both look across at the hill we would have to climb onto the island. “How much further do you think it is?”
“I dunno. Not far. Maybe another hour?”
We watched the sprats streaking up and down the stream. A heron on an adjacent beach glanced nonchalantly across. It must have already had enough to eat. The place looked much the same as fifty years ago when, as a child, I often visited it when my father took us on boating trips. I could remember rowing a dinghy several times down this same stream. While it hadn’t changed, what lay behind it had. I could recall a dozen or so baches (beach cottages) lining the stream, filled with families engaged in all manner of activity. I remember the little community having a special, even magical quality. Now, two forlorn and poorly maintained baches stood deserted and nobody was there to enjoy the stream.
We heaved our packs back onto our sweaty backs, walked across the bridge and up the zigzag road to the top of the hill. We approached a signpost pointing out two directions to the recreation centre; one via the road, the other via a track. Both were marked as an hour and a half walk. We opted for the track in anticipation of a scenic coastal walk. Instead, we found the “track” consisted of following a series of posts painted orange across fields with nothing that in any way resembled a pathway. The markers led us over hills, past gun emplacements, down into glades then up over hill tops.
Jude was not pleased. She was losing heart and we began walking some distance apart. After two hours, exposed to the hot sun and a stiff breeze, we descended down to a beach. We looked around; still no sign of the recreation centre.
“I’m sure it’s not far away,” I commented optimistically.
“I can’t see anything along that coast,” said Jude. “Maybe we’ve passed it?”
We started walking along the rocks at the end of the beach. It was difficult lifting ourselves over the rocks with our packs. Slowly, edging round the point, we could see the next two bays. But, to our dismay, there was no sign of any buildings. However, there were kayaks and small yachts bobbing around; that was promising sign. Indeed, as we jumped from the rocks onto the sand, a concrete ramp revealed itself leading up to a row of buildings; a row of barracks nestled tightly into a narrow valley. We’d finally arrived.
Sore and tired, we trudged up to a basketball court and Jude lay down in the cool of tree to recover from the tramp. I set off to find Fiona and her friends. I looked around. There was a group crowded around a flying fox. They consisted mostly of teenagers in swimming gear, enjoying the muddy water and the sun. None of them looked remotely connected to anyone turning fifty. None of them looked like doctors or academics. Perhaps they’re some of the invitee’s children?
I wandered around the camp only to find more teenagers. They looked across at me curiously, but continued with their conversations. I walked down to the beach and approached a bearded man wearing a wide-brimmed hat and fluro sunblock. He was directing another group of teenagers as they pushed several small yachts up the concrete ramp.
“Excuse me, but I’ve come to a celebration here for Fiona Moir.”
“Ahh, I’m sorry, we’ve got a group here of Year 12 and Year 13 students from Howick College.”
I wasn’t quite sure I heard him right.
“Okay, come up, follow me,” said the bearded man as he walked resolutely past several of the barracks and led me into a chaotic office full of first-aid gear and piles of paper. He sat down at a desk and looked up at a grid of dates arranged on a whiteboard.
“Fiona Moir… Fiona Moir… Ah, there it is. I knew the name was familiar. Yes she’s booked.” He turned towards me with an enigmatic smile. “Well you kind of got the date right, but, I’m afraid, you’re a month early.”
Hard as I tried, I had run out of justifications for why Fiona’s party was still happening. The cruel reality of the situation was dawning on me. All the rationalizations of the day began to coalesce into one big self-deception. Oh the shame.
Meanwhile Jude text-messaged our daughter Josie, “Have walked over 3 hours. Finally here but no familiar faces. Suspect wrong weekend….”
“But, what can we do?” I pleaded to the bearded man. “It will take us another four hours to walk back to Rangitoto Bay and we’ll miss the last ferry at five.”
Besides, I thought, we’re both exhausted. We simply could not manage to walk that far again. “Is there somebody who can drive us back?”
“No, sorry. We’re really busy. We’ve got a timetable of activities for over seventy kids, and none of us can leave… You can understand that? If we were less busy one of us would have given you a lift.”
He must have seen the desperation on my face. We had been told there was no accommodation on the island and I was beginning to think of sleeping somewhere under a tree.
“Tell you what…” He walked over to another desk and picked up a phone. He spoke with someone at the Waiheke ferry office. “Yes, yes; one’s coming in at four.” He turned to me again. “I can manage to drive you to the top of the hill and you can walk down to Home Bay on the other side of the island. A ferry is coming in there at four o’clock.”
I walked quickly down to where Jude was lying. I didn’t want to admit to the big mistake, but I quickly told her we were a month early. She did not look that surprised. She also knew not to say anything sarcastic, or perhaps she was too exhausted.
“But we have to get going now,” I continued. “The guy at the camp will drive us to the top of the hill.”
The camp land-cruiser lurched its way up the curvy gravel road and stopped by a sign and gateway into a bush.
“There, see the entrance to the track. It’s a nice bush walk, all downhill, and you’ll be down in plenty of time for the ferry.”
It was indeed a nice bush walk. We were immediately in amongst birds squawking all around. The island was predator free, and this area of bush was thick with flowering plants. Tuis fluttered loudly overhead with their calls echoing constantly across the valley. Saddle-backs surprised us at each turn and fantails danced around looking for insects. Perhaps it was the humiliation, perhaps it was the heat and thirst, but I began to think about the two bottles of warm white wine in my pack. Besides, we had been underprepared for this walk and were carrying no water. We hadn’t drunk anything for over five hours. What’s more, drinking the wine would lighten my pack. I sat down and pulled out one of the bottles and began swigging the wine. The smell of warm raw chicken wafted from the pack.
Jude took a swig then spat it out. “That’s disgusting. Warm wine.”
I was less fussy and every now and then I stopped and swigged some more until nearly all the bottle was empty. I was by now feeling light-headed and began singing as we approached Home Bay. Jude walked and I stumbled down past the homestead and along a cliff to the wharf. Just as the bearded man had predicted, we were in plenty of time for the ferry. Two other walkers were waiting with us. Now, somewhat disinhibited by the wine, I started chatting to them. They were a young couple from Brazil and seemed somewhat entertained by the strange poses I took up as I spoke with them. I tried to think of something Brazilian to talk about. “What do you think about what’s happened to Lula?”
“That fucking bastard,” the young man replied.
I decided not to talk any further about Brazilian politics and contented myself with chasing terns off the wharf, apologizing as I did so.
A yellow ferry appeared around the point; the vessel that will carry us back to civilization and away from humiliation. Soon we were sitting in its cabin drinking poorly made coffee and thinking about how unusual the day had been. I text message back to Josie: “We got there. 4 hour walk with packs. But. But… We arrived exactly one month early. Jude’s fault. On a ferry now. Be at point at 5.20. See you.”
I sat there contemplating what Bruce Arroll might have done that weekend.