Neil Silverwood

The longest walk

Last October, Chris and Jorinde Rapsey and their two children set off from Cape Reinga to walk Te Araroa, the 3000-kilometre track that runs the length of New Zealand. They lived outdoors for five months and walked an average of 20 kilometres a day. For nine-year-old Elizabeth and six-year-old Johnny, it was an immersive education—a form of learning increasingly absent from the lives of young New Zealanders, even as international research affirms the importance of children spending time in nature.

Written by       Photographed by Neil Silverwood

The Rapseys are more than halfway down the country by the time I leave home to go and find them. They’ve spent long, sodden days in the Tararuas, celebrated a rainy Christmas morning on the Queen Charlotte Track, and clambered over the Richmond Range so quickly that, although photographer Neil Silverwood planned to intercept them passing through St Arnaud, by the time we arrive, we’re late.

Neil and I cheat and catch a water taxi across Lake Rotoiti to Lakehead Hut to make up time.

It’s a summer’s day so blue that the colour seems to hang in the air and stain our skin and clothing. As the beech-lined shore speeds past, I wonder what the family will be like. I’ve been telling everyone I know about them, and everyone I know is incredulous: Aren’t they skipping the boring bits of the trail? Surely they can’t be walking the whole thing. Are the parents super strict? Do they have to carry the kids? Will you be able to keep up with them?

It turns out that the answer to all of these questions is no.

The Rapseys’ names are in the hut book at Lakehead—they left a few hours ago. Neil and I march up the track at the kind of pace we’d usually save for darkness closing in. The noon heat adds extra weight to our packs, stuffed with eight days’ food. The Te Araroa Trust says this is the most demanding section of the trail, and it could take that long if the weather closes in, which it’s supposed to do. Today, though, the sunshine is thick and golden, and rain feels like something that happens in other countries.

The last few steps to the top of 1870-metre Waiau Pass, Te Araroa’s second-highest point, can be snow-covered even in summer.

John Tait Hut pops out of the trees, busy with trampers. The Rapseys stand out—they look more relaxed than everybody else, and they seem to have the least gear. Jorinde has honey-coloured hair, pale-blue eyes the colour of a glacier, a huge smile. Chris, tall and lanky, with dark floppy hair, murmurs a greeting.

I can see why Neil and I have been able to catch up with them: nine-year-old Elizabeth is sprawled across two of the hut mattresses, asleep. Six-year-old Johnny’s wide tawny eyes are bleary, and his merino t-shirt is on inside-out and back-to-front.

I’ve brought avocados; straight away Jorinde slices one open and Johnny digs into it with a spoon, as though it’s a bowl.

Today, January 7, is exactly three months since the Rapseys set off from Cape Reinga, not knowing how far they’d get. It’s late afternoon, but Chris and Jorinde are keen to reach the next hut, a couple of hours up the river, so that tomorrow we can get an early start climbing to Travers Saddle. They want to make it across the highest point of this section, Waiau Pass, ahead of the bad weather.

Before I can lace my shoes and hoist my pack, the family are out the door. Johnny doesn’t wear a pack, but Elizabeth has one, a bit bigger than a school bag. She started off from Cape Reinga without it, but after spending most of Northland complaining that her little brother was too slow, her parents bought her one in Auckland.

“It slowed her right down, to the right speed,” says Jorinde.

I follow them up into the forest, late-afternoon sunshine slanting through the trees. I feel a little bit like I’m hallucinating, that I’ve wandered into the final sequence of a happy film. Tiny beech leaves float to the ground like confetti, the river chuckles away beside us, the family walk in front of me silently into this paradise, mother and father, daughter and son. The light crowns their heads. I’m breathing hard. They’re not. It dawns on me that I might struggle to keep up.

[Chapter Break]

This isn’t the Rapseys’ first tramp. Johnny and Elizabeth grew up outdoors, just as their parents did. Jorinde (the J is pronounced as a Y) arrived in New Zealand at 18 from the Netherlands, with a little bit of English and a lot of confidence. She’d just been on an Outward Bound course in England—a family tradition. Hitchhiking around New Zealand, she caught a ride one day with one of Chris’s friends, and told him she wanted to go tramping above the bushline, to see snow and ice. Chris was living in Wanaka at the time. Together they climbed to French Ridge Hut, then onto the Bonar Glacier, then Colin Todd Hut. They’d intended to turn back there, but the weather was good, and Jorinde seemed capable, so they kept going up, and up, to the summit of Mt Aspiring. It was her first time using an ice axe and crampons.

Jorinde laughs about it now, the naivety of her teenage self—she barely knew Chris, barely knew how much experience he had, whether or not he was leading her into danger.

But the two of them suited each other. Chris followed Jorinde back to Europe, where they spent a year travelling, tramping and rock-climbing. Jorinde finished her philosophy degree with baby Elizabeth tucked into a sling.

Elizabeth and Johnny play cards with their cousin, Sam Shelling, who joined them for a short stint in Nelson Lakes National Park.

In New Zealand they have built a life that retains this kind of freedom. Chris works a miscellany of jobs, renovating houses and picking up contracts for goat culling, deer culling, possum monitoring. For a time, Jorinde ran a company that arranged in-home childcare services with other parents. Now, she’s homeschooling Elizabeth and Johnny, after her studies led her to reflect on her own education and inspired her to explore other ways of learning.

“In some ways, I feel very lucky about my schooling,” she says. “But I feel regret or sadness, especially about the teenage years—I was just studying to get good grades, just memorising things and spitting things out.”

She wants her kids to learn for the sake of understanding, not in order to pass tests, and to have the space to figure out what interests them. As a teenager, her interests were eclipsed by obligations, and it left her feeling adrift.

“I lost my passions along the way,” she says. “I was just lost, I guess. Not supported in my learning.”

As soon as Elizabeth and Johnny were old enough, Jorinde and Chris started taking them outdoors: on overnight trips to huts, or camping at a local beach.

“Always staying overnight—not day walks,” explains Jorinde. “Day walks feel a bit pointless, just going and coming back.”

But if you take a tent, make a fire, cook damper, spend the night outside, “it becomes an adventure”.

At six, Elizabeth climbed Roys Peak in Wanaka. At seven, she and Chris walked to Siberia Hut in the middle of winter—a 22-kilometre tramp—and packrafted out to the Makarora River. Elizabeth’s done long days, Chris tells me. Ten hours on her feet.

Johnny didn’t take to walking as readily, and for a time, Jorinde and Chris wondered if he didn’t like it. But bringing friends along on tramps helped—other children that he looked up to.

“Now, look at him—he walks up the mountain whistling,” says Chris.

The topographic map’s contours and names provide continuous fascination—Johnny and Chris find Travers Saddle, which they’ve just descended from.

In the autumn of 2018, the family packrafted and walked Fiordland’s Hollyford-Pyke loop. After mostly paddling for six days, they expected the tramp out to take them another two, but the kids happily walked the distance in one long stint. The idea of a big mission suddenly seemed possible—and Te Araroa had always been in the back of their minds.

Chris has already tramped the length of the South Island. He thought the Te Araroa route sounded boring, so he invented his own, one that began at Farewell Spit and traversed Kahurangi National Park and the West Coast. He didn’t follow tracks very much. He stayed in huts so remote that he shared them with strangers only three times. Elizabeth walked the first day with him—the 21-kilometre Kaituna Track—and later, Jorinde and the children walked in to meet him at a few places along the way.

Chris wasn’t sure how the kids would get on with Te Araroa, especially with all the road walking in the North Island: “I didn’t want to do it if they’d find it tiresome,” he says.

But they figured they might as well give it a go.

On October 7, they set off from Cape Reinga. They covered 27 kilometres one day on Ninety Mile Beach, then 30 kilometres the next. Elizabeth and Johnny made a challenge out of how far they could go in a day—31 kilometres, then 38.

[Chapter Break]

You should be able to walk from the top of New Zealand to the bottom, thought journalist Geoff Chapple in the early 1990s, when you couldn’t.

The Federated Mountain Clubs had the idea of a national trail in the 1970s, and a government department was tasked with creating it, but immediately ran into difficulty and abandoned the idea. In 1994, Chapple wrote a column in the Sunday Star-Times calling for a national trail.

One man succeeded where government had failed. Chapple plotted the route, called on landowners one by one to request access, knocked on their doors, sat at kitchen tables, and became a focal point for support and generosity. From 1997-1998, he walked the North Island to prove a route, and in 2002, the South Island (and wrote about both journeys for New Zealand Geographic).

A stop for lunch at West Sabine Hut means time for a story—one of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five books—and a snooze before continuing on.

Te Araroa opened in 2011. International media immediately began promoting it alongside established long walks—the Appalachian Trail, the Pacific Crest Trail, the Camino del Santiago—without pointing out that Te Araroa is quite different from them. There’s no dedicated trail, for starters—Te Araroa is a mixture of wilderness tracks, highways, roads, beaches, and footsteps trodden into paddocks. It passes through towns and cities. Part of it is a river. Signage is sporadic. One North Island section relies on the kindness of locals rowing walkers across an estuary. In the South Island, the trail spits walkers out on the banks of several major rivers, requiring them to hitchhike to the nearest bridge, then back to the trail. (The Rapseys packrafted across.)

Still, use of Te Araroa is growing rapidly. The number of through-walkers—people who tackle the whole thing in one go—has increased by about 200 people in each of the past few years.

Last summer, the Te Araroa Trust counted 1200 through-walkers, three-quarters of them foreigners. In hut books, they describe themselves as NOBO, northbound, or SOBO, southbound. (SOBOs are by far the majority; the change in seasons favours walking south.) Some walk every step of the track, while others hitchhike all the road sections.

When the Rapseys were walking near Puhoi, a local offered the family a ride along a couple of kilometres of highway that he described as unsafe for walking—roadworks were blocking the shoulder. The family got out of the car at Wenderholm, and Elizabeth burst into tears. Catching a ride meant they wouldn’t truly have walked the length of the country.

Chris had eyed up the section of road from the passenger window. He thought it looked fine. They started talking about going back. Jorinde wasn’t keen—getting up early, just to walk along a piece of road? They did it anyway. It set their intention in stone, and they haven’t skipped any bits since.

A satellite phone helps them keep in touch with family and friends, and arrange drop-offs and pick-ups—they’ve all worn through several pairs of shoes. They resupply food every week or so with bulk orders of Backcountry Cuisine.

At times, trail infrastructure is threadbare. At others, help abounds. There’s the occasional chilly bin along the route, anonymously stocked with fruit or cold drinks. There’s a network of people devoted to the idea of Te Araroa, ‘trail angels’, who extend assistance and kindness to through-walkers. (Geoff Chapple is one: he spots walkers passing by and offers them a bed for the night.)

Strangers have brought the Rapseys doughnuts, opened their homes, given them rides. In places, they’ve hitchhiked on and off the trail—to visit friends in Kerikeri and Nelson, to give the kids a Christmas present of a trip to the waterslides at Hanmer Springs. But they always resume Te Araroa exactly where they left off.

The family look for a good campsite on the Waiau River flats. River crossings are the most significant safety hazard facing inexperienced trampers, says Te Araroa Trust chief executive Mark Weatherall.

About 60 per cent of Te Araroa crosses DOC land, leaving the remaining 40 per cent—private land, council land, roads, and so on—to be maintained by a non-profit, the Te Araroa Trust. It scrabbles together funding from a variety of sources, but its income isn’t keeping pace with the trail’s growth. It asks through-walkers for a $500 donation—last season, 167 people, half of them New Zealanders, gave a koha, which gained the trust about $50,000.

“The majority is spent on maintaining the trail—and $50,000 doesn’t go very far for maintenance, let alone capital investment,” says chief executive Mark Weatherall.

The problem is, Te Araroa isn’t finished. It’s supposed to keep getting better: one day, it will be entirely off-road. (Weatherall is aiming to reduce the road component to less than 10 per cent of the trail over three years.)

“Getting that unbroken trail from Cape Reinga to Bluff is an amazing achievement, but there’s always room for improvement,” says Asher Wilson-Goldman from the Walking Access Commission, a government body that works on improving New Zealand’s track network.

In the meantime, the trust faces a host of pressing demands: the trail needs more signage, more toilets, and more camping areas to take the pressure off the hut network. Through-walkers converge on alpine areas at the same time—which is also the height of the summer tramping season.

Weatherall wants to sort out the trust’s funding so it can make secure, long-term plans—it’s tough lurching from grant to grant. And he’d like more New Zealanders to do it. “Either in one go, or across a lifetime,” he says.

Part of the problem is that New Zealanders aren’t accustomed to through-walking. We tramp in loops, not in straight lines, because that’s the way our track network is designed—to be self-contained within individual national parks.

This is what’s important about Te Araroa:  its scale promotes a mental shift, an awareness of distance. People out for an hour’s walk on a section of the trail know that, if they wanted, they could keep walking for two weeks, two months, all the way to the end of the land.

“The vast, vast majority of people who are using Te Araroa are doing sections,” says Wilson-Goldman. “In many parts of the country, Te Araroa has provided a reason for people to make amazing section walks that are part of a greater whole.”

Take the Paekakariki Escarpment Track, a 10-kilometre stretch that replaced a boring section of Te Araroa in 2016. Its usage rates have greatly exceeded expectations.

But visitor booms are also taking place on private land, and that’s trickier to manage.

“There’s been a real quantum leap in the numbers in some parts of the country,” says Wilson-Goldman. “We’ve talked to big high-country stations that have had to effectively abandon parts of their farm. It has become so popular that it’s impractical to run the stock in that part of their farm.

“We’re seeing farmers who agreed to open tracks; they were seeing 30,000 people a year eight to 10 years ago, they’re now seeing 70,000 to 80,000 people a year. That’s not a lot of time for that kind of increase.”

Creating better connections between Te Araroa and other tracks will help spread the load, he says.

“Te Araroa is already a great north-south spine for the country; how that connects into east-west ribs, that’s the next stage for the project.”

[Chapter Break]

We reach Upper Travers Hut on dusk. It’s full, so we sleep under the benches in the kitchen, and wake before dawn to start our climb. The sun lifts over the mountains just as we reach Travers Saddle—a field of giant boulders, split and weathered. Mt Travers is a dark pyramid standing over us, and the Sabine Valley unfurls below, deep green reaching up the walls of the hills.

Over breakfast, Johnny peruses the bag of milk powder, calculating how many litres of milk the whole thing makes. He and Elizabeth have a minor squabble over who gets to use the good spoon.

We drop steeply down a flank of the land into the beech forest: short, wizened trunks at first, then taller and taller trees. Johnny and Jorinde start telling the story of their trip to each other: Johnny likes to recount exactly where they stayed, turning the nights over one by one like rosary beads. The place where they played in the high grass. The one where he got a chocolate bar. The bad campground. The caravan. The horrible forest, where there was no water and they had to scrape the mud off their legs before putting on their long johns to go to sleep. They’re trying to decide which number night this one will be—90 or 91? Every night is a new home, another one suspended in a line of temporary homes stretching all the way back up the country.

The most effective thing for keeping the rain off, discovered the Rapseys, isn’t a rain jacket but a plastic poncho tucked underneath it. The dry summer made for a pleasant season for Te Araroa trampers: the North Island requires through-walkers to camp most nights, while in the South Island, the hut network is much more extensive. Between islands, the Rapseys swapped their tent for a smaller, lighter one.
Beside the Waiau River is an informal campsite set up by trampers. It’s only mid-afternoon when we arrive, and the Rapseys debate stopping for the night or continuing on. Jorinde suggests pausing to sleep before deciding, but Johnny complains: “We always have a nap and then keep walking later.” Chris laughs. “Well,” he says, “he’s right about that.” Jorinde asks the kids what they want to do, and they decide to stay. In minutes, Elizabeth has built a fire.

Meanwhile, news of the Rapseys has spread with walkers both NOBO and SOBO, which means that I can distinguish a Te Araroa through-walker from a weekend tramper by the way their faces light up with recognition and delight at the sight of the family.

Through-walkers form their own community, getting to know each other along the route, overtaking each other or falling behind, taking on nicknames—‘trail names’—for the journey, leaving idiosyncratic messages to each other in hut books.

“What you’re doing is really cool,” says a fastpacker who overtakes us, before he

dashes onwards at a run. When we stop for lunch at Waiau Hut, there’s a group of young men at the table who turn out to be NOBO: “You guys are famous on the track,” says one of them.

“Well, these guys are,” says Chris, a bit uncomfortably, indicating the kids. Elizabeth shrugs and sets about making wraps for the family.

“What’s it like to be famous?” Neil asks her later.

For a moment, she doesn’t reply.

“Well, it doesn’t really change anything, does it?” she says.

Elizabeth reminds me of her dad: she gets on with things. I get the sense that conversation is of limited usefulness to both of them. There is no part of their personalities that would rather talk about something than do

  1. They’ve turned down one television appearance so far, and they’ll turn down others before they’re done.

Back on the track, we stop for a swim in the Sabine River. The water is so cold it feels like the opposite of a burn, and we all splash in and out, except for Chris, who is scanning the hills for deer, and Jorinde, who stays up to her neck in the current, swimming in place and laughing about how bracing it is. When we start walking again, I feel new.

[Chapter Break]

The cloud dulls all sound, except for Johnny’s whistling up ahead, which floats back to me. We zigzag up a scree slope, our boots dislodging stones that tumble down, down, down, and then we’re into the tussock that takes over above the bushline. Lake Constance is somewhere below the bluffs. Maybe we’ll see a Brocken spectre, suggests Neil: a rainbow halo-shadow cast when clouds are below and the sun comes out above.

This is where, I realise, British tramper Andy Wyatt somehow fell into the lake—the first and only person to die in the course of traversing Te Araroa. But the trail is well away from the edge of the bluff.

At the head of the lake, the track turns sharply and continues straight up, disappearing into the cloud. We climb in silence. Two hundred metres, three hundred. I have to pause every few steps to let the burn in my calves fade.

“We’re halfway up,” says Neil.

Johnny pauses on the track for a moment.

“It’s a wee bit steep,” he says.

“Yep,” says Chris.

Johnny swings his arms and keeps going. He’s whistling again. Elizabeth hasn’t said a word, but she isn’t out of breath, just quiet. The climb doesn’t seem to be costing either of them anything. (“Do you ever get sore legs?” I ask later. Elizabeth and Johnny seem confused by the question, but they think about it. Yes, they say, they got sore legs walking along Ninety Mile Beach. But no, not since then.)

We reach a high, grassy shelf, and the cloud starts tearing into pieces. Far below, I catch glimpses of Lake Constance, now gleaming bright blue. There’s one last scree climb—take a step, slide halfway back down—and then we’re on the crest of Waiau Pass. Elizabeth immediately sprints down the other side to an undisturbed patch of snow, Johnny behind her.

Rotomairewhenua, the land of peaceful waters, is prosaically called Blue Lake in English. It’s only seven metres deep, but even if it were 80 metres deep, it would still be possible to see the bottom. It’s as clear as distilled water.

Whenever we pause for a rest, they don’t sit down, they start playing. They climb inside boulders split in half like apples, peer into holes drilled by crabs in mudflats, slide down smooth stone slabs into creeks.

It’s as though they’re inside a permanent natural-history class. They’ve seen the vegetation change as we climbed higher into the mountains, traced their fingers over the fine lines in rocks on the pass. They’ve walked through some of New Zealand’s most deprived areas and some of its wealthiest. They’ve passed in the shadow of volcanoes, rainstorms, forest giants, history.

With them, I’ve tramped faster, longer days than ever before, but I’m also noticing things better. My legs may have a permanent ache, but my brain feels sharper, more relaxed.

On the other side of the pass, conversation comes and goes. We cross wide, prairie-like river flats: a sea of golden grass gently moving under the wind, stretching all the way to the feet of the distant ranges.

We stop to watch terns wheeling above the Waiau River, and to identify wildflowers. We have a competition to guess how high the mountains are, and then how far away they are, and Chris checks the answers on his topo map.

We are at least two days’ walk from the nearest road, and the weather is balmy, and the sandflies aren’t too bad, and nothing in the rest of the world feels particularly necessary.

How many New Zealand children have these kinds of experiences? Te Araroa doesn’t keep records of who uses the track. Nor does the Department of Conservation survey children about their use of conservation land. But a study of 20 day walks last summer suggested that young people are under-represented: under-18s comprised about 18 per cent of visitors, though they are 26 per cent of New Zealand’s population. Sport New Zealand’s latest activity survey in 2017 roughly reflects this—10 per cent of five to 17 year-olds had been on a tramp or bush walk in the previous week.

So how are our kids spending their leisure time? A study published by the University of Otago in 2015 tracked 187 children aged between 9 and 11 in Auckland, Dunedin and Wellington, calculating their ‘home ranges’, then investigating the biodiversity they were exposed to. The study found that many children did not visit bush, park, beach or river areas, even if these were close to their homes—the most biodiverse areas they visited were usually their gardens.

On the Waiau River flats the Rapseys pass the 2000-kilometre mark: they’re two-thirds of the way.
Johnny sweeps out Waiau Hut, which opened in 2018 after a donation by a retired Timaru farmer. Robert Birks, who has more than 40 years of tramping experience, funded its construction to the tune of $155,000. It fills a 37-kilometre gap between huts on Te Araroa; its six bunks were full by lunchtime.

In 2005, American journalist Richard Louv coined a term to describe the correlation of decreasing rates of time spent outdoors with increasing rates of behavioural, mental and physical illnesses in children. He called it ‘nature-deficit disorder’.

Simply becoming more active isn’t the cure, wrote Louv in his book, Last Child in the Woods. It’s missing something important: getting up close with the natural environment, and being surrounded by its complexity and variety.

“The obesity epidemic coincides with the greatest increase in organised children’s sports in history,” he writes.

Over the past decade, the rate of children’s sports injuries has surged by 60 per cent among kids aged 10 to 14 in New Zealand, and by 63 per cent among under-10s. (An Accident Compensation Corporation spokesperson says the causes of injuries fell into two broad groups: children not being in good physical condition when beginning a sport, and children undertaking too much sport.)

During this time, the rate of children who are overweight or obese remained the same: about one in three. But the number of children diagnosed with a mental or behavioural disorder has surged 211 per cent between the 2006 and 2017 New Zealand Health Surveys. The number of children diagnosed with anxiety over the past decade has increased 875 per cent.

[sidebar-1]

In New Zealand, programmes to help children lose weight or reduce anxiety focus on getting active. Doctors can write ‘green prescriptions’ for stressed or overweight children: this government-sponsored programme connects families with one of 14 regional sporting organisations or one of two public health organisations. Despite the name, the programme emphasises sports over spending time in green spaces, whereas similar initiatives overseas encourage physically and mentally ill people to spend time in nature.

In the United States, a 2018 survey found 71 ‘nature prescription’ programmes active in 32 states. A small study of 78 parents who received nature prescriptions at a clinic serving low-income families in California found participants’ park visits increased, while loneliness and stress levels decreased. Nature prescription programmes are also active in the United Kingdom and Australia, while in South Korea, the government’s National Forest Plan is improving access to ‘healing forests’ around the country, and Japan has more than 60 certified forest-therapy areas.

In this context, the third of New Zealand administered by DOC looks like a very large and under-utilised health resource.

[Chapter Break]

The last day of the Rapseys’ walk dawns perfectly clear, cool air hanging loosely over the estuary mudflats. I meet them on the outskirts of Invercargill. There are not quite 30 kilometres left to go.

Johnny isn’t feeling well, for the first time in 151 days. His stomach hurts. Chris suspects he’s tired—he and Elizabeth stayed up late playing with friends in Invercargill.

It’s a Wednesday, March 6, one day shy of five months since they set out from Cape Reinga.

The path skirts the estuary and then crosses the fields at the back of the wastewater treatment plant. When Johnny stops for a rest, Jorinde pulls out a bag of snack-sized chocolate bars and exclaims at how small they are.

“Next time, get the bigger ones,” says Johnny.

“Next time, get the smaller ones,” protests Elizabeth.

“When will be the next time?” asks Jorinde.

There’s a silence.

“Next trip,” says Elizabeth.

“Next trip,” repeats Johnny, and sighs.

We cross the train line beside the fertiliser factory, and there we join the highway, which we will follow to the end. (A landowner rescinded access to the original route, which passed through coastal farmland.)

Walking alongside State Highway 1 is the opposite experience of the previous section I walked with the Rapseys two months earlier. We’re partway between asphalt and ditch, facing the oncoming traffic. Mostly we walk on the white line marking the edge of the road, but when there’s a car coming (or, worse, a truck), we step down into the ditch to get as far away from it as possible, bracing ourselves against the roar and the rush of air that slams into us as it passes.

We share the grass verge with hubcaps, squashed cans, empty cigarette packets and banana skins. It’s mostly too noisy to hold a conversation. There’s nowhere to rest, and nowhere for the kids to stop and play. When we need to take a break, we sit in the ditch. During one stop, Elizabeth bounces pebbles in her skirt. During another, our feet sink into a patch of clover, and Johnny and Elizabeth search until they find a plant that produces four-leaved sprigs.

State Highway 1 describes a giant semicircle from the Awarua Plains to Bluff, and this creates an optical illusion: Bluff starts off as a white city floating in the sky on our left, and it gradually moves along the horizon until it’s in front of us, while we walk in place.

We pass fields of wapiti, bugling like elephants, and red deer. Ahead, we can see giant piles of something at the port: wood chips, says Chris. He says they’re shipped to China, turned into chipboard, and shipped back. “Why?” asks Elizabeth, and that serves as a topic of conversation for a while.

Jorinde is thinking about what’s next. They never managed to do a 50-kilometre day, she says, although the kids wanted to. They clocked 40 kilometres a couple of times. But the Milford Track is just over 50 kilometres. Maybe they could do that in one day—one really long day.

New Zealand Geographic parted ways with the Rapseys at Ada Flat, above, but not for long: the family later stayed with photographer Neil Silverwood to wait out a storm, and Rebekah White joined them for the final section of the trail between Invercargill and Bluff.

It’s almost 5pm when we reach a footpath: luxury underfoot. Johnny flops down on the grass under the sign for the Bluff Maritime Museum. Containers are stacked like Lego blocks at the port opposite us. There are 3.2 kilometres left to walk in the whole of New Zealand, but Johnny doesn’t want to walk them, and this is driving Elizabeth crazy.

“If you come now I’ll let you get there first,” she promises.

“It says there’s only 40 minutes to go,” says Jorinde.

“But it doesn’t say 40 minutes if we just stand here!”

“We also have had days where we waited for you, Elizabeth.”

“But we didn’t just stop there and sit when we were three kilometres away from Bluff!”

Johnny is not paying attention. “I like the word Bluff,” he says.

“Because it means we’re almost there?” asks Chris.

“I want to sleep,” says Johnny.

Eventually, the prospect of sitting by the side of the road becomes more boring than the prospect of continuing.

“Come on, wee fella,” says Chris. “Shall we wander on?”

[Chapter Break]

There’s a slight uphill section as the road curves towards the edge of the land. Small houses at the edge of the sea look out at the ocean, nothing between them and Antarctica. The day is fading, and the light is becoming thinner. Elizabeth can sense the end, and she breaks into a run, Johnny dashing after her.

The road dips and there’s the Stirling Point signpost below us, pointing in every direction. Elizabeth reaches the pole and swings around it, and for a few moments, she’s the youngest person to have walked the length of the country. Then Johnny catches up. He’s seven, now—he celebrated his birthday just before Arthur’s Pass.

They pull off their shoes and climb up the pole.

“We’ve done how many kilometres?” Jorinde asks, swinging her pack to the ground one last time. “Twenty something?”

“Three thousand,” says Elizabeth.

Chris’s sister is here to give them a ride back to Dunedin. Elizabeth wants to go to the beach with their friends tomorrow. That’s what they usually do on Thursdays, when they’re not walking from the top of the country to the bottom. First, they might have some takeaway curry. Later, they might traverse Stewart Island, because that’s part of New Zealand, too. They might walk the Milford in a day. They might tackle the Dusky Track before it’s winter.

The Rapseys turn away from Foveaux Strait and get in the car. There’s no way that this is the end.

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