“You can walk in front to the left (downwind) or you can walk behind me and to the right (upwind).” I tell Andrew, burrowing deeper beneath the hood on my windbreaker, cinched down as tight as possible. I trudge against 30-35 knots of Tasman Sea wind whipping up fine grains of beach sand and blasting them against my face, into my ears, against my bare legs. It hurts a little, especially when Andrew walks in front of me and kicks more the sand into the air only to be thrown back my direction. I’m not unhappy, but my mind is wandering toward the car.
“Be where you are, Leslie.” My 2017 Mantra.
I noticed this a little bit last year. My body will be inhabiting one of the most beautiful spots I have ever been in, but my mind is wandering around - thinking about a better anchorage, worrying about our next passage, wondering how my family, friends or my old cases are doing, writing blog posts, or just wishing I was doing something else. I wish I was swimming while walking through a hot, humid jungle filled with tropical flowers and ancient petroglyphs. I take photographs and think, “I will remember this spot when I troll through my photo albums years from now." But, with my head elsewhere, did I really experience the place?
We arrived on Farewell Spit, socked in by grey, rainy mist. There are only two campgrounds available and the first one was already full. We immediately headed over to the second where we got the last site on the ocean edge. We pull up next to a row of little trees and fashion a “covered patio”, stretching a tarp from the van to the row of trees. We sit on the porch, read, and enjoy one of New Zealand’s delicious wines. From here, we can see the bay curling around itself and trailing off to a sandy point. If the sun would shine, we would see white sand beach, blue ocean and steep New Zealand mountains stretching upward like a cat hanging from window curtains. It’s hard to tell whether they grow from the ground or dropped down from the sky.
The next day, things begin to look up. I woke with the sunrise peeking into Sister Mary Francis's back window. So, I hopped out and took a walk along the beach during the most beautiful hour of the day. I watched the little sea gulls march their feet in the sand to kick up breakfast. I got some beautiful pictures of the red wildflowers that grow along side all the trails, roads, and pretty places in this northern part of the South Island.
We head to a nearby beach to see beautiful arches and sand dunes.
Here, we find a colony of some tiny, fuzzy baby seals. There was nothing around their cove to give you scale, but these little critters were no bigger than my forearm. One notices me creeping closer to take some pictures, but he is no shrinking violet. He tries to wake his buddy, barking in his buddy’s ear, rubbing his face on the other seal’s face and otherwise being obnoxious, but his buddy rolls over to look at me then flops back down to enjoy his nap. The first seal decides to take me on himself. He romps closer and closer, pushing off with his flippers, barking at me. Mama seal raises her head, sees the commotion and decides I am no trouble. She, too, goes back to her nap.
I wish I could reach out and pet this fuzzy little monster, but I keep my distance.
Baby seal overload.
We stop at a cafe for a meat pie and a white bait sandwhich. There, we meet a beautiful but grumpy peacock who insisted on harassing everyone for food. I watched him kick a young man for a bit of steak and mushroom pie.
Next we hike Farewell Spit. It’s a loop that takes you down the Pacific side of the spit along a beach, across sand dunes, then back on the Tasman side of the spit. The scenery looks nice. We don our sandals and our rain jackets, just in case. The New Zealand weather is a bit fickle.
The first part of the hike is easy and pretty. We walk along a beach made of nothing but bits of shiny white shells. Black swans bathe and play in the ocean which is churning in the wind, even in its protected location.
The scenery really becomes amazing when we turn to cross the sand dunes. This is terrain that must look completely different every day. Wind picks up the feather soft sand and rearranges it into hills, ridges, stripes, and columns. We take off our shoes and our feet sink. The sand is warm, despite the grey in the sky. It trickles down the sand dune hill, running away from our footsteps like water runs off a waterfall. A giant zen garden.
When we climb to the top of a dune, the wind whips around us, twirling sand everywhere. I try to take pictures and I can hear little grains of sand scraping and snapping against my lens. I grumble a little bit and try to cover my camera in my coat. It’s no use. By the time we reach the Tasman side, I can feel the sand grinding when I rotate my lens to zoom in or out. Poor camera, it lives a hard life.
Once on the Tasman side, I look at the four mile stretch of beach to go. Tasman waves bash up against the shore, some larger than others chase us away into the dry sand. Bright purple jelly fish line the edge where waves rush up. Sometimes, we wait too long or the wave is too big and it catches our feet. Cold! Water that has traveled its way up on waves all the way from Antarctica. Penguins sometimes arrive on this side of the beach, so we keep our lookout, but we never see any.
It is at this point that I feel my mind wandering to the car. I’m a little hungry, I could use some warmer clothes, and my ears are hurting from the cold wind rushing past them. I pull on my hood and hook my hands into my coat pockets. A tiny sand dune is beginning to form at my fingertips, blown into my pockets by the wind. I imagine my ears are filled with sand, too.
But look at this place! It is beautiful, and I am very likely never going to stand in this spot again. Even if I somehow do return, everything will be different. Different sky, different wind, different sand formations. I am wishing away a once in a lifetime experience.
As I remind myself to “be where I am,” I notice how soft the sand is around my feet. I notice how serious the waves are out in the ocean. I see the mist rising as the waves crash. I can feel how happy Andrew is bounding a long in the sand, stepping on and popping the little inflatable sails the jellyfish put up to ride the waves. I still feel the sting of sand on my face and the howl of cold wind in my ears, but it’s just a part of the whole thing. This whole “once in a lifetime” thing that I shouldn’t miss by existing inside my mind elsewhere.