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We've always loved trekking. Matteo has been a serial walker since he was little, and his love for the mountains is palpable. As for me, Anna, I was a bit less inclined towards it, partly due to lack of time and partly because I leaned more towards the sea. However, over the years as a couple, with the adventures that have united us, Matteo and I have always chosen to embark on walks of all kinds. During our two years in New Zealand, amid work and other commitments, we seized the opportunity to spend our free time in various national parks, driven by curiosity and a desire to explore this country where nature thrives. However, we had never done any serious hiking on foot. Sure, we had taken some walks between towns, but nothing too enduring, nothing "challenging," I'd say. So, we started studying, examining the map of the island, looking at it from every angle and from all those points we aspired to reach. We were aware of the Te Araroa, a trek that winds its way through the entire length of New Zealand for about 3000 km. However, we didn't have much time to tackle it. Since we hadn't explored the South Island yet, we came up with a brilliant idea: take a ferry from Wellington, at the south end of the North Island, and arrive at Picton, at the north end of the South Island, and start our journey there with just three ingredients: our backpacks, our shoes, and our determination. Why on foot? Because it costs nothing. It's a simple activity that can be done anywhere, but above all, it invites us to slow down, to pause the frantic pace that often characterizes our lives, to remind ourselves that time is ever-changing and that in moments of deep reflection, we must remember what truly makes us happy. So, with our 14-kilo backpacks on our shoulders, our caps to shield us from the sun, and smiles plastered on our faces, we dive into the fray. Picton looks quaint, a small town from which boats depart to reach Ship Cove, our first stop on the Queen Charlotte Track. Walking on that trail in the Marlborough region is one of those things you want to do at least once in your life. The trek's duration varies from 3 to 5 days of hiking, frequented by families, couples, and seniors. There's no age limit, just plenty of energy and a desire to begin. As we delve into nature, the scenery is breathtaking, alternating between the blue of the sea and the greenery surrounding us. There's not a single noise to disturb our senses, only the sounds of trickling streams we encounter from time to time, perfect for refilling our water bottles. The birds, of all kinds, with their calls, make us feel less alone. But hey, it's tough! After a couple of hours, we start feeling our shoulders ache, our legs pull in all directions, the bottom of the backpack hitting our hips, prompting me to stuff my sweater in between to cushion the blow, aware that it won't do much but rather remind me that it's normal to feel this way. Concentrate, let's give the mind a break. Our breathing is so labored that I try to lift my gaze and see Matteo ahead of me, striding confidently without a care in the world. Absurdly, I envy his tenacity and willpower as always. I stop, leaning against a rock, take a sip of water, and look around: this turns out to be a valid reason to continue with more determination. I can do it! We can do it! The trekking poles help alleviate the weight of the backpacks, which after yet another climb, make their presence felt. Between panting breaths, we finally reach an ascent, consoling ourselves with an energy bar or a spoonful of peanut butter to replenish our energy, allowing us to lift our heads and rejoice in the spectacle before us. Seeing the fjords and the changing colors of the water depending on the sun and clouds peeking through the sky is inexplicable, one of those unique sensations that are hard to come by in the same way again. These landscapes open our eyes, especially mine, and make us realize that despite the initial difficulty of trekking, there's always something around the corner ready to change our minds. So, we resume with a different sprint, and the rest of the walk is done with so much lightness that we don't even look at the map anymore, and suddenly, we find ourselves in the campground set up by a couple in their seventies, paying for the pitch and finally able to relax. We did it! The first 30 km on foot! The campground is basic, the bathrooms hidden by dense vegetation, and as we venture beyond the picnic tables, we notice a small trail leading to the beach... a great way to end the year. Yes, because we chose to start this journey on the last day of 2020, a year that has been tough globally, hoping to regain a bit of freedom. Not by chance, we meet Bruce and Theresa. This couple in their 70s tells us how a couple of years ago they crossed the entire New Zealand on foot in about six months, and how this "vacation" along the Queen Charlotte serves to enjoy the days and dispense advice to young trekkers like us. In them, we find the care of two parents but also the camaraderie of old friends, those always ready with a joke. They help sustain our spirit, that traveler's spirit, the one we have always been fascinated by in historical books, in stories we were told as children. We treasure their words, retreat into our tent aware that every person we meet along our journey will leave us with a lesson. The following days make themselves felt; perhaps because our legs feel the strain of the first day, but fear not, facing our inner demons, we brush aside negative thoughts about fatigue and hunger and continue our journey. Each day presents itself differently. We go from sun to rain, to wind, and back to rain, but our legs are now moving on their own, uphill, downhill, one switchback after another, until we find ourselves after two days, aware that we have managed to cover 70 km in three days with our own strength. Remarkable for people who have never done multi-day trekking before. We bid farewell to the sea, which thrilled us with every ascent and every arrival at the campground, bid farewell to all those typical New Zealand birds, knowing we will encounter others on our journey. We look at the Queen Charlotte sign and see other people starting our same journey but in the opposite direction. We smile at them, knowing the joys and pains they will experience, but we don't spoil the surprise and, with a shy smile, continue our walk. The trail meets the asphalt, and this makes us realize we are returning to civilization. Thumb raised, and off we go, ready to hitchhike and reach the nearest town with the intention of restocking our backpacks with food and enjoying a nice hot shower. After barely 5 minutes, a couple of English gentlemen pick us up, on vacation, intrigued by our endeavor and our bulky backpacks. A flood of words gushes out like a raging river; evidently, the days of solitude have had a strange effect, and we find ourselves telling them about our crazy idea, our desire to immerse ourselves in these wild trails, in close contact with nature, and the desire to rely only on our legs and, why not, a bit of luck from other travelers like us whom we will meet along the way. However, one of the most significant encounters made thanks to hitchhiking must be with Jili, a seventy-year-old English lady, bold, unfiltered, straight out of one of those movies where they already have some speeches ready that will literally blow you away. As we settle into the reclined seats amidst pictures and boxes, she starts asking us some questions. "What brings you here, guys?" Jili says as she lights a cigarette. "We want to head towards Golden Bay; we've heard great things about the Heaphy Track and would like to do it before returning to the North Island." And that's when Jili goes wild; she starts complimenting us and gets a bit emotional looking at us. She tells us we remind her of herself at 20 when she was about to embark on the hippie trail with just her backpack, a smile on her face, and her finger always raised to hitch a ride. Life is absurd: it puts you face to face with purely random encounters that are anything but random. They show you how life can take certain shades and how your actions are nothing more than actions repeated by other people but in different historical moments. You realize that there is no barrier, ethnicity, or different language to stop that vicious circle made up of curiosity and a desire to explore. We are dropped off at Collingwood, a town in Golden Bay perched on the lake, where, after spending the night, we will ask for a new ride to reach the beginning of the Heaphy Track, one of New Zealand's Great Walks, an 80 km hike. A one-way route, but you can also cross it from both starting points... we having arrived from the mountains, will emerge right by the sea, and the adrenaline is sky-high just for that. Compared to many other trails, the Heaphy Track is one of the most appreciated by New Zealanders because, first of all, they are much quieter, touristically speaking, and also because the landscapes change so much that they hardly ever bore you. You go from mountains to forests, to plants, to tropical forests, ending up on the wild beaches of the West Coast. Above all, however, it encapsulates a very particular history. The Heaphy Track is located in Golden Bay, and for many generations, the Maori always went to the central Westland where they searched for Pounamu, the famous green jade, the symbol par excellence of New Zealand, used for decades for weapons, tools of all kinds, and later ornaments. They followed a trail to Whakapoai (where the Heaphy River is located) and also traversed the treacherous northern coastline, risking their lives due to the sheer force of the waves crashing on the cliffs. However, in 1846, Charles Heaphy and Thomas Bruner were the first Europeans to cross the coastal section, the very one that the Maori struggled to overcome. As for the inland part, it remained unbeaten for more than a decade, but it is presumed that a gold seeker named Aldridge crossed it first in 1859, followed in 1860 by James Mackay, a guard from Collingwood (not coincidentally one of our precious stops from where we set out to venture into the trail's interior). However, it wasn't until 1965 that the track was properly cleared, considering that in the early 1900s, it was perpetually covered in vegetation. And so, the Forestry Service took care of improving the facilities, and now the trail we traversed is still there, ready to be beaten by many other travelers, explorers in search of a strong connection with nature. For these reasons, all the footpaths we trod with our legs and feet along the South Island were enjoyed from start to finish, with moments of discouragement, with stops, but also with amazement, happiness, and sharing towards unknown people. Challenging ourselves has always helped us not only to set goals but also to understand which limits we could overcome and what we could learn to do better. And that's why you end up doing the unthinkable, loading yourself day after day with a 15-kilo backpack on surfaces that constantly change, blisters forming, reminding you that maybe you can stop, use a needle and thread, let your skin breathe to recover faster, and get back on the trail stronger than before. This journey along this island has allowed us to understand how every day is different from the others. Every day, grappling with our own limits, with different dawns and just as many sunsets in absurd places. Arriving at one stop after another, aware that we will find a den, a refuge where we can recharge, with the knowledge that we have conquered yet another milestone.

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