After checking out the next morning, Gar drove us to Mt. Maunganui where we parked by the bay with the van door open, scooched back onto the sofa to stay out of the morning rain, and breakfasted on tea, yogurt, and cold cereal with strawberries. Gar had planned for us to hike up to the top of the mount, but the cloud cover was too low to see much more than the bottom tenth of it and would surely preclude any overhead views. There was an open-air swimming facility at the foot of the mountain, though, offering hot saltwater pools at varying levels of steaminess, and this seemed like an excellent plan B for the gloomy damp day. We changed into swimsuits [togs, in Kiwi] and spent the next couple of hours lounging in the pools; shifting out of the way to avoid the noisiest, most boisterous children; swapping off between hotter soaks and the more temperate pool; and exclaiming over occasional clearings in the cloud cover that revealed the mount’s higher slopes and the grazing sheep that resolved from the mist. Much of the time I floated gently, encircled in Gar’s arms, head resting on his shoulder, acutely aware that our time together was very nearly gone and ticking, ticking, ticking constantly away.
When sufficiently wrinkly fingertips made a return to land seem prudent, we changed back into dry clothes, dropped our stuff in the car, and wandered into town.
The pools had been situated directly across the street from a cookie and ice cream shop, and the waft of warm baking sweets had made us hungry, exacerbated by Gar’s glowing description of a great eggs Benedict place he frequented near his home. Once I have a food craving fixed in my head I’ll go to significant lengths to sate it, and by now we’d both managed to work up a hankering for a local source of this breakfast goodness. The guidebook mentioned that the Zambezi café in the town center served promising-sounding “eggy brekkies,” and indeed they had Benedicts on offer. We ordered two of those and two mochas and sat outside on the sidewalk. The Bennies, when they arrived, were gorgeous – an Argentine super-model of Benediction.
Further, they’d been prepared in what I’d come to think of (after being previously served during my trip odd bread platforms like plain whole wheat toast, yech) as classic American-style eggs Benedict, with actual toasted English muffins as the base. And the flavor was glorious: plump eggs cooked to just the right amount of perfectly done, orangey-gold runniness. Real homemade-tasting Hollandaise with a light lemon tang (not the sadly common, flavor-free yellow glop that presumably comes out of a can of something equally condemnable). The hammy pork product the Kiwis refer to as bacon (which is closer to a slice of ham steak then the rectangular rashers we think of as bacon) had just the right amount of salt and fat. And, sending me into overjoyed glee when I glimpsed them on the laden platter of food, little crisp-edged patties of hash brown potatoes, just like at McDonald’s (to be sure, not something I would normally mean as a compliment, but their football-shaped hash browns have been a childhood favorite since my grandma would take me on semi-illicit trips there for breakfast after overnight stays, and remain for me the unsurpassed epitome of hash brown perfection). With little moans of happiness, we snarfed the lot, and even well after I reached the point of comfortable fullness I determinedly smushed the rest down because it was just too good to leave leftovers with a clear conscience.
In a cheerful post-brunch fog we staggered oceanward, past revelers at an outdoor beachside concert, and out a rocky peninsula from the end of which we could glimpse, far out to sea, the cargo ship Rena, which was stranded on a reef back in October, spilling thousands of gallons of oil and generally causing environmental mayhem. (It finally broke apart a few days after I returned home).
By this point the rain had subsided and cloud cover lifted sufficiently to attempt to scale the mountain, so we loaded our packs with provisions from the car (binoculars, cameras, drinks) and started up the path.
Now, in terms of actual height the mount isn’t exactly towering – only about 800 feet tall – but neither of us was in what could fairly be called prime physical condition and a lot of drinking had taken place during the preceding days, so it didn’t take long before we were both winded and sweaty and clearly insufficiently well-stocked with backpacked beverages. We paused a bit, slowed frequently, looked at the sheep, stepped fastidiously around their leavings, and Gar recounted how he’d been tasked with a lamb-training project as part of some 4-H type of activity when he was younger… it was the cutest thing imaginable to think of this sharply sarcastic, hotly opinionated, occasionally caustic metalhead boy training up a little fluffy baby sheep. We wheezed and trudged our way up the gravel inclines and steep stairways – moving periodically aside to let people jogging up and down the hill (!) pass us freely.
Finally at the top, we gasped for air and took in the view, and still hot and puffing, I snared a unsuspecting passerby to take a picture of us together (mindful that I wanted to be able to remember what Gar looked like when I returned home).
We wandered further along the peak, snapping pics of the 360 degree view back to Tauranga, down the beach, and across the undulating ocean. As I was curiously examining what initially seemed to be a really enormous picnic blanket, a harnessed man appeared from seemingly nowhere, strapped the blanket to him, and neatly popped it vertically to catch the wind, where it revealed itself as a parachute. He paused for just a moment and then flung himself at a run off the mountainside, me following to the edge to watch him spiral down toward the beach, shouting in awed, envious excitement, “That is so badass!” Courtesy of my stop in Taupo, I’ve now done the jumping out of planes thing, but resolved at that moment that next up will be leaping off a mountain with a picnic blanket strapped to my back. So. Cool.
We took a different route down the hill, still dodging out of the way of intrepid joggers, descending down some really vertigo-inducing, precipitous stairways. Seeing me shrink back and turn slightly green, Gar chuckled but offered his hand to coax me down the steeper steps. I remained glued to the mountain wall as we stopped for him to take more pictures, heart in my mouth as I watched him position himself right on the edge of the incline.
Finally safely down on low land again, my knees still vibrating from height-induced adrenaline, we felt we’d earned a good sit down and a cold beverage for our labors, and holed up at the local Mac’s brewpub for some pints. It was nearly time to leave to go collect Gar’s own car and return to sleep at his house before the next day’s flight out. I wriggled closer to him and put my arm around his shoulders, saying plaintively, “Ugh, I don’t want to go.”
He glanced at me archly and said, “Hm. I’ll resist quoting Shakespeare.”
“Er – what?” I asked, confused.
He replied, smirking sardonically, “Oh, you know, ‘Parting is such…’ ”
“Oh, all RIGHT,” I interrupted him irritably. Hmph. Fine: maybe he didn’t feel the same, but I was dreading the next day with every fiber of my being.
Having still further to go, we kept the drinking relatively short and left Mt. Maunganui for Hamilton. We stopped first to get some laundry going and unpack perishables at his mom’s, into whose place he’d be moving that week in preparation to start classes. (She’d generously offered to assist with his return to school by housing him during his university attendance). Then we struck out for the house of his married friends Luke and Aimee, who I’d met even before Gar on New Year’s Eve, to collect his car. They live wayyy out in the country, and even though the cloud cover remained quite steady, little holes here and there revealed the spectacular stars behind. We hung out briefly, watching a truly awful Adam Sandler movie. I listened with a heavy heart to them making plans to visit more hot springs the next day, if Gar wanted to come along, knowing I’d be flying home by then. No more conversations with him over chilly beers, held hands, or roadtrips; no more adventures and photo taking; no more attempted stargazing or secure watery embraces in a hot pool; no more shared mochas or walking in the rain; no more sleepy snuggling and quiet ‘good mornings’. The pendulum has to swing, and the internal illumination and happiness I’d felt from meeting and spending time with him was quickly becoming enshrouded in a fog of sadness and dwindling hours. We said goodbyes to the assembled friends and left them to their Sandler torture. Gar drove carefully along the black road curves so I didn’t fall too far behind him, following in the Bongo, back to his mom’s. We were both exhausted and it was nearly midnight, so we showered and fell heavily into bed. As Gar slept beside me, I nestled up to him, trying to muffle my damp sniffles, brushing hot tears from my cheeks as I lay there, fearing the oncoming morning and dozing uneasily.