It was her figure that immediately drew my eye. Gloriously tall and strappingly dressed, milk blond hair spilling across shoulders, a pair of legs that nearly made me break into song, Daisy was making sandwiches when I entered the room. She was chatting with our hostess in such an amiable, familiar way, I first figured she was a long-time guest. I was wrong; they'd met only thirty minutes. Right there, that should've told me something. But perhaps it was her length that distracted me. Or her legs. Or both.
And of course I had that instant fascination to see the face of someone with a behind that pretty, a voice that twinkly. Instead of diplomatically stealing into my room, I cleared my throat; she turned around.
This is a story how men get lost.
Daisy takes her time. With making sandwiches, with travelling, with combing her hair. This was her first big journey, she told me at the table, and she was making it last. In the heart of an endless summer, she had arrived and had taken all three months to rove at leisure through the North Island, whereas most visitors would cover it with a week or three. But Daisy delved though the country at a quiet, elaborate pace; she embraced the journey not as a backpacker, but as a traveller. The fast people, their schedules dictated by highlights, they would pass locations in a whirlwind, chasing the miles. And after they had passed, Daisy would yet remain, observing, exploring the details, meeting the people, making a place fully her own like a scribe. And only then, she'd part ways.
Days later, I would incessantly puzzle over the contradiction how this person, who preferred taking days to reach a decision, stole me a glance and next said: "Come walk the Queen Charlotte Track with me."
She hadn't even finished her sandwiches. We had known each other less than ten minutes.
And walk the what?
She nearly rolled her eyes at me and lectured: ,,It's the sole reason why people stay in Picton!''
What did I know. Less than five weeks ago I didn't even know I'd be in Picton, hadn't even known about the existence of this whimsical harbour town at the northern tip of South Island. Or known that it was the prime starting point for New Zealand's most luxurious walk through the wilderness - the Queen Charlotte Track, a path of 71 kilometres winding along the bays of the drowned, misty land of the Marlborough Sounds. Dotted with hostels and resorts along the route and with water taxi's dropping your pack of heavy luggage off at the next peer, one would be hard pressed to find a walking route more convenient for someone not having hiked for a while. It was perfect. Walking it would also completely wreck my fast-paced schedule through New Zealand, dictated by highlights.
She had carefully observed me, I recalled later, those wistfully blue eyes set studiously above a damping cup of tea as I was chatting inanely, chatting too much, actively batting thoughts and ideas with our environmentally conscious hostess. Daisy would later tell me, or perhaps it was a caution, "I like to observe people, watch the little things, it tells a lot about a person."
I cautioned her back that in the past years I'd been making a living of observing the lives of others and enjoyed writing about people in my spare time. She gave in return her small, knowing smile, and only said, ,,Just change the name."
Daisy, city woman extraordinaire, with lipstick always at hand, sporting delicate pearl earrings, and insisting to bring a second towel for her wet hair, had never hiked before New Zealand. This would be her second major hike, and it would be the first one which would span across several days. She was feeling trepidations to do it all on her own; like a damsel in distress, she needed a steadfast sidekick, a mentor.
This is how men get lost.
On my bed later that night, staring at the ceiling, I nervously wondered where I was getting into by agreeing to hike for the next three days in the wild with a completely inexperienced and total stranger, albeit it a stunningly pretty one.
Just how inexperienced Daisy was with hiking one could tell from her pick of supplies in the supermarket. Over the years I had learned to be happy with a pot of noodles, a bar of chocolate and an orange after a strenuous walk. Our menus were sheer preposterous, comedy gold. Had there not been a water taxi to take care of our food drops, I'd be aghast. Now I was mostly amused by Daisy's idea to bring cauliflower, potatoes and a block of cheese on a hike so we could make an oven dish at the end of the day. I caught on quickly enough, adding muesli, milk and two bottles of wine to the kilo's in my pack. Under the weight of food, I practically staggered back to the hostel.
With laundry drying in front of the fireplace, our bookings made and with three backpacks stashed full, we chatted over tea. Ensconced in the sofa, her delicious legs stretched on the table in front of her, Daisy reminisced about her months in New Zealand. Her words paused in midsentence just to sigh and shake her head. ,,A-ma-zing," she would say, puncturing the word. The beaches at Ahipara Bay, the Pinnacles Track, the splendour at lake Taupo, places I'd never see. She'd pull her shoulders in a little and make a joyful wiggle with her head. ,,A-ma-zing."
There it was, that first love of travelling, when the eyes shine and a country overwhelms, nestling deep under your skin, and your soul just reaches up and blends in the ecstasy of the adventure. Although we nearly shared age, Daisy's enthusiasm recalled my faraway days of my first touch with South Africa, how hopelessly overpowered I was by the sounds and sights of that new continent, where I experienced a love that would never go away even after I'd met the country's uglier faces. I'd been searching to find that feeling since, even when knowing one can never go home again.
Yet even with her attractive stories, my impressions of this city girl, and the fact she couldn't stand shellfish, I knew next to nothing of her. Instinct relaxed me; already there was a natural harmony between us, an alignment I found breathtaking to observe. Even so, I soon would be on my own with this total stranger, and the mind wriggled. While I'd talked a hundredfold that day, never asking a question, Daisy had kept quiet, a cipher wrapped in an enigma. But in the end, even silences are clues, when some silences become more pronounced than others. She heaved a little sigh when I talked about work and the edge of burnout; talking of the signs I'd witnessed of a generation burning itself through, I saw her eyes flash - and finally the penny dropped. ,,All this talk about burnout - that's also your story?"
She only nodded quickly with a wry smile, lips pressed. It was the biggest admission yet of her past, even while I continued to know nothing. But now I recognized another roving soul in search of peace, yet another escape from the steady burn of our modern world. A fragile spirit. It was enough. I did remind myself I was on a holiday. Except solving riddles is more than just a profession, it's a calling.
There is something deeply intimate about hiking through the wild. The exposure to the elements is not without hazards. A proper hike is physical as well as an initiation towards zen, it can bring one face to face with the deeper self. I'd had my previous share of responsibly guiding total strangers over tracks, assisting them across streams, having learned how to cheer and motivate, to quicken a pace without getting rude. But the dynamics change when it is one on one, as different as a barbecue with friends and a fireside chat with your best pal.
The Queen Charlotte track took us underneath the heights of the silver ferns, fractal wonders tall as palms. An explosion of greens and towering beeches, solitary and mighty guardians of history. The forests dripped and mist fogged the bays into fairytales. The smells got to me the most, smells unlike anything before: heavy, earthy fragrances from the deep memories of time, the mixture of clays and the ocean, and at times there was a sweeping, fleeting sweetness, like hot caramel, drifting amidst the trees. This country smelled right, I thought.
Admirably, Daisy hadn't overestimated herself; even on the track she took her time, pausing to drink in hopelessly fog-obscured views, stopping to intently gaze at dozens of streams, all looking completely identical to me, taking out her camera for close-up shots of raindrops on bright red mushrooms. ,,So pretty,'' she sighed.
So pretty that we needed to set a quick pace during the final five kilometres before reaching our hostel, as the night was already setting in and the treetops were gathering dusk above the track. When Colin, the hostel's merry, round owner with unkempt hair, guided us to our cabin, he rumbled how he was afraid we'd gotten lost. Our pack of food was already inside. ,,The heaviest pack I've ever carried,'' Colin observed to no one special. ,,Well, goodnight."
We're in a timewarp. The cabin's white interior looks like it hasn't seen any changes since it's construction and it has reached shelf-life a decade or two ago. ,,It's awful," Daisy notes, wrinkling her nose at the shoddy cabinets and rickety table. ,,It's genius," I decide, flipping my backpack on a bunk bed. There is even an oven, and though the contraption looks like it came straight out of a wormhole from the 1950s, we try preparing the oven dish - with slices of cauliflower, carrot and potato submerged in a cheesy sauce. Typically, only the grill still works, after one hour of starvation we settle for scraping off the upper half and open a bottle of wine.
Whether it is because of our shared hours in the woods, or the dark heavily leaning against our private cabin, or the wine in too big glasses, the conversation soon takes a turn to the intimate. Daisy suddenly lets go of composure, talking about her parents, her relationships that have crashed and burned, her 'extremes'. She wants them gone, she pleads, these emotional unbalances that hurl her from the ecstatic heights to the darkest of depths. It catches me by surprise, Daisy comes across as nothing but well composed, thoughtful, measured, albeit fragile, and I tell her this. She sighs, and here I get a first sense of the depths of her fractures. She wants a plateau, she says, a regulator on her emotions. Then we're opposites, I tell her. I've come to New Zealand to reconnect, to break through this dulled sense of life ever since the traumas of South Africa. And I feel I'm nearly there, at the threshold, brought there by the weeks of reconnecting with friends and travel. Why would one want to lose that, this thrill of living?
I see her reach inside, her eyes find the ceiling and grow moist as she tells about the darkest of thoughts only a few weeks before she left for New Zealand, the lure of suicide, to have it over with, the finality. Her voice as soft as tears: ,,Only the thought of my parents losing me, that's what stopped me." She doesn't look at me, doesn't cry, and something breaks inside me.
Daisy is on the Island. ,,This is an island,'' she tells me in the dark, her mesmerizing voice drifting up from the lower bunk bed. "The journey is an island. Everything we bring with us, our personality, our past, is new on the island. On the island, you can be whoever you want to show to others, you can be someone new, become someone new. Everyone on this island, stranger amongst strangers, we are what we want ourselves to be. Nothing gets off the island, everything stays right here, every one you meet, every interaction, every touch. They become part of the island, the journey, separate from the rest of the world. Once you go back, there is just this, the Island. Back, that's the outside. Here, anything can happen."
Daisy has her own local phone card, never hands out her email address, she refuses to use Facebook, Daisy is disconnected from the mainland. I even fleetingly wonder about her name.
Anything can happen. To hear all this, after a deeply revealing evening, these words spoken so soft in the dark in this solitary cabin, by this roving woman with this sweet a voice and a perfect figure lying half a meter below me, it is overwhelmingly eroticising. Especially when Daisy mentions, a little later, that she has no problem to have sex with strangers, she has needs like everyone. But, she adds offhandedly, she does expect men to take the final step, not her. Then she falls silent.
What's this, I wonder, a stealth gambit? I hold my breath, stay quiet, listen how she falls asleep below me, her soft breaths deepening. Only then my treacherous heart calms, my blood slowly cools, and for the first time I realise I am in fact lost.
Rain finds us the second day on the trail. The hike is a short punch, around Endeavour Inlet and no saddles to cross, but if anything we walk even slower. Daisy despairs at my lack of photography skills and teaches me how to zoom properly. ,,Contrasts,'' she stresses, guiding my hand. ,,It's all about contrasts. It's the same when painting." I look at her askance. Painting? She smiles mysteriously, and changes the subject.
The rain never lessens. Daisy voices her need to pee, but stubbornly refuses to make use of a forest; I heartily mock her for it. Lunch on a wet trunk; under the steady rainfall I can see Daisy deflate a little and I make her sandwiches with thick layers of peanut butter and chocolate paste. ,,You take good care of me," she mutters, my ego flutters. The rain is having the opposite effect on me; it turns me ebullient. A taunt by the elements can do that, and this rain is good-natured, a friendly nudge in the ribs. I feel absurdly experienced, almost rugged.
In fading light we reach our homestead, climb the wooden stairs and knock. Yesterday's line awaits us again: ,,There I was thinking you'd gotten lost." Inside we receive buttered scones and the worst instant coffee ever made, and our wet shoes find a fireplace for drying. Daisy and I share a room with twin beds, opposite each other, and we decorate the room with our wet clothes.
It's around here when I become aware of creeping physical encroachment between us; piece by piece, barriers are falling. Daisy and I have begun sharing a familiarity in posing intimate questions to each other, we no longer bother to change shirts and trousers in a separate room. (I can't help glancing; her legs are modelled after divine Italian statues.) We sit closely on one bed (her bed) when we chat, and she tells about her friend in Wellington. Her soul mate, she says. They know each other from years back, he was her guide in the city when she was visiting, and he lent her a lot of her kit. He has lived for the past seven years in New Zealand, with hopes to find the steady relationship that always eluded him in Europe. He now thinks he has found that relationship in Daisy. She sighs wearily. ,,We were on his bed and kissed, it didn't feel right. It's been awkward since, he's been sending messages. There's no reception here, but I know there will be messages waiting from him. I don't think I want this, but want to stay friends."
,,Did you tell him though?"
She looks at me curiously, and I sense something that's yet out of my reach, a glint of glass in the far distance. She says: ,,You know, with some things men should just be able to understand without having to be told."
I ignore the double entendre. ,,Most men aren't too good at that. I know I am not. We're physically incapable, we have poor wiring."
,,Just fix the wiring."
,,I can imagine," I ask her later, from the safe distance of my own bed, ,,you have this frequently, men hovering around you."
She shrugs, Daisy loves dancing, loves the game of the pull and attraction in the clubs, she tells. ,,When I am with my friends, it's the best." I nod anyway, I have no idea; the better I get to know her, the more I see we're worlds apart that have collided by accident.
Like all women I meet, Daisy wants to know what I'm writing in my journal about her. I tell her about the manuscript I've been struggling with, the kaleidoscope of beautiful people that have been swept in my life. ,,It's hard," I tell her. ,,I want to tell this honestly, present the people as they are, their beauty and their flaws, my own flaws. The people are just fine, but I'm not Hemmingway, the story isn't good enough."
,,Will I be in the book?"
I tell it's not only about the people on the road, but mostly about the new life in Johannesburg, that at its heart the story is about understanding the emerging South Africa, changing faster than the existing prejudices, faster than I can write.
But Daisy is smart as fuck, she nails my evasion to the wall: ,,That's really interesting, but you didn't actually answer the question." She smiles triumphantly, head propped on her elbow, but doesn't pursue. It's the island, she says. This bloody Island. We could long have left the Island behind us now, we've long passed the crossroads of secrecy, yet we both insist in continuing our dance of riddles, of strangers only meeting here and now and never again.
Daisy refuses to say goodnight. ,,I don't get why people say that to each other. You just sleep."
Here the trail ends for us. When I wake at dawn, the rain pelts the windows; I switch off the alarm and we sleep and sleep. There is no way I could spur Daisy in eight hours across another 25 kilometres in the rain, the same distance which took us two days to cross. The water taxi arrives at the peer in the afternoon, brings us and our packs back to Picton. The weather has cleared by then. When we hit the open water, the sky breaks and sunlight dapples like magic across the sounds. And I feel my soul reach up and grab me, and I blend as one, then turn my head, confused.
Halfway the bay, the boat decelerates, the intercom crackles and bottlenose dolphins emerge from the surface, breaching in the wake of our boat. Even when happiness is a warm puppy, dolphins give it a run for its money. Daisy, radiant, squeezes my hand spontaneously and I think, ,,Why would you want to lose that feeling?" But I never say it.
Picton is grey and rainy and dull. At the hostel, our perceptive hostess has put our left behind belongings in the same room, I guess it makes perfect sense now. The weight of goodbye is in the air between Daisy and me that evening; soon I'll revert back to the traveller chasing miles and highlights and Daisy will remain behind. We tiptoe around the topic, perhaps we both sense an undesirable parting of each other's presence. ,,Come walk in Abel Tasman with me," she says, and speaks highly of her next destination. But I also sense danger, a threat to my own personal journey, and I feel that the path Daisy and I have begun treading is getting dangerously narrow. We realign; tomorrow we'll travel together to the city of Nelson. The city forms the gateway for reaching Abel Tasman National Park, and it's on my route for the plunge south. We're weary but not sleepy; we talk on our beds deep into the night.
The day fills with rain. It rains as I pick up my blazing red car, it rains as I sit on the porch, killing time until Daisy finishes packing, as she applies her hundreds of special sachets and methods to pack just so. It rains as we reach the fishing town of Havelock, lovably situated on the intersection of mist-clad hills and intertidal flats, where stranded ships lean drunkenly into the mud. It rains as I steer the car across the pass, and it rains as I accelerate into the muddy bay of Nelson, the harbour cranes marking its skyline. ''Waddensea," murmurs Daisy next to me, her favourite Dutch word.
It still rains as we take our belongings up to the hostel, an ancient looking villa perched on a hill overlooking the modern stains of a McDonald's and a petrol station. The only room left is one with shared beds, but we can have it all for ourselves. Daisy merrily takes it, there's even a queen-sized bed, and I sense the path I'm tracking is narrowing ahead. It's enervating me that this keeps on happening, I silently wonder if the universe is trying to get a message across. I don't need this confusion, I tell the universe; you're on the Island, it whispers back maliciously.
It rains as evening sets in and we go out to find the best bar in town, share a bowl of fish and chips and wash it down with dapper pints of regional lagers and stouts. Daisy matches me pint for pint, and we fuzzily try to find the fun in Nelson. But the clubs are empty and we're both aghast how the women squeeze themselves in excessive tights and the way how the men bend over pool tables. She tugs at my sleeve, smiling delectably, we walk back to our own room; the rain has finally stopped, the cars swish by. Daisy is playful, her laugh tinkles; she's shooting self-portraits, ensconces herself next to me on the big bed, stretches beside me.
I sense the moment of openings, the potential of disaster, the hand that only needs to rise and lift a chin.
It passes, like the rain.
But confusion rules, once back on my own bed. My brain is suffused by signals, but was there ever a plan here? Further intimacy would not just destroy my own integrity, it would destroy everything between the two of us and seal the island completely shut. I'm now sure that I don't want to stick to this whole island philosophy; Daisy's life fascinates me even while she dangerously attracts me. Perhaps it's because of the hormones shouting angrily at me, but my instinct fails, Daisy has become unreadable to me. And I still need to know now, nothing good can come from the dawn. Legs crossed, she's still engrossed by her camera when I explain myself, for the first time in days feeling clumsy and inexpertly.
She looks vaguely disappointed, but before it can worry me, she hits hard out of left corner. ,,Anyway, nothing would've happened, I have a no sex policy on the Island." She lets her camera drop into her lap. ,,Yup, no sex for Daisy." It still sounds she slightly regrets it.
Wait, what? My mind tallies all the signals I had been picking up from her and then it short circuits. Daisy reads me like an open book, sighing deeply. ,,I just enjoy being familiar with men, and you're too much fun. Better than women. I just don't want to change that part of me, but somehow men keep mixing it up with sex. It happens all the time." A helpless glance.
A cipher wrapped in enigma. She suddenly regales about her destructive relationship with a Greek, her last relationship that imploded just before she arrived in New Zealand. With a chiselled body and a narcissist mind, he could really pull all her strings, she tells. ,,He was really... bad for me,'' she ponders. ,,But god, the sex, the sex." Her friends would groan if she'd mention him, inquiring her when that soap of hers would end. She observes he always tried to get her upset, to make her shout at him. She lifts her eyes to mine, and the connection of that gaze nearly takes me apart. ,,But I am a cat, not a mouse. I'll never be a mouse."
There it is. At last that crystal core of her lies bare, ablaze. And I, the fool, have sailed straight onto it and I capsize.
A fragile spirit? A damsel? Forget it. Daisy may feel fraught about work, travelling, even life. But not about her self-worth, not about men. If only she could channel that strength all the time, I think, and she'd be able to conquer the world. But that sensible thought only arrives days later, when I walk into wilderness, long after I left her.
After days of taking care of her, rescuing her earring, making her sandwiches in the rain, driving her here, sharing my own secrets, I feel powerfully duped, sucker punched on the curb. For another moment, I even consider malice, as a man trapped by a Black Widow. But I cast that away, her soul is too gentle, too real. The Island, I think. It's the Island. Daisy has been here for three months, perfecting her new self, the way how light fractures around her. She's the elaborate traveller, shrouded in mystery, and she draws men to her like moths to a flame. With a mirage dispelled, I feel myself come undone, toppling out of a siren's weave.
As a final kick to the stomach, I realise Daisy will never leave the island. Perhaps there had once been a chance, but not after tonight. Like the island of Lost, I see it disappear in a blinding flash. It's nearly too much, I recline back, withdraw below my duvet, wash ashore on the mainland in confusion. Even my dreams whirl.
Goodbye is all that's left. I refuse to think, to feel the knot in the pit of my stomach. Rain buckets down as I take Daisy to a new hostel, somewhere quiet near the shore. With me moving away, she doesn't want to stay in the same place. When I put her pack down in the dorm, an Australian beach god on the top bunk bed greets me heartily. My replacement, I think, a petty thought. At the door, we halt a final time, and I feel confounded, tongue-tied. We both mumble senseless, silly words about the enjoyment of meeting kind and lovable people on the road. We embrace gracefully, like we were meant to, one time, twice, a final time. Like strangers, to never see each other again.
Then our connection severs, and I drive off into the rain, sad music on the radio, a heart left wrenching, all the way wondering what on earth has happened.