Covid-19

Turtles finally end 3000km march

Lockdown shut down an overseas couple's bid to walk the length of the country. When freed again, they returned from Auckland to the deep south to complete the task.

Dressed in handmade ninja turtle costumes, hikers Becca Rolon and Diarmuid McInerney finally reached Bluff - finishing a 3000km walk the length of the country, abruptly interrupted by lockdown.

Back in April, Newsroom told the story of the American woman and Irishman who had to leave Te Araroa Trail just 85km short of the tail-end of the South Island, when the Level 4 lockdown came into effect.

Driven to finish the adventure they began seven months ago, Rolon and McInerney returned last week to the exact spot where they had left the trail – and completed the final stretch in a non-stop 27-hour ultramarathon.  

“At last, we can say we’ve walked every single step of New Zealand,” an exhausted Rolon said.

And they covered those last 85km with a new purpose.

Rolon, 31, and McInerney, 30, began their trek from Cape Reinga last October, pitching their tent along the route.

Deep in Southland’s Takitimu Forest, they were oblivious to Covid-19’s impact - until another walker warned them New Zealand was shutting down the next day.

The couple found their way to a road near the town of Nightcaps and were picked up by local police, who drove them to Invercargill Airport. They flew back to Auckland, and were taken in by Stacey Baker, a ‘trail angel’ who looks after those who follow Te Araroa’s path.

We spoke to Rolon and McInerney while they stayed with Baker and her partner, Nicolette, at their home in Whenuapai – the four becoming unexpected bubble buddies for five weeks of lockdown.

But the yearning to complete their odyssey never waned.

At Level 3, armed with “a note from the New Zealand government”, the couple burst their bubble and headed to Wellington where McInerney had a construction job on Transmission Gully, the capital’s billion-dollar highway project.

“But within a week of being there, the job fell through,” Rolon says. (The project has been delayed for 10 weeks, with no indication of when it will re-start).

“So we sat in Wellington until Level 2, applying for jobs with no success. So we decided to do something with our spare time, and we headed back to the South Island to finish the trail.”

Rebecca Rolon and Diarmuid McInerney in the costumes they wore for the last 85km of Te Araroa Trail. Photo: supplied. 

The night before the hikers returned to the track, McInerney set to work with his needle and thread, hand-sewing two ‘ninja turtle’ costumes they would wear to the finish: “proving that slow and steady does in fact win the race,” Rolon wrote on her Facebook page.  

And it was painfully slow.

“What we thought was our final 83km actually turned out to be 85 – and those last two kilometres were so difficult,” Rolon says.

“We ended up doing it all in one go, over 27 hours. We’d never walked 27 hours in row, but earlier on, we’d done 92km in one stretch, which only took 26. It really showed that we weren’t as fit after that seven-week break.”

In the first month of lockdown, the couple ran 8km a day, but that effort petered out in the weeks before they returned to the trail.

“Walking the last 7km, we stopped every 2km and sat down. It was pretty depressing,” Rolon says.

Many people stopped to offer them a lift – including police again: “It was 2am, and they asked: ‘Are you okay?’ And we said, ‘Yes we want to walk this’.

“When we got to Bluff, it was a bit of an anti-climax. The moment we touched the signpost [at Stirling Point] a woman could see we were exhausted, and she offered us a ride into town.”

At the Bluff Post Office, staff were so impressed with their story, they bought them both Te Araroa Trail finishers plaques (made with aluminium from the Tiwai Point Smelter and rimu from Southland woodworkers). Another staff member drove them to Invercargill.

“People were so kind to us. We never asked for any help, but they wanted to be a part of it,” Rolon says.

While the last part of the journey was for themselves, they also did it for a worthy cause – raising money for Wellington Women’s Refuge through a Givealittle campaign.

“We’d been affected by lockdown, and we felt crumby about it, but we wanted to help those who had been affected a lot more than we had,” Rolon says.

“We heard on the news there was a lot more domestic violence in New Zealand during lockdown, so we decided to help those women.

“When we were in pain towards the end of those 27 hours, we remembered we were doing this for a cause. We couldn’t feel sorry for ourselves because there were people in much worse situations than us.”

The travellers are now back in Wellington and looking for jobs – in construction and administration – “so we can afford our next big adventure,” Rolon says.  

“We still think it’s safer to stay in New Zealand than go back to our home countries with this virus.”

***

Remember the long-lost sisters who were holed up together in Auckland during lockdown – finally getting to know each other after 65 years?

Englishwoman Sue Bremner was visiting her half-sister, Margaret Hannay, in New Zealand for the first time when Level 4 kicked in. The siblings, who discovered each other in 2019, got to spend time cooking together and getting to know each other in isolation.

Sisters Sue Bremner (left) and Margaret Hannay got to know each other in lockdown in Auckland. Photo: John Hannay.

Bremner and her husband, David, caught a flight back to England on April 11.

“We probably would never have contemplated spending that length of time together had it not been for fate and lockdown,” Hannay says. “We missed the closeness that comes when you grow up with a sibling, but I think we both feel very, very close now.”

The sisters are now in contact with each other daily, through texts and video calls.  When international borders open again, Hannay plans to visit Bremner and her two brothers in England.

“Realistically I guess maybe we will be able to get there in 2022 with luck.”

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