Like all songwriters worth their salt, Tom Cochrane uses nostalgia as a device to infuse his songs with emotional resonance. “Boy Inside the Man” is a perfect example of this. Over the course of four verses, Cochrane reflects back on his life when he turned 17, 21, 25, and 31. He charts out where he was on those milestone dates, who he was with, and which way his emotional compass was pointing. I was going through the same thought process as I woke up in Rotorua on my 40th birthday and got ready for another day on the Kauri tour. The theme of pausing to reflect stayed with me all day.
Our hotel was one of the precious few in NZ that offered free wi-fi, so before breakfast I ambled down to the lakeshore. From the beach, I took the opportunity to get some FaceTime with my mom back in the old country. At breakfast our tour guide appeared with a wink and a carrot cake topped by four candles. It was a thoughtful gesture – marking the occasion without going overboard is just my style.
Most of the day was spent hiking along side Lake Okataina. We did an 18 km out-and-back hike along the eastern shore of the lake, from the Okataina Lodge to Otangimoana Bay and back. Interpretive signs revealed that the lake, like most of the geological features in the area, was formed by ancient volcanic activity. The trail was relatively smooth and walkable, but featured a lot of undulations over rock outcroppings.
Something seemed amiss with the lake – the water level was very high. Most of the beaches were submerged; in fact, even some of the forest was inundated with water. There were no obvious rivers going into or out of the lake, so maybe the liquid level tends to fluctuate over time. While beach-lounging would be pretty much impossible on this day, the weather was nice and the hike was a good workout.
Since it was the fourth day of the tour, we had earned the trust of our guide. She knew our abilities, and was willing to let each of us walk at our own pace. I spent most of the day hiking on my own, listening for tuis and bellbirds and stopping here and there to chill out. Near the north end of the lake, there’s a side trail that takes you up to a rocky promontory. At the top of the hill, amidst the roots of some very old trees, there are a variety of caves where Maori elders used to cache supplies. I could empathize with those people that, many years ago, used the area as a quiet retreat for soul-searching.
The main trail is lined with ferns on both sides. Because of the temperate climate, the underbrush is lush and green. There were silver ferns at all stages of their life cycle, from the very first koru poking out of the ground to 10-metre tall trees. The way that sunlight diffuses through the fronds is pretty cool.
Our group reassembled at the trail head for the scenic and twisty bus ride back to Rotorua. On the way into town we made a brief stop for ‘supplies’ (otherwise known as ‘booze’), then chillaxed at the hotel before the evening’s entertainment. Dinner this night would be a hāngi – a ceremonial feast that followed a cultural presentation at the local Māori village. The presentation was an interesting overview of Māori culture, touching on their spirituality, their warrior history, the symbolism behind their facial tattoos and their wood and poumanu (jade) carvings. They impressed their visitors with a haka (war dance) before leading us into the dining tent for dinner.
The hāngi is a meal cooked in the traditional style of placing food into metal containers, burying the items in a pit under hot stones, then leaving the food to slow-cook for several hours. On this night, dinner consisted of chicken, lamb, kumara and potatoes cooked hāngi style, plus a wide selection of typical Western accoutrements. I thought the lamb turned out particularly well – succulent with a noticeable but not overbearing smoky flavour. The ceremony and feast certainly made for a memorable birthday.
Late that night, I walked down to the beach to do some stargazing and enjoy the warm November weather. With the help of my SkyView app, I managed to find the Southern Cross near the horizon and gazed upon it with my own eyes for the first time. It was a little unsettling to see a night sky devoid of Polaris and the Big Dipper, but at least Orion was there to remind me of home. I thought back to my 17th birthday, when I was a keen twelfth-grader with a world of opportunity in front of me. On my 21st birthday, I had my head buried in textbooks as I put the finishing touches on an undergraduate degree at the University of Manitoba. When I turned 25, I was a driven and optimistic young engineer-in-training trying to make a name for myself in the oil & gas industry. By the time my 31st birthday rolled around, I had grown a little more jaded and weary of the ‘real world’ but the rebellious, independent, overachieving kid in me hadn’t completely gone away.
Truth be known, things are not much different at 40. My home is outfitted with nicer things, but it still sits empty when I’m not around. Work still ping-pongs from good days to bad days to seriously-considering-a-career-change days. There’s less hair on my head, and the brave few that have decided to stick around are starting to go grey. The key difference this year is that I finally took the plunge and went on a grand adventure.
It might have taken four decades, but this won’t be the last time that I’ll celebrate a milestone with a trip to somewhere amazing.
Song of the Day: “Boy Inside the Man” by Tom Cochrane