In the early days of New Zealand settlement, the sandy coast was a thoroughfare, and I like the fact that this country has been edged by footprints for more than 900 years and that due honour is given to the more memorable of its walkers. The Maori name for Ninety Mile Beach is Oneroa a Tohe, to mark a long-ago journey by an aged Ngati Kuri chief.
Inland from there, the country was crossed by a network of trails. An 1827 painting by Augustus Earle shows Maori hurrying with loads along a path that disappears into the distance above the Bay of Islands. Other early observers noted the highest ridges were kept open, often, as Maori warpaths.
The first Europeans walked—William Colenso obsessed by botanic discovery, John Logan Campbell determined to expand his business, and Bishop George Selwyn impelled by pastoral duty across a diocese as big as the country itself. Within six months of his arrival in this country, he’d walked 1500 kilometres. Governor Sir George Grey walked too. In 1849 he journeyed with Iwikau Te Heu Heu, paramount chief of Tuwharetoa, from Auckland to Pukawa village on the southern shores of Lake Taupo, for the tangi of Te Heu Heu’s brother, killed in a landslide. The journey, mostly overland and often through swampland and bush, took a month.
Then as the nation settles in, the solemn purpose behind these early long walks seems to yield to simple pleasure. In the 1880s, after Donald Sutherland and Quintin McKinnon cut the Milford Track, its walkers report deep and distant views of the old Fiordland rock faces. They are enchanted by the red underside of kea wings above Mackinnon Pass, invigorated by their ropey battering beneath the Sutherland Falls, or fearful as a distant avalanche thunders down. The Milford Track becomes our first benchmark for long walking as an encounter with the beautiful, the memorable, the sublime.
Then, as the cities develop, the urban populations demand walks within striking distance. In the 1920s, Wellington tramping club volunteers build the first huts and tracks in the Tararuas, but the Government interest in long tracks is slight, resting mainly with the New Zealand Forest Service, whose people cut tracks eventually travelled by the 1950s era of Government deer hunters, and Barry Crump.
Elsewhere in the country at this time, a man goes walking—in his haversack a spare suit, boot polish and brush, pyjamas, a small bottle of ink, a fountain pen, a pair of slippers, a pocket book of hymns and the New Testament. The man is a publisher and a patriot, and he pushes against the boundaries of his country as an aged animal might pace its territories. He walks, and publishes his journals, Farthest East (1945), Farthest North (1946), Farthest West (1950) and Farthest South (1952). He is the gaunt old giant of walking, and his name is A.H. Reed. In 1960, at age 85, he walks on the roads from North Cape to Bluff, and people clap him through.
But by the 1960s, the road no longer has just the odd service car rolling through between towns. The road is now a high-speed and dangerous place, and if it’s recreation you want, or solitude, or contemplation, or escape, then there must be a trail. America had opened the 3400-km Appalachian Trail in 1937. England followed in 1965 with the far shorter but generally admired Pennine Way, and this seems to have been the trail that first inspired this country. A New Zealand-long “scenic trail” was written into the warrant of the New Zealand Walkways Commission (1976–1987) but remained there, inert, for years. The other shoe didn’t drop until 1999, when the citizens’ group I’d set up actually started construction. I named the project Te Araroa—The Long Pathway. Its progress has been slow, but its champions now include the Department of Conservation, which is doing its bit on the public estate.
Thousands of walkers have done sections of the trail and, although it’s still incomplete, dozens have done it as a through tramp. They walk for maybe five months, on this narrow track. The New Zealand on either side is a startling place, with huge forests, wild landscapes, an occasional interdicting river, and, as they pass through the 70 towns en route, a free and easy culture. As the guy in overall charge of this enterprise, I walk bits of the trail constantly. I watch it wind away into the distance, and wonder what sort of a tiger we have by the tail. Last weekend, I was walking Bream Head, and looked south from there. The white arc of Bream Bay ended at a distant Waipu Cove. Behind that village the Brynderwyns rumbled down from the interior, and beyond that range rose the twin humps of Tamahunga, the highest point on the walking journey between Whangarei and Auckland. Te Araroa’s route would take you from Bream Head to that distant blue summit in two days, and you could keep going from there. After a time, you’d reach Bluff.