I climbed Mt Pureora in an icy southerly, then set off down the Hauhungaroa Range. The trail led along cloud-level ridges where Halls totara grew, streaming with mosses, and where the same green velvet covered every tree except the native fuchsia, which stood out pink and strangely muscular, reaching up like human limbs from the earth.
Coprosma foetidissima grew alongside the track, and I plucked it as I passed. I like this stuff. I like rolling the leaf between my fingers in contemplation of nature’s inventive defences. I like to think of moa plucking this same temptingly tender shrub, chewing it briefly, then yeeeetch! I like bringing the leaf suddenly to my nose, and there it is. The same recoil. The same yeeeetch! The same bad gas that made the moa gag.
By late afternoon I reached Bog Inn and flipped the pages of the but book to see what others had found in this landscape, and encountered, for the first time, the hunters.
“Saw jackshit,” wrote one, describing the absence of what matters most to a hunter—deer and pig sign.
I went to bed with the darkness, and slept soundly until a powerful light swept the room. I had a staccato vision of a Swanndri swinging its pack off, and muttering the sort of thing that shakes you awake.
“Whoop. Haven’t unloaded the rifle.” Click, snick, snap.
“Yeah.” The hunter was still talking to himself. “You’re supposed to do that before coming into a hut.”
“You’re late in,” I said. “What’s the time?” “Twelve-thirty.”
It was May, the roar was over, but Jos Holten, a Ngatea dairy farmer, was dedicated. He’d sensed the approach of good hunting weather, had driven down and tramped in by torchlight. Now he slung his rifle in the corner and poked his nose back out of the hut, opening a night full of stars.
“The wind keeps away the frost. You’ve got to have the right days, and I like to think the frost makes a difference. Still, it won’t be wet tomorrow. Deer are like cats. They like to hide away when it’s wet.”
Holten was gone next day at dawn, and I tramped through later, tracking him for an hour through virgin podocarp forest before his bootmarks veered off into bush, and just 50 metres further up the trail I picked up the high-heeled prints of a deer. Hunter and quarry had obviously heard each other, but I guessed the deer had given its hunter the slip, for I heard no shot that day.
By nightfall I was at Waihaha hut, where two more deerhunters, Peter Faulkner and Bruce McMillan, had already settled in. They were both Aucklanders. They’d packed in good food and a bottle of rum, and were out to enjoy themselves. McMillan came out onto the verandah with a growler tube the next morning and gave a hopeful roar, but no answering sound came.
Deer, or the dreaming of deer, dominated the Hauhungaroa Range. Ripped from hunting magazines and pinned onto but walls were glossy pictures of eight-pointer stags, and smoked by candle flame onto the ceiling of the last but was a giant stag-of-your-dreams, a joint hanging from its lips.
The popular literature used to portray all this. Jane Mander, Frank Anthony and Jim Henderson all told the stories of hunters and miners, timber men and roadmen, backblocks farmers and shearers. For whole decades this was the popular literature, right through to the last benchmark, the 1960s, when you could see the tide rise to full with Barry Crump’s yarns, and begin to recede.
New Zealand has become dominantly urban since, its writers and journalists more concerned with style, with staying ahead of the game, with sorting their cultural history by decade, as if decades were prisons, and dismissing them as uncool.
Out in the bush, too, the 1990s trampers with their polypropylene and Gore-Tex and butane burners have overtaken the bushmen with their oilskins and blackened billies. The Department of Conservation scientists and doctoral students with their rat tunnels, bird bandings and mist nets, their population studies and recovery plans have replaced the Forest Service’s roll-your-own blokes and their seat-of-thepants practical knowledge.
The new idea is clear enough: natural purity. Photographers now present New Zealand landscape as something untouched. No waving summit party, not even a footprint, disturbs a poster like Craig Potton’s Ruapehu in Winter. The images have become almost religious— the old podocarp forests are spiritual groves; the kokako and its song a pantheist poem.
The new vision hangs in calendars and prints on the walls of the cities, and it complements— for it is Paradise staring in—the city’s confidence and self-absorption. But as I tramped the Hauhungaroas the vision, here at least, was illusory. Hunters outnumbered trampers by 50:1. They told stories of the marginal farms that turned an extra buck by incarcerating wild stags on their bush blocks and charging American bow-hunters $25,000 for the chance to stalk the trapped animal, shoot it and take home the mounted antlers.
The blood, mud and gumboots of rural New Zealand were still here, and the truths were harder than city people knew.
As I left the Hauhungaroa track, I called into the farmhouse of George Conrad and found myself watching his video Rails in the Wilderness. It showed 1930s footage of the railway that once brought Hauhungaroa rimu and totara logs to the steam saws of the country’s then-biggest mill, at Ongarue.
The cameraman had shot from the rear of the train, looking down the line of wagons. Far in front the engine blew up gouts of steam, but it was the tremendous girth of the trunks, one per wagon, that held your eye. And then came a sequence that sat me bolt upright. Into shot, like a stuntman in a movie, a singleted man swayed and ran down the long line of moving logs. With no more hesitation than a jogger high-stepping a puddle, he jumped the fatal gaps between the logs and went on, occasionally throwing his arms out for balance, until distance diminished the dance—a leaping lumberjack to chill the blood of OSH.
The force of it! The disappearance of it! The log man, sealed in his jar, who once was and would never be again. George Conrad was making a point. The old logging route was still there. He and his wife, Sue, had walked much of it, and why could it not be developed, complete with puffing billy in the bush, for the tourists?
And I sat there thinking—whatever. But this is art. This is real art.
Under a starry sky I crossed a saddle at the southern end of the Hauhungaroas and camped at the Waituhi Lookout, 900 metres above Lake Taupo. I phoned home to boast that daylight would bring with it the best view in New Zealand, but I awoke in dense cloud, shook and folded the dripping tent and got going. I worked my way down to the Moerangi and Oraukuru Farms. This was Tuwharetoa land, and the trustees were considering Te Araroa’s proposal, but meantime I had one-off permission to cross.
In 1997, Borge Ousland became the first man to cross Antarctica solo and unsupported, and I’d interviewed him in Auckland straight after the epic crossing. He’d helped keep himself sane by searching out each day, he told me, the best piece of natural art. Ousland’s route across the ice was milestoned by ice goblins, ice popes and ice women.
The daily art. And suddenly, there it was, just as I moved out of Moerangi and onto Oraukuru. Standing in the middle of the shaggy oval, a little encrusted—but that was to be expected after so long out of the action: Richard Hadlee appealing for an LBW decision.
Ahead, the flanks of Tongariro loomed brown and I came on through Rotoaira Forest just as the sunlight died on the mountaintop. I walked out along Access Road No. 4, and by nightfall joined State Highway 47. In the distance, a faint bar of light fell across the highway.
I’d walked 30 kilometres that day, but the last kilometre was the longest. I was tired and hungry, but the light resolved at last into a Caltex star, an accommodation sign for Eivin’s Lodge and a picture of a trout on skis: Troutski’s Cafe—Open.
I walked in, ordered up a burger and coffee and sat down. Years back, I read a book called Blue Highways by a half-Indian American, William Least Heat Moon. He’d circuited America in a Ford van, had eaten at roadside cafés and developed a system of classification: they were either one-calendar, two-calendar, three-calendar or four-calendar joints. Least Heat Moon judged the ma-and-pa four-calendar places as the best. He never explained why, but it always stuck in my mind as a good rule of thumb, maybe because the more calendars there are hanging in a shop—small advertising favours for the local garage, the local baker, the hardware shop—the more likely it is to have the grain of the local community.
Troutski’s had two calendars on the wall, but I gave it four-calendar status anyway. A winged terracotta pig hung from the ceiling with a legend round its neck: “Anything’s possible,” and Mick Jagger was singing on the stereo. Trucks rumbled past on the highway, and out the window a fingernail moon was pulling the Caltex star and the accommodation sign into a significant trilogy.
A signed poster of John Britten’s superbike took pride of place behind the counter. Close by hung a framed black-and-white photograph of a cartwheeling Ariel 1000 cc square four and two upended bikers, arms and legs akimbo, still in mid-air as they headed for the sandbags. It was captioned: “Cemetery Circuit, Wanganui, early 1960s.”
“You’re into motorbikes,” I said as Brent Mander set the burger down and cuffed away a cat that was sharpening its claws on the seat.
“As much as I can be with a seven-day business,” he replied. “The shop officially closes Christmas Day, but my religious day off is Boxing Day—for the Wanganui Cemetery Circuit.”
“You race there?”
“I have done. Bucket racing. You take a bucket of shit—I had a Honda—and you race it. It’s the black version of bike racing—an unofficial budget-oriented, fun-oriented version. But usually I go to watch.”
“And maybe you knew John Britten?”
“I only spoke to him once briefly at Manfield—long enough to get the poster autographed.”
“Everyone has a poem in them,” I said. “That bike was Britten’s poem. He’s a Kiwi hero now, but everyone was slow to it at the start.”
“The media misses a lot,” said Mander. “Like New Zealand’s international bike racers. The King brothers are close to the top in the 500 cc motocross competition. Aaron Slight in the superbikes—third place for the past four or five years. Simon Crafar has gone into grand prix bikes. You hardly hear about it—only the rugby. Ivan Mauger had to win the world speedway solos four times before they decided to make him sportsman of the year.
“The reason John Britten became so big was that he had a bit of what a lot of Kiwis know they’ve lost—that innovative, do-it-yourself, find-a-way-round-it thing.
“We’ve become like America. We like to think of ourselves as outdoor, rural, fix-it people but most of us aren’t any more. Eivin next door is very much of the if-something’sbroke-how-do-I-fix-it, rather than the wheredo-I-buy-another-one school. Someone at 72 who can run a camp like this and still do a chin-up to the rafters. He’s still got it.”
Axe-murderer Helen here—” the Leader of the Pack stared at us across the candle flame and gestured towards her quieter, knee-hugging companion “—is a champion table crawler.”
Nine of us leaned forward, attentive. My wife, Miriam, had joined me to walk the famous Tongariro Crossing, but a storm had swept in and we’d come up the northern side of the mountain staggering against gale-force winds. We’d stopped at the end of the first short leg—Ketetahi Hut.
It was dark now, and the high winds flung hail against the glass. We were, as trampers sometimes become, a band thrown together by chance and bad weather in an isolated but where self-made entertainment was the only sort, and where the floor was open to any natural leader. The Leader of the Pack turned out to be a young Auckland woman.
“What is table crawling?” asked Kristen, a student from Thailand.
“Axe-murderer Helen here,” said the Leader of the Pack, “will give a demonstration.”
Helen slid over the table edge, clung to the underside, then worked her way back up until she lay prone and panting on the tabletop again. She never once touched the floor.
“I’d heard New Zealanders were mad,” said Susan, an English doctor, from the shadows under the bunks.
“Who’s next?” demanded the Leader of the Pack.
Te Araroa’s thin red line had unreeled 750 km from Cape Reinga to reach this but on Tongariro. It had followed its compass needle south for months, across the wrinkled island, but now, to cries of encouragement from Tom, Darren, Josie, Sue, Helen and Miriam, slowly and for the first time it looped the loop.
As I lay prone back on the table top I heard the Leader of the Pack up the ante.
“Where I come from, they do this with packs on their backs!” she cried.
Next morning we were up before sunrise. The Ketetahi Springs were churning beyond the ridge and sending up wild streamers of steam. The air smelled of sulphur, and the land far below was darkly rumpled, with inset mirrors—Taupo and Rotoaira.
Short of serious mental malaise it is impossible not to be optimistic around a high-altitude dawn. Sol was climbing the right-hand cheek of earth. That’s right, he was coming, and the bands of orange, pink and purple grew ever more vibrant until—whack!—he broke the horizon and slanted a long yellow laser to light the tussock at our feet.
We tramped up to the summit plateau. Miriam took an icy dip in one of the Emerald Lakes and I sat on a rock under the blue dome of a perfect morning, eating dead-cold bits of chocolate, watching. Depending on who was putting on the extra items of clothing, or stopping for the drink break, we’d been passing, or passed by, our companions from the but all morning. But now the air was full of foreign accents. Strangers materialised on every outcrop, eating muesli bars and posing for photographs. They were coming through from the Mangatepopo Hut side, and with every passing minute more of them crested the summit of Red Crater and came moonstepping down the loose scoria towards us in their brightly banded longjohns. It was rush-hour on the Tongariro Crossing.
And then, as suddenly, they disappeared. I looked north, and a big bank of cloud rose over the ridge. Miriam dressed, and we slogged up the side of Red Crater. With the eerie swiftness of mountain weather, the clouds rolled in, and by the time we’d climbed up the smoking cleft and onto Red Summit, there was nothing to photograph but my own Brocken spectre.
Later I tried to deduce why people flock to the Tongariro Crossing. Partly it is that the oldest of the Central Plateau mountains, as if to compensate for the ravages of great age, is hung with a kind of jewellery—the blue lake with ice-encrusted surround, the green lakes and the flat, round cameos of old craters. Partly it is the alpine clarity that encases you on the mountaintop like a block of glass. You feel bulletproof, yet you know, too, that people die here—that it is a trap.
The subdued violence of the terrain is a separate thing. The mountain’s fissures billow and reek. You can hear the water boiling underground, and if you sit on those sulphur-stained rocks, the steam washes over you, scalding hot and then, by a waft of air, freezing cold. It is pole-to-pole extreme. There is silence, and yet there is the sharp rattle of a falling rock. Everything waits, and I suspect a Queen Street preacher could declaim from these ridges the Book of Revelation—He opened the seventh seal and there was silence in heaven for about half an hour—and every pair of longjohns would stop in mid-stride. They might even listen up for what happens next.
I walked on alone around the icy track to Whakapapa Village. It was early morning and I was the first one through. Every puddle was a sheet of ice, and I fulfilled a kid’s dream of breaking 1000 windows without angry consequences.
I booked in at the Whakapapa Skotel and looked up at Ruapehu. It wasn’t specified on the trail route, but it seemed a shame to come this close to the highest North Island mountain and not to climb it.
It was June, the mountain was icy and I needed a climbing companion. I rang Kieran McKay. The guy was a straight-up adventurer whom I’d met in 1995 at the Pearse Resurgence. McKay and David Weaver had gone to that deep shaft of upwelling water beneath Mt Arthur to set a New Zealand cave-diving record, and they did, but Weaver lost buoyancy at the bottom of the dive. McKay had chased his mate on down to dangerous depths, and tried to reinflate his suit, but when he got to him Weaver’s mouthpiece was adrift and he was already dead.
I’d come down as a pressman seeking a magazine story, but it was an emotional time, and it gave us a bond. McKay was now an instructor at the nearby Sir Edmund Hillary Outdoor Pursuits Centre, and he’d promised to try to get time off for the climb.
“It’s raining here,” he said when I rang. “What’s the mountain like up there—clear?” “It’s clear.”
“I can’t get time off from work,” he said. “Right.” I was disappointed, but you take what comes on a trail.
“So the only time I could do it is tonight.” “What?!”
“Not if you’re not into it.” The voice on the end of the line sounded slightly defensive, as if it often put up propositions the rational world rejected.
“Tonight?” I said, trying to adjust to an idea I hadn’t remotely considered.
“Yeah—it’ll be incredible up there—if it stays clear you’ll see the glow of Auckland and Wellington.”
At 9 P.M. we stood at the Top o’ the Bruce, hard-hatted, mountain-booted, mittened, our ice axes twisted into the holding straps of our packs, keen to go, I with a Leki stick in either hand.
“Lekis. How do you find those?”
The German hiking poles have hadNew New Plymouth a certain cachet ever since Reinhold Messner used them for his climbs without oxygen on Everest and the 8000-metre Himalayan peaks.
“You want to try one?” I passed it across and he adjusted it, dug it into the tar seal to test the internal spring‑ing, then gazed on up the moonlit slopes.”Okay,” said McKay. “Let’s rock ‘n’ roll.”
We climbed on rock, then onto the cold white cloak Ruapehu had drawn round itself, disilled from winter air. I looked up: an aloof mountain, a sleeping one, but not quite—a pocket of crater gas slid past: hydrogen sulphide.
We came over a ridge and a 25-knot wind flung stinging particles into our faces. On this side, the snow slopes were coated with thin ice, and I followed McKay’s lead, stamping through the crust with the climbing boots.
My boot slipped, Host balance and slid a metre or two before one mitten anchored itself onto the rock. I looked up at McKay.
“Time for the crampons?”
“Just stand back upright,” said McKay. “Kick the edges of your boots into the ice, and don’t lean into the slope. If you try to hug the slope, you’ll slide.”
I got up, looked down at my feet, kicked the edge of my boot in, looked up.
A slowly flapping thing like a manta ray was gliding smoothly away downhill. Far more slickly adapted to this slippery mountain slope than any boot-stamping mountaineer, the manta slid away faster and faster, and then it began to spoil its own natural grace. It began to erect a tent. I saw a pole come up at an angle. I saw it rise to vertical. I saw powdered ice spray from the bottom of the pole in a glittering shower. I recognised the Leki stick I’d loaned to McKay. The slide stopped.
“That,” said McKay after he’d climbed back up the slope, “was a very graphic demonstration of self-arrest. That’s the first time in 10 years of mountaineering I’ve had to use it in a real situation.”
We put on our crampons, unstrapped the ice axes and kept climbing. White billows lay all around us, polished by the moon, and by midnight we had reached the Notch. For hours I’d been looking up, and now I was looking down. The moon was behind us, and two selenic shadows stood on the white floor of the Summit Plateau 40 metres below, moving when we moved, waving when we waved. Beyond the shadows rose a precipitous formation, graceful as any fairytale castle, too slender by far for something that seemed made only of luminous dust: Cathedral Rocks.
“Surreal, eh,” said McKay. “Like the moon, but a bit more wind.”
We went on up. We swung the ice axes in their arcs, embedded the long stainless-steel spikes into the hard, rounded top of an ice wall, hauled upwards, kicked inwards and ascended on the cantilevered platform of our own boots to the Dome.
One thing I wanted to see on Ruapehu. Pictures of it I’d seen all my life, pleasantly strange: a big green pond set into white downs of snow, gently steaming—the crater lake—and I peered through the lunar half-light to see it.
Not at all. It was a volcanic throat. The cliffs of Pyramid Peak directly opposite and the higher-still, nastier-yet chasms of Tahurangi yawned above it, until those precipitous rock walls became more definably a throat, and descended, like rings of neck cartilage, another 40 sheer metres to a black sump.
If you wanted to see Dante’s innermost stone circle of Hell it was embedded right down there in the moonlight.
“The level has sunk a bit,” said McKay, “since the eruptions.”
Maybe it was the time of night, but I found it actually frightening, and I turned away.
In one ten-minute span, on a track through Erua Forest edged by toetoe and mountain cabbage trees, I left Ruapehu behind me, and topped a ridge to see the faint perfection of Mt Taranaki in the west.
The country in front now was steep and largely deserted. Heartbreak country. I’d explored these backblocks once when doing a biography on Rewi Alley, of China fame. In 1919, Alley was one of hundreds of ex-servicemen enticed onto this land with cheap Government rehabilitation loans, but once cleared of bush the razorback hills slipped into the gullies, the farm roads slid away, the fences came down. Alley was among the hundreds who’d walked off.
I had a paper road to follow—Fishers Track—but somehow I missed a turn. Maybe I lost the trail about where the Ruapehu District Council sign that specified a public road had been deliberately uprooted, and a private property sign warned you off. A dispute was obviously under way here, but I went on anyway, following a clear route downhill into a gorge. I descended into shadow and damp, and above me the blue afternoon shrank. Wild sheep flounced away in front. The trail was bitten by slips, and wound ever down, then split two ways. I explored both. One dead-ended in a grassy flat covered by bush, the other at a broad stream.
I unfolded my map, lined it up by compass and identified the Tupapakurua Stream. I was two kilometres south of my intended route. I could go back uphill and pick up the track again—no, I decided, for it was already getting late—or I could follow the stream out. It looked easy enough on paper.
Heartbreak country. The foundation of Taranaki back-country is the blue siltstone they call papa, and every stream cuts through it like a knife through geological butter. The Tupapakurua Stream had carved out high narrow gorges, and to stay clear of those dark alleys where the water rushed deep and steep I had to climb away from the stream, up near-vertical banks. Nothing held. Chunks of the steep face skidded away underfoot, and I hauled upwards on grass and bracken that came away in my hands. I was getting a taste of the country that broke the spirit of the WWI ex-servicemen.
Night fell and I was still in the bush. The ferny walls around me hoisted themselves visibly higher, and the daylight tinkling of the stream as I crossed and recrossed it took on a distinctly unfriendly timbre. My torch beam picked out only a few bright rocks in the larger darkness and the compass needle began to swing in counterintuitive directions. I found a stock trail, broke out of it all at 9.30 P.M. and came on to Retaruke Backpackers Lodge at last with the garrulous antibodies of an hours-long anxiety bubbling in my blood.
“Now that,” I declared as I swung my pack down by the fire, with the suitably casual demeanour of a modest hero, “was hard. I went down into the gorges and got bushed.”
“Gosh.” One of the English tourists off the Kiwi Experience Bus looked up from her New Idea magazine, then went back to her reading.
“Golly, really?” said her companion, then went back to writing her letter home.
Next day I rang through to Brian McAnnalley, first of the farmers whose land I now needed to cross.
“You’re going through to Pipiriki? I hope you know what you’re doing,” barked the telephone. “You have to stay away from the rivers in this country.”
I warmed to him immediately.
“You jump down a waterfall,” shouted McAnnalley, “then you can’t get back up.”
“That’s exactly right,” I said. For whatever reason, I felt grateful to this man.
“Then you come to the next one and you can’t climb down. It can take you hours to get out of the gorges, a day to get from one ridge to the next. It’s real tiger country. What sort of maps do you have?”
“You may need better than that. Call in on the way through and we’ll have a look at your route.”
I stopped off that afternoon. McAnnalley spread my map onto the back of his quad, examined it closely and shook a sorrowful head.
He stabbed a finger onto one of the little black squares that represent, in map symbolism, a house or a hut.
“See this but marked here? It’s a couple of sheets of corrugated iron lying on the ground.”
We went over my marked route. It included a paper road up through his own property, leading to an old bridge across the Retaruke River, then a track across the neighbouring farm through to a private thoroughfare, Erua Road.
I had my pencil out, ready to take notes, but McAnnalley seized it, and began to redraw everything.
“No, no, no. The bridge isn’t there—it’s here. And this trail through to the Siemonek farm—the map shows it on the wrong ridge. It comes off the ridge here—” he was hard at work now with the pencil “—and goes up under the pylon on the HUT show you.”
We went to the edge of his farmhouse and peered up towards the pylon. We came back to the map.
“Look at this. They’ve shown the pylon down by the river.” McAnnalley obliterated the offensive symbol with a few swift strokes. “In fact,” he said, “the line is suspended across the valley from here—” he pencilled in the new pylons “—to here.”
He stood back. The map still wasn’t right.
“This is just hopeless,” he said. “Now this bit of trail for instance—it just isn’t there. Don’t even try. These maps are all taken off aerial photographs. A bulldozer track shows up clearly enough, they’ve got the photograph of it, but two years later, it’s overgrown, it’s gone.”
I got to the Siemonek farm at nightfall, just as Don and his wife, Velma, arrived back from the Mystery Creek field day outside Hamilton. The Siemoneks’ son, Kevin, had taken a phone call from McAnnalley and written the details of my coming on the Formica table. Since I had now arrived, Kevin took a cloth and a lump of butter and rubbed it off again.
“That’s my whiteboard,” said Don mildly. “We’re pretty country around here.”
Don and Velma had amalgamated four ex-serviceman blocks to create a sustainable farm. They’d begun 20 years before, when no phone lines existed and electricity was erratic. In the early days, Don had swung his fists on the hunters who regarded the area as theirs, and whose dogs, in the worst of a series of bloody orgies, had ripped out the throats of 40 sheep.
“It’s still a bush farm,” said Don reflectively after we’d all eaten. “They said, ‘Go west, young man,’ and I did, but sometimes I wonder if I came too far.”
Do you have a steel?”
Randal Haitana ran a thumb across his hunting knife. We were in a caravan on Doug Prince’s farm, ready to bed down for the night. This part of Te Araroa, the final leg through bush to Pipiriki, had been designed by Randal’s father, Baldy Haitana, a tourist operator on the upper Whanganui River. It included the trickiest river crossing on the entire route—the Manganuiateao—and Baldy had sent his 20-year-old son to keep me company.
He’d also sent two lifejackets and some advice about river crossings: “Get yourself a good waddie. Then lock up—one fellow holds onto the other fellow, and he doesn’t move until his mate has a firm footing. Boots? I usually wear them for a crossing, but keep them loose.”
Randal was a pig hunter, a casual farm labourer, a rugby player who’d made the King Country under-21 Colts. He helped with his father’s jetboat business in summer, but he had plans to go to Australia and work on the drilling rigs.
“I want to see what’s out there. See the world instead of looking at it on the box. Like Shortland Street, eh? Flash clothes. Cars. You don’t see much like that around Pipiriki.”
Next day we headed over the river bluffs and hit bush. A goat appeared briefly in a clearing and Randal fired at it. The animal disappeared at a run, and it seemed to me the shot had missed. Randal didn’t think so.
“I hit him in the neck. It will puss up. It will get big as. It will get a disease and it will die.”
We went on, still high above the river. Te Araroa was being baptised in blood. I would have liked it to stay clean, but when you come to this part of the country, pig hunters are all around you, and wild goats are a target, shot as food for pig dogs, or simply as pests.
Randal glided along the trail, then stopped and waved me back. He went down on one knee, and the rifle cracked. Through the tree I saw a black goat slump onto the grass, and Randal moved towards it, pulled the horned head back and slit its throat with a knife. I saw a sheet of blood gush from the animal and Randal returned, wiping the blade.
“You’re not offended by this or anything?”
“I’m not a hunter, Randal.”
“Okay. It was just—that look.”
After five hours of tramping around bluffs, we descended to the river, put on the lifejackets and prepared for the crossing. Rain had turned the river muddy, and it was running high.
Using a Leki stick apiece, we locked up, and a six-legged, two-backed beast sidled with slow and sure feet out into the main channel. You could feel the point at which the river threatened to take you. Around waist-high in the flow, your boots no longer felt so firmly grounded.
Randal turned: “We’ll go back—it’s too deep.”
We went further upriver and tried again. This time there were rest points, smooth rocks that rose above the river surface and provided a backwash away from the flow where you could catch your breath before venturing out again. We crossed and went up to Smith’s hut.
We lit the range and hung everything out to dry. We drank hot sweet coffee on the porch, resting our gaze on the river’s pale papa bluffs that rose away sheer just a few hundred metres away.
Evening was coming on. Cirrus clouds above us had begun to turn orange. It was a moment of deep content.
“Peace and quiet,” said Randal.
“Yep. Hear the river?”
“Yeah. You know, if I had a motorbike with mudgrip tyres I could ride from Pipiriki right through to here, wheel-stand it across the river and up the other side.”
Randal’s hand strayed to the gun.
“You want to ping a few billies?”
A stone angel on the outskirts of Pipiriki served notice that I was about to encounter a very Catholic river. Te Araroa’s plan suggests canoeing the Whanganui. It’s a walking trail, but canoeing is just what you do here. A local guide, Wai Wiari, loaned me a canoe, and I let the river pull me along with the odd pry from my paddle to keep the nose straight. I sighted the tall steeple of Jerusalem’s church 12 kilometres downstream and stopped.
The man often named as New Zealand’s best poet prayed to God one night in 1968, and in the morning, a single thought lay in his mind: Jerusalem, New Zealand. He came here to dwell with Maori, to keep an open house, write poetry and essays and give talks. Pilgrims’ feet had polished the tree-roots that lay across the short final path to his grave, and I reached a carved river stone that said, simply:
James Keir Baxter
i whanau 1926 – i mate 1972
A totara tree overhung it, and onion weed drooped on the plot.
I booked a $5-a-night room in the old convent at Jerusalem, lit the wood fire and opened a book lent to me that day by one of the Catholic nuns: The Story of Suzanne Aubert
by Jessie Munro. I’d stopped at Jerusalem for Baxter, but the book held me. The story was beautifully written, and interwoven with dark and surprising threads: the fate of the nun who came out from France with Aubert and went slowly mad here; the French priest, Father Jean Lampila, who put in the first Whanganui River flour mills in the 1850s, and stymied the progress upriver of the Protestant Church Missionary Society by challenging its Reverend Richard Taylor to walk through fire.
The competition was for Maori souls. Lampila walked through flames, Taylor did not, and Jerusalem, though named by Taylor, went Catholic.
Aubert arrived in 1883. She founded here the only new Catholic order New Zealand has had, the Sisters of Compassion, and wrote its constitution: “The sisters have been instituted solely for the Maori and the poor . . .”
It was 10 P.M. when I looked up. The rain was now falling heavily outside. I ate boiled chestnuts given to me by Wai from a tree planted, quite possibly, I realised with a start, by Aubert. I was seated where the cross-eyed nun had padded about, the favoured red flannel underskirt (so the book suggested) flashing momentarily under her habit as she knelt to fix this and that. It seemed a rare privilege to read this book in this place, and it posed finally a 1 A.M. question. Why did I respond to the Aubert story and less to the Baxter one? Partly because I’d fallen on it anew, but there was another asymmetry here: why had Aubert seemed happy, and Baxter not?
Both were devout Catholics. I dug into a pile of Baxter’s writing for The Tablet that lay to hand in a folder. God sides with anyone who has no means of redress, he wrote. “I am thinking of the vast flood of mercy God pours down on a Maori car, battered and stripped of its gears, that rumbles up a hill with 11 passengers and three hitch-hikers on board.”
Aubert, I decided, wouldn’t have stood by and celebrated the Maori car. She’d have got it to a garage. She was a fixer. She organised a distillery and vats to manufacture Maori medicine, which she marketed, knew Te Reo so well her introductory text to the Maori language was reprinted for decades, planted a cherry orchard, walnut trees and chestnuts and sold the produce to steamboat river travellers. She cured ailments, set bones, took in waifs and rode and walked far and wide after the first Catholic church at Jerusalem burned down, to get funds for a new one.
Baxter’s good works seemed marginal. Once you got past the ritual embrace at the door of his commune, arohanui and all that, the reality was squat conditions and marginal food.
Yet the comparison, I thought, was not quite fair. The division between poet and nun followed the old church debate between faith and good works. For Aubert, the Virgin Mary, Jesus, Son of God, the miracles and the resurrection were all faits accomplis, real and perfect in their explanations. She had a Bible, the brightly painted plaster of Paris icons, the rosary and the French statue of Mary, le suis l’immaculie conception, in the yard. The nun got on with her good works, for she was sure of her faith.
Baxter, I suspected, was less sure. He was a Catholic, but also a poet. He needed to render his faith accurately in language. That was the struggle, and he sought not the security of plaster icons but the insecurity of religion’s underlying epiphanies, sufferings and terrors. To do it, he accepted poverty and rags, and sat like a prophet, cross-legged and bearded, on the streets of New Zealand small towns.
He tested his faith to the limit, and wrote what he found. I turned up a poem at Jerusalem, “The Thief who Died with Jesus,” dedicated in Baxter’s handwriting to a nun there, and one stanza of it reads, with Baxter’s own commentary in the parenthesis:
I cannot turn my head to find out
Who hangs beside me on the other tree
(Christ is hidden as we become him)
It rained all night, and Wai’s husband, Brent Southen, came down in the morning to break the news. They didn’t want me to canoe out of Jerusalem.
“The river has risen four metres overnight,” said Southen. “When it’s that high you get whirlpools—they’ll turn you the wrong way round very quickly, and they can roll you out of your boat.”
Okay—I’d walk. That was, after all, not something I was unused to.
In March 1918, Tahupotiki Wiremu Ratana was camped on the coastline between the Whangaehu and Turakina Rivers. Big west coast waves were rolling in, and they suddenly disgorged two whales on the beach in front of the astonished farmer. One died immediately. The other lay thrashing for hours.
Later there was a divine visitation, but the whales were the first sign. Ratana embedded a vertebra from each on his farmhouse gateposts, and when he began his formal religion—perhaps the most powerful Maori religious and political movement this country has seen—it was the whales that gave his church its twin corpus. There was the temple, Te Temepara, to serve the Bible, but there was also a secular building, Te Manuao, to serve the Treaty of Waitangi. Ratana became Te Mangai, the mouthpiece of God, and he divided land on which his farm had lain and gifted it to his followers, the morehu—the tribal fragments.
The settlement of Ratana does not reveal itself until you’re almost on top of the town. I came over the hill, and the lights lay spread out in the hollow in front. I walked on in. Each house had, not the big settled garden of suburbia, but a clean functional lawn. Perhaps one house in three had the outside light burning, and that stark illumination of the front wall, uninterrupted by any screen of vegetation, gave the streets a stage-set feel.
Even if you knew nothing of the history of Ratana, it had drama. Shadowy dogs roamed, but beyond that the town was silent and still. The symbol of the crescent moon and star, the marama whetu, recurred, frosted onto the glass of household front doors, and if you looked up, there it was again, standing above the houses on the softly lit towers of Te Temepara.
Arepa, Omeka, the beginning and the end. I stood in front of the church. Between the towers, the pediment supported a glowing roundel segmented in red—the sun. Beneath it was the balcony where Ratana once stood to address the crowds. The stained-glass windows glowed from some interior light.
I strolled across open grassed land to a second building, Te Manuao—the man of war. The church architecture had been stretched sideways here. The same towers, the same Arepa and Omeka, but with maybe 40 metres of verandah between the two, and on the central pediment a great clock.
Ka-chuk-a-chuk. The deserted streets, the stillness of the town, made the sudden sound all the more startling. The minute hand of the big clock had risen one notch, and still quivered there.
The silence closed in and I waited a full minute before the clock notched up another heavy unit of time. Ka-chuk-a-chuk.
There was no obvious campground at Ratana, but Naka Taiaroa ran the local store. I knocked on his door, and suggested I might pitch a tent down by the park toilets.
Naka was just opening up for the 7-9 P.M. last shift. He sat me on a stool and brought me a cup of tea. I spent the last money I had on two pies, ate them,and simply watched. I was now at the heart of Ratana. People poured into the shop, collecting mail, buying groceries or 20c bags of lollies, seeking change for the video games. Everyone called Naka uncle, and the atmosphere was family with a well-practised ritual and no embarrassment when someone’s EFTPOS card went through the swipe and failed to score.
“That’s declined,” Naka would say matter-of-factly.
“Declined!” shouted the delighted shop audience, while the declinee made the appropriate exaggerated gestures of frustration and despair, and handed back the can of softdrink or rifled through the wallet for another card.
“Declined!” crowed the chorus outside the shop, noses pressed to the glass.
Then Naka closed the shop. He’d got agreement, he told me, from the other church elders. Te Araroa should not sleep out in the park in the rain that had now set in, but in Te Manuao, which was dry and had toilets and showers.
This high-beamed cavern I now found myself stretched out in. Above me the ribs, the outer skin, and beyond those the sound of the downpouring water. Around me the beat, one per minute, of the thing’s great slow ticker, ka-chuk-a-chuk. I closed my eyes and went to sleep that night in the belly of the whale.
In the morning, Naka came across, and I thanked him.
“Well, for what little it was,” he said. “You came out of the night, my dog barking at you, looking so—unwanted, so out of this world.”
“Oh?” It wasn’t the image I had of myself.
“Yes, but that was deceiving. You came with all the information and with this report on a walk from Cape Reinga in the north where many of our people live, to join up with the Manawatu . . .”
We walked back to the store. I had no cash, and asked the shopowner to swipe my own EFTPOS card. I punched in the PIN and waited.
“That’s declined,” said Naka mildly.
“Fine—okay.” I slipped the card back into my wallet. At least the chorus had disappeared. Everyone was at work, at home or at school.
The truth was that after months on the trail I was probably less a tramper than a vagrant. I walked on down to the coast, and a storm was coming in from the west. I had no money to pay for a caravan at the Koitiata campground, and that night I slept in the toilets.
I awoke in the morning, staring at a pair of boots.
“Come on up to the house and have some breakfast.”
I swung my gaze up on jeans, a studded leather belt, a black beanie, a Maori guy leaning at the entrance, hands in his pockets.
“You get started early,” I said.
“Yeah. The toilet isn’t working up home, and my little brother came down a while ago `Hey—there’s someone sleeping in the toilets.’ Right, I’ll check that out.”
We drove back to a small, crowded bach. The television set was revving high on a game of Rush—Extreme Racing, with a couple of dedicated racers punching the PlayStation buttons. Pat Ngamoki introduced me to his brothers, Mau and Harry, then began grooming two kids, Te Aturangi and Te Moana, for school, making a cup of tea and a pot of porridge, building a pile of toast.
We chatted over breakfast. I told them the story of the trail.
“What’s an old man like you doing that for?” said Harry. “It should be us young fellas doing it.”
That wasn’t how I thought of myself either, but I let it go. We talked about the route. I told them I wanted to walk through to Bulls that day. I’d run out of money and wanted to speed up the tramp.
“I’ve got $20 you can have,” said Pat. “No, I wasn’t meaning that. I’ve got food, I’ve got a tent. I’m okay.”
“No, you take it. I’m on the dole. I don’t do anything with it but burn gas.”
“It’s okay, really I don’t want to take that.” The brothers put pressure on.
“I’ve been hitchhiking with nothing in my pocket,” said Pat. “Spend my last 50 cents on bubblegum, crash out in the sticks and wake up still chewing bubblegum.”
“Nothing worse than being on the road and you get to a petrol station and can’t buy a coffee,” said Harry.
“You can’t even buy a pie,” said Pat. “We’ve been there. We’re still there.”
The brothers insisted, and I left with the money in my pocket.
There’s no such thing as bad weather, they say, only bad gear. I had shearer’s overtrousers, bought in Te Kuiti from a stock and station firm, a hooded anorak and a storm cover for the pack. Inside the pack everything was encased in a heavy-duty plastic liner, and inside that the sleeping bag had its own waterproof stuff bag that I’d lined with another layer of plastic. Between Santoft and Bulls, I walked into the worst rainstorm of the trip.
Night fell. The boots went soon after. Despite all the beeswax applications, the water came through by capillary creep, and they turned sodden. The rain hood shed its runoff and the wind blew it into my face. No matter how tightly I zipped and Velcroed the collar, trickles of cold water ran down my neck.
And yet—your mind stays absolutely dry. It starts to play. It begins to offer up cute phrases: Inside every wet man there’s a dry man struggling to stay in.
I came out of forest and headed down the road to Bulls. I saw
whitened road-kill remnants driven into the gleaming tar—Nature, flat in tooth and claw.
I saw car lights speeding towards me, brighter and yet brighter through the downpour, and the athletic dry mind sprang, in the final moment of dazzling illumination, into the mind of the unknown driver, glimpsing its own image, this dripping black-lagoon critter, this Grendel from the old Beowulf saga—lurker on the edge of civilisation, fearful beast. Ha! Yet the beast knew it was not this thing at all, but simply itself—dry, resilient, civilised.
The isolated house broke the mood. Without neighbours to peer in, the isolated house had not drawn its curtains. They were cooking dinner in the isolated house, and Grendel drooled. They were sitting on high stools at their open-plan servery between kitchen and dining room, with the television news in the distance, drink in hand, and Grendel could taste red wine.
Forget it. The house in the field looked frail and stupid under this great falling mass of darkness and water anyway. Grendel knew this was not his place, and passed on by, but felt, on the instant, not playful at all but wet and jealous.
Now here came Te Araroa, a week later, down the 4WD tracks out of Palmerston North with a spring in its stride and a tune on its lips. Until now, the trail had been rugged sometimes, but safe enough. From Cape Reinga all the way to this pine forest track, the dream plan drawn up in a darkened computer room in Auckland had intersected with reality as neatly as a closing zip.
The forestry road ended at a wall of bush, and I stood there awhile. The trail plan called for me to bush-bash these few kilometres across the flanks of Mt Kaihinu and link up with a trail along the Tokomaru River to Shannon. Maybe it was a premonition of sorts, but for the first time I wrote a note for anyone who might want to trace my path, rolled it into a tube and pushed it through a protruding staple on a fencepost: July 10. Entered here, headed Tokomaru River.
By nightfall I was still short of the river, and carrying my first injury. I’d come down a slope too fast, swung round a tree, and found myself dangling by one arm above a near-vertical dropoff into a stream. The edge was in deep shadow, but it looked like a nasty fall onto rocks. I’d managed to extricate myself, but I’d pulled the flexor carpi muscle—the big one that leads up to the elbow—in my left arm. I lay in the tent that night, thoughtfully flossing my teeth.
Next morning I reached the Tokomaru River and the bush bash should have been over, for the 1981 Lands and Survey map I’d used to plan Te Araroa showed a trail along this true right-hand bank of the river through to Shannon.
But there was no track. No track! I studied the map. The distance upriver to Shannon was around 12 km. Twelve kilometres of bush traverse, sideways to the ridges, was a big ask in this country. The distance downriver to Tokomaru was about 8 km. I turned downriver.
I sped through the bush. I drank ponded water from old pig wallows. I kept pace beside the river until it took a 90-degree turn to the west. The river here was easy to ford—should I cross? No. The map showed that the far side of the valley would soon have farmland in behind the bushed tops, but the bush on the far side looked dense, and I figured I’d be able to ford again lower down.
I went on, hit a gorge and couldn’t hold my line next to the river. I climbed to old slip faces where the big bush had gone, replaced by grassy colonising plants: densely laced cushions, the myriad small round leaves of pohuehue, the toetoe, mangemange and sharp grasses. I watched the blood spread across my hands with a sort of fascination.
I floundered forward, my feet punching into yielding vegetation, getting purchase finally, rising up, toppling forward, picking myself up from the great mattress of it all, trying to find the earth beneath my feet again. The bridge of my nose was skinned, and it began to rain.
I camped early, and carefully isolated my wet gear from the dry clothes inside the pack. I treated myself to a freeze-dried chicken curry and rice, and went to sleep with the onset of darkness. I awoke at 11.30 P.M. A big rainstorm was sweeping through. The treetops overhead siphoned the deluge into massive drops that fell on the tent and exploded like tiny mortars. I lay there, flossing my teeth.
Pandemonium. The word is derived from Pan, the woodland god. So is the word panic. I shone my torch up. The inside of the fly was shining with a thin film of water. I groped along the length of my sleeping bag. The bottom was damp—the water was everywhere.
The third day in, I pushed my way forward through dripping kiekie thickets. The stems of kiekie are held up from the ground by aerial roots; they bend and snake any which way before rising to a burst of harsh green leaves. Kiekie forces you to crawl, and I did, seeing light at the end of a patch only to reach it, discover a vertical face, and crawl back again.
The tried going uphill, through nets of supplejack, on slopes made slippery by the storm, untangling every few metres my arms, my legs, my pack. After an hour, I knew I wouldn’t get through—not with my pack at least. I went back to a scree valley I’d passed the day before, and tried to think.
Here—it struck me for the first time as a possibility—any chopper moseying up the valley might see me.
I hung my wet gear out to dry, pitched the tent and sheathed the big yellow packliner onto an overhanging tree as a ground-to-air marker. I climbed the scree until I could see more of the river valley. The hills on the far side were huge. Great flanks, big, impassable—what was that?
Just poking over the highest ridge on the far side—pines!
I climbed higher. One ridge along from the pines, a small green moon rose above the bushline. Farmland!
I had a way out, but it meant crossing the river.
I went down to the river, and it looked menacing. I was in a gorge, and the water swirled through. The river was no more than 15 metres wide, but over on the other side stood a big boulder and floodwater pushed wickedly against it. I knew if I went in here, I’d be swept. Swept where? The bush hid any sight of what was around the corner. I didn’t like it.
For the first time on the journey the Whisperlite wouldn’t fire. I shook it. The white spirit fuel had left a thin layer of carbon clinging to the metal cup under the gas jet, and a thin sheet of the black render peeled off and hung by a corner, flapping.
I cleaned the jet, got the stove going again and ate. I zipped up the tent as the light faded and lay there thinking. I knew I could get out—it meant going back to the ford and going up the main ridge on the far side of the river valley. I was happy with the plan, but it would take two more days. The rain began again and I talked quietly with my wife. I know you’re worried babe, but I’m okay. Don’t send in the cavalry. I’m okay. I’m okay.
I lay there flossing my teeth. I slept.
I awoke at 10 P.M. An upvalley wind was beating at the packliner. Whap, whap, whap. A nasty, insistent flapping. The rain began again, and the night thoughts came on. That thin sheet of render peeling away from the warming cup on the Whisperlite—it had hung there, purely black, flapping like a cloak. Dr D, still small, had entered the camp.
Whap, whap, whap. That Dominion front-page photo from 20 years ago. Six boot-splashing men carry a stretcher down a rushing Tararua River. The bush overhangs them, the mist is down, the men balance themselves with outflung arms but are tilted inward anyway by the weight. Their faces are fixed, for they are carrying out a body, and no-one likes dead bodies. They have no aura, no warmth. The hostile universe has closed up right around them, it has gone deeper yet. The universe is inside their skin.
I kept checking my own body warmth. I wondered what it is exactly that keeps us alive and warm. I thought of myself dead. A corpse with perfect teeth.
I fell asleep again and dreamed. I saw black water rub against vertical stone. I saw every sliding disk of water on the river, every eddy and bubble. I saw an AA sign standing up from ponded water. The background was dark, as if the scene was taken by a flash camera. The sign was pointing across black water.
I woke again at 3 A.M. I unzipped the tent and could see a few stars, but another huge stormcloud was rising in the west. I lay there, and for the first time on my trek I felt fear.
It was a solid thing, like a short piece of timber lodged under the rib cage. I talked to my three kids then. One by one I held them in mind and told them I loved them. I talked to my wife and told her I loved her. I wanted to get back, and suddenly the message changed: Babe, you can send in the cavalry. That would be good. That would be just wonderful.
The amplified thud coming up the valley. The big beating bird hovering above me at first light. The winch rope. The lowered helmeted figure with its extended hand.
The disgrace—some senior sergeant given his opportunity to bang on then about the lack of a detailed route plan—it would all be true, I’d given no-one specific information about destinations and timings. Disgrace—but who cares? I’d be alive.
Next day, I simply did what I had to. I packed my gear, then climbed a nearby cliff for a last look. I knew then I wouldn’t go back to the ford—the bush was just too thick. I knew my options had shrunk right down, but I felt amused by it. I had just one thing to do, and should do it well. Strangely, I liked the fact.
I split my gear, put a change of clothes and food into a survival kit, and stowed everything else into my pack. I inflated my Thermarest mattress, laid the survival kit aboard that thin raft and pushed out into the Tokomaru River. I was swept, but not far.
With no pack, I moved easily up through the bush on the other side, and several hours later stumbled into the farmhouse of Walter and Jane Craig. I asked for a telephone.
“Chapple, is it?” said the senior sergeant at Palmerston North, pulling up a file. “Hang on. Geoffrey John. Cheltenham Road, Devonport, is it?”
“Yeah, fine. Now look—”
“Jailed at Gisborne, were we?”
“Look. I’m three days overdue on a Tararua tramp. I thought my wife might have—”
“There’s nothing on file, mate. Maybe she just doesn’t love you.”
Walter Craig had made a pile of white-bread egg sandwiches as tall as a building. We sat in the sun and I drank one sweet coffee, two. It wasn’t quite over. I wanted my pack back, and we went back to the bushline in his truck, and down to the river again. By then it all seemed easy. I felt foolish for leaving the pack and said so.
“Not at all. Three years ago a couple of soldiers got trapped down there. They tied their rifles and gear to a log and tried to float out, but lost the lot. They had no food left, no boots, they were cut up, they came up this track and they were practically hospital cases. One of them had to be carried off the farm.”
“SAS men?” I asked, hopefully.
“No. In fact, I think only one was a soldier. Just a grunt.”
You could pick the Tararua trampers the moment you rolled out the maps. Every contour practically rippled into life under their stern attention. They traced the ridges with their fingers, and the names sparked on their lips: Girdlestone, Mitre, Broken Axe Pinnacles, the Dress Circle.
The Tararua Range was New Zealand’s first forest park, and is the oldest tramping ground in the country. It is beautiful, but potentially dangerous. Storms sweep the tops on average 200 days a year, and over 40 hunters and trampers have perished there this century.
Te Araroa’s blueprint had outlined two routes between Shannon and Otaki, one using the existing Tararua trails, the other a new proposal—parallel, but lower, and west of the main range, closer to civilisation.
I tested the second option as far as Levin, but found that my gaze strayed constantly east, where even on a blue day the higher hills were pulling the cloud down. Now and then, here and there, the cloud parted and a bolt of sunlight struck a subalpine summit. When you got right down to it, you couldn’t ignore the long tramping history of that interior range, nor the tug of its tops. You couldn’t just admire the Tararuas from afar. You had, finally, to go there.
I rang Tararua trampers by the dozen, looking for company, but the older ones, who had the time, were unwilling to tackle the trails in winter, and the younger ones couldn’t take the time off work. All I got was a catalogue of hazards: the leatherwood leaves that froze solid either side of the track and raked your flesh, the mists that disorientated, streams that turned into torrents and swept you away, winds that picked you off your feet.
Maria Clement, who runs a Tararuas guiding company called Back to Basics, and Steve Purchase finally agreed to join me. We tramped in through rain, and that night, as the rain pt lted onto the ramshackle Waiopehu but and the fire roared, I asked Maria what drew her to the range.
“I can remember as a three-year-old standing in the yard and looking up to the snow behind Levin,” said Maria. ” My grandfather was with me and I said, ‘Take me there.'”
“Yeah,” she said, “it’s always been there.” In that moment her recollection seemed so strong that I had a child’s vision of the Tararuas, beyond this saturated place where water was pooling under the but door, as the shining edge of the world.
The second day brought us up to the tops, where the cloud was beginning to lift. “That’s Waiopehu,” said Steve, pointing west, and then, with a steady beat of his hand, he picked out the route we’d traversed: “Twin Peak, Richards Knob, Butcher Saddle on the Dora Track.”
Every yellow summit, every tawny ridge, every shaggy spur had a name. I’d heard the litany before, recited over the 1:50,000 maps, but now my companions were at play on the biggest map of them all, scale 1:1, and I just stood there and let it all expand in front of me.
We pushed through tussocky ridge tracks down into goblin forest. The wind was swinging further and further south, driving a fine snow through shafts of afternoon sun. Maria and Steve kept dropping in bits of remembered detail as we walked. The storms that trapped you in the huts. The rescues and dramas that seemed to overtake anyone who came often enough into these hills.
We reached Nichols hut, stoked the fire with green Ieatherwood, lit a candle, ate, then made a dessert. It was Maria’s birthday. A special dessert—just how often do you get a pineapple and lime jelly mixed in an aluminium pot that takes half an hour to set when put outside your front door, and comes in with snow on it?
The morning dawned still and blue and vivid with cold. For the first time, the Tararuas looked like the shining edge of the world. We followed a ridge up to Mt Crawford, almost dead centre of the Tararua Range and, at 1462 m, the highest point of our tramp.
Wellington shimmered in the distance, a fabled city hung between sea and sky. The great white spade shape of Tapuaenuku, highest peak of the Inland Kaikouras, reared up behind it with heraldic splendour.
Then we turned to leave the tops, and the three of us stood still for a long time. The main range stretched away south like some giant mole tunnelling towards Wellington. It stretched away lazily, invitingly, with the small specks of the tramping huts high up on its flanks glinting in the sun.
A day later we crossed the Otaki River on a long swing-bridge and walked along grassy river terraces to the roadhead.
Pat Murray, a cameraman for One Network News, met me there and we went back up onto the trail. I burst around the same bush corner six times. My boot splashed through the same trail puddle six times while Pat got his cutaways.
Television One met me again on Waikanae Beach. Murray, with journalist Penny Deans this time, back-pedalled in front of me down the beach.
“Why are you doing this?” she asked.
Now was the time to explain Te Araroa to the nation. The dream that had begun with the Federated Mountain Clubs in the 1970s. The torch that had been taken up by our own trust.Time now—for surely the two millennial years in front of us were the right years—to put the route finally in place. But my mind went blank, my mouth hung open. Whole weather patterns seemed to hang on my shoulders. I’d encompassed so many valleys, so much interminable bush and rote crashing of coastlines, gazed with such intensity by day across the vast and low patterns of agriculture and by night at the loom of big-city light behind the hills, flushed so many people from the hollows that I couldn’t manage a single soundbite.
“Hnunruunum,” I said, after a long moment trudging towards the camera lens with my mouth gaping, “Could we do that again?”
I came on down to Wellington on the Northern Walkway, met the mayor, Mark Blumsky, in the afternoon and gave him a ceremonial Leki stick, then went round to the interisland ferry terminal where, once Te Araroa’s South Island trail is designed, a tramper might take the boat and walk the South Island. And there I called it quits.
Television had promised to complete their piece by filming the mayoral handshake, but my arrival in Wellington had coincided with the sacking of the Treasurer, Winston Peters, and every news camera had migrated to Parliament.
TV One hadn’t yet finished its piece, so I didn’t monitor the news broadcasts, and it was sheer serendipity, reeling back from a boozy evening meal with Miriam that night, that we switched on the TV The 9.30 news was on, and there was a tramper—some guy moving fast across bush trails, and momentarily I marvelled at his speed, until I realised it was me.
“Why are you doing this?” asked the interviewer.
“To let the trail speak,” replied the tramper,without a moment’s hesitation.