The long pathway
I patted a Buttress on that stout little tub of concrete, the Cape Reinga lighthouse, and moved off. It was just coming on light—time to go. Miriam and I walked up the hill to the collection of huts at the top. We stopped at the beginning of the trail that leads away behind the loos, the post office and the generator hut. The sign said:
“Cape Reinga Coastal Walk End of Te Werahi Beach 11/4 hours Twilight Beach 31/4 hours Te Paki Stream Rd 8 hours”.
“It doesn’t say,” I said, “how many hours to Wellington.”
“I guess you can send them a fax later,” she said.
She made last-minute adjustments to the camera bag around my waist, then the shoulder straps of the pack, pulling the toggles tight. We kissed. It was a good kiss. Like last night in the tent had been good. We’d fronted the Department of Conservation rangers and got one-off permission to camp on the hill overlooking the wahi tapu (sacred area) that cloaks this headland.
Why do people do long walks—the Bruce Trail in Canada, the Appalachian Trail in America, Britain’s Pennine Way? Well, to sort themselves out. Score one. That kiss was good, because some of the stuff lately hadn’t been. Or maybe because they’ve lost their job. Score two, though giving up a regular pay packet a while back was my own decision. Diagnosed with cancer? Score three. Eight months earlier I’d had a melanoma cut out of my back. I’m okay, but it was a mortal scare.
Then there’s nature. Back at the cape, there’d been the same clean vistas you get staring out the window of a Boeing 747: the edge of the land, cloud strata, light cracking the horizon. And closer in, that deep wound in the water as the Tasman and the Pacific sluice into each other.
Big or small, nature is good to watch. I came down the track, through wild hebe and scrubby manuka onto Te Werahi Beach and saw my first Spirula spirula, the buoyancy chamber of a small squid that is the signature of a west coast beach. I watched the little clods of sand thrown forward by my boots. I saw one of the clods bowl a sandhopper. I watched the first windblown seaweed pod roll across my path—and then I left the beach and it got serious.
I plugged over the base of Cape Maria Van Diemen ankle deep in dry sand. The top of New Zealand is just bits of rock with a webbing of sand stretched between, and that is a fair definition of Cape Maria. Under a noon sun I walked on along Twilight Beach, then up to a clifftop track, through manuka, through bees and blossom and hot summer smells. I’d been walking five hours when the track suddenly twisted north and I could see, distant but distinct, the cluster of sheds at Cape Reinga. The thought of walking back there made me suddenly tired. But the way ahead? It was no further than the next hill.
At 3 P.M. I sucked on my water bottle and gazed down at Ninety Mile Beach, stretching away south and disappearing into salty haze. Huge bare sandhills back-stopped the beach, undulating down through smaller spinifex-covered dunes to the flats. Here and there a bone-white hillock glittered in the sun. A strip of dry sand, a strip of wet sand, then the water. Calm water—the sweeps—the clear saucers of water that have lost all force and spread like liquid glass at the edge of the tide. Broken water—the whitewash tumbling shoreward in layers. Then the breakers rolling in, and beyond them, out to sea, the ceaseless corrugated ocean.
Te Paki Stream was around five kilometres down the beach, and I camped there. In the morning I took an hour to pump six litres of water through the ceramic core of my water filter. You couldn’t rely on any one stream beyond Te Paki to be running, and during a real dry you could tramp 40 km without a chance to replenish. That was the warning I had, and I departed Te Paid Stream next day with water bottles fastened by cord to every loop of the pack, like the swaying, clinking man of oils and unguents in the film The English Patient. I rolled away from there as aqueous as a watertank.
On the third way the sand was pluming ankle-deep across the beach like smoke. A 40-knot south-west wind had whipped the ocean to whitecaps, and I leaned into it, but even though it was a sunny day I could feel the wind chill. I put on an anorak, and the shadow that walked beside me, leaning forward with its rounded hood, big pack and hiking sticks protruding, was definitely, in that gritty blizzard of sand racing by, an Antarctic image.
I made the Bluff that morning, rested in the lee of the headland for an hour, then turned back into the headwind. I was now walking the long curve of sand that stretches some 70 kilometres down to Ahipara, but after a couple more hours I was sick of being staggered by the gusts, sick of the booming in the hood, and headed up into the dunes for a rest.
The dazzling white mounds that had caught my eye during my first hilltop survey were old middens, many of them huge. I went closer for a look, and found a trail leading through the toetoe, mingimingi and lupins. Dried horse dung was piled here and there, and as I topped a small dune I saw the herd grazing in a patch of lupins. Seven heads jerked up to stare at the intruder. I saw a foal, mares, and one big black stallion, all standing absolutely still. I fumbled for the camera. Ninety Mile Beach has enough salt and sand to sink the delicate technology of all Japan, and so the Mavica FD7 digital was protected by a tightly fitted stuff bag with the drawstring pulled, and that bag was further enclosed by a waterproofed and zippered bum-bag I carried at my waist. For quick-response photography, that was a nightmare. The wild horses, without panic but definitely intent on getting out of there, had begun to move. I was shedding the pack and levering the stuff bag out of the zippered case in a single motion. I was squeezing the camera out of the stuff bag, and switching it on in a second single motion. The thing spun out of my hands, and $1400 worth of delicate technology hit the sand with a thud.
I picked it up. It was still registering images on the LCD screen, but an LCD screen is not like a viewfinder. You don’t hold it up to your eye, but out in front of you to frame images, and now every bit of light from the glaring surround was reflecting off the screen, and I could see nothing. I couldn’t find the horses. I clicked wildly—and later, on the replay function, I would admire these first shots of tilted horseless landscapes and whirling horseless skies. I missed the shots, and the horses were gone, but the stallion moved back to see me off, and I finally got a picture.
The experiences of the beach were far from normal, and in those first days I had difficulty reconciling what I had set out to do. I’d helped design a foot trail for the North Island, and now I was testing it, right? It was a relief, a chance to regain the normal, when I met my first people for days—two women sunning themselves with their Jack Russell terriers on a dune under a blue sky. The two had driven down a sandy road from Pukenui, 12 kilometres inland, to picnic and gather tuatua.
They offered food, and I followed Janet Snell to the car. She opened the boot. “There’s not a lot left, I’m sorry,” she said. With round eyes I watched her casually throw a cornucopia of delights into a plastic bag. “Fruit? Mandarins—half an apple here. Bread? No butter, I’m sorry. Crackers and cheese.” The saliva glands under my jaw gave a jab. It’s true what they say of long trails. That one of the primary effects is the kind of low-level ecstasy generated by holding in your hand, after days of tramping, something as mundane as—well, crackers and cheese.
I laid out my maps and showed them the route extending from Cape Reinga to a distant Wellington. This was the North Island section of Te Araroa, “the long pathway.” It was the thin red line of my sanity.
“This is what the Walkway Commission has been working on,” said Janet.
“No,” I said. “The commission folded up in 1989, the function of developing walkways fell to DoC, and they didn’t have the money.”
“Right—it’s a very interesting concept. It’s very good someone is carrying it on,” she said.
“Someone has to,” I said, and Ona Landman, who had been quiet throughout, studying the situation, said suddenly, “You’re on a mission.”
“Oh, hell no,” I said. “I wouldn’t put it like that.”
“Yes you are,” said Ona. “You’re on a mission.”
“It doesn’t feel like a mission. I’m dirty, I practically drooled just now when Janet mentioned crackers and cheese, I’ve had tendon pain, which feels different from blister pain—it feels serious—and I really don’t know about Wellington.”
“Oh, no,” said Janet. “You’ll make it.” “Well okay,” I said. “I take that as a kind of blessing.”
I sat alone and watched the sun go down. I wrote the word mission into the sand, and watched a sandhopper scrabble up the side of, lose traction on, and finally fall away from, the giant crater of the O.
Things were as big or as small as you thought they were on Ninety Mile Beach. How many times over these past days had I seen it? Born into the heat puddle on the horizon, that cryptic black squiggle growing gradually in size and power like tornado spawn. And when the hieroglyph resolved at last, how many times had I, so ready to inflate its power, found it quickly deflating. A tourist bus. The closer it came, the smaller it got. How often had I watched it go by, pale passenger faces pressed to its glass, its over-bright livery shining, its brash words proclaiming Cape Runner, Sand Safari—a Tinkertoy merely?
The moon came up, pulling a string of seven pinhead planets with it. Meteors arced and died in green bursts, and the Southern Cross hung huge and sombre out in front. I had a simple idea. I’d been walking since 8 A.M., but I was well fed and well watered, and didn’t feel tired—I would walk through the night.
I could see my destination, the Waipapakauri Motor Camp, marked by two tiny lights below the cross. I strode out towards them, feeling joyous and free. I had discovered the obvious. Of all the great walks in New Zealand, this is perhaps the only one that can be easily done in the dark—which should be done in the dark. I was feeling almost smug about the discovery. Nighttime on the Ninety Mile is a time when the wind has died. There is no sun to burn you, there are no rocks or roots on which to stumble. The temperatures are mild and the night sky is open from horizon to horizon. The dunes to the left, the surf to the right provided ghostly white margins to the route. I was on a giant runway, its vanishing point marked by those two dancing lights, and time—well, time didn’t matter at all.
I walked for an hour, and the two tiny lights of Waipapakauri were just up ahead. I walked another hour, then another, and the two lights of Waipapakauri had neither increased nor diminished in size, but were by nowsurely—just up ahead.
The distance to Waipapakauri, I’d been told by the women on the dunes, was 12 kilometres, and I’d figured that was three or four hours’ walking. But the lights ahead looked the same now as they had hours ago. I saw them sometimes as. the two lighted windows of a little cabin waiting just up the track to welcome mein. Or, they might still be many kilometres distant.
The literature is full of the benign dissolution that can occur when an individual stands exposed long Motupia I enough to the stars—the oceanic effect, Arthur Koestler once called it. Yet on that long night-time walk down the Ninety Mile, as the kilometres surely rolled by underfoot but the two lights of Waipapakauri The Bluff refused to get brighter or closer, I found myself buttoning right down. Forget the universe. Forget this featureless beach. Forget those goddam trickster lights.
The planets disappeared one by one into the western sea, the moon followed, and I walked on with head bowed, grimly counting my own footfalls, a clockwork man starting slowly to wind down.
At midnight, I unrolled my sleeping bag in the dry sand and crawled inside In the morning, I kept walking. Last night’s lights had disappeared and the beach ahead showed no sign of Waipapakauri.
Ninety Mile Beach was by now a familiar place. The blackback gulls were rising to a height of 15 metres or so, dropping a tuatua, stooping down, examining the victim for fracture, then rising again, dropping it again. The blackbacks had been doing that all the way down Ninety Mile, as though they were trying to teach me something, but the few times I’d gone into the water to find tuatua I’d failed.
Sharks lay on the beach in their death circles, enscribed on the sand after they’d stranded then thrashed uselessly around. I was told later that trawler fishermen net the sharks, cut off their dorsals for the Oriental soup market, then dump them, alive but rudderless, back into the tide.
I walked into Waipapakauri at 10 A.M., ordered up bacon and eggs and a 7Up at the store and sat down at a trestle table on the wide store-front deck. I laid out my map, and confirmed that the distance from Hukatere to Waipapakauri was more like 20 kilometres than 12. This was by now another familiar phenomenon of the beach: the people who stopped in cars to offer me lifts, and whom I asked about distances, usually got it wrong. Walking and driving Ninety Mile Beach are two different things, and car-drivers consistently underestimated distances.
I asked the storekeeper about getting tuatua. “That’s easy. There are tuatua beds all the way from here to Ahipara. You just go into the water at low tide and twist your foot in the sand. You’ll feel them underneath, and if you’re quick enough you can slide the shell apart just pushing with your thumb and eat them right then—food while you’re fishing ”
Later that day I walked out into the water and ground my foot in the sand. Sure enough, you could feel the tuatua underneath. I grabbed one quick. I shucked a shell. I ate raw tuatua, and the taste was salty, muscular, the taste of the beach.
I went up into the dry sand and boiled up the rest of my haul for lunch The 12 kilometres between Waipapakauri and Ahipara was sparsely populated now with surfcasters and shellfish gatherers, and vehicles were speeding along the beach, or simply stopped. I watched a man with one leg swing himself out of a minivan on crutches until he was waist deep in the surf, could let the crutches drop and get tumbled shoreward by the surf. His whanau righted him again, helped retrieve the crutches, but the beach, even with dozens of people on it, was still sufficiently vast to isolate each group utterly. The long reflections in the wet spoke more of emptiness than human occupation, and the shouts of every distant group were attenuated into something as thin as gulls crying.
I walked on to Ahipara, passing the 4WDs and utes drawn up along the beach. They were bright pockets of Kiwi lifestyle, with their dogs, their children, the women fixing food, the men drinking out of the back of the wagons. The beach was a wonderful place; it was sometimes a terrifying place. It claimed three or four lives a year, typically cuffing the unwary off the Bluff, but sometimes pulling them from the beach itself. Those dead had not known that the rogue wave, moving in over the long shallow fall of the beach, could quite slowly mount until it was rearing two metres higher than expected, smashing over the rocks or sweeping that extra 30 metres up the sand. The beach, as someone at Ahipara reminded me, is always a bit more than people think.
Roger gale, it struck me, was a kind of Robin Hood. He’d been active in the anti-apartheid protests of the 1970s, but when police had tried to frame him for the arson of an Auckland rugby grandstand he’d cut away from politics and come north. He’d finished up in Herekino, earning his living now from a private hardwood plantation and a mobile sawmilling rig, cutting up and transporting out storm-felled native trees. He’d offered to guide me across Herekino Forest.
The bush came alive under the forester’s attention. He gestured towards a thicket of harsh vegetation standing up maybe half a metre. “King club moss—amazing stuff. Stiff—it vibrates like wire, and if you picked it, it’d still be green in five months’ time. It’s the world’s biggest lycopod—a moss!
“Hear that?” I listened. A barely melodic tic, tic, tic came from amidst a bracken and dry-stick grove perhaps 30 metres distant. Then an answering tic, tic. “A fern bird,” said Gale. Quite rare.”
He was pointing now to a slendertrunked Dr-Seuss-like tousle-headed tree. “Dracophyllum—I can never figure why New Zealand doesn’t market those trees as a decorative shrub. And over here, a Kirk’s daisy. It flowers once every seven years, just a stunning sight with a purple stamen and big petals.”
He pointed, and pointed again. There wasn’t a sign on the track that he didn’t pick, and interpret. Three hours into our tramp, he stopped still, examining the ground.
“Horses. There may well be some meadows around here, or—”
He turned aside and went down on one knee, turning over trampled vegetation. “They’ve tethered the horse.”
We went further in. Electric fence tape was strung between the ponga. A white plastic ice-cream container lay on the ground. Orange peel.
“Pigeon shooters,” said Gale. “Pig hunters don’t stay.”
Pig hunters, or tillers of the pot meadow, didn’t bother Gale. But the kereru (native pigeon) was scarce, proud, and a part of Gale’s greenwood. The bird is gunned down by poachers who stay days in the forest to get their illegal bag, then raffle the bird in pubs, a dozen at a time.
Gale went around in a controlled fury ripping down the string the hunters had used to pitch their fly, kicking at their rubbish tin.
“They’re messy sods, aren’t they? I wish I had a calling card,” he said “to tell them we were here. We were watching you.”
Then he was gone, shinnying up the trunk of a kahikatea, swaying in the tops. “Roger?”
“Yeah. Hang on. I’m getting a compass bearing. DoC will want to know where to find this place.”
The horse trail went on and we followed it, but it was a distraction. Gale kept consulting the compass, and we were heading north, not east.
“And we’re falling—we’re going down,” said Gale. “Things aren’t right.”
The trail came to a T junction marked with an old knife scabbard, and I got my first inkling that we might be lost when Gale took a long swig from his water bottle, turned to me and asked casually, “Which way do you want to go?”
Downhill. The trail was clear enough, and after another 800 metres or so, we fetched up at a distinctive hairpin bend in a small river. The watercourse was large enough to be shown on the map, but we couldn’t find any river with a hairpin. We ate lunch.
I crunched on a Kaitaia Pak’n Save special, a Pam’s chocolate-covered muesli bar. Gale had the big healthy sandwiches, the apple, the yoghurt—but he was restless. Barely finished lunch, he jumped up.
“I’m going to find out where we are,” and he crashed away. For the next 20 minutes I filtered water out of the stream, and saw Maori sign near the bank: a small kauri sapling, its leafy top still vigorously seeking the light, but below that its stem tied in a granny knot, a tree that would be harvested later to furnish some old kuia with a walking stick.
Then Gale was back. He sat down, looked at me and said, “I think maybe you should sack me.”
“Where are we?”
“Wainui. That’s the Wainui River.”
We were way off course. We’d followed a false horizon and the grain of what felt right. But even when foresters get into trouble, the distinction between them and the next man may be that they know how to get out of it. Over the next hour, we broke out of the forest into farmland, jumped fences, pushed across one field that was filled with daisies, and finally re-entered the forest on she clay track we’d sought from the beginning, the old Herekino Forest Road.
From that moment, Gale redeemed himself. Even the main tracks were confusing, with the signs at various track intersections either non-existent, or lying in the grass separate from their stanchions. We found blank bullets that the Army had used in here for jungle training. We rounded a bend in the track and saw, perched just 30 metres away, a kereru. As I steadied the camera on Gale’s shoulder, it occurred to me that a rifleman might do the same, and I felt the same anger that had shaken Gale for the outlaws within Herekino who were destroying this bird. The kereru were so fearless they’d sit right above you sometimes, feeding, showering you with half-eaten nikau seeds, or flower petals. So easy to take the photograph. So easy to make the shot.
Gale was steady and unerring in this section, and his bush knowledge made the traverse a joy. “Kawaka,” he’d pat the shreddy trunk of a forest tree, and make his comment on the timber. “Tough red wood. They use it for ornamental inlays.” We came up to a giant puriri. “You can see,” said Gale, “even when the trunk falls, it roots, and the new growth goes straight up from there. They live forever, and you can polish the wood to a mirror finish, like ebony, but multicoloured, purple, pink, yellow, brown all mingled together. You can get amazing pictures in the wood.”
Once we diverted, tired of the colonising cutty grass that clogged the main track, into deep bush and rested there, eating forest food, the supplejack tips that tasted like a cross between asparagus and a raw bean, but like something else too, sharp-edged.
“It’s mild,” I commented, “but you can taste that it’s wild too.”
“Everything here is wild,” said Gale. “And that’s the thrill of it, you’re here amongst it, you’re part of it.”
The bush was a tangled jungle as far as the eye could penetrate into the density all around. It was dappled, vegetative, alive, and very quiet.
“Except that it doesn’t care,” I said, “if you live or die in here.”
“That’s the point,” said Gale. “Like the
bush—you’ve got to be good enough, you’ve got to be wild enough yourself, to survive.”
At the summit of Taumatamahoe Gale took my cellphone and rang a friend, Peter Griffiths, who lived on Takahue Rd. It was time to come get us. We’d be down the ridge and out onto Diggers’ Valley Road in, what, 20 minutes or half an hour maybe.
As we left the summit, Gale commented: “This bit’s fine. I’ve done it before—we’ll be swinging from tree to tree all the way down.”
We didn’t. We ran into supplejack thickets, and wrenched our way through. We climbed over fallen logs and sometimes stumbled onto a track and sometimes lost it. Dusk was steadily deepening to darkness. How much further? We called, but there was no answering shout.
The ridge tilted toward vertical. We crashed through pigweed and over rotten trunks that refused your weight and went sliding on ahead. Supplejack slipped down between your body and your pack, halting your progress, so you strained, and twisted free of its restraint, then catapulted alarmingly forward.
I fell down, I got up, I yelled again, and from far below, discouragingly distant but welcome, too, came an answering shout.
“Yeeehah!” cried Gale, but it was another half-hour before we stumbled dishevelled out of the bush.
It was 8.30 P.M. and Peter Griffiths stood on the road.
“I know what you guys have done,” said Griffiths.
“We got lost at Wainui,” said Gale. “It’s a very mysterious forest,” said Griffiths. “Everyone gets lost. Wainui. Yeah—everyone fetches up at Wainui.” We reached his car, and started off down Diggers Valley Road. Griffiths half turned to where I sat in the back, covering myself with the dog’s blanket to keep warm, and pushing the hard hindquarters and claws of his little Staffordshire bitch off my thighs as she strained to stick her nose out the window. “That was a real burst you guys did. You’d be the first I can think of to come right through the forest on that route for seven or eight years. I’ve got a cold beer waiting.”
Peter griffiths filled the corrugated iron shack he’d built just out from Takahue with the presence any big man brings to a small space, but the difference was a refinement of gesture and thought. He had the habit of rising up on his toes to emphasise a .point, his thumb and forefinger pressed into an ellipse to further refine the emphasis, like he was doing needlepoint.
As a sideline he made knives from old circular saw blades, fitting native-wood handles, but his main job was heading up the Far North’s Conservation Corps, a group of a dozen youths taken from the unemployment lists, finding them useful work, testing them in the bush.
Having a shower out the back from a bucket of water heated on the gas ring. Sitting down clean. Drinking the beer. Having a smoke. I was thinking that the trail itself was maybe less important than the chance it gave you at the end of the day—the entry it naturally brought with it—to get into other people’s lives and experience their goodwill. It is a fundamental human luxury, and it is ages old. It is in the fairy tales. It is the hospitality of an inn when the way through the tangled forest outside—pace Herekino—has been dark and inhospitable. It is at its most pure in rough dwellings. It is the relief of falling for a while into good company. Of eavesdropping the gossipy web of a community you have entered for the first time: the local Dalmatian, in his 70s, who’d hit a miscreant so hard—Griffiths’ hand traced the sheer dynamic joy of it—that he was still rising when he hit the pub wall; another old local famous for a small private forest with growth rates that had left the big commercial concerns, who’d studied his techniques, dumbfounded.
And the smell of food. As we talked, Griffiths, the pasta and chilli con carne man, was cooking on two gas rings, and Sabrina Raad, his partner, was doing the salads and a special vegetarian main for Roger Gale.
My hand clasped a tall glass of homebrew, and I was savouring that, or my head was lifting to the scent of the chilli mince bubbling over the gas ring, when Griffiths turned from shaking the wok.
“I think your trudge—” he pressed thumb and forefinger together to pick out the emphasis, “your trudge, Geoffrey, is important.
“You see, I want these forests used again.”
He launched into why, and how, the big forests could be brought back to a use beyond the poaching and pot growing that was now so rife. Used for tourism, he said, for guided parties and homestays. He wanted track maintenance, and pest control contracted out from DoC to the local communities. To youthful experts in the communities. Griffiths had a vision of forest, and youth, and community.
“The Foresters Guild,” he said, rising up on his toes, stitching the new institution into place. “I’d have them in a distinctive uniform—a fishing, shooting, good-keen-bloke image. That’s it. I want the good keen bloke reborn as a professional. I want a three-year course and something for the kids to aspire to. My kids. The ones we pick out of the longterm unemployment lists do a 12-week course, then we drop them back on the rubbish heap.
“I want colour coding, so when someone’s an apprentice you can see he’s an apprentice, and when you see someone wearing the orange—that’s really something. Something to point to in the street, and people say: ‘He’s a forester. He’s a Bushman First Class.”
The Trail was starting to speak. North Island landscape, North Island people. We’d had the idea from the start, that the trail was a New Zealand songline, and I’d now walked over 200 kilometres of it.
Once a week, whenever I found a cabin with a hot point and mobile phone reception, I’d broken out the laptop, written up the journey and emailed a story and digital pictures to Te Araroa’s website.
But beyond that I had no discipline, nothing to do but walk, to take the odd GPS reading from the satellites when bush cover permitted, to scan my compass and maps, to eat, drink, and to walk on again. My thought had no channel, nor did I have any routine imposed by companions or institutions.
I was mindless. At day’s end, when I was alone and anxious in the forests, my mind carved its own single rut—half-remembered pop lyrics, if you must know, out of the 1960s, or, sadder still, that numberline, the actual wretched counting of my footfalls to the next shadowy landmark.
But more often, sauntering in dappled light, my feet sometimes slipping on dry puriri leaves, my nose immured in the wonderful shitty smell of the bush, I experienced a happy mindlessness, peculiarly contoured to the trees, to the bush summits, damp with clouds sometimes, but at others, clear lookouts upon the folding blue hills that had no natural boundary but the sea.
And so I came down Te Araroa’s own 20 km track from Kerikeri to Waitangi, opened in 1995 by Prime Minister-tramper Jim Bolger. We’d deliberately fixed the Treaty House and Treaty Ground into the trail. Landscape, people, but history too, and you could hardly not have Waitangi.
I watched the audio-visual at the visitors centre, noting Captain Hobson’s words to each chief who signed the famous treaty: “He iwi tahi tatou. We are one people.”
To put it bluntly: no. The races are so different. Our understandings so dissimilar. The enmity so deep. And yet, and yet. The karanga
and the powhiri stir us. It is life, it is life, it is death, it is full of the secrets and dreads that are locked within the land, and the glowingness of people, and community, and perhaps I flatter myself, but I felt the trail had drawn me closer to all that.
I wandered out onto an aerial walkway that hung level with the ponga canopy, went down the stairs, saw the great waka, the whare runanga, and James Busby’s house. The Spirit of Adventure was out in the blue bay, its tall masts and rigging suggesting past things. The Treaty Ground, mown and Henke’ spacious, fell away to its own rounded horizon like some small grassy planet. A flagstaff marked the place of the treaty signing, and a Maori workman was right Waitangi. there, binding a cleat onto one of the steel guy ropes.
Yogi Takimoana was Ngapuhi. His family had scattered south, but he’d been back in the tribal area for 15 years. He was preparing for the Treaty commemoration o February 6. Binding the cleat, but if you wanted his personal thoughts on the thing, he wanted fewer speeches at the commemoration and more performance.
“Yeah, a full-on Maori day, for our people. Like 1990. That was more or less the coming of age. We put 75,000 seats up here and they were all full. We had the Mongrel Mob sitting down with Black Power, laughing and just getting on with life—all the bros, for why? It was Maori pride.
“The pride is coming back. That negative look, it doesn’t happen any more. I mean Pakeha, but Maori too. Oh, it used to be full on, man, and that’s why that pub down there was called the flying jug. When I first came back it used to be like, don’t look sideways I’ll come over there and whack you on the nose.’ Now it’s more, `Gidday, Kiwi’—it’s that hello feeling.
“How good it is that you never see Maori kids outside a pub now—have you noticed that in your travels? The kids hanging out the window of the cars eating chippies and calling for mum. You don’t see it. There’s less yelling, less swearing, less violence.
“The treaty? I’m pleased I’m a Kiwi, and not an Aborigine, and not an American Indian. Why? Because their treaty has been around a lot longer than 158 years, but this treaty hasn’t run away. And the Pakeha—their vision of life is a lot more wider than it was. We’re all one, we’re all Kiwis, we all live together.”
There it was again. One people.
I walked on, across Waitangi Bridge and along the grass esplanade towards Paihia. To my right was the Tiriti o Waitangi Marae, where Maori have, since 1875, held korero on the lost land, the infractions of the treaty, the break-up of the tribes. The line of Maori carvings here is shaped by that history. The figures are thinner, more infused with freaky wairua than anything up on the Treaty Ground, and that angry row stood to my right as I walked on. To my left the cars were drawn up iridescent and glinting, and the sunbathers lay prone and drowsing on the beach. He iwi rua tatou. Two people.
I walked into the township, my eyes as big as biscuits. I was out of scale here. The big pack and its dangling water bottle, the topo map tucked into the side, the boots. That was all fine in the bush, but here where you could buy ice-creams by just nipping across the road, where people sat at tables guzzling cans, I was wildly overdone, and the drifting crowds gave this other with the biggobbo on his back a wide berth.
But the colour! The smells! The people everywhere! The little cream finials of mock colonial architecture! Tourist craft bobbed at the wharves, willing to whisk you anywhere and to lighten your wallet. Mack Attack with its turbo-charged 2600-horsepower Mack truck engines, or the Excitor with its twin 6.5-litre V8s, would power you up to the Hole in the Rock at Cape Brett.
Dolphin Discoveries could pinpoint the dolphin pods with sonar, set you swimming among them and replay underwater video footage of your mystical experience on the way home.
And then I was back, eyes of chipped granite, pushing into the Russell State Forest, following the Papakauri Stream up, pitching camp finally beside a DoC shelter on the main through route, listening to the dusk chorus of tui, their bustling through the trees, and later, in the darkness, the moreporks and the shriek of kiwi.
In the morning I awoke to the sound of a vehicle. A Mitsubishi twincab ute pulled into the clearing, and a Doc hunter got out and freed his little goat-tracking dog from a pen on the back.
Sean Gardiner came across and we had a chat about my route. I’d follow a grassed 4WD track to Mt Monoa, the highest point in the forest, then branch east off it, down the Russell Track to exit at the back of Mokau Bay. That was the plan. The main traverse and the side track were clearly marked on the topo map and on a DoC pamphlet I was carrying.
“Okay,” said Gardiner, “now you can’t get to the Monoa summit. That side track is closed, but you’ll go past it pretty close to the top. You’ll recognise the spot, the track is terraced there, and you’ll be able to see Pukemoremore—it’s a big bald rock to the south-west. The track goes down a saddle towards Pukemoremore, it’s a big dip, then it climbs. You’ll need to watch closely for the start of the Russell Track.”
“Why?” I asked. In my mind I only had to follow signposts through and out. Where was the problem?
“The start of the track is a bit shabby,” said Gardiner. “If you like I can run you up and show you exactly where you go in.”
I said no—I was walking every metre of Te Araroa—but I was interested that the entrance to a major side trail had suddenly become so hard to find. Then I realised just what I was being told. I remembered looking at the posts alongside this DoC shelter last night and that they’d struck me as strange. Bare posts, without signage.
“The entrance to the Russell Track is signed, though,” I said.
“No,” said Gardiner. “There might be a post still up, or a hole where the post has been, but we’ve taken the signs down.”
“Mt Monoa is signed?”
“You’ve taken the signs down on this track too?”
“That’s right. People were getting lost, mostly over in the Monoa area. A lot of the tracks were getting overgrown. We don’t have the money to maintain them, so we decided to close them. I pulled up a lot of the signs myself, two weeks before Christmas.”
“Has it occurred to DoC,” I said, “that if people were getting lost in a forest with signs, and you pull up the signs, they’re going to get even more lost?”
“Yeah,” said Gardiner, “you’re better off talking to the Russell Field Centre about the actual reasoning. I’m just one of the hands who has to do what he’s told to do.”
I watched him go off with the little terrier Gin casting around in front, and a .223 Ruger over his shoulder, and felt a flash of anger.
The anger was not with Gardiner—I was grateful for his detailed advice. I knew that if I hadn’t met him, I’d have gone merrily off that morning following a very straightforward main traverse. I knew that I would have walked it without close attention to the topo map, expecting the major features such as Mt Monoa to be signposted, and the main side tracks too. I didn’t have the GPS with me at this point, and topo maps are fine while you’re paying attention to every new ridge,but not when you try to pick up your position without previous reference. I suspect that without that happy meeting with Gardiner I’d have lost my way in the Russell State Forest.
The anger was with DoC. It was spending money to eradicate the goats to regenerate the understorey to make a better forest that no one finally would see. It didn’t make sense. The shelter was maybe the last place in the forest to have any signage at all. It was covered in it—you know the sort: “Black Rulz,” “Reality is just an illusion created by lack of alcohol,” “Stefan and Anders from Sweden.” I vented my mood by carving in my own: “Te Araroa 8/1/98.” Can DoC—or, to go one step up the chain, the government that has underfunded DoC ever since its formation in 1989—earmark enough money to keep open at least one tramping through route—please?
I followed the main trail and came up the side of Mt Monoa. You could see the forest from here, with its mighty ridges and steep falls. I sighted Pukemoremore, and went on down the saddle. A single post still marked the beginning of the Russell Track, but you’d never have picked it otherwise. I took a compass bearing on my exit point a couple of kilometres to the south-east, and pushed uphill into the bush.
Shabby was the word. The trail was hard to follow, but I found an old red and white marker nailed to a tree, then another, and I searched for each one, and my eye was as pleased to see each one as if they’d been thimbles of water in a desert. They led on. Then they stopped, but the trail was clear enough. It led on. It opened onto a heart-stopping view. You couldn’t see the precipice all around, but you could feel it. If there had been a trail marker in front it would be hung on thin air.
I went back to the last marker. The trail had to go sideways from there, and I cast about looking for it. I went down precipitous slopes, hanging on to the vegetation to try to pick up the deviation. Nothing.
I sat down on the ridge and took a long slug of water. The afternoon was drawing in—it always does when you’re in trouble in the bush. I studied the terrain carefully against the map, and it was obvious that the Russell Track must lead down the ridge that lay immediately east, and that there must be a cross-trail to pick it up. I went carefully back over the same ground I’d come, but could find no sign of it. Right, I’d just bushbash it. I chose a likely spot, and went in. I pushed through foliage, and there, half-buried in humus, was a trail marker.
From there the track was easy enough to follow. The old markers were still in place. It was a steady descent to Mokau, with kauri and dracophyllum on the occasional knolls, and once, a view back to Pukemoremore.
At Mokau there was a marae, but no camping ground. The beach was Maori land, with small makeshift dwellings, collections of caravans providing the extra rooms, and horses wandering through. I knocked on the door of a house belonging to Willie and Cressida Williams. Was there any place I could pitch a tent?
“How about under that pear tree,” said Williams, pointing into his own backyard.
The pear tree it was, and I drifted off to sleep that night with horses quietly whinnying and tearing the grass all around.
The Wind Began to blow at Helena Bay, where I chanced upon a Mr Whippy and spent $2 I’d found on the road. The wind blew on the little-used back road up to Mimiwhangata, picking up road dust and hurling it in sheets against the clay. bank_ with such force that the stuff curled upwards, then over on itself, and I was walking through what surfers call the barrel. :
Head down along Mimiwhangata Beach and all the bays beyond. By the time T walked into Whananaki, the wind was whipping the quiet estuary to a fury, and I was staggering sideways under the blast.
I took time out of the weather to write, then headed down the DoC walkway between Whananaki and Matapouri. All the little bays! Each one was a cameo of a New Zealand camping holiday, except for the fact that a cyclone poised somewhere out in the Pacific was sending in swells Ow dumped the swimmers flailing onto ‘the sand. The track ran along an old coach trail. It hung just above the coast at what they call the cartographer’s angle—about 35 degrees elevation—and all the pretty bays and their tents were laid out like toys.
I walked on into Whangarei. Past the , Whangarei Falls, where Maori kids were jumping from high up in a macrocarpa into the deep pool at the top of the waterfall. On into the city, where I bought a new collapsible water bottle, six extra tent pegs, and a second thermal T-shirt. I sat down for a cup of espresso coffee—I mean, what are cities for? Then I set off for Whangarei Heads.
Next morning I was staring at Mt Manaia-100 metres higher, for those who measure such things, than Auckland’s Skytower. The whole of Whangarei Heads is a scribble of volcanic violence, but even amid that craggy bunch Manaia stood out and was visible far out to sea. It had four high-standing pillars, one of them tilted back halfway up its length as if about to swipe the others off the summit ridge.
I had been invited onto the Kim Hill show on National Radio, and I planned to do it by cellphone from the summit. In preparation for the interview, I’d girded myself with the mountain’s myth—the dead warrior souls that flow down its flanks at night, and the story of those weird standing stones on the summit. Manaia was a tohunga. His wife, Maungakiekie, was equally powerful inthings of the spirit. The two tohunga, two daughters and a number of dogs were returning from a visit to the Bay of Islands. Maungakiekie had quarrelled with Manaia all the way—there is reference to a calabash in one version of the story—and the gods above grew restless. The tohunga came along the summit ridge of their home, still hard at it, and the gods lost patience—enough! Freeze them! I had just begun talking to Hill when a voice cut through the conversation.
“You promised me a drink of water!” Tugged by her dogs, scolding them constantly, a woman I’d passed on the way up now shouted at me loud enough to go out live on radio. It was true, I had promised I’d give her two slavering animals a drink at the top.
But what a time to call in the pledge! I juggled Hill in one hand, retrieved my water bottle with the other, handed it across, and talked on as the woman took it, glared at me, drank some, spilled most, emptied the rest on the ground at my feet, threw the bottle down, beat on the picnic table to express some violent anger and was pulled away again by her dogs like a charioteer. I never knew what the anger was, but I wondered later about spiritual guardians on a mountain that is acknowledged as spooky by Pakeha and Maori alike—Maungakiekie?
I came to the Waipu River, the one watercourse on this coast I couldn’t wade, but Te Araroa’s benign star had put a bearded guardian there, sunbathing peacefully naked on the deserted Bream Bay beside his dinghy while his children built sand castles.
Michael van Beek ferried me across, and invited me up to his mother’s riverside house. Leonie van Beek was a guardian too. The whole river mouth was a bird refuge, and the van Beek binoculars constantly swept this shore from the house. Intruders with dogs were warned off, fires reported. Leonie knew the exact number of the rare fledgling fairy terns in her patch, and Michael instructed me what to do if a wading bird pulled the broken wing act: follow it, for it led you away from that vulnerable scrape in the sand, its nest.
I walked down to the lagoon, watching for fairy terns. Back at the house we’d discussed their distinctive markings. Yellow legs, not red. Lighter in build than their cousins the white-fronted terns . The distinctive black cap that all terns have, from the Caspian on down, was less severe, was deckle-edged.
I may have seen one. A single small grey sickle wavered on an inland dune, but I couldn’t get close enough to know, and then the oystercatchers simply took over the game. Two fledglings fled into the dunes. One of their parents eyed me. It seemed to me the fledglings were gone and I posed no threat, but the bigger of the two birds engaged me anyway. Hey, you big ape! He intercepted my direction of travel and began to strut along about 20 metres in front. I remembered what Michael van Beek had said. I followed briskly. This was no standard broken wing act. I’d struck the Jim Carrey of the Waipu Spit. He began to reel and limp and stumble. I followed, the bird turned towards the lagoon and you could see his drag marks in the wet sand. One seriously sick oystercatcher.
I kept following, and finally it was all over for the bird. My persistence had paid off. I’d exhausted it. Its long red legs simply folded up. The whole body went down on the wet sand. The wings flapped feebly. The beak gaped open on its last breath and, as if falling finally on its own sword, the head flopped hopelessly forward and the beak half-buried itself in the mud.
I advanced, curious, concerned. The thing was a wreck. One gleaming eye perhaps gave the game away. Bright as a bead. Calibrating speed, distance, and at the last moment—Hey, sucker!—the long red legs kick-launched it, the wings gave a couple of powerful sweeps, and the bird rose clean and unencumbered and flew away over the lagoon.
Auckland was by now a nighttime loom of light behind the hills, a distant party, but there were still hoops to jump through. Carter Holt Harvey’s Mahurangi Forest was the first. I’d tramped a paper road behind Leigh, through Omaha Forest, and from there needed to connect with DoC’s Dome Forest bush track, but the CI-IH forest lay between the two, untracked.
I followed my map into the pines, aware again how little the 1:50,000 maps, with their 36 neat little pinetree symbols per square kilometre, reflect the reality. This forest was vast, and I walked an endless soft brown aisle, the branches overhead as angled, as regularly crisscrossed, as the swords of some ultimate military wedding. Puff balls, the washed-out remains of fly agaric, the skulls of slain animals, were the confetti at my feet.
I got lost briefly, camped, broke out by noon next day and could see the Dome at last. Nothing lay between me and it but a huge benign meadow.
A diabolical meadow. The grass was often as high as my chest and it grew on cut-over pines, an invisible cross-hatching of branches and trunks where my boots slipped and jammed. I was still in it at 3 P.M., the hottest part of what was Auckland’s hottest summer day, and every loose grass seed the meadow could shake on me stuck fast. Even the delicate thistle seeds that usually, like so many ethereal tumbleweeds, do no more than kiss and begone, plastered themselves onto my wet skin.
I reached the Dome bushline and pulled myself to the top. I unpacked the mobile. I rang the DoC field office to tell them I was out, and halfway through the call the bat-phone went dead, beeping a triumphant “Discharging” signal. It was an adequate description of a spent tramper, leaning against the trig, sweating from every pore.
I went on down the track to the Top of the Dome Teahouse, drank three orange juices, two coffees, sank a milkshake, then walked down to Sheep World Caravan Park.
It was 6 P.M., still early, and I could have got to Warkworth, but I was tired and dirty, and went in.
“Bloody hell,” said the caravan park man. “Where have you come from?”
Are you carrying water, Bob?” I asked, seeing an obvious gap as the Mayor of Waitakere City packed his kete.
“No,” said Harvey, “I’ll drink from the streams—they’re Giardia-free.”
I’d come to the metropolitan area from the Okura Bush Track, then had to choose. The trail plan had an east coast or west coast route through Auckland. The East Coast BaysDevonport coastal walk was the most direct, but North Shore City Council is developing a western green corridor, too, through to Paremoremo. Beyond that is the Riverhead Forest, then a rail corridor, then the Cascades, the beginning of the Waitakere Regional Park track system.
I was raised in the Waitakere Ranges. It was inevitable I would tramp west, and I came through to meet the mayor, who happens to be Te Araroa Trust’s foundation chairman, at his Karekare bath.
He led out along the Karekare sands, waving to the clubbies on the surf club deck, gesturing right at this thing, gesturing left at that.
Just yesterday he’d done the Paratahi Island swim.
“It’s no shame to say you’re not going to do it this year, but you do,” he mused, and I followed his gesture out to where the west coast rollers were wickedly massaging the flanks of the saw-toothed volcanic remnant 750 metres offshore. “It’s a test. Some of us are crazy for a month beforehand. The thing looms in your imagination and fear. I nearly died last year—the waves were just so massive. And yesterday? I got into a rip and went south into what we call the Wasteland, the strip between Karekare and Whatipu. I came ashore, to be honest, a bit stuffed, but alive. I’d done the island.”
He led on to the Whatipu wetlands. “This is the trail,” he said confidently, then a little later: “This was the trail, but we’ve had rain. I can no longer see the trail.”
All the delights of the swamp gathered to greet us. Thick slime, heated by the sun,slid hot past out thighs, uneven ground underfoot caused us to sink and stumble and the reeds grew so tall that sometimes could see no more of the mayor—just 15 metres in front and still graciously providing leadership—than his head.
But look: he was having fun. The mats,; of floating vegetation became so dense, Lake Titicaca itself would have bee proud to support them. They allow you to spring pneumatically forward, apparently no more than ankle deep.
“I am walking on water! I am walking on water! ” cried Harvey, throwing his hands up in hallelujah mode as he progressed across these bits.
The weed slowly thinned and gave way.
“I have lost the faith! I have 1A-‘ the faith!” cried the Mayor of
Waitakere, sinking back to a waist-deep wade. We finally splashed our way out of the swamp and collapsed back onto dry sand. Giardiafree or not, you wouldn’t want to drink what we’d just come through, and the mayor quenched himself from my water bottle.
We made Whatipu hours later than we’d planned, called in to the Whatipu Lodge for a cup of coffee, then set off up the Omanawanui Bush Track. The views out onto the Manukau Bar are spectacular, and Harvey, as usual, was full of relevant stories, in this case, the wreck of the Orpheus in 1863: “The wrong charts—an early Erebus.”
I’d always been curious about a swim he’d done across the mouth of the Manukau Harbour in the 1980s, and asked him about it. ‘We started from that beach over there—” he pointed across. The mouth was barely three kilometres wide, and immense volumes of tidal water squeezed through the gap, filling or emptying the great harbour beyond.
We were swept out, then the tide turned in the middle of the swim, and it was like a massive underwater egg-heater. We were above it, but underneath there was a feeling like the biggest turbines in the world were turning. We were part of it, then released, and borne onto the beach down there.”
Just before Huia, the mayor cribbed the last of my water to slake the thirst of his dog, then was taken off by car to catch the Elton John-Billy Joel concert. I kept walking.
Rivers are the arterial bloodstream of a nation. New Zealand’s biggest river should be included in a national foot trail, of course, and so I pinned the Waikato out on my Devonport lawn, stood on the deck above, cellphone to my ear, and rang every one of the farmers.
Could I come through on the stopbanks? Could a national trail come through on the stopbanks? Hour upon hour, my ear hot, my lips persuasive, piece by piece, through dozens of properties.
I got generous farming permissions all the way, but everyone warned of the electric fences. You could use the plastic handles to unhook, then rehook, them, but the handles didn’t always work, and you were then delivered a jolt. One farmer described it, with the loving gusto of experience, as like a blow on the shoulders with a cricket bat. For exactly 3000th of a second, said another, the jolt would turn you into a filament bright enough to read by.
I crossed Auckland on the green trails, skirted the Hunuas and walked south along the stopbanks of the Mangatawhiri Stream.
Big squalls blew up from the west. The stopbanks gave a low view across maize that stretched as far—and right now looked as sinister—as a van Gogh cornfield. The horizon went dark, the birds fled and advance winds shook the million dry heads of the maize. I was caught in driving rain for 30 minutes, without shelter, before falling into an open-ended half-round barn set in the maize fields, looking around me at the sort of stuff that creates modern crops. Piles of urea sacks. A mountain of empty plastic containers, with striped hazard warnings, and the legend “Miscellaneous Dangerous Substances.” AtrazineTM: “residual herbicide for the control of broadleaf weeds.” TrophyTM: “for selective pre-emergence weed control in maize and sweetcorn.”
The weather eased, and I left the shed of poisons, making Mercer by dusk. The town began as a river port. The river traffic disappeared, but by then the railway line was through, and Mercer became a refreshment stop, allowing A. R. D. Fairburn to stare gloomily into his NZR cup and famously to parody Portia in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice: “The squalid tea of Mercer is not strained.”
Riverport once, trainstop no more, it was a State Highway Onestop now, its signs set tall to lure passing traffic. Cars and 40-tonne rigs gassed up here, ordered their Coke and burgers, wheeled on the concrete pavilions and sped back to the highway. But no tramper’s niche existed here, no campground or pub, no quality of mercy for the unhorsed.
Onward from Mercer the road jammed against the river. The riverbank was untracked and densely hung with willow, and so for the first time I couldn’t avoid State Highway One.
Staccato windblast lifted my cap. I tightened the Velcro and walked head down. What is it about a highway that encourages the biff? Your Motown Favourites tape has just busted its leader? Biff it. You’ve finished your packet of Holiday cigarettes? Biff it. Your empty H2GO bottle with the neat nipple top? Biffed. Your teddy bear in an act of spite when Mum wasn’t watching? Biffed. Your bikini top? The mind boggles at that biff. Punched-out windshield glass, thrown retread rubber, spilled onions, candy bar wrappers and filter-tipped butts by the bleached and uncurling thousands, and always, just a metre or two away, that blatting steel—the road wasn’t fun.
I blanched at the narrow Whangamarino Bridge, and hand-over-handed across, outside the rail. I paid passing respects to the poignant roadside crosses where taped-on ceramic angels or delicately veined metal butterflies symboled the souls that had taken wing here. Windmill flowers spun on the crosses, stay-bright plastic flowers gleamed, and the real flowers, gone dry, shook in the rushing wind of the big transports.
And then I was away from it. A raised green path stretched into the distance. It stood a metre above the surrounding pasture, and to a walker reeling away from Highway One it seemed a route of such beckoning allure that I nicknamed it Byway One. It was, with its bronzed crickets hopping away underfoot, its yellow upturned dandelions, its light screen of trees with the big river glinting beyond, and with its deliciously nasty but avoidable bites from the 4000-volt serpents, a walk into Eden. The eastern stopbank of the Waikato River.
I made camp at evening and watched the river’s huge and silent tonnages of water slip by. I saw a golden koi carp rise slowly to break the shining surface, and the long reflections of New Zealand’s beautiful river-grove trees, the kahikatea. I listened to the lowing of distant cattle, and the sound seemed exactly to trace the darkening outline of the hills.
It was a big-river walk; it was a historic walk. Nothing escapes the light of history, and this stretch of river was luminous. At Meremere, British troops stalled for three months in front of the formidable Tainui fortification, but then General Cameron produced, fresh from its secret construction in Sydney, the war’s greatest surprise. He used his new gunboat, Pioneer, to leapfrog his troops upriver past the blockade.
The Maori King’s warriors then fell back onto their next riverside position, Rangiriri. Their gunpowder mixed sulphur from Rotorua, their bullets were lead rendered down from the roofing nails of their flour mills, and British troops came at them on November 20, 1863, the officers waving the Colt .45s of the American West.
There will come a day when the tramper, pausing to picnic against the buttress of a kahikatea, watching the silent slippage of the river and remembering the history, will wonder at time, and change, and beauty, and bravery and death, and how it ever was that property rights kept this river out of bounds to the nation.
Pirongia almost begged to be climbed. South-west of Hamilton, it dominated the horizon with that smooth symmetry that volcanoes have—except that its entire summit had been ripped off long ago by monstrous explosions.
Straight on from the ending of the Karamu Walkway, I entered Pirongia’s foothills at Blue Bull Stream. It was mid-afternoon and a pleas-,) ant walk in, but as I turned onto the Tahuanui Track to the summit, the bush closed in and the light faded. It was only 3.30 P.M. I felt a prickle of cold moisture on my cheek, and realised I’d entered the cloud level.
I put on my anorak and kept climbing. Above me the bush canopy began to leak. Big heavy drops. The bush—around me was wet. My anorak was soon slick with water. The track was pooled with water, and rivulets threaded from foothold to foothold down the steeper bits. My boots were sodden. The mountain bore all the signs of a heavy downpour, but I hadn’t seen anything you could call actual rain.
Any apex is supposed to shed liquids, and I had the idea that the higher I climbed on Pirongia’s flanks the drier it was going to get. Not at all.. The more I climbed, the more the water seeped, and the more’, the mud oozed from its peaty flanks. The mountain exuded water with as much suggestive energy as the oil see pages of Texas. I clung to the trig finally the way Noah might have clung to his ark, and went on in a cloudy whiteout to the Pahautea Hut.
One word permeated the but book: mud.
Some of my fellow trampers were sufficiently gobstruck by it they simply repeated the same word, over and over, like accident victims.’
“Mud, mud mud,” wrote one.
“Doesn’t the sun ever come out on this f—hill?” wrote another.
As I turned the pages, I discovered that for Dave of the UK the muddy climb to the-summit changed his life. “I found this journey bordered on the sick,” he wrote, “and has forced me to return to England to become a priest.”
Late the following day, I came off the mountain wet, dirty and bedraggled. A big rainstorm was threatening, and, as I sometimes did in dire circumstance, I knocked on the first lighted door I saw and suggested I sleep in the shed. Gordon Brierly was a motorcycle mechanic. He brought down a thermos of boiling water, a plate of noodles, instant coffee, tea bags, a container of sugar, a little jar of milk, switched on the radio and bade me good night.
I looked around. As a big rain began to snick the corrugated-iron roof, as I mixed myself a cup of hot sweet coffee, as I unrolled my sleeping bag onto a dry carpeted corner next to the weight-training equipment and lay down, I knew this was the Ritz. The radio gabbled on, and came up to its 8 P.M. horoscope feature. A woman’s voice began to reel off the romantic encounters, the financial
windfalls, the opportunities for travel, the whole standard bagful of lucky breaks that awaited the Tauruses, the Geminis, the Virgos out there in the darkness. She was coming up to Pisces, my own star sign, and I waited patiently.
I looked around at a ceiling lined with tar paper and chicken wire. At rafters hung with motorbike exhaust systems. At a floor stacked with drums of Motul motor oil. At shelves crammed with motor parts. I looked at the rat who’d come out to lick his whiskers on top of an engine casing.
“Pisces,” husked the woman portentously. “A walk on the wild side will bring a new dimension into your life.”
Stand Sarge! Walk on, Fly!” With shouts and whistles, Guy Pilkington directed his dogs, and 1800 ewes began to pour down the flanks of a valley above Kawhia Harbour. The huntaways Sarge and Ru moved the main mobs quickly, barking and running boisterously at their heels. The little English Collie eye dog, Fly, was gone from sight somewhere in the tops seeking less biddable sheep. She was a silent dog, a slinking dog, a thinker.
“Walk on, Fly!” The huntaways were back, panting and lolling. Pilkington kept calling to Fly, but you couldn’t see her.
“We seem,” he said, “to have lost Fly.”
Pilkington grew up on this farm, but left in the 1970s to earn the big dollars on a North Sea oil rig. It was a period of change for farmers. New Zealand had lost its traditional wool and meat market as Britain entered the EEC, but a new and aggressive Prime Minister, Robert Muldoon, arrived in 1975. Sheep had always seen New Zealand right, you just had to keep stacking them up. Muldoon put in place the Land Development Encouragement loans: the interest rates were low, you could even get the things written off if you met certain production targets. New Zealand’s steep marginal lands began to smoke with the burn-offs, they began to tinge green.
When his father divvied up the family farm, Guy’s share was a few hundred acres of good grass, and 1700 acres of steep country, cleared in the 1900s but reverted since to bush. Guy came back to New Zealand, got an LDE loan, and with Deb Pilkington set out to make a farm.
That was when inflation started to go crazy. When Pilkington began bringing in the farm, he could clear it, fence it, and grass it for $100 an acre. Within a few years that was $400 an acre, and still rising. The debt went up, and farming returns went down. At the beginning, if you inflation-adjusted the dollar to 1998 levels, wool brought in close to $20 a kilo. It brought in $2.60 a kilo now.
“Even so,” said Pilkington, “this farm is a very good living—but not with the debt. Forty-six per cent of the gross income goes to debt servicing. The rest is on-farm costs plus our drawings.”
“Our income. It’s $15,000 a year, for a family of six. That’s what we live on. There she is, up on the bluff. Walk on right, Fly!”
Way up on the opposing ridge, a blackand-white pelt crouched, slid forward, and the last of the flock flowed downhill to join the main mob. Pilkington rolled a smoke, and his eyes crinkled, watching them come. His mind was gone from the debt.
“In mid-summer,” said Pilkington, “you’re out here earlier than this-4 A.M. The moon is out, then the sun comes over the hill. There’s a lot of drudgery in farming: keeping the country clean, the fences repaired, but when you’re out on your horse with the dogs shuttling the stock around—that’s the cream of farming.”
We talked on. Farmers, after that first taciturn silence, often like to talk. This is something Te Araroa has taught me. Farmers herd the cattle, they spread the lime, they have trampled out the vintage, so to speak, for years, and they’re wise about the land and its animals. But there is no communal centre to New Zealand’s quasi-industrial farms, nowhere to share, and out here, where the magpies eternally quardle-oodleardle-wardle-doodle in the pines, where the cows low and the silences extend, you could get both isolated and bored.
We moved the mob onto the next hill, and came back up the valley to the farmhouse, a turn-of-the-century kauri villa that Pilkington had trucked in, turned sideways to the sublime outlook over Kawhia, then extended with a second storey and two big bays with a verandah between. He’d done most of it himself, using rimu off the farm.
The house interior had polished floors of native timber, a modern kitchen, a long dining table standing on a thick Chinese carpet, a patio out the back. It aspired to be a tasteful upper-middle-class dwelling that a farmer could fall into at the end of the day and know he’d succeeded. Room by room it was coming up to that standard.
The Pilkington family felt solid. The affection of husband and wife was still palpable, the kids happy. But the family was under stress too. Fifteen thousand a year. Add on the farming perks of course—cheap meat and a 60 per cent tax write-off on the car’s running costs—but you could sense the underlying worry that, just maybe, and after 20 years of hard work, they’d have to sell up.
It was time to go. An unformed paper road would take me through to Ike Johnston’s farm, halfway between Pilkington’s and Waitomo. I’d rung Johnston that morning, and had a brief, gruff, chat.
“When you get to the woolshed,” Johnston had said, “carry on until you come to a quarry. Go up the hill there and you’ll see the airstrip. Ngauruhoe and Ruapehu will be right in front. Take a line off the mountains, and stay right of a big patch of bush. That’ll get you through to Waitomo.
Ngauruhoe? Ruapehu? They seemed a million miles away. Had I really come that far? An old bulldozed track led away south. To the west, I saw a whitened escarpment, and it pleased me. It looked as if the scarified rock had been jacked up right through the earth. Tomo country. I was entering the limestone belt.
I walked on down a horse-trekking trail, crested the Putaki tops to stupendous views across half the North Island and dropped down to Waitomo.
Then on to Te Kuiti, where the King Country-Taranaki by-election was in full swing. The National Party was ensconced in the Te Kuiti Club, sipping G&Ts while TV One’s Election Night Special beamed into the room. There was a determined cheer when the National Party secretary took the mobile call that confirmed a win. The majority was way down, but it was a win.
Act man Rodney Hide swept in later and laid a ham-like handshake on everyone within reach. He was the only man I saw who looked happy that night. His party had moved up from single-digit support in the last general election to take a massive 25 per cent of the by-election vote. The heartland was hurting. I’d been to the very places where it was hurting. It had protested by moving to the political right.
Ate Kuitti Surveyor, Max Harris, had volunteered to do a cadastral (property boundaries) search of the Mangaokewa River, to take Te Araroa onward to Pureora State Forest, and had given me a map that showed strips of public land running continuously upriver for 30 km. The route was untracked, though, and I began the tramp forcing passage along a limestone clifftop through gorse and blackberry. In places I had to hack my way through briars with a pocketknife, sawing away at the big leaders, as thick as electric cord some of them, and pulling my way through the rest of the shoulder-high thicket.
I picked my way down to the river flats. My side of the river was farmland, grassed and clean of any bush. The river flowed almost level with the land, and on the other side, the bush rose tall, unmilled, magnificent, just as New Zealand’s early landscape painters had seen it. Big, virgin, podocarp forest. It was so clear and clean and perfect it was like looking through glass at some vast museum diorama.
Next day I pushed through a newly planted pine plantation in rain and knee-deep grass before linking up with State Highway 30. I’d been steadily climbing since leaving Te Kuiti. The temperature had dropped, and I could see my breath now in the late afternoon light.
Goodwill was with me, as it had been since the start of the tramp. The sole-charge cop at Benneydale, concerned that I should not lose my way in the maze of forest roads leading into Pureora, spray-painted direction arrows at every turn-off. I came in at night, picking out the green arrows by torchlight, and DoC’s 2IC at Pureora, Ian Marshall, had a fire and a hot meal waiting.
Luck was with me, too. At 7.30 on my second morning at Pureora, Marshall took me out to listen for kokako. The bird with the blue wattles, the black eyemask and the great voice is found in Puketi Forest, the Hunuas and at Mapara, near Te Kuiti, and I’d been to all three forests, but heard nothing. When a kokako sings, I’d been told, you know it. You know it even at a distance, for the bird’s low notes have a resonance that can penetrate two kilometres through bush. But kokako are rare.
Now the olive silhouettes of the forest loomed in a dense mist. We stopped the truck, got out, and almost immediately I heard the sound of a glass gong.
Once, twice. “That’s him,” said Marshall.
Stupidly, I began to scribble. The mizzled atmosphere diluted the ink and it ran down the page as I tried to trace the song.
“Ah-ooh-WAH,” I wrote in my notebook. I look back at it now. The phonetics are like something from a comic. Water-smudged lines waver across the page in an attempt to record the bird’s superb ability to swell and diminish its notes.
“Interval of a fifth,” I wrote in the one note that still makes brittle sense. I used circles for the pure tone notes with their vibrant harmonics, and strokes to indicate the clicks and the little grace notes.
The power of it in the mist! The impotence of the notation! Twice I simply wrote “Yearning” and I look at the aide–memoire now and wonder why I bothered. It may be that we need a ritual for the kokako’s song, something that abolishes your wretched intelligence and opens your mind. Falling to your knees would do it. The pure notes dropped from the top of a tall kahikatea and the mist closed around them the way a weightless environment encloses hanging globules of water. Then they vanished, rolling away from the borders of classification.
In Pureora Forest a small plinth, set amid deep bush, marks the exact geographic centre of the North Island, and it struck me only later that the kokako, one of the rarest of New Zealand birds and one of the world’s top 10 songsters, had sung within just a few kilometres of that plinth.
I’d tramped around 700 kilometres to get to this halfway point, and the promise of birdsong would do: a clear and transcendent centre to Te Araroa’s North Island trail.