The road goes ever on and on

New Zealand has a national trail because of a story Geoff Chapple wrote 25 years ago.

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Adrian Malloch

When Geoff Chapple set out at the end of 1997 to walk the length of the North Island, he tried not to let anyone know. For three years, he’d been promoting the idea of a trail from Cape Reinga to Bluff—Te Araroa, ‘the long path’—and now it was time to test it out.

“I made no fuss whatsoever when I set out to walk the route, because I thought, ‘I might break down within days’,” he says, laughing. He knew what his fellow journalists might write if he dropped out—or, worse, if he had to be rescued.

We’re about to set off on one of the tracks he opened, which climbs onto a ridgeline above Puhoi. Behind us, Te Araroa continues north into a paddock, but we’re walking towards Bluff. Not that you’d know it: the sign indicates only this five-kilometre stretch.

“It should really say how long to Cape Reinga, so you get the thing of ‘Oh, I’m standing on an electric thread; if I want to keep walking for two weeks, I can do it’,” says Chapple, a bit annoyed. It’s missing the whole point. He wanted to have poetry at every trail head, too, and he got a couple of lines from A. R. D.  Fairburn onto a sign near Kerikeri, lines he knows by heart: “I could be happy, in blue and fortunate weather, / Roaming the country that lies between you and the sun.”

That’s because Chapple understands that tramping has romance as well as function, that walking is psychological as much as physical. That it transforms people when they do it for long enough.

Has it changed him? “At one time I thought I was absolutely crash hot, and I’m much more inclined now to recognise other people’s talents,” he laughs, and then tells me the biggest change is visible on his bookshelf at home: the volumes about birds, trees, fungi, rocks. To walk is to notice.

“There’s something sort of lofty about it. You get into another zone, where you’re much more aware.

“I honestly think there’s a deep sort of memory in there—which you kind of lose in urban settings—to do with your capacities, to do quite extraordinary sorts of physical things, even though here, step by step, it doesn’t feel extraordinary.”

It’s reassuring to learn that Chapple is no hardened outdoorsman, but rather the kind of person you hope you will meet in a hut at the end of the day: too affable to be called rugged, and full of good yarns, stories that illuminate rather than self-aggrandise.

For a while, he wrote a weekly column for the Listener, so he’d go and do things that would end up being interesting. It involved a lot of “unconventional walks”, he says.

“I knew if you did long walks that put you into contact with New Zealanders in the backcountry, it was going to be interesting. New Zealand has got brilliant cracker-barrel philosophers, eccentrics, straight-up farming people with very blunt and accurate views of their own land.”

Before Te Araroa, he spent a year travelling New Zealand end to end to write a book on the Springbok tour protests, which he’d also participated in to the point of being arrested twice. “That book practically did me in.”

Then, to recover, he travelled around the South Island for a year with his wife, Miriam Beatson, and three children, who were homeschooled along the way: “They learned so much, and it was real.”

In 1994, he filed the column calling for Te Araroa. “I’ve always said that it was written into existence, this trail; it was only ever an idea on newsprint.”

Getting the trail through was a tough slog—lots of dedicated people, little money—but every time Chapple considered chucking it in, he remembered Edmund Hillary extracting a promise from him to see it through. As if he’d let Sir Ed down.

Near the descent to Puhoi, the track emerges from the bush to a sweeping landscape: the village nestled in the hills, the drizzle coming on, the sound of mowing rising from the valley, a shred of smoke wafting from a chimney. I imagine this being the end of a tramper’s day: the sunset resting on the hills and the Puhoi pub below.

“I knew, absolutely knew, that it had to come upon Puhoi from a height,” says Chapple, satisfied, “because it’s such a little hamlet.”

The original design for this track followed the river below, but Chapple had it changed. From up here, human habitation seems diminished in size and complexity: just another species living in the land’s nooks and crannies.

Te Araroa, it occurs to me, is less a physical undertaking than a process for better understanding ourselves, understanding each other.

“I was never a tramper as such,” says Chapple. “Not in a dedicated sense. It’s more like—this country has so many stones to turn over, that’ll give you what the culture is, and those sort of things are what interests me.”

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