Drifting alone on a sea of white (Te Araroa tramp days 42-48; kms 701-835)

If you get out of the cities and towns, and turn down any nearly-anonymous, barely-gravelled side road, you’ll experience a salient feature of Aotearoa: emptiness.

Particularly in mid-winter, when everything’s asleep. The land is full of trees, rocks and hills, but (at first glance, at least) not much else.

No people, no animals. It’s spooky but I like it.

This particular landing in the chilly emptiness happened in July, 2018, five months after my last leg of Te Araroa, a 3000-kilometre tramp down the length of New Zealand. I’m doing it in sections, when I get annual leave.

Since January, 2017 I’ve done 835 kilometres, from Cape Reinga to the stretch I’m writing about now -– a soggy, serene bit of Waikato and the King Country.

This stretch started, really, when I woke up in the emptiness, beside a gravel road outside Te Awamutu. I’d pulled over at 3am for a sleep after driving overnight from Wellington, setting my alarm for dawn.

I wanted to get walking as early as I could from Huntly, the Waikato riverside town I’d reached last time.

The day’s route went along the Haakarimata Range; being a ridge-top, there are no streams. I’d have to get right along and down to avoid a thirsty night.

I parked, grabbed a pie and coffee, shouldered my pack and set off.

Day 42: Huntly to Ngāruawāhia – 18km

It felt very good to be walking south, again. Everything I needed for the next seven days was on my back, apart from a food re-supply I would do on the way.

Huntly has its rough edges, and there are those who run it down.

I like how its unpretentious houses draw close to the great, untidy river, but not too close – they nod at it warily, not over-familiar, minding its strength.

Someone has built a riverside walk, with paths between wetland pools cut off from the main flow. The paths are lined with rough grasses, winter-scrawny but staunch, indifferent to the cold, waiting it out.

img_0157
Looking north, downriver, toward the Huntly rail bridge and power station.

Upstream, the winter floods have piled driftwood like colossal bones, and the willows lie open to the wind.

img_0160
The Huntly riverside walkway, looking south – up river – toward the road bridge, the Haakrimata Range, and Hamilton.

At the end of the wetland walk you cross the road bridge, and there’s about four kilometres of road-walking toward Ngāruawāhia.

The bumpy spine of the Haakarimata Range loomed into view. That crinkly outcrop looked an easy jaunt on the map, but at that moment I got in my guts a familiar jolt: the gap between the downloadable or foldable world, and the giant, jagged one.

Along there, the river shows, at times, its grimy, swallowing side:

A man in an orange high-vis vest overtook me. He had a pragmatic, wrinkly smile, a neat goatee and, trotting beside him, an old, cheerful-looking dog.

“Stretching the legs?” I asked. “Oh, doing my daily lap with this fulla,” he said, pointing to the cheery dog. “Where you off to, bro?”

When I said Ngāruawāhia he started to warn me about the road, which is narrow, but I said I was going along the range. His eyebrows shot up. “Oh, eh? That’s a big climb. I wondered where you fullas went. Then where?”

I explained I’d follow the trail along the river through Hamilton, then out through Whatawhata to Mount Pirongia.

“Far,” he said. “And then you must be gonna stop for the night, eh?”

I said yes, I’d stop long before that – Pirongia was 80 kilometres and several days’ walk away. He pursed his lips and widened his eyes silently in appreciation, swinging along beside me.

I asked him if I was pronouncing Haakarimata right, and he said I was doing OK. “Just keep practicing. It’s like anything – if I want to speak Chinese, well… Just keep going and one day you’ll probably find it just comes out naturally.”

He went to cross the street, waiting for a car to pass, then calling to the dog: “C’mon, Rico.” They jogged across. A wave: “See ya, bro.”

It felt good to be back into the easy-swinging, distance-walking beat. The steel tip of my walking pole clinked in time to the clomp of my thick-soled  shoes.

I saw a trim, crew-cut woman wrangling a wheelbarrow of weeds toward the river; she’d come out of one of the trim, crew-cut houses along Riverview Road.

She had blue jeans, a black T-shirt, gumboots and tanned, wiry arms. She smiled to see my big pack and telescopic pole, emblems of the trail hiker, and paused where her path met mine.

“Off to the Haakarimatas, eh? Huh. Good luck to ya.” It sounded a touch foreboding.

“Yeah,” I said. “It looks pretty rough from here, all right.”

“Oh, I haven’t done it, myself. But my daughter does it. She says it’s a good climb: It just goes up gradually, at first, but then there’s 500 steps.” She looked at the range, narrowing her eyes, then widening them back at me, finishing with a kind of relish: “And that’s what kills ya.”

We shared a grin; I said I’d give it a shot. As I clinked on she repeated after me: “Good luck to ya!”

The trail turns up a gravel road, at right angles to the river, to the start of the Haakarimata walkway.

It winds upward through the good, green bush, where I felt welcomed back. I stopped to catch my breath at the information panels here and there; they talked about the trees and other plants. There was a lot more to Nikau palms, for example, than meets the eye.

They have dark fronds which tightly sheath their trunk’s growing tip, the sign said. As the trunk lengthens, the fronds fall, leaving an ascending pattern of round scars.

I liked the Nikau’s poised way of wearing such painterly reminders of what has been shed.

The palm’s tough red fruits, meanwhile, were hard enough that settlers used them for ammunition, the sign went on. Māori, on the other hand, used the fallen fronds for roofing, basket weaving and bowls; they even used the young leaves from the palm’s heart to ease childbirth.

Humans are incredible: we can use a tree for absolutely everything – houses, death, life.

The 500 steps were not as bad as the wheelbarrow woman thought. Soon there was this view, near the ridge:

img_0194
The Waikato River, looking north from near the top of the Haakurimata Range. To the left, Huntly power station; in the centre on the horizon, the Hunua ranges; to the right, Huntly’s Lake Hakanoa; on the horizon to the right, Lake Waikare. State Highway 1 up the righthand side of the river.

A little further on another viewpoint, this one looking south, was a good spot to boil the billy. Some determined secularist had apparently felt the Mormon Temple just doesn’t belong in a sign beside the maunga (mountain), the awa (river), even the Te Rapa dairy factory. Although a dairy factory is probably another kind of temple, in post-colonial, industrialised Waikato.

img_0197
Info panel at southward viewpoint at the top of the Haakarimata.

I got back on the trail as the light began to fail – in midwinter, you can feel night drawing in from early afternoon. The track undulated along the ridge-line, a tough up-and-down tramp, hard to find a rhythm.

Soon it was dark and I navigated by head-torch light; it was a little lonely in the deep, black bush, far from friends and comforts.

But I quietened my inner caveman: there were no sabre tooths here, no bogeymen, no Redcoats lying in wait to stab and rob. Just the damp trees, the muddy path, the dark range falling away into deep shadows on either side, the sleepy piping of the birds.

In winter you have to accept a bit of moonlit tramping – there just aren’t enough daylight hours.

And it was satisfying to press on into the darkness, alone, more-or-less undaunted.

At the summit there’s a watchtower with a kingly view out over Ngāruawāhia and the empty Waikato plains, to the bright splurge of Hamilton. The sight of the warm lake of lights in such chilly dark made me glad I had, again, failed to set off early enough to avoid moonlit tramping:

The trail notes say this lookout has become a fitness pilgrimage for Ngāruawāhians; I saluted them, reading the encouragement nailed to the top rail from none other than Sir Ed:

I could relax, now, because it was just a 45-minute staircase downhill to a flat area with a stream. That would be home, tonight: there I could replenish my water and pitch my tent and finally rest from a tough 24 hours, full of driving, tramping and solitary nocturnal ruminating.

On the way down, more reward for moonlit tramping: clouds of ethereal pin-points – thousands of glow-worms, burning coolly through the dripping ferns.

Finally, the southern entrance to the Haakarimata walkway. Beside it, more information panels, which I’m a sucker for – what the land means, the stories hidden in its folds. I was too tired to read them then, though, so took photos to peruse later.

I pitched my tent nearby, on what I hoped was public land. It was a magical spot, near a stream that shone in the darkness, surrounded by more glow-worms, blue-green constellations in the wet, earth-smelling night.

img_0213
This pic and the one below were taken the next morning.

Freedom camping is a dirty phrase to some, but it’s sometimes a necessity on Te Araroa – you can’t always count on reaching a hostel or official campground by nightfall. But I ask a custodian if I can find one, and don’t camp if there are signs or trail notes forbidding it. I camp away from tracks to avoid disturbing anyone, and don’t pollute, and leave no trace. It’s always a little nerve-wracking, though: what if someone comes and asks you to leave, just as you’re drifting off in your warm cocoon? What if they’re furious?

But that hasn’t happened yet. And its a very particular pleasure to walk all day, then camp just where you find yourself: just stretch out and lay your head on the accomodating whenua (land). Soon I was lying comfortably back against a tree trunk, eating noodles, drinking tea and reading up on the history of this range and the neighbouring town, and how they got their musical names.

Waikato-Tainui Māori have lived here for 700 years, I read. According to their lore, the humps of Haakarimata are the children of the sacred mountain of Taupiri, on the other side of the river, whose steep shoulders I’d spent the day passing. She had these children with Pirongia, another sacred mountain to the south, which I’d be crossing in a few days.

The range and the town were both named, I learned, after words spoken by Waikato chief Ngaere during a famous speech he gave at his own wedding.

When the ceremony was over, kingly Ngaere shouted in celebration: “Let the food pits (ngā rua) be opened (wāhia)!”

Then everyone saw the size of Ngaere’s hospitality: the food was heaped up like the nearby range. In fact, so huge was the feast (haakari), some of it was still uncooked (mata).

Later, the information panels said (with considerable restraint), Pākehā colonisers violently evicted Waikato-Tainui off this land they’d named. They were exiled from the place where on they’d long thrived, married, worked and buried their dead; where they’d developed this rich lore, community, identity and mana (prestige, dignity, authority).

Following bloody land wars in the area, which I’ve written about in posts below, the colonial government declared Waikato-Tainui rebels and exiled them from their ancestral territory. It was theft, and it has caused enduring damage.

But Waikato-Tainui weren’t done for. They came back, and today Ngāruawāhia is famous for being the site where the Māori King movement was born. It’s still headquartered there – a potent symbol that Māori belong to the land in a way that can’t be crushed.

Day 43: Ngāruawāhia to Dinsdale, western Hamilton – 28km

The next morning, I ate my crackers and peanut butter, drank my coffee and watched, through the trees, a steady stream of walkers and joggers head toward the summit. They strode past in pairs or groups, laughing and gossiping, or bounded alone in steely silence. It’s true – the Haakarimata Range has seemingly made its community fall in love with fitness.

I packed up and headed out through the carved southern gateway. Its design seemed full to me of the mana of Ngaere, his famous feast, and his upward-striding people:

The riverside pathway takes you along past Tūrangawaewae Marae on the other bank, headquarters of the Kīngitanga (the Māori King movement). Tūrangawaewae: the place where one’s heart stands. The Haakarimata rises into view there, above the junction of the Waikato and Waipa rivers.

I’m pretty sure the tree pictured below is an introduced Idesia polycarpa or “Wonder tree”,  a native of Asia which is becoming a pest here. But it provided a splash of colour in the sombre landscape:

Local school kids want to defend the sombre loveliness from another gaudy pest:

Yeah, stop ya chucking! (I like the elegant insertion of the apostrophe and e.)

The riverside pathway, known as Te Awa, is also a recently opened bike path stretching right through Waikato. More information panels! I can’t resist them:

These ones, and the gorgeous mosaic made by pupils at a nearby Horotiu primary school, mark a brand-new pedestrian bridge which returns you to the other bank a while.

Soon I was coming up on Hamilton. It was a dull, rainy day and I decided to use it to blast through as much of the city as possible. The path is picturesque, and I love that strong, gliding, long-striding river, but a city’s a city and I felt like getting back into the hills as quick as I could.

Palatial homes dominate the banks; the odd golf course; but on the whole, the city seems to hold itself aloof from its best asset, the great, gleaming, powerful Waikato.

The persistent drizzle meant I had the path mainly to myself; someone told me later that had it been a nicer Sunday, I’d have been dodging packs of cyclists all day.

A geezer in a preppy raincoat and chinos approached. I could see him eyeing, with thinly disguised derision, my get-up: technical hiking pole, rainproof leggings, big pack under a flouro cover, storm-proof coat, trail shoes.  And as we drew level, sure enough, he gave a fake laugh to dress up his mocking tone: “Har! Har! You look like you’re all set for some serious hiking. Better find some mountains! Har!”

I was steaming along at the time, trying to make the city centre before the shops closed for coffee and a feed, so I didn’t offer more in response than a polite-ish grunt. He didn’t know I’d slept in the mountains last night, and was going over a particularly tall and muddy one in a few days.

You encounter these types sometimes, when Te Araroa sends you through suburbs or towns. They find it hilarious that you’re in full, into-the-wild regalia in such a domesticated setting; they seem oblivious to the wilderness surrounding their tidy territories. Oh well.

I strode along, my pole chinking, rehearsing how I’d pithily explain all this to the next suburban wise guy.

After several hours of riverside bliss, the trail turns you away from the river and right through a mall. I spied a Kathmandu there, and bought a second pole. That would really entertain the mockers.

Then it was night, and I was on the home straight through streets, parks, a cool new walkway along the railway line, and right past a Korean restaurant, where I inhaled a delicious bibimbap: the joys of urban tramping.

I’d booked a bed on Hamilton’s western outskirts, in Dinsdale, with a “trail angel”; these are a worldwide distance-hiking phenomenon, people who go out of their way to help walkers out of solidarity, admiration or just hospitality.

This one was Murray Pinkerton, a mechanic who is section-walking the trail, like me, when he gets time off. He lives right on the trail, on the edge of Hamilton; he’s built a cosy little cabin on his back lawn, overlooking the city, and rents it to walkers for a generous 15 bucks.

Once I’d showered and changed out of my muddy gear, he and his wife invited me in for a Timtam and cuppa; we shared trail stories until my eyes couldn’t stay open.

Day 44: Western Hamilton to Old Mountain Road, near Pirongia: 18 kms

From Murray’s house you head down a path to the Taitua Arboretum, a place of preternatural peace, before finding your way out onto some paddocks of a preternatural muddiness. Cows seem to delight in turning pasture into great, pocked, boggy mires.

But then the sun came out above the Fresians, and a rainbow, and suddenly there it was – Pirongia:

It’s close to 1000 metres and is notoriously wet, even in summer; if I was finding a cow paddock muddy, Pirongia would be a test.

Soon I was out of the bog and onto the main road through little Whatawhata, with its pub, cafe and petrol station, where I stocked up on noodles, tinned tuna, crackers and peanut butter for the next few days.

Then the trail goes along the Waipa River, which made me think of a story from my childhood about the “great, green, greasy Limpopo”:

Further on, spare, contained winter beauty:

And some hungry locals.

They’re cute, but it can actually be quite intimidating, being mobbed by a couple of hundred tons of bovine hunger. Young steers are a good half-tonne each, bolshie, boofy critters with thick skulls, a mad glint in their eyes, sometimes even a bloodshot leer:

Paddocks full of cattle are reasonably common on Te Araroa. When you hop over a stile they crowd and jostle nearer and nearer, largely unafraid of bipedal beings, which, they’ve learned, might bear food.

But there still lurks a flicker of wariness; if you make a sudden move they jump back half a metre, then start edging forward again, hunger defeating fear.

When I’m mobbed by steers like this on the trail, I always imagine them as a gang of starving wide-boys with Cockney accents: “All right, me old china? Got any food? We like food. Wot about cow nuts? Hay? Anyfing?”

When I’ve edged past them and reach the stile on the far side of the paddock, they gaze after me forlorn and disgusted:

“Wot, no food? Nuffin? Wot you come in ‘ere for, then? You’re avin’ a giraffe, you are… We oughter kick you right in the Albert Halls.”

Sometimes they’re out of sight beyond a crest and you hear them before you see them: a sound like an avalanche of bone falling onto mud, then a shimmy in the wet ground as 400 heavy hooves draw near.

It’s easy to imagine them snapping, becoming a many-legged lynch mob, mowing you down, stomping and butting you to death: “That’s for the rissoles! And that’s for the sausages! And how about a smack on your rump steak?!”

They gaze after you as you disappear into the distance, and their petulant, teenage lowing rings long after.

It was after one of these encounters I got my second electric shock of the day, trying to go through a gate; a sick thud at the base of the spine.

Meanwhile, through it all, the great, green-brown, greasy Waipa slides sleepily, silently on, with a soft-rolling, heavy swagger, past paddocks, stumps and steers.

Leaving it, I stopped at the first house on Old Mountain Road to fill up with water for the night. I had a long chat with the residents, a world-weary but dedicated probation officer who was surprised by nothing, and her South African mechanic boyfriend; he was a nice enough geezer, but very intolerant of immigrants – despite being one.

Then it was on, on, into the darkness along Old Mountain Road. I especially don’t mind tramping at night when it’s on a road, where you can’t really put a foot wrong, and especially not on a clear, still, starry night, with a very delicate fingernail moon for company.

I camped beside the Kapamahunga Walkway, just where it angles off from Old Mountain Road towards Pirongia. Lounging by my tent I cooked my dinner on my little stove, and watched Hamilton gleaming through the misty night.

In the morning, I found I’d slept under this magnificent epiphyte:

Day 45: Old Mountain Road to Pahautea Hut, Pirongia summit – 21km

I was up before light and soon on my way, along the Kapamahunga Walkway (also known as the Karamu track) through lush hills pocked with limestone caves and weird outcrops. But I didn’t have time for photos. I had to reach the mountain and get to the hut on its peak by sunset: a boggy, remote, mountain track through dense sub-alpine bush is no place for moonlit tramping. Still, I couldn’t resist the misty dawn for long:

The sun soon shone down on a creamy cloud layer, that seemed to insulate this fine, airy walking life from the drab, asphalted working life below:

I had so far to go! But it was so hard not to keep stopping, and snapping:

Even the farming furniture of fences, airstrips and dams looked magical and dreamy in the early light:

Closer, closer drew Pirongia – bulking up, filling out, keeping me moving with the constant reminder of the size of the task ahead. Way up there, across all that tangled land, on that cloudy summit, was tonight’s bed:

And over there was Waikato’s rugged hinterland, out toward the west coast, and on it me, a Jungian shadow of my former self:

One of the best things about walking all day is stopping for a break. Especially when the route is in high country, along a ridge-line: You have everything at your feet – the clear slopes, the bush, the clouds, then, somewhere beyond, the old clanging world, way down below.

Pirongia, I said, I’m coming for you. “Righto,” Pirongia said.

Finally I was off the Karamu/Kapamahunga Walkway, then along a couple of long gravel roads, and into the leafy lower slopes of Pirongia itself. It’s amazing how you can put the kilometres behind you when you put your head down. I covered all the farmland between the above photo and the dark green slopes of Pirongia on the horizon in a couple of hours.

You start off into the mountain’s folds by following DOC’s Nikau Walk to a clean, sparkling stream, where I stopped for lunch. Then you head upward, gradually at first, on the Tahuanui Track.

The bush was sunlit and glowing; it was a balmy day, for midwinter.

But gradually the daylight petered out, and the upward striving got steeper, and just would not end. I did an 800 metre vertical climb that day, from my campsite at about 160 metres to the summit at 959 metres; it was a mission.

Towards the end, stumbling by torchlight in the cold an hour after dark, I’d been going for nearly 12 hours and was so tired I started seeing things. This boot-worn root sticking up on the track, for example, looked exactly like the smiling head, in profile, of a sub-alpine alligator:

But finally I reached the clean, dry haven of Pahautea Hut, just past the summit. Being mid-week in mid-winter, I had it to myself; I spread out my wet, muddy gear, ate something, crawled gratefully into my warm sleeping bag, and passed out.

Day 46 – Rest day in Pahautea Hut: 0 kms.

I’d not planned to take a day off, since I had only seven days leave to do a decent chunk of Te Araroa’s 3000kms. But that morning, waking up alone in the neat mountain hut, I felt thoroughly disinclined to head back out into the muddy, misty morning.

Not that it’s a particularly cosy place, Pahautea Hut. The surrounding bush is low, thin, nibbled by possums and wild goats and lambasted by harsh winds, so DOC has decided not to instal a fireplace, to avoid further predations.

So, perched high on a winter ridge, beside the Tasman but nearly a kilometre above it, the hut was wreathed in fog that felt Antarctic, and there was nothing in it to warm me but my own breath.

I watched it whiten the air in front of me, and considered my options.

I felt creaky and beaten up – I’d done 87kms in 4 days, and one of the downsides of doing Te Araroa in sections is that you have to get trail fit again each time. Your body is just starting to get used to hauling your house in and out of gullies and sloughs, when it’s time to head back to town. A day off would be a salve.

But my generous brother was picking me up in three days from Waitomo village, 50 kilometres away. And if I couldn’t make it in time, I’d likely have no cell reception to let him know, and then he’d rightly worry.

So I’d better crack on, I half-decided: 50 kilometres in three days – not too far, but far enough to not have time to waste.

And when you’re on the trail, there’s a kind of fever, like the one mountaineers get sometimes; the way ahead seems to call to you each morning: how far can you get today? How strong are you? What are you made of, compared to me?

But, sitting there at 9am, procrastinating, nauseous with fatigue, eating my meagre breakfast (I was already wishing I’d carried more away from Whatawhata) I realised that today, I just could not be arsed.

“Fuck it,” I told the silent, empty hut, “This isn’t a competitive sport. I don’t have to prove anything, get anywhere: If I need to ring Sam, and don’t have cell reception, I’ll borrow a farmer’s phone. I’m on holiday.”

And I drained my lukewarm coffee (as soon as you took it off the stove, in that frigid place, it began to chill) and crawled back into my sleeping bag.

And, oh man, it was delicious, to let my book fall from my hand and drift off, alone and snug on the mountain top, listening to the wind bang and shake the walls, and the thin trees moan.

I woke about midday, stretched my tight calves, shoulders and hamstrings, and  looked out the window awhile. Through the clouds, there was only the occasional flash of the world below.

Mostly, it was like looking down on a pearly, annihlating shield, filling the Waikato plains, every hill and ravine. It was as if I was sealed off from everything, as if I was the sole survivor of a stratocumular catastrophe, a neo-Noah adrift in a DOC hut, on a world-engulfing sea of white.

It was so quiet: The wind had died, and thick, muffling cloud lay over the hut, close against the windows, enveloping. The low, dark, dense bush crowded around too, in squat, green-smouldering waves, hanging silent, barely a twig or leaf moving.

It was strange and nice to be alone in that forsaken place, doing nothing, wasting time, letting the hours pass; with the whole, big, clean hut to myself.

I began to like how it had no fire. It made it less possible to be indifferent to the reality of where and when I found myself: on top of a sacred mountain, in the middle of winter.

And I was comfortable enough, huddled in my sleeping bag at the table, drinking liquorice tea; and the lack of a fire probably guaranteed no-one else would be mad enough to come, and interrupt this lovely solitude, so absolute, so silent.

Sometimes peaks poked through the clouds, and there was the odd patch of sun. I watched the light change, and the steam rise in wraiths from my tea, winding tannic tendrils to the clean ply ceiling.

All that stillness and silence and solitude was, I’ll admit, a little unnerving at times, but it was also uniquely restful.

And, blessedly, the cell reception was intermittent, so I couldn’t use the manic warble of the Internet to dilute the solitude, or make time run.

Instead, I ate chocolate and soup, stared into space, remembered things, read my Hilary Mantel novel (a perfect eerie yarn for the occasion) and wrote in my journal (I pack light, but never without something to read and write in, and don’t like e-readers).

Every now and then I stopped and listened to the silence: no wind, little birdsong, no movement anywhere. The low bush breathing very quietly.  The hushed mountain seemed to be taking a day off too.

I felt my heartbeat slow, and listened to the hut tick and creak as it warmed and cooled, hour by hour.

And, of course, I read the info panels: I do love those things.

These ones were particularly good, because they were mostly about Pirongia’s traditional inhabitants, the Patu-paiarehe: in local lore, these are wild, irreverent, mist-dwelling fairy people, something like leprechauns.

One of the panels recounted the story of Whanawhana, a Patu-paiarehe chief, who fell in love with a human woman, Tawhai-tu, while she was gathering potatoes down on the plain.

He kidnapped her and took her back to Hihikiwi peak (half an hour through the mist from where I stood) to be his wife. Her human husband rescued her, but Whanawhana’s spell returned her to Hihikiwi every night.

Eventually Tawhai-tu escaped the spell, with help from a tohunga (priest).

“The Patu-paiarehe chanted a lament”, the panel said, “and vanished into the night back to Hihikiwi, where it is believed they still live to this day.”

Looking out into that thick, slow-breathing mist, which seemed pinned to the soil and leaves with some kind of ancient energy, the story had what every good story should have: a weird ring of truth.

(Patu-paiarehe info credits, from the panel: Te Umu Waata Hiakita, Raiha Mani Gray and Naa Ngaati Maahanga).

There was also something new, for me, in hut info panels: a poem. I’ve visited a lot of DOC huts, and they often have info panels about the trees, the birds, maybe a tramping pioneer immortalised in the hut’s name. But no poems, that I can remember.

I liked the poem, and the story of Mac Bell, and I really liked another first for me in DOC huts – a carving (by Mac Bell). Here he is, Whanawhana the fantastic, in a glass case, and his “sacred cloak of golden mist”:

I could just imagine him out there, ruminating on an alligator-shaped log, insulting sculptors and stealing spouses.

All of this was particularly redolent when read alongside Mantel’s The Giant, O’Brien, which is also about the fragile boundaries between the seen an unseen – among other things:

“… the gentry of Ireland had flitted to their wintering grounds, moving silently, gliding white in the dusk. It is unwise to obstruct them, to walk on their paths or look at them directly. Their existence depends on tricks of the light, and shadows moving through water; their natural state is shadow. They don’t count, don’t know the days of the week, and only use wooden implements, distrusting iron and steel. They have children by the basketful, and carry them on their backs. All these gentlefolk are very old.”

Day 47: Pirongia summit hut to airstrip near intersection of Honokiwi Rd/Kaimango Rd – 24km

The next morning I decided to try and make it all the way to Waitomo, 50ks away, in my remaining two days. I’d been averaging about 25 kms a day til then, and had had a good rest. “Give it death,” I said aloud, sculling tepid coffee in my plywood eyrie.

The walk down from the summit takes you right over Hihikiwi peak, where you can just about feel the Patu-paiarehe rustling under the boardwalk, and breathing on your neck:

I’d thought the track up the northern side was pretty muddy, but it was a bowling green compared to the steep bog waiting to the south:

Finally I was out of the bush. It was lunchtime already, but I knew I’d get at least halfway to Waitomo today – the next 20-odd kms were gravel roads, and I’m happy doing those in the dark.

Soon after lunch, looking west, I got my first terrestrial glimpse of the sprawling indent of Kawhia Harbour. I’d looked down on it, fascinated, from plane windows before, and on Raglan, and the rest of this glittery, raggedy coast; but had never actually been here, till now.

Before long night was falling, and the sunset over Kawhia harbour was like a demented shadow play; a fierce, dreadlocked swan stared down a sinister hunchback. Beside the water below this colossal wrangle, one little light winked up from Kawhia township:

I thought they must be quite a people, the Kawhians, out there on the margins of just about everything, in such darkness, with such skies.

The route takes you all along the spine of a long ridge between Pirongia and Waitomo; most of the country on either side is a deep black hole, but there are glimpses of lights from the farms and villages on both sides, and maybe in the distance the larger gleams of Otorohanga, Te Awamutu.

I was in the King Country now, named for the Māori King movement: the rugged territory where the King, his warriors and their community were exiled by the colonisers’ violence; from there, they resisted, and eventually returned to their lands.

And have kept resisting, despite everything.

A friendly sliver of bright, pale moon came out, alongside piercing stars.

Then the bush-covered banks along the road began to gleam, too: glow-worms, lining my path, tiny burning runway lights to guide me in the windy winter dark.

Finally I climbed over a locked gate at the junction of Honokiwi and Kaimango roads, where the trail joins a farm track to continue along the ridge. I found a flat spot near an airstrip, pitched my little nylon haven, and turned in.

Day 48: Honokiwi Rd/Kaimango Rd airstrip to Waitomo village – 25km

In the morning I woke before dawn, munched crackers and brewed coffee, broke camp and set off before it was light. I needed to reach the Hamilton Tomo Group’s hut on the outskirts of Waitomo village by dark, or not too long after. I’d arranged to meet my brother there, and if I didn’t turn up he’d eventually have to think about raising the alarm.

That’s a necessary part of tramping, especially on your own – making sure someone will  wonder where you’ve got to. And it was bloody nice of him to pick me up. But it’s also one of the few stressy things about solo tramping (or any tramping, really): getting out before anyone misses you enough to call 111.

I always carry a personal locator beacon, which helps – if you haven’t set if off, your peeps can conclude you’re probably OK. Probably.

Such thoughts were soon shoved into the background by a special sunrise:

Once again the cloud was doing its world-sealing act, but this time it was a little lower, so small hills poked through like moody islands. The semi-conical one in the centre of the horizon, below, is a geological little sister of Pirongia’s; named Kakepuku, she sprang from the same volcanic vent:

Native falcons, kārearea, have been released there. Here, my main companions were noisy but somewhat graceful Canadian geese, honking mightily at each other, or at me, or at the sun, above the punga trees:

A bit further on, the new foreground to Kakepuku was a horoeka, my favourite tree, the one that evolved juvenile leaves that are too leathery and lance-like to be eaten by moa; only to mature them into fat, juicy leaves once they’ve grown above the tallest moa’s reach. Relentless patience: 1. Hard-beaked, thick-clawed enemies: 0.

(This story is loosely along the lines of why Eleanor Catton named her junior reading & writing project horoekareading.com).

Then the trail takes you onto a bush track. The bush was dense but sunlit; occasional limestone outcrops broke through, weathered into pits and pools and this area’s famous caves.

And there were wild goats – these two grazed around a corner right up close to my lens before the older one sensed something wrong, looked up appalled, and they bolted as one.

You can see remnants of the old timber trail in places, cuttings through hills for pioneers to purloin ancient logs.

Out of the bush again, I could see the cape of cloud endured, glowing.

A short farm section followed; orange markers on fence corners, stiles, cattle tracks, sheep yards, a wool shed. On the horizon, a farmhouse in regal isolation:

The house marks the beginning of a gravel road section of the trail. Soon afterward, I met a youngish farmer with a tanned and weatherbeaten face, a three-day growth, a wide brimmed hat and an easy grin; he’d been casually herding a mob of cattle toward me on a red, mud-spattered quad.

As I watched, keeping out of the way, he stopped by an open gate, stood on the quad’s foot-pegs, and whistled his team of dogs ahead. The dogs sprinted past the hard-jogging mob, leapt out into the road ahead of them; the hot-eyed beasts skidded, stopped, heads lowered, threatening. But the dogs insisted, yapping and dancing, their eyes shining; and, by sheer personality, they forced the cows to turn back, wheel away from the waiting quad, and through the open gate.

The farmer clipped the gate as I walked up; his young daughter smiled a shy hello from the back of the quad, and the dogs romped around, tongues lolling, eyes like stars, loving their work.

Yeah, the farmer said, it wasn’t a bad view from the house on the hill. “But she can fuckin’ blow up there. Cops it from all directions.”

The house was on his farm, but he had tenants in it. “That’s the original homestead. 1903, she was built; solid as a rock. Iron cladding on the walls, big rimu beams in the roof. Suppose they had the resources back in those days.

“You see some amazing sunsets though. From my house too – we’ve got a new one, over there. It’s amazing what you can see, sitting on the deck with a beer… oh, it’s a view to die for, eh.”

He often saw Te Araroa walkers go by.

“Some of them come belting through, don’t even look left or right; just seem in a tearing hurry.

“One bloke reckoned he was going to do the whole thing in three months – he was fuckin’ flying.

“They don’t have time to stop for a yak, take a photo. I dunno.”

What was he up to? “Oh, you know, spreading a few heifers around. Get some work done today, won’t be able to do anything tomorrow – kids want to go pig hunting.”

Not long after I left them, a dusty all-terrain buggy came by. At the wheel was a blonde kid of about 10, wearing in a forest-green Swandri; a grey-haired, bright-eyed woman sat beside him. Two other kids, also blonde and wearing bush shirts, stood on the tray, holding onto the roll bars. They stopped for a yak, too.

I told them they lived in paradise. “Ha! On a day like this maybe, but you haven’t seen it when it blows. She can really blow,” the woman said.

“Jeez, she can blow,” said the young driver, his dark eyes wide. They were the woman’s grandchildren, he said.

They all looked full of energy and life, used to mud, wide horizons and big weather. They were nipping off on an errand.

“So how come the youngest fella has to drive?” I asked.

“‘Cos he’s the best driver,” his grandmother said. Her driver grinned. “Anyway I’m not the youngest, she is,” jerking his head toward his sister in the back.

“She” smiled from the wooden tray, strong, beatific, muddy-gumbooted.

“Well, we’d better get cracking,” his grandmother said, “lots to do.” They roared off.

A bit further on, the trail leaves the road; there’s one of the helpful and detailed signs the Te Araroa trust puts up occasionally:

Here’s a close-up of what I still had ahead of me that afternoon, to get to the cavers’ hut beyond the Waitomo Forest:

A hard, up-and-down paddock-bash followed; you follow steep fence lines up onto ridges, then down the other side, then up again. From the tops, strange-looking limestone peaks were visible back the way I’d come.

I looked up my topo map and compass, but couldn’t decide whether that one was The Dome, Rock Peak or Ngawhakatara (The Lady).

\

You cross an airstrip and follow another long fence line until you come out on a high, windy ridge: a last look at that cloud-dominating view to die for.

Then a stile takes you into mature bush. By now it was early afternoon and I’d been going since dawn; I was shattered.

The light inside the forest was a soft green-gold, and everything was still. I wanted to be still, too. I flopped back on the  leaves, leaned back on a very tall, very old tree and eked out the last of my peanut butter, some crackers and cheese, had a cup of tea.

A last effort, now: there was some pretty rugged terrain to get through still, but it looked like I’d be in the cavers’ hut by dark, as arranged.

I was a bit worried about crossing the Moakurarua Stream; the trip notes said it was not to be attempted after heavy rain, of which there’d been a bit. It would mean a big detour. But it was only knee-deep; wide and clear in the deep green valley.

Then came a series of slippery clay trails, rutted by mountain bikes and horses, up a long ridge. Finally, a wide, excellent track, hand-cut along steep faces by early loggers; it was satisfying to bowl along that overgrown road, feeling the ghosts of those old lumberjacks flatten out the forest’s rough contours for me, filling in the folds, making my way smooth.

As the sun set, the valley opened up  – this is looking east, maybe a bit north:

And finally I was out, onto an actual road, only a few kilometres from the caving hut. As the last of the sun faded I could finally relax, sweeping down through the wide, gravelled bends.

I trudged in just after dark, filthy, cold, clobbered by distance. There was a hot shower, a log fire, and a case of interesting relics including moa bones, plucked from the depths:

And best of all, the bro was there, with home-cooked kai, port, chocolate, yarns and, in the morning, a lift back to my car. Just what I needed after 135 lush, wintry kilometres.

There will be a new Te Araroa post on here around January, when I do the next bit. I’m aiming for at least Taumarunui, and should crack 1000kms; which might require me to lug a small bottle of bubbly in with me.

Thanks for reading! Earlier sections of the journey are below. If you want to read it chronologically, from Cape Reinga, please scroll right down to the bottom. Kia ora.

 

 

Advertisements

On not moving on (Te Araroa tramp days 38-41; kms 654-700)

“People like Paul and himself, with their pianos and violins, are here on this earth, the earth of South Africa, on the shakiest of pretexts… the ground beneath his feet is soaked with blood and the vast backward depth of history rings with shouts of anger.” – JM Coetzee, Youth

“…Any sensible person knows grief is a long-term project. I refuse to rush. The pain that is thrust upon us let no man slow or speed or fix.” – Max Porter, Grief is the Thing with Feathers

Sipping a mussel from its shell and staring at Mission Bay through a sun-laced pōhutukawa, the young doctor seemed lost for words.

Then: “This,” he said thoughtfully, “is not shit.”

I’d just spent some of day 38, supposedly a rest day, kayaking across Waitematā harbour with the eloquent Dr. Dan, a mate who generously hosted me for the three days I spent crossing Auckland proper.

Apart from it being a spectacular stretch of water, the point of the Waitematā paddle was to stick to my plan of travelling every metre of the whole, long, lovely length of Aotearoa, under my own steam.

For logistical reasons I’d ferried from Auckland’s north shore to its CBD a few days previously; now I had time to come back and fill in the gap (only a k or so each way).

We hired a tandem boat from Ferg’s Kayaks at Okahu Bay and a chirpy guide took us across to Devonport beach. The Harbour Bridge loomed above; a gentle but strong swell rolled in from the Pacific, blending with the wakes of ferries, speedboats and cargo ships.

On the way back we visited Judges Bay, which is as close as small boats are allowed to the ferry dock in the CBD. Then we meandered through Hobson Bay (salvaging a storm-blown spinnaker  en route).

Afterward, Dan and I walked around to Mission Bay to sit among the pōhutukawa branches on the verandah of the Belgian cafe, with the breeze, beers, mussels and frites; and lo, it was not even slightly shit.

Later we visited the Viaduct, and Dan showed me a famous ocean-going yacht that’s moored there, all incognito and elegant – the Ngataki. She’s the star of a classic of New Zealand sailing, writing and adventuring, South Sea Vagabonds (1939). This was a special moment for me (not least because Dan has a family connection to her). Her first skipper, Johnny Wray, was a lover of the sea’s “cleared attics” rather than the bewitching wrinkles of the land. But I feel sure Johnny, who built this incredibly resilient and lovely craft with his own hands and sailed her through storms, oceans and love affairs, would approve of the concept of Te Araroa.

08DFDA7C-8A76-4886-A7C3-F38560D5718C

Day 39 – Brookby to Clevedon: 8km

I made up for a not-completely-restful rest day by only doing 8 clicks. Mainly because, to return to the trail, I first had to get back from Blockhouse Bay (Dan’s house) to Brookby (the point I reached before my day off). This involved a long trip by foot, bus, train and Uber; much easier, and quicker, said than done.

From Brookby it’s a short road trek to some paddocks. Then you have a steep climb up Kimpton’s Track onto a low range, covered mostly in pines. From the top, there’s a satisfying view north of massive, sprawling Auckland, which I had just walked across on my two feet.

img_3469
The Sky Tower and CBD on the horizon, from a Kimpton’s Track near Brookby, south of Auckland.

To the south and east, the Coromandel Peninsula across the Hauraki Gulf. Here’s that view, beyond the estuary of the Wairoa River (where Johnny Wray once moored Ngataki for a winter of repairs):

img_3485
Beyond the mouth of the Wairoa River you can see Pakihi (Sandpit) Island. On the horizon, the Coromandel.

More to the north and east, Waiheke Island, with its olives, wine and mansions, and the Coromandel looming beyond.

img_3475

On the other side of the summit was the lovely Clevedon scenic reserve, where I passed walkers and joggers heading up for their evening constitutional.

Clevedon itself is a charming little place with a few cafes and shops, and a down-to-earth pub. There, two generous mates and several cold beers waited: more joys of semi-urban tramping. I stayed the night with them in Papakura.

Day 40 – Mercer to Rangiriri: 25 km

(Note: from this point on, my distance totals in the titles of blog posts will be slightly out of synch with the Te Araroa website, for a while, because I had to skip a section – as outlined below). 

The next section, which is 60km and takes about three days, contains what should be a spectacular final curtain to the Auckland leg of Te Araroa: the Hunua Ranges. Unfortunately I had to defer this pleasure, because the Hunua tracks have been closed to trampers for repairs since a huge storm in March, 2017.

Now, I’ve heard on the trail grapevine you can ignore the signs at the trail head and tramp it anyway, and that the authorities are just using the excuse of the storm damage to get on, undisturbed, with other tasks like trapping or pest-poisoning. But that may be totally untrue and, as I’ve said before, Te Araroa depends on goodwill and a certain amount of playing by the rules. The whole thing could collapse if too many people ignore things like the occasional trail closure.

So I left the Hunua for another day – it’ll keep. I got  a bus from Papakura to Mercer, just beyond the closed section; this remnant of a town is the gateway to a completely new region of Te Araroa (and of the country): The Waikato/King Country.

My aim was to do 45kms of it, which would take my total for the trail so far to 700kms, allowing for skipping the Hunua.

Incidentally, getting to Mercer by public transport is now a lot harder than it used to be. Buses no longer stop there, there’s no train station, and hitching through the south Auckland sprawl could take forever. So I bought a bus ticket to nearby Pokeno, and was resigned to walking or hitching the 8 kilometre difference; but the driver kindly agreed to pull over at Mercer and let me off there.

“Doing the big walk, eh?”, he’d said when I came aboard with my pack and poles. “Good on ya.”

From the motorway service station and restaurant complex that historic Mercer has been basically reduced to, the Whangamarino Redoubt Track leads walkers up into the hills above the Waikato River, New Zealand’s longest.

Here are my first views on Te Araroa of this mighty, storied, much-loved and much-abused awa – first, looking south, i.e., upriver:

img_3492

And below, looking northward (down river), towards where the Waikato eventually meets the sea:

img_3500

This long, broad, aloof-yet-personable river will keep me company for the next 80 ks as I journey up toward the North Island high country.

The gloomy skies were apt because, soon after, I came to the first evidence of why this river, and its eponymous region, are such significant keys for anyone wanting to unlock the real, violent story of modern New Zealand.

It’s a sad story, and a brutal one. I’ll digress briefly to re-tell it, in my words, because what’s the point of walking the length of the country if you don’t get confronted and illuminated by the truth of the place and its stories?

I mean the stories we don’t have time to see, much less consider, when we blast by on the motorway at 100 kilometres an hour.

One of the things that makes this country special is that in 1840, The Treaty of Waitangi was signed between Māori and colonising British. Some people, mainly descendants of the colonisers, find it embarrassing, for some reason, and think it unworthy of a national day, which they wish was simpler, more triumphant. But I think it’s actually pretty special that our country was founded on an agreement – a pact between two people, to share a land. Almost like a marriage.

And it’s also special that it’s not a simple day, because since when were life, and community, and human beings, simple?

Anyway by the 1860s the settler numbers had swelled, and more were coming all the time, and they wanted what arriving people always want – more land. From ever-growing Auckland, they eyed the fertile Māori stronghold to the south, the Waikato. Māori leaders there felt that hot gaze, and wisely anticipated trouble; they fortified their villages, armed their warriors.

The colonisers, wilfully or not, misinterpreted this as aggression, and built a massive, military road – now Auckland’s Great South Road – right up to the edge of Waikato Māori’s sovereign territory. This road ended right where I was walking, near Mercer.

Waikato Māori, apparently, saw this in the spirit with which it was intended – as a threat; a show of “might is right”. The Māori didn’t think might was right; they thought right was right, and wrong was wrong, and agreements to share a land should be honoured.

There were skirmishes. British soldiers in red coats and with the latest military gear responded by shelling a Māori village on a ridge called Meremere, which you can see through this viewfinder, erected on the very ridge they fired from:

B9917BB9-0739-42DF-B2C1-5808DB5EF0BB

From the information panel, I learned the deadly shells came from long-range, 40-pounder Armstrong cannon the British lugged up this hill – a hill treasured for many centuries before that as a peaceful food-gathering site.

In the river below, the British had the purpose-built, 300-ton, iron-clad warship Pioneer, and other gunboats; their shells came down hard and thick on Meremere.

The Māori fought hard. But eventually, the settlers shelled them into submission; then took their land. This was repeated around the Waikato, and in different ways, around Aotearoa.

I was impressed at how this place and its story have been preserved, at the good attempts at “making memory”, at honouring the past to learn from it, and acknowledge the pain and loss inflicted. But also sad at how little this story is known, how little taught in schools, how little discussed. How we cringe away from it, instead of facing up to it. At how much more familiar Kiwis are with our exploits and losses in wars on the other side of the world, than we are with the drama, meanness, cruelty and tragedy that we did to each other, right here, in places like Whangamarino.

Beyond the redoubt, the track finally  reaches the river, a peaceful sight after all that sadness:

B818233A-B6DB-489B-A05B-4B298E138C83

It’s beautiful, but it has been shelled too – by agricultural and urban pollution, deforestation, and introduced pests. Sitting staring at it, I was jolted when several half-metre giant Koi carp loomed out of the shimmery depths:

9AD6CCC8-6FAD-427E-9BD2-1B55A28A9352

These look like huge goldfish, of course, but they’re actually one of the most devastating invasive fish in the world. Like another kind of “red coat”, they eat everything in sight, including the native species that have always called the Waikato home.

They roll on their backs to tug at weed and search for prey, surfacing slowly like great glowing monsters. One poked its powerful nose above the surface and seemed to eye me, cold, alien, indifferent.

But golden marauders notwithstanding, the riverside pathway is really beautiful:

E9FED8EB-D077-4D79-9EF8-B018CDBB8C03

It meanders along the bank, beside cornfields, paddocks, and through sun-dappled bush. For all this beauty, credit where it’s due:

9AA69A6A-39D1-4D10-8BFF-1D56E9AC3B1F

I’d struck a perfect summer day for river-bank wandering, and it was bliss to bowl along in the muggy sunlight.

C364A526-E27E-4260-85AA-9DFB2CDB3BE7

The riverbank is bayou-like, lush and fruitful. The trail leaves the state highway behind; its howl and hammer fades away, replaced by silence, water-slosh, the cicadas’ ecstatic, sexual yodelling.

Sometimes, though, a forlorn sort of civilisation pops its head out. Is there anything as desolate as an empty, silent drag strip?

154F4006-9FB2-4599-A02B-CCEB27C9B9B0

Further down, huge swathes of river:

C6864E3D-590B-4F43-B08D-DBDF81AA06A5

The occasional headland lets you drink in the scale of it:

140146B9-3B3D-4298-B8C5-2DA36EC43CB4

The track isn’t always obvious. Soon after I took that photo, there’s a swamp which, the trail notes say, you can cross on a 30-metre boardwalk. But the track petered out before the swamp edge. I cast around, up and down; backtracked, crossed fences, but no board walk could I find. Eventually, resigned to slopping slowly through the swamp, I set off, prodding gingerly forward with my poles into all that soggy lushness.

But almost straightaway there was a “plink” – my pole-tip had hit the boardwalk, invisible under the smothering swamp-grass.

Then it’s a long, tired 8.5kms along the stop bank into Rangiriri. On the way, the sunset:

740B126C-BC36-4094-BA2B-F5A4D742F22B

After that faded, it was time for some of my favoured moonlit tramping. Here, with the stop bank a straight and even path, there was no danger of getting lost, so I switched off my head-torch and padded along in the night.

I’d rung ahead to Cathy Miller, who runs the Rangiriri pie shop, guest house and camp site. I’d be getting in late, after dark. Could I camp anyway? “Sure – I’m away, but just go through the gate behind the house and pick a spot.”

Rangiriri was deserted and silent. I pitched my tent in the moonlight, and had a sleepy feed and a liquorice tea, watching the trees across the paddock sweep and sway in the starry breeze. Then I crawled inside and slept.

Day 41 – Rangiriri to Huntly: 17km.

Rangiriri is one of the most moving and significant places in New Zealand’s history; though I’d be surprised if even one in 10 Kiwis would be able to say what happened there. Me included, before I visited on Te Araroa.

So in the morning, after one of Cathy’s sensational pies, I took some time to explore.

It’s the site one of the bloodiest battles ever fought in New Zealand, between the invading British, and Māori people trying to stay on their land, in their community.

What happened was this (as detailed in the NZ History website): on November 20, 1863, British army and navy forces attacked the Māori position at Rangiriri.

It was the last line of defence of the Kīngitanga, a Waikato based land rights movement under King Tāwhiao. Having shelled the Kīngitanga forces out of Meremere, a day’s walk down river (where I paused en route to Rangiriri), the British sailed their gunboats up to Rangiriri to pound its ingenious defences.

Then they charged on foot, again and again. The battle was intensely fierce: the stakes were high on both sides.

The Māori warriors held out a long time; finally they succumbed, in controversial circumstances. 37 British fighters died, and some 50 Māori; many more were wounded. 183 Māori warriors were exiled and imprisoned on Kawau Island, north of Auckland; their land was taken, and their community links shattered.

(Earlier on this leg of my tramp, I’d climbed a hilly, remote track named after the Northland warrior who later helped them escape; it’s described in a blog post below).

A line in the NZ History site’s account of the battle sums up the truth of what happened at Rangiriri – people getting violently shoved off their rightful territory by others, who considered themselves superior:

“Settler William Morgan wrote in his journal that it was ‘extremely annoying, in fact it is galling, to think of our losing so many fine officers and men by such savages as those we had a sight of yesterday.’”

Despite the sadness and brutality of what happened, it was special to see the efforts in this small town to tell the truth about the past. There are two historic sites: Te Wheoro’s Redoubt, and the main Rangiriri Redoubt.

The signage and information panels at the two sites pull no punches. They use words like invasion, even detail a war crime – fleeing Māori, including women with children, being shot in the back by British marksmen as they tried to escape across this lake:

EC46F0EC-6BBA-4723-A4F8-BA56E01B0373
Part of a new memorial at the site of Rangiriri pā. In the foreground are representations of the trench fortifications, that withstood a withering British bombardment. In the background, Lake Waikare.

From Rangiriri village, with its genteel pub, museum and cafe, you have to walk up a gravel road and a hill  to the remains of Te Wheoro’s Redoubt to find out this stark detail; potshots at desperate, displaced backs.

It took me by surprise. Most of the rest of the language on signs, leaflets and websites around Rangiriri is a bit dry and military: engagements, positions, falling back and moving forward, as if it was a big tactical game. But these words were more concrete, and got through to me: bullets in fleeing backs.

There’s a photo of the Māori leader the redoubt is named after – a Ngāti Naho chief who initially tried to work with the Crown, for his people’s sake; only to later become a leading critic of what he saw as racist government policies.

Standing on the site of his fighting pā, looking around at his people’s land and then into his sad, thoughtful eyes is a powerful experience. This is a man who personally experienced the pain of the failures and flaws of the Treaty of Waitangi, but who never gave up striving to make the pact work, for everyone’s good:

0BD55FC2-BAFC-44F5-9812-C15A0EBF1403
This photo of Ngāti Naho chief Te Wheoro is beside his redoubt in Rangiriri, scene of one of the most violent and dramatic battles on NZ soil. He spent his whole life working for a more just New Zealand, even travelling to London to petition the Queen to that effect.

“It was a long time ago, move on, move on” – that’s a mantra you often hear when this topic comes up in New Zealand. But to me, Te Wheoro’s eyes in this photo seem to say: how can you move on, when “it” was done to you, to your people? How can we all move on, when this country still doesn’t really acknowledge, collectively, the wrongs that were done?

4D7F505E-F888-460A-B58B-9353DEA816E7
Trench-eye view of Rangiriri, from Te Where’s Redoubt, looking down on where the gunboats were moored, launching bombs onto people trying to keep living where they and their ancestors always had.

Down the road at the main Rangiriri Redoubt, a newly built, interactive memorial lets you feel the grim intensity of the battle, with information panels and view finders:

EF3C7CDF-7154-4B16-8F99-5D0EBBF55D0B

There are thoughtfully reconstructed fortifications and landscaping that let you imagine the scene in 1863. Instead of that line of traffic below the trench-line, I pictured steel gunboats:

ACD23320-7E0E-41D5-B778-4D9BAE296F06

And there’s a message for every New Zealander from King Tāwhiao, who was defeated here, but who kept standing up for justice for years afterward in the King Country:

6CFCB07D-570D-4E35-B7BC-317D38CD1099

Outside the cemetery, there’s another excellent information panel; but it seemed symbolic that the letters toward the bottom are distorting and sliding off. As if it represented the ground of memory under our feet turning slippery, eroding away; as if an acid rain of forgetfulness is eating at our foundations, which are composed of words – the words of an agreement to jointly build a country.

B5D7B612-D2A1-4C34-AD40-E8BD1512DB85

Another provoking thing about Rangiriri is the way the traffic floods past. It’s right on State Highway 1, a river of concrete, a symbol of the “civilising” forces in whose name explosives rained down on this place.

Thousands of people stream by on every day; how many stop? How many know what this sleepy river-bend represents? Maybe that’s what Rangiriri is most evocative of, in the end: oblivion, forgetting, numbly “moving on”.

Somehow, I think, we’ve got to find a way process this stuff better, as a country. It’s all there, gnawing at us; we just don’t like to think or talk about it.

For me, Rangiriri was the most powerful, impacting stop of the whole, nearly 700-kilometre journey so far.

But now I, too, had to “move on” – with my feet, at least.

From Rangiriri the Te Araroa trail takes you over the Waikato River and along the stop bank on the other side. You’re bound to meet some curious locals:

1B17EFE9-283D-4AF9-AC23-BE31EAEA7722

That guy was pretty shy, but later, some of his older relatives were much more forward. “Oi!” this tough-looking chick seemed to demand. “What’s in the backpack, city boy?”

3E703AD7-CC69-4C38-8C08-6AB87410E42F

The trail is very pastoral along here – cows, pasture, farmhouses and crops:

6BB6A3B8-DA91-47AA-8725-A0CE315D0ABF

The river glides along through it all, hushed, muscular, serene:

0D3BE573-8EC4-4C6E-B206-91196F13605B

There’s a golf course, Māori land, horses, and finally the famous orange stacks of the Huntly power station.

Nearby, signage for the Te Araroa trail talks of the Waikato iwi whose land you walk through, and the mythical taniwha, water creatures who inhabit the river and interact in endlessly surprising ways with humans.  There’s also an exhortation to trampers, which sums up what that day on the trail had been like for me, especially the start of it, in Rangiriri:

Kia tūpato kia pai tō hikoi – Walk the path in safety

Me te titiro whānui, kia koa – Enjoy and learn

Ki ngā taonga – kei mua i a koe – From your surroundings.

C267D848-649F-41A1-A0B1-B9470A5BB32B
A carving of a Waikato river taniwha in a trail sign dedicated to walkers by the tangata whenua.

In Huntly I crossed over the river on the rail bridge and stuck my thumb out on State Highway 1.

A tradesman picked me up and took me into Manurewa, where I got a train, then a bus north to Waiwera, where I’d left my car. On the way, I got a wave and a smile through  the train window from my old Te Araroa friends Māngere Mountain, and the Manukau harbour:

ECCE9027-E4EA-4952-B83D-8820C33B7DFD

Beyond the industrial zones and the vibrating veins of the big city, I saw the glow of the wider world I’d walked through for the last few weeks, and the months before that.

C3077C67-B50F-429E-8202-DD9C428799DD

It will keep glowing as I head back to normal life, sustaining me until it’s time to hit the trail again. That will be in a few months, when there’ll be another instalment of the Te Araroa section of this blog. Thanks for reading! 

(If you haven’t already – see the rest of the journey below).

The civilised, the wild and the hundred lovers (Te Araroa tramp days 31-37; kms 538-654)

Day 31 – rest day in Waipu: 0 kms.

Zero kms… not walking can be so, so good. Even with a hangover.

Day 32 – Wenderholm to Silverdale: 18km (including initial backtracking).

I collected my car from the driveway in Mangawhai – dropping off a bottle of wine to the kind driveway-owner – and headed south for an hour or so. I parked at Waiwera beach; my car would be safer there for a couple of weeks than in even-quieter Wenderholm. Then I walked about 2 kms back to the boat ramp I’d canoed to, so as not to cheat on the full Te Araroa experience.

The walk from there back to Waiwera goes over a bluff whose rich Māori history owes a lot to its strategic and sensational views up and down the coast:

The low tide allowed a pleasant stretch around the headlands to Hatfield’s Beach and then Orewa, hopping over rocks, pools and secluded sandy stretches.

The trail follows lovely long Orewa beach, past the kite-surfers and campers, to a bridge over the Orewa River. Here, dozens of teenagers giggled, strutted and clambered on wharf piles and bridge railings, somersaulting down to carpet-bomb the evening water.

A pathway hugs the estuary all the way round to the Silverdale shops, where I branched off a km or so to a B&B on Whangaparaoa Rd. They kindly let me camp on the lawn for five bucks. I ate my noodles and drank my liquorice tea overlooking the Weiti River, whose mouth I planned to wade the next day at low tide.

Day 33 – Silverdale to Long Bay: about 23km, including detour.

The next morning I stopped at the Silverdale Macpac, which the trail passes, for some new tramping shoes. My old ones were giving my joints more of a beating than was strictly necessary.

The salesman understood what I needed, having dreamed himself of doing Te Araroa. “I’d do it in reverse, though,” he said. “I’m a North Shore boy, so the whole way up I’d have the extra pull of heading home.”

It was a quick stop, because I was trying to reach the Weiti river mouth at Okura by early afternoon; the trail notes made it clear that dead-low tide was the only time it was wadeable. Missing the tide would mean a long detour.

I pounded along, relieved and restored by my new tyres, blasting through the kilometres.

Most of the way down to Okura is tar seal, until lovely little Stillwater, with its perfect name.

EB3A5C66-AB38-44BB-AC13-BD6381DE8D91

After that you hit DOC’s Okura Bush Walkway, a gentle track through bush and coastal grasslands out to the mouth. At low tide you can cut across the sandy flats to Dacre Cottage, isolated on a point. It’s a historic site, but I didn’t have time to explore – the tide was rising. I’d done my best to make it, but just couldn’t flick those kilometres under me fast enough.

I double-plastic-bagged everything in my pack, walked out onto the sandy spit and tried to wade accross.

The rocks on the other side were only four or five metres away, and from there it would be a short scramble up a headland, then an easy amble along a grassy coast. Not making those few metres would mean a three-kilometre detour upriver to a shallower spot.

The tide was streaming in, a strong, buffeting force against me.

At its lowest point, the trail notes say, the channel is only hip deep; but I was up to my neck, feeling my pack lift and bob. I’d unclipped the waist strap and loosened the shoulders; I considered using it as a float, and kicking across.

But I couldn’t guarantee it would keep its buoyancy; what if it sank like a stone, and I lost everything?

It’s a quite wild, lonely piece of coast, especially on a dull day. There was nobody around, no houses; if I disappeared under the water, no-one would know.

I hesitated, feeling the tide shoving past, the water dark and swirling. It felt dangerous, the kind of situation where people push ahead when they shouldn’t.

I backed out and surrendered; it wasn’t worth it. Up river I found a crossing I could manage, to the end of Okura River Road. I still had to go in up to my neck, but I got there.

I spread my wet gear on rocks and had some lunch, then trudged around the long, tar-seal detour to Long Bay.

I realised I was in the burbs. From places which are really little satellite towns of Auckland, like Orewa and Stillwater, I was in the North Shore proper: manicured lawns, bus stops, quiet streets that smelled of DIY and money.

It’s an odd feeling, to find yourself tramping, bedraggled and smelly, through such a domesticated place, so soon after crossing a forest and wading a desolate river. But quite satisfying, too.

In the suburb of Torbay Heights, I got my first view on the trail of an icon of Auckland, city of volcanic cones – Rangitoto Island:

By the time I got to Long Bay it was nearly dark; I got a bus down to the nearest campground, at Takapuna Beach, and pitched my little tent.

Day 34 – Long Bay to Takapuna Beach: 15km. 

The next day a big storm was forecast; people were packing up and leaving the campground, but I thought my rugged tent would survive. I packed lunch, scroggin, water and wet-weather gear, booked a second night, and got a bus back up to where I’d got to the night before.

I’d waited for low tide, so it was an enjoyable afternoon following the beaches and rocky skirts of headlands down past some of the most exclusive suburbs in New Zealand – bays called Brown, Murray, Rothesay, Mairangi, Campbell, Castor and Milford.

F48226C6-B36E-46DF-89BD-BF1D21ADF382

Again, I enjoyed that evocative contrast between wilderness and civilisation. You’re trundling along metres below mansions worth several millions, a block from crowds milling in malls and throbbing traffic; but you’re all alone in the most wind-washed, purest of places.

FFD1801F-DD41-4730-B8EC-E8F7D4D83F41

Sometimes, civilisation intervened to, arguably, improve the wilderness. There’s a seawall, which doubles as a causeway, very enjoyable to bowl along. Its artificial surface melds, by design or weather-beating, into the rocks around it:

DBE128B8-C116-4A44-B782-E79F8B1CC9DF

Elsewhere, the causeways are completely natural, shelves of rock that hug the cliffs, handy steps of harder sediment.

Someone’s used one of these to decorate a stratified cliff. It’s slowly being eaten by the sea, which is indifferent to the high price of its mouthfuls:

7AE01493-5FA1-4348-96D0-76AC421FE7D4

Sometimes you get a glimpse of the gated, armour-plated palaces on top of the crumbling cliffs, which their owners try to hold in place with elaborate geotechnical feats; just one of those engineering marvels would buy a whole house in the provinces.

Below, the sea finds its way into the rock despite them, and nibbles away darkly at their pricey foundations:

Along the shore there’s endless variation, natural carvings, pools, grottoes and bubbles of rock, mud, sand and water.

09DED8A6-AE26-4CF5-A62C-0C1C84E3087A

After a few hours the tide came in and I had to do the last couple of bays via clifftop walks, parks, the odd street, a pleasant route which Te Araroa has carefully sign-posted. From a headland covered in pōhutukawa that groaned in the northerly, I got my first glimpse on-trail of the glass towers of central Auckland:

FB31CB91-BF3D-4C97-8E6D-182CA36B9E4E

It was satisfying to watch the city reveal itself as I crept closer, step by step, just as a mountain or stretch of coast does when you’re doing a more conventional tramp.

Another thing I like on urban coastal walks is all the memorial benches, on quiet beaches, headlands and pathways all over the country. “So and so loved this view,” the plaques say, or: “She sat here often.”

Walking by, or stopping for a rest, I imagine the people remembered in the plaques are nearby me somehow, hovering or taking root, benign and slightly wistful.

AEE17F4E-2C11-4191-AD8B-131257EDF4B6

Further on the storm began to really brew; there was a king tide, the seawall-causeway narrowed, and the waves shattered onto me, sometimes. I met a man coming the other way, with a collie on a lead; “what’s it like ahead?” he asked. I said I thought he’d better carry her through the next bit.

70808FF1-30D6-4511-8AFE-290CF5C1D4E5

Finally I was back at my little orange tent, which stood rock-like in the gale.

I enjoyed my two nights at the Takapuna Holiday Park; it’s an unlikely sliver of egalitarian paradise in one of the most expensive neighbourhoods in the country.

Somehow, this couple of hundred metres of beach-side land has held out against the encroaching hordes of ravenous estate agents.

Surrounded by exclusive schools, mansions, suits, scents and cars, a rag-tag bunch of backpackers, families and retirees in jandals and cargo pants battened down the hatches.

Day 35. Takapuna Beach to Onehunga – 21km.

In the morning the storm was over and the scoured sky was a pulsating blue. Before setting off I had a swim in the cold, clean-feeling bay; I learned later you shouldn’t really do that in Auckland after a storm, but it was delicious.

I had to wade most of Takapuna Beach, normally a golden arc. Further on, some of those estate agents appeared to do a deal near the high-tide line, crowded with flotsam:

8106BB60-CF61-4514-9B0F-5060CF14A5D7

Cheltenham beach was a sunny haven, backdropped by that symmetrical explosion-remnant, Rangitoto, and strewn with storm-tossed kelp and sunbathing yuppies.

(Does anyone still say “yuppies”? Maybe I should say “townies” instead, in honour of a Kāpiti friend of mine who says, of Wellington: “I don’t like ‘town’. Problem with town is, too many bloody townies.”)

I made my way around North Head, atmospherically riddled with old fortifications, tunnels and wartime gun emplacements. There I got my first close-up, on-trail glimpse of the Sky Tower needling the clouds.

126D1251-C006-4262-8174-96360C00DAAD

I had lunch in dreamy, funky, old-world Devonport, then ferried across to that spiky CBD.  True to my rule of doing all waterways under my own steam, I’d come back later to kayak it; but for logistical reasons I had to crack on for now.

I made a brief detour up Queen St, just to know what it’s like to tramp up one of the grittiest of urban pathways; then followed the trail up past the university into the domain. On the way, more scenes of nature having its rough, passionate way with glass, concrete and steel:

C95544A7-0F4E-4850-BAFF-4B537E708699

Beyond the university and the museum, the Wintergarden, somewhere that hitherto only existed for me in a Tiny Ruins song. It was sweet and mysterious, like the song, and a couple were getting their wedding photos. “Congratulations!” said the passing tourists. And there was this thirsty or trumpeting guy:

E7BE66AD-72B8-4BAA-8980-9B9C2FAEBD48

You go past a cricket field, and the hospital, and the prison, and a couple of famous, very posh schools; then straight up Mt Eden, an old volcano (like most other hills in Auckland).

When you breathlessly reach the top of this legendary mound, there are views back along the north shore, where you’ve walked for two days, and across the huge, sprawling belly of Auckland. There it is, greedily and cheerfully taking up a whole peninsula, big-bellied Auckland with its untold lovers:

233C706C-D690-4B19-9FF4-B29B19BA477F

That, as you probably know, is a reference to the excellent Māori name for Auckland, surely one of the most poetic, yet political names in the world: Tāmaki Makaurau – often translated as Tāmaki, the spouse desired by a hundred lovers.

It was called it that, apparently, because the fertile volcanic peninsular is so richly blessed with weather, soil, fish, shellfish and plants, and so strategically located – narrow enough to drag a canoe across, allowing access by water to territory in all directions. Everyone desired Tāmaki.

Today, every woman, man and their chocolate lab is still in love with Auckland, and wants a piece – house prices are insane and tourists thunder through. And fair enough – it’s spectacularly beautiful in parts, and has a subtropical energy that is sometimes joyous, sometimes a bit demented.

There’s no doubt it’s a mighty, magical city. But when you look down on that slender isthmus, it seems to quiver a little under the pressure of so many embracing arms; as though Tāmaki is in danger of being loved to death.

This plaque, one of many on the summit, seemed to offer a clue to where it all started to go wrong between Tāmaki and his myriad, voracious lovers:

B8A12105-7EAC-43F3-991E-8E7E973F307F
Hmmm.. thanks, but I think I’d have preferred the pre-transformation Tāmaki.

The trail takes you on through serene, costly Epsom and into Cornwall Park, along avenues of native trees and up to the summit of Maungakiekie – One Tree Hill.

As the sun went down I looked down over the grazing sheep (who seemed oblivious to being a living cliche) to Onehunga and Māngere Mountain, where I’d be walking tomorrow. And there was Manukau harbour, the other side of the isthmus – I’d reached the Tasman, after leaving the Pacific late that morning.

3F8FD26C-5C00-4758-A60F-9F2CEA19D604

On top of Maungakiekie the night-time Tāmaki emerged, even more compelling, a vivid sea of lights and hopes.

Some Te Araroa walkers skip Auckland, saying nothing could interest them less than a boring yomp along suburban streets and sterile motorways; but, far from boring, I found it a uniquely satisfying tramping experience.

First, because Te Araroa trust have designed an elegant route through the most charming, pedestrian-friendly parts, so it’s urban in a quirky, multi-textured way, rather than a grimly industrial one.

Secondly, because walking for hours through a city reveals it in unexpected ways – how it lies along its hills, ignores or conforms to them, how it washes over the terrain, yet how it can never completely dwarf or overcome it.

8D636FEB-6C6C-4557-BCDE-B5873376F663

I walked on down Maungakiekie, past the clump of young native trees on the summit, planted to replace an invading, justly extirpated pine. Then I was into Onehunga: gateway to Manukau, and the trail south.

Another joy of urban tramping is the availability, when you’ve had enough, of Uber. Soon I was at my mate Dan’s place in Blockhouse Bay, footsore, scenery-dazzled and in powerful need of beer and a bloody good catch-up.

Day 36 – Onehunga to Puhinui: 25kms.

In the morning another Uber had me back in Onehunga and on the shores of the mighty Manukau. I crossed the old Māngere bridge, now mainly used by fishers and cyclists, and headed around the coastal track to Ambury Park, a working farm with spectacular harbour views.

Rain hammered down while I was on the way but the sun came out just as I stopped for lunch, at a shelter made partly of volcanic stones, right on the water’s edge.

Māngere Mountain, just behind the park, erupted massively quite recently (in geological time), so there are cool lava caves and formations roundabout.

Two German tourists happened by, hopping from rock to lava rock along the water’s edge, as I was boiling the billy for a coffee. “Do you know anywhere we can camp that has a shower?” they asked. Maybe the farm park? They have a campsite. “Yeah, but there is no shower,” they said. “We just got off a plane from Germany, and came straight here; we really need a shower.”

Auckland airport is only a few minutes drive away from the suburb of Māngere Bridge; 747s levered themselves into the sun-showery sky over Māngere mountain every few minutes.

Later, I thought I should have told them to just jump in the harbour; it looked pristine. It wasn’t always that way, though. Auckland’s main waste water plant is right on its edge, near Ambury farm, and it used to completely desecrate the harbour. Recently, it’s cleaned up its act in a huge way. The transformation is incredible, to judge from old photos on the information panels along the track.

Manukau harbour is one of the world’s top sites for spotting certain migratory wading birds: bar-tailed godwits, lesser knots, whimbrels, sandpipers, pied oystercatchers, pied stilts and wrybills. Vast flocks of them fly literally from the other side of the world, within the Arctic circle, every year to spend summer eating shell fish on the Manukau’s immense tidal flats. The grassy parks on the way to Ambury are a favourite resting spot for them when the tide’s in:

730EF35A-7BB4-4A5A-B9FF-F73DF15E0F03

Around the other side of the Māngere peninsula, thousands of birds roost among the mangroves. “Civilisation”, the legacy of those brave surveyors honoured in the plaque above, completely stuffed this place, for generations – the shellfish died, the birds didn’t come, and local Māori had their food source, their identity and their community badly damaged. So it’s really heartening to see how thorough the restoration has apparently been.

7156B1CF-9668-45E1-B9A2-742E6892DC2E

Below: Leave the poor, love-sick birds in peace!

F07A8A39-B367-4141-8BCE-E79F2A666C58

The apocalyptic sky seemed to converge on Puketutu island, the small forested idyll just off the coast from the water works:

C33EBE08-A571-4FF7-AB2A-597D20FE5A06

But there was light at the end of the tunnel – out at the harbour entrance, where the Waitākere range broods over the Tasman:

ED65EE99-53BC-4275-8E5F-CD3C6B8603CB

I took a lot of photos through here, because a) it was really beautiful and b) it would be my last coastal walking on Te Araroa for a thousand kms or so. The trail heads inland from here and doesn’t return to the coast until down around Wellington somewhere, I think. I’m sure it will go through some incredible scenery, but I really love coastal tramping.

FE11B1DA-2801-46AB-AC71-C4F49418C2C8
Maungakeikie – One Tree Hill on the horizon (you can just see the plinth on top) from the edge of Manukau harbour, near the airport.

I sat on this Manukau harbour beach and thought that the next time I sat on a beach while walking Te Araroa might be years away, at the pace I’m going (about 500km a year).

Looking back over the ground I’d covered, I saw the still, sheeny waters of the harbour; to my left, the wooded hill of Puketutu Island; to my right, the double-round hump of Māngere Mountain; and, way in the distance, the peak of Maungakiekie – One Tree Hill, with its plinth, presiding over the landscape. I was right there, at the foot of that plinth, only the night before, and since then I’d come nearly 30km under my own steam.

I like seeing, in this kind of scene, how landscape predates us, out-punches us, overpowers us and takes precedence over us, often in an understated, gentle way. For example, Māngere for me, until now, was just the name of a suburb. Now, looking at that mountain, I see it as the site of a primeval explosion, full of energy and natural forces.

And Maungakiekie beyond that, how it dominates the landscape – and yet it, too, has become “just” a suburb, One Tree Hill. How we reduce the landscape, the geography and the planet to our human dimensions, but how it resists, how this harbour fought back after the sewage works and all the damage we did to it, how the Māori from here stood up for it, to help it recover.

After leaving the harbour, you go through the Otuataua Stonefields, a heritage site where Māori once stacked sun-warmed stones to warm their kūmara crops. The piled stones remain. Today the most striking remnants, to me, are the many signs denoting an ongoing protest over land rights. An information panel says tangata whenua are in danger of being squeezed out of their rightful territory by greedy developers, and that historic land-theft in the area has never been recognised, much less recompensed. The more things change…

31ACFE88-D560-4F9C-9810-DB8FCDDB889F
I think this means: “The land is our birthright”. Happy to be corrected.

After that it’s a long schlepp along tar seal roads in the back country around the country’s busiest airport. It rained, the odd car roared by, huge planes rose and sank through the mists. I put my head down, clicked into the familiar feeling of the land slipping by, and followed the white line.

EACB68CB-61D6-4FA3-87AA-5E6A99F54378

It was another unique, urban tramping experience, to move with my sedate but deliberate rhythm through the frenetic airport precinct, with its fast-food factories, warehouses, industrial sites and highly-focussed, hunched drivers zooming toward pick-ups, drop-offs or distant lands.

A bridge took me over broad, brown Pukaki Creek, which, at low tide, is no more than a thin silver ribbon along a muddy central groove.

On the other side, a viewing area; people park up to plane-spot, or to wait for loved ones, or eat McDonald’s before heading into town. While I rested under a nearby tree, one of those steel behemoths lumbered up into the sky directly over the viewing area, and trumpeted off, stately, immense, certain.

Less stately, but still serene, I, too, trundled on in the drizzly twilight. A few kilometres later, good mate Dan turned up. More perks of urban tramping: generous collection from the trail-end, the same bed for a few nights, and not having to cart all your stuff.

Beer-time.

Day 37 – Puhinui Creek to Brookby: about 21km

Dan had a day off and was joining me for the day’s journey. His partner Amber dropped us off back at Puhinui and we followed a path beside the creek, which Te Araroa trust has cunningly used to take walkers west-to-east across one of Auckland’s biggest industrial areas.

At first the trail passes through a reserve and is lined with bush; it feels like proper tramping, beside a silvery stream and big native trees.

Then it enters the industrial area around Wiri and its banks become much more imprinted with humans’ funny ways, ranging from manicured lawns, to introduced trees, to Rainbow’s End in the distance. Puhinui creek: I feel your pain, but you soldier on, tinkling, as you always have. I hope you always will.

BBD276B0-5823-446B-A35E-AB3B2EECFB72

It’s quite cool following a natural feature through a suburban semi-wasteland; despite all the hydraulic engineering, fuel tanks, a prison, flood protection, channelling, streets, subdivisions, factories, warehouses, playgrounds and concrete paths, the stream just wends its determined way, the only really wild thing anywhere to be seen.

At times it disappears under all that enveloping, anaesthetising concrete; you pass a few barb-wired compounds, a cul de sac or two, a traffic light, a thoroughfare; only to see it reborn a bit further along, holding no grudge, its silvery tinkling undiminished.

It was great to have human company, too; we tramped along, chattering.

There was one other wild thing in view: Matukutūreia, AKA McLaughlin’s Mountain. It has been vandalised by a quarry, but it’s still mostly there, covered in grass and a bit of scrub. I love the casual way these low volcanic mounds keep appearing as you tramp through Auckland, around the corner of a building or beyond an on-ramp: We’re still here, they murmur in their knowing, bluff-shouldered voices, despite your concrete, your quarrying, your surveyors, your endless cars.

The creek track brings you out, after nearly 10kms, at Tōtara Park, after a short stretch of the very lovely Auckland Botanic Gardens.

Then it’s suburban streets through the outskirts of Manurewa for a while, before, all of a sudden: countryside.

Six days after entering Auckland’s northern limits at Waiwera, I’d reached the other side of Tāmaki’s kingly sprawl.

There are views of the Hunua Ranges as you slog along the frenetic Alfriston and Brookby roads, further and further out into the quiet paddocks.

Cars and trucks hurtled by, and Doctor Dan took a professional interest in the high-tide drifts of scattered road-kill.

I was flagging by the time we reached Brookby; it had been six days, and 114kms, since I’d had a day off.

Brookby turned out to be a place of compelling quietness, with a primary school, a riding club and a drowsing crossroads.

Dan’s missus Amber collected us there. Beer o’clock. O urban tramping, you are so under-rated.

Riding the tide through the hidden heart (Te Araroa tramp, days 27-30; kms 461-538)

The beach south of Mangawhai was no less empty, peaceful and sun-washed than when I’d left it.

Five months had gone by since I last did a three-week stint on the 3000-kilometre, length-of-NZ Te Araroa trail. I’m doing the trail consecutively, north to south, at about 500 kilometres a year.

It was January, 2018, and I had another few weeks off. I drove up from Wellington to the point I’d got to last time, Pacific Rd, Mangawhai Heads, just north of Auckland.

Day 27 – Pacific Rd, Mangawhai to Pakiri beach: 16 kms.

I knocked on a farmhouse door near the road-end. Could I park beside their driveway, for security? I explained what I was up to, and that I’d be back in a few days to pick up my car. Sure, they said.

I pushed on down the beach. All morning, Taranga Island, part of the Hen and Chickens group, kept me company.

I was quickly into the free-associative state walking procures for me.

Taranga, I thought, with its twin summits at the northern end, was like a resting dog lying on the horizon, his ears pricked. Or like a waiting crocodile, wth her huge hooded eyes, and her corrugated spine.

img_3302
Taranga Island, part of the Hen and Chickens group; seen from the beach south of Mangawhai.

At Te Arai Point, I looked down on a school of surfers; and beyond them a cloud of little fish swaying in unison in the gentle washing of a clear bay.

The January sun beat down a lot more forcefully than it had in July. There was nowhere to hide on the long beach, no trees in sight. But right on schedule, when I was ready for lunch, a shelter appeared, rigged up by someone out of seaweed and driftwood.

I boiled the billy, ate tuna on crackers, went for a swim. It was good to be on the trail again.

In the afternoon I pitched my tent at the Pakiri campground, where kids roamed in happy mobs and parents drank wine, listened to the cricket and flipped chops on communal barbies.

Day 28 – Pakiri to Waiwhiu Valley: 18km.

This turned out to be the hottest day of the year in many parts of the country; Otago recorded NZ’s hottest temperature in seven years.

While the heat built up, I was struggling up this bloody hill:

img_3315
Pakiri Beach from Mt Tamahunga

It’s a steep climb from sea level up through paddocks to Mt Tamahunga (437m), the highest point between Whangarei and Auckland.

The sweat was pouring off me, and I felt as if all the water I could drink evaporated as soon as I swallowed it.

But I was inspired to new heights of stoicism by a sign saying this track, Te Hikoi o te Kiri, was opened by none other than Sir Edmund Hillary.

Also inspiring is that the track got its name, Te Kiri’s March, in honour of an act of bold defiance against bloody British imperialism. Te Kiri, according to NZ Geographic, was a Ngāti Wai war chief who, in 1864, gave refuge in this forest to 180 dispossessed Waikato warriors he had freed from the governor’s prison.

The prisoners had been exiled on Governor George Grey’s estate at nearby Kawau Island, after British forces smashed their home at Rangiriri, north of Hamilton, with gunboats moored in the Waikato River.

(A couple of weeks later, on this same stint of Te Araroa, I would find myself on that very spot, Rangiriri, where the government shells rained down.)

I carried on into Omaha Forest, where there were views over posh Omaha Beach and out to Governor Grey’s private prison:

The track leads you out onto Matakana Valley Road. I had finished all my water and passed no streams, and was numb with thirst in that ruthless heat. I knocked on a door and drank deep.

A short road section took me onto a four-wheel-drive track, then, as the long summer twilight deepened, into DOC’s Totara Scenic Reserve.

A few kilometres in I set up camp by the thin, clear Waiwhiu Stream. Thick, old trunks rose all around, blocking out most of the stars. I felt the heavy, primitive cloak of the deep bush.

Before I went to bed, I washed in the stream under torchlight; a native fish hung in the current next to me.

Day 29 – Waiwhiu Stream to Ahuroa Rd near Moir’s Hill: 26km.

The morning saw me slogging away from the shadowy bush along Waiwhiu Stream up a steep forestry road into the Dome Forest. Pine soon gives way to thick, mature native bush; and the steep climb to a long, undulating route along a ridge.

It’s less than 500 metres high, this ridge, but it’s a seriously rugged little tramp: there’s plenty of mud, knotty rooty tangles, scrambles, slides, ups and downs to keep you conscious of your general puniness.

In the distance the top of the Dome emerges: it looks benign, but it will make you sweat and struggle.

Finally you start to hear the boom and bleat of State Highway 1, and you reach a look-out – straight down the Dome Valley to Warkworth.

One of the coolest things about Te Araroa is the way it takes you in roughly the same direction as State Highway 1 – north to south – but elegantly keeps you away from it, apart from the occasional birds-eye glimpse:

In this way you get to visit all the little back-waters and communities known only to themselves, their century-old war memorial halls and tiny schools, their secret vistas.

Booming on wheels along the highway, on the other hand, you get a sanitised view of New Zealand – it’s like a long, concrete canyon whose prescribed stops and starts are petrol stations, malls and chain stores, the exits and on-ramps amply and soberly signposted, lit up in LEDs and strobing arrows.

Everything about it is designed for ease and speed. The hills are levelled or punctured, there are heavily engineered tunnels, tolls, viaducts, enormous sweeping bends linking artificially long straights, straights that warp time, tame terrain, crush the land.

It makes me think of my sister’s affectionate joke about my Dad’s way of sitting for a minute or two after the car has pulled up, even after everyone else has got out, unpacked, gone in. “What’s Dad doing?” someone says. “He’s waiting for his soul to catch up with his body,” she replies. Who can blame him, with these spirit-warping roads?

Te Araroa, instead, sends you through all the bumpy, lumpy, rough, slow, knotty bits of New Zealand, the ones the roading technocrats bend over backwards to avoid, or steamroll.

Sometimes you’re in one of these funny, muddy, quirky little valleys, or on top of one of these forgotten hilltops, and you catch a whiff of bitumen or the far-off whoop and wail of tyres on rumble strips; and you feel like you’re in a parallel country, running roughly alongside the other one, the echoing one, the long, narrow concrete one.

The Dome Cafe is at a junction of these two countries, and is the perfect lunch stop – a lush salad, a strong coffee, and my soaked socks stiffening on the verandah rail.

The trail takes you straight past the cafe and across the highway. It’s just a lane in each direction at this point, but you still feel a bit vulnerable scuttling across between the stock trucks.

Then it’s a long, hot schlepp up gravel roads and into a back-country patchwork of bush, plantations and farms for the rest of the afternoon and evening.

The trail cunningly links up a few gravel roads that almost connect, by sending you across paddocks with those ubiquitous styles over fences.

It’s real heartland stuff, a nice contrast to the thick, wild bush of the morning and yesterday.

I’m sure parts of the South Island are more spectacular. But there are certain types of things you can really only see, and encounters you can really only have, in the rural heartland parts of Te Araroa.

For example, from one of these anonymous roads somewhere out the back of Warkworth I saw, in a paddock below, a beat-up four-wheel-drive hooning around a paddock, towing some sort of sleigh-like contraption behind it. There was a person aboard, laughing and screaming as the improvised sled swung in huge arcs behind the revving ute, sending up a wake of torn grass and mud; it was just like one of those sea biscuits people tow around at the beach, only in a paddock.

And later, from a rise in one of the paddock shortcuts I saw, far below in another paddock, a shiny, late-model car doing elaborate skids and other stunt manoeuvres; hand-brakies, reverse doughnuts.

I carried on down the hill and, back on a road, went into the first house I came to for water – the big ridge on the horizon in the picture below was coming up, and I knew there would be no water up there.

It was a well-kept, expensive looking place, with a hint of holiday home and a hint of farmhouse. Just as I went into the driveway the same car I’d seen in the paddock roared through the gate and skidded to a stop, with a lean, grinning blonde girl hanging out the front passenger-seat window.

Smiling, well-dressed people milled around; I explained what I needed, they invited me in to fill my Camel-Bak. There were chips and dips and grapes on plates covering a table. “Want a beer?”

I declined; I had a long way to go.

They were all curious about how I’d popped up, covered in sweat and dust, there, of all places, in their parallel Aotearoa; and they fired questions as I held the plastic bladder under the kitchen tap.

I was curious about them, too: there was a tight-wound intensity to their cheerfulness. Someone explained that they were mostly cousins; they’d grown up around here, had gathered at the farm for an elder’s milestone birthday party that night; they’d hired cars to come from the four winds; they were were mostly three sheets to those same winds.

“And what do you do when you get an awesome hire car?” one asked me, as if the answer was obvious. “You tear up a paddock.”

I was enjoying the genial chat and realising how badly I smelled, not having showered in a few days, just as the lovely blonde girl wandered into the kitchen. “Did I hear you say you were walking to Bluff?” she said. “That’s fuckin’ fantastic. Why are you doing that? Is it for a charity?”

No, I said – just for the hell of it. She stared at me thoughtfully and took this in for a moment, along with a pull on her beer, and hopefully not too much of my billy goat-like scent. Then: “You should do it for something!” she said with conviction. “Charity it up, man!”

Soon after, I left the monied farming families, dusty roads and lush farms behind and headed up Moir’s Hill. It’s steep, covered in pines, and has a radio tower at the top. About halfway up the forestry track improves, becomes a graded road to rough sections flattened into the harvested pines. Some developer obviously hopes to sell off these sweet views:

Sooner than I was ready, the sun began to set, silvering the toetoe leaves. I found my way past the radio tower and down a rough four-wheel drive track carved between pines on one side and scrub on the other. Thick gorse occasionally intruded. Before I’d got far it was fully dark; I lashed on my head torch and carried on.

I was making for Ahuroa Rd, where I planned to camp on or near the verge. When I was nearly there I got complacent, turned off my torch a while and bowled along in the moonlight, which was magical. But I soon ran into one of the big pitfalls of moonlit tramping: losing your way.

A half-hour, muddy, exhausting bushbash followed; I’d somehow missed a short, steep track down to the road. Instead, I had to pick my down one of those near-vertical road-side banks, covered as it was in gorse, bush and mud. Finally I floundered out onto the road, breathing hard and brushing off what felt like kilos of twigs and dust.

With my last scraps of energy I pitched my tent in the silent countryside. I was too tired to eat; it was nearly 10pm and I’d been going since 8 that morning.

I’d pushed myself further than I really should have because I felt I had to make Puhoi, the next town, by 8am. This was because the following section is a canoe trip down the Puhoi River, and you have to time it with the tides. Puhoi was still three hours walk away; so I had to be back on the trail by 5am.

I crawled into my little refuge, my limbs vibrating with fatigue, and passed out.

Day 30 – Ahuroa Rd to Wenderholm: 17km

It was spooky and special to walk along on blistered, battered feet, utterly alone in the pre-dawn dark. Even the birds were asleep, and my torchlight glanced over cattle lying still like warm lumps.

I made my way over steep farmland and through Dunn’s Bush, opened by a landowner for public use.

Slowly the sky lightened and the night was over; I’d been walking for an hour or more.

Then I was crossing a swing-bridge over the Puhoi River, onto a beautiful, bush-lined clifftop track specially opened for Te Araroa.

I hobbled along, exhausted but determined. I’d gone hard these four days, but was having the next couple off.

The track switch-backs down into Puhoi, with its quaint colonial church, cluster of houses and lovely old pub. I made it right on 8am, as arranged with Cody, who was hiring me a canoe.

I sculled a coffee and inhaled a cake from the Puhoi cafe, and Cody helped me launch, seal-style, from the lawn below his house. Then I was gliding seaward between muddy banks. It had been an intense effort, but I’d made it.

The river is a gentle meander; farms slide past, herons wade in the tidal shallows and mangroves send up their millions of aerial roots in the sucking, shiny mud.

A well-dressed older couple in a dinghy rowed past, heading upstream; I guessed they’d come from a yacht moored a little further down. The woman, wearing an elegant sundress, sat back in the stern, her feet up on a seat and her arms stretched luxuriously along the gunwhales; her man, in a chambray shirt and a shiny-peaked captain’s cap, leaned peacefully against the oars. “Breakfast at the pub?” I sang out. “Absolutely,” she smiled.

It’s only 7kms down to Wenderholm park, where Cody was picking me up. It took 90 minutes or so, with a few rests to just lie back and drift along in the tea-coloured stream.

Te Araroa carries on from Wenderholm, down the Hibiscus Coast into Auckland’s North Shore. But I was breaking my journey here, at the boat ramp, to nip back up to Waipu for my mate Claire’s 40th birthday party.

Cody dropped me off back at the cute old pub, with its diverse Sunday afternoon crowd of leathered gangsters, families, oldies and tourists. There, I got a ride up to Waipu.

The vivid contrasts of the travelling life, so surreal at times, and so satisfying: from a roadside campsite to Austin Powers costumes, canapés and cocktails, via dark paddocks, a kauri-lined track and an outgoing tide.

 

 

 

A thousand steps, a storm, & a golden beach (Te Araroa tramp, days 22-26; kms 390-461)

Day 22 – Rest day: 0 kms.

In the morning, after hiking well over 100kms, it was utterly delicious to be able to laze around, read a while, get up when I felt like it; and even more delicious to have breakfast like this:

59BB8442-373B-4B5E-A4EE-95A266272C52

Lying there in the sun, I sipped coffee, munched crackers with peanut butter, and felt the boulder under me shake as the big waves hit it.

Note the rugby socks and stylish windproof leggings from Warehouse – despite the “Winterless North” nickname, it got down to just below zero that night. I was fine in my tent, though I did wake up at one point just before dawn and put on my raincoat – it was the only thing I had left to bolster my sleeping bag.

The teen fishers went home after lunch and I had Peach Cove to myself. It’s a very peaceful spot, perfect for a rest day.

I liked my little sunlit glade.

8880141F-19CF-44C4-B0B1-B51BCE7730BB

Day 23 – Peach Cove to Mackenzie Bay: about 7km.

The thousand steps were a lot harder, of course, going back up; but the pain was lessened by the views down through bands of sun and shadow:

77358639-3552-4954-A760-883F6B4CB8CE
Looking south from the track from Peach Cove back up to the Whangarei Heads ridge-line.

I was aiming for Reotahi Bay, where I’d arranged to paddle a kayak across the harbour to Marsden Point the next day; but I fell about 5kms short – the views are just too distracting:

783E9B21-08DE-408D-B5BC-342E4BD97898
Smugglers Bay from Matariki (Mt Lion); Whangarei harbour entrance beyond

As always, some of the most beguiling vistas are back the way you’ve come. It’s so satisfying to see the huge sculpted immovable swathes of land, that you’ve picked your way obstinately over:

67A7370D-11B5-4522-AC20-B9121832B292
Kauri Mountain and Ocean Beach from Matariki (Mt Lion).

One of the most striking sights appears across a paddock of lilies and toetoe. It’s Mt Manaia, full of legends, history and mauri, with its brooding, taniwha-like, sculptural forms:

85FE91F1-A6B3-4E75-95CB-F705074476AF
Mt Manaia

Finally I made it to Dougie’s place, Appin Cottage; it was a paltry 7kms, but the campsite overlooked the major international shipping lane I would be paddling in the morning.

669D08CF-7305-4AB0-90D2-159ED9768548

Dougie is an artist and aficionado of Celtic lore, as well as a purveyor of hospitality to trampers; we sat up in front of his log fire with a Laphroig. Then I went to sleep in the bamboo grove, lulled, strange as it sounds, by the electric, brassy-bass hum of the refinery.

Day 24 – McKenzie Bay to Waipu (Tip Rd): about 21kms.

I’d arranged by phone to meet Peter, my kayak-contact, at 10am on Reotahi beach. Peter’s one of several boatmen listed in the Te Araroa trail notes who can ferry walkers across the 1.5km mouth of the Whangarei harbour for about $20. Otherwise you’d spend a day or more on a huge back-track north and east into Whangarei; crossing the mouth means you can carry straight on south.

But, as mentioned in an earlier post, my aim is to go the whole length of NZ under my own steam – so where water crossings are called for, I’ll kayak.

So I asked Peter if he’d mind just taking my pack across, while I paddled behind; he agreed with benign amusement.

My mate Nick from Waipu lent me his fishing kayak, and arranged to leave it on a pontoon at the Marsden Point marina, near his work. (It would have been a 2-hour return drive for him to drop if off on the Reotahi side, so that was out of the question).

I was on the beach at 10am; Peter had said to phone him when I got there. “Look up toward Mt Aubrey,” he said on the phone. I saw a figure on a balcony waving. “Come up for a cuppa.”

Peter works at the port over the water from his home at Reotahi; but he moonlights as a log-catcher. If a log falls into the harbour while being loaded, it quickly becomes a significant shipping hazard. “It’s only a narrow bit of water,” he said, “but the tidal currents are huge.”

A tonne or two of spear-like timber, just below the surface, can wreck anything. So the call goes to Peter, or a mate with whom he shares a 24/7 roster; he jumps in his boat and zooms after the errant, lethal log.

He snares it, and tows it back to be re-loaded.

In between that, and his regular job, he ferries across walkers. “There were hundreds last summer,” he said.

The crossing is notoriously treacherous, Peter told me. A lot of port or refinery workers commuted in tinnies or kayaks, and he’d had to rescue a few that had come to grief. “It’s a long drive around through Whangarei, so sometimes they try and shoot across, when they really shouldn’t.”

In his time there’d been a few lucky escapes, and some deaths.

He saw me looking nervous. “You’ll be right,” he grinned. “It’s a perfect morning for it.”

1AA22DCE-6234-456A-8686-173163F514A9
Mt Aubrey, Reotahi Bay boat ramp, and some remains of the old meat works.

After the tea we climbed aboard and launched; Peter threw in a speedy lap of nearby Motukaroro Island, where several seals lazed. The waters around it teem, he said; its a marine reserve.

42A184CE-73EB-4AC3-B019-EDD880758A1B
Peter in his log-catching, tramper-ferrying boat.

The refinery loomed over the water beyond the island, droning its quiet industrial hymns to the indifferent sky.

BFAB9E33-1D71-4E5D-A514-394862A28DCD

We reached the pontoon using the map Nick had sketched for me; dumped my pack, grabbed the kayak, stowed it, and were off back to Reotahi.

Drawing up to the beach Peter dropped my lurid orange coracle overboard, helped me scramble down, and sent me off with a smile and a wave. Peter’s The Man.

Looking back I could see the ridge-line line I’d walked over Te Whara and Matariki, with Peach Cove on the other side; closer was the bulk of Mt Aubrey, with Reotahi village by the water:

B5DC3305-8759-40DE-B888-45E3B666E103

In less than half an hour I was paddling up to the Marsden marina; I had a few minutes rest, watching my footprints dry and thinking travelling thoughts. Then Nick turned up with a hot pie. Nick is also The Man.

C1F8AD87-F798-480B-B962-B8CB5004E8E7

Nick dropped me at the Marsden Point beach, where the ferry would have dropped me had I not kayaked.

I wasn’t skimping any of the Te Araroa route, mind, because the distance I crossed is actually greater than the ferry route. (I’m a bit nerdy about not skimping.)

A little way down the beach you duck under the huge, gullet-like pipeline that takes the refinery’s products on and off the docked ships. Then you set off along the long, creamy crescent of crunchy shells and crisp sand that is Bream Bay.

I had 20 kms to go to get to Nick’s house in Waipu, where I’d stay that night; the crossing had used up a lot of time, so I had to get a wriggle on.

It was a good feeling to put my head down, put my legs in gear and charge off down the sand, a small human engine.

I stopped at one point, though, to phone ahead and arrange another river crossing.

10kms down the beach is the Ruakaka River; you can wade it at low tide, but I was going to be there when it was high.

The trip notes mention Simon, who can hire kayaks to trampers for the crossing.

When he met me at the mouth, I told him an idea I’d had on the way: instead of walking the 6kms down the beach from Ruakaka to the road into Waipu, could I rent the kayak for a bit longer?

Normally he wouldn’t, he said – if something went wrong, he’d be liable. But I told him I own a kayak, go out on Wellington harbour a lot, carried a personal locator beacon and phone, and am famously prudent; after a while he agreed.

And so it was I saved 6kms of shoe leather, and soaked up great views back up to the heads, and marinaded myself in wintry, pewter hues.

72E07799-266F-49F3-B832-16B9D60F92F2

We arranged Simon would pick me up from Tip Road, where the trail leaves the beach and heads into Waipu. Soon I was paddling peacefully south, parallel to the breakers, past the Uretiti DOC campsite; it made a great change from foot-slogging.

This is how it looked on my GPS – the purple line of the Te Araroa route, the Ruakaka racecourse and river mouth at the top, Tip Rd into Waipu at the bottom, me under the blue, starry shadow of the satellite:

BBA94383-442C-4525-8061-13885CA36AF9

Simon was there as promised; I paid, he gave me back my pack, I gave him his kayak. Perfect. Simon is the also The Man.

Good old mate Nick was waiting for me there too, with Ruby the dog. After she had a go at the three-legged land-speed record on the beach, we were back at their house and into a frosty beer or seven.

Day 25 – Waipu (Tip Rd) to Cove Rd, near Bream Tail: 24km

Just after dawn, on his way to work, Nick dropped me back at the end of Tip Road. By late morning I was through Waipu, and up on the Brynderwyn Range, looking down over the sweep of Bream Bay toward Marsden Point:

FC3BB0C8-E03C-4772-891B-F2437A716FCF
Waipu River Mouth and Bream Bay from Cullen Rd, on the Brynderwyn Range.

In the evening, I made camp in a quiet patch of young manuka near Cove Rd. Their slender tops swayed with a composed, mesmerising grace in the easterly that built all night.

80684D25-61A1-4C82-AC36-DE38DEBA8C6C

Day 26 – Bream Tail to Pacific Rd, south of Mangawhai Heads: 21 kms

This was my last day on the trail for that trip. I was aiming for 21 kms, which would give me a total for the trail of 461km, and 300km for this mid-winter stint.

It was still fairly sheltered as I set off from my campsite and then up Bream Tail Rd. But near the top of its gradual incline you are nearly overlooking the sea, and any weather coming off it – and today there was plenty. A storm wrecking roads and houses further south was more benign here in the balmy north, but the wind and horizontal rain still shrieked in my ears, threatened to tear my woollen hat off, and sent me staggering sideways at times.

The trail takes you through paddocks and then a section of mature bush, complete with some of those whale-like kauri, serenely unmoved in the face of the storm.

Then you pop out onto the Mangawhai Walkway, a clifftop track with fantastic views. One of the pleasures of a long tramp is the way the outlook suddenly, radically changes. It happens just as you feel as if you’ve been walking past a landscape for so long, it has seeped into you through your boots.

I’d spent the last four or five days looking at Bream Bay, the Hen and Chickens islands, and the Whangarei Heads, from just about every possible angle; but now I’d made my way over the Brynderwyn range, and a whole new tranche of terrain was thrown open:

ED2AF399-58E2-4C99-BA76-01AC7541A138
Looking south toward the Mangawhai harbour-mouth and Te Arai Head from Mangawhai Walkway.

The Mangawhai harbour is too wide to wade and I doubted I’d get anyone to hire me a kayak on such a rough day; so there was nothing for it but to trek around through the townships of Mangawhai Heads and Mangawhai, and over several bridges. This adds about 5 kms, but is worth it for the outstanding burger shops you walk right past.

Finally you’re through the towns and back on a gravel road; it had rained on and off all day and the name of the road didn’t augur well: Black Swamp Rd. But soon enough I was in a sheltering pine forest, and on my last km or so of walking for this trip.

I found a sheltered campsite near the beach, but away from both the protected birds that nest in the dunes here and the fenced-off pines.

Freedom camping is a hot-button issue in NZ, but sometimes it has to be done on Te Araroa, because of the way the logistics of the trail unfold. I plan to avoid it, unless I’ll be in DOC estate, where you can generally camp where you like. But sometimes there’s no alternative: it’s getting late, there’s no traffic for hitching and no public transport to get to accomodation in town. But if there is no specific area set aside, it can feel like you’re going to get yelled at by someone, ordered to move on at 2am.

You just have to be a bit delicate about it, and sensible, and hope for the best. Of course you leave no trace when you pack up – you take your rubbish, dig a very discreet toilet pit if you have to, light no fires, etc.

In the morning the storm, and this section of my tramp, was over.

I went for a swim, had breakfast in the dunes, and spent the morning enjoying the glorious golden views up and down the beach.

This is where I’d been – looking North to Mangawhai Head, the Brynderwyn Range, and Whangarei Heads and Marsden Point beyond:

71387557-2529-4EAB-9FA9-A9E02DF5FEFC

And this is where I was going, on my next Te Araroa instalment – south to Te Arai Head, and Pakiri beach beyond that:

DFC7E08A-F217-454B-9EEA-ED0E8F83ED4D

After lunch I packed up, walked out to the main road and hitched back to Nick’s in Waipu, where I’d left my car. A three-week, three-hundred kilometre section of Te Araroa was in the bag.

F0D85224-A6D6-4A4B-8E2A-157CB4D89A09

Changing shades of green and blue (Te Araroa Tramp, days 15-21; kms 270-390)

Days off on the trail are part of the joy of it. After constant movement, you cherish being stationary.

After 6 days and 100kms, I was due a day off. But my Russell Forest campsite was right beside a more-or-less road.

To be fair, most of the cars along the upper Waikare Valley Road aren’t going anywhere; it’s a car graveyard.

Old, newish, unclassifiable, they’re strewn in the bush and on the grassy verges beside the track by the dozen. Who knows why. (Why not, I guess.)

In their various states of rust and brokenness, they create that haunting feel of dead dreams; of nature snickering human ambition into silence. Like the loggers’ huts in the Herekino forest, or the Bridge to Nowhere on the Whanganui River, or hill country farms everywhere, sloughing off their topsoil into the sea.

It’s poignant, but not very restful. So I hauled my bones out of my cocoon, and packed it all up. Again.

Day 15 – Papakauri Stream track to Russell Forest Walkway bush campsite: about 5km.

The Upper Waikare Valley Road becomes the Papkauri track, which is a surveyed road through Māori land blocks. These are remote, private, ancestral lands; you’re here by unique invitation.

Access to them was only granted after the Te Araroa trust took the time to sit down with the locals, to explain their idea for a really long hikoi: a Māori word for a long walk, often with special meaning – protest, spiritual growth, discovery.

(It’s also a word which looks pleasingly like “hike”.)

After those conversations, the tangata whenua (people of the land; those who belong by ancestry to a territory) agreed to get on board. (Note: I’ll try to explain Māori words for international readers, in case I should have that joy).

A lot of listening has gone into building this long pathway. When you walk it, part of the experience is knowing you’re tracing a series of encounters.

Another reason I wanted to crack on is that the day’s 5km jaunt is not possible after rain – it’s through another of those lovely, forbidding river canyons. And rain was coming.

Five kms doesn’t sound much, but a) I was knackered and b) it’s a pretty demanding five. I spent the morning alternately scrambling over rocky, tangled banks to avoid pools too deep to wade, then sploshing through the ones I could.

I lost the track a couple of times; did some bush-bashing; it rained a bit. I felt flat. But it was still the wilderness, with me in it. And me, with wilderness in.

At the beginning there are some half-overgrown houses or shelters.

The track seems to lead right up to one; the first sign of a house is a row of tin-roofed kennels. On first glimpse, I jumped a bit; they looked like the shadowed dens of dogs who snap first, sniff later.

Then I saw the chains, ending in nothing: just a grassy space where ghost-dogs twitched.

Their water bowls also held nothing, only cracks and blackened leaves.

In places along the track there are strong fences threaded through the bush, some electrified; you can see flashes of pasture here and there. Someone is still wrestling income from this tough land.

Eventually you come out at a clearing, with a graffitied shelter; the Russell Forest Walkway passes alongside it, and you take it. You ford the Papakauri stream one last time, then switchback up a ridge.

I scanned the bush for somewhere flat to camp; I needed to stay close to the stream, for drinking water. But the land falls drops away on one side, and climbs hard on the other.

Eventually I saw the afternoon sky gleam through thinning bush above me; did it suggest a flattening? I dropped my pack by the track and struggled up the cliff above on rungs of saplings and weeds. Gradually the slope lessened, then stopped for a few metres, and  I’d found my home for the next 36 hours – Chateau Papakauri:

068AC05D-1338-423B-97A1-4938DCDCF7E0

I stocked up with water, hauled my pack up and made my dinner; watched the sun set through slender trees. Then I chilled with Murakami, some bourbon I’d been saving, some very dark chocolate, and a nice Monte Cristo habanero my friend Trish gave me.

Billionaires would not savour finer evenings.

Day 16 – Chateau Papakauri. Rest day: 0 kms.

I ate, lazed, read, snoozed, and swam. Later I wrote in my journal, did some trip planning with GPS and maps, and watched the changing shades of green.

It was a great agenda.

Day 17 – Chateau Papakauri to Helena Bay: 17kms.

With a new jauntiness to my lumber, I lumbered off.

The walkway is wide, even drivable, so progress is quick to a road-end. Two notable things along it were:

1) Signs that start appearing, warning in a ferocious font that the land beyond is strictly PRIVATE, there is to be strictly NO hunting nor camping on it, and that ALL dogs will be strictly SHOT.

(This was a lot further along than where I camped – Chateau Papakauri was not in dog-shooting country).

2) The reappearance of the Pacific, in bursts of a certain blue through the trees.

As I walked out onto the gravel road-end a white, powerful, lowered car throbbed out of a grassy driveway.

A sleepy woman in a dressing gown, steaming mug in her hand, leaned by the back door watching it go.

All around was a bayou-type landscape; swampy pools of mangrove-laden water, drowned fences. The gravel road out of the bush went straight down through it on a kind of causeway, at right angles to the main road between Russell and Whangarei.

The low, throbbing car eased itself very slowly off the grass verge up onto the road; it cleared the bigger stones by millimetres. Then it ground very slowly down the corrugations; it barely seemed to go faster than me, poling along in its wake.

Reaching the junction with the main road, it nosed gingerly out onto the seal. There was a tiny pause; then it exploded away toward civilisation.

Now came my first real tar-seal-slog on Te Araroa; up until now I’d only really put in significant distances on gravel, which is kinder.

North Island tar seal roads, the New Zealand Transport Agency website says, are mostly made of sharp-edged chips of andesite and basalt – volcanic rocks chosen for their density and hardness. They are pressed into bitumen to form an inscrutable carpet.

These chips are every bit as ruthless as the NZTA hopes; they must be some of the hardest, densest items in the universe. They’re like the infinitely dense, infinitely small remnants of a billion supergiant stars, duck-pressed through one black hole.

I’m saying, walking mile after mile on tar seal with a heavy pack is hard, and you must be dense to do it.

But sometimes you just have to suck it up, to get to the next bit of paradisiacal off-road walking.

You carry on. And then you come around a corner and see this:

79639048-FD8E-4844-9B07-6F595EA544F0
Te Mimiha Bay, part of Helena Bay. Another shade of blue.

And it all seems worth it.

Gorgeous as it is, there’s no accomodation in Helena Bay, nor even anywhere you’re officially allowed to camp. The track notes mention a couple of B&B options and a campground back toward Russell forest, but I’d wanted to get a bit further.

I was admiring the diffident evening light on the water when a rumpled, kindly older man appeared with a rumpled, kindly-looking older dog. I asked whether anyone would mind much if I camped on the verge at the end of the road, beside the beach.

“You’re not supposed to,” he said, pointing to a “no camping” sign. “But there’s bugger-all chance anyone from the council is going to come down here, in the middle of winter, and tell you off.”

I thanked him and gave his lovely old pooch a pat. “So,” he said. “You’re doing the big walk, eh? We get them through here all the time. Bit late in the bloody year, isn’t it?”

We chatted a while.

“Look,” he said. “You don’t want to camp there by the road. Kids come up from Whangarei, get drunk, do burnouts. And you’ll cop the night wind; it can be a real bastard. Just camp on our lawn here.”

He waved at a huge, well-curated expanse of lush grass, on which stood a couple of caravans, a cluster of small cabins and a two decent-sized houses.

“This is my family’s land – my cousins and me. It’s sheltered by the dunes, there. Just make yourself at home.”

Perfect.

I was unrolling my tent when he appeared again. “Look, I’ve got a sleep-out. Why don’t you just kip there? Unless you want to spend another night in that,” He regarded my tiny tent with a dubious side-eye.

As I was unrolling my sleeping bag on the bed in the sleep out, he appeared again. “Look,” he began, by now familiarly. “What are you doing for dinner? Dried noodles or some fuckin’ thing, I s’pose, like all a’ them.”

I was, in fact, having noodles, or some fucking thing.

“Come in and have tea with me,” he said. “It’s nothing flash; meat and veg. It’s good hill-country mutton, though, off our own farm; we sold the farm, but I filled the freezer first.”

I thanked him, smiling.

“Nah nah, don’t worry about that. I’m Jock, by the way. Grab a hot shower on your way in to tea, if you like. Clean towels in the cupboard by the shower.”

The mutton tasted like the best parts of my childhood. Jock told me about his kids and their kids; how his family had slowly gained access to this piece of land.

“I’ve been coming here on holidays all my life,” he said. “I’m the fifth generation of my family to come here. We ended up getting title of this one acre, and we wouldn’t swap it for anything.

“It’s all Mah-ree land,” he added, mangling the word in the usual, older Pākehā farmer way.

But he had an unshowy, slightly grudging respect for the original owners of that land, which you could also possibly call typical of many older Pākehā farmers.

“We buried the kids’ placentas over there, under those young pōhutukawas,” he said.

Then mused: “I must be bloody turning Mah-ree.”

He showed me his “waste-disposal unit”: a mob of fat, sinuous eels in the creek by his house. He fed them food scraps, knew them by name.

The family had started camping there, years ago, by permission from the Māori owners. Now they had gotten use of their acre indefinitely, with some astute lawyering and mutual good faith. But the conditions included never developing it beyond small baches, nor selling it; it could only be passed down within Jock’s family.

He told me about some of the Te Araroa characters who’d stayed with him.

“There were these two hard-case shelias, they camped just over there.

“One was Scottish and the other, I can’t remember. Oh man, they were hard case.” He shook his head at how much they’d made him laugh.

“We had the big earthquake while they were here and the tsunami siren went in the middle of the night; I ran them up to the top of the hill til we could see there’d be no wave. Then they spent the night in the house with me.

“We saw the damage in the morning on the news, and when the Scottish one saw the all the bottles of wine smashed on the supermarket floors, she went…” – he put on a passable accent –  “och, gawd, wha’ a waste! Gimme a feckin’ straw.”

His shoulders shook with laughter.

“I gave them a feed and drove them up the road a bit to carry on their walk. Anyway, later on I got a parcel in the mail, and they’d sent me some shortbread.” He grinned fondly.

“Oh well, it was nice to know they appreciated it.”

He went on. “And there’s just been a Chinese girl, not a week ago. She said her name was Ocean Chow – Ocean’s my trail name, she said. I said: I’ll remember the Chow part.” He winked and laughed.

“She had arms and legs like sticks – God knows how she was going to make it down through the central plateau, this time of year.

“And there was a Frenchman; he had a little wee pack, no bigger than that” – miming a very small bag.

“He walked up to us and said, where’s the nearest shop? I haven’t eaten in two days.

“And he’d done 50 ks that day, or some fuckin’ thing. He said he was running the trail, travelling light. I said, you’re travelling light, all right, boy, if you can’t even carry food.”

He shook his head again with silent laughter.

“Anyway we gave him a feed, and off he went.”

Later, we got onto his memories of the district he’d lived in all his life; his roots went deep there. (A road I would walk the next day carries his surname).

He told me of an influx of shaken, prematurely older men, now dead, coming back from the second world war.

“A lot of them, when they came back, they went to religion, or the bottle.

“They never talked about it. One of ’em, the only time he ever mentioned it, we were out shooting pheasants and he said, oh Jock, you’d have loved it on Crete, when the paratroops came down – there were so many of them, our only problem was we ran out of bullets to shoot the bastards.”

It turned out Jock had a house in Whangarei, and a wife, but he confessed he preferred to stay out here most of the time.

“My excuse is looking after the dog,” he winked. “We can’t have him in town.”

In the morning, he flatly refused to take any payment.

He had survived a heart attack, a cancer scare.

“I love this place,” he said. “I’d like to die here.”

I could not blame him at all:

DD8A8AF4-E600-495D-9403-20DBEAE14182

Day 18 – Helena Bay to Morepork-Onekainga track: about 20kms.

The first ten kilometres are mostly through private land; beautiful bush blocks laced among farmland along a ridge with gorgeous sea views. If it wasn’t for Te Araroa, only the generous land-owners would ever see them.

AB8DEA7F-D02F-485A-B067-ED4D9C9F7B29

There are big, mature native trees, and some much smaller ones, dense-packed:

E3642B47-800E-40AB-857B-463A08EED0C9

At one point, I lost a lot of time trying to find the way forward on top of a windy, slippery, hill-country farm; the track disappeared off the GPS file on my phone, and the printed map I had as a back-up mysteriously didn’t indicate the route either.

I didn’t mind too much, with views like this:

603AA633-66FA-472D-8BB2-A84A48989063

For lunch I chose a sunny, leafy spot on a bushy ridge. These moments are some of the best on a long tramp – when you stop striving forward, and simply sit in some anonymous spot you could never have known otherwise.

It’s just you, the steaming tea and the fragrant, softly-breathing bush.

FFD94BAC-66EA-42A8-A8BE-7A17044F4313

A short road section takes you down to the next bush block – the Morepork-Onekainga Track. The first part is DOC managed, then there is a stretch of private land.

I had planned to get through to Whananaki, the next town, but because of the time I’d lost on the tops it was getting too late. To keep going along the rough, faint track in the dark would have been to risk a turned ankle, or getting lost.

I camped by a clean stream in deep bush, and drifted off to the kiwis’ screechy, hoonish conversation.

F7DC6E60-3045-45A8-921E-134D09E32605

Day 19 – Bush above Whananaki to Ngunguru: about 28kms 

In the morning I made my way down to Whananaki; the track comes out on its estuary, and what the town claims is the longest footbridge in the Southern Hemisphere.

It certainly isn’t short.

15B22780-6B97-4328-A344-EC6462F67081

Before I crossed it, though, I walked down river, past the primary school, to the fish n’ chip shop, and had a tremendous greasy feed.

Then I plinked across that storied bridge.

Such lengthy plinking made me think, as touted hemispherical champions tend to do, of Bill Manhire’s “Poem For Vanessa”:

The longest poem in the Southern Hemisphere
Alas, is not for every eye

Subsequent sections
Shall go directly
to Vanessa, by and by

Apart from its terrifically long bridge, Whananaki’s other claim to fame is being what media love to call a “bolt hole” for a certain politician.

The indestructible Winston Peters is from Whananaki, and still returns to his bach there when things get too hot in the capital, or when he wants to go fishing, or just to be mysterious. Te Araroa goes right by this legendary bolt hole.

Further on it passes a monument to a famous shipwreck, the Captaine Bougainville, and many more shades of blue.

fb04a25c-6efd-437e-98be-829b4ff7a512.jpeg

It rained heavily that afternoon, on and off; but that just made the blues broaden their range even further.

233F73D8-D153-4D07-9162-52898B7BBE64

You pass beautiful Sandy Bay, and Woolley’s Bay, both studded with mansions; and eventually emerge in quiet, peaceful Matapouri.

Here Te Araroa is supposed to head off into another, doubtless lovely bush block; but it was closed for trapping or track-building or something. So I carried on along the road, which runs roughly parallel with the closed track (but is probably a bit shorter).

Ngunguru, my destination, also has a wide estuary; but this one lacks a bridge. Te Araroa has thoughtfully arranged a ferryman, so you don’t have to swim, or do a huge road detour. I’d spoken to him by phone and arranged a pick-up that night.

My feet were aching and blistered, but on I trudged, through dripping bush under bright stars and a large, thoughtful moon.

I passed Tutukaka, playground of the rich with its elaborate marina, and eventually emerged into the little town of Ngunguru, on the north side of the estuary.

James Johnston runs Nikau Bay Camp and Cabins on the far side; he told me later he’d looked across the water as a boy and thought: what’s it like over there?

Now he hosts travellers on his own very tranquil, very pretty piece of “over there”; and he’s also the ferryman.

I’d asked him if I could cross by kayak. He said he usually just picked people up in his tinny and motored them across. “It’s only a couple of minutes – much easier than mucking around with a kayak late at night.”

I explained I’d decided not to cross any waterways on Te Araroa by mechanical means, including, eventually, Cook Strait. I want to do the whole length of the country under my own steam – even the watery bits.

Everyone puts their own little touch on this long walk, I’ve found; this is mine, Quixotic though it may be.

There was a silence on the phone.

I was walking as I talked with James; I plinked along one-handed in the dark, waiting.

Finally he spoke: “I respect what you’re trying to do. OK, I’ll tow a kayak over. See you at what, 9 o’clock?”

It ended up being after 10; I just couldn’t move my tired feet any faster. I texted him my progress, as I trudged through the wet hills. “Sweet as,” he texted back.

Finally I could see his torchlight bobbing by a jetty at a road-end. As I neared, I saw two women leaning on the balcony of a nearby bach, enjoying the salty night air. I looked up, plinking wearily along. “Kia ora,” I sang out.

“Kia ora,” they said, sounding pleased. “Oi, is your name Caleb?” “Yep,” I said. “Oh, there’s a fulla down there looking for you.” They’d heard him call out my name as I got near.

“Yeah I know.” I paused – James was waiting, but it seemed rude to just blast on by.

They eyed me; my reflective flouro leggings, my head torch, my poles and heavy pack.

“Are you a firefighter, or something?’

Surprised, I said I was – how did they know? “Oh, you just look like one.”

No-one had ever said that to me before. I was inordinately pleased. What a funny little conversation, I thought.

I kept walking, conscious of James waiting patiently in his tinny, and seeing I’d be within talking range of them for another hundred metres or so.

“Where have you come from, e hoa, and where are you going?”

I said I’d come from Rēinga, and was going to Bluff. “Oh, eh? Tu meke, bro! That’s amazing. Far! That’s choice!”

I smiled, embarrassed. One of the women went on: “What are you doing it for? Is it for something?”

People often want to know that, I’ve found – like, why the hell else would you be out here, struggling along in the cold like a wounded camel?

Nah, I said, it was just for the hell of it. “Oh, eh? That’s choice! We should tell the papers, get it on the news!”

She was obviously not a frequent visitor to Ngunguru, James told me later – the locals no longer find length-of-the-country trampers newsworthy. It was very touching.

I laughed, thanked them, called a goodbye. They leaned forward, started punching the air, clapping, cheering and even doing a kind of stadium chant after me:

“Yaaaaay! Go Caleb! Go Caleb the firefighter! Che-hoo! Ca-LEB, Ca-LEB!”

It was surreal, and sweet. I was smiling in the dark as I limped down to the jetty. “G’day,” James said, “friends of yours?” They are now, I said.

He took my pack, helped me aboard the kayak, handled me a paddle. “See ya on the other side – see where that light is, below that dark patch? I’ve got the fire going; you can warm up and tell me all about your trip.” He motored off.

Suddenly I had the sweet relief of being off my aching feet; and I was bobbing in the middle of a silent, empty estuary. I looked up: the Milky Way’s frozen, ghostly yell.

The surf boomed beyond the bar.

I stopped paddling a while, lay back on the back deck; gazed around me, drank it in. I had to laugh, it was so perfect.

On the other side James cooked sausages while I thawed by the fire; we shared beers I’d lugged from the Matapouri dairy. He told me of his vision to recreate at Nikau Bay the classic camping holidays he remembers from his childhood – wilderness, simplicity, community, freedom.

He wouldn’t let me camp. “Just crash in my spare room, mate.”

Day 20 – Nikau Bay to Taiharuru: 30kms.

In the morning he gave me coffee, and porridge with blueberries and cream.

James typifies what long-distance hikers call a “trail angel”; just like Jock at Helena Bay, and the lady at the Mangamuka dairy, and many more.

And this was the view over the estuary from his verandah:

77CF8F97-08FE-41A9-873F-4EC55A4B3E68
Nikau Bay

From James’s the gravel road winds up into the hills.

One thing that makes me not mind Te Araroa’s infrequent road sections too much is the different perspective you get on roads, when walking ’em.

Normally you just smash them out, pushing your car through their curves and slopes as hard as you can, obliterating the distance to your destination as quickly as you and your machine can handle.

But when you’re walking, there’s none of that; you minutely experience every camber, sidestep the potholes, feel the changing texture of the road-metal, notice the chiselled depth of each ditch and culvert, appreciate the skill and persistence of the road-builders:

C31318CF-4B84-49C1-BEEC-7A0A742B80AF
Still life during bhuja-break, with toetoe leaves, boots, gaiters and a beautifully engineered bit of rural road.

Eight kms from James’s house you come to the Mackerel Track, a scenic shortcut through a pine- and bush-filled valley, with a meandering stream.

Up the other side you wind down tar-seal bends through bush, then mangroves. I reached a bus shelter at the end of a long drive just as a heavy curtain of rain descended. I sat in there and brewed up for lunch; by the time I finished the sun was out.

I came to a woman on a quad bike; she asked me to wait as a mob of big, black cattle came roiling towards us. She blocked the road and they turned into the open gate; she rode in after them, standing on the foot-pegs, cow-woman style, hooting.

The road goes straight after a while, parallel with the beach; but, the track notes say, the land between road and sea is private, and there’s no public right-of-way. So you just have to trudge the tar seal, looking at the sunset over the shoulders of aloof, exclusive baches.

147EA7C5-5F1A-4200-9958-7DE19B99DD58

Finally I reached Pataua South, over another estuary bridge. There’s a B&B called Tidesong a bit further along, in another tiny settlement called Taiharuru. It’s mentioned in the trail notes, and it sounded good; I’d rung ahead and booked. The tide was right to do the last bit via a shortcut along the estuary edge.

It was getting dark, but I was keen. I didn’t want to walk on the road anymore. I rang to say I’d be there soon, and which way I was going, in case a taniwha got me. Ros, co-owner of the B&B, seemed dubious: “We can come and get you.”

But I wanted to get there myself, in the moonlight. I sploshed into the dark mud.

At this point – in a first for A Moonlit Tramp – I’ll blog the rest of that day, and the first part of the next, in verse:

D1DD14BB-9C1D-4DF1-BD1C-516EA12ED106
The estuary at Taiharuru

Tidesong

Taiharuru, Northland. 17.8.17

Rosalind,
your strong voice finds me in the dark,
warm as honey-coloured timber,
where I stand on a winter beach
a mile or three through mud
and mangroves from your house.

Are you sure?
It’s late and cold;
Let us come and get you.
You’ve walked most of it.

But my hungry feet want all of it,
every last stagger.

So by bone-bright stars,
by a chip of moon,
by splashing and swearing,
I slop through briny badlands,
a shelly, crunchy, rooty, silvery long-cut,

And I do reach the land you promised,
only to wander, exiled on gravel tracks,
below your B and B,
until you come and find me,
after all.

You and your Hugh
(to whom your many gifts
include a kidney),
smile welcome,
start me off on beer,
then prescribe a long shower
to hose off 30 clicks,
then feed me: roast meat, chocolate pud, other marvels –
it’s like you’ve read all
my tar-seal dreams.

Turns out you travelled this long path too,
years back; a way to mark
the saving grace you did for Hugh.
He drove a camper,
to cosset you at trail heads.
(You two had a lot to hug about.)
You walked alone among dark hills;
biked the odd bit.
Your brown eyes gleam,
when you relive
the day you clocked 90 k
from Whanganui.

 I just kept going, and going, and going.
I felt like a big boat,
with the wind behind me.

Hugh listens, proud, retired, besotted.
I’m a bit in love too.

You say you’ll be up at dawn,
at low tide, though it’s a Sunday,
to cook me eggs,
and show me how to cross the estuary,
and where to carry on,
down the country.

 I’m touched. Although:
Praise the Lord, you’ve written on your lintel;
It clouds my moved heart,
because where I’m walking, in part,
is away from such decrees:
saviours, saints, shame, hell.

But in the morning, with the sun
burning orange above the channel,
and your calm back leading me
through mangroves,
I can’t hold it much against you.

Then you murmur, bend,
and from sucking mud pluck
a rough chunk, something
cob-sized, glowing,
a piece
of scuppered sun?

Kauri gum, you say, voice low,
I’ve never seen such a huge bit.

Rubbed, the old sap shimmers,
strange jewel,
silent, heavy, resonant.

You’re hushed with pleasure.

I’d give it to you, but
would you want the extra weight?

You mean it, and I half do want it,
despite my sullen shoulders.
But I can’t take such a treasure, when
it’s reached up like this to you.

And when the kindness of your hearth
merits every gem unearthed
from sand, roots, loss, tide.

Your surprised grin,
the gold sun, the river’s rise,
Your quick, strong hug –

I’ll take all that with me instead,
as I wade
across and out
of your shining world,
back into mine.

AB7A9277-116C-4338-BE3D-CBED7E17EF59
Crossing the estuary at Taiharuru, with Tidesong behind me. Photo by Ros Cole-Baker.

Day 21 – Taiharuru to Peach Cove: about 18kms.

After the estuary, I crossed a few paddocks; there are stiles over the fences.

Trampers cross hundreds of these purpose-built stiles on Te Araroa, where the trust has negotiated routes through farms; you get used to the rhythm – left step, right step, grab the orange-tipped wooden pole for balance, pull yourself up and over.

It always reminds me of how some of the more athletic sheep-dogs on our farm used to soar over fences. Hauling myself over the stile, I see them flying over barbed wire, front and back legs stretched, prone bodies riding air like canine Supermen, tongues lolling in happiness, eyes brightening toward the promise of the far paddock.

In one paddock, a mob of yearling cattle rush up and crowd around me; this also happens quite often on Te Araroa. They mean no harm; they just associate people with food, especially in winter. “Got any hay?” say their large, luminous eyes and colossal jostling bodies. “We bloody love hay.”

“Sorry, ladies,” I say. “No hay today. Only instant noodles. And I need those.”

Their stiff-legged, forlorn stares follow me, long after I’ve left the paddock and am disappearing down the road toward Kauri Mountain.

Kauri Mountain is actually a low, steep hill, but still commands views worthy of its grandiose name:

F81A5AFD-57E3-4787-9305-BA12C4AD8BA3
View from Kauri Mountain, looking south down Ocean Beach to Bream Head (Te Whara). Hen and Chickens Islands beyond.

There’s a short bush walk down the other side onto Ocean Beach, a lovely golden stretch about nine kms long.

At the far end is a hard, steep climb up to Te Whara (Bream Head). This is one of two main peaks that make up the Whangarei Heads. It has huge old rock chimneys on top, totemic in the evening light.

At the top are dazzling views in all directions. To the east, and south, the Hen and Chickens (Marotere) and other islands – I think that’s Little Barrier on the horizon:

B7F5E602-0F04-4B7B-BF9A-5C8E632E0E96

To the North, you can see up past Ocean Beach to Taiharuru, Cape Brett, the headlands around Ngunguru:

2F36324D-5B92-432A-B0F1-DBF64893E1C2

The setting sun casts a darkish, cone-shaped reflection of Te Whara on the water of Bream Bay, next to the Hen and Chickens:

D553CEA3-56AD-4AC1-B9F8-0F4A9F01BA3B

One of those totemic chimneys, looking west:

3F2166D5-12E6-411E-A1AB-1689E255AC85

And to the north-west, Mt Aubrey and Marsden Point guard the entrance to Whangarei Harbour, lit up like brass bowl on a hot hearth:

97765E19-C879-4339-87F3-B89BA17B3B66

I could have stayed there drinking in the splendour for hours, but I had to box on to beat the dark.

The track undulates along the spine of the range that guards the harbour; until finally you reach a junction where a steep cascade of steps drops straight down to the water, far below.

I’d been told there’s a thousand; I lost count, but it’s about that.

Peach Cove hut is a neat little DOC hut tucked into bush above the cove; it was occupied by a group of teenage fishers. I stopped for a chat; they gave me a can of Cody’s (an outstanding pre-mixed bourbon and coke, for the uninitiated). “Drink up bro,” they said, “we’ve got boxes of ’em.”

After the quite big kilometres I’d been hammering, that small can’s industrial quantities of sugar and caffeine seemed like nectar.

The hut was full, so I found a flat spot for my tent in the trees near the beach; I prefer to be under the stars, anyway.

I took my time finding the ideal place: secluded, yet in earshot of the sea. I was going to spend the next day resting, after six days straight on the trail.

I wanted stillness, which is what Peach Cove offers.

It’s probably only half an hour by boat from a huge oil refinery; but the only access, apart from boats, is those thousand steps, so it’s a pocket of peace.

It faces south, with its back to the refinery, the port, the roads and the city, staring out into empty ocean; and nothing gets refined there except jaded spirits.

Back against a boulder, I sat watching the night dye the sky a fitting shade of peach, then yet another blue, then black.

And, finally still after six days, I sat and did nothing; nothing but listen to the quietest of waves.

FF5A382C-58AB-430C-A392-8BF2CA461E59

Bleeding tree to storied bay (Te Araroa tramp, days 9-14; kms 161-270)

The next time I found myself back on Te Araroa, July 2017, winter had come – inasmuch as it ever comes to the gentle north.

This time I had a companion for the first week or so; she was stoked to be having her first taste of Te Araroa.

We left my car in Waipu and my old friend Nick dropped us at the dairy I’d reached last time.

Day 9 – Mangamuka dairy to Apple Dam campsite: 12km.

To get into the Omahuta-Puketi forest you have to walk up some gravel roads.

Now, some Te Araroa walkers organise rides for these connecting road sections, which do crop up fairly often; and Nick did offer. But I’m determined to walk every step of Aotearoa, even if I’m 100 when I shamble into Bluff.

And it was a nice way to start this stint. Omahuta-Puketi is pretty demanding, as it takes two full days to get through, and there’s a long section of creek-wading that’s too dangerous to attempt after recent rain.

So it was good to begin with a gentle saunter along sunny gravel roads through farmland and regenerating bush.

By early afternoon we’d dropped down into a sheltered spot known as Apple Dam campsite. We put up our tent and made the acquaintance of a chorus of native birds – kereru, tui, bellbirds and this guy.

EC78D1C9-1CDC-43E1-99E9-0614986A3AD8
A white-chested miromiro or tomtit kept popping up to keep us company.

Day 10 – Apple Dam to Pukatea Ridge Track. 12 km.

In the morning we followed four-wheel-drive tracks to a a long, grassy ridge, which took us down into a long canyon formed by the Mangapukahukahu stream.

The weather had been pretty clear, so on we strode.

It’s delightful to splosh along from pool to pool, the thick, cool bush all-enveloping on every side, unspoiled even by a track, nor markers.

It’s usually around ankle to knee deep, and occasionally up to thighs or waist.

After a few kilometres we reached a junction with the deeper, swifter Waipapa River, and stopped for lunch on the warm, grey river stones.

Then a track takes you on a scrambly, muddy sideways sidle along the Waipapa’s steep bank to the foot of the Pukatea Ridge.

The trail notes ask trampers to try to avoid camping anywhere in the forest except Apple Dam; but that would have made today a rugged, 25-kilometre epic, which was beyond us.

Now that it was winter there were only 10 hours or so of daylight, and it was getting dark already.

So we camped there, in a silent, stately grove beside the Waipapa. I had a fantastic evening dip in the very clean, very chilly river while my trail buddy giggled at my frozen shrieks.

Day 11 – Pukatea Ridge Track to Puketi Rd-Waiare Rd junction. About 18km.

We were both fairly creaky in the morning. One of the drawbacks of section-hiking a long-distance trail, is that every time you start a new section, you have to get trail-fit again.

And sleeping on a thin mat on a forest floor in winter makes your creakier.

But we downed coffee and peanut butter, and ploughed on up the narrow ridge through the high, sighing, silvery trees.

On the way up we found the skeleton of a large tree, just a dead, rotting trunk; it had been killed, completely suffocated by two huge creepers-turned-trunks, that had grown up around it, creating a living exo-skeleton for a dead host.

In the sap-filled bark of one of the blended stranglers, someone had carved a single, redolent word:

6A2409BC-848A-4EFD-8C95-E83859763800

At the top of the ridge we came out onto Pirau Ridge Road; we bowled along in the balmy winter day for 9km, talking about everything under the sun and meeting the occasional cyclist or hunter.

Finally we reached the Puketi Forest Headquarters, where there’s a DOC campsite and hut. It was only mid-afternoon, so we filled up with water and pressed on; we hoped to get to a secluded spot to camp further down toward Kerikeri.

The route over farmland towards that spot was closed for lambing; we’d have to take a detour via gravel roads.

We went as far as daylight allowed and put up our tent on the grassy roadside. We ate, had a hot drink, and crawled into our sleeping bags as rain began to pour.

Day 12 – Puketi Rd-Waiare Rd junction to Kerikeri. About 20km.

A long, rainy day of road-slogging awaited. It was gravel, which is easier on your joints and feet than tar-seal; but it’s still punishing, and can be a bit boring – especially in the rain.

But it’s all part of the journey, and we still had plenty to yak about, and on we trekked.

Finally the Puketotara Road joins the main road into Kerikeri. Then a lovely undulating trail leads you off that, along the Kerikeri river, past houses and farmland and finally through luxuriant native bush to the full-throated Rainbow Falls:

FECDE666-BEA2-4C01-ACCB-95392EF149FB

We’d reached the Bay of Islands: one of the country’s biggest tourist draw-cards, as well as a historical touchstone. It was the site of some of the first sustained interactions between Māori and Pākehā, especially missionaries.

It was here the Treaty of Waitangi, the country’s foundational document, was signed.

Appropriately enough, we booked a room at the Hone Heke Hostel in Kerikeri’s town centre. Heke is arguably the emblematic Bay of Islands character, a thoughtful man of action, shaken out of his missionary education by his frustration with Pākehā encroachment on Māori land, self-determination and freedom. He responded by repeatedly chopping down the main local flagpole, no matter how they tried to defend it, because it flaunted the “Butcher’s Apron”: the Union Jack.

He got hunted for it, but it was a beautifully simple, eloquent piece of direct action which still resonates loudly down the years.

After checking in to the Hone Heke we went out for beer and burgers, joyfully devouring them like starving trail-beasts.

Our tent, sleeping bags, clothes and everything was pretty wet, but dried off overnight in front of the hostel’s log fire.

Day 13 – Kerikeri to Paihia: 23km.

As we pushed on toward Paihia in the morning, a thunderstorm rolled through and we got briefly pelted with heavy hail stones. But soon it cleared, and then we were under the protective canopy of a pine forest.

A carpet of rust-coloured needles muffled the forestry road that drew us slowly up and over the ridge between the towns; occasionally there was a flash of blue from the bay below.

We didn’t actually find it, but up here somewhere there’s a stone marking the opening of the first section of Te Araroa track, in 2014. We were too tired right then for a detour, but I would have liked to have seen it, because it involves poetry.

The trail notes say it has these lovely lines on it, from the great A.R.D. Fairburn’s poem, “To  a Friend in the Wilderness”:

I could be happy, in blue and fortunate weather,
Roaming the country between you and the sun.

We came out in the afternoon to a golden view – here it was at last, the actual bay of the Bay of Islands:

3C5CE612-7F58-46C6-93CD-F4CE02EB65FE
Waitangi and Paihia from Mt Bledisloe.

Then the trail led us down to Waitangi, which in my opinion is the most important place in Aotearoa/New Zealand.

Te Araroa goes right by the Treaty Grounds where, every year, this country celebrates being formed not through a brutal war of independence, nor through a violent genocide, but through a dialogue, and a document – albeit an imperfect document, and at times a dishonoured one.

(And not to say there wasn’t violence and brutality, both before and after the Treaty was signed, particularly from the colonisers; Te Araroa takes walkers right past some of its bloodiest sites, as I’ll blog about later).

It’s a difficult document, the Treaty of partnership between Māori and Pākehā signed in1840. It forces us, if we take it with any kind of seriousness, to ask ourselves uncomfortable questions, not just on Waiting Day but every day – that’s if we want to be a decent, grown-up community. But I reckon that’s part of what makes a unique document, and a potentially powerful one, and one worth celebrating.

That’s what was on my mind as we marched along past the Treaty grounds in the dark of the midwinter evening, towards the lights of Paihia.

Soon you cross a bridge, and then you’ve got the long white waves on the sandy beach for company as you plod into town.

We booked into the YHA and headed out, ravenous again, for pizzas and beer. We ate and drank on a wooden platform under a pōhutukawa, overlooking the soft-sighing surf and the lights of the yachts as they lay quiet on the dark harbour.

Munching, we saw a large man with a box of Double Browns under his arm lurch towards us. Here we go, we thought. But all he said was: “Aha, very good, hello, hello. How’s it all going here, then?”

We said it was all going very fine, thank you, and he nodded slowly, contentedly, surveying us and beaming. Then he turned away with a gentle lurch to wait for his friend, who was emerging from a bush and jogging to catch up,  buttoning his fly; somewhat awkwardly, given he also carried a box of “dough-bros”.

As they walked away we heard the first bloke, big, bluff and amused by life, resume the conversation the other’s piss in the bushes had presumably interrupted: “So. Tell me everything I need to know about your sister.”

Day 14 – Paihia to Russell Forest, 23km. 

In the morning we had a well-earned sleep-in; we were kayaking the next bit, and the tides called for a midday start.

We resupplied at the Paihia supermarket, and took the ferry over to Russell – where Heke chopped his way into legend – to get a gas cylinder for my camping stove from Hammer Hardware.

Then we went down to the Paihia beach with our packs to meet Dan from Bay Beach Hire. This firm have an agreement to rent sea kayaks to Te Araroa trampers for the stretch down the Waikare inlet, saving us a long road slog.

They take your pack down to the end of the inlet, close to an hour’s drive away, and swap if for the kayak.

From memory it cost about $100, which I thought was pretty good value.

We climbed aboard our red tandem kayak and headed out into the beautiful bay.

You get a sea-level view of some amazing baches, some palatial, some quaint and rustic; also thousands of yachts, and secluded islands.

05977F4C-75F5-4212-B476-3994290D0FBE

We had a picnic lunch on a beach on the way, and a cruise through some mangroves; watched the sinking sun make the water gleam.

A6F9D704-AC4E-4AA4-A2D4-DFC64488B4FF

Dan keeps in contact with you via cell phone; and when you pass a certain point he sets off to pick you up.

Waikare is isolated, almost otherworldly in its remote stillness. There’s a muddy boat ramp beside a cattle yards; and a gravel road disappearing into steep, bushy hills.

It was the end of the road for my lovely companion. She was going back to Paihia with Dan and the kayaks, and then back to Wellington in the morning. I had more time off, and was carrying on for another two weeks.

It was strange and a little sad to find myself suddenly alone as the car disappeared into the silent dusk.

There was nothing else to do, though, but step off up the darkening gravel road.

Where the gravel ends there’s a ford over a river; I went another k or so on the deteriorating track, then found a flat spot in a grove of punga trees, and set up my little tent.

We’d done 100km in six days. Russell Forest breathed around me.