Tramping the length of Aotearoa in roughly 250-kilometre sections is, I’ll admit, an elaborate ruse to get away by myself.
But it’s not just any old solitude I’m after, when I head off down the 3000-kilometre Te Araroa trail from Cape Rēinga to Bluff. I’m talking supercharged, high-octane solitude; 100-per-cent-proof, top-shelf solitude.
Doing “The Long Pathway” often involves being notably alone in the middle of gorgeous, feral country. And doing it in three-week sections, twice a year when I have time off, is a welcome respite from asphalt, traffic jams, small talk and other clanging things.
Since January 2017 I’ve covered just over 1100 kilometres of it, and it’s mostly been blissfully solitary.
Sometimes, then, when I come across other people on the trail, I’m quite persuaded by Sartre’s idea that “hell is other people.” I feel the intensity of the trail experience dilute and fade as these outrageous people emerge around a track corner or dump their pack down beside mine.
But other people are also, of course, the finest treasure in the world. So this post is about the flip side to Sartre’s gloomy judgement: sharing remote, spectacular country with other humans can also be heavenly.
Day 49: Waitomo-Te Kūiti (16 km)
The first of these heavenly creatures was none other than old mate Dr Dan, who has graced these pages before. He was getting married and had agreed to add a two-day taste of Te Araroa to his week-long buck’s party. His fiancé Amber showed Zen-like calm in waving Dan and I off to bust out a casual 40 kilometres through the King Country highlands, vowing to return to Auckland less than 72 hours before the ceremony. “Please don’t break him,” was all that Amber said.
On my last leg I’d got as far as Waitomo, so that’s where we set off, on a muggy morning early in December, 2018.
Leaving Waitomo village, with its banks of coaches waiting blankly for underground crowds, we wound along a gravel road. We talked so much we missed our turn and had to bumble around lost awhile, through paddocks so profoundly green they all but vibrated. Without warning, the sky darkened and rain poured down. Within minutes, though, it had just as suddenly stopped, and the sun burned through, making the long grass steam. We found the track again, lined with glowing foxgloves and rinsed bush.
Far from scared off by the muscular sun, the rain came back with its big brother, thunder, and its tough cousin, lightning, and they gave us a bit of a hiding. The sky creaked like an old building about to implode, rain sluiced down and the air was thick with electricity. We were about to head up along a ridge when Dan pointed to the hairs on his arm: they were standing up, electrified. So we sidled past the ridges, along the hillsides, instead.
The route across farmland and pockets of mature bush was muddy and magical. From the high points, there are views out over the King Country terrain, as choppy and defiant as its human history. In places there’s only a wire fence as a nominal frontier between the cultivated and uncultivated worlds.
And of course, there are cows, thousands of them, chomping on the rich grass, turning it into shit and dollars as the clouds gather.
In Brooks Park just outside Te Kūiti, with its strange mix of stately, old English trees, farmland and thick bush, we were nearly washed away by a biblical downpour. But eventually, we made the little shearing mecca. We stocked up at the New World and texted Emma, of Hunts’ Farm Backpackers, who drove down from their lovely spot (a few kilometres off the trail) to pick us up.
Emma, who is also a teacher and former professional jazz musician, was intrigued to meet us. “We’ve got 14 other Te Araroa trampers tonight,” she said, “and you two are the only Kiwis!” And so it was in the shared kitchen at Hunt’s Farm that I first met this legendary character I had heard so much about: The Te Araroa Through-Hiker. (Note: in the long-distance hiking community, this is generally spelt “thru-hiker” but, slightly Luddite as I am, I’m spelling it proper, like).
A through-hiker, if you don’t know, is one who continuously walks a multi-month trail such as the Appalachian or Pacific Crest trails in the US, or the Camino de Santiago in Spain. It’s one of many terms coined by the community that has developed around these trails over recent decades; another is section hiker, which is what I am. In my nearly two years on Te Araroa, my holidays have always just missed peak through-hiker season, so I’d never met any. They mostly leave Cape Rēinga in early November, so they can get through the Southern Alps well before the first snows, getting into Bluff around the end of February.
Since Te Araroa launched in 2011 the numbers of through-hikers have steadily increased, and this summer they will pass 1000 for the first time. Most are foreigners, but more and more Kiwis are giving the through-hike a crack. It’s estimated hundreds of thousands of others, mostly Kiwis, do bits of the trail as they’re able – like me.
And now, here they were: several Germans, a couple of Swiss, the odd American or Canadian, a Portuguese guy, I think. They welcomed us with smiles and hot, buttered scones that one of them had made (clearly getting the hang of NZ cultural institutions). They were all young, super-fit after nearly 1000 kilometres in about six weeks (this was early December), and full of trail stories, in-jokes and fresh air.
But on this occasion Dan and I didn’t hang out with them a lot, since we had some Cuban cigars to smoke and a single malt to sip on the Hunts’ Farm verandah, overlooking the Te Kūiti sunset:
Dan had spent some happy school holidays there as a boy, so it was a fittingly evocative view to muse over, a few days before his wedding. He sipped Lagavulin and contemplated the steamy, golden evening. “This,” he allowed with characteristic understatement, “is somewhat nostalgic.”
Day 50: Te Kūiti to Mangaokewa road end (19kms)
In the morning everyone was packing up furiously, most having taken a “zero day” yesterday because of the rain (more hiker talk – it means a rest day, with zero kilometres). The highlight was the two Swiss guys, who seemed to have a ritual packing soundtrack, played on a cellphone: some kind of high-mountain fusion of electronica and yodelling.
Soon we were crossing the Mangaokewa River just outside Te Kūiti, swollen and brown from all the recent rain. The track along the Mangaokewa Gorge was rugged and slippery in places, and the bush and river scenes were very radiant; Dan’s not-very-grippy running shoes meant he spent quite a bit of time contemplating it from a suddenly-attained sitting position. But we boxed on.
There are some mighty old-growth bush, pine plantations and a few scrambles up and down bluffs when the track seems to vanish:
There are also some delicious, sunlit glades beside the river:
It was a pretty rough track at times, but in the end we made it to the carpark where we’d left my car two days earlier. We loaded up and headed back to Auckland, picking up Dan’s car from Waitomo on the way.
Four days later, after the wedding, I drove back to Te Kūiti and parked outside the police station. It seemed a safe spot to leave Serena the Barina for the next two weeks. Emma from Hunts’ Farm Backpackers generously picked me up there and drove me out to the Mangaokewa Road end, 20 kms or so away, where Dan and I had got to. What a star: if you’re staying in the King Country, I highly recommend these lovely people.
It was late by the time Emma dropped me off. But some more people of the non-hellish persuasion, described in the trail notes as “excellent local landowners Sam and Laura”, have put together a cool little campsite complete with corrugated-iron shelter, sweet mural, shade tree, long drop and a view of rocky, bush-topped hills.
I climbed up one of them for the view below. I liked the contrast with the hectic few days I had just spent in Auckland’s manic churn. In this whole, immense bowl of landscape, I appeared to be the only human. You can see my wee orange tent near the centre of the pic:
I also climbed up there for the phone reception – there was none at the campsite, and I needed to let a certain someone, a particularly non-hellish-someone, know I was OK.
That night I started a new, personal Te Araroa tradition of a nightly haiku or two. Tuckered out after long days tramping, a couple of 17-syllable accounts of the day (or roughly 17) proved a manageable way to keep the writing habit going.
(I don’t blog while on the trail, but retrospectively, from back in civilisation, using notes, voice memos and photos taken on the trail).
I won’t always share ’em, I promise, but here’s one of my efforts from that first evening:
A King Country Haiku
Thanks, hill, for a ripe
sky, wild miles, a chopped green sea,
and two bars (her voice).
Day 51: Mangaokewa Road end to Pureora Forest Park (37km)
My alarm, when it went off at 4.30am, sounded like grim determination: I had a huge day ahead. It was all road-walking to reach the Pureora Forest Park, and I had no desire have to camp on the road side if I fell short. The Te Araroa Trust have done a great job of keeping road walking to a minimum; sometimes you have to do it, to get from one stretch of wild country to another, but they keep you off-road whenever they can – often quite creatively. In the South Island, I’m told, it’s less of an issue, but in the North you sometimes just have to suck it up and smash it out. Mostly though, like today, it’s a gravel road that ribbons and ripples through attractive bush and green farms, so it’s not that much of a hardship. But still: 37 kilometres!
Seasoned through-hikers knock off 40km in a day with ease. But I am a lowly section-hiker, and therefore never get truly trail hardened, so this would be a large effort. I packed up and got away before it was fully light.
I didn’t stop again for two hours. One of the many pleasures of long-distance hiking is the rest breaks. You feel your body come to a stop, your heart slow, and you begin to notice, more clearly, the land and living things around you. You kick your shoes off, munch on something, drink water, contemplate the moment. This is in long roadside grass, under a shady tree, by the Mangaokewa Road:
Further on, I came upon a recent death. This unlucky guy or girl’s blood was still wet on the dusty road. I know it’s a bit morbid, but there was something touching in his just-glazed eyes: resignation, sadness, the will to live newly slipped from his still-grasping, slim-fingered paws:
Forgive me for waxing lyrical, but road kill is a definite feature of days like this one: you pass dozens of small things crushed into the dust and tar. On foot, like them, you see them differently – I do, anyway.
Yes, it was just a possum – a hated, introduced pest in this country, a spreader of disease, killer of native birds and plants, devourer of rare snails and insects. But in the way he lay on the road margin, flicked aside by the hard wheels; in his little legs, frozen mid-stride as he strove with such electric nerve to escape his fate; in his pink palms and neat knuckles; in the dissipating warmth of his soft coat; in the way he’d laid his small head down on the waiting stones, and died… I couldn’t help but see the end of a fellow traveller.
Shedding your domestic skin
Another feature of Te Araroa’s back-country gravel roads is the unusual proximity of wildness and civilisation. In the cities and towns it’s usually a very gradual process to get from one to the other; a long haul on a motorway, or such. Out here the line is often very clear. Sometimes, such as near Mangaokewa, the road passes right through or beside smallish DOC reserves, often fairly anonymous ones without tracks, huts or any other infrastructure, that no-one knows about except a few officials and the locals, and which exist, seemingly, for their own sake – just so there’s a bit of wilderness out on the margins of our complicated lives. In these places, the wild presses in against the road, even reaches over it to nearly form a tunnel, and you pass close by vine-choked, gloomy gullies, or sharp, untamed crags.
Some hikers complain about the few road sections of Te Araroa but I wonder, what more could you want? A clear path through wild back country you’d otherwise never visit; views into the kind of rough nature that would kill you as soon as look at you, and just as soon raise you up, through a view, a sunset, a moment filled with gold-green light, into delighted contemplation. And the only domesticated thing anywhere is the road, with its dignified cambers and carefully graded pelt of crushed rock. And you, of course – although, by walking the earth for days on end, I do find some of that domesticity drops away, like a shed skin. That’s a big part of the charm of it.
In other places, like this photo, it’s the ridge lines that form the wild-tame divide:
The bush crowds along them like a barely-contained barbarian horde, yodelling threats, lifting its kilts and shrieking pungent abuse. Wild things lurk there, dragons and what-not, and on this side of the border-line you can sense the presence of a million seeds of native forest giants, spilling down from the rude ridge, sleeping and waiting just below the manicured, light-green carpet. The whole world, out here, seems full of power and indecent, generous desire.
The Māori trust which impressively farms much of the land along here sums it up in their slogan, and icon: something, I think, about the land being the life and health of the people. Tramping along in the middle of this fierce, fantastic place, I could not possibly agree more:
As sometimes happens on road walks, getting clean water was a problem. Once the road had crested a rise near the boulder-strewn headwaters of the Mangaokewa Stream, there were few options – the small waterways near the road were swampy and hoof-pocked, and the few houses were set far back. (When you’ve got a 12-hour hike to do, you become chary of making two-km round trip to borrow a tap).
So by the time I reached this lazy, elegant bend of the Waipa River I was ready to drink deep. Just below this bend was an exhilarating, white-crashing rapid, but I don’t think the river was actually very clean – it passes through a lot of farmland before this point. But I had no choice. I chucked an extra treatment tablet in, and hoped for the best. And man, it tasted good.
Around 2pm I flopped down in a shady spot to boil the billy for lunch. By coincidence it was from this very cutting, at the top of a gentle hill, where I got my first glimpse of the destination of this whole stint on the trail: Tongariro National Park. It was still more than 200 kms away, and the whole section from Waitomo to there would take 13 days, but it gave me a lift to see the white peaks of Ruapehu poke above the skyline. I love the way the land unfolds in front of you, like this, on a long hike:
It was a baking-hot day, especially once I got onto the sealed state highway, which runs between Te Kūiti and Rotorua – the heat bounces back up at you off the melting tar and volcanic chip, and you feel your brains shrivel like shredded coconut.
Soon I’d drained my water supplies and was on the lookout for a clean stream or house, close to the road, but none appeared. Finally, a bridge, with an easy scramble down to the stream. I checked the detailed topo map on my phone: this stream rose nearby from a bush-covered ridge. It should be fine, though I’d still treat it with tablets, as always. I was about to fill up when I stopped dead. Through the limpid, sunny water, lying peacefully on the stoney stream bottom among the rippling weeds, was a whole horse’s leg, chopped off at the shoulder. The water slipped smoothly over the red-brown coat, the bloodless cut and the stilled hoof. I thought of the abattoir I’d seen back up the road, and backed away; I could handle my thirst a bit longer.
The Trail’s Wolfish, Wild Love-Craft
Tar seal is the worst surface on Te Araroa, being hard on both ligaments and spirits, but it’s blessedly rare. It was mid-afternoon and I still had 12 kilometres to go. I do a maximum of four kms an hour, carrying around 12 kilos fully laden, so it was at least three hours away. But probably more like five hours, given the increasingly frequent breaks I was taking, the stultifying heat, the search for water and the fact I was still slightly hungover from the wedding. To get me through I listened to some audio books: Oscar Wilde, HP Lovecraft, Virginia Woolf.
On I slogged, past Maraeroa, the marae whose name is given to this territory. An apt name: a long marae for a long road on a long pathway. Everything, today, was roa.
Eventually I found a clean stream and, soon after, a welcome sight: the old cone of Pureora mountain. The native bush at its base, the day’s destination, still looked a long way off:
On I plodded. Astern, the land shimmered dreamily in the heat of the setting sun:
It’s the last hour or two of a long day’s tramping that are the hardest. You feel you’ve done your day’s work, your feet are pulped, your shoulders protest, your body cries out for solid fuel and to be horizontal, but you’re just not there yet, no matter how much you want to be. That gentle Pureora cone eluded me, hovering on the horizon, laughing at the hours and kilometres I had done.
Finally, I made the old logging village of Pureora, now mainly a DOC headquarters and campsite. The best bit of the whole day was the sudden, emphatic way the road disappeared into the bush.
The farms and plantations fade, rubbed out by thickening saplings and creeping vines, the road thins, you pass through a higher and higher press of ribald green, and there you are: back in the forest at last.
Some Te Araroa walkers bus or hitch the road sections, and fair enough – each to their own or, as the through-hiker jargon puts it, HYOH (Hike Your Own Hike). But I think this is the kind of thing you’d miss by doing that – the strange, exhilarating feeling of walking all the way up to, and over, the edge of the wild.
I found a spot among a dozen tents, all already silent. I put up mine in the dark, cooked my noodles, watched the stars come out, and listened to the ancient trees creak and breathe all around. 37 kilometres in a day – a new record for me.
I lay back in the dark and thought about the long pathway, about all the things that happen on it, that you see and are part of, the feeling of inching forward all day while the world turns. I managed to pull out my notebook just before passing out with fatigue.
(With apologies to Graham of The Bottom Paddock Cricket club, who first spurred me to write this blog, and doesn’t really hold with its occasional forays into poetry):
Two Mangaokewa to Pureora Haiku
Flicked aside possum,
midstride. Just-glazed eye. A fly
lays eggs, or licks tears.
This long road’s worth it
for the way the bush appears
and swallows it all.
Day 52: Pureora village to foot of Pureora mountain (15km)
The next morning I met some Te Araroa through-hikers, a German couple in their late 20s, who were breaking camp beside me. We chatted a while about the tough hike the day before – they had camped further back than me, and must have overtaken me while I was getting water or something. They’d got almost all the way to the forest before a local passed them heading the other way, squealed a U-turn and came back to pick them up, despite their protestations.
“She said no, no, no, it’s too hot, you’re getting in, and that’s it. We said we want to walk, that’s the whole idea, but she ignored us and got out, cleared space in the back seat, threw everything in the boot, you know, and then we felt we couldn’t say no.
“It was going to be 47kms for the day, and we’d only done 40, but it’s still a record for us.”
The woman had been on her way to the marae, they said. “She was so funny, she was warning us about the locals. ‘Don’t trust them! They’re probably on drugs.’ But she was a local herself! We were a bit nervous, but she had a baby in the back seat, so we figured we probably weren’t going to get kidnapped.”
I said Kiwis sometimes got dramatic in their warnings to foreigners, but I thought it was a form of exaggerated hospitality, something like: “Watch out for us, we’re a mad bunch. But the fact I’m telling you that shows we’re all right, really.” They agreed, saying the Kiwis they’d met had been among the best parts of the experience so far.
An example was the pizza joint at Mercer. “Mercer is just an intersection with a McDonald’s, a petrol station, a museum, and some cheese factory – I don’t know why,” the young, tousled, bearded German said, not clarifying whether it was the museum or the “cheese factory” that puzzled him. “And there’s this pub, and they let the TA [Te Araroa] walkers camp on the grass out the back.”
His partner, slim and wiry with her hair in a thin plait and round glasses, took up the story. “They give free hot showers to TA walkers, it’s so good. And we went in the bar and it was Saturday night, karaoke night, and it was full of locals. And everyone was so nice to us. I mean, everybody was drunk, but they were so nice. They talked to us, they said ‘come over here.'”
Her man continued. “And we had a huge pizza – normally we try not to spend money but we thought, oh, it’s Saturday night, karaoke night, let’s have a pizza.”
The solace of the bush
After they’d left I finished my porridge and coffee and had a long stretch. I felt I’d been comprehensively beaten with a tar-seal club, but getting into the cool, soothing bush soon cheered me up.
From this point for the next 80 kilometres or so, Te Araroa follows a path known as the Timber Trail, which is especially aimed at mountain bikers but is still a fabulous walk. The area was one of the last stretches of virgin forest to be commercially logged in New Zealand, and the trail uses the old logging roads and rail network. So this is an area particularly rich in stories and meaning – the high tide mark of the Industrial Revolution in this country, so to speak; the point where the most destructive industrial impulse was finally checked.
And it wasn’t checked by accident, but by the determination and creativity of ordinary people who couldn’t stand to see any more ancient trees bowled. Luckily, the logging companies went out from Pureora village to the furthest edge of their concessions, and worked back, so when the logging finally stopped in the late 1970s, a small area of the best bush was still standing. As soon as I left the campground I was immersed in some of the stateliest bush I’ve ever been in, and some of the loudest, most symphonic birdsong I’ve heard:
The custodians of this forest, including DOC and Waikato iwi, have put up excellent panels telling some of the many stories of this area.
One of the best ones is about how an environmental activist named Stephen King and others climbed into some of the biggest trees to stop them being milled. (Most of the King Country used to be covered in this incredible canopy, before Europeans arrived: “Māori referred to it as Te Nehe-nehe-nui, the Great Forest”, the panel says). The protesters saved this, one of its last remnants, by their doggedness and creativity.
Perfect bush indeed:
Some of the panels show the ruthlessly practical way the mightiest, proudest, most magnificent trees, probably some of the oldest in the world, were chopped down and carted out and machined up into long, straight boards. Perfect bush into perfect product. The defiant pride in the timber-men’s stance and gaze; just earning their bread, of course. But what a way to earn it, killing and toppling such godlike creatures, so old and enormous and fantastic:
The same tough resentment is in the eyes of the Pureora shop keepers who were losing their trade, they reckoned, over “a few birds”:
As I walked along the sunlit path between the massive, living things, I thought about the shopkeeper’s use of the term “pressure groups” for the protesters – how the phrase wants to turn conscientious people into a secretive, political, shadowy club trying to force their agenda on the honest folk, the hardworking majority. But as it turns out, it was the hardworking majority who were on the wrong side of history, and the few conscience-stricken locals who did the right thing. They were the Apartheid rugby tour protesters of the forest: vilified at the time, but later found to be heroes. One of the panels shows them in that moment, when they got sick of talking and took action, not caring who thought them annoying cranks:
The track comes out soon afterward into one of the milled areas – this is what it all would have been like, today, if the shopkeepers had got their way:
It’s all coming back though, the panels informed me; through planting, trapping and other efforts, the Nehe-Nehe-Nui is slowly regenerating. Another panel told of the full name of Pureora mountain, and its story. Many NZ peaks and other landmarks were named by great Māori explorers, men such as Tōhē or Kupe; but this one, rising beyond the sign, was named by a woman, the famous Kahu:
“Kahu was a woman of great mana (status and dignity). She trekked to these lands, named Maraeroa, in search of her son, Raka-maomao,” the panel says. (Te Ara says she was also grieving for her husband). But it was hard going and she got sick; they rested in the sun near the mountain. They followed a stream to the summit, made ritual incantations over the water, and she bathed in it. She was revived. From then on, the mountain was called Pure-Ora-ō-Kahu: The ritual purification of Kahu.”
(According to Te Ara, Kahu also named Te Aroha, the mountain, in honour of the love and longing she felt for her husband. And she died at Te Puke, which is properly known as Te-Puke-ō-Kahu.)
I rested in the sun too, and also felt revived. I pressed on, wanting to make the summit of Kahu’s healing mountain before sunset. And I did. Here’s the view south, towards my destination, Mt Tongariro (on the left) with his old cronies Mt Ngāuruhoe and Mt Ruapehu:
I’m not big on selfies, but did this one especially for Mum (camera facing north):
The sunset got more and more marvellous:
Last one, I promise – out west, Mt Taranaki joined the party, emerging from the glowing sky when the rays’ angle was just right:
Then it was down the summit track and back onto the Timber Trail, just in time to make camp before dark.
I should say at this point that the Te Araroa trail notes recommend staying at designated campsites on the Timber Trail, presumably to reduce the impact of campers on the forest. I didn’t make it to any of the recommended sites, though I did try – sometimes it’s just not feasible. But as always, I kept my footprint to an absolute minimum.
Day 53: Foot of Pureora mountain to Okauaka Stream, near Piropiro (20 km)
I was on the track pretty early, wanting to get away before troops of cyclists came clacking by.
Also my goal for the day was 20 ks, a nice round number, but my body felt even more pulped and wrung dry than the morning before. That 37-km road walk really punished me. I almost just could not be arsed, and wavered a while over breakfast, tempted to crawl back into my orange nylon cocoon. City life can make us so soft. In the end I managed to get up, pack up, cinch tight the pack-straps and plough forward.
It’s all volcanic soil around here, remnants of the cataclysmic eruption of Taupō in around 180 AD, which flattened countless hectares of forest and liberally coated the remains with pumice and other goodness. Here’s some of that 1800-year-old pumice, turned into a mini city of geometric columns by the morning’s persistent rain:
The cataclysm-nourished forest that morning seemed peaceful, deserted, gloomy and damp. I walked along quietly, enjoying the post-apocalyptic silence.
In places it passes through the classic, mossy “goblin forest” long adored by trampers and Lord of the Rings fans:
Then there’s the first of of a few steely-lissome bridges, newly erected by DOC to smooth out ravines for bikers and trampers.
The thing I liked best about these bridges, elegant in their simple strength, was the way they let you fly over the clean, rippling canopy. It’s a unique perspective on all these old, immense, mossy trees you have been walking among, dwarfed by.
The info panels kept me entertained, too; whoever put them together had a fine feel for using old ads, news articles, photos and anecdotes to stitch together stories. They even joined up the toppling of this magnificent, primeval forest with the number-one Kiwi obsession:
The trail’s past as a rail system, for lugging out logs, becomes more and more apparent as you go further in; you can see the cuttings through bluffs, the way it was cambered, or wound in and out of gullies. And the reason for such a huge, expensive project, to pull the hills’ best and richest teeth? Then, as now, it was all about the quarter-acre dream.
By mid afternoon I was getting close to my 20-kilometre goal, and threw myself down in a shady spot for a rest. I love the walking, but I also really love the breaks. I rested my head on my pack and lay there, dreamily munching almonds in the sunny, muggy, late afternoon. I rested my eyes on a horoeka tree, special to me for reasons I’ve gone into elsewhere on this blog, and beside it the Te Araroa emblem, a tī kōuka (Cabbage tree). I rested my ears on the bird song, the fly-buzz, and my bones on the fragrant, grass-heady soil. It takes a while, when you leave the city and get on the trail again, to quieten down and enjoy the slow pace, the stillness. “Peace comes dropping slow”, was how Yeats put it. I lay there in the warm shade and let it drop.
A little further on, a sign directed me to the “tree stump house”, slightly off the track. Two pioneers lived in this hollow tōtara stump a while; it’s poignant to look, decades later, right into their old home. To imagine them lying on these very bunk beds, top and bottom. On a Sunday morning, perhaps, having a lie-in, watching the light play on the old tree’s rough insides:
The sign told how the men were freelance timber cutters, Max Phillips and Phillip Seon. With Max’s brother Ken they lived out here in a two-room hut in the deep bush, many miles from anywhere, and made their living splitting tōtara to make fence posts. This is how they might have looked after a big day’s splitting (photo from the stump-house info panel):
One day, the sign told, Ken came home from a trip to town with a brand-new bride. He told his brother and cousin they’d have to bunk in the tin-roofed stump (previously a storage shed). And so they did; and it’s still there today.
The photo, and the story of the bushmen and the bush-bride (what did she make of this jungly place, where men slept in a tree?) reminded me of a great poem by Eric Beach, “Beachy’s birdproof fences”. With a mate, a man sweats and strains all day splitting a big rimu log into battens, only to realise it was all for nothing:
We decided to try ourselves…
we worked like mad dogs, sawing, wedging & halving…
a lovely straight grain log…
bill & I were both pretty skinny
but when bill buried his axe in a slab it was with speed and precision…
we sawed and split 800 battens…
I got th debt down to £250 and then they took th farm
Further on, I stood on another stump to look at the bush disappearing away to the horizon. In the foreground, two trees twined around each other like lovers – except one was dead. It had probably been slowly choked by the other, which used it to reach the life-giving sunlight above the canopy. (This might have been before the bush around them was dropped by “mad-dog” bushmen, and the sunlight flooded in anyway):
Soon after I clocked up 20km, and it was time to find a campsite. Before I did, though, there was one more encounter. I was standing on the bridge in the photo below, over a stream not far from Piropiro when a big red quad bike rumbled to a stop beside me.
Astride it was a thick-set man in his sixties, with resolute, pale blue eyes, a gentle, open face, and a carpet of short white hair under a camouflage-patterned cap. He wore shorts, a bush shirt and tramping boots. He had broad shoulders, and a rifle mounted on the handle bars. He motored quietly up, killed the engine and kicked back for a chat.
I asked about the rifle, and a long, enjoyable conversation flowed; he was a natural storyteller.
He was a semi-retired sheep and beef farmer by trade, and owned a big property nearby. I’ll call him Paul.
“Yip, just off to try and get some venison,” he said. “I shoot all our meat up here; it’s the best there is. We never buy meat.”
The birds’ return
That was how he and his family had got by in the tough economic times of the late 1980s, he said. “I’d only had the farm nine months, then Rogernomics hit. Our income halved overnight and our interest rates tripled.
“You couldn’t eat your own stock – it would be eating your income. You needed every cent to pay your debt on the farm, or the bank’d take it.
“I’d never eaten in a restaurant or stayed in a motel until 10 years ago. We couldn’t afford anything like that. We only left the place once every six weeks, to go into town and buy a big bag of flour like this [he gestured at hip height], sugar, tea, and milk powder. That was it! For the rest, we had a good veggie garden, and what we could get out of the bush.
“I’d work all day, then grab my rifle, and head up here.”
There were other hardships, too – bovine tuberculosis, borne by rampant possums, decimated his income. “That was hard; the TB testers would come and you’d see a third of your herd, that you’d worked so hard to build up, just walk out the gate.
“But they slowly got on top of it. When we got here, this bush was all nibbled back to almost nothing. Full of possums; they’d just about stuffed it. But they trapped ’em, got on top of ’em, and the bush has really come away. It used to be just about dead, silent, no birds at all. Now, well: you can hear it.”
He paused and we listened to the rampant, ringing twilight, full of glugging, warbling and tooting.
He and his wife had always planned to go farming, and got the deposit breaking in an even rougher block up north.
“I found three hippies on a beach, and offered them work… they put in long hours with me, ripping out the gorse and bush. If any gear got broken I had to fix it by 6am, when they started. So I’d be up until 3am, then back into it with them at 6. And jeez, it was tough on machinery, that stuff.
“You could do it, your body could take it, you were young. But when it kicks back, the land, it kicks back hard. I had bleeding stomach ulcers, I was a wreck – not sleeping, eating all my meals in the tractor seat.”
They got their deposit. “This place was all I could afford, but I could see the potential in it. We took on a lot of debt. Then would you believe it, Rogernomics. A lot of other guys went under, walked off their land. They’d just take their house keys in, drop them on the bank manager’s desk: ‘Here ya go.’ I thought we might have to, too.
Shearing alone after midnight
“But then I thought: bugger it. Why should I give up, after all the work I’ve done to get this far?
“We just worked. We never went out. You just had to be so careful with money, save every cent.
“I’d shear until 1am, and press up the bales of wool myself – I couldn’t afford to pay anyone to do manual work, you just couldn’t. The interest took it all.
“We had to make big sacrifices; I was working 16 hour days, my wife and kids never saw me. It’s worth it, now, the place is good. We improved it a lot. Every paddock fenced, well grassed, water to every one; but it was rough when we got it.
“I put in 54 kilometres of fencing, and no-one dug a hole for me; I did them all myself. And there was no machinery, either – it was all by hand.
“You had to work, man; the young ones now, they wouldn’t know what work is.”
His wife, Jill, had put up with a lot. “I could not have done it without her. But she was on board.”
Jill had loved the challenge too; she’d come up to the bush at night to trap deer with him. In the toughest times, the income from the live deer trade was the difference between going under, and not.
“Jill’d stand outside the pen, shining a spotlight on the hind so it couldn’t see. Then the hind would trot around the fence, tapping it with her nose, looking for an opening. I’d stand behind a post and, when she came past, jump out and put ‘er in a headlock. Then a mate would jump out, tip her legs up. Truss her up, blindfold her. Then they quiet down.
“But man, they could give you a belting before that. Rip your shirt off, cut you up.
“But it was good fun, we enjoyed it. It was both income and entertainment. It was just what you had to do in those days.”
When did he know he’d made it, that all that work had paid off? Because it clearly had; I haven’t seen many people radiate such a sense of contented, hard-earned rest.
He smiled. “When we went freehold. That was the best feeling: I didn’t have to listen to anyone else, not the bank nor anyone; I could do whatever I wanted with my land.”
His children had all turned out well, and they understood the sacrifices he’d made. “None of them are farmers,” he said, a little sadly. “Can’t say I blame ’em.”
But they and his grandchildren loved the farm, visiting whenever they could. “We won’t sell the land,” he said. “You can’t get it anymore. We’ll keep it in the family.”
A trip to Australia was another luxury he and his wife had only recently permitted themselves. “It was my first time outside New Zealand. I enjoyed that. But I’m not much of a one for travelling.” His quiet blue eyes scanned the green skyline, peacefully testing the deepening evening.
I said why would he be, since he lives in paradise? He grinned. “Well, a friend of mine, he’s seen most of the best farms between Hamilton and Taihape, and he’s got ours marked down for his ashes. He said he doesn’t care where, just anywhere on the place. ‘It’s just a beautiful farm’, he said.”
I couldn’t see the farm from where we were. Paul had ridden far into the bush to reach the bridge. But in his work-worn, contented face, its goodness shone.
After we parted, I pitched my tent on a river flat below the bridge. I ate noodles in the quiet, golden evening, thinking about the farm that Paul and Jill pulled, with such fierce will, out of this rugged place.
This may be the first time Paul and Jill have had a haiku dedicated to them. Or it may not.
A day’s walk’s too hard
Until I’m sure I want it.
Most things bend like this.
My next post will look at the rest of this 13-day stint on Te Araroa, from this golden-river-noodles midpoint of the Timber Trail to Mt Tongariro, via Taumarunui and the 42 Traverse. And you can read the entire journey from Cape Rēinga to this point here. Thanks for reading! Mauri ora.