Changing shades of green and blue: Russell Forest to Whangārei Heads (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:

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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:

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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:

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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.

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

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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:

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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:

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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:

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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:

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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:

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To the North, you can see up past Ocean Beach to Taiharuru, Cape Brett, the headlands around Ngunguru:

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The setting sun casts a darkish, cone-shaped reflection of Te Whara on the water of Bream Bay, next to the Hen and Chickens:

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One of those totemic chimneys, looking west:

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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:

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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.

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