Te Araroa takes its first steps - from New Zealand's most northerly lighthouse to Te Paki Stream

Cape Reinga lighthouse
Cape Reinga lighthouse
I patted a buttress on that stout little stud of concrete, the Cape Reinga lighthouse, and moved off. It was just coming on light - time to go. We walked up the hill to the collection of huts at the top. We stopped at the beginning of the trail that leads away behind the loos, the post office, and the generator hut there. The sign said:

 

Cape Reinga Coastal Walk
End of Werahi Beach - 11Ž4 hours
Twilight Beach - 31Ž4 hours
Te Paki Stream Rd - 8 hours

"It doesn't say," I said, "how many hours to Wellington."

"I guess you can send them a fax later," she said.

She made last minute adjustments to the camera bag around my waist, then the shoulder-straps of the pack, pulling the toggles tight. I double-checked the Leki sticks - the hiking sticks - strapped onto the side.
We kissed. It was a good kiss. Like last night in the tent had been good - we'd fronted the DOC rangers, and got one-off permission to camp out on the edge of the wahi tapu that cloaks this headland.

Why do people do long walks - the Bruce Trail in Canada, the Appalachian Trail in America, Britain's Pennine Way? Well, to sort themselves out. Score one. That kiss was good, because some of the stuff lately hadn't been. Or maybe they lost their job. Score two, though giving up that regular pay packet a while back was my own decision. Diagnosed with cancer? Score three. Eight months ago I had a melanoma cut out of my back. It's okay, but it makes you think. Then there's nature. Back at the Cape, there'd been the same clean vistas you get staring out the window of a Boeing 747: the edge of the land, cloud strata, light cracking the horizon. And closer in, that deep wound in the water as the Tasman and Pacific Oceans sluice into each other.

Big or small, nature is good to watch. I came down the track through wild hebe and scrubby manuka onto Werahi Beach. I saw my first Spirula spirula -t the buoyancy chamber of a small squid that is the signature of a west coast beach. I watched the little clods of sand thrown forward by my boots. I saw one of the clods bowl a sandhopper. I watched the first windblown seaweed pod roll across my path - and then I left the beach and it got serious. I plugged over the base of Cape Maria van Diemen ankle deep in dry sand. The top of New Zealand is just bits of rock with a webbing of sand stretched between the bits, and that is a fair definition of the cape.

Under a noon sun I walked on along Twilight Beach then climbed to a cliff top track, its edges bulging with manuka in flower and hot summer smells, and alive with bees. I'd been walking five hours when the track suddenly twisted north and I could see, distant but distinct, the cluster of sheds at Cape Reinga. To walk back there, carrying a 23 kg pack that made you effectively three stone overweight, it was an exhausting thought. But the way ahead? It was no further than the next hill, the next brief hill-top stop to suck on the water bottle. And over that hill, at around 3 pm, came Ninety Mile Beach.

Add people to the list of long-tramp attractions. And something more - I belonged to a group that had just designed a foot trail route for the North Island - Cape Reinga-Wellington - and I was setting out to test it. Six months before I'd talked to a journalist friend, who'd asked what I was doing now that I was - unemployed. Did I want free-lance work?

"No - for the next three months," I said, " I've got a project."

"Oh God. Not the bloody shining path, or whatever it's called," she said.

"The name," I said stiffly, "is Te Araroa. I'll be going around the councils, DOC conservancies, Maori groups - anyone who might be able to help us design a track that's a viable through route for a tramper."

I went around to see Ray Sugar later that day. Ray is someone I trust. He'd been struck by multiple sclerosis a year before. It was, for the moment at least, progressive and he'd just had to accept - during a visit to Sydney - that a wheelchair was now his best method of covering distance.

"I have now found, Geoffrey," he said. "That my main eye contact as I jet around the world is with children in strollers. At Kingsford Smith Airport, for example I came face to face with such a child. His neck went rigid and his eyes popped out like saucers and he swivelled his face up to his mum and pointed and screamed - Baby! Baby! And then he went berserk. It was obvious that he'd just seen the baby from hell. That he'd had nightmares about someone like me, and then I'd come wheeling into view."

I told Ray about my conversation earlier that day with the journalist.

"Oh dear - the shining path - you'd better not let that get around," he said. "We all know, don't we, that there's a wee element of truth in that. You know when I was a teenager in my very idealistic years Geoffrey, I wrote an essay about a road people worked on that brought an entire society together."

"Yeah, so?" I said.

I told Ray of an idea I'd had in the bath the previous night. That when I'd designed a trail, I might walk it.

"A lot of it would not be in place," he said.

"A lot of it would be, because we'd tie in the main DOC and council tracks, but in parts it would not be, yep," I said.

"My suburban journeys," he said, "are a little like what you are planning to do. You may, in the very near future, fall into a ravine, whereas I have already tipped over backwards trying to get up a kerb, and hit my head. I suspect it will take a lot of cunning and planning to do what you want to do, and it takes a lot of cunning and planning to do what I do. But don't worry Geoffrey. If you get into trouble I will wheelchair in, throw you across my thighs and wheelchair out."

And then there was Sir Edmund Hillary. When our group revived the notion of a single long foot trail for New Zealand two years back, Ed agreed to be a patron. I took him along to a photo shoot, and briefed him on the concept.

"A lot of the trail is there right now," I said. "Ninety Mile Beach (which is really only 64 miles long) - that's 100 kilometres - done. Then we want to get from Ahipara on the west coast to Kerikeri on the east. There's four DOC forests in there. It's public land, it's crossable, and -"

"Whoa," said Hillary. "Coming down Ninety Mile Beach - where are the water stops?"

"The water stops?"

I stood on Scotts Point looking down on a beach that stretched forever and vanished into salty haze. Huge bare dunes back-stopped the beach, undulating down through smaller spinifex-covered dunes to the beach flats. A strip of dry sand, a strip of wet sand, then the water. Calm water - the sweeps - the clear saucers of water that have lost all force and spread like liquid glass at the edge of the tide. Broken water - the whitewash tumbling shoreward in layers. Then the big guys, the breakers rolling in, and beyond them, out to sea, more to come: the ceaseless corrugated ocean. I was standing on Scotts Point, and I was wondering about those dead-white hillocks that shone amongst the dunes. But my mind had become a Hillary mind too. Water stops.

Te Paki Stream was around five kilometres up the beach, and I camped there. In the morning I took an hour to pump six litres of water through the ceramic core of a Katadyn water filter. That included an extra 1.5 litre H2GO bottle I'd picked up on Twilight Beach. You couldn't rely on any one stream beyond Te Paki to be running and during a real dry you could tramp 40km without a chance to replenish. That was the warning I had, and I departed Te Paki stream next day with waterbottles fastened by cord to every loop of the pack, like the swaying, clinking man of oils and unguents in the film The English Patient. I rolled away from there as aqueous as a watertank.

Looking down Ninety Mile Beach
Ninety Mile Beach