The wild horses show themselves on the way to Hukatere, and a motor camp turns out to be a mirage

The beach that day was moving. Up near the high-tide mark the dry sand was pluming ankle-deep across the beach like smoke. A 40-knot south-west wind whipped the ocean to whitecaps, and I leaned into it, but even on a sunny day I could feel the wind chill.

I put on an anorak, and that shadow the walked beside me, leaning forward with its rounded hood, big pack and hiking sticks protruding, was definitely, amidst that blizzard of sand racing by, an Antarctic image. I made the Bluff that morning, rested in the lee of the headland for an hour, then turned back into the headwind. I was now walking the long curve of sand that stretches some 70 kilometres down to Ahipara, but after a couple more hours I was sick of being staggered by the gusts, sick of the booming in the hood, and headed up into the dunes for a rest.

The dazzling white mounds that had caught my eye during the first hill-top survey of Ninety Mile Beach were old middens, many of them huge. Now a small bleached hillock stood just 40 metres in from where I rested out of the wind, and I went down for a look. A trail led past it and on through the toi-toi, mungi-mungi, and the lupins. Dried horse dung was piled here and there along the track - I'd come upon a wild horse trail, and it was headed the right direction.

I went back and got my pack. After one kilometre or so the trail turned and headed inland along a margin of the salt and wind-burned Aupouri Forest. Damn! I cast around and found minor trails, each studded with dried dung, but kept I kept losing them and having to make my own track between clumps of reed-like oi-oi grass, past cutty grass, and through the brittle lupins. Progress was slow, and I began making my way back to the beach. I topped a small dune. Below was a depression green with lupin. The herd was grazing there, and seven horse heads jerked up to stare at the intruder.

The horses stood absolutely still. I saw a foal, mares, and one big black stallion. I fumbled for the camera. Ninety Mile Beach has enough salt and sand to sink the delicate technology of all Japan, and so the Mavica FD7 digital was protected by a tightly fitted stuff bag with the draw-string pulled, and that bag was further enclosed by a waterproofed and zippered bum-bag I carried at my waist. For quick response photography, that was a nightmare. The horses, without panic but definitely intent on getting out of there, had begun to move. I was shedding the pack and levering the stuff bag out of the zippered case in a single motion. I was squeezing the camera out of the stuff bag, and switching it on in a second single motion. The thing spun out of my hands and $1,400 worth of delicate technology hit the sand with a thud.

I picked it up. It was still registering images on the LCD screen, but an LCD screen is not like a viewfinder. You don't hold it up to your eye, but out in front of you to frame images, and now every bit of light from the glaring surround was reflecting off the screen and I could see nothing. I couldn't find the horses. I clicked wildly - and later, on the replay function, I would admire these first shots of tilted horse-less landscapes, and whirling horseless skies. I missed the shots, and the horses were gone, but the stallion moved back to see me off, and I finally got the photograph.

Wild horses He wheeled and disappeared, but I crept up to the next crest, and poked the lens through the bushes. The herd had broken up but I zoomed in on them, then watched them regather in the distance, and head off in single file toward the forest.

That night I camped at the last stream before the long waterless stretch to Hukatere, but my progress had been disappointing. My feet were sore, the wind had been ferocious, and I was carrying too much weight. The extra water I'd packed had been, in retrospect, unnecessary. Every stream after Te Paki had been running, but because I was unsure I'd burdened myself with an extra five or six kilos, the pack weight climbing to an unforgiving 27 or 28 kg. But the feet were feeling better next day and the wind had dropped. I broke camp and was back on the beach by 8 am, walking, walking, and by late afternoon I'd covered the 30-odd kilometres to Hukatere. At Hukatere I was looking forward to a meal of - well something special - baked beans? Buttered bread ? A fried egg or two? I'd had nothing but dried pasta dropped into a pot of boiling water, and fruit cake, since leaving Reinga, but Hukatere I knew had a motorcamp and a superette.

At least I thought I knew that. I'd had a conversation with a mate who'd tramped Ninety Mile. He'd twisted his ankle at one point, and had described in detail resting up for two days at the Hukatere motor camp with its superette. I hadn't explored the detail of exactly where on the beachfront that camp was, simply looked at Hukatere on the map, right there, beachside without a doubt, and mentally filed it as a food and water stop.

But Hukatere was nothing more than a turnoff - a sand road headed inland.

There were clues that people had passed this way: the exit sign stuck in the beach had been punctuated - the 'I' carefully dotted, the full stop neatly in place - by someone with a 303. Hukatere exit sign

The volcanic mound of Hukatere Hill also made the place distinct, but beyond that it was wild, woolly and in the middle of nowhere. And then I saw two women and their two Jack Russell terriers sunbathing on a dune.

Janet Snell and Ona Landman were from Whangarei but were house-sitting at Pukenui, a small town around 12 kilometres inland from the beach. Sure there was a motor camp, but that too was around 8 km in from the beach, on State Highway 1. I stared at them in disbelief realising in a slow sort of way that my ankle-twisted tramper friend must have hitched a ride up to the camp and forgotten to mention that detail. Otherwise, said the women, there was nothing on Ninety Mile Beach itself until Waipapakauri, another 12 kilometres south.

Janet and Ona had come down to gather tuatua and picnic. Their two dogs were called Fergie - the little Jack Russell had been an unnamed stroppy new pup and red-headed to boot at about the time the bolshie redhead Sarah Fergusson took the British Royal family by storm ten years back - and Roxy. Janet and Ona

The two women offered me a lift to the Hukatere camp, but even if I then hitchhiked back, and picked up the trail again at this turnoff, it seemed like a silly diversion for one can of baked beans.

Then they offered food. I followed Janet to the car, she opened the boot.

"There's not a lot left, I'm sorry."

With round eyes I was watching her casually throwing a cornucopia of delights into a plastic bag.

"Fruit? Mandarins - half an apple here. Bread? No butter I'm sorry. Crackers and cheese."

At that moment I felt an actual contraction of the saliva glands under my jaw. It's true what they say of long trails. That one of the primary effects is the kind of low-level ecstasy generated by holding in your hand, after days of tramping, something as mundane as - well - crackers and cheese.

Janet was a tramper with the Whangarei Tramping Club, so I volunteered the aims of the tramp I was doing, and showed both women the Te Araroa map I was carrying, a route marked in red all the way to Wellington.

"This is what the Walkway Commission is working on," said Janet.

"No," I said. "The commission folded up in 1989, the function of developing walkways fell to DOC, and they didn't have the money."

"Right - it's a very interesting concept. It's very good someone is carrying it on," said Janet.

"Someone has to," I said, and Ona who had been quiet throughout, studying the situation, said suddenly.

"You're on a mission."

"Oh hell no," I said. "I wouldn't put it like that."

"Yes you are," said Ona. You're on a mission."

"It doesn't feel like a mission. I'm dirty, I practically drooled just now when Janet mentioned crackers and cheese, I've had tendon pain which feels different from blister pain - it feels serious - and I really don't know about Wellington."

"Oh no," said Janet. "You'll make it."

"Well okay," I said. "I take that as a kind of blessing."