The Leki poles strut their stuff, but are overwhelmed by strange lights in the forest, sharks, and the deceptions of a Ninety Mile night.

sunset

I walked on a distance from Hukatere, and stretched out on the beach to watch the sun go down. I drew the word mission in the sand beside me - it seemed such an unfamiliar word in the 90s, defined more by those reruns of the Blues Brothers trying to reform their band - and watched a sand hopper scrabble up the side of, lose traction on, and finally fall away from, the giant crater of the O.

The sun went down, the moon came up. Seven planets slowly swam into position along what was, in that month of December, a once-in-a-century line-up either side of the moon. I had a simple idea. I'd been walking since 8 am, but I was well-fed, and well-watered, and didn't feel tired - I would walk to Waipapakauri through the night.

Better yet - I would hike to Waipapakauri using the Leki sticks. The Leki sticks came with their own story. Before leaving Auckland I'd shopped at Pack 'n' Pedal's Newmarket store. That store had generously allowed me a large discount on the tramping gear I needed. I already had boots and a tunnel tent, but otherwise, I bought the ranch. A new 85 litre Macpac - yes I'd have it, lighter and more waterproof than my old Fairydown. A new anorak? Absolutely. A Thermarest mattress, yes, compact and self-inflating with just enough air to keep your body off the cold ground. Pack 'n 'Pedal's Dave Bowman accompanied me round the shop making sensible suggestions, picking up the chosen gear up and slinging it into a pile for a later price calculation. He gestured at a stand displaying Leki poles. They had rubber hand-holds, a single-twist adjustment system that locked together two interconnected hollow tubes to an exactly suitable length, steel tips fringed with rubber mud baskets to prevent the tips burying themselves, and each stick was nicely inner-sprung - you could push down on them and feel an invigorating bounceback under your hand.

"Leki poles? They're helpful," said Bowman. "They're very little extra weight."

I looked at the German-made hi-tech poles, and they seemed, for a New Zealand tramper, something of an affectation, and at $210 a pair rather too expensive.

"No. I'll give those a miss."

"Right," said Bowman. "If you need it, I guess you can get a local Maori to cut you a rakau."

Dave Bowman was good to me. At the end of an hour I had my gear, and he'd rung the importer of Thorlo hiking socks, and secured four pair, plus their liners, for nothing. We went out the back for a final coffee, then he was called back into the shop. I finished my drink, and went out to say goodbye. Bowman was in conversation with a tall heavily-built man he introduced as Martin. Martin was a representative for the Leki poles.

"I was telling Martin about your walk," said Bowman.

"You should have the Leki poles," said Martin. "People are now turning on to them. I give them to journalists for trial and they come back to me: 'Wonderful' they say, 'these are so good I must buy them.'"

I'd told Dave Bowman earlier that my main worry about completing the walk was an old rugby injury that had slightly weakened one knee, and Martin had obviously heard the story.

"And you have a weakness in one knee, yes? With these poles - 25% of weight off the legs."

"You're German," I said..

Martin drew himself up.

"For that, should I apologise?" he said.

"Not at all," I said. "But I've got a theory on why so many Germans come to New Zealand to tramp in the wilderness."

"I am listening," said Martin.

"Around two thousand years ago," I said, "the Germans were a forest people. They lived in the woods at a time when the Romans were subduing Europe. In 9 AD there was a famous battle, where the German tribes, under Arminius, ambushed the Roman legions in the forest and wiped them out. Rome, to them, was the over-civilised city state they despised. After that battle Rome never regained control - it was like the Americans and the Viet Cong - a distant, highly developed fighting machine defeated by people who knew their own ground and for whom the wilderness was home. The woods were a fearful place for the Romans, but for the German tribes, they were the cradle of Germany itself, and have stayed at the heart of German mythology ever since.

"When the Nazis came to power," I was watching Martin and thought I saw him flinch. "they did more to preserve and extend the German forests than any German Government before or since. They did the same for the forests of Poland and Austria. Hermann Goering was Forest Minister, and while the Third Reich killed six million Jews, it is famous also for saving a million trees, and for the hunting lodges that were built deep inside the forests. Since then, " I said, "the German forests have shrunk and those that remain have been made spindly by industrial pollution. My theory is that it's this country's wild forests that attracts the Germans. They're the ones who occupy our huts and trails more than anyone else. They do it, maybe without even knowing, to recapture their own origins."

"No," said Martin. "The reason the Germans come here is because of the exchange rate. Plus," he said, "you cannot hike for more than 15 minutes in Germany without having to cross an autobahn."

I went to pick up my gear, paid up on the Eftpos, and shook Dave Bowman's hand. As I turned to leave he pulled me aside.

"Martin," said Bowman, "wants you to have two Leki Poles. For nothing - free."

And that was how two Leki sticks came to be strapped to the side of my pack. But I hadn't used them on the first three days of my tramp. Now, the seven planets were strung out either side of a full moon, the stars were beginning to come out, and I had a long way to go. If ever there was a right time to try out the Lekis, this was it. I unstrapped them and began extending the poles to length.

Night time on the Ninety Mile: I'd done a long walk along a surf beach before - down Farewell Spit in 1984 - and after an hour or two on the spit, I'd heard them - the high, singing voices, the unattached scrag, the harmonics generated by crashing waves. On Ninety Mile Beach I hadn't noticed the effect particularly, though the previous night in the tent I'd heard sounds like rock music, just on the edge of definition, like a distant party, coming from the shoreline. On this night, with the wind dropped and nothing to interfere with the sound of itself, the surf still tumbled and hissed with a familiar continuity out to my right, but from down the beach, out of the darkness, came something I hadn't heard before. It was a low frequency blatting out of the ocean, flat and unlovely, like something vaguely diabolic hitting leather behind a stone wall.

Stay light, stay tight, stay bright. The Lekis had little red adjustment wheels built into the handles, and I turned them to get the hand-straps absolutely to length. The poles felt good. So go! The great European adventurer Reinhold Messmer endorsed these things for his Antarctic crossing, for his alpine feats, and now came the Ninety Mile test. But I hadn't done more than a couple of hundred metres in Leki mode, when a faraway light tracked down across what I took to be hillside. My heart lifted. If that was a car, it must be headed towards the only southern point of civilisation, the Waipapakauri Motor Camp, and although the light was distant, it wasn't too distant.. The lights stopped moving down, turned briefly toward me, winked, then disappeared. Then suddenly a huge dome of light rose from deep in the forest. My immediate eastern horizon was the sand-dunes and the light lay below that, but the effect was extraordinary - the whole range of dunes, for a kilometre or so, was back-lit by the light, frozen sharp-edged and black by it. The effect lasted perhaps five seconds, then the light vanished.

It stopped me in my tracks. What was that! I leaned on the Lekis - stunned, and staring into what was now a deep darkness. I walked on a kilometre or so. I walked past a twisted line of sharks. One after another, they were dead on the beach. They'd stranded on the beach alive, for each was enclosed in its own symmetrical pattern in the sand as it thrashed in a final circle of death. I could hear the ocean again - that infandous beating - from out in front.

And then the big light came again. I watched it as closely as I knew how. Not car lights. I couldn't see the top of the light dome, only the huge glow that radiated up from it, but whatever the source, it seemed as massive as some night-time sun about to rise over the dunes. Another ten seconds and it vanished again. My skin prickled. From the darkness out in front of me came that beaten-leather blatting sound, and the ocean gave out a low but distinct croak.

I fumbled at the camera bags. No way would I miss the third appearance of the light. I extracted the Mavica but it was impossible both to hold it ready and use the Leki sticks too. It was a question of priorities, and the Lekis lost. I held the camera ready in my right hand, hooked the straps of both Lekis onto my left wrist, and for the rest of the night, instead of those proud punch-holes in the beach, each hole surrounded by the sand-flower pattern of its mud-basket, the Lekis left behind only those wandering drag-marks that any old stick might make, as trailed by any little kid, on any beach, anywhere.

The big light did not return, but by now I could see two tiny lights from Waipapakauri up front. Siren-like - they pulled me on, and it seemed right, significant even, that the Southern Cross itself was head down and pointed directly at them. The moon rose, reaching towards a zenith. High up a satellite bobbled across the night sky. A meteor arced and died in a green burst, and I walked. The walk was open and free. I had discovered the obvious. Of all the great walks in New Zealand, this is perhaps the only one that can be easily done in the dark. Which should be done in the dark. I was feeling almost smug about the discovery. Nighttime on the Ninety Mile is a time when the wind has died. There is no sun to burn you, there are no rocks or roots on which to stumble. The temperatures are mild and the night sky is open from horizon to horizon. The dunes to the left, the surf to the right provided ghostly white margins to the route. I was on a giant runway, its vanishing point marked by those two dancing destination lights, and time, well time didn't matter at all.

Those goddam trickster lights. The distance from Hukatere to Waipapakauri, I'd been told by the two women on the dunes, was 12 kilometres, and I'd figured that was three or four hours walking. But the lights ahead looked the same now as they had hours ago. They could have been very close, and I saw them sometimes as the two lighted windows of a little cabin waiting just up the track to welcome me in. Or, they might still be many kilometres distant. By then I had walked three hours. The literature is full of the benign dissolution that can occur when an individual stands exposed long enough to the stars - the oceanic effect Arthur Koestler once called it. Yet on that long night-time walk down the Ninety Mile, as the kilometres surely rolled by underfoot but the two lights of Waipapakauri refused to get brighter or closer, I found myself buttoning right down. Forget the universe. Forget this featureless beach. If it was twelve kilometres to Waipapakauri, then that was simply the distance from my own Devonport house to Takapuna and back home again. I walked for ten minutes and I'd reached the end of Calliope Rd. Another quarter hour, and I was approaching Kings' Store. Twenty minutes on I was at Belmont, then trekking up past Takapuna Grammar to Hauraki Corner. I reached Takapuna and turned around. Ticking off the distances, I walked home again, but the Waipapakauri lights stayed exactly as they had stayed for the past three hours. I started off for Takapuna again, but by midnight I was ready to drop. I figured I'd walked well over that 12 kilometres down the perpetual runway, a distance that brought that day's total walking distance to around 40 kilometres and I was simply tired.

I went up into the dry sand and unrolled my sleeping bag. I stuck the hiking poles in the sand beside me and turned in. The two Lekis looked at me, thin, athletic, and totally sure of their worth in the moonlight. They spoke in unison: "Twenty-five percent less weight on those legs," they said. "If you'd used us, you would have made it."

"Look," I said to the Lekis, "Just forget it. Your time will come."