There are men of the forest who are the natural guardians of that forest - but they can get lost too

Closeup of Roger Gale

Roger Gale gestured with one of his Leki sticks towards a thicket of harsh vegetation standing up maybe half a metre. "King Club moss - amazing stuff. Stiff - it vibrates like wire, and if you picked it, it'd still be green in five months time. It's the world's biggest lycopod - a moss! And I've seen it taller yet. You can sell this stuff to the florists in Auckland for maybe 35 cents a stem. We could fill up our packs and we'd make $100s from a single journey - not that you'd want to encourage that."

"Hear that?" I listened. A barely-melodic tic, tic, tic came from amidst a bracken and dry-stick grove perhaps 30 metres distant. Then an answering tic, tic. "A fern bird," said Gale. Quite rare. Over there." His Leki pointed now to a slender-trunked Dr-Seuss-like tousle-headed tree. "Dracophyllum - I can never figure why New Zealand doesn't market those trees as a decorative shrub. And over here - a Kirk's Daisy. It flowers once every seven years, just a stunning sight with a purple stamen and big petals."

DOC was official caretaker of Herekino Forest, but it was locals like Gale who knew the bush as well as, or better than, most of DOC. Roger Gale was a forester. He had an interesting history. His father had been a top anti-apartheid campaigner, a Vice-President of New Zealand's CARE before moving to Australia, founding CARE there, and he'd chaired an anti-apartheid conference in New York 12 years ago before coming back, early 50s, a fit jogger, and dropping dead within 24 hours. His son suspected BOSS, the former South African secret police organisation.

Roger Gale himself had been an early HART activist. He'd been known to police for daredevil action, but it all stopped when, a few days after an arson at an Auckland rugby grandstand in the 70s, he'd come home from visiting a friend to see a stranger moving away from his house. He searched the flat top to bottom, found the evidence the intruder had planted, and disposed of it just an hour before the police raided his house to nail him. But the fright was real. If the police gambit had succeeded he'd have faced years in jail. He cut away from the movement, and had finished up in Herekino with a 100-acre hardwood plantation and a small business, taking a mobile chain-saw mill into the bush to bring out, in manageable lengths, native timber from trees that had simply grown old and fallen over, or that had been felled by storms.

"We'd better keep moving," said Gale, and again the Leki pointed, with more purpose than I'd ever been able to give it, at featureless bush-clad hills perhaps a kilometre distant. "The Herekino Logging Road is somewhere over that ridge."

It had taken us only an hour to get to the King Club moss, though I'd already been walking since 7.30 a.m. After Gale's phone call the previous night, I'd given up my plan to come down to Herekino Forest through the gumfield - it required more organisation and more time than I could muster. I got up early, and walked from Ahipara round to Herekino Forest by road, Gale had arrived in a friend's jeep and we'd struck immediately into the bush, climbing steeply to 300 metres. Gale had quickly spotted the Leki poles, and asked to try them. The things loved him, gaining him such speed on that first pinch that I blamed the Lekis for trying to distance themselves from me, but never Gale, who was a gentle and considerate man.

Gentle, considerate, acute. There wasn't a sign on the track that he didn't pick, and interpret. "You see that," he'd point out as we paused for a water stop. "A fresh mark, a boot, and the guy didn't have dogs."

Okay. There was something sinister about the lack of dogs, but I was more interested in staying on the trail. It had no markers, and we kept losing it. The bush would suddenly close in, but Gale had a sixth sense of where the ridge was - I came to call it his ridge logic - and he'd head towards it and pick up the trail again. As we bush-bashed downhill from the King Club moss though, we were without a trail. We picked one up in the valley, following red tags, and then the trail seemed to continue, but the markers had vanished.

"Horses." Gale stopped. The track had been ploughed by hooves.

My mind went back to the previous night with Eddie Smith. Sometimes, Smith had said, the poachers ride the horses right at you. It wasn't his business to bust marijuana plots, but poaching was something else. They came into this forest to shoot kereru, and the species was steadily crashing. The breeding cycle was long, and at the end of the mating season there'd be maybe just one egg in a nest, and the possums could get to that, but the biggest threat was the men with rifles. It wasn't just the old argument of whether dying kaumatua got a bird that tasted of the miro berry, like the gift Sir Graham Latimer brought to Dame Whina Cooper four years back. The new poachers were organised to market the birds, and would bring out a dozen or more at a time. They'd be raffled in pubs both in the north, and in Auckland, and could fetch, said Smith, $200 each. Smith tracked the poachers. He'd had threats to burn his house down, but he kept going, particularly in the season February-May when the birds were at their fattest. When he learned Gale was going across the forest with me, Smith had asked Gale to keep an eye out - for horse sign in particular.

"There may well be some meadows around here," said Gale, but you could see that marijuana didn't particularly bother him. What did bother him was just around the next turn in the track.

He turned off, and went down on one knee, turning over trampled vegetation.

"They've tethered the horse."

We went further in. Electric fence tape was strung between the pungas. A white plastic ice cream container lay on the ground. Orange peel.

"Pigeon shooters," said Gale. "Pig hunters don't stay."

He went around in a kind of controlled fury, ripping down the string the hunters had used to pitch their fly from the trees.

"I wish I had a calling card," said Gale. "To tell them. We were here. We were watching you. Look at this." He kicked the container. "They're messy sods aren't they?"

And then he was gone.

He'd disappeared straight up, shinnied up the trunk of a kahikatea and was swaying 20 metres away in the tops.

"Roger?"

"Yeah. Hang on. I'm getting a compass bearing. Eddie will want to know where to find this place."

The horse trail went on and we followed it, but it was a distraction. Gale kept consulting the compass, and we were heading north, not east.

"And we're falling - we're going down," said Gale." Things aren't right," he kept saying, and he no longer meant the pigeon poachers.

The trail came to a T junction marked with an old knife scabbard, and I got my first inkling that we might be lost, when Gale took a long swig from his water bottle, turned to me and asked casually, "which way do you want to go?"

Downhill. The trail was clear enough, and after another 800 metres or so, we fetched up at a distinctive hairpin bend in a small river. The watercourse was large enough to be shown on the map, but we couldn't find any river with a hairpin.

"They map from the Orions," said Gale. "Using special glasses - it may be they missed it under the bush cover." But it didn't sound convincing. We ate lunch.

I crunched on a Kaitaia Pak'n Save special, a Pam's chocolate-covered muesli bar. Gale had the big healthy sandwiches, the apple, the yoghurt - but he was restless. Barely finished lunch, he jumped up.

"I'm going to find out where we are," and he crashed away. For the next 20 minutes I filtered water out of the stream, and saw Maori sign near the bank - a small kauri sapling, its leafy top still vigorously seeking the light, but below that its stem tied in a granny knot, a tree that would be harvested later to furnish some old kuia with a walking stick.

Then Gale was back. He sat down, looked at me and said, "I think maybe you should sack me."

"Where are we?"

"Wainui. That's the Wainui River."

We were way off course. We'd made the mistake Smith had warned about, followed a false horizon and the grain of what felt right, but even when foresters get into trouble, the distinction between them and the next man may be that they know how to get out of it. Over the next hour, we broke out of the forest onto farmland, jumped fences, pushed across one field that was filled with daisies, and finally re-entered the forest on the clay track we'd sought from the beginning - the old Herekino Forest Road.

From that moment, Gale redeemed himself. Even the main tracks were confusing, with the signs at various track intersection either non-existent, or lying in the grass separate from their stanchions. We found blank bullets that the army had used in here for jungle training.

Kereru high up in a tree We rounded a bend in the track and saw, perched just thirty metres away, a kereru. As I steadied the camera on Gale's shoulder, it occurred to me that a rifleman might do the same, and I felt the same anger that had shaken Gale for the outlaws within Herekino who were destroying this bird. The kereru were so fearless they'd sit right above you sometimes, feeding, showering you with half-eaten nikau seeds, or flower petals. So easy to take the photograph. So easy to make the shot.

Gale was steady and unerring in this section, and his bush knowledge made the traverse a joy. "Kawaka," he'd pat the shreddy trunk of a forest tree, and make his comment on the timber. "Tough red wood. They use it for ornamental inlays." We came up to a giant Puriri. "You can see," said Gale, "even when the trunk falls, it roots, and the new growth goes straight up from there. They live forever, and you can polish the wood to a mirror finish, like ebony, but multicoloured, purple, pink, yellow, brown all mingled together. You can get amazing pictures in the wood."

And once we diverted, tired of the colonising cutty grass that clogged the main track, into deep bush and rested there, eating forest food, the supplejack tips that tasted like a cross between asparagus and a raw bean, but like something else too, sharp-edged.

"It's mild," I commented, "but you can taste that it's wild too."

"Everything here is wild," said Gale. "And that's the thrill of it, you're here amongst it, you're part of it."

The bush was a tangled jungle as far as the eye could penetrate into the density all around. It was dappled, vegetative, alive, and very quiet. "Except that it doesn't care," I said, "if you live or die in here."

"That's the point," said Gale. "Like the bush - you've got to be good enough, you've got to be wild yourself, to survive."

He was paying close attention to the compass. A red tag lay alongside the trail - was this the sign Smith had talked about ? No, it was too soon to divert onto the summit of Taumatamahoe. Half an hour on, there was another tag, and as if to mark it as significant a Herekino wild pig had left a coarse hair arrowed into the fold. We left the track and climbed to the top on a line of red markers. It seemed like we were getting close to completing the crossing.

At the summit At the summit, Gale took my BellSouth mobile and rang a friend, Peter Griffiths, who lived on Takahue Rd. It was time to come get us, we'd be down the ridge and out onto Diggers' Valley Road in what? - 20 minutes or half an hour maybe. As we left the summit, Gale commented: "This bit's fine. I've done it before, we'll be swinging from tree to tree all the way down."

We didn't. We ran into supplejack thickets, and wrenched our way through. We climbed over fallen logs and sometimes stumbled onto a track and sometimes lost it. An hour went by. It was still a civilised enough traverse that we could carry on a conversation about all the New World forests of the past which had been explored and hardships endured simply for the fascination of finding new botanical species, and to ship the new plant species back to the Old World. It was a feature of American exploration in the 19th century, and before that it was the source of Joseph Banks' excitement when he landed on these islands, the first Europeans with botanical knowledge, in 1769. You could now feel dusk closing down on the bush, but Gale never let himself be stampeded by any sense of crisis.

"Talking about new species," he said, "Here's one I don't know."

Rare plant

He was on his hands and knees peering at a little forest flower, and muttering an incantation of remembrance: "Flower parts in multiples or three, six stamen, each alternate one sterile with no anthers."

Dusk closing in, the guy was incorrigible.

"Look," I said. "I can just take a photograph of it."

"You can? Great."

The ridge steepened and a dense field of the bush succulent they call pig-weed clothed the slope. Pig weed - watery enough to send you sliding across it, insufficiently strong to stop that slide once you got up a bit of momentum, clutched at its raggy leaves and carroty stems and felt them snap under you hand. The weed was leafy and tall enough to disguise all the little guts in this water-gullied slope that could suddenly throw you downward. I wrenched my shoulder trying to stop one slide, and around us the dusk was steadily deepening to darkness.

How much further? We called, but there was no answering shout. The ridge tilted toward vertical. More pig-weed, more rotten trunks that refused your weight and went crashing and sliding on ahead, more supplejack that slipped down between your body and your pack halting your progress, so you strained, and twisted free of its restraint, then catapulted alarmingly forward. I fell down, I got up, I yelled again, and from far below, discouragingly distant but welcome too, came an answering cry.

"Yeeehah!" cried Gale, but it was another half hour before we stumbled dishevelled out of the bush. It was 8.30 p.m. and Peter Griffiths stood on the road.

"I know what you guys have done," said Griffiths.

"We got lost, " said Gale.

"I know what you've done," repeated Griffiths. "That's a hard crossing."

"We got lost at Wainui," said Gale.

"It's a very mysterious forest," said Griffiths. "Everyone gets lost. Wainui. Yeah - everyone fetches up at Wainui."

We reached his car, and started off down the Diggers' Valley Road. Griffiths half turned to where I sat in the back, covering myself with the dog's blanket to keep warm, and pushing the hard hindquarters and claws of his little Staffordshire bitch off my thighs as she strained to stick her nose out the window.

"That was a real burst you guys did. You'd be the first I can think of to come right through the forest on that route for seven or eight years. I've got a cold beer waiting."