A second forest confirms there is light at the end of every tunnel

Next morning Peter Griffiths drove me to where he'd picked me up on Diggers Valley Road, and I set out walking again. I went a few hundred metres down the road before going cross-country, as detailed by the paper plan in my pack, on a Juken Nissho forest road. It was pleasant walking. A stream flowed alongside, Australian rosellas flashed among the pines, and the gated and seldom-used Otaneroa Road was clothed side to side with pennyroyal, whose distinctive scent drifted up from underfoot. I got to Takahue, sat down for lunch on the now-grassy site where the school had been deliberately burned down in 1995, then walked up a quiet metal road to the sign that said "Mangamuka Walkway - Six Hours."

Roger Gale and I started out from that point the next day. Peter Griffiths and his Conservation Corps team had re-marked the Mangamuka trail with DOC's orange walkway triangles just a few months before, though there'd been growth since, and we hacked at it with a parang. The day was overcast, and as we climbed the forest got misty and wet. Like every high forest, this one was often bathed in cloud even when the rain held off - every tree here was green-gilled with liverwort, hung with lichens, and you could hear the wind breathing through it all.

View from Mt Raetea summit

From the Mt Raetea summit, 744 metres up, we climbed a radio mast and could see the Hokianga Harbour trailing inland until its upper reach turned into the Mangamuka River. Right there, too far into distance to make out, was our destination - the small settlement of Mangamuka Bridge.

The Mangamuka trail led through to State Highway One twelve kilometres above Mangamuka Bridge, but Te Araroa's plan - which kept road-walking to a minimum - called for us to leave the main trail about two thirds the way along its length, to bush-bash cross-country again and to pick up another track series to the south-east. Those tracks led down to Mangataipa Road, and from there it was a quick road-walk to Mangamuka Bridge. The publican at the Mangamuka Bridge Hotel, Harry Williams, owned the single piece of private farm-land we'd have to cross down near Mangataipa Rd and the previous night I'd rung the pub to okay that stretch. Booming trance music and the roar of a stoked country pub drifted back up the line while Williams was fetched. He'd okayed the crossing, and I was looking forward to finishing our tramp in his pub, and suggesting to him that the route across his land might sometime be linked into a national trail.

Such are the dreams of men. Two kilometres along from Mt Raetea, on the flank of another 727-metre summit the marked trail led away north reaching towards SH1, and we abandoned it to bush-bash down the ridge, seeking to link through to the south-eastern track network.

We struggled for ten minutes down-ridge through supplejack, and to escape it, headed briefly left. There in front was an orange trail marker. That was impossible, and I had a moment of serious disorientation. The topo map gives a view of the landscape that's like looking down from twelve kilometres up - about the height the American test pilot Chuck Yeager reached in an early rocket-powered Bell experimental aircraft in the 1950s before the thing started to skip and tumble at the top of the atmosphere.

I looked down at the map, while the world about me slowly spun. I looked up. Where am I Chuck? I looked around at the bush and the bush looked back, as featureless, in that moment, as the ether. The alert Roger Gale had already made one sudden stop when we were descending Raetea. He was open to instinct, feeling a shift in the bright blur of the sun, feeling the wind on his cheek change, and had been assailed by a sudden doubt. We'd reasoned our way round that one - the wind had simply changed - and anyway I was perfectly happy back then just following orange triangles. But not now - this little triangle we'd come up against was not susceptible to logic, unless we'd just gone in a tight, crazy circle, or perhaps had left the track at the wrong point..

"We haven't gone in a circle," said Gale. The thought was an affront to basic bushcraft.

Deep in Raetea Forest

Nor had we left the trail at the wrong point - the explanation was that the Conservation Corps had run a few orange markers south-east down the hill, but they soon tailed out and we were back to good solid ridge logic.

Gale was being super-careful. He was feeling the ridge with his feet. He was gauging not just the ridge but the rise and fall of it - knobs on the ridge - we needed the third one down. We crossed a depressed saddle - the confuser - we found the third knob, and Gale climbed a rata to get the lay of the land. He descended with the humus of various epiphytes staining his camouflage trousers, but happy.

We left the ridge and cut directly east, a direction that would intersect with those other dotted track lines on the map.

"We're about 15 minutes from that track now," said Gale, "by a random estimate."

Down into the gullies. Through the pig weed, the supplejack thickets. We picked up the sound of a stream where no stream existed on the map, and we were seeking a track that was not well-formed - it would be easy to cross it at right-angles without ever knowing and to crash onward into wilderness.

"Yeehah," cried Gale. We shook hands. He'd found it, overgrown, barely a track, blocked often by rotting trunks or cascades of dry sticks, filled with the colonising ferns and sharp-edged grasses that choke unmaintained trails, but a track all the same, just where the map said it should be, and we now stood on a continuous route down to Harry Williams' land just six kilometres away, beyond that to Mangataipa Rd, beyond that to Mangamuka Bridge, and beyond that - I could hear it already - the trance music of the Mangamuka Bridge Hotel. Trampers' end.

We pushed our way through eye-level fern, and shouted warnngs one to another when we felt the bush lawyer. We emerged onto a grassy plateau with a small decrepit shelter that looked to have been built in the 1930s.

Problem. Our single overgrown trail suddenly proliferated into five overgrown trails that led away from the plateau. It was an old logging camp, and the drag-routes of the logs, smashing down the bush, had created for every trail that was the right one, four dummy diversions. The place wasn't marked on the map, there were no trees to climb, and I was suddenly aware that the afternoon was drawing in.

My hands were bleeding from the rakings by bush lawyer. The clouds had gathered. I could sense a crisis of sorts, but the word, in its Greek form, simply meant choice. Gale was choosing, and he responded to the crisis in the Galean manner, carefully studying the compass, the land, the clouds, all of them conspiring in my mind, to lose us, then pointed forward and said: "See that bush? That's the one Peter was talking about. Very rounded leaves with a reddish sheath. Yellow flowers. We don't know what it is."

I reconnoitered some of the drag routes, hoping they'd cancel themselves by dead-ending. They didn't. We chose one, but it started heading north. We came back. When in doubt, follow the cattle, and the next track was imprinted with hooves, but it tailed out after 15 minutes onto a grassy glade with no exit.

Roger climbed a tree and was there a long time.

"You can see Mangamuka Bridge?" I suggested.

"No," he called back. "This map isn't doing what I want it to do."

He climbed down finally. Rain had begun to fall lightly.

"I've taken a bearing on a pine plantation. It's about 1.8 kilometres away - about that far," he said, pointing to a distant ridge. "If we can get to the pines, they'll lead us out."

We both set our compasses and headed off cross-country. Darkness fell while we were still in the bush. Sometimes we broke out onto old logging tracks where grass grew, followed them as long as was tolerable on the compass bearing, dived back into bush, forded a stream, then reached a stretch of relatively open manuka, and at 9.30 p.m. we reached the pines. We found a forest road and followed it in the darkness, slipping on the occasional unseen ruts, and sometimes missing the turns.

Every tramper knows this ending. You're safe, but the last stretch is interminable. At 11.15 p.m. we saw a light in the darkness. We went up and knocked at the door. Two dogs threw themselves at the screen and an old man in pajamas looked up from his lighted room and moved slowly sideways and out of sight before coming to the door. I wondered if he'd gone to get a rifle, and I wouldn't have blamed him. But he was only, slowly, negotiating his way to the entrance. We explained we were trampers and Bert Williams invited us in. His wife Nell came sailing out of the bedroom in a robe.

"You boys would like a cup of tea. Biscuits? Just some hard old leftovers"

She banged down a tin.

"Christmas is coming and the geese are getting fat," sang Nell apropos of nothing in particular but Christmas itself, then just three days away.

And Christmas plenty was within the house. The dismissively introduced leftovers turned out to be homebaked gingernuts, delicious. The house was at the top of Kauaepepe Rd, and Roger Gale rang Peter Griffiths to make the pickup. Instead of waiting inside, we suggested, we could put our boots back on and keep walking down the road to meet the car.

"Oh absolutely not," said Nell, serving the tea. "You will wait here. We belong to the old days. When something happens we see it out to the bitter end."

She was aged 82, and her husband 81.