How Jim Bolger, tramper, became embroiled in Te Araroa

Te Araroa Trust is, in its brighter moments, a mighty engine. It is a bunch of six individuals who have taken over where the now defunct NZ Walkways Commission left off in the 1980s, getting a New Zealand foot trail into place.

Some of the trust members have that 1000-yard stare, the look that pragmatists dread, the one that focuses beyond the practical problems onto a big idea. But the trust gets things done nonetheless. From its beginning in August 1994, we sought a good launch for the project, and in early January 1995, word came through that the keen tramper, Jim Bolger, liked Te Araroa. If we could find him a track to open, he'd launch it.

Let me say that again. Jim Bolger would launch our project. Let me also say, in passing, that we do domain analysis on this web site, and we know we have a keen reader in Estonia. Greetings: we hope you enjoy the pictures, we apologise for the lack of Cyrillic script, and for you alone, who may not know him, we will fully identify the man Bolger. In 1995, Jim Bolger was the New Zealand Prime Minister.

Bolger's decision filled us with catapaulting hope. It was easy to suppose that if the New Zealand Prime Minister launched Te Araroa, the idea might start to fly.

But first, find your trail. We needed a trail with sufficient mana. We needed a trail that would fit Te Araroa's goal of a New Zealand songline, but we had no track, nor enough money to lay a track. Also, time was short. The Prime Minister would be going to Waitangi with the Governor General on the annual pilgrimage that commemorates the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi between Maori chiefs and the British Crown on February 6, 1840. But the PM's diary was rapidly closing up and he was available only a day before or a day after that commemoration.

Te Araroa is, in its brightest moments, a mighty engine. Trust chairman Bob Harvey and vice-chairman Peter Grayburn had done the work to secure Bolger. Now a group of us - John Bould, Ray Stroud, David Beattie and I - huddled over topo maps of Northland.

I think it was John Bould who noted that a DOC walkway already existed down the last four kilometres of river to Kerikeri. Then another walkway stretched from Waitangi to Opua. Between those two places, Kerikeri and Waitangi, the map showed forest. If we could put a foot trail across that forest, Te Araroa would achieve something quite powerful. We would have linked the Kerikeri River walk to the north of the forest with the Waitangi-Opua track to the south of the forest into a continuous stretch of north-south walkway. Such a trail also would connect two of New Zealand's most potent historical sites, Waitangi and Kerikeri.

I put the proposition to Harvey next day.

"Great. Let's do it," he said. "Let's go."

I went north and explored. Simple: the roads through the forest would be our track. They were safe, for traffic densities were very low, and only needed signage, so that walkers in the forest knew the distances, and which roads to take.

Oh - and permission. I rang the forest managers, Rayonier New Zealand, and was told that the only man who could make that decision was the Northland boss, Harold Corbett. He was on holiday. I rang his home, but there was no reply.

These were the halcyon days of summer. We had a Prime Minister on the hook, I was in constant touch with his press secretary Richard Griffin, and they were the days when the mobile ran hot as a tarsealed road. I booked the PM for February 7. I hadn't done the final groundwork, but I figured we could always cancel.

At the time I was CEO of Te Araroa Trust, but the money wasn't big, so I'd taken a half-time job with Auckland DOC, figuring that might be useful to knit DOC into the trail idea. When the NZWC folded up in 1989, DOC had taken over all walkway functions, including administration of the New Zealand Walkways Act. The act was there to encourage trail formation. DOC could hardly do anything else but support the trail, and it did - I had it from the director-general of DOC Bill Mansfield - support it, the words were, in principle. But DOC had also been careful to hedge itself against any actual active participation.

The mobile shrilled, and I fielded the call as I walked past Pigeon Park on the corner of Symonds Street and Karangahape Road in Auckland.

"Geoff - it's Denis Marshall here."

Ye Christ! My boss. The Minister of Conservation.

"I'm not sure you're doing the right thing with this Te Araroa opening at Waitangi."

That was a shock. I went over and sat on a park bench.

"Oh? Why's that Denis?"

The mobile phone was then still a showoff kind of accessory and it was still de rigueur to shout into the little post-modern horn, to make decisive hand-gestures and name the names that count.

As that type of mobile phone call goes, this was about the best I ever did. It lacked only the fourth essential, an awed audience, and as if on cue the Auckland television director George Andrews strolled by, saw me, and diverted across. The Minister was still making his case for Te Araroa to proceed circumspectly, to get something a little more solid into place before launching itself - ie, I remember thinking to myself, never - and I put a thumb over the voice mike and mouthed at George.

"It's the Minister of Conservation, being difficult."

"Look Denis," I said, "the Prime Minister has said yes to this thing."

"Maybe, but you know the Prime Minister," said the voice on the other end of the line. "He'll say yes to anything."

"So far as I'm concerned Denis," I said, "the Prime Minister has said he wants to go on this thing. And if the Prime Minister wants to go, then I want to go."

George Andrews is a sophisticated man with hooded eyes, but the eyes had bugged a little by the time I snapped the mobile closed.

"Just what are you up to Chapple?" he said.

Well, ripping up to Kerikeri to Harold Corbett's house. I'd stake the place out if necessary. Doorstop the forest chief, but when I came down the long drive I found him working in his garage. I introduced myself and explained Te Araroa in general terms, then made the pitch.

"Look, I know you're on holiday, but I've got an emergency."

"Yeah. Go."

"We've got a prime minister that wants to launch the concept. He needs a trail. We're looking at Waitangi Forest. We'd like Rayonier to allow the public access through, and we'll do the signage."

"I thought you said an emergency situation," said Corbett.

"Absolutely. The PM's only available on February 7, that's just two and a half weeks out, and we'd have to get everything in place by then."

"An emergency." said Corbett. "I'm on holiday but I respond to emergency. An emergency is a forest fire and a forestry worker with two broken legs trying to haul himself clear of the flames.

"But the Prime Minister -"

"It's not an emergency," said Corbett. "I'll be back at work in a week - ring me then."

More pressure. All the deadlines were closing in, but when I rang a week later, Corbett said he was keen. I got the signs done and hired an Irish backpacker out of the Kerikeri Youth Hostel to help dig the holes and pour the concrete. I got Roadmarks New Zealand to die-stamp a dozen long white plastic markers with the Te Araroa logo and dug them into the road junctions.

I had the plaque cast, with a bit of A.R.D Fairburn poetry. It was set into rock at the Rayonier forest boundary on Te Puke Road, and alongside it, Kerikeri sculptor Chris Booth poured a solid concrete base, and put up a cairn made from the local volcanic rock.

Plaque commemorates trail opening

Waitangi Day 1995 blew up in the government's face. On the Treaty ground, Jim Bolger spoke and was shouted down by angry Maori. The New Zealand flag was cast in the dirt and trampled. The flag of Maori sovereignty was hoisted on the Treaty Ground flagpole. Someone spat in the face of the Governor General, Dame Cath Tizard, and another at her feet. It was all over the 6 o'clock news. That evening the country turmoiled. Maori elders went into conclave on Te Tiriti o Waitangi Marae. Maori commentators went on air, some supporting some condemning the disruption. Pakeha commentators seized on the Maori shout that had come off the treaty ground all day - tino rangatiratanga, Maori sovereignty - what did it mean? Citizens outraged at the insult to Dame Cath flooded the talkback shows.

The events of February 6, 1995 threatened to blow away the event of February 7, 1995, but the ship of state held steady. Next morning, early, I was on the mobile to Bolger's press secretary Richard Griffin. Yes, the opening was still on and the Prime Minister's party, staying at the Beachcomber motel just eight kilometres distant, would move out at 10 o'clock.

At 10 am I was in the forest, mobile to mobile with Richard Griffin, the reception oscillating in and out of range.

"ETA fifteen minutes. Yes, fine. My son Amos is down at the entrance gate to show you the way through, and the Maori challenge is ready to go."

There was a silence on the line. I raced back up the hill thinking the call was breaking up, but then Griffin came back.

"Did you say a Maori challenge?"

"Yep. Ready to go."

There was a silence, people murmuring off-line then:

"The Prime Minister," said Griffin, "is in no mood for a Maori challenge."

"What!" Sir Graham Latimer had already lined up the Tai Tokerau group, it was psyching itself up down below.

Another off-stage conflab.

"There will be no Maori challenge, Geoff," said Griffin.

"No Maori challenge."

Bloody politics. I raced back down the hill. The guitars, the song - okay. But the brandished taiaha, and the wero - forget it. I still don't know how it was done, only that the Maori group agreed. The limos arrived, and out stepped Jim and Joan Bolger, Denis Marshall in a floppy hat, Sue James the mayor of the Far North District Council, and the chairman of the Auckland Regional Council, Phil Warren.

Sir Graham Latimer gave the mihi. Wilson Whineray and Bob Harvey welcomed the visitors, outlined the Trust's aims, and then Jim Bolger spoke. He spoke of the natural right of New Zealanders to walk their land, and then he started to spill. He talked of being tangata whenua too - he was born in New Zealand and there was no other place he could call home. He turned to the cairn and noted that although the stone was local, stainless steel wire from imported European sources held it together. The Prime Minister was angry that day and eloquent with it.

Then came the unforeseen: a sewage tanker with dripping pipes hanging off it and some sloppy load for the forest oxidation ponds hove up the hill and ground slowly towards the official function. With a fixed smile I watched my treacherous brothers and sisters of the press swing their cameras round and zoom on the monster before it crashed its gears, backed up, and went off down Skyline road.

That night I waited for the TV news, ready for the cutaway to the sewage tanker and a bit of smart-arse scripting, but it hadn't occurred to me that there might be nothing at all. The Te Araroa opening was referred to in passing, but only to get to the Prime Minister's "I am Tangata Whenua too" speech. Then he'd been lined up and interviewed on the Waitangi Day repercussions. As he spoke, you could see the rocks of the cairn behind his head. Te Araroa had been turned into wallpaper.

Waitangi signpost

Almost three years on from that day I came up to Te Araroa's northern entrance. Gorse half hid the sign. I sat down. Aha ! I sense it. After the description of that great stacked chord of state three years past, the reader wants a silence to ensue. Wants the bleak threnody of Ecclesiastes to begin: Vanity of vanities, all is vanity and a chasing after wind . . . I mean - gorse, right? But I refuse to admit anything except a slight nausea from overdosing on avocado. I booted down the gorse, hacked it with a stick. The sign came up as good as new and I photographed it.

I walked on. The tall pines I remembered on Te Wairoa Road had been harvested, replaced now by seedlings, and the view back across Kerikeri Inlet was new. The smell of pine resin was in the air, and further in the trees got bigger, with pungas and macrocarpa shading the path. I came up finally, near the walk's southern end, to the place where we'd all stood three years before.

The cairn, the plaque Jim Bolger had yanked a tarpaulin from to open the trail, were mute now. The long grass had sprouted, and nearby Rayonier had put up a no-entry sign, but it applied only to a new one-way traffic system for vehicles - the forest walk was as open as before, and if anything safer. Someone had strapped an epiphyte to the side of the cairn, and it was a little dry, but still growing. I plucked a punga frond and stuck it in the rock pile, following a ritual we'd begun at the opening when both Maori and pakeha bedecked the cairn with greenery.

Cairn

Then I walked the road that from here follows the route of an old Maori trail from the vanished Okura and Te Puke villages, down into Waitangi.