A forest without signs, and with track tags buried in the earth, tries to fox Te Araroa

Sean Gardiner
Sean Gardiner

In the morning I awoke to the sound of a vehicle. A Mitsubishi twincab ute pulled into the clearing, and a DOC hunter got out and freed his little goat-tracking dog from a pen on the back.

Sean Gardiner came across and we had a chat about my route. I told him I'd just come up the Papakauri Stream, without difficulty.

"Right - that's a brill track.

Trust the goat hunters. They knew the tracks probably better than anyone else in DOC. Gardiner loved trails, but he was seeing them regress, and seeing them confused by the tags left by possum hunters, kokako spotters and other workers in the bush. I'd faced the problem myself at the Waipapa River and even coming up Papakauri. Sometimes a line of tags led away from the river and you found yourself inclined to follow it. False trails.

"Yeah. The tags are a problem. Pink for possums. Blue for kokako. I've been into Waipoua lately and I was hitting all types of tag. Pink, blue, spray marks of different colours. It gets you confused."

The problem I suggested, was not the tags, but that the main trails themselves were becoming so indistinct that you were inclined to seize on tags and follow them..

"Yeah. We used to use the trails for hunting, to get through quickly, but now most of them are so overgrown it's better to make your own way through."

Still, the trail we were on was clear enough. A grassed 4WD track I'd follow for around two hours to Mt Monoa, the highest point in the forest, then branch east off it, down the Russell track to exit at the back of Mokau Bay. That was the plan. The main traverse, and the side track were clearly marked on the topo, and on a DOC pamphlet I was carrying.

"Okay," said Gardiner, "Now you can't get to the Monoa summit, that side-track is closed, but you'll go past it pretty close to the top. You'll recognise the spot, the track is terraced there, and you'll be able to see Pukemoremore, it's a big bald rock to the south-west. The track goes down a saddle towards Pukemoremore, it's a big dip, then it climbs. You'll need to watch closely for the start of the Russell track."

"Why?" I said. In my mind I'd done all I had to do on the forest's informal tracks. In my mind I now had only to follow clear signposts through and out of it.

"The start of the track is a bit shabby," said Gardiner. "If you like I can run you up and show you exactly where you go in."

I said no - it was better to keep the walk fresh, but I was interested that the entrance to a major side trail had suddenly become so hard to find. Then I realised just what I was being told. I remembered looking at the posts alongside this DOC shelter last night and that they'd struck me as strange. Bare posts, without signage.

"The entrance to the Russell track is signed though," I said.

"No," said Gardiner. "There might be a post still up, or a hole where the post has been, but we've taken the signs down."

"Mt Monoa is signed?"

"No."

"You've taken the signs down on this track too."

"That's right. People were getting lost, mostly over in the Monoa area. A lot of the tracks were getting overgrown, we don't have the money to maintain them, so we decided to close them. I pulled up a lot of the signs myself, two weeks before Christmas."

"Has it occurred to DOC," I said, "That if people were getting lost in a forest with signs, and you pull up the signs, they're going to get even more lost?"

"Yeah," said Gardiner, "you're better off talking to Clint McGee at the Russell Field Centre about the actual reasoning. I'm just one of the hands that has to do what he's told to do."

I watched him go off with the little terrier Gin casting around in front, and a .223 Ruger over his shoulder, and felt a flash of anger.

The anger was not with Gardiner - he'd been very good. I was grateful for his detailed advice. I knew that if I hadn't met him, I'd have gone merrily off that morning following a very straightforward main traverse. I knew that I would have walked it without close attention to the topo map, expecting the major features like Mt Monoa to be signposted, and the main side tracks too. I didn't have the GPS, and topo maps are fine while you're paying attention to every new ridge, but not when you try to pick up your position without previous reference. I suspected without that happy meeting with Gardiner I'd have lost my way in the Russell State Forest.

The anger was with DOC. It was spending money to eradicate the goats to regenerate the understorey to make a better forest that no-one finally would see. It didn't make sense. The shelter was maybe the last place in the forest to have any signage at all. It was covered in it - you know the sort - "Black Rulz", "Reality is just an illusion created by lack of alcohol", "Stefan and Anders from Sweden", and I vented my mood by carving in my own: "Te Araroa 8/1/98". Can DOC - or, to go one step up the chain, the Government that has underfunded DOC ever since its formation in 1989 - earmark enough money to keep open at least one tramping through route - please?

Russell Forest
Russell Forest

I followed the main trail and came up the side of Mt Monoa. You could see the forest from here, with its mighty ridges, and steep falls. I sighted Pukemoremore, and went on down the saddle. A single post still marked the beginning of the Russell Track, but you'd never have picked it otherwise. I took a compass bearing on my exit point a couple of kilometres to the south-east, and pushed uphill into the bush.

Shabby was the word. The trail was hard to follow, but I found an old red and white marker nailed to a tree, then another, and I searched for each one, and my eye was as pleased to see each one as if they'd been thimbles of water in a desert. They led on. Then they stopped but the trail was clear enough. It led on. It opened onto a gut-stopping view.

You couldn't see the precipice all around, but you could feel it. If there was any trail marker in front it would be hung on thin air. I went back to the last marker. The trail had to go sideways from there, and I cast about trying to see if the trail led away to the side. I went down precipitous slopes, hanging onto the vegetation to try to pick up the deviation. Nothing.

I sat down on the ridge, and took a long slug of water. The afternoon was drawing in - it always does when you're in trouble in the bush. I studied the terrain carefully against the map, and it was obvious that the Russell track must lead down the ridge that lay immediately east, and that there must be a cross-trail to pick it up. I went carefully back over the same ground I'd come, but could find no sign of it. Right - I'd just bushbash it. I chose a likely spot, and went in. I pushed through foliage, and there, half-buried in humus on the ground, was a trail marker.

From there the Russell track was easy enough to follow. The old markers were still in place. It was a steady descent with kauri and dracophyllum on the occasional knolls, and once, a view back to Pukemoremore.

Pukemoremore
View back to Pukemoremore

I looked back at the face. Before I'd figured there were two trails, I'd been dumbly determined that the single route must head off somewhere to the side of this summit. Casting around there, not knowing that even trail markers might suggestively lure you to the lip, it was one helluva long way down.

The Russell track had once been beautifully laid, with wooden risers chocked into the steeper bits. It was sad to see it being let go, but I was pleased finally to be down and out of it all. I went round to Mokau where I had arranged to rendezvous with Sean Gardiner next morning. Goat hunters like trails, and he'd offered to help me on the next leg of the journey by dropping off the next topo map in the series, one I hadn't been able to pick up in Paihia.

There was a marae, but no camping ground. The beach was Maori land, with small makeshift dwellings, collections of caravans providing the extra rooms, and horses wandering through, I knocked on the door of a house belonging to Willie and Cressida Williams.

Was there any place I could pitch a tent?

"How about under that pear tree," said Williams pointing into his own backyard.

Night mare
Horses all around in the dark

That's what I did, and went to sleep finally with horses quietly whinnying and tearing the grass all around.