How Te Araroa gained a soda spring and a wall to wonder at

Pretty bay scene

The wind began to blow. It began at Helena Bay where I chanced upon a Mr Whippy, spent $2 I'd found on the road, and watched the Sno-Freeze begin to distort and stream away north like sastrugi. The wind blew on the little used back-road up to Mimiwhangata, picking up road dust and hurling it in sheets against the clay bank, with such force that the stuff curled upwards, then over on itself, and I was walking through what surfers call the barrel.

Head down along Mimiwhangata Beach and all the bays beyond. By the time I walked into Whananaki, the wind was whipping the quiet estuary to a fury, and I was staggering sideways under the blast.

I took time out of the weather to write, then headed down the DOC walkway between Whananaki North and Matapouri. All the little bays, each one a cameo of a New Zealand camping holiday, except for the fact that the cyclone poised somewhere out in the Pacific was sending in swells that dumped the swimmers flailing onto the sand. The trail ran along an old coach trail. It hung just above the coast at what they call the cartographer's angle - about 35 degrees elevation - and all the pretty little bays and their tents were laid out like toys.

I'd started late and didn't reach Matapouri until 8 pm. I planned to walk the back country behind the Tutukaka Peninsula. The topo showed a trail of some kind leading through to Ngunguru, and I'd put it into the Te Araroa blueprint. It was getting late, but it was time to test it.

Council sign

I walked up Clement Road to where the signs said: Council Maintenance Ends Here. You have to watch these private roads. The word in Northland is that you can get dogs loosed upon you because certain people, working in a certain industry, value their privacy. But this one had a notice tacked onto the bottom, welcoming horse-riders and walkers into the valley.

A woman called Mary Olsen stopped to offer me a lift. I couldn't take the lift, but I could take advice. I told her my plan, and she told me where to go in, but didn't know the exact route through

I liked Mary. She didn't quail at the thought of finding a trail in the dark, saying merely:

"You've got the gear to spend the night out?"

"Yes, but I won't be," I said. "The moon is up at 10.30pm or so, and I'll just keep walking."

"If you do have to turn back," she said. "Just go up the road a way to Mamaki village, and ask for Ben Edgar. He knows how to get through.

I walked onto farmland. I found a small house under construction with an old Greenpeace banner keeping out the wind. It was hung upside down. Halt the Airstrip, it said. Non a la piste!

Mary Olsen wasn't sure, but she thought you turned left down a farm track here. That's what I did, and descended into a valley where a young pine forest was under way. In the dying light I took a compass bearing, and began following it, using the tracks that seemed to best suit the direction.

I crossed a swamp, then followed a steep mown access track through the pines. Night was falling fast now, and there was no moon yet. I climbed to the ridge but found only a dense bushline, and no way through.

I turned and the pines were laid out below like a vast and silent crowd in an amphitheatre. From time to time on Te Araroa I attracted quite big audiences. Cows in particular were very good at rushing up and standing in an expectant semi-circle. I would thank them for gathering and make a pledge to do my bit towards rescinding Yahweh's ancient promise to mankind, of dominion over all the animals. But to the mute and dark pines I had nothing to say. It was time to turn back.

Back in the valley I was suddenly aware of big animals moving in the pine forest. One of them lumbered down and turned to face me, unmoving on the path. It was dark by now, and I couldn't see what it was. That famous ad for Uncle Ben's Rice where every grain salutes you: I felt every hair stand up. I remembered brave words I'd written about our own instinct, and knowing which animals were dangerous. I just had no idea about this one.

"Good boy!" I advanced, praying it was a girl. Every grain salutes you - that was understatement. This was the Nuremberg Rally. I moved up on it, and the beast finally turned and heaved back into the forest. I got back to the road finally, and went up to the end of it. I knocked on a lighted door, walked straight in at the casual invitation from inside, and asked for Ben Edgar.

Ben Edgar
Ben Edgar

"That's me."

Mistakes, failures, they are fruitful ground for progress. Edgar gave me clear instructions on the through trail to Ngunguru, and beyond that he was interested in Te Araroa's project. Te Wairoa Trust owned 160 acres of the valley, and the trustees were the sort of people who liked walking.

"I feel like we'd be interested in helping a national track along, but I'd have to take it to a meeting of the four trustees before taking it further."

In particular, said Edgar, the Te Wairoa farm gave access to a DOC-run Soda Springs reserve, that was presently little used and could be knitted into the trail...

"We had a German come through here - some sort of physicist who was analyzing New Zealand natural springs. He tested the water - it was kind of a rich brew, very good for you. And the story goes that Maori women and kids used to shelter there when there was a war - it was a kind of safe place."

Edgar penned me a map of how to get to the springs.

"Up the fenceline here, look out for a big Puriri, and then there's a stile to get you over the lekis."

"Over the Lekis!"

"The electric fencewires, then the bush trail is marked."

Soda Spring
Soda Spring

A spring was just the kind of stop to make a trail interesting. I found it next morning, a big white silica dome in the bush. I drank the refreshingly effervescent soda water then retraced my steps a few hundred metres to the Greenpeace trail, and followed it through to Ngunguru.

A man wearing a boating cap was chewing the fat with the driver of a fizz-boat over some problem on the Ngunguru Spit. The spit was a natural asset for Ngunguru, sheltering the estuary on the seaward side, and for decades had provided a wide sandy playground.

But just now the spit was a hot issue. A developer had purchased much of it. There was talk of someone employed by the owner chasing people off the privately-owned bit. The developer was talking about a subdivision.

"It's not right," said Boat Cap. "It belongs to the whole community. DOC should buy it - trouble is, DOC would leave it just as it is. I'd like to see pohutukawas planted right along there.

"No, subdivision isn't the right thing," said Boat Cap thoughfully. "Mind you - no-one should interfere with private property. You have to watch them. DOC, the Council, they can put so many restrictions on it that it becomes valueless, then they just buy it. He's got his rights, and if they took it off him - imagine the rates he's paying on that strip - all our rates would go up."

There was a confused pause, so I took the opportunity to ask the fizz-boat man if he could take me across to the spit.

"Sure - step in." Peter Raus and his craft Eze Going seemed quite pleased to get going, stern digging down, bow up, flat tack across the estuary. I walked to the base of the spit and onto Barney Mahunga's farm. I'd previously checked if I could come through, and explained Te Araroa, and I went up to the farmhouse to pay my respects.

Yes, Barney Mahunga still felt he'd be happy to have the trail mapped across his farm.

"The people who'd get in the way of something like that, they're just niggly buggers," said Mahunga. "I like it. I used to do a lot of that myself. Pig hunting in the forest. We used to ride the horses down that track you used from Whananaki North - all along there."

The spit ran straight off the Mahunga farm, and I asked him about it - it would surely have been Maori land once.

"Oh yes. It was a tapu place. We used to go there and camp as young fellas, but the old people said it was a tapu place. You'd be chasing rabbits and you'd come across a skeleton. The skeletons were always coming up - the wind would wipe away the sand, and there'd be another one. The old people said there'd been a big battle there, but I don't believe that. I think they just lived and died there."

"If it was a tapu place," I asked, "why was it sold?"

"They sold it in the 1930s," said Mahunga. "And I reckon the old people sold it to keep us off. They didn't like us going there at all."

I went on up the private road, that turned in Ngunguru Ford Road and connected with the Whangarei-Tutukaka Highway about 10 kilometres out from the city. I spotted the Batman ears of Bream Head on the horizon. I was getting close to my first city, and it was Te Araroa's plan not to avoid the cities but to pass right through them. I also figured that a roadwalk coming into a city was probably unavoidable. There'd be footpaths to keep you safe, and a chance to replenish, and I'd chosen this road in because it was extraordinary. I joined the highway's whooshing traffic at about the point where drystone walls began to edge the highway. They ran back over undulating farm landscapes. There was something about drystone walls. Drystone walls with cows standing just beyond them - charming. Drystone walls and puriri trees overshadowing them - perfect. Drystone walls and agapanthus - how satisfying. Drystone walls and ivy . . . well can anyone explain what it is about drystone walls?

I came across some workmen putting a drive entrance through one of the walls, carefully re-stacking the stone at each side, and asked the obvious.

"The Dallies made them," said one of the workmen. "way back in the 1930s."

"Or old Robert Johnson, he's still at it," said another. "He just lives up the road there."

Robert Johnson
Robert Johnson

When I called, Robert Johnson had just finished dinner with the former Hobson MP and Chairman of Committees in the Muldoon Government, Neil Austin. Austin was in a new house down the back of Robert Johnson's property, and Johnson was doing hands-on construction of the new stone walls curving down Austin's driveway, and the retaining wall for the haha in front of the house.

I went back to Johnson's house later, and heard the drystone story. The family was from Berkshire, then Oxford, in England. In the mid-1920s they'd arrived here to purchase a dairy farm, but Mrs Johnson hadn't liked the Cambridge one, preferring the rounded volcanic knolls of the Whangarei property.

Robert's 14-year-old heart sank. Mrs Johnson had the geomancer's right to choose the place that felt right for her, but the ground was covered with basalt rock, and it became Robert's job to clear it using an old Cletrac, and sometimes gelignite, stacking the stones into boundary fences.

"How many walls have I built? Well, perhaps not that many - it wasn't my main job - four or five miles at the most."

"I didn't learn to do it, I just bloody well did it. It's fairly obvious. The big stones at the bottom - the butt stones - then the fill, what the Scots call "hearting" but this is a fairly prosaic country, it's fill - then the walls. People forget there are two sides to a wall and you have to build both sides. The most difficult bit is the jamb at the end. It's three-sided, and each side has to be right, but then you keep putting aside the stones that will be right for the jamb as you're building towards it. It usually works out."

He knew his rock. It had spurted out of the Kiripaka fault. The first sheet came out quickly, so it was bubbled and convoluted with the quick release of gas. Good for the fill, good interlocking rock for the sides, and the heavier bits were good for the coping stones that sat on the top and held the wall down.

Then the volcanic fault had delivered a second spurt that came out under the first sill, and took longer to cool. It was dense and heavy and produced good butt stone. It could also be split and faced, useful for the jambs and for work more precise than the boundary fences on the farms.

Since giving up farming, Robert Johnson had taken up the wall building again. He was 87 and still at it, and the neighbourhood was dense with his work - not the long farm walls now so much as the garden grottoes, the ascending pergola mounds and a marriage celebrant's wall.

"It's so interesting you forget your woes, and I don't charge. That means if I have a disagreement, I can just walk away. People work with me and I can bully them if they make a mistake.

"It's what did you say? It's work that will last 1000 years? Well a macrocarpa tree in a high wind will move the ground so much the wall will just slump, and I don't believe that 1000-year stuff. I'll say this much: I said it once to a Brethren bloke who asked me why I didn't charge. "If you seek my reward, look around you." That was Christopher Wren's epitaph. I misquote it: I think it's "If you seek my memorial, look around you."

A H Reed Memorial Park

I left Robert Johnson, and walked on into Whangarei. Past the Whangarei Falls where the Maori kids were jumping from high up in a macrocarpa into the deep pool at the top of the waterfall. Then I went on down towards the city and diverted to find the A.H. Reed Memorial Kauri Park. Right there, putting the computer on the concrete pad that supports the the rock and a bronze plaque commemorating the family, I typed these words. And from that spot I sent this story. Remembering an earlier walker.