Kim Hill tunes in a bit of Te Araroa chaos

In Whangarei I bought a new collapsible water bottle, six extra tent pegs, and a second thermal T-shirt from Canoe and Camping. I sat down for a cup of espresso coffee - I mean, what are cities for? I set out for Whangarei Heads.

When planning the trail I'd been told that long-term the council would put a walking track out to the heads. There wasn't presently a track and the route required a bit of road-walking but I felt happy with it - there were footways tacked onto the bridges and a wide shoulder most of the way, esplanade strip along the beaches. It was a long way though, and I used the time to firm up the route ahead. I rang John Marple who ran a water taxi service across Whangarei Harbour's narrowest point, the 750-odd metres from Whangarei Heads to Marsden Point.

I explained I was on a Cape Reinga - Wellington walk. How much was his water taxi hire across the heads?

"The usual charge is $40," said Marple. "For you, it's $20.

"You'll climb Mt Manaia on your way through of course," said Marple, and the way he said it seemed like a condition of the $20 cheapo fare.

"Mt Manaia - okay," I said, and finished that day in a caravan park halfway out to the heads.

In the morning, I stared at Mt Manaia, 100 metres higher, for those who measure such things, than Auckland's Sky Tower. The whole of Bream Head is a scribble of volcanic violence, but even amidst that craggy bunch, Manaia stood out and was visible far out to sea. It had four high standing pillars, one of them tilted back halfway up its length as if about to swipe the others off the summit ridge. My guide book cited the myth of a long-ago chief in the act of bringing his mere down on a fleeing bunch. Frozen there forever.

An e-mail had come in from Graeme Acton, Kim Hill's producer on National Radio. The Kim Hill show had already picked up on the web site through its internet commentator, Paul Reynolds. Now they were suggesting an interview, and before leaving the caravan park, I rang Acton. I'd give myself an easy day, walk the 10 kilometres to Whangarei Heads, and climb Mt Manaia next morning. We could do the interview from there.

"Right 10.30 a.m." said Acton.

Four kilometres out from Whangarei Heads, a white dove flew across my path. I kept on, arriving finally around evening, at McLeod Bay. A couple of dogs charged up.

"Zeus! Kasha!" called a woman sitting at a beach table with a mobile phone standing upright there.

"They'll jump all over you," she called to me. "But it's okay."

"A lot of people see Staffies and think they're pit bulls," she said as I approached with bits of dog drool hanging off my shorts. "Well - they're totally friendly."

A couple of Collies came up the beach, and as if to prove their reputation for friendliness, the two Staffordshire terriers went off to leap and slaver over them.

"Rani's fine," the woman patted the poodle. "Sam here - he's a Shidsu terrier - he's the only one we have to watch."

Sam cocked an ear at that, then strolled into the open yard next door and went for the neighbour's dog. A full-scale dog fight erupted. Zeus and Kasha raced into the action, and despite their gentle reputation one of them was soon hanging off the ear of the unfortunate dog-next-door.

The big man with the open-necked shirt and the gold chain around his neck, swung into action with surprising speed. He jumped up from the table, strode across, grabbed hind-quarters and pulled. Teeth suddenly separated from flesh. The man staggered backwards hitting an aluminium launch on its trailer, and the whole thing swayed, but he'd broken up the fight.

"Brian Head," he introduced himself as things calmed down. "And Dianne."

The Heads
Brian and Dianne Head

I asked if there was a camping ground, and the Heads offered their back lawn. It was coming on to rain, and after a moment's thought, Brian Head offered the cabin cruiser drawn up on a trailer outside the house. I could sleep on a bunk in there.

We went indoors for a cup of tea. The phone rang.

"Yes Murray. Yes. Just keep practising and we'll reinforce you on Friday. 7.30 am is it? I'll phone at 6.15."

"It's your own body, Murray. You're the captain and whatever you tell it to do, it'll do. That's right. Your subconscious will monitor all the what's-its and rejection will be zero and you will recover in half the time."

"He has his operation Friday morning," said Head, hanging up the phone. "I will hypnotise him on the phone and put his body a calm state. I will zap him. I will say - Murray, sleep."

 

Brian Head advertised himself as a personal performance coach, a personal mentor, a hypno-motivation specialist. Sportspeople came to him. No, he couldn't mention all the names but they were big names. Certain names he could mention: Sandy Barwick the ultra-distance runner - when she was getting the bad hallucinations, the cobwebs and tunnels, it was Brian Head's tapes that brought her back again. Nik Burfoot, World Laser Champ in 1994.

Brian Head was into relaxation but that didn't mean sleeping in. He'd changed his own life firstly by a self-hypnotism technique that defeated his fits, then helped him sell cars, then flowered into a business as a one-to-one hypnotherapist.

"But that one-to-one was not leveraging my efforts to best effect," said Head. Dianne and I now do seminars. We help people to access at that sub conscious level and write new human software programmes for themselves. We're aiming at the corporate areas, particularly stress in business, and we have a lot of success with real estate people."

Brian Head had his boat, a beautiful house, an interest in classic cars, and a new Volvo with the personal number plate MIND, with the superscript above it "It's all in the -"

Dianne had a lush vegetable garden with a hydroponic adjunct, and white doves. Their method seemed based on a fairly simple sequence. First, relax: your body got to feel like a sack of - the phrase recurred in Head's self-hypnosis tapes when describing ultimately relaxed muscles - slack rubber bands. That got you through to alpha territory and on those rolling pastures you put up the new waysigns.

What about the million-year plutonic roots, the weather-blasted and jagged summits that stood all around this area? The main mountain hung over this house. Dianne flicked a gaze up at it and said: "Manaia - it's a very moody mountain."

John Marple
John Marple in front of Mt Manaia
 

At 8.30 next morning, I was up at the Whangarei Heads Primary School. John Marple was washing windows there. He'd been at the Heads 16 years. The Marples had come up for a holiday. They went back to Karori, then just quit. Didn't know why. This place simply called them. No jobs, they just came. Now he did everything. Water taxi skipper to get schoolkids to Bream Bay College. MAF inspector to see the anglers either side of the Heads didn't go over the finfish limits. He'd been the librarian of the primary school and organised the printing of the local history. Now he was the cleaner.

Manaia hung over the school too.

"It dominates the creative and artistic minds of Northland," said Marple. "When we first arrived, Maori wouldn't go past the mountain after nightfall. The spirits of the slain dwelled in the crags and Maori believed they came down at dusk. They used to plant crops in line with the mountain so the spirits wouldn't flatten the rows."

He gave me the local history book. I had time, so I sat down in the library and read a second explanation of those standing crags: Manaia was a tohunga. Maungakiekie, his wife was equally powerful in spiritual things. There were two daughters, a slave carrying a calabash. Dogs. The whole caravan was coming back from the Bay of Islands. Maungakiekie was quarreling with Manaia. It got ferocious. Enough! Freeze them.

I don't know that Mt Manaia is generally known in New Zealand, but it should be. Ngati Whatua and Ngapuhi have spiritual sway here and have put up at the entrance those sinuous unsymmetrical sculptures that seem so full of freaky wairua. No way this mountain could not be sacred. Could not be the place where you stood and fought against the raiders from Ruakaka across the harbour, or the place where you put your most powerful corpses. The kauri on the way up are huge and squat. Ropes of rata loop down. There are brink and chasm glimpses, and then the track settles down into a steep climb. I'd brought one of the Lekis. Reinhold Messmer made the claim that with two of these things you could move as surely as an animal, and I was doing as well as a three-legged goat, and then I heard a voice.

Somewhere up front. It had a strident edge, like a bird call, but it was human. A woman's voice. Just blank bush all about. It was a little like an hallucination. I actually stopped - I thought Maungakiekie. The track zigzagged, and as I came up the zig, she stood on the zag, looking down on me. Two small but powerful dogs were straining towards me on twisted leashes.

"You're going to the top?" she said.

"Yes."

"You've got to use the ropes," she said.

"Really?" No-one had told me about the ropes. It gave an added urgency to get to the top. Hang on Kim I'll just cinch this rope and I'm with you.

"I can't stop," I said. "I've got a radio interview to do from the summit in a little while."

"Yes. You can do a radio interview with me. I know this mountain."

"No," I said. "I'm doing the interview. It's me they want to interview."

That seemed a bit abrupt. "I've got to go," I said, "but I'm carrying plenty of water and I'll give your dogs a drink at the top."

I went along the ridge. 10.15 am and I hadn't struck the ropes yet, but I needn't have worried. A picnic table stood there, and a DOC sign that said "Summit." Wooden steps led to a small platform and an adjacent bit of level rock edged with clingy vegetation. Not a lot of room, and nor was it the summit. The last bit of rock was vertical with no obvious way up, but I didn't investigate further. No-one but a Dingle would want to go on. I laid out two mobiles.

Acton rang and we arranged to keep both phones open.

"Once you're live with Kim," said Acton. "Stand still. Otherwise you can break the contact.

A distant voice on the path was getting closer, scolding

"You shouldn't do that. I told you not to do that."

Coming closer.

"You want a hiding? I'll give you a good hiding."

I waited.

The dogs were first onto that narrow platform. The woman right behind them.

"Are you going to the top?"

"No."

"Why not?"

"Hello Geoff -"

Kim Hill came on, and we lost contact immediately. I picked up the second phone. National Radio had plugged the gap with Little Richard laying down a bit of early rock and roll.

I waited.

The woman stood off about five metres, looking at me. She produced a huge pair of binoculars. The clouds had parted briefly.

"That's Ocean Beach," she said. Chatty.

Things were tenuous. I needed to concentrate. Every journalist knows the power is in the detail. Kim Hill would ask me to describe the view. I would be as particular as a royal commentator: Yes Kim, I can see the Queen coming up the path now. She's wearing a Norman Hartnell powder blue dress with that link-chain handbag and the diamond chip clasp . . .

"Ocean Beach," I said. "Uh-huh."

"Hello Geoff."

"Yes - Kim. Little Richard - I love him."

I was on air. "Tell me - well tell me," said Kim Hill, "about the top of Mt Manaia."

View from Mt Manaia
View from Mt Manaia

She was standing there, windblown in Indian cotton. A flowy black-and-white patterned dress, with a long russet scarf. The scarf fell away and I saw with shock that her left arm ended at the wrist. She was watching me: the eyes Kim, those little quizzy muscles around the eyes, tohunga eyes.

"The top of Mt Manaia has clouds whipping past at about 20 knots," I said.

"I can hear the clouds," said Kim.

The clouds parted on a few skerricks of detail. Oil tanks.

"I can see part of the trail I have to go ahead on, and that's down Bream Bay, past the

Marsden Point oil refinery," I said, "and I can see the direction I've come from . . ." I turned my head. Blankness. Whiteness. Nothing. " . . . it's kind of cloudy."

Oh great Geoffrey - terrific. I was having trouble concentrating. The woman was muttering at me, gesticulating at me. I couldn't pick what she was saying, didn't want to pick what she was saying. I made a mistake right then: I gave her that little downward ratcheting of the hand - the producer's quiet please signal.

"I was reading some of your despatches on the Internet this morning," said Kim, "and it makes one immediately want to -"

The woman lost patience. She suddenly shouted, loud enough to go out live on National Radio.

"YOU PROMISED TO GIVE ME A DRINK OF WATER!"

"Yeah - okay."

Break the link or not, I stooped for the water bottle, walked across, gave it to her.

"Who's with you Geoff?" enquired Kim Hill sweetly, "on the mountain?"

"It's just someone I met on the trail."

"It's nice to make friends on top of mountains isn't it?" said Kim.

The woman upended the bottle. The Platypus water bottle is collapsible, just a tough plastic bladder, and you can squeeze it into whatever space is left in your pack, but it isn't a good item if you've only got one hand. Holding it to her mouth. Trying to steady the squashy thing with that stump. The dogs weren't getting a look in. The water was pouring over the woman's mouth, over her face, her clothes.

She came towards me, glaring. She emptied the rest of the water onto the ground at my feet.

"I was reading some of the stuff you're putting on the Internet," Kim repeated, "and it makes me want to do it, it sounds fabulous."

"Yeah it is good, it is good." I was on the balls of my feet. My body was as tense as a sackful of tightly wound rubber bands.

The woman threw the bottle at me, and it fell at my feet empty, eddying in the wind. She pulled the dogs to heel and the whole chariot tugged its way to the top of the steps and disappeared.

Whack! Whack! Whack!

Someone began to hit the wooden hand- rail, or the picnic table below.

"Wow!" I said in dumb wonder. "Someone's beating something."

"Ahah!" said Kim.

"I just had a woman come up here, quite cantankerous with her dogs, and she demanded a drink of water," I said. "I just got abused for not quickly giving her a drink of water which I promised for her dogs."

"If you play your cards right, she'll walk the rest of the way with you," said Kim.

"Uh - no-o-o-o- ," I said. The beating sounds had stopped. My relief was palpable. "She has gone."

The interview went on another ten minutes then Kim Hill closed it up "I hope we'll catch up with you later en route - Geoff Chapple, and Te Araroa, the long pathway."

Two young women had arrived. They sat on the edge of the platform, and smiled. I shut down the phones. There we all had been. I'd been in charge of the calabash, and we'd quarreled. How close had we gone to that threshold when powers greater than yourself get pissed off? How close to being turned to stone? I'm not an arrogant man. I don't believe that, come the transubstantiation, I'll necessarily make a pillar tall enough to be seen at sea, but something about the size of a birdbath, definitely. Big enough anyway for the future mother-and-daughter hikers onto Mt Manaia to speculate on:

"Mummy - if that one's the woman who got angry, then this must be the man who didn't give her the water quickly enough, but what's that lump on his head?"

"That was his cellphone darling - you see he was busy talking to the nation about the mountain and he was ignoring his only human companion who knew more about the mountain than he did, so I think that's another reason why she got so angry."

"Okay - and what's this jaggedy bit sticking out?"

"That? Well according to the legend darling, that's his Leki stick"