Te Araroa walks with a crowd, revisits chaos, crosses a swamp, and learns a lesson from the Trans Canada Trail - how to beg for money

Runners

Three runners go past us at the base of the dune, then stop, climb the flank of it, proffer Bob Harvey their camera and ask him to take a photograph.

This is a complex moment. I sprint to a vantage point beyond the runners and take a photo of the photo being shot. I am pleased with this picture. It has stark lines, depth, and clarity. Its rising dune makes a natural centre of its subject, the Waitakere City mayor. Yet, it has an air of strangeness. The mayor is bonded to the group by the very act of photographing it, but he is not one of them. The men are shining with sweat. The photo's power derives from its impervious surfaces, and I hesitate to break those surfaces by too much description - this is how we got here, this is what happened next. Hesitate to make of it a movie instead of a still. For the moment just let it stand, glowing, the sun and long shadows of a west coast morning eternally present, and entitle it only:Te Araroa: The Runners.

There has been a lot of strangeness lately. Three days before, as librettist for the Alley opera, I'd stood on the State Opera House stage in Wellington with Jack Body while the applause washed down from the blackness. Strangeness - the rag doll bow, falling forward from the waist, arms limp, hands brushing the stage. Finding then my hand grasped, held aloft in triumph and - I looked around - it was Yen Wang himself, Chinese God of Death, who held it, his face shining white, his eyes sparkling black, saying: It is okay Geoff, it is okay, it is very very good. These are not normal times.

Abnormal times. From this pinnacle I'd come back to Auckland, arms stiff, earmuffs on, holding the mower steady as I ground up and down the 14th lawn that day. I was mowing suburban lawns to bring in a bit of quick money. The boots were spattered with chlorophyll, and the macerated ordure of dogs.

But back to the maps. Back to Te Araroa. Back to the newly beeswaxed boots. Back to getting permissions. My God! I hope Tranz Rail - the former New Zealand Railways, now owned by Wisconsin Central Transportation Corporation, but doing its business on New Zealand land - is not going to get in the way.

Auckland map

Te Araroa's plan offers a loop track around Auckland, and therefore a choice for getting through the metropolis. Choice one: down the North Shore City Council's East Coast Bays walk, coming through on the Devonport ferry to Auckland City's Coast-to-Coast walk to Onehunga and so into Manukau City.

Choice two: Crossing the top of Auckland along North Shore City's proposed green belt to Paremoremo Reserve, walking through the Riverhead Forest to Kumeu, then down the rail corridor to Waitakere township. From there, the track enters Waitakere City, meets the network of tracks in the Waitakere Ranges to link with the west coast before following Auckland City's Manukau Harbour walk to Manukau City.

You are an east coast person, or you are a west coast person - choose. I was raised in the Waitakere Ranges. I had no choice.

Two permissions were needed to do the western route. I rang Carter Holt Harvey for permission to walk the Riverhead Forest, and got it. Then I rang Tranz Rail's head office to seek permission for the rail-line walk. I'd held out some hope on this. When designing the North Island trail I'd proposed that the rail corridor between Mercer and Te Kauwhata, bisecting as it does the second largest wetland in the North Island, Whangamarino, would make a good route if we could get the sponsorship to put in a safe walking trail.

Tranz Rail said no - the corridor was too narrow. But a letter from its Corporate Relations Manager, Fred Cockram, seemed to hold out some hope for Tranz Rail's co-operation elsewhere. It invited our trust to identify sections of the rail corridor where there was an access road or a foot track, in which case, "where no more appropriate route for the trail could be found, Tranz Rail is prepared to consider ways in which access could be provided. Under no circumstances could we consider access where it would be necessary for people to walk on the track or ballast. We could not allow the trail to cross bridges unless those bridges had a designated footpath."

Fair enough. But as Te Araroa's forward scout on this western route through Auckland, and knowing as I did that the rail corridor Kumeu-Waitakere is wide and fairly straight, I expected to wangle permission.

This was my mood when I contacted Fred Cockram again. I sought permission to walk it. I would, I said, make very clear in any subsequent writing that such a walk was to reconnoitre only, and should not be attempted by the public until a proper trail might be laid.

Cockram was less encouraging this time. The company's attitude had, he said, hardened up since his letter, but he'd put the matter in front of the relevant people.

Phillip Murray the manager of rail operations in Auckland rang back a few days later to say no.

"It sounds nice, but it's not a good idea," said Murray. "I manage about 70-odd drivers here and the number of people walking on the track worries them. We spend hours out at West Auckland schools telling the kids to stay off the track."

I rang Dan Cameron, acting chief executive of the New Zealand Railways Corporation that owns the rail corridor and leases it to Tranz Rail on a 40-year term. He confirmed Tranz Rail had the right to prohibit people from the corridor as it presently existed, and also to decide whether a future walking track, properly separated, could use the corridor."It's completely and utterly Tranz Rail's call."

Well, put all that on the back burner for the moment. Let's turn instead to Auckland. There are few countries in the world that have a third of their population packed into the one metropolis. Reykjavik, the capital of Iceland, is one, but the concentration there is explicable - extensive hot springs exist in the city, while outside of it there's nothing but black volcanic plateaux, ice and snow. The reasons for Auckland's magnetic effect on a population that inhabits a lush and productive country is less clear: the need for the denizens of any isolated land mass to form a significant crowd?

Whatever, there are people everywhere here, and cars, but also green belts through the cities and through walks. Te Araroa has used those, and the trails in the big regional parks.

I found myself walking now, in this populous place, with friends. Starting from Okura Estuary, Miriam and I picked up the trail at Lonely Track Road, and followed, as closely as is presently possible, North Shore City's proposed green belt on the northern margin of the city. That led through Albany, and down Lucas Creek where the council presently has reserve strip most of the necessary distance. The creek was not yet walkable, so we came up the road parallel to it, then down past the jail, to Paremoremo Reserve.

Robin Callard

There, Robin Callard joined us. He is an old friend, who'd come out from England to attend the opening of the Alley opera and to see his family. By a slightly bizarre chance he was staying for the last two days of his visit at his sister's house - just a few hundred metres from Te Araroa's trail - and we walked on through Riverhead Forest together to Kumeu.

Next day, Callard and I set out together from there. Our friendship goes back to 1971, through correspondence chess games, letters, more lately e-mails on the trail, and there was plenty to talk about.

"So," I enquired after some hours, after the talk had drifted over mutual friends, English law on footpaths, his two marriages, my one, and after I'd thought how satisfactory a long walk is, allowing time for conversation, for thought, and for airing any topic, "what's going on at the office?"

"I think I was talking to you when we did Ball Pass," said Callard, "about chaos theory."

I remembered that crossing of Mt Cook's flank. It was 1993, the last time we'd walked together. We'd hit the Ball Pass snow-line just as a blizzard began, and a playful gust of wind had blown away our map. Neither of us knew the terrain, and though we were well equipped, it had been a hard traverse.

I remembered chaos. The weather. Even away from the ridges, the fierce wind turned our dome tent into a continually heaving silver jelly. Chaos theory suggested some systems were so complex they were intrinsically unpredictable. A favourite example of chaos theory had been the impossibility of ruling out, in seeking the cause of a hurricane, the influence of a butterfly landing on a tower in Tokyo.

Callard was a scientist. He'd won a Nuffield Fellowship to London, and gained some scientific notice by becoming the first person to get a full antibody response, in vitro, with tissue culture. He was now a professor at the Institute of Child Health, part of the University College of London, specialising in human immunology.

What was going on at the office? He'd been kicking ahead the latest incarnation of chaos theory - the so-called non linear dynamics. He spent the next hour explaining it - the same problem, complexity that beggared exact prediction, but more sophisticated in its solutions now, using mathematical modelling. As we reached the bush he gestured at the mass of Waitakere green.

"Think of the non-linear interactions going on out there."

I thought, I quailed.

"Do you wish," said Callard as we entered the Waitakere Parkland near where Miriam and I come every year at dusk to spot the native long-tailed bat "you hadn't asked what was going on at the office?"

I picked up the trail next day from Anawhata, walked through to Piha, and met another old friend at the top of Piha Hill.

Des Dubbelt

Des Dubbelt, now aged in his 70s, former editor of Playdate magazine, is a fit and keen walker, and it was a great pleasure to sit down, drink tea from his Thermos, and devour more than my share of the bran biscuits and apricot squares he'd packed. Des loves both books and music and was an early influence on my life.

He'd been following the web stories, even hauling out the atlas to follow exact routes. He was also ready to make stylistic comparisons between Geoff Chapple, Jonathan Raban, and Paul Theroux. He's always been good like that, and I'd like to say, though no-one ever hears him because he's musically hermetic - that he's also an accomplished classical pianist. We walked and talked out way down the bush trails to Karekare.

Next morning was a Sunday and I arrived at Bob Harvey's Karekare bach for a solid breakfast of eggs, bacon, baked beans, toast and jam, and cups of tea. Big feed right? We thought we might get as far as Titirangi, via Whatipu and Huia.

"Are you taking water Bob?" I asked seeing an obvious gap as he packed his kete. "No," said the Mayor of Waitakere City proudly. "I'll drink from the streams - they're giardia-free."

We came up to the surf club. The club's annual swim around Paratahi Island 750 metres out from the beach, had been staged just yesterday. The swim was always tense, the IRBs on full alert, for the swells that continually massage the sides of the saw-toothed volcanic remnant are big, and the surrounding currents dangerous.

"Good party!" called Harvey to a small group out sunning themselves on the surf club deck. Released after the tensions of the Paratahi swim, the surf club had roared on into a boozy west coast night.

"It was a great party," confided Harvey, waving at the group. "I'm glad the Lady Mayoress was not in attendance last night, she would have led me away by the ear."

The clubbies waved back at their surfie emeritus, called greetings, and the mayor ambled on over the black sand, defining himself:

"I'm so old, I'm legendary. I'm 57. To have patrolled one beach for 43 of those years, to have taken on every job from club captain to club-house janitor is probably somewhat stupid. And every year there's the Paratahi swim. It's no shame to say you're not going to do it this year, but you do. It's a test. Some of us are crazy for a month beforehand. The thing looms in your imagination and your fear. I nearly died last year - the waves were just bloody massive."

"Yesterday? I got into a rip and went south into what is called The Wasteland - the strip between Karekare and Whatipu. I came ashore, to be honest, a bit stuffed but alive. I'd done the island."

Harvey has always invested Waitakere's west coast with magnitude. He has surfed it, written about it, even retreated to it with a sleeping bag after those overseas trips with their exhausting mayoral schedules, reviving himself with a night of surf sounds and the Southern Cross.

His enthusiasm for this coast is boundless. As we rounded the headland he pointed out the clifftop ahead. There, on a clear day, you could pick up the dot of snow that was Mt Taranaki shining above a sea horizon.

At the base of that cliff was a field of reeds.

"I'm not into crystal gazing, or the men in dark suits, but I believe this is where a flying saucer landed," he said. "These reeds were pressed down flat in a 20 metre circle. That was in 1990. They were interwoven. They were absolutely flat, and they stayed down, as if they'd been under a 1000-tonne commercial press. You could try to lift one reed off another and you couldn't make an impression. Clubbies are not superstitious, but everyone who came here knew it was very strange. It was like ten elephants had come and rolled in a circle. Twenty elephants."

We came through a tunnel cut into rock - part of the old railway that hauled kauri along the foreshore - and Harvey pointed right.

"That old boiler. Abandoned. Apparently it was too big to go through - but I think they were after the insurance."

We walked on. The runners caught us, stopped and posed for their photograph, and then we entered the swamp. There are two ways to Whatipu. The long way round is to stay on the beach. The short route is a trail through the huge wetland that has collected between the cliffs and the beach.

"This is the trail," said Harvey. Then a little later: "This was the trail but we've had rain. I can no longer see the trail."

The supposed track deepened into what seemed like a main channel, and we branched away sideways into the reeds. All the delights of the swamp gathered to greet us. Thick slime, heated by the sun, slid hot past our thighs, uneven channels underfoot caused us to sink and stumble, reeds grew so tall that frequently I could see no more of the mayor -just 15 metres in front and still graciously providing leadership - than his head.

But look - he was having fun. The swamp weed sometimes grew so dense that you could walk on it. These mats of floating vegetation, so thick that Lake Titicaca itself would be proud to have them, allowed you to spring pneumatically forward, apparently no more than ankle deep.

"I am walking on water, I am walking on water," cried Harvey throwing his hands up in hallelujah mode as he progressed across these bits.

The weed slowly thinned and gave way.

"I have lost the faith! I have lost the faith," cried the mayor of Waitakere sinking slowly back to a waist-deep wade. We finally splashed our way through to dry sand, and collapsed. Giardia-free or not, you wouldn't drink what we'd just come through, and Harvey quenched himself from my water-bottle.

Bob Harvey - Mayor of Waitakere

We made Whatipu hours later than we'd planned, called in to the Whatipu Lodge for a cup of coffee, then set off up the Omanawanui Bush Track. The views out onto the Manukau bar are spectacular, and Harvey, as usual, was full of relevant stories, in this case, the wreck of the Orpheus on the Manukau Bar in 1863 - "The wrong charts - an early Erebus."

I'd always been curious about a swim he'd done across the mouth of Manukau Harbour in the 1980s, and asked him about it.

"We started from that beach over there" - he pointed across. The mouth was barely three kilometres wide and immense tonnages of tidal water squeezed through the gap, filling or emptying the great harbour beyond.

"We were swept out, then the tide turned in the middle of the swim, and it was like a massive underwater eggbeater. We were above it, but underneath there was a feeling like the biggest turbines in the world were turning. We were part of it, then released, and borne onto the beach down there."

Just before Huia, the mayor cribbed the last of my water to slake the thirst of his dog, then was taken off by car to catch the Elton John-Billy Joel concert. I kept walking.

Doug Campbell

In the cities, rendezvous were easier to arrange, and my next companion was Doug Campbell. Campbell is Canadian, one of the foundation committee that got the Bruce Trail - a 780 km track along the Niagara Escarpment - established. Then he turned his attention, in the 1970s, to a national hiking trail. It would go coast to coast, 10,000 km of it. He became secretary of the National Trail Association of Canada, an organisation that has, to date, signed about 1,800 km of trail.

As we set off he showed me the literature for his group's own National Trail, but also the glossier publication on a project that could be seen as a rival, the Trans Canada trail.

"Trans Canada's idea is a multi-use trail: hiking, biking, horse-riding, and in places snow-mobiles. Look at the sponsors!" He spread out the newsletter "Chrysler. Canadian Airlines. TSN, the sports channel. They are putting millions into promotion, television commercials and that kind of thing."

The Trans Canada trail already had a route - unused railway corridors - across two of Canada's 10 provinces. It was also negotiating - Tranz Rail please note - rail corridors that were already in use.

The Trans Canada Trail had been going only a few years, born from the same group of can-do entrepreneurs that got the Montreal Olympics financed. One of their bright ideas was to sell metres of track for $36 each. Contributors were given a certificate and a promise that their name - or the name of a nominee - would be inscribed within the planned trail-side shelters.

"They have raised by that method alone well over a million dollars," said Campbell. "They've got the money, they've got the big sponsors. They will get across Canada first."

I asked if the two trails organisations had done any talking.

"We have," said Campbell. "In the west we are starting to converge, but in places where our trail is established they have chosen to go by a different route, which is a little tough. But I support both trails."

We walked and talked on through the Panto, the Parau, and the Pipeline tracks before gaining Exhibition Drive, a flat road into Titirangi, closed to vehicles, and, as the evening drew in, convivially filled with people cycling, jogging, or out walking the dog.

I touched a pole outside Lopdell House in Titirangi to mark the spot of my next beginning, said goodbye to Doug Campbell and, since this was still Auckland, drove home. The Trans Canada Trail had given me an idea. The money that had kept me going on Te Araroa - about $180 per week - had now run out, yet I still had a good three months of trail exploration and writing to complete.

More lawn-mowing to get together the readies? A binge on Scratch Kiwi and Lotto tickets? The Sky Tower casino? A balaclava and a bank? There was a certain amount of desperation in this. If any reader feels moved, a cheque made out to Te Araroa Trust, with a note to specify it should go to G. Chapple, and posted to Te Araroa Trust, PO Box 5106, Wellesley Street, Auckland, New Zealand, would help keep the walk, and its regular reports rolling. Receipts will be issued.

Okay gang - how about it?