Farmers host Te Araroa, the river speaks, and the Mayor of Hamilton takes a spin in her Morgan

I climbed down from the bridge and was stopped by a seven-wire fence. The third wire down was electric, held proud of the fence-posts by insulation, and the fence was without gates.

The worst that can happen with an electric fence is that your leg gets jammed, slipping down through the wires. Unable then to escape, you stand there jerking with 4000-volt pulses like some soldier caught in machine gun fire. When I'd talked by phone to farmer Tony Fothergill, he'd told me the fence was difficult, and tipped me off on how to cross it.

A solitary willow grew there, and I used it to lever myself over the fence and drop down. I was back on the stopbanks, but the river had disappeared.

Down by the water was no solitary tree, but a slum corridor of willow by the thousand, slime-hung, root-matted, rotten and fecund all at once. The trees crawled one over another as they broke upwards from the bog, then spread their dense wickerwork of branches. The Waikato was somewhere in behind that.

In the 1800s the buttressed trunks of the kahikatea forests, New Zealand's lowland swamp tree, colonnaded the Waikato riverbanks.

After the confiscations of the 1860s war, the logging began, also the flax industry. Steam haulers with glowing fireboxes crawled along the river banks on rails laid upon imported willow sleepers. The kahikatea fell to the saws, the flax to the reaphooks, the traction engines bore it all away, and sparks flew. Fires burned out what was left. The Waikato River banks were bare, black, abandoned. The imported sleepers sprouted.

Lines of this regular sleeper willow took root, but the new farmers were planting it too. Grey willow, crack willow, it was fast-growing and the banks were eroding. The willow had no competition. It produced its little silky catkins, the river bore the seed downstream, and the Waikato River banks became, for the new coloniser, not so much a niche as a highway of expansion.

I could see the willow, I just couldn't see the river, but I was happy enough. I had a through-route down this stopbank all the way to Huntly. Ten farmers grazed this western bank of the Waikato: the Fothergills, the Becketts, the McBrides, the Andersons, the Kers, the Camerons who had a grazing licence on the stopbanks like the others but also 10-acres of freehold stretching right to the river, the Hills, the Laings, the Becketts, the Welchs. I'd contacted all the farmers and it was a go. It was a green. Hell, it was an orange. The markers that signal walkway routes on rural land are usually orange, and now, as I picked my way over the electrics, and through the cows, I could occasionally see, sticking up 15 kilometres away, the big orange markers that would lead me through. I was on a mission from God, and these were the kind of guidance markers He had plonked on the land. Only the pedestrian among you would call them the chimney tops of the Huntly thermal power station.

Rain clouds were piling up as I came up to the pigsty. A big porker - Napoleon? - rested its front trotters on the concrete surround to watch me close the gate on the boundary of Kariri Farms. Whack ,whack, whack. It wasn't Napoleon making that din. A second figure unfolded itself above the pen surround holding a cold chisel and a hammer. This was the first farm I'd struck where the landholder actually watched me arrive on his land. He just stared - from a distance it seemed like a bad look - and I diverted across.

"Hi ! " I said brightly. "Geoff Chapple."

Peter Anderson
Peter Anderson

"Peter Anderson." He held out a calloused mitt, the handshake was strong, and he stood there waiting. I was on his land. It was my call.

"I don't know whether I've talked to you on the phone, Peter. About a week ago, I rang all the farmers on this strip. I'm walking through off-road from Cape Reinga."

"I was waiting to see if you'd turn back once you saw me. But I do remember that. You spoke to my wife, Peggy."

"That's right," I began to spiel. "We're testing the route for a national foot trail, and we're pretty determined the Waikato -" I cast my hand towards the blanketing screen of willow - "should be part of it."

Anderson visibly warmed. "That's a very good idea," he said. "I'm right into blimmin tourism. Anything to do with tourism is magic."

If you could wheel this guy up to the Cabinet Sub-Committee-To-Decide-If-Te-Araroa's-Crazy-Plan-Has-Any-Shred-Of-Substance, he'd have been your star witness. His enthusiasm threatened to overtake my own.

"Never mind Queenstown," said Anderson, gesturing out to the land - "get them out here to see all the nitty gritty bits."

The man was a born spruker, and I found myself backtracking to suggest difficulties.

"The bulls might be a worry." I said, explaining I'd just been past the first bull that had scared me. He'd seen me coming. His legs had stiffened, his back had arched slightly. I'd diverted to the fence-line and wondered at my chances, pack-laden, of throwing myself over the wire.

"Was he black and white?" asked Anderson.

"Uh huh."

"Okay. The black and white ones you don't worry about. They've all been bucket fed. They're hand-reared. They're used to people. They won't charge you."

Anderson talked. Farmers, after that first taciturn silence, like to talk. This is something Te Araroa has taught me. Farmers milk the cows, they spread the lime, they have trampled out the vintage, so to speak, for years, and they're wise about the land and its animals. But there is no communal centre to New Zealand's quasi-industrial farms, nowhere to share, and out here, where the magpies eternally quardle-oodle-ardle-wardle-doodle in the willow, where the cows low, and the silences extend, you could get both isolated and bored.

Rain began to spatter down.

"Where are you staying tonight?"

I shrugged, and Anderson invited me back to the farmhouse. "You can meet my wife," he said, and something in his voice told me he was proud of her.

Peg was boiling up a pot of barley for the pigs. Peter had been enlarging a drainage hole in the old pen when I arrived, but they were Peg's pigs, 10 sows and 44 piglets, and they were well-fed, clean pigs. Peg reckoned she might turn a profit from them - but only just- and I had the feeling they were close to pets.

The Andersons had bought the adjoining dairy farm a few years back. The interest rates went up, and the new farm took longer than expected to bring into production. At the very time the Andersons had hoped to settle back in style, they'd found themselves fighting a big debt.

"Forget the pigs," said Peg. " If it hadn't been for the farm-stays, we'd have been in trouble."

If there were financial fish-hooks in farming, if isolation set in, and boredom, the Andersons had solved it all by inviting the world to stay. They'd done that for the last 12 years, and the lamp above the table was hung with Japanese good luck charms. Their visitors put a coin into a lucky jar, and it was crammed with world currencies. There was even a paper Singapore dollar note. The unheralded Singaporean who'd signed it as a souvenir of his visit indicated, as he waved the ink dry, that his signature was identical to the official Singapore Minister of Finance's signature on the note. He was on a retirement holiday and said little, aside from the memorable phrase at dinner: "I know what's wrong with your country, and I know how to fix it." Neither Peter nor Peg remembered what came after that.

There were photos. There was the visitor's book:

"I had a wonderful experiences, milking, ridding horse."

              "I love Peter and Peg
              I love New Zealand
              I love ice cream."

As we talked, Peg switched smoothly from fixing the pigs' fodder to fixing Peter and me. It arrived, this vast farm meal, beautifully presented on a dumb-waiter, and we dished ourselves homekill steak from a bowl of gravy, mashed potato, carrots, peas, bread, butter, then fell upon the fruit and ice-cream that followed.

When I awoke next morning, Peter was already gone to Auckland to get a new stub axle for the tractor, and as I was leaving, Peg showed me the 1000 cranes that hung in the sitting room, an attractor of luck, peace, all the good things. The tiny red origami cranes, threaded in five tightly packed strands, had arrived by post from a befriended Japanese teacher and her class on the same day Peter had gone to hospital for a bypass operation. Peter was still in his room, pre-op, when Peggy burst in and hung there the ultimate talisman. A good recovery followed. Tourism, as they say, is magic, and Peg farewelled me with her own transmissions, arms outstretched, hands vibrating haka-style: "This trail will happen," she intoned like Dr Mesmer as I backed away down the drive. "This trail will happen. Keep focused. Keep hold of it."

Huntly Power Station
Huntly Power Station
Waikato River from Hakarimata
Waikato River from Hakarimata

I neared the Huntly power station and followed the slurry pipes in. I walked through the Maori state-house suburb of Huntly West, and called in on the offices of the Maori Queen, Dame Te Atairangikaahu, in Parry Street. The Queen was out of the country - in Hawaii - but I left with her secretary a bound copy of Te Araroa's 44-page blueprint for the trail.

I met with the Tainui research team that was preparing a claim for the Waikato River. It's not generally known, but the Tainui Settlement of 1995 dealt only with recompense for confiscated land. The river claim was separated out, and has still to be put forward and resolved.

Wai(water) kato(flowing): to Tainui Maori the river also has wairua - the second water of the spirit - and Tainui kaumatua ritually send their people down to the river if their spirits fall, if they are ill or about to embark on a journey. How, I asked, would the claim, for the river - the river in its entirety, its bed, its banks and swamps and tributaries - resolve? No-one knew. A settlement with a dollar value? - unlikely. Some kind of guardianship? - more likely.

Next day I walked out along River Road to the walkway up the Hakarimata Range and reached the highest point of my river journey. I could hear the thin whistle of Highway One far below, and see the Waikato stretching into a hazy distance. The sublime river: I thought of a conversation I'd had years back, with a lawyer friend who'd been involved in the Treaty claims process. We'd discussed those physical features of a land that people intuitively recognise are outside the property markets: the mountains, the rivers, the lakes.

The claims process, the legal eagle said, had brought the nation face to face with a big problem. New Zealand might need to evolve law that would satisfy both Maori claims to the taonga, and the Pakeha's own sense of their spirituality, these pieces of the sublime, and their common ownership.

"What if the river, the mountain, the lake had a voice?" my legal friend had said. "What if each had a fund set aside to enable them to speak? Then we would do away with the self-interest of any one group. The river, the mountain, the lake, whatever, would employ a QC to speak purely of its own best interest."

It was a nice idea. I sat on the Hakarimata tops, and heard at least one of the Waikato's requests - Get the willow off my banks."

I descended on a steep root-bound track five hours later into Ngaruawahia, and booked a motel. I phoned ahead to Hamilton.

"Margaret? Geoff Chapple. You remember Te Araroa?"

"Ah. I've got good news for you. Angus Macdonald, John Hewitt and I are combining on this. The three mayors and their chief executives are now meeting regularly on the projects that cross our territorial boundaries. Heritage - we're building up a joint database - heritage buildings, heritage land, the kahikatea stands and so on. And the second major joint project is the walkway. The walkway - okay? We should talk about it."

Margaret Evans, Mayor of Hamilton, was a dynamo. She'd taken Te Araroa under her wing and now she offered to feed me too. As I hung up, I had an invitation to a dinner party the next night . Her mother Daphne Gibson was staying with her over Easter, and she'd invited also a couple of friends.

I river-walked part of the banks in front of Turangawaewae Marae, then the adjoining land where I asked permission from the high-born Mata Apiata, then the frontage of a chicken farm. But beyond that, the fences were built to keep you out. I diverted back to River Road. I wasn't too concerned about this section of the trail. I'd talked to the Waikato District Council about it. They were confident that with subdivision the land would yield a continuous Reserve strip within 5-8 years, bringing public access downriver from Ngaruawahia through to Hamilton City.

River mansion

I walked River Road. The council was right about subdivision. "Very special lifestyle opportunities " were on offer at River's Edge Estate, or Pennell Developments, and where river-frontage land hadn't been grabbed in whole farm-sized lots by developers, individual homesteaders filled in the gaps with what you'd have to call mansions.

I reached Hamilton. I have had a jaundiced, crim's-eye view of the city. I was once in holding cells at the Hamilton Central Police Station. I was once convicted of disorderly behaviour in the Hamilton District Court. These things were political - fallout from the big anti-apartheid protest of 1981 - but they have been personal too. Even ten years after the protest, I'd had a Hamilton man take me by the throat when he found out I'd helped stop, with other on-field protesters, the Springbok v Waikato game of July 22, 1981. The approach to the city through industrial estates strung out along Highway One does not endear a visitor to the city either, and I've always found it - well - flat.

But Hamilton, as I approached down the river through the northernmost suburb of Flagstaff was eye-catchingly lovely. I crossed the bridge at Flagstaff, and the city's cobbled river walkway that began there had a Platonic perfection. The householders had adopted that American habit of running their lawns or gardens seamlessly onto the public domain. The sections here were without fences to delineate where private land ended and walkway land began - the flower gardens, low rock walls, and manicured lawns were as open to the gaze of the promenading citizen as they were to the people who owned them. On the river side of the walkway grassy banks ran on down to the water. I talked to a householder out gardening beside the path, and she pointed to the river bank she'd personally cleared, even down to removing the willow.

"We've done our bit, and a lot of other people have done the same."

Waipa Delta paddlesteamer
The Waipa Delta paddlesteamer

At its riverside the city had - citizenship. The pathway wasn't yet continuous though, and I walked across the golf course before picking up the path again and hearing a commotion coming upriver. The Waipa Delta churned past. Evening was falling as I made it to the centre of town. It was time for my dinner party.

Daphne entertained me when I arrived. She'd been a yoga teacher. She showed me the right way to breathe - spine straight, and through the nose.

"Never the mouth. All that cold air when right here -" she pointed noseward "- the Good Lord gave you filters."

Then, as she served crackers and cheese, and the little corgi Zac panted away alongside me to scab a bit of the food, Daphne leaned across.

"They're a lovely dog. Do you know why the Queen has corgis?"

"I don't Daphne."

"Because they don't have that doggy smell."

Margaret Evans
Mayor Margaret Evans

Margaret Evans arrived back from the supermarket. The guests swept in. We drank wine. We talked our heads off. When the Mayor served the pasta and sauces, the salmon and chicken side-dishes we all acquiesced to Daphne's request, joining hands while she said grace.

I spent the night in a spare bed in the garage, and in the morning, talked turkey.

Margaret Evans was pushing not just for river walkways right through her city and on to Mystery Creek, but longer-term for a Waikato trail from the mountains of the Central Plateau to the sea.

Eighteen months before, she'd arranged for Te Araroa to give a presentation to the Waipa and Waikato District Councils, to the Hamilton City Council, to Tainui representatives, and the region's environmental NGOs. Subsequently, the three local bodies had commissioned a report by Peter Greenwood to look at a river trail from Huntly, through Hamilton, to Cambridge.

We'd taken the Greenwood study into account in our own plan for a national trail but started it lower down, in Franklin District Council territory, at Meremere. Also, partly because of Greenwood's conclusion that riparian rights south of Hamilton would make the river through to Cambridge hard, we'd left the river after reaching Hamilton, and gone west to Pirongia Forest Park.

Still, the Mayor's vision and our own were much the same, and she'd got behind Te Araroa. I mentioned my hope that the regional council, Environment Waikato, would open its stopbanks to public access, and Margaret Evans fixed me with a steely gaze.

"Environment Waikato's draft strategic plan for the next ten years is now open for comment, " she said. "It is important that you present a submission and encourage Environment Waikato to make the river track a major millennium project. I will get you a copy of the draft strategic plan. You will need to read it. You don't have much time. Submissions close on April 24. Make the submission. Specify that you would like to present it personally also. Hamilton City will support you."

"Okay Margaret." And you! You out there! You thought walking from Cape Reinga to Wellington was simple?

The Mayor and her Morgan

But enough of business. It was Easter, the mayor jammed a cap on her head, and dusted off her 1979 Morgan. Daphne shoehorned herself into the front seat, I took the back seat and we throttled out to the highway.

Our destination, if one was needed in a white sports car with the hood down and the wind whistling a song of pure freedom, was the Hamilton Gardens.

Hamilton Gardens has within it autonomous gardens of differing national styles. We walked through the Chinese garden with its pagoda, its special lake stones from Wuxi, its moon gates, its lotus lily pond, its grove of enlightenment.

We walked on beside the Zen garden with its raked white sand and standing stones, then through a pavilion to the Japanese water garden where the young pine were learning - with guidance from cords - to spread their branches at right angles to the trunk in ascending cloud-like strata. We walked on around the reflective pool of the Egyptian Garden, through the roses of the Old English Garden . . .

Then we were at the mayor's car again, and Daphne shoehorned herself back in. By then the car had attracted, as Morgans do, its Morgan expert, and a ritual exchange began.

"Old Morgan eh?" said the young man.

"Yep," said the mayor.

"Wooden chassis?"

"Wooden chassis."

"Tighten up the nuts every 3000 miles."

"That's right. Tighten the nuts."

"And here -" the young man leaned over the bonnet and ran his thumb along the bonnet edge - "gaps you can put your finger into."

"That's it."

"The joy of hand-made cars eh?"

"Nine per week," said Margaret Evans. "Last time I visited England I went to the Morgan factory north-east of London. That's the weekly production rate there - nine. They all have modern engines. It's only the outside that looks old."

"Like me," said Daphne.