Te Araroa climbs a mountain

The weather was clear, and the Waikato Plains lay Disneyland green far below me, stretching east until they shadowed into the distance and ended somewhere near the Kaimai Range. South-east you could see the same plain begin to crumple and fold into the King Country, and as you swung your gaze even further south - hey! Big mountain ahead.

I'd walked out from Hamilton by road until I'd got to the Kapamahunga Range, then had followed the Karamu Walkway southward across high rocky farmland. It was a good walk, aircraft level above the plains, and it was Autumn tupping season. Rams in rattle harnesses edged up to the ewes, biting their ears, and leaving behind on the ewes' rumps the red or green stripes of successful congress.

But Pirongia was the big one. It dominated the horizon in front with that smooth symmetry that volcanoes have - except that its entire summit had been ripped off long ago by monstrous explosions.

Pirongia

I knew little about Pirongia. I knew it was high. Not super-high, but high enough to have winter snowfall. It was a sombre mountain, heavily bushed, and its rocky skeleton poked up in cones and ravines. It was not the kind of place where you'd want to stray off the trails.

Straight on from the ending of the Karamu walkway, I entered Pirongia's foothills at Blue Bull Stream. It was mid-afternoon and a pleasant walk in, but as I turned onto the Tahuanui Track to the summit, the bush closed in, and the light faded.

It was only 3.30 pm. I felt a prickle of cold moisture on my cheek, and realised I'd entered the cloud level. It wasn't raining - was it? I could feel myself getting wet. I looked down at my camera bag, the one thing I protect from moisture, and it was definitely damp. I put on my anorak, tucked the camera case inside that, and kept climbing. Above me the bush canopy began to leak. Big heavy drops. The bush around me was wet. My anorak was soon slick with water. The track was pooled with water and rivulets threaded from foothold to foothold down the steeper bits. My boots were sodden. The mountain bore all the signs of a heavy downpour, but I hadn't seen anything you could call actual rain.

An apex is supposed to shed fluids, isn't it? I had the idea that the higher I climbed the drier it was going to get. Not on Pirongia. The higher I climbed, the more water seeped from its peaty flanks, and the more the track mired me in its bogs. The mountain was oozing water. There was as much suggestive energy in this ooze as there is in the oil seepage of Texas. You got the feeling if you plunged a Leki in here you'd get a geyser. Then, in a brief return to reason, the tramp climaxed suddenly with one bald dryish bit, the summit. I clung to the trig there the way Noah might have clung to his ark.

It was 6 pm. I was at the top. The greatest vantage point in the Waikato. One kilometre up. Hell, I could see nothing - nothing. It was a 360 degree whiteout. Night fell. Within ten minutes, it was a 360 degree blackout, and I found my way onward by flashlight, thanking Waikato DOC - yes, from my heart - for the boardwalks that, for short sections at least on these summit ridges, elevated you above the ooze. Thirty minutes later I crashed into the Pahautea Hut. I lit the hut candle, fixed myself a freeze-dried stew, I ate, I leafed through the hut book.

One word permeated the book - mud.

Some of my antecedent trampers were sufficiently gob-struck by it they simply repeated the same word, over and over, like accident victims.

"Mud, mud, mud." wrote one.

I checked the dates. Most of these people had come up in summer, but it was mud or some variant of it that caught their attention.

"Doesn't the sun ever come out on this f----- hill?" wrote one summer visitor.

There was a stern little note from a DOC man, pointing out the gratitude people owed to those volunteers who'd constructed boardwalks across this swamp.

But if the boardwalk elevated people, and made them happy, so too did the trampers' sense of humour. Bill Clinton, Michael Jackson, even Elvis Presley had all struggled through this mud to the summit, and as to Dave of the UK, it changed his life: "I found this journey bordered on the sick," he wrote, "and has forced me to return to England to become a priest."

And the mountain served notice, in these tramper comments, that it was no pushover. One group, slowed by the puggy terrain, had miscalculated its time to the summit, and on to the hut. They wrote of the fear they'd had of spending the night under muddy trees, and the relief, coming in by candlelight, at reaching the hut.

Another adventure group, struggling to the top en masse, noted: "Adviser collapsed - search party three hours late."

Another word recurred - rats - but it didn't stick in my mind as part of Pirongia's charms until I awoke at 1 am.

From every corner of the hut came the dry scratching sound of rodents at work. I shouted, and an intense scurrying began, receding only gradually into silence, as if the frantic escape of the rats took place down long tunnels that led away from the hut.

I awoke again later as the rain began to pelt down, and the wind blew. A volcano is never finally extinct, it only sleeps. I had a vision of Pirongia starting to awaken, sloughing off its superficial garments. The bush, the peat, sliding away. Then the brittle epidermis of rock, crumbling like so much safety glass, to reveal, standing for a moment of surprise, in perfect shape, the quintessential Pirongia - a great pyramid of water.

Next morning it was raining solidly, clouds were whipping past the cabin, and I waited. I set off finally down the Tiwarawara route, my boots sliding sideways off the very tree-rounds that had been put there to keep the boots dry, and the bog, as you skidded into it, knee deep.

Somewhere on Pirongia

Pirongia squelched more of my hopes a little later. I'd intended branching off the Tiwarawara Route down the western side of the mountain, following the old Hihikiwi Track. DOC had closed this western track seven years before but I figured that I could get through that way, and I wanted to do it because the Hihikiwi Track allowed a Te Araroa through-tramper to exit the mountain close to the next traverse, which was along the perimeter of the Royal New Zealand Forest and Bird Society's Walter Scott reserve and across private farms to SH 31.

I found the entrance to the old trail. It was marked closed, but I took a compass bearing and followed it in. Easy - the markers were still nailed onto the trees, overgrown with moss, but visible. I made about 400 metres.

Seven year-old saplings covered the old track in a dense re-growth. On a dry day, that would have been fine. On a wet day, the saplings stood there like a crowd of giggling kids, each one glittering with water droplets.

As I pushed through them, each one showered me with around half a cup of water.

I had the anorak. I had a storm-cover for the pack. I had a camera in a stuffbag inside its shoulder case - a double-layer of protection - but I realised what I was in for. This regrowth would probably persist over most of the track. Three kilometres of happy water-tossing seven year olds was going to be equivalent, in the sort of soaking it would deliver, to wading a river shoulder-deep. And then the sun, which had shone for an hour or so, went out. Pirongia had reached up and brought down a few more threatening storm clouds. I quit the trail, and went back to the Tiwarawara route. The decision disappointed me but I seen enough to report to Te Araroa Trust that the old Hihikiwi Track - given a weeks work by a gang with slashers - would be easily brought back into service.

I hit Te Tahi Road as darkness began to fall. A big rainstorm was piling up and I spotted a lighted house on a hill with a lighted shed below. It was too good to pass by.

The shed was a motorcycle mechanic's workshop, with a radio tuned to a local commercial station and the lights on, but no-one there. I went up to the house. I was wet and muddy and I suggested I stay in the shed. The owner, Gordon Brierly, agreed. He brought down a thermos of boiling water, a plate of noodles, some instant coffee, tea bags, a container of sugar and a little jar of milk, and bade me goodnight.

I looked around. As a big rain began to snick the corrugated iron roof, as I mixed myself a cup of hot sweet coffee, as I unrolled my sleeping bag onto a dry carpeted corner next to the weight-training equipment and lay down, I knew this was the Ritz. The radio gabbled on, and came up to its 8 pm horoscope feature. A woman's voice began to unreel the romantic encounters, the financial windfalls, the opportunities for travel, the whole standard bagful of lucky breaks that awaited the Tauruses, the Geminis, the Virgos out there in the darkness. She was coming up to Pisces, my own star-sign, and I waited patiently.

I looked around at a ceiling lined with tarpaper and chicken wire. At rafters hung with motorbike exhaust systems. At a floor stacked with drums of Motul motor oil. At shelves crammed with fluted alloy engine casings. I looked at the rat who'd came out to lick his whiskers on top of an engine casing.

"Pisces," husked the woman portentously. "A walk on the wild side will bring a new dimension into your life."

The failure at Hihikiwi meant an extra ten kilometres of roadwalking to get back to Walter Scott Reserve, and I set off next morning early. From the start it was entertaining.

Two farmers shot out of a side-paddock on a quad and stopped. They were both called Willy, Willy Laverty driving the quad and Willy Payne with the tiger tat. The two Willies were on their way to fix up a farm truck.

Two Willies, okay, fair game. I broke out the digital, snapped them, and played the picture back on the replay function.

"What the fuck is the world coming to?" said Laverty.

"Yeah well it's real technology Willy," said Payne. "It's no longer the little Box Brownie Willy."

Wiillie Laverty and Willie Payne

A monogrammed ute shot past on the highway.

"What do you think of those guys?" asked Laverty

"Environment Waikato," said Payne to me by way of explanation.

"They're laying 1080," said Laverty. "They're doing the Waipa. They laid baits along this river here - the Mangati."

"He lost two dogs, "said Willy Payne, rolling himself a smoke.

"To be fair, they did come around and warn us," said Willy Laverty. "They tell you all the things to look out for. Everyone was told, and we put muzzles on the dogs. But the dangerous thing is the possum carcasses. They take a month before they disappear and my father let the dogs off last Saturday. He was just watching them, and he got distracted.

"Next morning one was lying dead in the box. The other had smashed his way out of the box and made 50 metres before he dropped."

"That's what the guy said, Willy," said Payne. "They go loopy. They'll crash their heads into the tractor buckets."

"They weren't $1000 dogs, but they were useful dogs," said Laverty. "Ben was a bloody good dog."

"Farming these days - it's one thing after another," said Payne.

"I milked 240 cows last year. If I milk 300 this year, I'll just be standing still," said Laverty.

"The overheads are too high, because the bigwigs are too busy driving their BMWs," said Payne, giving his rollie a good hard smoking. "There's going to be a march on Anchor House soon - maybe the Dairy Board as well. Maybe its time to hook yourself a new deal. Start to trade. A kilo of milk for a bag of onions."

"That's very communistic of you Willy," said Laverty.

"Yeah, well, you just look at what we're getting into. Christmas time. The kids aren't looking at what they get - it's no longer the thought that counts but how much the present cost. It's a sad society Willy."

They talked on. That bend in the road upfront - the stock trucks took advantage of the small layby there to empty their effluent tanks. The bend in the road behind - it had a dangerous camber. On Christmas Eve two years back a Honda had clipped the top of the fence, skidded across the field, and overturned into the Mangati. Three young people, a girl and two brothers, had died. The families had put up their sad crosses, but cars were still leaving the road at exactly the same spot, ten a year, ploughing through Laverty's fence, crosses and all.

Ron Steel

I went on. I talked to Ron Steel, who was setting up pictures of stags and pigs in a field. The pictures were targets for a local bow-hunting group. The bow hunters competed to estimate distances accurately, and they scored according to whether their shafts entered a kill zone, or merely wounded the pictured beast. At 74, Steel, a former saw-miller, claimed to be the oldest bow-hunter in the country. He'd been a hunter in the past, but the modern rifle made the contest too one-sided. The bow required good stalking skills, and gave the animal more of a chance.

He'd killed just once since giving up the rifle years before, his bladed arrow bringing down a wild pig in the Arahina bush outside Otorohanga.

I came up to Walter Scott Reserve. Colin Campbell owned the farm at the back of the reserve, and I carried his wax-paper wrapped Waikato Times a kilometre in from the highway. That was the least I could do.

Campbell turned out to be a piercingly blue-eyed, no-nonsense farmer and he gave me permission to walk his farm. As to a national trail - he was agreeable to that too, provided through-trampers checked with him. I walked the land across to SH 31, then down the quiet Kaimango side-road that leads directly south off highway 31, toward Waitomo.

I had a circle marked on my map alongside Kaimango Road, and the name Guy Pilkington.

When designing the trail months before, I'd left the section between SH 31 and Waitomo vague. I knew there were five DOC reserves in that 25 kilometres of traverse, and I'd figured you could link them up. I'd rung the Waitomo horse trekker Allen Juno, and he'd confirmed that horse treks came through from Waitomo to SH 31. Fair enough. Where horses go, hikers can go too. I'd told him then that I'd ring him closer to the actual trail test to discuss the route.

That time was now. But first, I was seeking Pilkington. Horse trekkers could overnight at his woolshed, so I'd heard, and I aimed to do the same.

The sun set over Kawhia Harbour as I walked Kaimango Road. The great harbour lay spread-eagled and silver 15 km to the west, and the intervening ridges had turned misty with evening, but I was otherwise engaged. I was keen to find the Pilkington spread before nightfall, and there was no sign yet of a farmhouse. A white Toyota Camry pulled up alongside me, and the driver rolled down the window. I leaned in.

"I can't take a ride, thanks. But you might be able to help. There's a Guy Pilkington on this road somewhere - do you know him?"

"I do," said Guy Pilkington.