Te Araroa follows the hooves of horses, falls down a tomo, and enters the political maelstrom of Te Kuiti

"Get in behind Sarge!"

It was 7.30 am and we stood in a wide valley. Giant mossy boulders lay tumbled in the valley floor, and a stream wound beside and under them, leaving overhangs, natural bridges, and ferny gullies. This was the valley where the Pilkington boys had come to play as children. It was the 1960s, the Cuba blockade, Kennedy, Kruschev, the H-bomb tests. Down here, crawling through with your sandwiches and bottle of drink, you knew that war had come to the world, and you were hiding out.

"Stand Sarge! Walk on Fly!"

With shouts, or by piercing whistle, Guy Pilkington guided his dogs. Eighteen hundred ewes began to pour down the flanks of the valley. The huntaways Sarge and Ru moved the main mobs quickly, barking and running boisterously at their heels. The little English Collie eye dog Fly, was gone from sight somewhere in the tops seeking less biddable sheep. She was a silent dog, a slinking dog, a thinker.

"Walk on Fly!" The huntaways were back, panting and lolling. Guy Pilkington kept calling to Fly, but you couldn't see her.

"We seem," said Pilkington, "to have lost Fly."

After the 1960s childhood, the 1970s. New Zealand had lost its traditional wool and meat market as Britain entered the EEC, but a new and aggressive Prime Minister, Robert Muldoon, arrived in 1975. Sheep had always set New Zealand right, you just had to keep stacking them up. Muldoon put in place the Land Development Encouragement loans: the interest rates were low, you could even get the things written off if you met certain production targets. New Zealand's steep marginal lands began to smoke with the burn-offs, they began to tinge green.

In the 1970s, Guy Pilkington was gang foreman on a North Sea oil rig - highly paid work - but back home his father had divied up the family farm. Guy's bit was a few hundred acres of good grass, and 1700 acres of steep country, cleared in the 1900s but reverted since to bush. He came back to New Zealand, got an LDE loan, and with Deb Pilkington set out to make a farm.

Throughout New Zealand, the LDE's brought in a lot of marginal land that then simply slumped into the valleys and washed out to sea. But some of it stuck - this 1700 acres above Kawhia stuck.

"We left a lot of the bigger trees," said Pilkington. "The puketeas, the mangeao."

"Those dead ones on the hill?"

"Yeah, mangeao - a lot of those have died - the possums give them rissoles."

In the late 70s and early 80s, inflation went to double figures. When Pilkington began bringing in the farm, he could clear it, fence it, and grass it for $100 an acre. Within a few years that was $400 an acre, and still rising. The debt went up, farming returns went down. At the beginning, if you inflation-adjusted the dollar to 1998 levels, wool brought in close to $20 a kilo. It brought in $2.60 a kilo now.

"Even so," said Pilkington, "this farm is a very good living - but not with the debt. Forty-six percent of the gross income goes to debt servicing. The rest is on-farm costs plus our drawings."

"Your drawings?"

"Our income. It's $15,000 a year, for a family of six. That's what we live on. There she is, up on the bluff. Walk on right Fly!"

Way up on the opposing ridge, a black and white pelt crouched, slid forward, and the last of the flock flowed downhill to join the main mob. Pilkington rolled a smoke, and his eyes crinkled, watching them come. His mind was gone from the debt.

"In mid-summer," said Pilkington, "you're out here earlier than this - 4 am. The moon is out, the sun comes over the hill and the moon disappears. There's a lot of drudgery in farming: keeping the country clean, the fences repaired - but when you're out on your horse with the dogs shuttling the stock around - that's the cream of farming."

47 metres tall kahikatea

We moved the mob onto the next hill, and came back up the valley. A tall kahikatea stood there at the junction of three streams. Pilkington had measured it by using a staple box and trigonometry. The method wasn't precise, but it came out around 47 metres, one of New Zealand's taller kahikateas. The tallest known was a 66.5 metre monster on Mt Pirongia.

We made out way back up to the farmhouse, a turn-of-the-century kauri villa that Pilkington had trucked in, turned sideways to the sublime outlook over Kawhia, then extended with a second storey and two big bays with a verandah between, facing west to the view. He'd done most of it himself and used rimu off the farm.

The house interior had polished floors of native timber, a modern kitchen, a long dining table standing on a thick Chinese carpet, a patio out the back. It aspired to be a tasteful upper middle class dwelling that a mud farmer could fall into at the end of the day and know he'd succeeded. Room by room it was coming up to that standard, but it wasn't finished.

The Pilkington family felt solid. The affection of husband and wife was still palpable, the kids happy. But the family was under stress too. $15,000 a year. Add on the farming perks of course: cheap meat and a 60% tax writeoff on the Camry's running costs, but you could sense the underlying worry that, just maybe, and after 20 years of hard work, they'd have to sell up.

It was time to go but I was still unsure of my exact route. I'd tried to reach the Waitomo horse trekker Allen Juno a couple of times, but didn't connect. He was out hunting. He was out trekking - no matter. Guy Pilkington knew the trail, roughly. An unformed paper road would take me through to Ike Johnston's farm, halfway between Pilkington's and Waitomo. I'd rung Johnston that morning, and had a brief, gruff, 7 am chat.

"When you get to the wool-shed," Johnston had said, "carry on until you come to a quarry. Go up the hill there and you'll see the airstrip. Ngauruhoe and Ruapehu will be right in front. Take a line off the mountains, and stay right of a big patch of bush. That'll get you through to Waitomo.

Ngauruhoe? Ruapehu? They seemed a million miles away, and I clung instead to Pilkington's instruction as I left. Go to the end of Kaimango Road, find a steel gate there. That was the trekkers' route, and Pilkington's last words to me were: "Follow the horses' hooves."

I found the gate. I found hoofprints. An old bulldozed track led away south. To the west, I saw a whitened escarpment, and it pleased me. It looked as if the scarified rock had been jacked up right through the earth. Tomo country. I was entering the limestone belt.

Feral goats

I passed through farmland and went on through big blocks of reverting land. I stampeded a dozen feral goats. Once, I missed the trail, but backtracked, examining the clay as intently as any aboriginal tracker. Horses' hooves, they went this way.

The hoofed track led into deep bush and came out at last through a rock cutting, up farm races, and past a woolshed where piglets fled away, and a peacock preened.

The woolshed! I looked around for a quarry, for a snowy mountain. Nothing. A corrugated iron house stood on a hill. Ike Johnston's house? I went up and knocked. No-one home. I looked in the window. On the mantelpiece stood one of those walnut wood clocks shaped like Rangitoto with convex glass over the round face and golden hour and minute hands. The rest of the furniture had the dark varnish and rounded wooden edges of 1930s chic. The place was frozen in time.

I slugged on for another kilometre, confused, then a quad puttered up from behind and a sandy-headed farmer grinned at me, gap-toothed.

" Ike's been looking out for you. His house is on the ridge there, and there's a shortcut straight up that hill. Go on up. He might just give you a taste of his home brew."

I climbed to the ridge, up steps past a neat garden, and knocked. I looked around. The world lay at my feet.

Ike came to the door, barefoot, baggy pants.

"I've been watching for you to come over the ridge down there, and I'd just given you up."

"Wow!"

It was dusk, but you could see forever. Columns of smoke drifted up from faraway valleys, and I'd never before seen so many North Island mountains.

"Ngauruhoe, Ruapehu." Ike Johnston lowered a stubby finger on each one. " Mt Pureora over there. The Rangitoto Range. The Kaimais out the back there. The Coromandel Range. Kakepuku. Pirongia. And over here the Sugarloaf, and Lady's Rock - you can see the two tits on it.

Sunset from Ike's house

Okay - would you like a beer?"

"A beer, I would love."

I had no idea about Ike Johnston, and as we talked and drank, I began a subtle probe.

"I know farmers spend too much time chasing sheep up and down hills to worry about recreational walking, but - "

"Nah. I tramp. Down in Stewart Island a couple of years back. We left Smoky. Bloody great packs. A couple of rifles went with us - there's white tail down there, Virginian deer, I like the white tail, they're smart - and we went four days on that northwestern trail right through to the pub. I'll get another flagon."

Ike Johnston turned out to be a rootin' tootin' trail juggernaut.

"Where you came up. I opened that up with the HD11 a few years ago - bulldozed through - never told DOC or anyone I was doing it. I put in the punga bridges. Years back it was going to be the road from Pirongia to New Plymouth, and they made that rock cutting you came through. If you went back there tonight, it'd be light as day - thousands of glow-worms."

The Johnston family had pioneered farming around Waitomo from the turn of the century. The Putaki tops was their place. They were guardians to its history, their history. The old Maori trail from Kawhia to Waitomo had come across this hilltop and Johnston was going to put a legal covenant on the trail route through his farm, to keep it open, forever. To trekkers, trampers, whoever. The old homestead I'd peered into was already used as a waystop for horse trekkers.

Later, Johnston suggested we take a look outside. We stepped out onto the verandah, beers in hand, and for a moment, everything was black. Then you could pick the mild glow that backlit Pirongia's inky eastern flank.

"That's Hamilton," said Johnston.

A second light source both wider and fainter phosphoresced behind the mountain's inky western flank.

"That," said Johnston, "is Auckland."

Ike Johnston Waitomo

Next morning, Ike Johnston took me across the Putaki hills, and pointed the way down.

Three hours later, still slightly hungover, I approached the little township of Waitomo. Down a sideroad stood a green hut with the initials HTG on the side - the Hamilton Tomo Group.

A guy was sitting on the bonnet of a Triumph 2000 saloon, swinging his legs.

Hamish Balfour was an ex-lawyer, the son of the Reverend David Balfour formerly vicar of St Pauls Church in Symonds Street, Auckland. He was just hanging out, working for Blackwater Rafting when they needed an extra hand, staying in the HTG hut meantime.

I already knew something of the HTG.

In 1995 I'd choppered in to the South Island's Pearse Resurgence - the press at work.

Two cave divers, Kieran McKay and Dave Weaver had just set a New Zealand cavediving record in the resurgence, but only one had come back. They'd gone 85 metres down the shaft. The two cave divers had tied off the line at 85 metres. What happened next? No-one knew for sure. Disorienting narcosis is standard at this depth. And maybe too, as he put his arm up in the agreed signal to ascend, Dave Weaver lost critical bubbles of air through the wristbands of his drysuit, finned faster to compensate for the lack of buoyancy, sucked deeper at oxygen that is so condensed at this depth it sears the lungs. Whatever, he'd sunk, and folded up on a ledge 95 metres down. When McKay got to him, his mouthpiece was out, and he was dead.

I looked at the HTG hut's log and saw an entry out of 1994. Rangitaawa Shaft - Yet another attempt on the sump. Kieran McKay/Dave Weaver.

Sad. Cave diving is the most dangerous cave exploration work, but any exploration, wet or dry through the riddled world under Waitomo has a dangerous edge. I unrolled a map of the North Island's longest cave system, Gardners Gut. Caving is dangerous - and magical: the names spelled it out. Twinkling Quarry. The Well. The Chimney, The Regent. The Organ Grinder. Lambert Passage, named for Peter Lambert, killed in 1960 by a falling rock at Harwoods Hole.

The HTG had mapped Gardners Gut, and other caves, and in their passages, a rough tough camaraderie prevailed. "HTG's hairiest troll," boasted one male caver in the HTG log. "Psycho caver from Hell" claimed another with a manic sketch of some helmeted Moloch. "Tits out for the video" noted a female caver, and there was a flash photograph headed "The Full Monty". A male trio, can-can kicked on some underground promontory, each one naked but for his helmet, light, and his huge gumboot codpiece.

Balfour fixed me a cup of tea. He was at a loose end, I was too.

"Would you like," said Balfour, "to take a look at Gardners Gut? I can pick a route that won't be too technical."

We slid down a punga trunk into the Zweihohlen entrance and stooped through a passage that gave onto a muddy ledge.

"There's a drop there," said Balfour, edging across. I swung my helmet light onto it. Two metres away down the greasy slope, the ledge ended in a wide dark crack. Water gurgled somewhere below it.

I followed him across. Balfour's white gumboots were already disappearing up a hole no more than shoulder width. I wriggled through, pushing the drybag with the camera in front of my nose. As I emerged, I knew I'd passed an initiation of some sort.

"You're in now," said Balfour. "There's a squeeze between you and the outside world."

We were in a collapse chamber that looked like a London cathedral during the blitz. The whole ceiling had come down and the pile of debris on the floor was metres deep. We passed quickly through.

Then the world turned glisteningly beautiful.

"Cave coral," Balfour pointed at the little florettes that edged the walls. "formed by water evaporation on the rock."

"Flowstone," he indicated. The stone, as white and apparently as viscous as wet icing sugar, looked to be oozing down the walls, but it was rock-hard.

We came up to our first big stalagmite - the Finger - then on to another, the biggest stalagmite in New Zealand, four times as high as a man, two arm-spans round, a giant gothic wax-pile of a thing and named to suit - the Birthday Candle.

The Finger

I photographed the Finger, passably. My attempt to photograph the Birthday Candle failed. The Waitomo darkness simply defeated my camera. Despite weak illumination from the helmet lights, the LCD screen showed only darkness, and I framed badly, or got too close, the flash overexposing the white rock, or not close enough, so the cave's wonders faded into shadow. The flash was puny in these vast spaces. It was a very, very, black place.

Loss of light deep underground is a caving nightmare. Balfour suggested I should know why. We turned off the helmet lights.

"Wave your hand in front of your face," came the voice of my companion. "There's nothing there. This is what it's like to be blind."

We went on. The grand pillared and blocked architecture of the caverns stood all about - "Awksim" as someone had written in the hut log - but I found myself studying detail. The little straw stalactites that hung above us by the dozen were exactly named, calcite-rich water drops sliding down the interior tube and depositing their minute amounts of calcite in a ring at the bottom.

Helictite
Helictite
Shawl rock
Shawl rock

I saw the helictites, little protrusions that grow, against all expectation and, said my guide, without any satisfactory physical explanation, directly out from the wall. We reached the shawl rock that hung from the cave ceiling in folds, then turned back.

The cave had given me an odd feeling. I was happy.

"What is it," I said to Balfour, "that makes you feel joyous down here."

"Is it that the rock is living?"

"Maybe," I said. There was something more but I didn't know what it was.

We levered ourselves out of the cave, and night had fallen. No track led away from Zweihohlen, and we lost our way, finding the Waitomo River easily enough, but too far upstream.

We began to wade, two helmeted lamp-lit men in the river, but we stumbled and slipped on the greasy river rock, and I was first back onto the bush bank. It was easier to swing through the trees, and I was leading when I stepped on a shadow and disappeared.

I was lucky. The tomo was shallow, and I fell sideways and hit mud just a metre down. Another New Zealand experience. There are thousands of big bird bones found down tomos, and I knew now what boiled through the brain of a moa in the first split second of the drop. Sheer and utter surprise.


Next day I set off for Te Kuiti, arriving around 4 pm.

Te Kuiti voters were filing in and out of polling booths. After months of campaigning on the King Country-Taranaki by-election, the reckoning was nigh. It was a true-blue farming seat and few doubted that the National Party would retain the seat, but the population was restless.

I went into the main street at 7 pm to sample the atmosphere. The Labour Party's electorate headquarters in Rora Street was the first stop. Michael Cullen was there, Lianne Dalziel and her partner Rob Davidson, also Andrew Beyer, the Auckland regional organiser. Everyone seemed to be chewing on pizzas or Chinese takeouts.

"Well gang, who's going to take it?"

There was a silence, then - "Talk to the man who runs the pie cart across the street," said Davidson. "The one with the ring in his nose. He says Labour is going to win."

I went across the road to the Alliance Headquarters. By then the first results were coming in.

"We won the booth!" Dave Macpherson was shouting into the mobile. "Centennial Park School. Did you get that Matt? Last time we got twenty votes at that booth. This time we got 56."

The King Country seat had been held previously by a three-term Prime Minister, Jim Bolger. Te Kuiti was his home town and the local National Party electorate people had grown happily used to being the eye of the media storm every election day.

This time the National Party candidate was from the Taranaki end of the electorate, and the media action had moved south, to Stratford, in Taranaki.

I went on down to the Te Kuiti Club where the National Party was gathered. People sipped G&Ts while TV One's Election Night Special beamed into the room.

"There's really two electorates in this by-election," TV1's Linda Clark was confiding to host Mark Hosking. "One here in Taranaki, the other centred at Te Kuiti."

"All 20 of us," muttered one of the party faithful.

Still the food was good, and there was a determined cheer when Maureen Wilkie took the mobile call that confirmed a win. The majority was way down, but it was a win. Act man Rodney Hide swept in later and laid a ham-like handshake on everyone within reach. He was the only man I saw who looked happy that night. His party had moved up from single digit support in the last General Election to take a massive 25% of the by-election vote. The heartland was hurting. I'd been to the very places where it was hurting. It had protested by moving to the political right.