Te Araroa fails to grab its photo opportunities
and ponders the greater scale of things

Emotional intelligence - I remember reading it in Time magazine about a year ago, and the basic thesis was that, no matter how high your smarts, if you didn't have emotional intelligence you might not make it far in the great game of life.

It's the building blocks of character we're talking about. Endurance, perseverance, long term goals.

As I recall, the Time story, before rounding up the usual quotient of highly qualified Emotional Intelligence experts with degrees from Harvard, started out with the normal reader-friendly examples. Two kids roughly equivalent in brain function sit in front of a table. Their mother places a marshmallow in front of each and tells them she's popping down to the shop to buy two more. The child who resists the temptation to eat his marshmallow, and can wait until mum arrives home, will get a second marshmallow. That child who can't resist the temptation won't get the second marshmallow.

The little girl waits - she gets two marshmallows. She has the right stuff, and will become a rocket scientist. The little boy doesn't. He gets one marshmallow. He will be a street sweeper.

That, anyway, was the gist of it, and I remember thinking at the time - if this was the test for emotional intelligence, then my EI quotient was zero. I tend to want it all, as Freddie Mercury used to say, and I want it now.

As I headed up the Mangaokewa River though, something happened that would pull out reserves of emotional intelligence I didn't even know I possessed.

Mangaokewa Reserve

I'd road-walked a few kilometres out of Te Kuiti to the Mangaokewa Reserve. The reserve is a little-known but quite enchanting little park in a limestone gorge. A swing-bridge crosses the Mangaokewa River here, a track extends a short distance up the river, and the bluffs that overhang the reserve have all the sepulchral leaching, the pitted overhangs and layering that makes limestone such an attractive rock.

But I wanted to follow the river upstream some 35 kilometres, far beyond the reserve boundary. When we'd planned Te Araroa, a Te Kuiti surveyor, Max Harris, had done a cadastral (property boundaries) search of the river for us, and came back with good news. It was possible to do that 35 kilometres on a continuous strip of public land, either DOC reserve or esplanade reserve.

The only catch was - no formal trail. I left the reserve in the late afternoon and found a rough track upriver, but it tailed out about four kilometres up, at the first big bluff. I camped under a big kahikatea, and in the morning climbed the bluff, finding a relatively east route up through the limestone cliff that edged the top of the river valley.

I got to the top of the limestone, but was stopped there by gorse and blackberry. Dense thickets of thorns lay between the top of the cliff and the farmland beyond. I took off my pack and scouted along the clifftop, first one way - nope - then the other. Yes! Forty metres along the cliff, the blackberry thinned sufficiently to allow a passage through to the fields.

But that 40 metres was literally a cliff-hanger. You had to climb under branches that extended out over the drop. As I returned to pick up my pack I'd done the route twice, but I still had a twinge of anxiety about taking the pack through.

I was sufficiently worried that when I shouldered the pack, I deliberately didn't buckle it on. I had the notion that if I were to slip, I'd shed the pack and give myself a better chance of stopping my fall with the frail bits of vegetation that poked out from the limestone face.

As to the camera, I have always carried it ready for use in a small shoulder bag. It had always been made secure by clipping the bag's shoulder strap under the chest buckle of the pack.

I made the 40-metre traverse, dodging under branches, grabbing big handfuls of fibrous grass, concentrating hard. Halfway along I heard a thud and looked around. A rotten bit of trunk that had fallen? aislodged stone maybe? I didn't know what, but it wasn't a worry. I went on, took off the pack once I was on safe ground, and wiped my brow.

Something was missing. For a moment I didn't know what it was, but it had accompanied me for some 700 kilometres of trekking, and even before I could identify what it was, the absence was profound

The camera. I couldn't believe it. It hadn't even occurred to me that without the chest buckle to keep it restrained, the thing could slip off my shoulder, slide down my arm and disappear. That was all it took, and I hadn't even felt it go. I remembered only that quiet, sickening thud.

I crawled back along the clifftop, fingers crossed that the thud was the sound of the camera bag dropping only a short distance, from my shoulder to the clifftop at my feet, and that I'd see the blue bag sitting there, held up on the edge of the drop, waiting for paternal hands to close upon it again, to admonish it, but to love it nonetheless. I wanted to feel that surge of gratitude that it was safe.

I went back over the route twice. No camera bag. No camera.

I knew now the thump was the sound of my Mavica FD7 saying goodbye, and I peered over the edge of the bluff. It was precipitous, but it wasn't sheer all the way down. Ledges stuck out here and there with bits of bush on them. The Mavica's bounding descent could have stopped short.

I found a way down, then picked my way back along one of the wider ledges until I was under the general region where the camera had fallen. I saw the blue bag, held up on a 45 degree slope just before the cliff sheered away again.

But it had fallen a long way. I will give you this as accurately as I can. The first drop was about six metres - that doesn't sound colossal, but, unless you're in an old villa with a 12-foot stud, its over twice the height of the room you're sitting in. At the bottom of that six-metre free-fall, the camera had hit a ledge, about two metres wide. The ledge was just rock. It had rebounded off the ledge and fallen a further two metres onto humus covered earth, coming to rest against a bit of spindly scrub.

I picked it up. The Mavica was encased in a blue nylon zippered bag. Aside from plastic beading that gave the square bag its shape, the bag was no more than stiffish cloth, the texture of canvas. The camera fitted tightly inside that, so that protection against impact was minimal.

I picked up the blue bag and held it in my hands. I held it gently, this small corpse sewn up in its canvas shroud and ready for burial. The fact was I liked the thing. I'd become attached to it, as you do to a piece of equipment that works well, and has been through a few experiences with you. I had a moment of sentiment. We'd endured the Ninety Mile Sands together Mavica and I, had been lost in the bush together, had faced the wild mountain woman, fallen down a tomo, and at night, its bright little replay screen had brightened some of my lonelier moments in the tent. . I don't want to go on about it, and when you're talking about a mate, dollar values sound crass. But digital cameras are expensive. The Mavica FD7 costs $1400. I'd done a bit of fast talking with Sony and got it at a trade price, but I'd still paid over $1000. On a journey where the financial margins were as narrow as mine, I couldn't afford to lose it.

I composed myself. My hand went to the zipper. I steeled myself to watch all the springs and electronic dust fly out of the thing. And then a force I can only describe as raw emotional intelligence kicked in. I, whose hand was always in the bag before my sister's hand could get there. I, who by nature bolted the single marshmallow, always had done, underwent a profound magnetic reversal.

I didn't open the bag. I have carried the bag over 50 kilometres since, over two days, and as I write these words, I have still not l ooked in the bag.

I will not look in the bag until I have finished writing this story, and then, if you must, I will look in the bloody bag.

I went on up. A hangdog, this-is-the-way-life-is, kind of smile had begun to play upon my lips. To get to the farmland I had to hack my way through briars with a pocket-knife and I sawed away at the big leaders, as thick as electric cord some of them, and pulled my way through the rest of the shoulder-high thicket. The two-tone sleeveless nylon jerkin I'd bought in China 15 years before, the one with the down stuffing, ripped. Not a big rip, but Peking duck feathers floated out and wafted away.

My camera - gone. My old jacket -destructing.

Life.

This is what Te Araroa teaches you. Wronged by fate, surrounded by drifting feathers, still you go on, and when you get to the top of the Mangaokewa Bluff, your rictus muscles have cranked your lips a notch higher than the hangdog smile. The progression to the hard-done-by smile is a small one, but it does have an element of determination to it.

The view! The river below ran sinuously into the distance. In normal times I would have photographed the scene. The gorge was wide and soft. Wide in that even small rivers seem able to open up a limestone landscape a kilometre or more across the top. Soft in that even though limestone columns buttressed the farm fields with their sheer faces, still, below those faces the angle of the land's descent became unthreatening, sloped on down at a nicely grassed 45 degree angle to the river flats. My side of the river was green farmland. The far side of the river was heavily bushed, sloping down from its own more distant limestone ramparts in a profusion of yellow-green tawa, stout totara, soaring kahikatea and punga ferns spattered along the river's edge.

Look - that's the best I can do at the moment, description-wise. It may not be good enough, but just this once - can you wean yourself off the need for a picture?

I picked my way down to the river flats. My side of the river was grassed and clean of any bush. The river flowed almost level with the land, and on the other side, the bush rose tall, unmilled, magnificent, just as New Zealand's early landscape painters had seen it. Big, virgin, podocarp forest. It was so clear and clean and perfect it was like looking through glass at some vast museum diorama. Take my word for it.

I walked along the flats. A small abandoned dunny stood there. It was roofed with corrugated iron. Its 4x2 construction was no more than a framework, for the fibrolite cladding had been smashed away, and the seat inside, the drop hole comfortably sanded, had been in disuse so long that moss had colonised the platform. Behind it, across the flat river, the bush still stood tall. It was culture and nature, standing toe to toe, it was a classic New Zealand scene - the tin-shed-in-paradise school of photographers would have clambered one over the other to get to it - and for a moment my resolve softened. Hell, maybe, just maybe, the camera had survived its fall. This was the sort of thing the Internet readers would want to see.

But I did not weaken. I was turning into the Einstein of all emotional intelligence.

I walked all day, diverting from the river's edge to make my way around patches of impenetrable blackberry, but following riverside stock trails most of the distance through intermittent stands of totara. I made camp for the night high up on a farm ridge where three fences intersected. I hung the blue bag on a fencepost, and after I'd pitched the tent, took it inside and stowed it, safe from moisture, in a corner.

Evening fell, a full moon rose. I could see all the way back to Pirongia, but not a single farmhouse light. During the night I heard nothing but the scratch of small field mice, the cough of sheep, the occasional lowing of cattle and the distant sounds of trains on the main trunk line.

Next day I walked on, coming finally to a quiet riverside road, and following it along. After three more hours, I'd completed my 35-kilometre hike up the Mangaokewa River. I was close to the Mangaokewa's headwaters when I left it. I'd camped beside the river as it flowed smoothly through deep bush. I'd watched and listened to its steeper rush and tumble over rapids. I'd crossed it once, Lekis in hand. I'd drunk from it, hoping my filter took out any trace of the Talon poison I'd seen noticeboarded on trees. I'd watched it dwindle in size from a small river 15 metres wide, to a stream no more than two metres across.

My route map showed I should now take a paper road that, according to the map at least, led due south five kilometres or so to join up with SH30 between Benneydale and Pureora Forest Park. The road was padlocked at its beginning, but I climbed the gate and followed the white limestone-metalled track into a pine forest.

The paper road tailed out after a kilometre. The land had once been a sheep farm, and an old woolshed stood at the road's end. The map insisted on a through road, but, if there had ever been one it was obliterated now by the pine plantation. The pines stood as high as Christmas trees, but they weren't yet big enough to have laid down that choking carpet of needles. Instead the meadow, un-grazed, grew lushly between the trees. A heavy rain began to fall.

No track, heavy rain, knee-deep grasses. Still, in a pine forest this size, you couldn't get lost. The trees were planted in straight lines. Occasionally rock faces on the steeper hills, or bogs in the valleys broke the regularity, but the pines fell rapidly back into line. I followed them through, pulling myself up some of the steeper country with great handholds of grass and heather. You couldn't get lost, but you could get very wet. The camera was buried deep in the pack, safe from moisture, but what exactly was it, I kept thinking, that I was so assiduously keeping dry?

I linked up with SH30 about when the rain stopped. I'd been steadily climbing since leaving Te Kuiti, the temperature had dropped, and I could see my breath now in the late afternoon light. A brilliant low-angle sun began burning the moisture off the world and the mist began to rise. Trees glowed against it. The black railings and headstone shapes of Te Hape Marae's urupa rose mysteriously above a shallow valley of it. Then the sun set and the solid bank of cloud in the east turned bright orange.

The Hauhungaroa Range in front had spawned a long tube-like cloud, too low to be lit by the sun, and snowy white against the orange backdrop. It was a huge fat boa of a cloud like the detonation ring around an H-bomb explosion.

Not quite that distinct dough-nut ring, I grant you, but I liked the description. For beyond the Hauhungaroas lay a force that would dwarf even the Doomsday weapon the Russians produced in the 60s.

Taupo is New Zealand's biggest lake, and the North Island's biggest tourist town. It has a population of 21,000 and that triples in high summer. They come to water-ski, to catch trout, to video the Huka Falls, or to hole-in-one on the golf green that floats 100 metres off-shore and win a trip to Europe.

But ever since I was a kid, I've never looked at Taupo without seeing the heart of the North Island going bang. The last bang wasn't so very long ago - 189 AD. Something like 100 cubic kilometres of New Zealand soil darkened the globe. The effect was documented in China - they saw the stars during daylight, and in Rome.

But that wasn't the big one. Twenty-six thousand years ago Taupo blew out 800 square kilometres of sod. It went up, most of it came down again, and a great pyroclastic wave of tephra and gas rolled across the country at the speed of a jet plane. The wave lapped as far north as the Bombay Hills.

I was walking through cuttings where the pumice, that light volcanic froth, was metres deep in the cuttings. The territory was violent and the sunset was apposite. It was unusual. It was suggestive. I could have tried to photograph it, but I did not.

Night fell and a van screeched to a halt on the highway.

"Hey bro! You want a ride?"

"No," I shouted back at the van, but how far it is to Pureora?"

The van backed up, fast, and veered onto the wrong side of the road to stop beside me.

"You going hunting bro?"

The van interior was dark. Someone in dreadlocks leaned forward. I didn't feel like explaining that the Leki sticks, poking up with my storm cover draped over them to dry, could do 100 things but couldn't fire bullets. "No, I'm just walking in to Pureora."

A police ute came around the corner, U-turned, and pulled up on the road shoulder beside the van.

"Oh shit!" As the cop stopped, I got ready to explain that the van was doing me a favour, shouldn't be ticketed.

"It's alright, we know him," said the van-driver. The two drivers exchanged a curt nod, and the van took off, spitting gravel.

"That's Mongrel Mob, from Te Kuiti," said the cop. "They're okay though."

"You going to Pureora? I'm off up there to see Ra - you want a ride?"

I wanted a picture. They didn't make police like this in Auckland. The cop was Maori, shaven-headed, with heavy tats on the arms, the sole-charge policeman at Benneydale. If you lined him up in an identity parade with the Mongrels, you might not easily have told the difference.

He was pure gold. I was walking in? Okay he'd draw me a map to make sure I got to the right place within the forest headquarters' maze of metalled roads. He'd had hikers come into the park late before, and a few had taken wrong turns and gone into the forest.

"He started the map, then had a better idea.

"Forget the map - have you got a torch."

"Yes."

"Well, take it with you. I'll spraypaint direction arrows at the turnoffs."

I came in to Pureora picking out the green arrows on the road by torchlight... The cop had taken my pack and had agreed to drop it at Ian Marshall's house, the DOC 2IC at Pureora.

Marshall was waiting on the lawn.

"Walked up from Te Kuiti, eh? Come in, I'll get you some kai."

"You've got the pack?"

"Yeah. You ran into Toots."

"That's a good cop."

"Yeah. He looks more like a crim than a cop, but he's a good guy. Good at his job. I wouldn't want to be on the other side of him. That's bad. I've heard that's well bad."

Off the road then, after a long day. Sitting in front of a stoked hot box, gradually drying. Safe. Fed.

The conversation drifted to Taupo. It was just over the hill, and Marshall mentioned a level one alert on the lake.

"A level one alert! On Taupo?"

"So I was told."

"It was on the news?"

"No there's been nothing in the media."

"So who told you?"

"Catherine at the Tihoi Adventure School."

I rang Catherine. Yes, the water had begun to boil around a reef, and there was a stage one alert. She'd got the story from Dennis De Monchy. I rang De Monchy, who'd just come back from overseas to work on the Ruapehu ski-fields. He'd heard about the hot reef "It begins with 'H'" - when hitching out of Taupo. He had the card of the guy who'd told him the story, and gave me the telephone number.

The biggest bomb in the world could be starting to go off, and I was having to find out about it by unravelling the grapevine. I rang Don Kerr at Taupo.

"That's right, the Horomatangi Reef. It runs out from the side of the lake to the middle, 40 to 60 metres below the surface. There's activity there. It's deepseated, right in the core of the lake.

"At the moment you can get smoked trout without even pulling it out of the water," he joked - or I thought he joked. "I don't think this has happened before, not coming up from the bottom like that. The scientists here are monitoring it and if they get worried, it'll go to a stage one alert."

I checked further and Kerr was right. The big reef was seen as a plug to Taupo's core. It was being shaken by small tremors. Some uplift was occurring.

Was Taupo's lid lifting? The national press hadn't picked up the story, but it seemed to me, even before any formal first-stage alert that the story was a significant one, for Taupo's potential explosive power is colossal.

And I had to walk on - past that? The wind blasts alone from the last explosion knocked down whole forests about where I'm sitting now. Well, it makes your own problems seem minor, don't it?

Remember the blue bag? Days have passed since it bounced down the cliff, I have not looked inside it, and it has struck me that we are not dealing here with emotional intelligence, but emotional cowardice.

It is time. Pureora Village does not have mobile phone reception, so I will go up Mt Pureora to send this episode to the net. When I send it, I will open the blue bag. I will extract the Mavica and - if the gods are benign - take a digital picture of something, anything. If then this story ends with that something, anything picture then the story has a most happy ending. If it does not, then, kids, we have a problem.