A bird sings, a tree talks, and the deer hunters' guns stay silent

At 7.30 on my second morning at Pureora, DOC's Ian Marshall took me out to listen for the kokako.

The bird with the blue wattles, the black eyemask, and the great voice is found in Puketi Forest, the Hunuas, and at Mapara near Te Kuiti, and I'd been to all three forests, but heard nothing. When a kokako sings, I'd been told, you know it. You know it even at a distance for the bird's low notes have a resonance that can penetrate two kilometres through bush. But kokakos are rare.

Kokako
Kokako -
Courtesy of Kiwi Wildife Tours

Now the olive silhouettes of the forest loomed in a dense mist. We stopped the truck, got out , and almost immediately I heard the sound of a glass gong.

Once, twice. "That's him," said Marshall.

Stupidly, I began to scribble. The mizzled atmosphere diluted the ink and it ran down the page as I tried to trace the song.

"Ah-ooh-WAH" I wrote in my notebook.

I look back at it now. The phonetics are like something from a comic. Water-smudged lines waver across the page in an attempt to record the bird's superb ability to swell and diminish its notes. "Interval of a fifth" I wrote, in the one note that still makes brittle sense. I used circles for the pure tone notes with their vibrant harmonics, and strokes to indicate the clicks and the little grace notes, the tooks.

The power of it in the mist! The impotence of the notation! Twice I simply wrote "yearning" and I look at the aide-memoire now and wonder why I bothered.

It may be that we need a ritual for the kokako's song, something that abolishes your wretched intelligence and opens your mind. Falling to your knees would do it.

The pure notes dropped from the top of a tall kahikatea, and the mist closed around them the way deep space encloses hanging globules of water, and then they vanished, rolling away from the borders of classification.

Marshall took me into Pureora's Pikiariki Block. By standing in the right place below the big trees I could see, jutting out from the epiphytes, the corners of wooden pallets. On the ground lay a rotting coil of rata vine.

"They used that," said Marshall, "to climb."

In the 1970s the Forest Service ran Pureora. It logged the old forest, root-raked, then Paraquated the earth, set fire to the dessicated remnants, and replanted the bush with pine.

In 1978, a group of what would now be called NGOs, the Native Forest Action Council and others, called the Forest Service to account.

Twelve people slipped into the forest and climbed on vines up the giant trees. The twelve then lowered ropes to their support teams, hauled up pallets, lodged them in the epiphytes, tied on their leg-ropes, and settled down. New Zealand was set for its first tree-top protest.

In the morning the bulldozers arrived. Stephen King, his brothers Bernard and Sam, and the other nine watched the bush heave and sunlight stream into corridors as the bulldozers moved in on the totara giants.

I rang Stephen King later. Would anything have made them quit?

"What would you do," said King, "if you lived in an old mansion, full of treasures, and bulldozers started coming through the walls to wreck it?"

Television had headlined the protest and the loggers knew the 12 were in there, but not where. They may have suspected a bluff. At any rate, felling got underway. On the third day, loggers dropped two old giants, trees so old their interiors were rotted and the angle of their fall unpredictable. Then a third tree spoke. Bernard King, crouched on a pallet in a tree just 10 metres away from the crashing giants had risked death by his silence, but now he called out.

The cry so shook the Forestry Service workers they downed tools. The issue went to Cabinet, the government called a truce on safety grounds, then reprieved the Pikiariki block, the last remnant of giant totara in the country. The Kings had saved the Old Kingdom.

I stayed at Pureora Village for three days. Outside, rain swept the forest, and my next walk was a three-day bush traverse down the Hauhungaroa Range. The walk was classed as a route. That meant I could expect some markers, but it would be a fairly primitive track, nothing you'd want to do wet, and I waited for the sun, writing, listening to music, and reading the science magazines.

Titiraupenga

I set off at 7.30 am as the sun rose, and reached Mt Pureora's summit, on a track that was nicely boardwalked, at 11.30 am. I was 1165 metres up, and a freezing southerly numbed my hands. I crouched in the lee of the summit cooking up a packet soup of pea and ham and basking in the view. Lake Taupo lay blue to the east, the steep volcanic plug of Titiraupenga's summit stood immediately north, and beyond it, the Kinleith Mill sent plumes of steam skyward. Out to the north-west, made hazy by distance, was Pirongia.

I reached the first hut on the route, Bog Inn, at 3.30 pm and went to bed with the darkness, sound asleep until a powerful flashlight swept the room. I had a staccato vision of a Swandri swinging its pack off, and muttering the sort of stuff that shakes you awake.

"Whoop. I haven't unloaded the rifle."

Click, snick, snap.

"Yeah," the hunter was still talking to himself. "You're supposed to do that before coming into a hut."

Jos Holten
Jos Holten

"You're late in," I said. "What's the time?"

"12.30."

I was talking to a good keen man, Jos Holten, from Ngatea. He had deer on his mind, and quizzed me right then. What track had I come down? Had I heard any stags roaring? Seen deer sign?

I hadn't.

The deerhunter poked his nose back out of the hut, opening a night full of stars.

"Hmmm. Windy."

"Meaning what?"

"The wind keeps away the frost. You've got to have the right days, and I like to think the frost makes a difference, Still, it won't be wet tomorrow. The deer are like cats. They like to hide away when it's wet."

I went to sleep and dreamed of a man with a gun. A flat yellow light came out the end of the barrel.

Next morning Holten was gone early. I ate cold rice from the previous night's cookup, and went over the hut book. Hunters used the hut mostly, but there was no boasting about deer kills, only the lack of them, the lack even of deer sign.

"Saw jackshit," wrote one hunter.

I was more interested in a tramping entry. Eric van Hamelsveld's party of three had lost their way just two weeks before on the route from Bog Inn to Waihaha Hut, turned eastward to try to break out of the bush toward Taupo, then stumbled back onto the track to Bog Inn just as night fell. By that time the Christchurch party was, as the entry had it, "cut to threads, bruised and demoralised." They reached the same hut they'd left in the morning, and the entry ended with manifest relief: "Partied hard."

Despite that warning, I made a similar mistake. An apparent trail led directly south from the hut, and I followed it, stumbling around for half an hour in a giant bog, with ice crunching underfoot, and swamp-water spilling into my boots, before examining the maps more closely and figuring that the only sure linkup to the Waihaha track was not to depart south from the hut at all, but to first retrace some of yesterday's route.

The path was then clear, the day was fine, and I was following the fresh spoor of Ces Holten's runners. I tracked him for an hour, before the hunter veered off into bush, and just fifty metres further up the trail I picked up the high-heeled prints of a deer. Hunter and quarry had obviously heard each other, but I guessed the deer had given its hunter the slip, for I heard no shot that day.

Coprosma foetida
Coprosma foetida

I tramped the summit ridge. Coprosma foetidissima grew along the trail, and I plucked it as I passed. I like this stuff. I like rolling the leaf between my fingers in contemplation of evolution's inventive defences. Like thinking of the moa plucking this same rather tender shrub, chewing it briefly, then yeeeeetch!

I like bringing the leaf suddenly to my nose, and there it is. The same recoiling head. The same yeeeetch! The same bad gas that made the moa gag. The smell of a pungent fart.

Around me even the Halls totaras, slimmer, mountain versions of their more massive lowland cousins but still the biggest trees on these summit ridges, were clothed in green moss. The green velvet smothered everything but the trunks of the native fuschia. The tree frequently sheds its bark and it stood out pink and strangely muscular from the surrounding goblin forest, reaching up like human limbs from the earth.

Halls totara
Halls totara

I reached Mt Weraroa then descended into podocarp forest. Rimu, totara, matai, and miro, supported epiphyte cities high above me. The big trees opened up the forest floor to sunlight and strewed the ground with a pleasantly springy brown carpet. I was struck by the forest's own cycle of decay. Lost limbs had fallen across the track. They'd simply sheared from the parent trunk and lay there, still supporting their population of parasitic plants and vines.

Or whole giant trees had crashed. I saw three, one with the ground uprooted around it, and two whose trunks had simply split. The still-verdant foliage on one old fallen rimu suggested it had splintered and fallen within the past month.

Faulkner and McMillan

I came in to Waihaha Hut at the end of an eight-hour tramp, and two more deer-hunters, Peter Faulkner and Bruce McMillan from Auckland, already had the range stoked and were cooking, and drinking their rum. They'd been hunting during the day but shot nothing. McMillan went to the verandah with his black growler tube later and gave a slightly disconsolate roar. No-one answered.

Deer, and the dreaming of deer, dominate the Hauhungaroas.

I completed my traverse next day through smaller forest of tawa and tanekaha, on a clear route where leaf litter crunched underfoot, where the trail again reached cloud level, where ruffled green profusions of liverwort edged the track, but when I reached the derelict Nuffield Hut at the end of the day, there it was again.

Hunters had used a candle flame to smoke onto the ceiling a giant stag with a joint hanging from its lips.

As I left the forest, I explored a deserted punga-log whare with a window made from a gutted TV set, and there it was again: the main picture, ripped from a magazine and stuck to the wall, six glossy eight-pointer stags.

Then I called into the first roadside farmhouse and saw, as befits a more substantial dwelling, and painted yet more gloriously now onto black velvet, another stag of your dreams.

George Conrad
George Conrad

George Conrad was a sheepfarmer, but he hunted. First question - had I seen deer or pig sign on the trail I'd just followed? This time I had, following the tracks of a big pig for whole kilometres during the last day.

The Hauhungaroa hills, Conrad told me, as I crunched his toast and marmalade, and drank his tea, were now short of game. DOC was grooming the bush, and flattening the deer with 1080, but what use was bush without game?

Through trampers like myself were rare - he estimated no more than five a year. Hunters outnumbered trampers 100:1 in this neck of the woods, but they were stalking discouragingly few animals.

"I go hunting once a fortnight. I would get a pig every two hunts - a deer every six hunts. DOC organised a contest over the roar, 20 March to 20 April, but the animal numbers were poor to non-existent, and my point is this. Why have native bush if there's nothing in it?"

I watched a video at the Conrad farmhouse, Rails in the Wilderness. It showed old footage of the railway that once penetrated 26 miles into the Hauhungaroa Range and brought down rimu and totara logs to the steam saws of the Ongarue Mill. In the 1930s the now-vanished mill was the biggest in the country, its logging trains puffing along the longest bit of private railway in the country. The potter Barry Brickell talked to camera, recalling a ride on this steam engine as a youth, over gorges, through cuttings and overhanging canopies of bush. From that sprang his lifelong love of bush railway.

And then came a sequence that sat me bolt upright . The cameraman had shot from the rear of the train looking down the line of single totara and rimu trunks. Far in front, the engine blew up gouts of steam, but it was the tremendous girth of the timber that held your eye. And then, into shot like a stuntman in a movie, a singleted man swayed and ran down the long line of the logs. With no more hesitation than a jogger high-stepping a puddle he jumped the fatal gaps between the logs, and went on, occasionally throwing his arms out for balance, until distance diminished the dance - a leaping lumberjack to chill the blood of OSH.

The force of it! The disappearance of it! The log man sealed in his jar, who was and never would be again. George Conrad was making a point: the old logging route was still there, he and his wife Sue had walked much of it - why could it not be developed for the tourists, the railway re-laid and lunches provided while the holiday crowd passed over the gorges, beneath the bush, and watched this very footage on video?

And I sat there thinking: whatever. But this is art. This is real art.

The Hauhungaroa track had brought me out too far west and at Conrad's suggestion I walked some ten kilometres south-east across his farm, and the neighboring one to bring myself back onto Te Araroa's proposed route through to Tongariro National Park.

I walked over the green tops towards the mighty valley of the Taringamotu River. I photographed an old stump on the farmland, evidence of the old clearances and a cliche now. Eric Lee-Johnson did black-stump New Zealand way back in the 1930s.

I thought about art. New Zealand has had a strong literary tradition of backblocks and bush people, the marginal farmers, the deer cullers. People recognised in it New Zealand values - mateship, vernacular speech, the hilarities and hardships of a new country - and whatever the tastemakers said, this was the main popular literature.

stump

Writers like Jane Mander used timber camp settings, Frank Anthony's Gus Tomlin series gave the backblocks farm its humour, Jim Henderson dug the true stories on the hunters, the miners, the bushmen, the roadmen. It was a down-to-earth literature, and the list is long, but the final benchmark where you can see the tide turn and begin to recede is Barry Crump's books. Beyond those, all that has lasted into the 90s is Murray Ball's Footrot Flats comic strips.

New Zealand has become dominantly urban since, its writers and reviewers and journalists more concerned with style, of staying ahead of the game, of relegating New Zealand ideas back to their decades, as if decades were prisons, and dismissing them as uncool.

I wasn't so sure. Walking Te Araroa, I was still meeting these country people, and their countryside and bush were still fundamental forces.

Some things have changed. The 90s trampers, with their polyprop, and Gore-Tex and pot nests have now overtaken the bushmen with their oilskins and blackened billies, and are probably more numerous now than the deer-stalkers.

The DOC scientists, university graduates with their rat tunnels, bird bandings, their mist nets, their concentrated excitement about the brown petals and rotten smell of the rare parasitic plant, Dactylanthus taylorii have replaced the Forest Service's roll-your-own blokes, and their seat-of-the-pants practical knowledge.

Trampers spend leisure hours in the bush, they don't work there. Those who do work there, the DOC scientists, are bringing the bush back to some kind of original state - I'd read DOC's latest strategic plan back at Pureora and it was titled, significantly, if not particularly accurately to the text, Restoring the Dawn Chorus.

Non-fiction literature at least has followed this trend. Beyond the high-quality taxonomies that J.T. Salmon and others are so good at, the flagship book of the 1990s is probably Geoff Park's Te Uruora - The Groves of Life (VUP 1995). The book chooses a number of perfect natural remnants, primal kahikatea stands on the Hauraki Plains etc, sets them in an historic, and cultural medium, and recalls a vanished radiance.

The new idea is clear enough - natural purity. Craig Potton's photographs, and those of Andris Apse, present New Zealand wilderness as an untouched place. Where once a photographer might have shown a waving summit party, now not even a footprint disturbs Potton's Ruapehu's Crater Lake in Winter. The image is spiritual - religious even. it has the same force that drove the Kings at Pureora in 1978. The old totara forests are spiritual groves. The kokako's song is a pantheist poem. The mountain has only its existential clarity. The new vision hangs in calendars and prints on the walls of the cities, and does not include galoshes, nor the blood of animals, nor tell a human story.

I don't know that it's yet enough. The new vision excludes our fumbling lives, and the skillful layers of our past. It makes no admission that it is a New Zealand culture that makes every decision, even the decision to frame people out.

I walked on. Maybe thirty kilometres away, the land sloped abruptly into cloud. I was approaching the mountains of the Central Plateau, but when I reached the Turangi-Taumarunui highway, I marked my place and hitch-hiked out. Te Araroa had a date with Environment Waikato. The Trust had been invited to give evidence to the regional council in support of our proposed walk up the Waikato River. I needed to break my journey to do it.