Te Araroa meets Environment Waikato, is briefly buffeted by gales, sees a cracker sunrise, then crosses a mountain

Environment Waikato councillors
Environment Waikato councillors

Te Araroa Trust chairwoman Jenny Wheeler and I drove down to Hamilton to give a message to a full council meeting of Environment Waikato.

The regional council owns the stop-banks on the Waikato River. We asked them to open the stop-banks for a national foot trail, and we tied our request to one of the council's declared core functions -- enhancing public access.

We said it would be costless, except that the rental value of the council's riverside grazing leases might fall slightly. The trust itself would get the money to build stiles, and boardwalks over the few boggy bits.

We said the proposed walk, particularly between Meremere and Rangiriri, was highly scenic and had major historical interest too -- in 1863, the manouevres and battles along this river stretch decided the Waikato war. We said every farmer on the Meremere-Rangiriri section -- excepting only one drag-racing enterprise that was dubious but possibly persuadable -- had informally agreed to a national trail along these banks..

We made our pitch, but the hearings on the draft strategic plan to 2008 are busy days for council. We had twenty minutes, were questioned quickly, then Council Chairman Neil Clarke, thanked us, told us we'd be informed of council's decision in due course, I took a picture, and we were back on the street.

The Waikato River walk is a critical part of our trail. Like every good idea, Te Araroa is at present half rational, half dream. We had just rubbed shoulders with the rational side. An important part of Te Araroa had been put in the hands of these councillors, they would assess it, and it felt a little odd to pass the baton to people you didn't know.

"I think that went all right," said Jenny Wheeler.

"Yes, I think it went all right. It's hard to know."


I took advantage of the break to re-equip myself for winter, and the mountain walks that lay ahead. I dropped the Olympus two-person tunnel-tent, and bought a Macpac Microlite, a single-hoop tent just big enough for a single person to squeeze into. It would be less pleasant, but it weighed less than 2 kg, and with winter coming on I needed to carry more food, fuel, and clothing. I bought a Snowflake down sleeping bag, a light tuck-away item that compressed to just half-a-loaf-of-bread size and which, used inside my existing sleeping bag, would convert it into a four-season item.

I took the train to Taumarunui, then hitchhiked back to my mark, and set off again, winding up the southern end of the Hauhungaroa Range. It was dark by the time I reached the top, and Taumarunui had shrunk to a small boomerang of light far below. I crossed the saddle under a starry sky to the Waituhi Lookout, wrestled with an unfamiliar tent by torchlight, and bedded down at 900 metres. To the south-east lay black space, but I knew what would be there in the morning. I rang home to boast that I would awaken to the best view in New Zealand: out across Lake Taupo and the mountains.

I awoke next morning in dense cloud, shook and folded the dripping tent, and got going.

I walked down to the entrance of Moeraki and Oraukuru Farms. Te Araroa had, when designing its trail, put in a letter to the Tuwharetoa trustees seeking a crossing here. The trustees had yet to decide on that, but meantime I had individual permission.

In 1997, Borge Ousland became the first man to cross Antarctica solo and unsupported, and I'd had the privilege of talking to him in Auckland straight after the epic crossing. He'd stayed sane by playing Jimmi Hendrix's Purple Haze on the ear-phones, and by seeking each day the best piece of art. Ousland's route across the ice was milestoned by goblins, popes, and Henry Moore women.

Daily art?

The daily art. There it was, just as I moved out of Moerangi and onto Oraukuru. Standing out in the middle of the shaggy oval, a little encrusted now but that was to be expected after so long out of the action: Richard Hadlee appealing for an LBW decision.

Ahead the flanks of Tongariro loomed brown and I came on through Rotoaira forest just as the sunlight died on the mountaintop. I walked out along Access Road No 4 and SH47 stretched away south, dark and straight. In the distance, a faint bar of light fell across the highway. I'd walked 30 km that day, but the last kilometre was the longest, the light resolving at last into a Caltex star, an accommodation sign for Eivin's Lodge, and a happy picture of a trout on skis: Troutski's Café - Open.

Years back I read a book called Blue Highways by a half-Indian American, William Least Heat Moon. He'd circuited America in a Ford van, had eaten at roadside cafes often and developed a system of classification: they were either one-calendar, two-calendar, three-calendar, or four-calendar joints.

Least Heat Moon judged the ma and pa four-calendar places as the best. He never explained why, but it always stuck in my mind as a good rule of thumb, maybe because the more calendars are hung in a shop - small advertising favours for the local garage, the local baker, the hardware shop - the more likely it is to have the grain of the local community.

Troutski's had two calendars on the wall, but I gave it four-calendar status anyway. It was part fast food, part general store. A winged terracotta pig hung from the ceiling with a legend hung round its neck - Anything's possible, and Mick Jagger was singing: Sometimes I'm dancing on eh-yuh. And I get scay-yuh. I get scay-yuh. Trucks rumbled past on the highway, and a fingernail moon was pulling the Caltex star and the accommodation sign outside into a significant trilogy.

I wrenched myself away from a prolonged study of the shelves of food and drink, ordered up a burger and coffee and sat down. Two cats came out to stare at me.

Biker photos hung on the walls. A signed poster of John Britten's superbike took pride of place behind the counter. Close by hung a framed black and white photograph of a cartwheeling Ariel 1000cc square four, and two upended bikers, arms and legs akimbo, still in mid-air as they headed for the sandbags. It was captioned: "Cemetery Circuit, Wanganui, early 1960s." The cartoon cult biker, Werner the German, shouted "Beinhart!" from a huge poster alongside.

Brent Mander

"You're into motorbikes," I said as Brent Mander came out with the burger, and cuffed away the cat that was sharpening its claws on the fabric seats.

"As much as I can be with a seven-day business," said Brent Mander. "The shop officially closes Xmas day, but my religious day off is boxing day - for the Wanganui Cemetery Circuit."

"You race there?"

"I have done. Bucket racing. You take a bucket of shit - I had a Honda - and you race it. It's the black version of bike racing - an unofficial budget-orientated, fun-oriented version. But usually I go to watch."

"And maybe you knew John Britten?"

"I only spoke to him once briefly at Manfield - long enough to get the poster autographed. He was a do-anything guy, and my assumption when he first had cancer was that it wasn't life-threatening, and I wisecracked that - well, in that case we can expect a breakthrough in cancer research. I felt mortified later when I heard it was terminal, but I gather he did achieve something in that line."

"Everyone has a poem in them," I said. "That bike was Britten's poem. He's a kiwi hero now, and I've seen one of the bikes at Te Papa, but everyone was slow to it at the start."

"The media misses a lot," said Mander. " Like New Zealand's international bike racers. The King brothers are close to the top in the 500cc motocross competition. Aaron Slight in the superbikes - third place for the past 4 or 5 years - Simon Crafar has gone into grand prix bikes. You hardly hear about it - only the rugby. Ivan Mauger had to win the world speedway solos four times before they decided to make him sportsman of the year.

"From my experience kiwis are interested in all sports but the media don't assume they are. And the reason John Britten became so big was that he had a bit of what a lot of kiwis know they've lost - that innovative do-it-yourself, find-a-way-round-it thing.

"We've become like America - we like to think of ourselves as outdoor, rural, fix-it people but most of us aren't anymore. Eivin next door is very much of the if-something's-broke-how-do-I-fix-it, rather than the where-do-I-buy-another-one school. Someone at 72 who can run a camp like this - it's one of New Zealand's best-kept secrets - and still do a chinup to the rafters. He's still got it."

Eivin himself was overseas when I booked in, but his wife Lorraine gave me to a cabin, fully heated at just $12.50 a night, and with an outlying toilet, laundry, and shower block. It was all that a tired tramper could ask for.

My wife Miriam Beatson arrived next day to do the Tongariro Crossing walk with me, but when I rang DOC at Whakapapa, the forecast was forbidding.

"There's snow down to 1500 metres, south-west winds between 75 and 90 kph - gale force," said the phone voice. "Stay off the track, it's dangerous. I've already had one group call in by cell-phone from near Red Crater. They've abandoned the crossing. They're coming back."

"What if," I asked, "we walk up to Ketetahi Hut, overnight there and try for the crossing tomorrow?"

"Okay, you're coming from the northern side," said the DOC woman. "You'll be in bush, then you'll be on exposed mountain-side for an hour. The wind will try to blow you off the track, but it'll be uncomfortable rather than dangerous."

"And tomorrow?"

"It could be clear in the morning - then we've got more high winds coming in."

Miriam was already well-equipped, and waterproofed her pack further with a plastic rubbish sack. I went across to Troutski's, bought a woollen hat and, in hope of glaring snow the following day, sunglasses.

Brent Mander had written the same weather forecast onto his noticeboard.

"It's not looking good."

"We'll go anyway - as far as Ketetahi tonight, then hope."

Mander took me across to an aerial photo of the National Park's three big mountains. Tongariro's truncated bulk stood in the foreground, and the store-owner showed me where the route went through.

"I hope you're sure about what you're getting into. Mountain weather is changeable anywhere in the world and the weather on these mountains even more so. Just over here is the sea, and that maritime climate makes the mountains doubly unpredictable. The winds come in over 1000s of kilometres of ocean, and all sorts of pornography can happen very quickly. It's like the old joke about where a 500lb gorilla sleeps - wherever he wants. That's the weather around here - whatever it wants to be."

One of the newspaper clips on his noticeboard was a Wanganui Chronicle item on a 1992 death on the mountain. A fit Turkish-German 21 year old had gone up Tongariro too lightly clad and simply froze to death.

"Once you get onto the track, don't be afraid to turn back," said Mander. "Thousands of people do this walk, but I don't like the word walk. It's a hike. It's great - but you have to respect it. And stay warm. Hypothermia - by the time you start getting woozy it's because the brain is shutting down from lack of blood. At that stage your friends can save you. If you're on your own, tough, you may not even know what's happening. I'm told they found one fatality with his head and shoulders in his pack. Scrabbling to get his warm clothes out."

Miriam on the Ketetahi Track

It was mid-afternoon when Miriam and I set out. We wound through the lower reaches of the old volcano in bush, and got our first whiff of sulphur from the Mangatipua Stream. At just over 1000 metres the track emerged onto tussock and the knock-down wind.

A driving hail rattled on our hoods. Drifts of the stuff, no bigger than hundreds and thousands piled up around the tussock. Then it changed to snow. Miriam's rubbish-bag-covered pack crackled and snapped in the wind, and we staggered in the gusts, but kept a good pace and reached the faintly roaring cleft of Ketetahi springs just as daylight began to fade.

A DOC sign warned that trampers on the Tongariro Crossing had no right of access to the springs, but we were in no mood for stopping anyway. The hut stood above us on a ridge, and the wind swept us in finally through the streaming heads of tussock.

The hut was cold, DOC had removed the gas heaters after a problem with the things flaring, and a half dozen candles provided the only light. Still, the seven people who'd arrived before us were bustling around in the semi-dark. It was warm civilisation of a sort, and it got better.

I served Miriam a freeze-dried meal.

Three young Auckland women sat at the same table. They'd already eaten, and they were idly melting candlewax over the flame, awaiting the action.

"Mmmmm. That looks nice - what is it?" said their leader.

"Mushroom and vegetable pilaf, with couscous," I said.

"Cuss cuss - what's that?"

"It's made from cracked wheat. It's a Mediterranean dish," I explained.

The couscous had come out in slug-like rolls that were pure gluten on the outside, tending towards a dry centre. I don't know what I'd done wrong, but to get the food down your throat you had to work your oesophagus as violently as a chook.

"Mmmmm. Whatever it is, it looks nice - is it?"

"Yes, it's fine," I said.

"Is it?"

The question was aimed at Miriam.

Miriam is the most loyal person I know, but she is also entirely honest.

"Mmm-m-m-m-m-m?"

It was a doubtful assent, and the Leader of the Pack pounced.

"Ah cuss cuss," she declared. "Now Josie. When we do our geography paper - you know the one - Epsom Does Not Exist Except as a Concept in the Minds of the Rich - should we include the delectable cuss cuss as part of their diet?"

"It's pronounced couscous," I said.

The stroppy Auckland trio had after-dinner plans for the hut. First-up - table crawling.

"Axe-murderer Helen here," declared the Leader of the Pack, indicating her quieter, knee-hugging companion, "is a champion table crawler."

"What, is table crawling?" asked one of the foreign group

"The axe-murderer Helen will give a demonstration."

You lay face first on the tabletop, you went down and under the tabletop, you came up the other side of the tabletop, and hauled yourself back to the start position. During that circuit, you didn't touch the floor.

"I'd heard New Zealanders were mad," said Susan, the English doctor, from the shadows under the bunks as Helen gave the demo.

I was next. Someone grabbed my camera and took a flash pic of the ascent phase. I have filed it in my "Te Araroa's Most Manic Moments" folder. It was grimly slow, but successful, and as I lay prone back on the table top I heard the Leader of the Pack up the ante.

"Where I come from, they do this with packs on their backs," she cried.

And one by one, while we beat out bongo rhythms on the tabletops, everyone had a go. On and on, into the night, bonding with Tom from Scotland, and Kristen from Thailand, and Darren the architect, until, under the guidance of the Pack Leader, it was final confession time. Tell us your most embarrassing moment: Susan the English doctor won that one, I thought, with her tale of putting the wrong name on a death certificate.

Sunrise over Lakes Rotoaira and Taupo

Miriam and I got up before sunrise. Ketetahi Springs was churning beyond the ridge and sending up wild streamers of steam. The air smelled of sulphur, and from this 1400-metre vantage looking north, the land below stretched away to the horizon dark and rumpled, with inset mirrors - the lakes of Taupo and Rotoaira.

Short of serious mental malaise it is impossible not to be optimistic around a high-altitude dawn. Sol was climbing the right-hand cheek of earth. That's right, he was coming, and the bands of orange, pink and purple grew ever more vibrant until - Whack! - he broke the horizon and slanted a long yellow laser our way. The big tussock heads stood out suddenly like a colour illustration from the lines of the still-sombre text behind.

We watched the lower territories gradually light up. We ate rice risotto on the verandah. We talked to a pippit on the railing. My God, we were happy as fools. The DOC man, Bruce Ferguson, wrote the weather forecast onto the board. Clear through the morning, closing down in the afternoon. The predicted window of blue sky was moving through right on time.

The trail zigzagged up from the hut, through the intricate pillows of mountain vegetation.

"Look Hef - a gentian."

Miriam is a great sub-snow-line companion. She knows the name of the alpine flowers - even down to the Latin classifications.

"And look, a harebell. And these little lichen, crying out to the sun."

Snow berries, mountain daisies - I'd loaned her a Leki stick, and as the carbon-steel tip darted into the matted vegetation and forced one after another individual to stand to attention, I made a mental note to add one more item to my 1000 Uses for a Leki Stick list - botanical pointer.

We climbed to the bare rock, and ash.

Mt Tongariro

Tongariro is the ravaged old giant of the national park with six craters and one volcanic cleft. As befits the compensations of age, it has accumulated the most jewelry.

Blue Lake Crater, for starters. Blue, round, and looking distinctly semi-precious, set there amidst its circle of ice-encrusted rocks.

Down, then across the dun-coloured Central Crater, a signet slug of old lava surged halfway across it.

Miriam take a volcanic dip

On to the emerald lakes, the first and smallest of them frozen over and purely green. Fumaroles sent up clouds of steam from the shoreline of the largest lake, but it was edged with ice. My intrepid wife decided nonetheless to take a dip.

I sat eating dead-cold bits of chocolate. Dependent on who was putting on the extra items of clothing, or stopping for the drink break, we'd been passing, or been passed by, our companions from the hut all morning. But now strangers materialised on every outcrop.

They'd come through from the Mangatepopo Hut side. They were taking photographs, eating muesli bars, staring down at the views, and the clear mountain air was freighted with foreign accents. Above us, more people poured two by two over the summit of Red Crater. It was rush hour on the Tongariro Crossing. They moonstepped down the fine scoria in giant strides. Animated long johns strode past, their primary banded colours matching the purity of the emerald lakes, the red crater, the blue lake.

And then, as suddenly, they disappeared. I looked north, and a big bank of cloud rose over the ridge.

Miriam dressed, and we slogged up the side of Red Crater. With the eerie swiftness of mountain weather, the clouds rolled in, and by the time we'd climbed up the smoking cleft and onto Red Summit, there was nothing to photograph but my own Brocken spectre.

We came down an icy ridge onto the shallow snow and ice-encrusted mud of South Crater. Two more tramping parties came towards us out of the mist, and vanished.

Geoff's Brocken spectre

I tried later to deduce why people flock to the Tongariro Crossing. Partly, the mountain's great clarity simply encases you, like a block of glass. You feel - bulletproof, yet you also know it is a trap.

The subdued violence of it is a separate thing. The fissures billow and reek. You can hear the water boiling underground, and if you sit on those sulphur-stained rocks the steam washes over you, scalding hot and then, by a waft of air, freezing cold with the condensate. It is pole to pole extreme. There is no sound, and yet there is the sharp rattle of a falling rock. Everything waits, and I suspect a Queen Street preacher could declaim from these ridges the Book of Revelation - He opened the seventh seal and there was silence in heaven for about half an hour - and every pair of longjohns would stop in mid-stride. They might even listen up for what happens next.

We came to a signposted junction. That way down to the Mangatepopo Hut. This way up to a second mountain top. The mist was thick now, and the junction had elements of dream. Shadowy figures moved around us. The pale wooden sign that said Ngauruhoe Summit: Two Hours - what summit? The poled route stretched away into blankness. As I watched, a load of ice slipped off the sign and burst on the ground. A red pack was buckled to it, an ice axe hung from it - neither had an apparent owner. Heat-welded rocks reared in the mist, knobbed like iron, taller and more grotesquely extruded than anything down on terra firma. Six hooded human figures stood on top of the rocks.

Miriam and I walked down the old lava flow to the Mangatepopo Valley. The front-runners of a group that'd passed us in the mist across south crater were returning. They'd struck me then as unusual. One guy with a poncho made from a blanket. Another with camouflage trousers, and a KC insignia on his jacket - King Cobra? Bandannas. Sports shoes.

The first one to come past us now had no jacket, only a rough-weave shirt.

"They told me I'd be too cold, but nah. My father comes from the coldest part of Hungary."

He went on by, ignoring the track, making a swifter descent.

A second guy in jeans and sneakers and a black knitted cap over stringy blond hair kept pace for a while. They were part of a YMCA group that was on a six-week adventure course. They'd done the luge at Rotorua. They'd tramped. They'd camped. They'd gone caving at Waitomo. Next, they'd canoe the Whanganui River

"We've been together two weeks. We're family now, eh? It's been choice. It's so choice."

He talked. He was bursting with it all, then he left us and rock-hopped on down.

The mountain unifies you.

We passed them again 15 minutes later, having a smoke at the foot of the lava while they waited for the rest of their party. I guessed they were a bad boys group, the sort the voluntary social welfare organisations pick up and give a grounding in something totally unfamiliar, the outdoor pleasures of the New Zealand middle class.

Ngauruhoe appeared suddenly, briefly, at the back of us, slanting straight up to a near-perfect white-topped cone. I remembered the eyes of the black hat boy. That the world could be this good. His eyes - there was no other word for it - had shone.