Te Araroa gets bushed in tiger country, and reaches the Manganui-o-te-Ao river

I set off from Whakapapa, following the round-the-mountain trail for a time then branching off on a boggy Mangahuia Track to reach National Park township. In the afternoon I crossed the main trunk line that runs at the back of National Park and set off up a 4WD route - Fisher's track.

I followed a trail attractively edged with toitoi and mountain cabbage trees into Erua Forest. The stopover ahead was Te Ruke Lodge, a remote farm-stay on the Retaruke River just 14 kilometres away, but few reached it this way. Te Ruke's tourists came in by road, typically stayed a few days helping with the farm and riding horses, then left again on the Kiwi Experience bus.

Mt Taranaki

But I was rapt by a blue afternoon where, in one ten-minute span I left Ruapehu behind me in the east, and topped a ridge to see the faint perfection of Mount Taranaki in the west.

Glad too that someone - no names, no pack drill - had slipped me a stack of freeze-dried tucker. This wasn't the commercial product with pictures of happy hikers on the packets. The shrink-wrapped foil was olive drab, and the black print simply named the content and gave brief instruction to empty the content into a canteen, add water, then heat - army rations.

Not, you understand, that the food itself was drab. Muesli with its own milk powder and sugar mixed in. Khaki tubes of condensed milk, apricot jam, raspberry jam. Cabin bread. Instant soup. Whole freeze-dried meals of beef slices and beans, beef curry and rice. Diced apricots for desert. Tea-bags in sealed plastic covers. Single servings of coffee.

That stash of army food was a boon. Between where I now stood and Wanganui lay 140 km of rough travel, and not a shop in sight. The map showed range after range of steep soft land, and it showed no more than a handful of those little black squares that denote houses.

The New Zealand Government once enticed the ex-servicemen of World War I into this remote region with cheap rehab loans. The ex-soldiers cleared the land, and brought in sheep. In the 1920s the price of wool slumped and many amongst those first small-holders walked off. Farming here was too hard, too lonely, and, stripped of bush, the flanks of the razorback ridges slid constantly into the gullies. In 1936 the MOW spanned the Mangapurua Valley with a concrete bridge, but what was laid in hope became only a symbol of the broader failure. Its approach roads, like the abandoned farms, were finally overtaken again by bush, and it was named: the Bridge to Nowhere.

Soon after sighting Mt Taranaki I lost the track. The map showed a clear route through to Kurua Road, and Te Ruke Lodge was just a few kilometres on from that. I'd been told it was easy. I had advice from a National Park man who'd made the trek years before: just follow the main track when you come to the junctions. The map also showed a high-tension powerline coming through close to the track, I could see that, and felt secure.

No public road

But somehow I missed the turn. Maybe I lost the trail about where the Ruapehu District Council sign was uprooted, and a private property sign warned you off. A dispute was obviously underway here, but I went on anyway following a clear route downhill into a gorge.

I descended into shadow and damp, and above me the blue afternoon shrank. Sheep that hadn't seen shears for at least two seasons flounced away in front. The trail was bitten by slips, and one gushing waterfall had washed it out entirely. It wound ever-down, then spilt two ways. I explored both, one dead-ended in a grassy flat surrounded by bush, the other at a broad stream.

I unfolded the map and lined it up by compass. I suspected the watercourse was the Tupapakuroa Stream, two kilometres south of my intended route. I could go back uphill and try again, or I could go forward.

The map showed that if I stuck close to the Tupapakuroa Stream, I would exit onto Kurua Road anyway, about three kilometres downriver. Forward then.

The foundation of Taranaki back-country is the blue siltstone they call papa, and every stream cuts through it like a knife through geological butter. The Tupapakuroa Stream had carved out high narrow gorges, and to stay clear of those dark alleys I took off my boots and crossed and recrossed the stream, climbing away from it finally up a near-vertical bank. Nothing held. Chunks of the steep face skidded away underfoot. I hauled upwards on grass and bracken that came away in my hands. I was getting a first taste of the country that broke the spirit of the WWI ex-servicemen.

The sun was going down. I found a stock trail and broke out the Leki sticks to steady myself on a canter across rough land where fern hid holes and rocks. I came up to one of the Tupapakuroa tributaries. Even that small flow had cut a formidable canyon, and after crossing a stream that was barely a metre wide, I had to claw my way up a soft ravine, sweating and slipping on a muddy face that fell away to a 30-metre drop below.

I made the top. In the distance, the high tension wires swooped across the valley - I wasn't that far off-course and I thought I could see a farm track on the far side. I saw that much, and then darkness fell.

With the night, the bushclad hills seemed visibly to hoist themselves higher around me, and the sound of the watercourse below took on a sharper, less friendly timbre. I sat down and ate three gingernuts. I could camp, or I could keep on. I'd told Te Ruke Lodge people I was coming - if I was staying out, they needed to know, and I tried the mobile but there was no signal.

Better then to keep on and simply arrive. I dug for the torch and spare batteries, laying everything out in neat lines, then spotlighting each item as I checked it back into the pack, naming it aloud. I was talking, I noted with interest, to myself.

I picked my way down the slopes on a small circle of torchlight, crossed the Tupapakuroa again, hauled upwards through light bush, and found the stock trail. It was churned by hooves into suck mud that closed around every footfall with near-muscular strength or played its mud oyster trick - the water-filled hoofprint that compresses underfoot and squirts a surprising distance up your leg. But mud this deep also indicated a main farm race. The trail would lead me out, and every squashy metre of it was a pleasure.

I broke out onto Turua Road an hour later, sure of my position now, and walked down the road towards Te Ruke Lodge, checking the compass only as an afterthought.

The road was on a north-south axis, Te Ruke Lodge lay south, and the black needle pointed back over my shoulder. A magnetised compass needle is never wrong, and against every instinct, I reversed direction down the road. Things fell into place then. I'd been spun around, disoriented by the night, but I'd come right, and as I approached Te Ruke Lodge finally all the garrulous antibodies of my former anxiety were bubbling in the blood.

It was 9 pm, and a couple of young English women were sitting by the fire. I swung the pack off and sat down.

"Now that," I began, "was hard. I went down into the gorges and got bushed."

"Gosh," one of the English women looked up from a New Idea magazine, then went back to her reading.

"Golly, really?" said the second one, then went back to writing her letter home.

They went to bed soon afterward, but it was 1 am before I was ready, scrubbing and drying my boots, basking in the warmth of the fire, drinking tea. When I looked in the mirror before retiring finally, I still had hookgrass seeds hanging from my hair.

______
Baldy and Piripi Haitana

Baldy Haitana came up the next morning with his son Piripi, and we went over the next part of the route in detail.

I'd met Paul Haitana months before when planning the trail. DOC in Wanganui had advised me to consult fully with Whanganui River Maori when bringing the trail through, and Paul Haitana, a jet-boat operator on the upper Whanganui had been my first call. He was a pighunter too and knew the trails.

He'd quickly sketched in a route, written the names of private property owners, and as we'd packed up the maps I had only one question.

"You might like to suggest some more names, Baldy. I've been advised not to take anyone by surprise, and to consult carefully with Whanganui Maori."

"You have consulted," said Haitana.

Now he was back, and a great help. I'd have to do the first two days walking alone, and he listed the farmers I'd need permissions from. The third and fourth days included a river crossing of the Manganui-o-te-Ao near Pipiriki, Maori land crossings, and bush trails. It was a tricky section, and he'd try to arrange a tramping companion.

The first farmer I rang was Brian McAnnalley.

"You're going through to Pipiriki? I hope you know what you're doing," barked the telephone. "You have to stay away from the rivers in this country."

I warmed to him immediately.

"You jump down a waterfall," shouted McAnnalley, "then you can't get back up."

"That's exactly right," I said.

"Then you come to the next one and you can't climb down. It can take you hours to get out of the gorges, a day to get from one ridge to the next. It's real tiger country. What sort of maps do you have?"

"1:50,000 topos."

"You may need better than that. Call in on the way through and we'll have a look at your route."

McAnnalley

I stopped off that afternoon. McAnnalley spread my map onto the back of his quad, examined it closely and shook a sorrowful head.

"These guys," he said, "don't know shit from clay."

He stabbed a finger onto one of the little black squares that represent, in map symbolism, a house or hut.

"See this hut marked here? It's a couple of sheets of corrugated iron lying on the ground."

We went over my pencilled route. It included a paper road up through his own property, leading to an old bridge across the Retaruke River, then a track across the neighbouring farm through to a private thoroughfare, Erua Road.

I had my pencil out, ready to take notes, but McAnnalley seized it and began to redraw everything.

"No, no, no. The bridge isn't there, it's here. And this trail through to the Siemonek farm - the map shows it on the wrong ridge. It comes off the bridge here -" he was hard at work now with the pencil "- and goes up under that pylon on the hill. I'll show you."

We went to the edge of his farmhouse and peered up towards the pylon. We came back to the map.

"Look at this. They've shown the pylon down by the river." McAnnalley obliterated the offensive symbol with a few swift strokes. "In fact," he said, "the line is suspended across the valley from here -" he pencilled in the new pylons, " - to here."

He stood back. The map still wasn't right.

"This is just hopeless," he said. "Now this bit of trail for instance - it just isn't there. Don't even try. These maps are all taken off aerial photographs. A bulldozer track shows up clearly enough, they've got the photograph of it, but two years later its overgrown, it's gone."

I departed the McAnnalley farm completely unsure of my maps, but deadsure of the route. And he'd promised to speed me along the subsequent leg of the traverse by ringing the next farmer down the line, Don Siemonek.

I got to the Siemonek farm at nightfall, just as Don and his wife Velma arrived back from the Mystery Creek field day outside of Hamilton. Siemonek's son Kevin had taken the phone call from McAnnalley and had written the details of my impending arrival on the Formica table. Since I had now arrived and could make my own explanations, Kevin took a cloth, a chunk of butter, and rubbed it off again.

"That's my white board," said Siemonek mildly. "We're pretty country around here."

Siemonek family

Don and Velma had amalgamated four ex-servicemen blocks to get a sustainable farm. They'd begun 20 years before, when no phone lines existed and electricity was erratic. In the early days too he'd swung his fists on the hunters who regarded the area as theirs, and whose dogs, in the worst of a series of bloody orgies, had ripped out the throats of 40 sheep.

"It's still a bush farm," said Siemonek reflectively after we'd all eaten. "They said go west young man, and I did, but sometimes I wonder if I came too far west."

I bedded down at the farm for the night, and a poem in the loo suggested the long struggle.

Don't Quit.
When things go wrong as things sometimes will
When the road you've trudged is all uphill
When the funds are low and the debts are high
When you want to smile but you have to sigh
When care is pressing you down a bit
Rest if you must but don't you quit.
Success is failure turned inside out
The silver side of the clouds of doubt
And you never can tell how close you are
It may be near when it seems afar
So stick to the fight when you're hardest hit
It's when things seem worst that you mustn't quit.

Don Siemonek rang through to Geoff Gannon at Makino Station, and I hiked up to the farmhouse by lunchtime next day. Like Siemonek, Gannon was sympathetic to a poled trail through his farm, with one proviso. Trampers would have to advise him when they were coming through. His main stock trail ran alongside the Makino Stream, the gorges fell 80 metres straight down in places, and he'd seen it happen: the flock would be drawing nicely along the trail, then an unexpected stranger would appear in front of the mob, and they'd pour sideways over the abyss. He'd once lost 100 sheep like that - "and that's regarded as self-inflicted. You get no insurance."

I slept rough that night beside the clear waters of Manganui-o-te-Ao River. Later, I'd have to wade this river, and it looked manageable. But when making my report to the Trust months before I'd put in a bit of advice from the locals. "The Manganui-o-te-Ao River," I'd written, "can be dangerous to cross after rain."

That night it rained heavily, and in the morning the Manganui was mud-coloured and running high.