Te Araroa explores beyond Ahipara and prepares to enter a Bermuda triangle of bush

I borrowed John Locke's car, drove south along the beachfront, and turned up the Gumfield Road, climbing steeply to the uplands behind Ahipara. Before setting off on foot again, I needed to reconnoitre the trail. The plan I carried in my pack detailed a crossing of this old gumfield, then a traverse of four forests to finish at Kerikeri in the Bay of Islands, just over 100 kilometres to the south-east. But unlike Ninety Mile Beach, which is formally a walkway, the coast-to-coast route Ahipara-Kerikeri was often not a trail at all, simply a good idea for a trail.

I drove across the barren scrub-covered upland. This territory, bounded on its seaward side by Tauroa Cape, had for decades through to the 1920s supported a thriving industry, and a population of over 2000 people, many of them new immigrants. The Ahipara Gumfield was the place where many of New Zealand's Dalmatian families got their start.

That population was long gone and the road served only a few subsistence-style caravans set down clay driveways. Three kilometres in, a hand-painted roadside sign said: Whanau Whenua - Private Land. I stopped the car and saw a second sign, fallen from its post, half covered by weed, whose faded lettering declared: 'Tony Yelesh's Gumfields Museum.'. Even the museum seemed to have disappeared a long time ago. I drove on, and found the four-wheel drive track down which Te Araroa would turn from Gumfield Road. I headed slowly down it in the car, the wheels bouncing on the half-buried roots of a former forest..

Back in Auckland, I'd used a Claris Works drawing programme, to sketch in, with grids and a reasonable accuracy, a map of this area. I'd prepared a 44-page publication for Te Araroa Trust detailing a continuous foot trail for the North Island. A traverse of the gumfields formed part of it - everyone I'd discussed it with in the north thought it should be in the plan. The Ahipara field had been very big, and very rich. In two decades since the turn of the century it had poured resin into the world's linoleum, its varnish, and the high explosives of war. It was New Zealand history, and so I'd put it in - on paper. I'd drawn this 4WD track on the paper plan, and - dot, dot, dot, dot, on the computer, in red - I'd drawn in the trail along that road. Then, as the 4WD track ended, dot, dot, dot, I'd simply drawn the traverse down through a kilometre of private land to connect through to the Herekino Forest.

Now I was facing the reality. The going was getting rough, and I stopped the car and got out. The desiccated foreleg of a steer lay on the ground, hoof still attached. It looked like the people down here lived on home kills. I walked down to a collection of small shacks at the road's end. More desiccated forelegs, and dogs prowled. I knocked on doors but there was no-one home.

The traverse down to Herekino Forest from here looked easy enough, but it needed consultation with two landowners. There was a strip of Maori land, with Selwyn Clark in charge, and a spread further down belonging to Jim Berghan, a motel owner at Ahipara. I needed to persuade both men that the trail could work and might even be reason enough, if a national trail settled in, to reform the old museum. Many of the gumfields relics - the wash-down plant, the dams, hoses, and nozzles used for blasting gum from the soil, and the long probes were, I'd been told, still preserved.

But there was no-one home at Clark's place, and Jim Berghan was away from his motel at Ahipara. Time was beginning to press. I needed not just to traverse the gumfields, but to find a guide through Herekino, the first of the four forests I had to cross.

Back at the Locke house that night I rang Eddie Smith. Every time I'd rung DOC's Northland conservancy, seeking advice on crossing the four forests, that same name had come up - Eddie Smith. He was the best bushman around, but he was always out in the forest shooting goats, or doing what was called compliance and law enforcement - hunting the native bird poachers, or, most recently, cleaning up after a drug bust on Little Barrier Island..

But this time Eddie Smith answered. I explained Te Araroa, and my need to cross the forests west to east, an unusual direction which would have to use unsignposted hunting tracks and go through some untracked forest. The bushman warmed to the idea.

"You'll need to go in on the old trail at the summit of the Herekino Gorge Road. The hunters still use it, but remember - you're on a plateau that brings you down naturally to Wainui, and you don't want to end up there. You'll find the horizon lets you down, and it can be difficult. The poachers have taken the markers off the trails and faced them in a different direction. You need to sidle east there, and that gets you through to the Herekino logging road. That's part of the old walkway and it's easy - turn left when you hit the road, and right at the next track intersection. That'll take you past Taumatamahoe, and watch for red tape leading off the track - I've already marked the route up to the top with tape. From the summit you can just drop down the ridge - you'll do the crossing in a day."

None of that meant anything to me, and I asked him to act as a guide. No, he couldn't. The DOC work was full on at that moment, but if I wanted to bring the maps round that night, he'd mark in the trails.

Eddie Smith was a short barrel-chested man with a big open face, a direct descendant of Serb immigrants who'd worked on the Ahipara gumfields. He had a handshake like hitting a slab of clay, and he led me past the glow of his outdoor security lights, through a corrugated-iron semi-round barn filled with vehicles and into a house that opened straight from the barn to the sitting room. It was decorated with photographs of sports teams, a poster giving every specification of the crack Italian Benelli rifle, a framed photo of an American eagle, and in pride of place, swell-breasted, and iconic against the branching crown of a kauri tree, a picture of the kereru, the native woodpigeon.

Eddie Smith took my 1:50,000 maps and marked in a trail. I could do some compass work, and was reasonably bush savvy - did he think I could handle the Herekino Forest alone? He did not. Herekino was a very confusing place. Every hill was roughly the same height, and that made navigation, particularly over the first section, very difficult. Herekino was the Bermuda triangle of the Northland native forests.

I went back to the Locke's. I tried to raise a guide Eddie Smith said might be available, but he wasn't home, and it was Caroline Locke who suggested an alternative. Roger Gale, a local hardwood forester and mobile sawmiller was the kind of man who might take on the challenge. I rang Roger and explained the trail. He was immediately interested, but he had commitments - a bit of salvage timber he'd promised to take out of the bush. He'd see what he could do. An hour later he rang back. If I could meet him at the entrance to Herekino Forest at 9.30 tomorrow morning, he'd take me through....