Christmas Eve waits for no man, and despite a setback, Te Araroa tries to match the speed of its approach

Time was racing towards Christmas Eve - and as for the walker, he was, what was the word? Trudging forward. I'd been careful to keep Te Araroa free of a timetable. Some of the walk was, literally, trailblazing, and my distances each day were unpredictable. I had also to get necessary permissions for some of the crossings, and sometimes I needed to sit still and just record the journey. That meant breaking out the Toshiba Satellite Pro 440CDX laptop, and writing up the latest episode. It meant downloading the photographs off the Mavica's floppy disc onto the computer, plugging in the BellSouth Nokia and its modem, making the data-call, and e-mailing the latest story and picture package out through the mobile to the web site producers.

It was all taking time - no matter, I was timetable free - but for Christmas eve 1997, I'd made a date. My wife Miriam and my son Amos had set up a rendezvous at the Puketi Forest Headquarters, the end-point of the four-forest crossing.

I was falling behind. The tramp Roger Gale and I had done through Raetea had made one false move at the logging camp, and we'd finished up at a forest edge 15 kilometres away from Mangamuka Bridge. If I was to do a continuous walk, I needed to pick up the trail again there, and I did - starting at the Williams house, re-entering the forest and picking up a forest track running south-east. The map showed it linking with another trail along the Omakura Stream. Either I missed the turn, or that link didn't exist. The forest track track tailed out, but I moved easily through the pines, then bush-bashed a short distance to find the stream.

I was alone and the bush-bashing was different. Roger Gale had said goodbye - he'd guided me across the two most trackless forests, twice the job he said he'd do at the outset, and he'd peeled off to catch up with his work. As the bush closed round again, as one leg sank through the false solidity of fallen punga fronds and the other struggled to maintain balance, I knew that if you copped a broken leg in here, you'd be just one more lonely and wounded animal trying to survive. But this is just a New Zealand risk, taken commonly enough and, given the size of our forest cover, the only surprising thing is that so few actually get caught.

I found the boggy stream track and followed it, flushing out two wild goats before I hit the highway. I reached Mangamuka Bridge at 4.30 p.m. The pub was not buzzing, the trance music was not playing, Harry Williams was not in - it was all too early, but with the long loop back from Kauaepepe Rd, I'd fallen a day behind schedule and, beyond downing three straight L&Ps and accepting the barmaid's offer to re-fill my water bottle with ice-cold water, couldn't stop.

Non-maintained Road sign

I walked on, up a road that a sign warned was unmaintained, to the edge of the Omahuta Forest. I found the concrete pads of the old forestry headquarters, and camped there. The crack of high-velocity rifles woke me later and I looked out to see searchlights sweeping the nearby trees. I played my own torch over the tent interior to announce myself as a bullet-free zone, then fell asleep again.

The road into the Omahuta Forest is not listed as a walk by DOC, but it may as well be. In that darkened computer room in Auckland I'd knitted it into Te Araroa's track plan, but without knowing the territory, and it was encouraging to see it unroll pretty much as I'd imagined. It was little-used - no vehicle passed me on the four-hour walk in. It often had grass growing on it, and with its kauri, and the smart DOC signs detailing this and that side-track, was a pleasant route.

Omahuta Road

Except that, having overindulged the previous afternoon on the ice-cold water from the Mangamuka pub, I'd set off on a four-hour tramp through this forest with no water left in the bottle. The day was hot, and the streams indicated on the map were dry. I finished up filtering the seepage water that had gathered here and there in the road's wheel ruts, so thirsty that I tossed each pumped cupful straight down my throat. Okay, to be straight about it, I finished the Omahuta Forest Rd walk drinking desperately out of road puddles.

The road ended at a forestry work-site. I sat down and took a GPS reading. The size of the bush ridges all around was daunting, and I wanted to double-check before setting off on another bush-bash. South 35 degrees, 14 minutes, 2.03 seconds: East 173 degrees, 39 minutes 36.47 seconds - after the GPS reading I knew precisely where I was, but the niggle recurred as I plunged back into the bush - no-one else in the world knew. No matter. I broke out of bush again on the Mangapukahukahu Stream. So far, so good. No trails join the road access that stretches deep into the Omahuta Forest in an easterly direction with the Waipapa River Track that traverses the Puketi Forest on a north-south line. Yet at the point I entered the bush, they are separated by no more than three kilometres, and most of that distance can be done down the Mangapukahukahu Stream bed. This route was part of Te Araroa's plan to connect up the forests, and so far it was proving easy.

The Leki sticks! When you're crossing and recrossing a stream, and trying to keep your feet dry, what balances you best on that slippery rock that protrudes above the rushing water, and what supports you, without the usual teetering and petty panic, while you take the time to choose your next stepping stone? Lekis do. It was a natural environment for them and all the way down the Mangapukahukahu Stream we prospered together. The feet got wet finally of course. I was standing on a rock, needing to take a very long stride over a deep pool that shoaled upwards to shallow water beside the stream bank. I plumped a Leki into the pool's sediment slope, leaned onto it, and began to transfer my weight across. The stick slowly sank beneath that weight, lowering me in helpless slow-mo into the pool. I pulled the stick up, expecting it to be half stuck in sedmient, but it jerked willingly from the water and revealed itself neatly telescoped to half-size. It was apparently my fault - I hadn't sufficiently tightened the tapered interlocking sleeves against each other and they'd slid one into another under my weight - but it was such a neat revenge for the humiliation I'd subjected the poles to on Ninety Mile Beach that I held up the offender and looked at it a long time, waiting for any hint of an incriminating smirk.

Stream and River meet

I rounded a bend finally onto the Mangapukahukahu's junction with the Waipapa River. I forded the river and set up camp, cooking up two packets of the mandatory two-minute noodles. I swam. I lay on the river's sloping shingle bank drying and watching evening fall. Everything was fairly right with the world.

My anxiety about being able to cross the Waipapa River was over - I'd simply done it. The big orange triangle nailed to a tree over my head had stilled a second anxiety - I'd made landfall exactly where planned, on the Waipapa River Track. That meant all the bushbashing was over, and although I wasn't familiar with the track, I was now sure I'd make the Christmas Eve rendezvous the following night. To finally gloss these satisfactions, I needed only, amidst the various birdcalls of dusk, to hear New Zealand's greatest living songbird, the kokako. For I had now crossed into the fourth forest - Puketi - and a number of rare kokako are known to live within it.