Te Araroa completes its four-forest crossing, and all its Christmases come at once
The trail was the river. After a short track section on the river bank, the DOC sign simply pointed riverward, and with a Leki in hand to stabilise myself I set off that morning wading up the Waipapa River.
It was a quiet, wet, walk, pushing forward through clear water on a summer's day with bush all around, the river murmuring and throwing dappled light up onto the trees and ferns.
Sometimes the river fell into deep pools. Wetness as far as the crotch, okay, but armpit wetness - no, and where the pool continued to shoal downward and the water rose until it touched the bottom of the pack, I turned back and climbed the bank into riverside bush, sometimes finding a rough trail where other trampers had diverted, and sometimes finding my own way through.
The day went on. The bush was a narrow serpentine corridor, wallpapered in the ascending, entwined patterns of green flock. And so tiny upon the liquid floor below that he seemed not to move but to be poised always in the moment of leaning forward on his Leki, the last bend of the corridor always just behind, and the next bend always just in front, was the tramper.
I will not bore you with such delights. After a time, everyone wants an end to delight - and so did I. After a time I wanted to quit the river. I became impatient. Christmas eve, then Christmas itself. I had people to see and presents from the road to distribute - a kitchen knife with a ti-tree handle made by Peter Griffiths, the hair of a Herekino wild pig, a giant kauri snail shell, a couple of brass bullet cartridges, interesting stones, they were all there, in the pack. Santa was on his way, and does Santa wade slowly toward C-day in thigh-deep water? He does not. They give him a sleigh that cleaves the air itself.
And when finally the DOC arrow pointed up the bank again, I hoisted myself up face to face with a sign that said, "Forestry Headquarters" - with one bold directional arrow. That simply fanned a days-ago voice on the mobile that had said. "We'll meet you Christmas Eve at the Puketi Forest Headquarters campground."
Impatience - it was a spoiler, it was a determination to reach a goal before the sometimes clumsy processes of its realisation had been met: the Waipapa River walk on this upper track curves slowly round to its headquarter destination, is well-kept and it is one DOC can be proud of. I photographed a lot of solid kauri moments, I glimpsed powerful ridges, and heard birdsong. I should have been happy upon it, but my mind was impatient.
Coming on home. The last stretch. No more than eight kilometres, but it was miniature razorback territory. For every ten metres forward I seemed to go five metres down, hanging onto roots, splashing a stream, and five metres up again. I got closer, but I'd begun to flag. Routed signs covered in black fungus, relayed a repetitive message - "Forestry Headquarters" - but without indication of distance. The sun set, and I was still following orange triangles and searching the wayside trees for any sign of campground grass beyond. I called out, and the sound damped and died in the forest. I had sufficient experience to know that whenever a bush tramp ends after a long day, there's always a final pinch at the end. I knew I hadn't done the last pinch yet, and as the trail climbed the ridge and thinned into manuka, I rounded a bend, and saw it there, stretching away steeply in front.
Done it. But then there was another. And after that another. At one point I took the pack off, lay down beside it for a rest, and realised I could have gone to sleep. Dusk had fallen, and I still had half an ear out for that rare sound, the evening call of the kokako, recognisable they say, as the sweetest sound of the New Zealand bush. And then I heard it.
The sweetest sound of the New Zealand bush, distant but distinct. That female call.
I almost deafened myself. That answering call of the male.
Miriam and Amos came on down the track, and took the pack. They led me into a campground with the kebabs ready to go on a campfire, and an old friend from Kerikeri, Richard Mecredy, busy about the fire, pushed a can of beer into my hand.
I remember the cherries, the olives, the black espresso beans in their dark chocolate straight off Ponsonby Ridge, toasted marshmallows, platters of cheese, cake, and later that night, as Miriam and I climbed into a bigger, roomier tent than I'd been used to, I recalled in my mind teasing Peter Griffiths.
"This forester of yours," I'd said. "Terrific sexual prowess of course."
"Tremendous endurance," Griffiths had replied. "As hard as wood."
So it was. I had crossed the four forests, and in my own book was an honorary forester at least, with the attributes of a Forester, Bushman First Class. And then I fell asleep.
Next day was Christmas and the celebrations continued. Miriam spread out the food and drink, we pulled crackers, swapped gifts, and we flushed from his tunnel tent the solitary camper in the next bay, who brought with him the one thing that had been missing from our Christmas lineup of food and drink.
Scott Johnson banged down a foil packet of fine ground Café Aurora Medaglla D'Oro Italian Style - coffee.
"I do have Scotch, if you prefer."
No, sweet fate! Coffee, if he knew how I'd missed it. And as I boiled water on camping gaz, you could pick he was a serious tramper.
"You'll need to put a lid on that pot."
Then, after the water boiled and I whipped it away, entirely focused on getting handfuls of the black gold into the pot before it stopped roll-boiling - "I'll just turn that flame off."
Sure enough, he'd done it. The very thing that had haunted me as I tramped alone, torn the anterior cruciate ligament during a hike through the Kahurangi National Park 18 months back, but walked out anyway, 18 kilometres over two days, continually pushing the ruined knee back into place as he went.
He tramped. He didn't approve of the mobile - though it had been beyond range most of the time - and the GPS. "I don't think you need this amount of technical equipment to walk through the bush. It detracts from the experience. Like me, with a metho stove instead of Ezigaz, though maybe it's because I just can't afford it. People think they've got to have all the gear, the polyprop and the polar fleece pants, but all you need is a pair of shorts, a T shirt, a decent pack and lightweight food, a compass, a good topo map, and bush skills and experience."
He was from Tasmania, but doing the Parks, Recreation and Tourism degree at Lincoln University. He had just come off Little Barrier Island, and was drifting up the coast in his yellow Toyota to see how the northerners lived. He'd been on the island for the past five weeks as part of his practical coursework, pulling introduced weeds out of New Zealand's premier bird and bush sanctuary. The weeding programme meant abseiling down cliff faces, or grid-searching the flats to find and pull the asparagus weed, the deadly nightshade, the Mexican Devil, the Pampas cerisia.
Or the new one - cannabis sativa. The Little Barrier drug bust of a few weeks before had touched a large number of people in the north. The DOC man I'd met a week before, Eddie Smith, had helped clean up the plot and had shown me on a map its Te Hue Point location, a cheekily short distance from the Boulder Bank, the island's only official landing place.
Then, the same day Peter Griffiths had dropped me off at the Diggers Valley Road, he'd collided with a car driven by one of the men charged with cultivation on the island.
Now there was Johnson: the police had pulled up the main plantation, a quarter-acre plot of around 3,000 plants some up to two metres high, but the weeders had come across another two small plots. Some story too about the men being surprised with bags of fertiliser under their arms - why? Uh - they just loved the trees on this island.
A German, Arne Asmussen, came across to ask about the local walks. He was a forester. He loved New Zealand bush - "but I'm a little bit sad about your commercial forestry, because you are planting a monoculture. In Germany we have tried this, but it attracts a pest that destroys the forest. And now we plant mixed forest: oaks and - I don't know the English names - buche, erle, birke. We start with fast-growing trees so the others are safe from the wind, but then we try to make the natural forestry work. And even if a tree is dead, you leave it where it is."
I told him my theory on why Germans come to New Zealand - to relocate their forest origins. Asmussen spread his hands. He had recently become unemployed in Germany. He was meeting his girlfriend here - such reasons, but then too: "In Germany you always know what lies over the next hill, but in this country . . ."
Amen to that. Right. Time, I said, for a bit of quality time with Amos. Cricket.
"Quality time? Cricket?" said Johnson.
"Absolutely. There is no reason why I should not deliver a Shane Warne flipper to my son and he should not successfully defend his castle," I said.
"You're a New Zealander and you can talk about successfully defending your castle?" said Johnson.