Bulls have horns, but the greatest threat to Te Araroa turns out to be public servants

Closed walkways at Puketi entrance

DOC's Puketi Forest noticeboard listed the forest walks, and was a dispiriting thing. Walk after walk was scratched through with a felt-tip, and the printed description of the walk over-written with the word "Closed". Two further walks had been overwritten "Route only" - a technical term indicating the track had virtually disappeared and advanced tramping skills, use of a compass and a topo map, were now required.

DOC was abandoning many of its trails. Twenty metres away from the noticeboard, lay a pile of uprooted track signs.

But my immediate problem now that the family had gone was to complete the ocean-to-ocean Ahipara-Kerikeri walk. The four virtually interconnected forests I had walked from Ahipara now gave way to privately owned farmland. Kerikeri was now only 18 kilometres distant by direct route across that farmland, or by the mainly metalled back-country roads the distance was some 25 kilometres.

Aside from the roads, and aside from the last four kilometres where a DOC track led from Rainbow Falls down the Kerikeri River to exit near the Old Stone Store, there was no public walking access over that 18-kilometre stretch.

If you were to wave a wand over this 18 kilometres of farmland between Puketi Forest and Kerikeri, and wish up the best route through, the wand would touch, of course, the highest farmland hill, and offer up, with a swirl of glitter, a magical view of the Bay of Islands, then descend to the other obvious trail determinant, the Kerikeri River, tracing it downward until it joined with the final 4 kilometres of DOC river trail.

Oddly enough, a trail did exist that pretty much matched that wish-list. When researching the continuous trail route for Te Araroa Trust, I'd found it on the topo maps, and I'd rung DOC.

No, I'd been told then. That was the old Kerikeri walkway, but it had been closed for years. There'd been a problem with the farmer and his bulls.

Bulls - who cares about bulls? The trail was too perfect not to give it a try. I rang ahead to the farmer.

Julie Wright answered the phone and I asked permission to walk. I expected a refusal, but she seemed quite open to the idea.

"It's pretty overgrown in places, but someone did walk down a few weeks ago," she said. "There shouldn't be a problem - there's a few mobs of stock with bulls in them, watch that, and if you get lost, our farm is centrally raced where we run the stock through, and you're welcome to use those races."

I pushed my luck a little further. I explained Te Araroa - it was the first attempt to find a pathway through New Zealand, we were testing the route etc, the closed walkway lay right on our track, and our trust would probably seek to re-open it - to the overseas backpackers, New Zealand trampers, the lot.

"Okay," she sounded interested. "I'll call Murray. He's down in the shed."

Murray Wright came on the line, and I explained Te Araroa.

"When the walkway was open, I enjoyed the people, no two ways about that." said Wright. "I met Germans and Swiss, and all sorts of people. I'm a keen fan of native bush and people getting out into the countryside.

"But when the government brought in the OSH legislation seven or eight years ago, everything changed. It made me liable for the safety of walkers on my farm."

Wright was talking of the Health and Safety in Employment Act 1992, which made every employer responsible for the safety of their workplace.

A farm was a workplace, so the farmer was responsible for safety on the whole property. The Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) regulations, drafted under that act, threatened fines of tens of thousands of dollars where preventable injury occurred. Farmers became cautious about letting anyone on their land and the HSE Act and its regulations had effectively killed walkways across the farms.

"I became quite hard-nosed about public access," said Wright. "I farm bulls, and there was risk. I was not going to bear that risk. Before the walkway closed I talked with someone in Wellington who wanted me to carry round signs warning where I was putting the bulls. I mean - these people don't live in the real world. I don't expect to get back to people coming across my land unless I have it in writing from the government that I carry no liability for the walkers."

"The public servants think up these grand ideas to protect the public but what they're doing is making babies of the public, and the public are not babies."

I came down by road from Puketi, and found the entrance to the closed trail. It was a clay track through grass and tussock, crossing at its beginning, a Landcorp sheep farm. I climbed old stiles, their stanchions still erect, then climbed to the trig point and sat gazing at the glittering visual sweep over the Bay of Islands.

View towards bay of Islands

I crossed onto the Wright farm, diverted round a paddock that looked from a distance to contain bulls, lost the trail and crashed through two bush-filled gullies, before finding the old trail posts again, their inset walkway logos covered with lichen. They led to an overgrown bridge and I pushed across.

Overgrown footbridge A startled pheasant rose so quickly from the riverside grass beyond that she crashed into fencewire, reeled back, then took flight. Paradise ducks flew from the river to divert the intruder from their chicks, and white-arsed pukekos ran springily away through the long grass. The river was just a few metres wide here, moving quietly along through pools.
Cows closed around me Bulls

Inquisitive cows closed around me in a semicircle of twitching ears, liquid brown eyes and wet snouts. I left the cow paddock, and entered a field of steers. The steers tossed their horns. They followed closely behind as I crossed their patch. I kept turning to face them, and once, when I turned, caught one of them showing off with a short, horns-down charge on the intruder. But it was a mock charge, I didn't feel threatened, and Murray Wright was correct. The public are not babies, and there is an instinctive side to ourselves that gauges animal behavior, and can separate what's hair-raisingly dangerous - I would have waded the river to avoid it - from what requires only wariness.

Why, with individual responsibility so much the nub of the new politics, does the Government insist on transferring a tramper's risk to a farmer? It makes no sense, and if a continuous trail is to be set in place through New Zealand, the OSH regulations as they apply to farmers generous enough to allow public access across their land will have to be struck out.

I road-walked the next section to Rainbow Falls, then went down DOC's riverside bush trail to Kerikeri. The Department has done this one beautifully, and near its end, the door open to trail-users, is a tall corrugated-iron shed preserving 1930s history - the original penstock, turbine and generator that brought electric power to Kerikeri. I found the green cast-iron casings at least as interesting as the relics elsewhere of Kerikeri as one of New Zealand's oldest settlements, Samuel Marsden preaching the first sermon here in 1815, the early colonial architecture, Kemp Cottage, the Old Stone Store etc.

I reached Kerikeri Inlet and climbed the hill to Kerikeri township. It doesn't do to look behind you on a long walk, but when I did on this last stretch I'd seen not just the steer swinging his horns but something a good deal more disturbing. The walking trails seemed to be closing up behind me.

I walked into the Visitors Information Centre at Kerikeri. Was there, I enquired, any off-road walk to Waitangi? No, they didn't think so. I walked on down Cobham Drive, then Inlet Road. I was feeling good, spending a dollar at a roadside stall for two avocado, peeling the stiff skins, and eating them down to the stone. I sucked juice from a huge lemon that had rolled out of the citrus orchards onto the roadside verge, and I noted that in Kerikeri, even in these rural outskirts, everyone mows the grass between their boundary trees and the road. Kerikeri is that sort of tidy-minded place, it's good and safe for walking, and I strode along eagerly now for this was my first time back here since 1995 and I had something I wanted to see.

A maori youth and a young pakeha woman and their two kuri came up the wide verge towards me.

- Were they locals?

- Yeah, sort of.

- Could I get through to Waitangi from this no-exit road?

- They didn't think so - then the maori youth had second thoughts.

"Through the forest - yes. Just past the Okura River, there's a way in - I did it once on a bike"

"That's a long way, to Waitangi," said the girl.

"Yeah, it's a good walk but though," said her companion.

That was better. Of course there was a track from Kerikeri to Waitangi. If DOC was closing up its walks, and if OSH had closed the private trails, and if this was also an out-of-doors country that liked its access, then the law of small-c conservation must kick in sometime. For every walkway closed another must spring open.

Of course there was a track from Kerikeri to Waitangi. In February 1995, I'd put the thing through myself.