Say it with Tim Tams - Paihia, Opua, and the Russell State Forest

Tourist craft waited at Paihia to whisk you anywhere, and lighten your wallet. Mack Attack with its turbo-charged 2,600 horse power Mack truck engines, or the Exitor with its twin 6.5 litre V8s could power you up to the Hole in the Rock at Cape Brett and back in 1 hour 30 minutes. Dolphin Discoveries could find you the porpoise packs, set you swimming amongst the creatures, and re-play underwater video footage of your mystical experience on the way back home. If you wanted to hook marlin, mako, or yellowfin tuna, the deep sea fishing charters left from here. The Fullers ferry could take you across to Russell, the original Hellhole of the Pacific, and you could join the historical tour, see church walls scarred by bullets from the Maori sacking of the place 154 years back, and the hill where Hone Heke repeatedly cut down the flagstaff.

There was a whole lot else, glow worm caves, and vintage rail, and Ninety Mile Beach return trips, but I by-passed all the tourist slates, the arcades and restaurants, and went into the Paihia Four Square store. I bought enough food to last five days, because I wasn't sure about what lay ahead.

Or rather, I did know. You could see it from Paihia, the distant horizon to the south-east was olive drab and shaggy with bush - the Russell State Forest.

I'd driven round the outskirts of the forest once at night on the convoluted Russell Rd. That interminable vegetative darkness converging on my weak cone of light - I remembered it as disturbing. Now here it was again, far away beyond the bunting, the little cream finials of mock colonial architecture, and the casual happy crowds, but not that far. It was New Zealand's natural state, rolled back for this little space of fun, and maybe it was just the contrast, but the forest seemed psychotic, waiting, like the Maenad-headed stranger who accosts you coming out of supermarket with your trolley, and picks over your shopping:

"Tim tams. I see you've bought Tim Tams. I just love doing it to Tim Tams - I've got a class five dental occlusion - an overbite, see that? And when I smash my jaws down on a Tim Tam I can break it into three bits."

I was anxious about the forest, and, as I set out along the Paihia-Opua walkway, I was undecided about how to get into the forest. When designing the trail for Te Araroa Trust I'd marked a continuous overland tramp right through to Opua, then faced the long deep Waikare Inlet. What do you do when the trail hits water?

Opua waterfront
Opua waterfront

Well, you cross it. Fullers Opua ferry shuttled vehicles across 750 metres of water all day. You could board that, but the ferry set you ashore at the closest lobe on the eastern side of the inlet, and to get to the DOC trail entrance to the Russell Forest, a tramper would then need to follow the Russell Road some 20 kilometres.

That was a sure option, and I wrote it into the report, but the roadwalk was long. In Auckland I'd pored over the topos and come up with a second option. Surely if you were going to cross water you may as well do it properly. Why not hire a little boat at Opua and go right up into the mangroves at the top of the inlet, step off at the little settlement of Waikare, and enter the forest from there? In that darkened computer room in Auckland, working with a magnifying glass on an old 1:25,000 map of the area, I'd found a 4WD track that led up from a Waikare back-road and followed the Papakauri Stream some distance. From there it seemed possible to keep following the stream up to link with the main DOC traverse.

Map of The Inlet
Map of the Inlet

I'd taken that proposal to Northland DOC - was there a trail up Papakauri Stream? They didn't think so. And, they emphasized, the boundary of the Russell Forest fell whole kilometres short of Waikare so that I was proposing - the word came out with the emphasis of impossibility - a crossing of private property.

Well, I didn't have to decide - yet. The Paihia-Opua walkway was a pretty coastal track that followed the rocky shoreline awhile, then became a bush-shaded cliff and hillside path dipping occasionally to the beaches. DOC signs marked the route, but the path itself, including its rest-awhile seats, and a boardwalk across a mangrove swamp, was completed by community labour in 1988. Now, because of the cost of maintenance, DOC was talking about closing this track too.

I was out of scale here. This big pack and its dangling water bottle. The topo map tucked in the side. The boots. That was fine on Ninety Mile Beach and in the forests. Here, where you could buy ice creams by just nipping up the road, and where the holiday makers were propped back on their beach chairs sucking on tins, I looked wildly over-done. Other walkers kept coming down the trail towards me in jandals and open-necked shirts, and they gave this other with the great gobbo on its back an extravagantly wide berth.

The tameness of this coast, where the waves merely lapped, was also having its effect. This was a safe bit, and I wanted to keep playing it safe. Option one. Option one. Option two had too many fish-hooks. Hiring a small craft at Opua, getting through the mangroves, then past private property - it all seemed too difficult. And even then - the Papakauri Stream had become in my mind a steep cataract with great boulders that forced you off it into deep bush, and there was the added worry that the stream might not precisely link with the main DOC traverse.

Option one, option one - it won the argument hands down, but by the time I reached Opua, I knew it had to be option two. It was as simple as that, but it didn't make me happy.

I eased my way into Opua by simply stopping strangers in the street and that didn't help.

"Waikare? There's a marae up there, but I'm not sure they'd want people poking around. There's quite a bit of the old wildwood flower in the hills there."

I stopped a yachtie coming out of the Opua Cruising Club, and he suggested talking to Ika Fisheries, an oyster farming company on Opua wharf that took barges up the inlet. I knocked on Ika's door and one of the owners, Eddie Cook, was sitting at the table. Yes, it was possible to get up to Waikare, but only on the full tide which wouldn't recur until 3 p.m. tomorrow. Even then, you'd need a local. Pity, his cousin had been down just yesterday from Waikare and he'd have taken me up.

"But if you haven't solved it by tomorrow morning, come back and see me," said Cook.

There it was, a catalogue of difficulties and, at best, delays. I sat down on a shopfront bench. All the cars that queue for the Opua ferry have nothing to do but stare at whatever's new on the local scene and that was me, eating a fascinating hamburger. Evening was coming on. "No Camping" signs were posted everywhere. I walked up the hill looking for a bed and breakfast or a motel, but everyone was full. The rest area at the top of the hill had the same no camping signs nailed up, but a good perimeter of trees. I pitched the tent there, crawled into the tunnel and zipped up the flaps on the entire world.

Funny though, that difference between the end of one day and the beginning of the next. I was down at Ika Fisheries early, and Eddie Cook got things moving. Ray Reihana had just changed the plugs on a Honda four-stroke outboard that powered one of the oyster barges, and wanted to test it. He'd take me about half-way up the inlet, and I could pick up the Russell Road, then turn down Waikare Road.

Four Maori partners ran Ika Fisheries. Three years ago they'd banded together, Ray out of forestry, Eddie a crane driver, another partner straight off the dole, and the fourth a rock sculptor. They'd gone to the bank and got a stake of $26,000. The first year the operation was $17,000 in the black, and now they planned to expand into Whangarei, into plant and offices that could handle not just the annual harvest and washing of 120,000 oysters, but the whole processing sequence, right through to restaurant distribution - "we're cutting out the middle man."

It was Maori industry. It was successful industry.

"That's right," said Reihana. "You can't keep looking behind you. You've got to keep looking forward."

Ray Reihana aboard the boat
Ray Reihana

Reihana dropped me at a beach, and I walked round to Waikare. I went up past the school into a Maori valley with stereo music echoing, and Maori farmers charging to and fro on their quads. Every time I stopped and asked, I was encouraged forward. I went up the 4WD track, and then I left the farms behind. The stream walk was the prettiest and easiest of my journey so far. Sapling bush was all around, sparse and winnowy, and whenever I had to leave the stream I found a trodden trail.

The young totara had a single mission here - a bit like those diagrams that show the disproportionate nervous sensitivity of the human body with every other body part overshadowed by gigantic thumbs. No matter how slender its trunk, every young totara had a single huge branch stretched out over the stream, gathering sunlight.

Papakauri Stream
Papakauri Stream

The Papakauri stream had everything. I swam beneath its overhanging bush, and dried off on its stones. I saw its reflections, its pools, its strewn rocks that made it look sometimes like a Japanese stone garden. Four hours in I crossed over one of its small rapids just downstream of a deep pool faced with two right-angled slabs of rock.

I heard a commotion behind me. I turned and saw his sinuous flick through the last of the shallows, into the deepening water. Gun-metal grey, a fat torso with two delicate shell-like fins shimmering, gelid eyes, and then the long body tapering away a metre or more. The eel just hung there, regarded me for a full ten seconds with as much intent as I regarded him, and then he glided slowly away into the grotto, and stowed himself under a rock shelf.

I went on up, and found the DOC traverse. Just 20 metres in from the stream was a DOC shelter, and I pitched camp in the evening, listening to the dusk chorus of tuis, their bustling through the trees, and later, in the darkness, the moreporks and the shriek of kiwis.