The metropolis tugs at Te Araroa, the heat wave wilts it, seeds stick to it, but youth supports it.
The 25 kilometres of bush-clad ranges between Leigh and Warkworth needs very little development to transform it into a 20-kilometre through trail, part of Te Araroa.
Tracks already exist through most of it. A few kilometres out from Leigh, Rodney Rd turns into a paper road that traverses farmland, then enters Omaha State Forest, tracks onward to the summit of Mt Tamahunga and out the other side. It is not a formal tramping route, but enterprising trampers use it anyway. It takes you through to Dome Forest, and you can pick up 4WD tracks there that pass close to DOC's Dome Forest track. Once on that track it's a shortish walk out to State Highway one just above Warkworth.
The challenge was to connect up the various tracks. We'd done it already on paper, but how would that stack up in the real world?
I rang the DOC field centre at Warkworth. As usual, it was a goat-hunter who knew the forests best, and Reuben Williams arranged to meet me at the Leigh pub.
We went over the route on a topo map. Williams traced the track to Tamahunga and pointed out an old pa site just below the summit. He knew the history, he was Ngati Wai and it was family history. Hearing that Waikato prisoners were being maltreated on Governor George Grey's nearby Kawau Island in the 1860s, the Maori chief Tenatahi sailed over on a scow with a rescue party, freed them, and everyone fled back to Tamahunga. Tenatahi was Williams' great great grandfather.
It was Williams who first mentioned Auckland: the city was still 65 kilometres distant as the crow flies, but from the top of Leigh Hill, he said, you could pick out the flashing aviation lights on Auckland's Sky Tower.
I set out from Leigh at 5 am next day to glimpse those lights. The city was already close enough that you could feel its pull, the traffic it generated, the people it shook loose and I'd already been recognised once at Leigh by a fellow Aucklander.
But the Leigh Hill didn't do it that day. I climbed into dense cloud. Even at daybreak I was still using a torch to check the road names. Then, as the light gradually penetrated, Rodney Rd turned into a perfect paper road, a wide stretch of grass fenced either side to keep stock off. It degenerated later into a rough track through gorse, but there was always a road marker sticking out over the gorse to guide you through, and once the trail hit Omaha Forest bush, the route to Tamahunga was clear.
I came down onto farmland on the far side. Something was wrong. The trail wasn't meant to exit on a farm, but right then I was distracted by the first friendly sheep I'd encountered on the trail. It bounded over, licked my legs for salt, and breathed heavily onto the camera lens.
I went down a farm race, past the barn where a dog bounded out snarling and snapping at my legs until a farmer, John Williams, emerged from the farmhouse and called the thing off.
He apologised for his dog, and I explained it wasn't my plan to blunder onto his farm. Over a cup of tea he took the map and showed me the wrong turn I'd made at the summit, a mistake that had dropped me four kilometres east of my planned exit point. That was disappointing - I'd calculated the 5 am start would give me enough time to get through both the Omaha and Dome forests in a day. Still, John Williams was good value. He was a tramper's dream. He let the Auckland Tramping Club and others park their cars on his land, using the farm, and the track I'd descended, as a route to Mt Tamahunga.
"The way I see it we're lucky to be here and I'm prepared to share - but if you break a leg or something on the farm, don't moan," said Williams.
John Williams' wife Martha arrived home and I laid out Te Araroa's blueprint for them both to look at.
"A national track - yes," said Martha. "It's a great idea, and I'd suggest that the children from local schools could look after sections of it. At the moment they sit at home and watch TV, or they're at the video parlours. The kids from the city schools in particular - how many of them ever go out on a tramp? But I'm biased about these things."
Martha Williams worked as a teacher at the Matakana Primary School. I mentioned the friendly sheep at the back of their farm. It belonged to their daughter , seven-year-old Sian.
"She's called Rosie. She ate all the lacebark trees we'd planted up the drive and we had to banish her," said Martha. "When pet day came up at the school we had to retrieve her from the back paddock, but she still won first prize."
I crossed the Williams farm, then the adjoining farm, and picked up the 4WD track that led off Govett Wilson Road into Dome Forest. I was hurrying now, and I was quickly through to Conical Peak, but there the 4WD track diverged.
The map showed no such divergence, but the main track was clear enough. It led away right, and was the same one Reuben Williams had recommended. Follow it some 4 km, he'd suggested, then bush-bash two kilometres across to the Dome track. No-one had mentioned a left-hand road, it looked newish, and to a man in a hurry it looked to head off in exactly the direction I wanted.
The topo map showed an orange forest road abruptly halted in the valley south-west of Conical Peak. It was labeled Waiwhiu-Conical Peak Road. Surely the map simply hadn't caught up with the forestry road development, and surely, a road named Conical Peak Road, must be planned to reach the peak where I now stood? To a mind in a hurry, this road that diverged left was simply the completion of the Waiwhiu-Conical Peak Road, the same road that had the sublime attribute of passing within a few hundred metres of Dome Mountain. If my guess was correct, the left hand divergence could save me two long kilometres of bush bashing.
I took a compass bearing and went left, but it was soon obvious the road was curving gradually north-east, not south. The compass arrow pointed, at times, back over my shoulder, and the road finally tailed out in a grim little cul de sac where the bones of slain deer were tied to the surrounding pines like presents hung from a Christmas tree. A few imprinted bootmarks in the mud trekked away west into deep forest. It was a primitive ridgetop trail, but it was headed the way I had to go. I followed it in.
Another hour, and dusk was drawing in. I'd grown anxious. The forest seemed suddenly immense. There were pines all around - silent. I could see across a chasm to a high ridge on the other side - pines, more pines. I spread out the map, and tried to figure exactly where I was.
The map: its contour lines never quite prepare you for the scale of the country you've entered. The map: the forest roads it portrays in bright orange are never matched, when you stumble out onto those same roads, by the dusty grey of reality. The map: its representation of a pine forest - exactly 36 of the neat tree symbols to every square kilometre - hardly does justice to the sheer presence of a big pine forest. There are millions of the things, a vast monopoly blanketing the hillsides as far as the eye can see. The forest was growing dark, and aside from those out-of-sight green tops, the interior was dead. Brown needles and broken branches lay on the floor. Above that, the lower branches angled out at 45 degrees from the trunks were dry. They intersected with similarly-angled branches of the trees in the neighbouring ranks. A walk down the aisle below these branches was like a walk beneath the unending crossed swords of some vast military wedding. Except that the scattered bits along the brown aisle were not confetti, but puff balls, the washed out red remains of Fly Agaric, and the occasional skulls of slain animals. On this long journey into dusk, I saw all this, and I saw a Miss Haversham of the forest, a moribund totara, its growth crippled, its own foliage horribly clogged with thick pine needle pads collected over decades and no wind ever to shake them free.
I pitched camp. I'd sought no permission, and would not have been given it had I asked, but I hadn't planned to stay in this forest, and I was careful, lighting no flame, striking not a single spark in this tinderbox place. The forest seemed less than friendly, and I concentrated on the good things, the complete shelter as the wind soughed softly far overhead, the easy penetration of the tent pegs into soft humus, the springy pine-needle carpet that was so comfortable I need not even unpack the Thermarest.
I was soon asleep, but I awoke in the night with that particular amnesia that sometimes strikes you in foreign hotels. I had no idea where I was, even who I was. I sat bolt upright, staring out through the tent flaps into the bars of some huge wooden prison. It took a long moment to retrace the steps that had led me to this place.
The next morning the cicadas were singing in a single sheet of glistening sound - and the forest seemed less overwhelming. I found the ridge that led through to the Dome, and after some hours, partly on goat-hunter trails, and sometimes bushbashing on the margin where pine forest met bush, I finally sighted the mountain.
Beyond this forest, New Zealand was sweltering in a heat wave. The temperature was reaching 34 degrees in some places, and if you had to be out in it, cool bush was probably the best place to be. I'd realised the contrast between open country and bush just yesterday during the sweltering hour-long walk across farmland to get back onto my missed trail. But maybe I'd forgotten. My first sight of the Dome revealed open country leading up to the northern side of the mountain, and I silently rejoiced at coming out of the bush with such precision, with nothing to cross now except meadow.
Difficult meadow: the grass was often as high as my chest, and it grew on cut-over pine forest, an invisible cross-hatching of branches and trunks where my boots slipped and jammed. From the bush walk, my legs were already carrying a fair cargo of the little brown hooked seeds of the native sedge. Now it was around 3 pm, the hottest part of the day, and I so drenched in sweat that every other loose grass seed the meadow could shake over me stuck fast as well. Even the delicate thistle seeds that usually, like so many ethereal tumbleweeds, do no more than kiss and begone, plastered themselves by the dozen onto the wet one as he made his lurching, foot-pulling way across the diabolical meadow.
It was over an hour before I reached the Dome bushline and pulled myself up to the trig. I unpacked the mobile, and rang the DOC field office to tell them I was through. The mobile gave out its low battery signal, and halfway through the conversation beeped a triumphant Discharging signal. That ended the communication, but DOC knew I was okay, and discharging was an adequate description of a spent tramper, leaning against a trig, sweating from every pore.
I went on down the walkway to the Top of the Dome Teahouse, drank three orange juices, two coffees, sank a milkshake, then walked down State Highway One. The Sheep World Caravan Park was just a kilometre down the road. It was 6 pm, still early, and I could have got to Warkworth, but I was tired and dirty. I went in.
"Bloody hell," said the caravan park man. "Where have you come from?"
You're bloody nuts. Have something cold."
He whipped a hand into the frig and pulled out a bright green iceblock. Ian Reid formerly a builder on Waiheke Island - " the only asylum in the country without a fence around it " - was now a Warkworth boatbuilder and co-owner, with his wife Gail, of the motorcamp.
I was tired. All I wanted was a tent to crawl into, but Reid was a proud and energetic owner. He propelled me through all the amenities. The shower. The entertainment room. The spa:
"You must shower before you use the spa. Those that don't shower we put a rope around their tents and pull them down."
The open-air barbeque hot plates. The kitchen frig with free sauces, the free tea-bags, and milk. Ian Reid was a dynamo of enthusiasm for his camp.
"You see? You didn't want to look at the kitchen, so you wouldn't have found out about the free sauces, the tea bags." And after the grand tour, when finally I set down the pack and sat down against it, he stood looking at me,
"Huh. His legs have given up. Like a crayfish - what do you call it when you're not allowed to take them? A crayfish without a shell."
Gail came up.
"How do you live with this man?" I said.
"I was just a gigolo before I met Gail," said Ian Reid. "Now neither of us can afford to leave the other."
In the morning I noticed a tent pitched to overlook a small stream. A young guy was sitting there looking out onto a sunlit morning, and there was something appealing about the scene. The tent, the Yamaha 250 city tourer, the guy sitting at the centre of it just enjoying the morning. It was self-contained. It was like watching someone's deep meditation.
I was drinking tea at a trestle table, and he came across. Vince Holdsworth had been headed north on his bike, to Waipoua Forest, but the bike had overheated and he'd turned into the motor camp instead. He aimed to get going again this morning, a fresh start.
I told him I was walking through.
"Ah, you're the guy," he said. "I was talking to Gail last night and she was saying like: 'He's walking! He's walking the length of the island!'"
We talked cars. After coming out of the forest onto State Highway One I'd noticed all the grass on one side was perpetually bent over one way like coastal trees before the prevailing wind, except that the prevailing wind on SH1 was generated by big rigs, and all the grass on the other side of the road was bent the other way. I'd felt the same wind on my face, watched the procession of steel whizzing past thinking - like the naive who sees his first train in Gabriel Garcia Marquez's 100 Years of Solitude and reports seeing a kitchen towing a village - that there must be a similarly simple description of cars. But all that came to me during the walk down Highway One was that every one of these people ripping past at 100 kph was sitting down.
"It's easy to step into a car," said Holdaway, "and its a cocoon. It's like being in the living room with the TV. It's Wow look at this. Look at that, but you're out of touch. A motorbike is a little less so. It doesn't dominate your environment so much. You get the wind and sun on you. But I'd say your way is better."
I told him I'd spent the previous night camped in pine forest.
"Ah, that'd be a good camp. Pine needles - nice and soft. No need for a mattress."
"Right. Except the forest felt a bit weird. I prefer bush - Tane Mahuta right?"
"Tane Mahuta, the Twin Sisters, Cathedral Grove. There's a freshwater stream right on the Waipoua campground. I was wanting to follow that through to the coast. To the beach - previously I've just gone through the forest."
I told him I'd given up a good job to do my walk.
"Yeah, I understand that. I'm 24 and its been customer service and just whittling away, you know? I'm a yardman for Carters at Takapuna. All those little chats, and turning on the smile. It's quite boring. I'm planning on leaving. It costs $3,000 for a ticket around the world with six stops, and I'll have saved $10,000. I'll backpack, and do some of the great tramps. I'll explore and maybe bring back a service that the country can use. Life's too short. I want to have kids and tell them - you know - about the adventures."
I asked him what he wanted to be.
"I haven't found out everything about it, but there's a large spiritual side to life. There are clues - how good you feel outside, in nature. Life is just dribs and drabs in the city. Somewhere like Waipoua, it's an old-growth forest. People say that sitting in the Grand Canyon puts things into perspective, and I think an old forest does that too. We tend to create little worlds for ourselves, we think that the world revolves around us, but the forest gives you something else. Whatever it is I do, it will be more physically out there."
I told him about Te Araroa itself. How, if the plan worked, there'd be work for people out of doors, and work to be proud of.
"I'd really be into that. I'd love to be part of it. You can fax me on the Annapurna Circuit. 'Hey Vince: we're ready to go. We've got the galvanised nails, the wood for the boardwalks, the stone crushing equipment - you said you'd be into it, so where are you?' Yeah, fax me, I'd come back for that."
I mentioned the Internet site, told him that I was writing as I went, and Vince Holdsworth stood back and did a little finger-snapping dance. "You could write me into it. How about this: I met this amazing man who did flamenco dancing, he did back flips and . . "
"None of those things," I said. "You're on-site, just as you are."