Te Araroa shadows the SAS, meets the King of Waiwera, hits deep mud and is finally airlifted up and away

Auckland. It was closing in. My home was there. My other identity was there - not this booted, pack-toting pfadmeister, the trail curling up like smoke up from his shoulder, but the other one, the one that people expect to be present at specified times and to do specified tasks.

I was having lunch at a Warkworth restaurant when a journalist friend, Robin Bailey, came in. We talked over the trail, and he looked at me ruefully over his Steinie.

"You really are a worry Geoffrey. Shouldn't you be in Wellington for the rehearsals to this Alley opera?"

Yes I should. I already had the plane tickets booked out of Auckland in just three days. My contract specified my attendance in Wellington for the lead up to the New Zealand International Festival of the Arts.

Cities closing in. Big-city deadlines. I had three days. I stuck my hat back on, shouldered the pack, and set out down Hepburn Creek Road.

A guy stopped in a white trade van lettered in blue: Pure Water Services. I didn't want the lift, but I was interested in the paper road that exited near Hepburn Creek. He gave me a landowner name, and as I walked I dialed the farmer on the mobile, but got no reply. Fifteen minutes later, a voice called out from a roadside garden: "Does a drink of water have any appeal?"

Same guy in his toweling hat: carrying a tall glass out to the gate. It was icy, delicious, and I said so. " It's bore water that has gone through a softener," said Ian Morrison, "through resins that attract out the calcium, the iron, the manganese . . . would you like another?"

These were professional glasses of water - Morrison made his living with water purifications systems and filters. I went inside and met Jyl Morrison. We discussed the route. Ian, quite unasked, had done me the favour of phoning ahead but like me had got no reply. We got down to maps.

He had a way of using that hat expressively. Oh no! The wrong paper road! He'd thought I was after a particular one that was further up than the one I did want. He tilted his head right back, one hand setting the hat over his face and patting it flat - a toweling squelch of misunderstanding. So then - he phoned through to Val and Robin Pendred whose property straddled the right paper road, and got permission. The toweling hat turned suddenly jaunty, its brim turned up sailor style to mark success.

Ian and Jyl Morrison

Jyl and Ian were Christians, part of the Mahurangi Christian Community that had land on this foreshore, and they were Christian in generosity - did I want a meal before I went?

No. I had just three days, and I was anxious to move on, but Ian Morrison came up with one story that bore on my upcoming ridgetop walk past the Warkworth Space-Earth Satellite station.

"It was 1981," said Morrison. He took off his hat and looked at it contemplatively. "I remember the date because we'd just come back from smuggling bibles in Romania."

He was down on his riverside land, where mangrove met bush. Something was moving in there.

"Hello, hello."

A group of five men, dressed in civvies.

"Just passing through sir." An American accent.

"Uh huh. What's that thing there? That thing you're hiding behind your back."

Sheepishly presented - a sub-machine gun.

"And you - at the back. What's that you've got?"

Uh - a bazooka.

Morrison could see bullet clips and grenades bulging under shirts.

"I can explain." A New Zealander took over from the ranking American. "This is a military manouevre. We're testing security at the satellite station."

That made sense. It was just after the Springbok tour had disrupted New Zealand end to end. Activists had attacked telecommunication centres. One group, trying to stop international transmission of the fourth rugby test, had used an axe to take out the microwave repeater station on Moirs Hill. In the months that followed , the Government pumped its telecommunications security with high-voltage fences and anti-terrorist exercises. Morrison and local farmers knew the satellite station was a focus, but they'd always been told if SAS forces were using their land.

Morrison winkled out of the group a phone number to check credentials. Everyone trooped back and sat in the kitchen while he rang the Papakura commander.

"What are they doing on your property?"

"That's what I wanted to know."

The American major was the highest ranked, but Kiwis deal with Kiwis. "Put the sergeant on," barked the Papakura commander.

The New Zealand 2IC stepped forward and the conversation, as Morrison remembered it, was:

" Sah - yessah. We decided not to stick within the allocated area, sah."

The bellow from the other end was so loud the SAS man held the receiver out from his ear.

"Our mission was to seek and destroy - sah. We decided to do that - sah - by whatever means would achieve the objective - sah."

Another bellow.

But the American-Kiwi force, in those balmy days when the military alliance with the USA still held, did achieve its objective. Morrison learned later the group departed his house, boarded a bus they'd arranged to pick them up in Hepburn Creek Road, drove round to the station, entered as an average group of tourist rubberneckers, and blew everything to bits with the bazooka and grenades.

Satellite station

I went on through the Pendred's paper road. It led to a ridge overlooking the satellite station. I'd expected to photograph it from on high, but the bush kept it from view. I climbed the only substantial tree in the area to get the shot, and, two metres above the ground, looked down at the branch at my feet. It was polished by use. The SAS, maybe even the combat boots of an American major, had been here before me.

I crossed SH1, and went on up the Moirs Hill walkway. It was dark before I reached the top, and halfway up, through bush, I caught first sight of the Sky Tower's aviation warning lights, blinking red. Then the city lights, vastly spread and glowing yellow with sodium colours.

I slept beneath the Moirs Hill microwave repeater, and in the morning watched dawn break over Auckland. The Sky Tower is now reckoned to be Auckland's symbol, but at any distance it's lost to the haze. The single icon that still heralds the city from afar, that has heralded the city ever since 1840 when Lieutenant-Governor Hobson bought the land and established the capital of New Zealand here, is Rangitoto.

I went down to Puhoi. Shortcuts, shortcuts. I'd planned to get there through forest, and had checked with local adventure biker Terry Willmer that through trails did connect the 7 km from Moirs Hill to Puhoi. They did, and I had a loose arrangement that he'd take me through. But it was a holiday weekend, and Willmer was booked solid. I could have done it solo, but I had a plane to catch. I played it safe, came down a summit track, connected with the Puhoi-Ahuroa Road, and walked to the Bohemian town that way.

Puhoi Creek

Rodney District Council has long-term plans for a walkway down the Puhoi River to connect with the Auckland Regional Authority's park at Wenderholm. When it's in place it will be a popular addition to a popular regional park, but at present private ownership along the bank makes a trail difficult. Still, it will come, and in the meantime, Te Araroa Trust has included the river itself into its pathway. I canoed down, using the local hire company, then walked Wenderholm's perimeter track over the headland, across the footpath on Waiwera Bridge, into Waiwera itself.

Leki sticks. I have carried them throughout my journey and used them sometimes. When unused they stay strapped to my pack and act as a stimulus for dozens of extremely witty people.

"There's no snow around here mate - heh, heh, heh."

It's always the same joke. I set them straight, but only occasionally do I try full-scale education.

"Ski poles - look Mummy, ski poles !" Like that kid at the Mangawhai restaurant. I took him aside, unstrapped a pole, and showed him in great detail why these things were not ski poles. The carbon steel tips, the internal springing which also presupposed hard ground, the interlocking sleeves exactly adjustable for height: "They're German-made hiking poles - okay?"

I watched him turn back to his mum.

"Ski poles Mummy, ski poles." he howled.

"Listen kid, they're mud poles alright?"

Forget the engineering details, that was the breakthrough.

"Mud poles Mummy, mud poles," he shouted.

No-one though had yet recognised a Leki without being told first.

"You must be doing a fair amount of tramping to need hiking poles," said the 16-year-old youth behind the counter of the Waiwera General Store.

I reeled back.

Damian Drury
Damian Drury knows Leki sticks when he sees them

"You're the first! The very first! Everyone thinks they're ski poles."

"But Leki only make hiking poles," said the youth, puzzled that anyone could make such an elementary mistake. "I'm pretty sure they do."

Leki! He'd even named them! The boy was good.

"How do you know about Lekis?" I asked.

"I do a fair bit of tramping,"

"Have you got a pair?"

"I want to get a pair - I've read about them in tramping magazines."

"What's your name? "

"Damian Drury."

"Damian," I said. "You have just won the tramping equivalent of Lotto. When I finish this trek, I'm personally going to donate you one Leki hiking stick."

I went outside and rang Telecom information. I was after a Bill Ward in Waiwera. No such person, said the operator, only an A.L. Ward. That didn't sound hopeful, but I tried the number anyway.

A woman's voice answered the phone.

"Mrs Ward?" I asked.

"No," said the voice. "It's Rosemary."

""Hello Rosemary. Do you have a Bill Ward at that address?"

"What does he look like?"

"I don't know."

"Well, there's all these Bill Wards," said Rosemary. "There's a Bill Ward here, and a Bill Ward there. There's a Bill Ward at Red Beach, and of course there's the Bill Ward who's the king of Waiwera. "

"That," I said, "is almost certainly the Bill Ward I want."

"Well he's a bit stuffed at the moment," said Rosemary, "He's just moving house and all his good and chattels are distributed all over landscape - but hang on."

Bill Ward came on the line. I explained who I was. Two years before, when working for the Department of Conservation, I'd come across his proposal for an off-road walk through Waiwera. I knew DOC was unlikely to do much about it, and I'd filed it for purposes of my own. When I'd put Te Araroa together, I'd included it. Now, I wanted to walk the proposed track with its designer.

"Hang on - I'll be down in ten minutes."

Bill Ward

Bill Ward was 82, but disregard that number, and disregard his bandaged ankle. He set a cracking pace. We scrambled up from the main street, and stopped on a narrow grassed track graven into the steep hillside. His stick swept the length of it. "This is the old coach trail. It belongs to Transit New Zealand. They're not using it, they won't be using it, and I've been working with them to secure the right of everyone to traverse it. We don't want the thing alienated from the people."

A bit further up, the trail was overhung by foundation work for a new house.

"This man wanted the right to occupy the coach trail, and he'd got well along with that before we found out and were able to get his wings clipped."

The trail swung back toward the highway and disappeared but Bill Ward's stick pointed only forward. "The private property begins here, at the top of this very steep embankment. It's useless for access to the sections, and it would be of benefit if the council took it over. If they do not, then the only prospect of linking it into the trail is for the council to offer a big rates reduction to the land-owners for some kind of easement. Do a deal, but meantime, we can't use it."

Ward hopped a Hurricane wire fence and began to stride up the highway. State Highway One traffic bore down on us.

"You can see that going this way is a disadvantage."

Understatement. A galvanised crash barrier narrowed the shoulder to less than a metre from the highway lanes, but the King of Waiwera strode along beside it without a backward glance. A car towing a wide caravan swayed past, practically brushing our shoulders. I wanted to live. The king could do it his way, but I hopped across and monkeyed my way up hand over hand, keeping the barrier between myself and the traffic.

We reached the DOC bush reserve on top of Waiwera Hill. It was unsigned, undeveloped. Ward - I'd discover later he was a member in his youth of Osonzac, the Otago section of the New Zealand Alpine Club - had the tramper's trick of taking personal responsibility for clearing any fallen trees on the trail. He didn't just step over them, he demolished them as he went with stamping feet and whacks with his stick.

"The track is, uh - whack ,whack - overgrown since I was last in. A few guys with slashers would bring it back - whack ,whack - quickly enough."

He'd begun to bleed from a cut on the arm, another on the leg, but he went admirably, steadfastly, forward, and I, ever the tyro and moving along close behind in imitation of an old master, dropped back only after taking a sharp blow on the bridge of the nose from supplejack recoil.

We crossed the headland and reached a grassed property that sloped up to an expensive-looking dwelling on the hill above.

"This land belongs to Sir Brian Barrett Boys," said Ward. "We've got a couple of metres width here and we could get down to the beach, but it would be preferable to go across Sir Brian's land near the fenceline here. I began negotiations, and it seemed possible, but I have also to say that between DOC and Transit New Zealand and the Rodney Council everything seems to have gone into abeyance in the meantime."

We hit the beach. Bill Ward was a strategic thinker, and encouraged me to leave him as we walked around the rocky headland back to Waiwera. I was younger, faster, I could go ahead, pick up my pack where I'd left it at the general store and we'd remeet in the main street.

I joined up with him there just as a young drunk, cigarette in one hand, stubby in the other, reeled out of the pub towards us. It was the kind of scene the 90s has taught you not to get involved with, but Bill Ward went right up to him, hovered over him, peered into his face.

"Are you alright?"

The young man ignored his inquisitor and staggered on.

Bill Ward stayed poised in position for a moment, then half-turned looking after the youth. He answered the question himself.

"Hmmnnn. I don't think so. I don't think so."

I accepted an invitation to stay the night. Bill Ward and his daughter Rosemary had a condominium apartment on the Waiwera waterfront with its own thermal pool. Rosemary served tea, we were getting on well, and I was regaling the table with anecdotes from the trail and the internet stories that had become part of it, when I suddenly felt the same cool gaze upon me that had transfixed the young drunk from the pub.

"A shame," said Ward. "I thought you and I were absolutely of the same mind on trails but I can see you have an over-excited mind."

It was such an extraordinary judgement, that I seized on it and prefaced subsequent remarks with the phrase: "Despite my overexcited mind, I believe . . . "

But he never mentioned it again. Bill Ward had carefully built up a rubber goods firm out of Dunedin, then sold it. Part of the money went to the Waiwera Child Trust which had spent over $1 million on camps for disadvantaged children. He was a man who did things, and he was a helpful man - as I set off the next morning to rock-hop around to Orewa on the low tide, Ward suggested I leave the full pack with him and he'd bring it round by car. I arrived at Orewa an hour and a half later, and he pulled in within minutes of my arrival to hand over the pack, shake hands, wish me luck for the remainder of the journey, and to promise we'd meet again.

I walked over the hill to Silverdale, crossed under the bridge there and stared at the Wade River. It was a creek really, and we'd put it into Te Araroa because the right-hand bank from Silverdale to Duck Creek, and beyond that to Stillwater itself, will be developed by Rodney District Council as a walkway. That makes sense - such a walk would connect up with DOC's existing Okura walkway making a continuous trail all the way to metropolitan Auckland.

I think it was the novelist Maurice Gee who warned that New Zealand creeks are, as a psychological landscape, our darkest places. Creek mud is viscous. Its eels are slippery. Its water is dun-coloured. Creeks are backdoor places, with industrial ooze, and they can be deadly: as a boy, Gee watched someone die in a creek, diving in to impress his girl, his head gone and his legs stuck in the sky.

Let me add to the list. German-made mud poles get no traction in creeks. The spats that keep the rubbish out of the tops of your boots in bush don't work in creeks. 23 kg packs are just a deadweight in creeks. The pride at completing Te Araroa's toughest sections can get blown out your ear by creeks.

On this walk, I'd developed the legs of a pit pony. But strength is nothing without traction. Most soft surfaces - bark chips, say, or sand - yield slightly, then compress underfoot. Not the Wade River mud: boot one sank into it. Boot two, trying to raise boot one, slowly embedded itself deeper than boot one. Boot one then became the only means of raising boot two, but . . . look, I won't go on. Suffice it to say that while thus slowly making my way deeper into, rather than further along, the Wade, I registered a disconcerting fact. The creek's water level, pushed by a distant incoming tide in the estuary, was visibly rising.

Arghhhh! I threw sideways a superhuman distance, grabbed the branch of a distant mangrove, and pulled myself slowly free.

I looked at the through routes. The mud beside the rising river? Forget it. The mangroves? Too dense. The banks beyond the mangroves and the mud? Too tangled.

And I quit. That's right - quit.

Look - I had a city to reach, a plane to catch okay? I went back, and walked around by road.

My wife Miriam caught up with me on the Stillwater Road, took the pack into her car, and, aside from the thick mud still caking my boots, I sped weightless on toward Stillwater, then on around the Stillwater- Okura Estuary walk in under half the allotted DOC time.

Rangitoto sunset
The sunrises over Rangitoto
Rangitoto - a symbol of Auckland

At 8.30 pm, I first set foot over North Shore City's boundary - the northern boundary of metropolitan Auckland. The first third of Te Araroa's North Island trail was complete.

Now, I had a plane to catch.