Te Araroa shakes the dust off its shoes and ventures south, to greet the mighty Waikato

waikato aerials with chooks

I kept walking through Auckland, from Titirangi to Green Bay and over a hill-top track to Blockhouse Bay. But I ended each day's walk early, marking my place with a gouge in the sand or a scrape on the road and going home. Two things preoccupied me. The first was money - I was broke. I'd put out an internet appeal - would anything come in?

The second thing was the Waikato River. It seemed like time to open the banks of the great river to the walking public, and our blueprint for a national trail had put in 60 km of its riverbank. But what were the practical difficulties? How would the farmers respond? Come to think of it - who were the farmers? The Waikato River section would require the most complex set of permissions of the walk so far, and needed advance work.

I rang Terry McDonald, the Property Services Programme Manager for Environment Waikato. I wanted first to walk from Meremere to Rangiriri, some 20 kilometres up the eastern bank of the river. As the regional authority responsible for flood control, Environment Waikato administered stopbanks along this side of the Waikato. What were the chances of walking it, and what were the chances for a national trail here?

"There's a general feeling that we'll be facing increasing pressure for public access along the waterways,"McDonald agreed. "If Environment Waikato was going to allow a walkway to be finalised along the bank, the wording of the grazing leases would have to be changed, that would have to be a council decision, and we would take legal advice."

Okay - our trust would make a submission seeking exactly that - but what about right now? Right now, access was still in the hands of the farmers who had taken up EW grazing leases, said McDonald.

"But you should test it. What we have here is a set of aerial photos of the land the council administers for flood control, and a schedule of the farmers who have grazing rights on that land. I'll mark in the boundaries, and if you want to contact them, it's easy. I'll send them up."

Next day I walked through to Mangere Bridge. It was late afternoon. A runner who'd passed me coming along Orpheus Drive was consulting his watch before making the return run, and I asked him about the pedestrian thoroughfares that went through to Manukau City.

"Don't use the subway under Mangere Bridge," he said. "You can get mugged in there any time of the day."

"I didn't plan to. I'm going down this side of the harbour to Otahuhu."

"That's a long way - five or six kays at least."

"That's okay."

"Yeah, well don't be on that path after dark," he said.

I walked this industrial edge of Auckland city in fading light, and saw only one other person. A vision of carefree strolling had once unrolled itself here. This coastal pathway down the innermost reach of the Manukau Harbour was the smoothest I'd encountered, wide concrete running through green grass, edged sometimes with low, basalt walls. In three places, wide stone steps gave access down to the mud and mangroves, as if someone had once wanted this to be Mission Bay. The trail finally lifted over the Otahuhu shunting yards on a concrete footbridge, and came down between industrial fencing onto Hugo Johnson Road. It was an unmarked exit. Here began, and ended, perhaps the most beautifully-laid yet the most little-known trail in Auckland.

I went home by bus. In response to the Internet appeal, a $25 cheque had come in. The donor was a superannuitant. I was pleased, revived by the gesture. A big package had also come through from Environment Waikato. Now I had aerial photos of the river, I had a list of farmers, and I got on the horn.

"Mr Riddell? My name is Geoff Chapple. I'm walking off-road to Wellington and I'd like to walk through your farm, on the stopbanks."

That was fine by Basil Riddell. The electric fences needed to be taken down and re-hooked on the way through - "Some of the duck shooters aren't good at that. They get one shock and seem to go quite paranoid. Instead of trying to unhook the fences they throw lumps of wood at them and they finish up buried under rubbish."

One further question. It was one I would put to everyone I rang. What was his attitude to a national trail coming along the Waikato on exactly the route I'd asked to walk? That was okay by Basil Riddell. "Keep walking," he said as he hung up. "And get the rest of them out of their hospital beds and walking with you." Good one. I punched in the next number . . .

I walked on into Manukau City through Otara, out of the city on Redoubt Road, and on towards Clevedon. I hitch-hiked home. More calls to the Waikato. The response was stunning. Every farmer said yes to my walk, and yes also to the proposal for a national trail. True, I was dealing with publicly-owned land - but not always. The Entwisle farm for example lay on the route but was not marked on the EW schedule. It had riparian rights down to the river.

"That's right, we've got two kilometres of river frontage down there," said Malcolm Entwisle when I rang, "and I would encourage a dedicated walkway along the river. I'd very much like it."

The only exception was Meremere Dragway Racing. They had the property at the very start of the proposed Mercer-Rangiriri section, and had extended it to the river with a grazing lease.

"One-offs we don't mind, and we don't mind you" said manager Jude Keven. "but we spend a lot of money on security for our sheds. We wouldn't want just anybody walking through."

It was time, seriously, to set out again. I walked up Ness Valley then Moumoukai Hill Road to the Hunua Range and camped there. I had the full pack again. I had a packet of instant noodles and two packets of pasta in there somewhere, all I could afford, but it felt good to be under way again. I boiled the noodles, then went to sleep with the darkness, listening to the big hills amplify the deep rumble of jets coming into Auckland International Airport.

Hunua Track

I walked through the Hunuas on Keeney and Waterline Roads, past the Mangatawhiri Reservoir, and onto the Lower Mangatawhiri track. I'd already organised my exit out from the hills through farmland owned by Keith and Shirley Matheson, and the two gave me a meal that night, and a bed.

Next day I walked down to the Mangatawhiri River. Auckland DOC had stopbanks on the river that ran 10 km through from SH2 to SH1 just below Mercer, and we'd put that walk into Te Araroa's blueprint.

Big squalls blew up from the west. The stopbanks gave a low view across maize that stretched as far, and that right now looked as sinister, as a van Gogh cornfield. The horizon went dark, the birds fled, and advance winds shook the million dry heads of the maize. I was caught in driving rain for 30 minutes, without shelter, before falling into an open-ended half-round barn set in the maize fields, looking around me at the sort of stuff that creates modern crops. Piles of urea sacks. A mountain of empty plastic containers, with striped hazard warnings, and the legend: Miscellaneous dangerous substances. Atrazine - "residual herbicide for the control of broadleaf weeds." Trophy "for selective pe-emergence weed control in maize and sweetcorn."

Mangatawhiriri wetland

The weather eased, and I left the shed of poisons. The Mangatawhiri's boggy margins broadened into an extensive wetland. The stopbank curved right, away from the river. I followed it round to a group of workers putting a polyurethane coating on the rimu floor of a cabin overlooking the wetland. Strange - this small beautifully built structure in the midst of a wet wilderness. What was it?

A hunting lodge. This was duck country, the duck-shooting season opened in May, and the lodge would be ready for it. David Richwhite of merchant bankers Fay Richwhite & Co was personally overseeing the finishing touches, flying down with his designer in the big Kawasaki chopper.

I waded a tributary and went on beside the Mangatawhiri. By 6 p.m. I'd reached Mercer, once a major Waikato river port, formerly also what the old New Zealand Railways called a "refreshment" stop for its passenger trains. This was the place where A.R.D. Fairburn, looking into his NZR cup once famously commented, parodying Portia in Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice: "The squalid tea of Mercer is not strained."

Well they serve good coffee in Mercer now. River port? No longer. Trainstop? No sir. Mercer has always set itself to snare passing traffic, but did so now as an American-style one-stop highway shop. High signs soliciting the passing stream. Gas. Food. Coke. The golden bummy "M" of McDonalds. I went in. I ate at the Pokeno Bacon Company stall and I asked around - was there anywhere to stay? No. The old pub was closed. Camping grounds. Nix. The people I spoke to weren't locals, and weren't that concerned. Amidst these concreted pavilions where cars and trucks wheeled and sped back onto the highway, there was no quality of mercy for the unhorsed.

It was dark by the time I'd finished eating, and I explored the town on both sides of the rail line before deciding to pitch camp on a hill - a paddock belonging to the local church I learned later. I rang home. A $500 donation had come in. Also a $200 one. Wonderful. I could keep eating. I finished the day looking down on the bright stream of light along the highway, then the clanging and flashing of the crossing bells, the eerie light of its approach, and the thundering through of the locomotive.

I had now to get to Meremere, five kilometres south. The highway runs right next to the river, and though a riverside trail might be possible alongside, there's nothing more right now than a tangle of vines and willows. A five kilometre walk along Highway One was unavoidable.

I set out - I kept my head down. What is it about a big highway that encourages the biff? Your Motown Favourites tape has just bust its leader - biff it. You've finished your packet of Holiday cigarettes - biff it. Your cut can of beer - biff it. Your empty bottle of sprite - biff it. Your H2GO with the neat nipple top? Biffed. Your toothbrush? Biffed. Your teddybear in a long-ago act of vengeance when Mum wasn't watching - biffed. Your Time Out, and Snickers, and Picnic candy bar wrappers? Biffed. Your bikini top? Plucked away by the highway wind while drying, or simply biffed? Who knows?

I blanched at the Whangamarino River bridge - too narrow both for the traffic stream blatting through, and the man with the pack. I hand-over-handed along the outside of it, hanging onto the rail. Beyond, the roadside rubbish continued, and other verbs of dispensation came to mind. Cigarette butts by the thousand - flicked away. Windscreen glass, some with current registration stickers still attached under the shattered glass - punched out. Rubber gloves off the back of work trucks - blown. Onions - spilled.Scraps of retread rubber - thrown. Plastic hubcaps - bowled.

And there were the poignant roadside crosses, some with ceramic angels taped to them, or with delicately veined metal butterflies symbolising the souls that had taken wing here. Crosses with revolving windmill flowers, with stay-bright plastic flowers, or with real flowers that were dried and dead and shook in the blasts of wind as the big transports rushed past. Finally I reached the sideroad that led down to Meremere Dragstrip Racing and walked through farmland behind the raceway to the Waikato River.

Stories thrive on difficulty and conflict. We want and don't want too much harmony, nor a surfeit of friendliness, nor too much yogic dovetailing with nature. If I can digress for a moment, the river epic, as a literary form was pioneered during an early expedition up South America's Orinoco River. Sir Walter Ralegh led that river expedition, and headed up his journal, published in 1596, The Discoverie of the large and beautifull Empire of Guianna, with a relation of the great and golden citie of Manoa (which the Spaniards call El Dorado) . He was seeking, for his Queen, the greatest destination of all - El Dorado - and his journal became the prototype for all the subsequent upstream imperial epics - Joseph Conrad's novel Heart of Darkness, for one, or, if you like, Francis Coppola's movie Apocalypse Now.

The upstream epic has distinct dramatic stages: typically the way is barred, then there are a succession of dangers - alligators, blow-pipe darts, but the traveller enters then a tropical Arcadia and is nourished by native hospitality. Finally, El Dorado lies within reach but an impassable waterfall, a savage tribe, a terrible illness, a final barrier of some sort forces the traveller back with just a few tokens of a more fabulous wealth. Ralegh, after enormous tribulation and a passage through all these stages, after willful poetic embroidery of his tale to include men whose heads grew beneath their shoulders, brought back to Queen Elizabeth 1 from the Orinoco only some spar bearing traces of gold.

So to the the Waikato River - glinting there beyond those riverside saplings. My way was not barred - I had permissions all the way through. Before me the stopbank stretched ahead like some tramper's green and soft and narrow equivalent of Highway One. Birds sang. Trees soughed. Dandelions looked up with their appealing little yellow faces and bronze-winged crickets hopped away underfoot - it looked as if this walk up the Waikato River was going to be extremely pleasant.

But there were serpents too in this Garden of Eden. Thin long things, 12.5 gauge, carrying a 4000-volt sting. The electric fences.

electric fence

Every farmer I'd talked to had warned about the electrics. You could use the plastic handles to unhook them, then put them back. The handles didn't always work, but you could tell if the wires were live, put a blade of grass on them and edge your fingers up the grass. If you got a tickle, beware.

The electricity pulsed a second apart. It administered a shock - "like a blow on the shoulders with a cricket bat" as one farmer eloquently described it - and turned you, for exactly 3000th of a second, into a filament bright enough to read by.

I came up to my first fence. I laid on the blade of grass, slid my fingers up. Jesus Christ! That was more than a tickle.

I unhooked the top wire, stepped over the bottom wire, re-hooked the top and went on through. I went through electric fences by the dozen and by the time I'd passed through Riddell's farm, I was an electric fence veteran. I went through a farm gate onto the Entwisle property. It was a truly lovely place. Here the river flowed alongside a margin of the English swamp tree, black alder. The grass glowed green beneath, a swathe that ended under a line of tousle-headed cabbage trees and a large grove of the native swamp tree, kahikatea.

I rang up to the farmhouse on the mobile - during our previous conversation, Malcolm Entwisle had invited me to come up for a chat on my way through.

Barry Pope
Barry Pope

These people did not have heads that grew beneath their shoulders. I met Barry Pope, the farm manager, installing an electric fence. We discussed the pathway on the river flat below.

"It'd work - except when the river floods, a couple of months a year would be the average there. I've seen the river "- he pointed out across a kilometre-wide plain on the Waikato's far side - "spread right to the foot of those hills. It's not dangerous, it's still water, but you have to know where to walk.

"Farmers are conservationists. You can see here we're planting the gullies. We're putting fences around the kahikatea. But the most important thing to a farmer is his stock. Provided a walkway doesn't affect that, I have no problem with it. I think it's an excellent idea."

I went on up to the Entwisle house. Malcolm was out, but Ngaire was in, and made tea. Served cake. Hospitality. The farm is a cattle stud, and we chatted on about the Simmental and the new, French, Aubrac cattle that her farm raises. About trees, and the walks in Germany, in England. She and her husband had travelled the world, and had done a lot of tracks. It was time wasn't it, for a long New Zealand trail, and for the Waikato River to be part of it?

"We're keen walkers ourselves, so we'd be quite accepting of it."

Waikato river at sunset

I went on - it was evening as I climbed to the highest point of that day's walk. I watched the river turn to sheet metal in the stillness of evening, glinting back into the distance. I took a call on the mobile: $2000 had come in. I named that high bluff after my latest benefactor and went on, buoyed by the contribution. The lowing of cattle on the far bank traced the darkening outline of the hills.

I watched the river's huge tonnages of water slip by, absolutely silent, and at the river's edge a giant goldfish - carp is it ? - snatched at the surface briefly and slid away into the weed. Darkness fell. The stock trail I was following led into bush, and I found myself floundering in an unseen bog. No way through - well, not in darkness anyway - and I pitched camp.

Next day the wind rose, blowing up whitecaps that dissolved back on themselves under the force of the river's flow. I walked on at the river's edge - it was not pretty, this ever-glade edge with its matted aerial roots and rotted trunks and swirling weed, but it had a beauty of its own.

At 3 pm, after dozens more electric fences, a rip in my shorts from barbed wire, after startling duck and geese, and greeting dairy cows, I saw through the trees, a wide corrugated iron roof and painted on it the words Rangiriri Tavern. But remember children, the great truths that are contained in literature. There never was an El Dorado without some difficulty that compounds into a last and terrible test as you approach it.

Bulls! The last long thin kilometre of stop-bank before the Rangiriri Tavern was full of bulls. Big bulls, little bulls. I could have hopped the fence and walked down the adjacent Churchill East Road at this stage, but nah. I unstrapped a Leki stick and went forward, recalling the words of the farmer John Shearer when I'd rung him days before: "There's some bulls in the last strip but they're pretty tame."

Leki stick fences off the bulls

The animals watched me, no more than mildly curious as I passed by. One last rain squall drenched me and then I was through, dripping, to the Rangiriri Tavern. Wetness - who cares? For the first time in weeks, I knew my Eftpos card was going to work.

This then is the story of how the Waikato River from Mercer to Rangiriri might be opened to those who enjoy such pleasures. It is the story of how, after a long journey up the river, one can find at the end of it a pint of Speights light ale, and hold it to the light. Golden in colour. It is the story of how I believe this single pint I obtained is peanuts compared to the inexhaustible supply that waits in great subterranean tanks below this river destination, for any future explorers who might be so bold as to make the river journey.