Author Dean Parker follows in the footsteps of 'Johnson' — the fictional 'Man Alone' — through the ruggedly handsome central North Island.

"He killed a farmer near Raetihi," I said. "Self-defence, but didn't fancy his chances in court."

Our Taihape host nodded.

"So he did a runner, took off toward Ohakune, then up the lower slopes of Ruapehu, heading east and keeping under cover. Travelled by night, on foot. Crossed the Desert Road into the Kaimanawas."

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Our host nodded again. "That's what you'd do."

"Holed up in the Kaimanawas for three months. Shot and ate wood pigeons."

"Hey, you could live off one for a couple of days," said our host. "Some of them round here are that big."

"When he figured it was safe, he followed a river down into Hawke's Bay."

"Ngaruroro."

"Came out on the Taihape Road. Place where there was a small settlement."

"Kuripapango. Nothing there now. 'Cept a DoC campsite."

"Hitched into Napier; headed back up to Auckland. Slipped out of the country on a freighter."

"That's a good plan. What was this fella's name?"

"Johnson," I said. "But made up. A story."

In John Mulgan's 1939 novel Man Alone, Johnson, his solitary hero, having punched out a cop during the Queen St riots of the Depression, makes his way by freight train from Auckland to Ohakune in the central North Island. He finds work on an impoverished dairy farm in nearby Raetihi, has an affair with the farmer's wife, blows half the farmer's head off in a violent struggle with a shotgun, and takes off.

I thought it'd be fun to follow Johnson's subsequent journey.

But neither my companion nor I are trampers and some of Johnson's trek was to places designated worryingly by DoC as "remote experience zones". We'd go by Toyota.

We drove down from Auckland, through the Waikato with its Stockade hills and Redoubt roads and Whitmore streets and fetched up in Turangi in the early afternoon.

Here we stayed at the tremendous Turangi Kiwi Holiday Park, with a spacious and spotless cabin to ourselves — $63 the pair of us.

The Holiday Park is one of the best places I've stayed at. The ablution block signs are printed in reassuring serif font and the stools in the communal showers are cheerful beer crates, the owners having put their dough into the most powerful plumbing in the North Island with showers like floodgates on a hydro dam.

The Holiday Park used to be a Ministry of Works camp, providing accommodation for hundreds employed on power projects. Considering that before the affray in Queen St Johnson was attached to a government work scheme, this was the best possible place to start our manhunt.

Turangi Kiwi Holiday Park, a former Ministry of Works camp. Photo / Dean Parker
Turangi Kiwi Holiday Park, a former Ministry of Works camp. Photo / Dean Parker

In the afternoon we headed down the Desert Road.

On the right was the brilliantly lit snow-white Mt Ruapehu and left, beyond power pylons, the dark and brooding Kaimanawas, four mountain ranges cut through with rivers.

Halfway between Turangi and Waiouru, Johnson crossed from the Rangipo plateau into the Kaimanawas. That's according to Rod Orange's 2004 article in Korare, "Johnson Goes Bush", essential reading for an endeavour like this.

But to get into the Kaimanawas by car the best way is to turn left before this, about 15km from Turangi, into a road unmarked apart from a sign reading "Rangipo Power Station".

You come to a high gorge split by an ancient earthquake then pass over into the Kaimanawas. It's all bush and river and ravine. Remote experience zone.

The following day we headed for Waiouru, past roadsigns reading, "Kids getting to you? We'll sort them out. Opportunities in the NZ Army."

Sika Deer skulls hanging above a hunting hut in the Kaimanawa Ranges. Photo / Getty Images
Sika Deer skulls hanging above a hunting hut in the Kaimanawa Ranges. Photo / Getty Images

The sky was as grey as wet slate. There were purple clouds lying low.

At Waiouru we turned off for Ohakune and Raetihi.

In Ohakune, the railway station is probably the same as the one Johnson stepped on to in 1932.

Ohakune is a thriving resort town, while nearby Raetihi seems to have pretty much had it.

On the outskirts of Raetihi, on a hill, is a striking Ringatu temple, a copy of the Ratana one near Whanganui. In the centre of the township itself is that ever-present symbol of 19th century colonial conquest, the squat, white concrete Bank of New Zealand branch, sitting there like Queen Victoria's skirts. Even during the Depression — when Johnson was there — Raetihi was probably more prosperous than it is now, with its run-down, closed cinema, The Royal.

Back at Ohakune you can follow the mountain road Johnson climbed after fleeing Raetihi.

Half-way up toward Ruapehu is a track, cut in 1910, that leads off to a DoC cabin, Blyth Hut. Here, in an earlier corrugated iron version, Mulgan bunked down when he was a university tramper and here he has Johnson staying.

We returned to Waiouru, took the road to Taihape and booked into the Gretna Hotel.
This was another brilliant place to stay, with hand-coloured photos of Mainbrace and Balmerino in the foyer and a sheep-shearing contest coming up in the garden bar.

It was once a two-storey wooden inn, a coach stop, then rebuilt in the 1930s. Tariff for the two of us was $84, with a $6 fry-up breakfast that obviated any need for lunch.

It was over this breakfast that we talked to our host about Johnson and he in turn filled us in with another story.

"That's a great drive," he'd said when we told him we were heading to Napier on the legendary coach road, 150km with neither store nor war memorial hall to be seen, not even abandoned ones. Then he saw our photocopied travel pieces about what to look out for — Erewhon sheep station, Ngamatea Station, the De la Terre Winery, spectacular views of Hawke's Bay — and said, "Those tell you anything about the Maori land?"

Mulgan, in his short autobiographical account Report On Experience, talks about Maori moving through New Zealand's past "like ghosts".

There were no ghosts in our host's quiet account of the past. His great-great grandfather — who had his own big sheep run until he and his iwi were arrested and imprisoned and their land confiscated — was a very palpable presence.

Two histories sit in New Zealand, side-by-side.

The following day we took the coach road, "a great trip", as our host at the Gretna had described it, the road taking us high and suddenly unbending and presenting us with huge valleys in light and shadow, stretching from side to side and looking like successive brush strokes.

We were now on the other side of the Kaimanawas and stopped at the DoC campsite at Kuripapango, where across the Ngaruroro river the Kaweka mountain range reared up and the spectre of Johnson clambered down.

We drove on and turned off on the Matapiro Road and stopped at Matapiro Station where there was a beautifully cared for white-timbered red-roofed Edwardian homestead, astonishing in its assurance and Englishness.

Standing in its gardens, facing out, was a 12-pound military cannon.

I once went to the launch of a book about Mulgan's Rhodes Scholarship generation.
The launch was in Auckland at old Government House, in the gardens of the university.

Mulgan's English widow was there, up from the Waikato, and spoke. "So wonderful to be here among such history," she said, looking about her, then adding, "We don't have history like this in Hamilton."

Dean Parker's novel Johnson — a sequel to John Mulgan's classic 1939 New Zealand novel Man Alone — features in Johnson in Europe, a cabaret feature in the Auckland Writers Festival. The show is at the Limelight venue at the Aotea Centre, 7pm, May 19.