A dream to open up rural New Zealand to travellers on foot is coming closer step by step, writes John Yeld.
From high on Pakiri Hill to the north of Auckland, you can see why Geoff Chapple's fabulous dream - a walkway the length of New Zealand - will be a taonga, a national treasure.
The most recent addition is this short but beautiful section over the hill from where you seem able to see forever. To the north are the Hen and Chicken Islands and the coast towards the Whangarei Heads, east is Little Barrier, and south are Whangateau Harbour and the Tawharanui Peninsula, with distant but distinct views of Rangitoto on the horizon.
That's the "big picture" vision for Te Araroa, or "the long pathway", an ambitious project for a 3000km trail stretching the length of the country: from Cape Reinga to Bluff.
Te Araroa is a physical and spiritual pathway that will allow New Zealanders to explore many of the emotional, historical and environmental elements that shape their national identity.
It aims to get New Zealanders walking their own nation; if not during a single outing, then by undertaking sections of the pathway at their convenience.
The Pakiri section, which has stiles in place but not the full Te Araroa signage, will be completed this summer. Later it will become part of a longer trail continuing south through to the Dome Forest near Warkworth, and then on to Puhoi. It will join many sections already in place but not necessarily joined up, including a 20km Waitangi-Kerikeri walk in the north and the 18km Meremere-Rangiriri foot trail along the Waikato River, which opened last December and is already proving popular.
A start has also been made on the 120km Ocean-to-Ocean trail in Northland between Ahipara, at the southern end of Ninety Mile Beach, and Kerikeri, on the east coast.
The man driving the vision is Geoff Chapple, writer, journalist, activist and naturalist. From December 1997 to August 1998 Chapple undertook a 1500km hike to test the practicality of "indicative trail" mapped out by the Te Araroa Trust after consulting local councils, iwi and DoC.
As he journeyed, Chapple wrote a website about his experiences on what he later called Byway One: the tramping equivalent of Highway One.
"My aim was to let the trail speak - to meet the New Zealanders who hunt the bush, who farm, who populate the small towns, and who, as much as ever, but in more dire circumstances now, give this country its character," he explained after completing his hike. "I'd wanted to let the country's history speak, too, by passage through such historic sites as Kerikeri and Waitangi, Rangiriri and Ratana Pa."
Chapple, now the trust's chief executive officer, plans to walk the South Island this summer.
The Te Araroa Trust was established in August 1994. Its patrons are Sir Edmund Hillary and Sir Wilson Whineray, with former journalist Jenny Wheeler as chairman and Waitakere City Mayor Bob Harvey as deputy. Harvey describes the project as "one of the great ideas".
"The only way, I believe, to really fall in love with this country is on foot," he says. "Only that way do you really see the grandeur and the beauty."
Wheeler says trampers and hikers using the pathway will be able to experience historic sites as well as wildlife reserves, and botanical, geological and natural features.
"We really believe this can put New Zealanders in touch with their cultural landscape and their identity, as well as experiencing nature," she says.
"The pathway passes through so many exciting aspects and it works in so many ways - it's like Bruce Chatwin's idea of songlines connecting the country, and this can be a very emotional element."
Developing the North Island section of Te Araroa has proved slower and more complex than expected. The earliest prediction of having it in full working order by the end of this year was wildly optimistic. Now the trust is talking 2005.
"When we began, we thought it was such a good idea that all you had to do was get the Prime Minister to launch it and do the first length, then everyone would get behind it," says Chapple. "That's not the way it worked."
While there was plenty of enthusiasm, there was a distinct lack of practical knowledge. There wasn't enough cooperation between councils, and there was no overall design for the trail.
"So in 1997 we designed the trail, and we did that by talking with the councils and by talking with DoC and with iwi about where we could go and where there were already viable routes," says Chapple.
"It wasn't just done off the seat of our pants - there was a months-long consultation up and down the North Island as to where good routes were."
Te Araroa has been deliberately designed to connect small towns - places such as Pakiri, Matakana and Rangiriri - and is not restricted to traditional mountain-range walks.
Part of the idea is that building the trail will create new jobs and maintenance will provide more work opportunities. This has been a factor in getting political buy-in from councils, Chapple says.
"Te Araroa does sort of hop between small centres of population, and it should benefit those centres in terms of trail construction work but, also, when the trails are in, by people moving through and spending money on accommodation and so on."
He points out that successful long trails have always promoted the creation of bed-and-breakfast establishments - from four to 40 in the case of Canada's 770km Bruce Trail - and added other impetus to local economies. For every £1 ($3.35) spent on maintaining Britain's popular 285km Offa's Dyke trail, hikers spend more than $63 on food, drink and accommodation within the trail corridor.
"In New Zealand, there's been a withering of small towns," argues Chapple. "It was part of the Rogernomics revolution, really, when they pulled out a lot of the services from small towns like banks and post offices and all those things that were meant to be 'uneconomic'.
"So to some extent we are part of a rebuilding process of the small towns which are becoming viable in a new way.
"New Zealand has always been a small-town type of place, a hill-and-valley sort of place - that's part of its fundamental identity, and I think we're going back to that."
Wheeler points out that Te Araroa has been adopted by the Mayors' Taskforce for Jobs - an initiative launched last year by 31 mayors to help eliminate unemployment - and has been included in the taskforce's strategic plan for 2001-02.
Harvey says Te Araroa fits perfectly with the taskforce initiative. "The concept is a big one, but it's realistic, it can happen, and the good thing is that it can happen in our lifetime. These ideas come once in a lifetime, and you should seize them."
Wellington City has given Te Araroa a budget, and a significant amount of planning has already been done on the Wellington-Porirua route.
Chapple says the trust's budget is about $300,000. "It's getting to be a big enterprise, mate! Dozens of walkways are already on the route and I reckon legal thoroughfare is already up at 80 per cent. Now our task is to do the linking. It's always these tiny bits of private land that may be only 500m wide, but that can snag you."
Unlike Britain and Europe, where the gradual evolution of social and agricultural systems - from tribal to feudal to enclosures and the more modern agricultural patterns - resulted in a huge network of legal paths through fields and villages, New Zealand's land tenure system does not lend itself to the easy creation of a long pathway.
"We have a land tenure law here that has quite rigorously divided the land into rectangles with no thoroughfare between them, so one boundary comes up against another," says Chapple.
"Quite often roads follow what were Maori pathways, but the footpaths that didn't become roads sort of tended to just disappear into the blue."
And, not surprisingly, some private landowners are vehemently opposed to the notion of the public tramping across their land.
It's going to take some very persuasive talking to convince them otherwise, and in the most stubborn cases the optimum pathway will probably have to wait for a change in ownership.
But Chapple is convinced there is a changing attitude to the countryside. "What I think is happening is new consciousness by people, an appreciation of landscape and an appreciation of New Zealanders' connection to their landscape, which they're very proud of.
"And there's a dawning recognition by landholders - and certainly that's now reinforced by councils under the Resource Management Act - that there is a right of the public to go through [private property]."
Chapple says that, ahead of his 1998 walk, he had been advised by those who worked with the New Zealand Walkways Commission that it was almost impossible to penetrate the New Zealand countryside. "But my experience has been that it's astonishingly - I was going to say 'easy' but that's not quite the right word - there's been astonishing cooperation, put it that way.
"Farmers do have absolutely genuine concerns, they have gates left open and stock goes on to the roads. But I found a sort of recognition that [city] people are moving out, they do want to come into the countryside ...
"To get people moving out from the cities and seeing the beauty of the land, which every farmer is proud of, is something that they're now welcoming, they really are."
Chapple also points out that, according to the Hillary Commission, 12 per cent of male New Zealanders and 9 per cent of females already tramp regularly. In addition, an estimated 59 per cent of men and 80 per cent of women walk for recreation.
So Te Araroa's strategy is to cater for both groups, with a continuous, country-long trail for the confirmed trampers and shorter sections for the more casual hiker.
"So we've already got the former, and now we're edging up on the latter, who say, 'We can walk between two small towns and have a nice lunch at the end of it'," says Chapple.
As Harvey says, while the project may have started as a dream, it's a dream that is firmly rooted in reality.
"I really believe we've got something going here, and that's why we're really committed to it."