GO NZ: Te Araroa founder's walk down memory trails

NZ Herald
By Geoff Chapple
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Three people in the bright of day, walking up Moir Hill, then 16 kilometres onward to finish with the drink they’d promised themselves at the Pūhoi pub.

During the early days, 20 years ago, of putting Te Araroa in place, piece by piece, I was often asked why we were doing it, and my answer always was: "Because it isn't there."

Ask us again though, in April 2021, why we have headed up the trail route through to Pūhoi, and the answer would be closer to that original quote of George Mallory on climbing Everest: “Because it’s there.”

But there was a more recent back-story, too. A month or two before, the trail’s local guardians, Te Araroa Auckland Trust, had decided the Moirs Hill-Pūhoi walk should be better known, and people given a taste for walking Te Araroa sections. They’d advertised on Facebook, circulated instructions on downloading the trail app to mobile, and organised transport for the dozens who responded.

I’d signed up for that, but in the days before the scheduled Sunday start, the first of autumn’s big lows was still clamped over the city. Amidst the deluge, the clay parts of the track were a hazard, and risky for such a mass event. The Trust cancelled, but we’d been primed. I rang around, and two days later three of us went anyway, arranging a car-swap at Pūhoi and driving in a single vehicle to the trailhead at Matthew Rd.

We had a shared past. In Te Araroa’s early days, Kim Ollivier had searched cadastral property information for possible legal trail links and is still updating the route maps year by year. Fiona Mackenzie, a Women’s Outdoors Pursuits stalwart, had been Te Araroa’s northern project manager, securing new easements or agreements for passage where no public right existed. And then there was me.

We started uphill at 8.30am. A welcome sun was restoring balance to a watery world, and the route steamed. We’d never walked this track together, and it seemed worth recording. I ran ahead to get the shots of my oncoming companions. Quick snaps, nothing special, but anyone who’s lifted a camera to their eye knows the thrill of the photo that’s more than a snap.

The Moir Hill-Pūhoi walk. Photo / Geoff Chapple
The Moir Hill-Pūhoi walk. Photo / Geoff Chapple

My companions came on past, and I followed their progress in the viewfinder. Beyond them stood the 350m bush summit, its transmission tower poking up. Below that, backs to camera, and stepping out towards that obvious destination, the two trampers. Right beside me, two horses hung their heavy heads over the fence. Three levels of interest. Terrific. I pressed the shutter. Pressed it again. And again. Stared at the useless thing with its insolent onscreen readout. Memory card locked.

On past the transmission tower. High fences. Razor wire. Surveillance cameras. A protest guerilla group swung axes to sever the microwave feed pipes here during the Springbok Tour chaos of 1981. The hostile perimeter dates back to that sabotage. Then on down Moir Hill Rd a few hundred metres to the wooden sign pointing south through bush.

Kim had originally identified this legal route from cadastral maps. No surveyed road went downhill that steep, that straight, and he thought it was probably an old bush railway, bringing down logs.

The water-rutted clay path led away under the overhanging bush - I had childhood memories of bush tracks like this, and I’m sure the others did. Maybe that resonance explained the pleasure all of us took - whoops! - in once again dicing down a slippery clay route.

The ascent of Moir Hill. Photo / Geoff Chapple
The ascent of Moir Hill. Photo / Geoff Chapple

The power of childhood - and maybe too that’s why the trail conversation turned then to Charlotte Grimshaw’s The Mirror Book, the author’s exploration of childhood and adolescence - a personal challenge to the received wisdom of the Steads, her literary family. A challenge driven by personal trauma, and a psychoanalyst who encouraged her back through the damage. Going back, at the risk, too, of putting her personal relationships under strain. Freudians, at least, tend not to consider such relationships as inviolate, tend to see them - as I once saw it described - as being little more than an “uneasy truce between powerful solitary fantasy systems.”

But onward. We broke out downhill on to J. Tolhopf Rd past the long row of letterboxes that signalled an outpost of rural lifestyle blocks, then followed along until we turned into a gate and the hill-country easement Pūhoi farmers Arthur and Val Dunn had put in place to take Te Araroa through to Remiger Rd, 2.5km distant. A chopper came out of the distance, low, under dark clouds, and the rain fell. Arthur died in 2008 while out possum baiting near here, in the bush he loved. Fiona had worked with him to arrange the stiles and fences along this trail access way, and she still does a pest trapline in Dunn’s Bush.

The gate put in place by Pūhoi farmers Arthur and Val Dunn. Photo / Geoff Chapple
The gate put in place by Pūhoi farmers Arthur and Val Dunn. Photo / Geoff Chapple

Past the rocky sugarloaf outcrop, then over a stile to a white limestone race, the land dropping away either side into big country spaces, and a blue ocean horizon to the east. The odd black steer skittered away, and then the trail sloped sharply down to Remiger Rd, and the DoC bush reserve and toilet there. We sat on a log and ate lunch.

So to the cabbage tree Fiona and I had planted in 2014 to mark the opening of the Pūhoi Track. Still thriving. We gave it a stroke, crossed the Pūhoi River on the swing bridge, and began climbing to the ridge.

If Te Araroa ever had a lot of money, this would be the prevailing track standard. The 5km track is gravelled, drained, benched, stepped and bridged throughout, but to do it that well cost $300,000 - in this case, it was Tindall Foundation money. We walked on through old bush, and as always, the dappled light and smell of decay made me glad. Fiona and I had both worked hard here to wrangle a trail route across the ridge, rather than down by the flood-prone river. We’d got consent for the ridge route finally from Chinese billionaire Furu Ding, the landholder.

I turned to Fiona.

"We can be happy with this one."

“Yep,” said Fiona. “Our sweat’s in the land”

Pūhoi's historic village comes into view towards the end of the trail. Photo / Geoff Chapple
Pūhoi's historic village comes into view towards the end of the trail. Photo / Geoff Chapple

We emerged still on the ridgeline, 80 metres above Pūhoi. As always, the village below seemed staunch and self-reliant, and despite the spread of subdivisions either side, it’s easy to see it, still, cupped by the calloused hands of its original Bohemian pioneers.

Then down a ridge shaded by totara trees to the memorial concrete bridge across the river, past the names, replete with consonants, of Bohemian men who’d lost their lives in World War I. Finally, we’d reached that promise of a beer at the Pūhoi pub, but nothing’s perfect. It was 1.15pm by then, later than we’d anticipated, and I’d promised to pick up my granddaughter from primary school. The city was 45km away on roads that are no longer predictable. No way could I be late, so my appetite for a party gave way to humble duty, and I left my companions to their own decisions on the matter.


Geoff Chapple founded Te Araroa, New Zealand’s Trail, a continuous 3000km walking track from Cape Reinga to Bluff, some of which can be tackled in sections as day walks. Find route maps and more info at teararoa.org.nz.

For more New Zealand travel ideas and inspiration, go to newfinder.co.nz and newzealand.com.