It was 6.30pm and I was supposed to be at a tango lesson. Instead I was bush-bashing through Rimutaka Forest Park, desperately trying to find a track as daylight faded. I was alone, sweating like a pig in a sauna and my knee was throbbing painfully.

Somewhere - I had no idea how far or in what direction - the Department of Conservation gate was being closed; even if I could find my way back to the carpark, I'd be stuck.

The rules of tramping - tell someone where you're going, stick to the track, take proper gear - exist for a reason but I hadn't followed the rules. Deep in the heart of the Rimutakas, a 45-minute drive from Wellington, I was to have a lesson all right ... but not in dancing the tango.

That afternoon, in the blistering sun, I had taken the "moderate to difficult" Butcher Track to what seemed like the apex of the world, the Wellington harbour glistening in the west, the tips of the Southern Alps in the distance, the sleeping hills of the Rimutakas behind me.

The forest park is renowned as a portal for those wanting to escape their urban jungles and instead bask in dense greenery and the glorious silence - apart from the call of native birds and the trickle of streams - of the outdoors.

I had intended to walk for two hours and then back-track, but decided to follow a random ridge-track to the Orongorongo River. It wasn't a DoC track but, surely, I'd find one along the riverbed somewhere. Surely.

Once there I ploughed through several small streams, drowning my shoes in the process, as the majestic gorges of the Rimutakas watched from both sides of the river.

Eventually I saw a marker at the riverside, but the track - complete with the steepest incline in history - looked like it hadn't been used for centuries. I found myself crawling through, under and around dense forest, racing the clock and scouring for DoC tags as I went.

Bucketfuls of sweat later, I emerged to a well-established track near the top of a ridge. The sky was turning red.

My phone buzzed. "Please confirm u r alive," said a text from my tango buddy.

Alive, yes. But lost.

I ran down the track, conscious of impending nightfall, pausing only to admire the fading pink embracing the distant mountains.

And then, darkness. The lonely and silent emptiness of a moonless night.

Never underestimate how hard you have to concentrate to hike in the dark. Don't fall down a bank. Don't roll your ankle. Don't break your leg.

I continued with only a cellphone display-panel to light the way giving me 2m of dodgy visibility, at best.

The path became harder to see and, increasingly, I found myself swallowed up by the surrounding podocarp and beech forest. Then, predictably, I lost the track.

I just couldn't carry on off-track. I'd get more lost than I was. I had been following this path for 30 minutes, but had little choice other than to about-face and trudge in the other direction.

In the myriad of these loop-tracks, I knew a track would eventually lead me to the carpark. How long would that take? I could've been one tenth into a five-hour loop track and going the wrong way, for all I knew.

Every so often, I heard rustling in the bush or a frantic frenzy of feathers. Otherwise the only company I had - besides my own monologues - was the eerie blue cellphone light and the orchestra of stars in the sky.

I was getting hungry, slightly delirious.

The track started meandering downhill and I stumbled several times, slipping on tree roots, loose debris, even cow-dung. The latter may have caused a torrent of cuss words.

At 8.40pm, the track merged with another and, 10 minutes later, I came out at the top of the Butcher Track, the same spot where I had stood 5 1/2 hours earlier. Somehow, I had come full-circle to be back at first base.

At least, now, I knew where I was.

With renewed spirit, I headed down Butcher towards the carpark. The track was steep and unforgiving and my knee protested, but freedom was within my grasp.

At 9.36pm, exhausted, I emerged from the track. I was out ... but the spot was different to where my day had started and, under the blanket of night, I had no idea where the carpark was.

I walked ahead and met with a stream. I walked left and met with a different stream. I walked right and found the start of the six-hour loop track to Mt McKerrow. How utterly frustrating, to have endured and triumphed, only to be as blind and clueless as I was in the bush.

A few more cuss words.

On a hunch, I walked upstream and found a bridge, which, to my delight, took me to a path that led to my car. It was just on 10pm.

In my car boot, and to my complete surprise, sat my old and tattered sneakers. Dry shoes. Fantastic. If only I kept an emergency roast dinner there as well.

Fifty metres from the locked gate on the main road, I found a beautiful, solitary bar of cellphone coverage.

I apologised to my tango partner. "Could you come and get me, please?"

Lesson learned.