Into Maori Tribal Lands

Once I relaxed onto the trail again, the day flowed with highs and lows toward the Maori tribal lands and the Russell Forest.

I had a delightful shoreline walk to Opia where I caught a ferry to Okiato for the princely sum of $1.00, met a Chinese student named Olivia and walked up the hill past a long line of cars on the far side.

Olivia turned left for Russell after a final flurry of photographs. I tightened my belt, tried to look nonchalant and plodded upwards on tarmac that stuck to my feet and delayed each stride for a wearying micro-second.

An hour later, chain-smoking Jane picked me up. The air-conditioned billows of smoke floating over my scorched skin felt wonderful. Another long sole-sticking road-walk followed before a blonde Rhodesian ex-patriate named Wendy stopped to offer aid. Positive, confident and helpful with a big history of adventuring around the world, she went out of her way to drop me at the landing that led into Maori lands.

I had looked forward to this moment ever since a friend in Auckland turned pale at hearing about my route. "Oh, my God!!" he cried. "Have you got a gun? Ammunition? It's wild county up there!" Even his spectacles had fogged up in distress.

To a hopeless romantic and dreamer like me, "Maori Tribal Lands" carries a fine ring but in fact, the dusty gravelled road looked and felt (to my increasingly bruised feet, anyway) like any other. The countryside, while undeniably green and lush, lacked the mystical qualities to make a pakeha like me drop his astonished jaw and exclaim, "Wow! These people really know how to live!"

Aside from a few cattle and sleek horses dozing in the shade of trees, there was no sign of tribal life, unless you count the heralding rumble of V8 engines and a few dented and paint-chipped cars flying around the many banked bends as if the sheriff himself was in hot pursuit. Perhaps he was: anything is possible in Northland. Someone should make a TV series up here based on "The Dukes of Hazzard".

I waved at the hunched drivers a friendly fashion, they returned my hail with a companionable flick of their fingers and then left me to choke on clouds of Maori tribal dust.

A line of barefoot kids straggled from a cluster of distant buildings heading for a clapboard bus shelter. We arrived at the same time and I paused for a chat. I wanted connection but received cheek.

"Hey! Big pigs in those hills! Hope you got pistol and plenty of ammo!" "Bad men, too! Tie you up and rob you!" "Watch them wild dogs! Take you out!"

The little buggers even tried to send me down the wrong path.

"You've gone too far!" "Should've turned back there!" "Take that track!"

They thought it hilarious to see a middle-aged, glass-wearing, pack-burdened idiot sweating through their lands on a hot afternoon. I could see their point of view.

I paid them off with a barley sugar each and walked on down the road, which ultimately led to a stream, a ford and then a trail.

It passed into a perfectly normal tribal forest, thankfully free of big pigs, bad men or wild dogs. Eventually, the trail debouched into the Whakipapa Stream, which you follow, wading hip-deep through green pools, slithering over pebbled shoals or climbing around boulders and fallen trees.

As the trail notes say, "On a fine day, it's a beaut walk." And so it proved to be. I even shot a short video with my iPhone balanced on my rucksack.

That evening, I camped above a small shingle beach with an inviting green pool just begging to be used as a bath.

And that was exactly what I used it for.

There is nothing, absolutely nothing, as fine as washing the dust from the trail with a cold dip in clean water after a long, hot day.

It's enough to remind you that you really are in Maori tribal lands. And I felt perfectly safe and rather boringly normal there.