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AUCKLAND to RAWENE
I slept like a log, and in the morning discovered that d'Art had lost another shoe. However, Kaye agreed to shoe that side of him for me, so I'd have virtually a new set.
Vicky Kelly, a friend from Hunua, was coming over with another friend, Huia Mitchell, who'd agreed to take Brae and all the luggage in her truck. The previous day's ride had proved to much for all of us and I'd spent long spells walking alongside d'Art whilst Brae rode in my saddle.
The ride through the Hunuas, firstly past the Mangatangi Dam and climbing 450 metres above sea level, was amazing. There are many young kauri trees growing within metres of each other in the regenerating native forest. The Hunua Ranges has been mostly "off limits" to the public since it became Auckland's water catchment area in the 1940's and 1950's. There are four large dams and until recently much of the area has been jealously protected by the council, although it is now being carefully opened up to the people of Auckland for leisure pursuits.
In the earlier part of this century the area was farmed, but due to its steepness and poor access the farms were not highly successful, and the farmers were pleased when offered a reasonable price for their land.
At the top we walked the horses down the long slope to the Mangatawhiri River Valley, and then remounted to walk to the Upper Mangatawhiri Dam for our picnic lunch. Just before we came to the locked gate which Huia had to open, we stopped and let the horses have a long, cool drink in the river ford.
I called in to see the ranger's wife whilst Kaye and Vicky rode ahead, and then took my two horses through the paddocks there which are used for picnic-sites beside the river. The last gate I came to Ipushed closed, even though it wasn't really shut, and there were other gates open, I knew my reliable horses. I unsaddled them and let them go, whilst Kaye tied his horses up under the trees. I laughed inwardly - my two never went far away and there was lots of lush pasture there for them to eat, plus the river nearby.
Of course, they loved to make a fool of me. I'd been too lazy to shut the gate properly, so they fiddled with it until they got it open, then they cantered right to the end of the far paddock where they knew they could get to the ford. Vicky had just made me a perc'ed coffee when I saw them disappearing in the distance and had to go and get them. I made sure I shut the gate properly when I came back and to make even more sure that they wouldn't embarrass me again, I tied Captain up!
It was lovely sitting there in the shade eating our picnic food, but we still had a good way to ride - it was a 48km ride that day. The next 15km wound gently uphill beside the Mangatawhiri Dam and as the track was sparsely metalled d'Art, Captain and I had some great canters whilst the other two travelled at a more sedate pace.
At the top of the Ness Valley we had some remarkable views of Auckland city and the Waitemata Harbour, right up to the Whangaparaoa Peninsula. It was the first time it had really hit me that I'd ridden such a long way - this, after all, was my home-town that I was looking down on, from a horse which I'd ridden all this way. We could even see the harbour bridge and the Sky City Casino quite clearly.
We came down past the ranger's house and I called out a cheery "hello" but got no reply. One hundred metres past their house, we came to the gate, for which we'd been given the combination. Huia tried to open the gate, but it didn't budge. Vicky and I got off, and Vicky, who hadn't been riding for a long time, nearly passed out. She decided that perhaps she'd overdone it that day.
Suddenly the ranger's partner arrived in their vehicle. She had a lot of questions to ask:
"Where have you come from?"
"How did you get in here?"
We came in the gate at Kaiaua.
"Who gave you permission to ride through here?"
The Regional Parks office gave me a permit. Do you want to see it? We've got it in the vehicle.
This was tedious - all we wanted to do was get through the gate and to finish our ride. We were all tired - even the horses were fidgety at her suspicions.
Then her partner, the ranger, turned up, a chap I'd met on a few occasions before. He knew that we'd been given permission to ride through here, but somehow there'd been a breakdown in communications.
Finally we got the message through that we were entitled to be in here, and we got on the road again, Kaye and I both riding and leading another horse. It wasn't long before we had ridden down into the Ness Valley to our overnight grazing.
I stayed for a few days with good friends in Paparimu, Anne and Leon Bunn, and it was great to be able to sit and relax with them whilst the horses were at the farm of Keith and Jenny Kelly. I did considerable planning for my three rides to get me through Auckland; the first stage of which I knew would be another big day.
I set out on the Sunday, and it proved to be quite an eventful day. Firstly, d'Artagnan had decided that he didn't like the cracks which run across bridges near Auckland. It took me ten minutes, with the help of a patient car driver who waited on a dangerous corner whilst I persevered in getting him onto the bridge.
I stopped and chatted to a good friend from church, who lived right beside the road.
Before long Captain was showing signs of back trouble again, so I decided to abandon his packs and the pack saddle. Fortunately, a friend of mine, Julius Lawrence, came along with a thermos of coffee soon after so collected the gear for me. And then it started to rain.
Eventually I reached Clevedon about ten minutes before church, my church, was to begin... I stopped and chatted to the more faithful church-goers, who had a laugh at me turning up with my horses.
Then we set out up Twilight Road, a narrow and twisting road, so named because Knights Bridge is at one end, and Days Bridge at the other. My cellphone rang non stop, and somehow some rain crept into the system because the phone started going mad - ringing with no-one there and other crazy things. I'd have to get it fixed when I got to Auckland.
Once we came up the hill into Howick we hit the suburbs. There's been a lot of building done in this area for immigrants from Asia, and the houses are palatial and built according to the formulae of Feng Shui, so much so that the developments have been dubbed "Chowick". I rode past one beautiful home and six Asian faces at the kitchen window all waved with broad grins - this wasn't something they'd see from their windows in Hong Kong.
The roads were really busy now as I turned onto Ti Rakau Drive. D'Artagnan was being silly at bridges and this was beginning to really annoy me - for heavens sake, how many cracks had he ridden over between Bluff and here.
And a saddlery shop at East Tamaki had a large blue picture of a trotting horse... which he found absolutely scary. How could a horse be mid-trot and stationery?
I got him around the sign, and dismounted and led him over the busy bridge at Ti Rakau Drive, getting angry with a driver who insisted on staying in his lane when there was no traffic beside him in the outside lane. If I'd been a car he would have driven around us - aren't horses traffic too?
It was nose-to-bumper stuff along Ti Rakau Drive, and there was one particular bridge which was not going to be easy to tackle. Three lanes wide, across the Tamaki Estuary, the third lane is governed by traffic lights, so that the busiest direction has two lanes. Of course, as I approached it, I could see the traffic lights were against us.
My luck was in, though, as a man pulled up, getting his toddler out of its car-seat to look at the horses go by. I stopped and let them all pat the horses, and asked him if he'd do me a favour by driving behind me whilst I crossed the bridge. When I came to the bridge I got very assertive with d'Artagnan and just kept him trotting towards it - there was no way he was going to balk at any cracks now.
I waved goodbye to my helpful motorist as I trotted onto the parkland at the other side. Now the next obstacle was the Panmure Roundabout - but the traffic was reasonably well behaved, mostly in awe at someone taking two horses around it. I followed the Riding and Road Safety Handbook to the letter, and had no problems.
It was reasonably plain sailing from there along the backroads to the Ellerslie Racecourse, where James biked towards me. It was really great to see someone that I loved so much coming down the road.
The horses had pens at Ellerslie which were lush with kikuyu grass. But d'Artagnan had already proclaimed he didn't like this type of grass and he would much prefer other types of feed. Fortunately I'd got some hay off friends at Paparimu - now I had to go and get it.
I was tired, but my day wasn't over yet. Chris came and drove me out the 47km to pick up the car. Then I had to drive another 20km to collect Brae from Anne and Leon's. They told me that having had him tied up all day, they decided to let him off the chain, and he ran straight back to my old home, Merriemont. It was hard work catching him and bringing him back to their home.
Then I was going to drive to Julius and Joan's place to get the pack saddle and gear, but I was just too tired. I went back to Auckland and found a motel to stay in, somewhere where I could spread out all my gear and get on top of things again.
The pack saddle obviously needed some fixing as it was now giving both pack-horses back trouble. I'd found a saddler who came highly recommended, and explained my predicament to him. I needed the saddle fixed to continue my ride, and grazing was scare in Auckland city, so I wouldn't be able to wait for it - could he fix it at short notice.
He told me the job would only take 3-4 hours, so he'd order the materials and fix it on the Wednesday. This suited me fine; but when I took it to him on the Wednesday as planned, he told me to come back on the Friday. I reminded him how he'd said it would only take a few hours.
"I'm not going to drop everything and do it for you. I've got other work to do for other people too, you know."
Arrogant bastard. No matter how good a saddler he was, I wouldn't ever take work back to him. I'd asked him if he could fix it on the Friday, and we'd had an arrangement for the Wednesday. However, I wasn't going to cross him - I needed that saddle fixed, and he had me by the "short and curlies" as it were.
Doug was trucked to Ellerslie Racecourse and I now had three horses. I arranged for Captain to go to friends on the North Shore and I'd continue on with Doug and d'Art, knowing that Captain was there should I need him. After my journey was finished, I was intending to return to the North Shore to do another Parelli course, this time with a horse - either Doug or Captain.
But in the meantime, I needed all three of them for promotional work in Auckland. Several journalists based there had indicated they'd like to interview me, and it seemed like a good spot to do some work with the media.
Earlier, I'd heard that there were now mounted police in Auckland city, and I'd asked them if they'd like to be involved in my ride through Auckland. They were keen to join me - and I'd already sought permission to ride through Cornwall Park from the Domain Board. When I spoke Grant Latimer who farmed Cornwall Park for permission to ride across his paddocks, he'd said how much he'd like to do so, so I'd offered him a ride on Captain.
Now I remembered to tell him that the police were coming too, and he horrified me by saying they weren't welcome. Evidently, he'd had not so pleasant experiences with the police before, and wasn't keen at all for them to be involved.
This put me in an awkward position, but all in all it turned out well. The mounted police, Mark Clayton and Janet Briggs, turned out to be very human - we all have had experience of police who think they're above being human - and the four of us had a lot of fun on the day. I left Grant talking with them about promoting both the mounted police and the A&P Show, so I hope it works out for them both. Both organisations need to be more deeply understood by people who have no or little experience of horses and things rural.
So with two mounted policemen, and me leading two horses, we attempted to leave Ellerslie. Fortunately, James had come along on foot to take care of Brae for me. Things began to go really badly.
Firstly, the police horse that Mark was riding took objection to other horses being along for the ride, giving him a really hard time. Then Doug went too close to a fence, breaking the frame of the pack on the pack saddle, so I had to unpack him and leave the gear beside the street, hoping that the rubbish truck wasn't due to come along.
Mark's horse continued to play up, so he rode back to Ellerslie and put it on the float. Janet and I continued, each leading a horse. How I envied the way she could put out a pale-blue-shirted arm with these amazing epaulets, and stop the traffic for us!
We rode into the park and Grant Latimer joined us, and we spent a glorious few hours riding all around the park, places I'd dreamt of riding since I was a girl - through the Twin Oak Avenue, up One Tree Hill to the very top. It was great fun, bringing a huge smile to my face.
This park is one of the most magical places in Auckland city. Only a few kilometres from the city centre, it was given to the people of Auckland by Sir John Logan Campbell, and most of it is retained as farmland. It also has a planetarium, magnificent gardens and an adventure playground for children, but after business hours it is frequented by many families out walking, joggers, and people wanting to get away from city life for an hour or two.
A new innovation is the "Farmyard Corner" with poultry and pigs running around the paddocks. There were two little pigs enjoying free rein of the park, gently harrassing the walkers and picnickers for nibbles and treats.
The mounted police left, and Grant and I returned to his home where the truck arrived to pick up Captain. Now I had to leave them, and ride on to the grazing with d'Art and Doug. I flew across Cornwall Park, enjoying a canter alone along Twin Oak Avenue, and riding down past the playground onto Manukau Road. Then I chose a network of back streets to come along to Mt Albert Road.
(I realised that my route was going to take me right past the home of a dear friend, Claire Fergusson, whose parents I'd stayed with at Halcombe. Kevin and Claire have done extensive reconstruction to their home, so that they now have just a mere patchwork of lawn, but I rode the horses in to their garden and did three laps of the lawn, leaving hoofmarks for them to find when they got home.)
My father is seriously affected by Parkinsons Disease and now is cared for by the staff at Ranfurly War Veterans Home Hospital, and I'd arranged that I'd call in there. I don't think my father recognised me, but the staff had brought him and others out onto the deck, and I know that many of the other patients there got a thrill out of seeing the horses. One man with a cane came down onto the lawn and insisted on holding Doug for me. Doug behaved himself magnificently.
Then it was a walk along Mt Albert Road to the grazing I'd arranged at Mt Albert Grammar School Farm. This is another magic place in Auckland. As I unsaddled there were young parents bringing their children into the farmyard to see all the activities - they have a wide range of livestock there to be petted.
It must be difficult for people like Dwayne Dougherty, who manages the school farm, and Grant Latimer to run a farm and liaise with the public - I'm sure I'd get quite frustrated of the questions and people's ignorance and misinformation.
Two days later we left Mt Albert very early, 6.30 a.m. I was on the road, as we had a long ride to Taupaki, west of Auckland. We were travelling against the rush hour traffic, and it got increasingly embarrassing the looks I was getting. Firstly there were two horses, ridden by a woman, who didn't have a bridle on her riding horse, AND had a dog on behind her. After a while I chose not to look at their faces, but at one set of traffic lights a man got out of a car beside me and took our photo - I wonder what he did with it. Perhaps: "Freaks I saw on the way to work"?
Doug had lost a shoe, so I called in to see the folk at the Avondale Racecourse. What an unfriendly bunch! They all referred me to the meanest bastard I've ever met.
It was time for a coffee at New Lynn, so I rode into the McDonald's Drive Through there. These people took the joke with good humour.
I was amazed when we rode up Waikumete Hill, to be pulled over by a police car.
"Where are you going?" the constable, who'd been driving asked me.
"Cape Reinga," I replied.
"Where have you come from?"
"Bluff." (I wasn't sure if he knew where that was, but one can only be honest.)
"Why are you going along here?"
"Because I'm not allowed to ride over the harbour bridge." (Honestly - ask a silly question. Aren't we allowed on the road? Are there new laws in West Auckland that no-one's told me about?)
"Well, you're causing a traffic jam, we've had a complaint, so please ride on the footpath."
I blew my cool, and tried to be nice.
"For goodness, sake, I am NOT causing a traffic jam.The rush hour traffic is all going the other way, if I get so much as two cars behind me, then I ride up someone's driveway."
"Well, you shouldn't be riding on the road. Please ride on the footpath."
(He has to be joking!) "But I sat my Riding and Road Safety Certificate and in the Police Handbook it says I'm NOT allowed to ride on the footpath."
(Now I asked a stupid question!) "Have you seen the Riding and Road Safety Handbook that the police put out?" (Not a good bit of psychology that! A closed question, and either way I'd lose. Where were the psychologists when I need them!!!)
"Yes." (Um. What COULD I say now? Tell him he should read it? Don't ever tell a policeman his business.)
"Can I have your name please?" (That had to be a dumb thing to say to an officious young policeman who obviously knew nothing about horses and the road laws.)
"Nope that's not necessary."
"Well, if someone tells me off for riding on the footpath, who shall I say told me to?"
"Just tell them that you were told to do so by the West Auckland Police."
(I looked hard at his epaulettes, and tried to memorise his number. He turned sideways to make it easier for me.)
"Bye! Have a nice ride. Hope you make it safely!"
I rode on the footpath for the next few hundred metres, and then went back to riding on the far left side of the road. Doug was good, tucking in behind me, we couldn't have made a bigger mark than a cyclist, and if we were to leave our "mark" on the footpath, I'm sure we'd get no end of complaints as to how 'unhygienic' horses were.
I stopped briefly to visit with friends at the top of the Waikumete Hill and then rode on through Henderson, stopping to sample the products of Corbans Vineyards en route.
At Ranui we had another 'run in' with the law, this time I used the toilet of a delightful and delighted Community Constable, who put his wee toddler up on d'Art's back. We got a photograph of the group of us - so perhaps I see-sawed back into the good books of the police.
We turned east from Swanson and got onto rural roads. I was now able to put Brae down onto the road to run, and a few minute later regretted that he'd crossed to the other side of the road when a car turned the corner and hit him. The poor man who was driving was most upset, and Brae hurt his leg slightly but otherwise suffered from damaged pride. He got a good telling off from me and then back onto d'Art's back for the rest of the journey. I was hoping he'd learned his lesson.
And then we rode down Amriens Road, where I'd first learned to ride some 35 years ago. My aunt Sybil had had a farm here, and was keen for any niece or nephew who wanted to learn to ride to do so. We'd spend as much of our holidays as we could on her farm, and I spent some happy holidays here. It was surprising - the smell of pine-needles and tea-tree (manuka) reminded me of those early days.
One of my aunt's neighbours still farmed there - Ada Blyth was a war bride from Yugoslavia and she offered the horses grazing overnight. An amazing lady, she was truly alarmed when I finally made her understand just what I was doing - where I was travelling from and to.
A local rider had arranged for a farrier to come that afternoon so I took Doug down to have his shoe tacked back on - for which he wouldn't charge me, and provided me with the name of a farrier who would be able to shoe the horses at Helensville.
Once more the next day we had a long way to go, or so it seemed. Perhaps it seemed a long way because when I rode these roads thirty-something years ago they were a lot less busy. It was disappointing, reliving my pony club days and finding things had changed so much.
All of my friends' farms had been cut up into much smaller 'livestyle' blocks. So instead of being able to ride along grass verges and tracks through the 'long acre', the style of verge would change every few hundred metres. It was easier to stay on the road, avoiding planted gardens, electric tape and permanent fences, ditches, double-parked cars, barking dogs and goats on wires.
Another friend from Helensville brought a picnic lunch and we stopped and chatted in the middle of the Riverhead State Forest. But even the forest roads were all sealed now, and very busy, as traffic detoured north through Kaukapakapa all the way to Wellsford. Last time I'd been to Kaukapakapa it was a genuine farming area, but now there were hundreds of horses resident, dressage arenas, showjumps and only a few 'real' farms.
It was a hot day, and I was glad to finally arrive at the magnificent home of Verna and Barry Collins. Verna was the older sister of a school friend, and when I'd phoned them I'd thought they would still be on their farm. In their mid 50's they're retired now, with them both spending much of their time at the golf course or with their children and grandchildren.
They were very kind to me, and offered me a bed whilst I finished my ride to South Head, the entrance to the Kaipara Harbour.
When I'd planned the ride, I'd wanted to see if I could barge the horses across the Kaipara Harbour mouth, feeling that riding up the west coast of Northland would be much more interesting than the east, where the main trunk routes are. However, the barge idea had proven unsatisfactory for various reasons, and I managed to find some people who agreed to truck the horses around the harbour for me.
For the next two days I rode north along some delightful country roads, and through the Woodhill State Forest. It was lovely to be back on the golden sands of Muriwai Beach, and to ride across the station of Otakanini Topu. As we went into the forest from the back of the farm, I saw a young hind bound away from us. I could even see where it had just been drinking water at a small pond.
The Woodhill Forest is mostly pines, but it's used for recreation as well - orienteering, running, riding, fishing, surfing, swimming and all manner of cross-country vehicles use the forest's facilities.
I'd intended riding further up the South Head, but d'Artagnan lost a shoe, and it wasn't worth shoeing him there to continue the ride. I came out at the picturesque Lake Kereta and hitched a ride back to Helensville, where the horses got new shoes all round. These shoes might, with a bit of luck, do them until the end of the ride.
At the time I'd bought my pack saddle from Lee Gabriel from Ranchware in Dargaville he'd told me he'd be keen to join me in my ride from the Kaipara to the Hokianga Harbour. So before I got the horses to Pouto, on the North Head of the Kaipara, I phoned Lee and made sure it was 'all on'.
Lee had only just broken his current horse (Cass) in about six months previously, so thought it would be a useful experience for him. (He changed his mind more than several times! At one part he wished he'd insured him first.)
Lee made some inquiries and when I got to Dargaville we talked to some of the locals to make sure that the tracks were passable. My horses had been given excellent grazing at Pouto, but when we got there with Lee's horse, Cass, I was horrified to find just how many ticks they had on them - there must have been hundreds on their faces alone!
We saddled up and rode down to the beach, looking across the five kilometres to the South Head. The journey by road had been something more like 300 kilometres around the harbour!
Lee and I had pored over the maps, and I was horrified to see the areas of quicksand marked out. Lee had no qualms, however, about where one could or couldn't ride. But every time the horses' hooves sank more than ten centimetres, I inwardly panicked...
There were some amazing rock formations on the cliffs above the North Head. There were 'sandfalls' which were just like waterfalls, and in another part a spring had left artistic sand sculptures etched into the cliff.
It was a long ride west and then around the corner to begin the trek northwards. In the distance I could see what looked like a huge ship on the horizon - as we got closer it turned into a tree stump. Lee laughed at the 'things I saw' and what they actually turned out to be.
The beach seemed to go on forever but Lee assured me it was only 100 km! I recounted tale after tale for him from my travels, and I'm sure I bored him silly. We would get off and walk for a while, and when Lee let Cass go, his horse would linger way behind the others. However, he was developing a kinship for Dart and Doug, and soon decided he couldn't leave their sides
By 6.30 p.m. we had three very tired and bored horses and although we hadn't come across our planned camping site, we decided to make camp. We'd been invited to camp beside a river where there was a paddock - we weren't sure if we'd passed it or not, but if we left it much later we wouldn't be able to see where we were anyway. We rode through a break in the sand dunes and found a gate and a large paddock with water - just what the horses needed. Lee had brought his tent with him and was keen to be the camp cook (and I was happy to let him!). He prepared pasta out of a packet and it was quite delicious.
Lee had been telling me that this part of the peninsula was a flight path for UFO's so he was telling me jokes about aliens and Martians, and what we'd do if they came to get us in the night. I wasn't so sure I wanted them to come visit. I decided to tell Lee a rather long and detailed yarn, and had just got past the "Once upon a time there was a young girl..." when we heard an onimous click of an animal getting zapped by an electric fence, wires twanging as they unhitched themselves from their fenceposts, and three sets of galloping hooves plunging away into the darkness.
Lee was out of his sleeping bag and had the flap unzipped in a matter of seconds, found the torch and was away to see where the horses had gone. I followed at my own pace, struggling in the darkness over to where I could see the torchlight waving as Lee explored the damage to the fence.
Brave Lee (or so I thought) was holding onto the live wire with his thick leather chaps, and managed somehow to hook it back up to the insulated posts. Several times, though, the pulse zapped the zip on his chaps and gave him a nasty shock. His language was quite colourful!
He did an amazing job of fixing the fence, considering he had no tools, and no insulation material. After he'd fixed the fence we went across the paddocks to try and check the horses. Several times we got close enough to them, but with the torch on or off they wouldn't let us get near them. Perhaps they thought we were aliens? Lee thought it was strange how when you're on their backs they are so tired and can barely put one hoof in front of the other, but the moment they get loose all the youthful energy returns. How we wished it had been the same for us.
The horses were easy to find the next morning - they were right at the far side of the paddock which must have been about 20ha. Cass was the one with the damage to his rear shins, and I surmised that more than likely Doug had been beating him up, closer and closer to the fence.
All three had recovered from their near out-of-world experience and were somewhat drained, finding it very hard to put one hoof in front of the other. But we had a long way to go.
We didn't get off to a quick start, but fortunately the weather was overcast and not as hot as it had become the previous day. Because we were camping we were carrying copious amounts of water for ourselves and hoping that we'd see enough streams between our next night's stop and the 'Camp of the Aliens' which we'd just left.
Riding on the beach can be quite boring - one thinks it will be sublime, with the blue surf and the white sand, but progress seems to be slow as the scenery doesn't change all that much. However, as we neared Glinks Gully there were more and more people fishing, providing us with some much needed entertainment.
Whilst I rode onwards, Lee used the phone at Glinks Gully and caught up with a few of the locals. Maunganui Bluff was, unbelievably, getting closer - which was where we were to leave the beach, but this was still another day's ride away. I was pleased that Lee was with me - he certainly provided good entertainment.
Some of Lee's friends met us on the beach at Mahuta Gap and we chatted about the fishing and the history of the local beaches. I had noticed several streams emerging from the rockfaces which faced the beach, and at one point where I was feeling particularly tired and energyless I told Lee that I was going to have a shower. I removed my chaps and trousers and stood underneath the icy water in my T-shirt. It was freezing - it certainly woke me up quickly.
The water, I was told by a local, comes out of a ligneous layer of rock, and is very pure. It didn't take long for the little streams to die out in the hot sand though.
Our next night's stop was at Bayleys Beach. Lee's friend Annie McGregor provided grazing, but firstly we washed the horses in Asuntol to remove all the ticks we'd picked up. More friends of Lee's, Sue Kerridge and Dennis Henwood, had been very interested in my ride, so we spent the night in luxury in real beds.
I had visited Bayleys Beach quite often as a young girl when our family had driven up from Auckland to dig toheroas in the sand. These shellfish were now not so common as they had been in those days, and there is a ban and heavy fine on gathering them.
I suggested to Lee that my horses would walk faster if he were to go ahead with Cass, and so he trotted off into the distance. Brae was alarmed - how could he keep his 'herd' in control if two of us went so far ahead, and three dallied behind. For a few minutes he chased after Cass, then ran back to me yapping, and back towards Cass. He didn't like the split at all.
It took us ages to catch up to Cass and Lee; we found Cass standing in a river bed, moving his feet as they sank slowly down into the quicksand, and Lee asleep on the edge. He was surprised at just how far he'd got in front of us.
Then we rode past Moremonui Gully and I inquired of the monument there - it commemorates a battle about 1807 between the local Ngati Whatua warriors and Ngapuhi raiders who had travelled from further north. This was an important event in local Maori history because it was the first time that Maori used muskets in warfare.
Just before we came to the Bluff I suggested to Lee that we should look out for a track over the hills which would cut a few kilometres off our journey. Sometimes these tracks work out - other times they're not successful, but this one, looking very much like the Old Coach Road, was indeed a good find.
It was a relief to be off the beach, and we realised just how much more distance you appear to be covering when you're riding up hills and around corners.
Aranga Road was a pretty little road down to Peter and Ketch Nelson's place, Aranga Station, where we'd been invited to spend the night. They were a most hospitable couple and we were able to discuss our plans for the next day's ride with them. I'd been keen to ride along the old railway formation to Donnellys Crossing, so they helped us by contacting their neighbours, over whose property we'd also ride, and getting the required permission.
When we'd unsaddled the horses at Aranga I'd noticed that Doug's back appeared sore (so much for the new saddle!) and so I thought I'd try riding Doug, and that we'd pack Dart. This proved to be a most fortuitious arrangement in more ways than one.
But firstly I had to get the courage together to get on his back! He didn't want to stand for me, and I didn't want an audience, so I walked him across the first few paddocks until we were out of sight of everyone, except Lee. Once I was on Doug, though, he behaved very well.
The railway formation made a beautiful ride, across picturesque farmland - pasture that had once echoed with the sound of steam locomotives. I wondered about all of the men and the energy that had created the tracks so many years before.
There were, however, lots of gates on the dairy farm which had to be opened and shut, so I was delighted that Lee with all his energy was there with me. I didn't fancy getting on and off Doug - but at least he was a few centimetres closer to the ground than Dart was.
We came out at the disused railway station at Donnellys Crossing - the line had been closed in the 1950s, and this little settlement had become more and more a ghost town since then.
Some eight years previously Cyclone Bola which had done considerable damage around New Zealand had struck Northland and the road we next planned to ride up, Kaikohe Road, had been closed off at that stage due to one or two large slips. We had made several inquiries, however, and been told that it was passable by horse, so we were hoping that our information was right.
It started out looking like a well-formed road, but then we came to the gate which closed off the part which was no longer used. The track got narrower and narrower, and then there were frequent blockages caused by fallen wattles. There had been two cyclones about a month previously, and no-one had been this way since.
The person who'd told us it was passable had lost a horse over the edge of a slip! It was not surprising. There were frequently trees which Lee had to break back, and at times I lost sight of the horses in front of me. I was glad that my intrepid leader was checking out where he put his foot, as the horses were right behind him.
Even though I was hardly ever riding Doug, it was useful having Dart as the packhorse - we used him as a bulldozer. We could get him to walk forward one step at a time and bend the trees in the right direction until Lee could take the weight and break them. I followed behind the three horses, on foot, picking up debris which got swept off the saddles - a stirrup here, my lambskin rug. Brae followed at his own pace.
One of the most difficult things too was that when we came upon an obstacle there was nowhere much to tie the horses up - except bushes of the native tutu and ragwort in flower - both deadly poisonous, and at every opportunity the horses would want to eat - so if there was no grass, toi toi or something palatable, I was afraid they'd chew the wrong thing. I managed to get one mouthful of tutu out from between Doug's teeth, but maybe he decided it wasn't too good as he didn't have any more.
I could never fully concentrate though on what we were doing as I was conscious of what the horses were chewing on whilst they were waiting for us!
We came to the Dead Horse Bridge, and stopped to plan if we would continue ahead or go back. The problem was, if we'd chosen to go back, we couldn't have turned the horses. The bridge was a concrete formation and quite safe, even though it was now covered with 15cm of soft mud and debris from eight years of disuse. But before it there had been another slip, and leafy plants now grew beside the slip, disguising open spaces where the horses shouldn't, and mustn't, put their feet.
Lee came up with the plan - fortunately, it was a successful one. He took some of our packs and other items and lay them on the plants. It was most unlikely that the horses would try and step on our gear. Then he led Dart carefully forward, around our trappings. This was successful, but the three horses were fidgetty as Dart couldn't see the other two, and vice versa.
One down, two to go.
He went back and untied Cass and Doug and let them follow him, while I stood on the bridge and held Dart, my heart in my mouth. They got across safely.
The worrying thing about this part of the trail was not knowing what lay ahead - perhaps the track was worse, and we'd have to go back again. We hoped that our fears were unfounded. It was disconcerting though, to push back some ferns and see that the track had disappeared in a clay slip. As I followed the horses I was scared to look down beside the slip in case I saw Lee and the horses, in various stages of death, at the bottom!
It took us a long time to reach Tutamoe, but we got there relatively early in the afternoon. Then we had to ride over the Waoku Coach Road to our planned night's stay at Honeymoon Cottage - obviously named in jest.
The Waoku Coach Road was formed a long time ago but never finished - the farmers who settled in the forest didn't stay for long, all walking off their properties, so the government didn't pursue the road. The track is part of the NZ Walkways System, but if you're thinking of walking it...you'll need a big dose of courage and some thigh waders at parts.
The southern part is used by people who live in solitude at the very top, and DOC staff, who access it by quad motorbike.
It took us two to three hours to reach the top about 700 metres above sea level. It was a very pretty track, wet and slippery in parts, especially as a light rain was now falling. But we were able to keep up a pretty good pace all the way.
We'd been warned at the bottom to watch out for a 'wild stallion' which was loose in the forest, so this was my new fear. No quicksand or slips or tutu or ragwort to be afraid of - I had to find something! I suggested to Lee that perhaps we should sort out a plan of action in case this wild, frustrated horse came rushing us out of the bushes and tried to steal our horses for himself. Lee laughed at me. But each time I saw horse dung on the track I worked out if it was fresher or staler than the one I'd seen previously, hoping to conclude that the danger of the stallion was now behind us.
We arrived at Honeymoon Cottage, which was rougher than any of the musterers' huts I'd seen in the South Island. We decided to stay in the tent again, and in the light misty rain erected a fence to keep our horses safe. There was one horse present over the fence, but he didn't look much like a dangerous stallion.
I enjoyed another of Lee's marvellous dinners, and we settled down to a night in the bush. There was quite a lot of rain that night, but in the morning it was clear.
We caught the horses and packed up. Not long after we got mounted the rain started to fall again. The track was already very boggy, as we'd been warned - I can't imagine what it would be like in the winter. This was the first rain we'd had for weeks, and it wasn't heavy at all. But the annual rainfall in this part of the forest exceeds 255cm.
We'd ridden for much less than a kilometre when we saw a man in the bushes in the distance. He was just about to go to the toilet in the bushes when he saw us, and as he told us a few minutes later, he nearly 'shit himself'. Fortunately for us he came over and told us this, then telling us we'd already gone off the track - we had to go back a way and find a bridge which wasn't passable any more. There was a crossing nearby where we could get the horses over.
All three were reluctant to go into the river, but Dart finally was brave enough to go first. I then rode back and led Doug in, whilst Lee and Cass had an argument on the far side; finally Cass agreed to join us for the ride north.
We'd ridden less then two kilometres when we realised we'd lost the track. At this stage we were both walking, and whilst Lee explored other areas of bush to find the missing track, I held onto Dart. Cass and Doug decided to do a disappearing act - I couldn't seem them anywhere, and Dart was beside himself with annoyance at being the one to stay behind.
We finally found the track, and a rather big jump over a creek to the other side. I decided that I would lead my horses over it. I would have had to dismount anyway, as the next part of the track had the horses shoulder deep in mud.
The deep mud would often stretch for hundreds of metres before the track wound out on to firm ground again. We would spell the horses when the ground got firmer - and then there were fallen logs which they had to lift their legs over.
In all, on this day we covered ten kilometres, taking four hours, and we must have ridden about 10% of it.
Lee went in front often having to push trees aside to make a way for the horses. At times he led Doug, knowing that if the gap was big enough for a packed packhorse, the other two could get through on their own. Once again, I walked behind picking all the debris that would fall off at parts! Brae came out covered in ticks and tangled with grass seed.
Because I'd spent the previous few days removing ticks and burrs from his coat, I was trying to carry him and keep him clean. However, at one stage I was riding and we came to a low branch across the track. I knew I should (normally) be able to squeeze close to Dart's back and get under... but I'd forgotten about Brae being in front of me on the saddle. As I lay down, forward along Dart's neck, Brae pushed back at me, upwards. I had to lean sideways. The branch caught the top of my helmet, forcing me further to the side, and backwards. As Dart walked forwards, (fortunately slowly) I ended up lying backwards along his back, being pushed by the branch on my stomach, and off my horse. Dart kindly stopped... and I slid off. A very unglamorous way to dismount! Lee had a good laugh at me: "Didn't you see the branch?"
It was really beautiful forest, with rata, towai, rimu and maire. It was truly amazing country - only we didn't really have the time or the energy to enjoy it much. We just kept going, anxious to get out of there with three sound horses.
The stone flushes and culverts for the little streams which bubbled out of the bush had been made by hand by Cornishmen, I'd been told. They really were works of art.
There were other boggy bits which had been filled in with ponga logs, laid across the track. Unfortunately, these were often rotting, and we were careful in case one of the horses was to get their hoof caught between the logs.
They didn't - but both Lee and I lost a boot at some stage of the journey, sucked in to the mud. Fortunately, we were able to retrieve them but they were most unpleasant wearing, full of mud.At one stage Lee took his horse, Cass, across a culvert, but Doug followed along a different route and his back legs went crashing through a piece repaired with ponga logs, since rotten. Doug's front legs were above the ground, but his rump and back legs were down this hole - we couldn't even see if he was resting on his belly or whether his back legs were touching.
We hurriedly calmed him, then removed all his gear. His chestplate strap was broken. We encouraged him to have a bit of a rest and then urged him to have another go. Fortunately he got out okay.
Dart by now was panicking about whether he would or wouldn't get left behind. I'd tied him up but he went round the tree and got bogged down in a soft spot. Lee arranged our bags in such a way OVER the hole, that Dart stepped around them and kept out of the hole.
Just before we came out into mountain pasture we passed a large patch of DEADLY POISONOUS onga onga, Tree Nettle, the sting of which can cause nausea, dizziness, and even (we were told) kill. I wrapped Brae up in my raincoat and we kept WELL clear. It's the first time I've ever seen this plant - I don't know why DOC don't clear it well back from the track. I guess it's an "endangered species".
I'd never heard about it before but the book I consulted (Which Native Forest Plant by Andrew Crowe) told me that several dogs and horses have died by coming into contact with it, and it has killed at least one tramper who pushed through some bushes.
What I read really scared me: The hairs which have the sting are up to 6mm long, each constructed like a hypodermic syringe. The slightest touch knocks the delicate tip off the needle, leaving a slanting point that drives into the skin. The elastic barrel at the base of the needle immediately shrinks, pumping its venom into the victim. The extract from just five of these long, fat, stinging hairs is sufficient to kill a guinea pig.
Evidently the plant is related to the common garden nettle and contains the same toxins, but also manufactures another poison that has so far defied identification. (The much smaller dwarf bush nettle, Urtica incisa, is also sometimes seen along tracksides but is apparently not as dangerous.)
"In severe cases of poisoning, artificial respiration and an intramuscular injection of atropine may be necessary. In mild cases, the irritation and pain can be eased with calamine or an antihistamine preparation."
"Ongaonga produces a whitish pollen (which is ejected explosively from the plant) and a pale, cloudy nectar that makes a light, delicately flavoured honey similar to that of thistle." (if you're brave enough to eat the honey!)
I was told that onga onga can be found in the whole of the North Island and on the east of the South, and it's said to be common near Wellington and Christchurch. It grows up to about 6 metres tall, has leaves 5- 12cm long, opposite with large teeth and covered with long, very conspicuous, silvery, stinging hairs. It looks like the plant from hell, and I don't think you'd be stupid enough to walk into it if you saw it first.
I can tell you we were very relieved when we emerged back into civilisation at the Waima end, with magnificent views of the Hokianga. However, our nightmare wasn't quite over yet.
The packs on the pack saddle had become quite damaged en route, and I suggested to Lee that we leave them at the end of the truck and ask someone if they could help us retrieve them, after the very tired horses had been settled into a paddock. This must have been the most stupid idea I'd had.
We rode another few kilometres and found grazing at the home of George and Jenny Cassidy's. Jenny kindly offered to drive us back to the top of the road to get the packs. However, George had only recently come out of hospital, and she didn't like to leave him. So I suggested she drop us at the top and we would walk and get them and phone her when we were back.
We had to walk back about 4km to retrieve them - four of the longest kilometres that have ever been measured. What's more, I was absolutely exhausted. Lee outwalked me up the hill and I found him already on his way down carrying both the packs. At first he offered to help me carry one of them, so that he was carrying one and a half. But this proved to be cumbersome and I let him go ahead carrying one. He got to the bottom, where Jenny could pick us up from, and started back up to help me.
Poor Lee! How he must have hated that afternoon. He seemed to be still smiling though - the day was quite an experience, but not one we wanted to repeat in the short term!
Afterwards I presented Lee with a certificate which I drew up on my computer. From the "University of Northland" it stated that Lee Gabriel had achieved distinction over the Summer of 1996-1997, with special awards in the following:
The Magellan Cup for Exploration
Lee enjoyed the joke.
© 1996/97 Jacqui Knight, all rights reserved.
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