When I was a little kid I decided to be a tramp.
That’s what lonely wanderers are called in Britain, apparently, and maybe elsewhere; but in New Zealand tramp is usually a verb. It means: to struggle, with a sort of grim joy, over luminous lumps of the back of beyond.
With Australians, Kiwis call tramps – as in the noun – swagmen: after their bedroll, or swag.
If we call them anything at all, that is.
These derelict, romantic figures used to roam the back roads of New Zealand, especially during the great depression. They would knock on doors and ask for food, and sometimes work.
One “swaggie” used to come to my parent’s farm, a hilly outpost on a gravel road in southern Hawke’s Bay, before I was born. He would take whatever he was given, and eat enormously.
He did a perpetual circuit, hundreds of kilometres long; that was his life.
There was a famous one in Wairarapa called Russian Jack. His real name was Barrett Crumen, according to Te Ara; and he wasn’t Russian but Latvian. There’s a statue of him in Masterton now, and someone named a wine named after him.
The figure of the swagman was especially redolent for me because Dad, an Aussie, would read to us from a lovely, darkly illustrated version of Banjo Paterson’s Waltzing Matilda. It’s an 1897 ballad about a swaggie who drowns himself, after the law comes down hard on him for stealing a sheep to fill his belly.
Sometimes Dad would sing it softly to himself while he shore his own sheep. The sheep seemed to like listening, lying back in his deft, gentle grip, and gazing into space. I’d stand by sweeping up the dags, and think about that poor old swaggie. Why did he have to die? And why did his refusal to be locked up seem so pure?
Another question is why this lament for a lonely death on the margins of polite society has become a de facto Australian anthem; but pithy as it is, I’ll not go into it just now. Except to say that when I was six or so, that violent, sweet old song sure marked the hell out of me.
Oh! There once was a swagman, camped in the Billabong
Under the shade of a Coolibah tree; […]
And his ghost may be heard as it sings in the Billabong
Who’ll come a-Waltzing Matilda with me?
In this way, among others, I gained a thirst for the tramping life (AKA Waltzing Matilda). Maybe by way of awkward solidarity with all swaggies, drowned or just plain left out: I’ll come a-waltzing with you, Russian Jack.
Despite this blog’s title, I don’t plan to write on here only about tramping. Moonlit or otherwise.
I’m not sure exactly what the title means, if anything. I did once have a wonderful night tramp under an enormous, glowing moon, which flood-lit the Cornish clifftops.
And I do tend to wake late on a tramp, and then dawdle along looking at clouds, talking to the flora and taking many photos; which often means I finish the day’s walk by moon- or torch-light.
But those are other stories, which may be posted another time.
I might write about all sorts of things, but for my first series of posts I’ll write about starting New Zealand’s longest tramp last year: The Te Araroa trail.
That’s mainly because my friend Graham asked me to write about it, to share with our cricket team, the Bottom Paddock Cricket Club. “They’d enjoy it,” he reckoned.
They’re a loveable and quixotic bunch, so he may be right.
To get the first ball bowled, here’s a shot I took by sunset-light at the end of the first leg, which is 100 kilometres over four days, straight down the country’s longest beach to a little town called Ahipara. When I got there I had been walking for 14 hours and was in a dreamy haze of leaky blisters, leg-aches and extreme exposure to nature. In that state, what I thought was this:
With my more-than-usually-delirious Spanish, Ahipara could mean something like: “stop, there.” And I’m definitely going to do that, since, right now, I want never to walk again.
I also thought:
If, somehow, Ahipara was a word in a slightly delirious combination-language made up of Spanish and Māori, it could mean: “[The place where] fire stands”.
Which, equally definitely, it does:
The Te Araroa trail runs the whole length of the country, from Cape Reinga in the North, to the southern tip at Bluff. It means “the long pathway”, is over 3000 kilometres long, and it takes about four months if you do it in one hit.
I’m doing it in three-week sections, when I get holidays twice a year, carrying on each time where I left off. Since I started in January 2017 I’ve done 460 kilometres; tomorrow I’m setting off for the next couple of hundred.
[Edit, Jan 2020: the dates on this and all the following Te Araroa posts don’t refer to when these trail sections were actually walked, nor written up – I had to change the dates so they would post sequentially. They were actually written soon after each two- or three-week walk, two or three a year since January 2017. The most recent one at the moment – the bit finishing at the Tongariro Crossing – was done in Dec, 2018. I hope to walk and canoe the next section – Tongariro to Wanganui – during 2020].
If I keep going at this pace, it’ll take me about a decade, which is fine by me; I’m in no rush.
And the long pathway isn’t going anywhere.
Te Araroa was set up a few years ago by a non-profit trust after many years of dreaming and scheming, and runs entirely on goodwill and people’s common yen for adventures.
The founders spent a long time negotiating with private landowners, government, Māori owners and others to stitch together a chain of routes through bush, parks, coastline, farms, forests and towns.
The route is designed to be fairly direct while also keeping you off the road and in the wild as much as possible and also giving you a good look at some emblematic facets of NZ.
Unavoidably, you do have to pound a bit of tar seal to get from one bit of bush or beach to the next. But it’s constantly being improved as the windmill-charging bunch in charge negotiate a bit more access, or funding for track-building, or other break-throughs.
Mostly wild and lovely as Aotearoa is, you can’t just whack a track down the middle of it. There’s a lot going on there, and a lot of conversations have had to happen so you can saunter through.
You plan your walk using maps and trail notes off the Te Araroa website. It tells you where water sources and river crossings are, where you can sleep and buy food, how long each day might take, and often some of the stories of each stretch. You need to carry a tent or bivvy bag for much of it, as well as food, a stove and so on, because you often can’t get to a hut or hostel by nightfall.
I love the idea of setting off each day, not knowing how far you’ll get, what you’ll see nor who you’ll meet on the way. As the earth turns your feet move with it; you trundle over the earth’s skin, your riches and needs on your back, a little self-contained mobile human-animal. (A humanimal.)
In my next post I’ll address the trick of getting to the remote ends of the earth, where my big walk started. (OK, to the ends of Aotearoa. Which, for me, amounts to the same thing.)