Rabble-rouser, visionary, patriot, writer and advocate. Geoff Chapple believes with patience and a little support a good idea can alter the landscape of society. If proof were needed, the 3000km Te Araroa Trail is a good example.
“Do you know the Aussies call us ‘rangas’?” says Te Araroa Trust CEO and founder Geoff Chapple as we cross Victoria Rd in Devonport to the nearest Irish bar.
It’s a scorching summer day. The sort that makes the atmosphere seem thinner, the world’s edges sharper, brighter and a few degrees more intense. Like being in a glasshouse.
I’m meeting with Chapple to hear his story and the story of Te Araroa Trail, a continuous off-road walking route that winds its way through the length of New Zealand. Chapple initiated the idea and designed the 3000km route. After 17 years, 700km of new track being put on the ground and countless access negotiations, the project is nearing completion.
Even now, before it’s officially open, much to Chapple’s surprise people from here and abroad are walking it.
“They’re coming through by the dozen,” says Chapple as we seat ourselves in the beer garden. “It’s becoming one of the long trails of the world.”
We’ve chosen an Irish Bar because it’s St Patrick’s Day and we’ve decided to celebrate our mutual ging-ga-ness with a Guinness.
The word ‘ranga’ is short for Orangutan, a primate with similar colouring as us redhead homosapiens though I’m only a tinge of ginge whereas Chapple’s a full Fanta.
But despite a few shades of difference, we do share a genetic mutation and, as the pints empty, I discover we have more in common than our carrot tops.
Firstly, Chapple is a writer. But a good one.
His book Te Araroa – The New Zealand Trail, about his walk from Cape Reinga to Bluff in 1995 to prove a long-distance trail was possible, earned him a Montana Prize in 2003.
He’s written three other books and a play called Hatch – the Plight of the Penguins, about former mayor and MP of Invercargill Joseph Hatch who boiled down millions of penguins for his lamp oil business.
Chapple also started out as a journalist and still considers himself one.
He first did some rabble-rousing reportage for student publication Craccum, and then won awards for his work at the Listener and Sundar Star Times.
In the age old debate in journalism circles about objectivity versus involvement, Chapple also leans towards the “advocacy journalism” position.
He likes to be involved in creating change, in rocking the boat, not maintaining the status-quo.
Sitting in the beer garden, we sip from our black and white pints and wax philosophical as the place slowly fills with green-clad merry-makers.
“This country is made from boat rocking,” says Chapple definitively.”It was done with the woman’s vote, with the anti-nuclear movement and the anti-apartheid movement.
“It’s possible to get your ideas out, gather your supporters and change the place. I’m always hopeful about New Zealand in that way.”
Chapple grew up on West Coast Rd in Waitakere and his boat-rocking started as a student at Henderson High.
New Zealand author Maurice Gee, Chapple’s cousin, wrote short stories about young Geoffrey and his mates’ exploits, including their fight to sport long hair.
On assignment for Craccum a few years later Chapple illegally entered a US military base in Woodburn to discover if it was part of a submarine network and therefore a potential nuclear target.
“Right back from when I was writing for a student newspaper I’ve had my stories waved in parliament by politicians saying ‘what does the minister think about this?’
“I had this experience with journalism that you can make a difference.”
Such rabble-rousing, however, isn’t new to the Chapple lineage.
The rebel-gene goes back to Chapple’s grandfather, Reverend James Chapple. The Reverend, a Presbyterian minister, was jailed for sedition in 1918 for giving controversial sermons about the “sins of war” and conscription during the First World War.
He also authored two books – The Divine need for the Rebel and A Rebel’s Vision Splendid. – which his grandson “dipped into” and has been a rebel ever since.
“I’ve been involved in movements that have changed this country’s ideas,” says Chapple. “I’m interested in that sort of change, I’m interested in the point when peoples’ minds flip.”
Chapple was twice arrested during the 1981 Springbok Tour protests and he was also involved in the anti-nuclear movement.
However, he is careful to point out he isn’t only about anti-this-anti-that.
“I’m careful not to present myself as a social reformer because I think that’s poison,” he says. “I just follow my ideas through if I think they’re good.”
By the time we’ve emptied our second pint, the beer garden starts getting rowdy so we head to Chapple’s Devonport home where I meet his wife, Miriam Beatson.
The Chapple house, a classic piece of Kiwi vintage, is strewn with books about everything New Zealand: Birds, insects, sub-Antarctic islands, mountain peaks, plants, tramping tracks, culture and locations in the north and south.
It’s a house that for the last 15 years has been dedicated to a single mission: the creation of a continuous off-road trail running the length of New Zealand.
It’s a household that lives and breathes the land the Te Araroa Trail now twists through.
“We’ve always had a deep love for our country,” says Beatson, whose father, a botanist, passed on his curiosity and knowledge of the natural world to his daughter.
Chapple chimes in: “Yeah, patriotic I guess.
“When I was on the Listener in the early days we were bouncing around the world because the circulation was huge,” he goes on.
“I think when you know what the rest of the world is like, you look at New Zealand for its own unique qualities and you want to tell people about it.
“Part of the magic of life is to delve into your own place,” he says.
The couple began delving in 1984 when they bought an old school bus and took their three children on a year-long tour of the South Island.
“I think the tour played a role in the genesis of Te Araroa Trail,” says Chapple.
“We got to know the South Island and the people really well because we were travelling slowly. The only slower way to travel is to walk.”
Home-schooling their kids and saturating themselves in the various regions and towns of the South Island, they made their living from Chapple’s work as a freelance writer.
As any freelance will tell you, the money is meagre.
“With Miriam at my side we can live on an extremely small amount of money,” says Chapple.
“Yep, we’ve had plenty of practice,” Beatson replies.
A quick survey of the house confirms dedicating their lives to a long trail has put capital gain on the back burner for the Chapples.
In fact, even the Te Araroa Trust’s HQ is a small room, chocker with dozens of folders, within the Chapple dwelling.
Beatson is the Trust’s secretary and organises the piles of paperwork to make it easier for Chapple to do his job.
“If Miriam wasn’t doing the filing it would be a great mouldering compost,” says Chapple.
The intial spark for what has become the couple’s life work came from a conversation with an American friend about the 3500km Appalachian Trail in the US and the possibility of something similar in New Zealand.
Chapple mulled it over and decided it was an idea worth pursuing.
“If you’ve got a good idea and you can present it well, people will respond,” he says.
In 1994 to give the idea traction, he penned an article for the Sunday Star Times calling for a walking trail covering the length of the land.
“When I look back, it’s like there was an angel sitting on my shoulder whispering ‘this is going to go’,” he says about the article. “For an outdoors-loving country, it just seemed so obvious that we needed a great track, with great mana as a national symbol of who we are and how we live.
“Not only that but it was already there.”
The late Maori scholar Ranganui Walker told Chapple that well before the arrival of Europeans, Maori had worn trails through the length of the land. Some trails were designated as war paths and kept clear for conflicts while trade between different tribal areas formed other trails.
“Like the great Maori route for getting greenstone out of the West Coast across what is now called Harper’s Pass,” says Chapple. “Their trail went that way, when gold was discovered miners went that way and now our trail goes that way.
“There’s always been paths for as long as people have been here. In that sense we’re just the renaissance.”
Former mayor of Waitakere City Bob Harvey read Chapple’s Sunday Star Times article and phoned him to tell him he liked the idea and if he formed a trust he’d be the first chair.
Harvey says he liked the project because it reminded him of a great Chinese undertaking, “like restoring the Great Wall”.
“I think it’s the most exciting natural project in this country,” says Harvey. “This project is massive and it’s been the leadership of Geoff Chapple that’s made it happen.
“I think he’s the successor to Ed Hillary as a great New Zealander. I really do.”
With Harvey’s buy-in, Chapple and former Sunday Star Times editor Jenny Wheeler formed the Te Araroa Trust in 1994.
The Sunday article and the Trust’s formation, however, only began the first section of what has become a 17 year journey.
Chapple’s inherent optimism and his involvement with political movements in the 80s gave him the perseverance to keep driving the trail, section after section, town after town, region after region.
But negotiating with DOC, central and local government, property owners and iwi to secure a continuous off road route through every region in the land has been a “wearing job”.
“If I’ve had one lesson in life, it’s that change is a long process,” he says.
On a fine Friday morning I meet Chapple at Puhoi, a small town north of Auckland, so he can show me a new section of the trail.
We drive through farmland and come to a car park made for the Trust by a property developer who owns a section next door.
The view sweeps out across hills and forest before the eyes rest on a distant and glistening strip of the Hauraki Gulf.
As we step through a gate on to the trail, Chapple tells me he hopes day trippers will come to walk this new section. Descending from a hill into native forest, we stop occasionally so Chapple can point something out – the musky smell of goats; empty flower pods from nikau palms for boiling water in; edible plants.
The poet Wordsworth, I learn, walked the equivalent of half way to the moon during his lifetime. Chapple, because of his job as CEO of the trust, has probably walked the length of New Zealand a few times over.
He knows the trail so well he can even see it from 10,000m.
“The nice thing about the trail is even when I fly over it, I can see it like a map underneath and literally trace my journeys on it,” he says. “It’s like a whole lot of very bright memories.”
As we climb one of Te Araroa Trail’s standard stiles built by the trust’s volunteers, he tells me a new play is being written, tentatively called Road Work. It’s an ode to road workers.
“There’s a lot of people who carry this country on their shoulders and, as a writer, they’re the ones I’m interested in,” Chapple explains.
“Anytime you’re outside the city limits and you talk to people, you discover they’re so skilled at what they do in ways that aren’t generally acknowledged,” he adds as we climb a rocky hill to get 360 views. “It doesn’t come from paper; it comes from being out there doing stuff.
“This is how you alter reality, finally, not just with an idea.”
On top of the hill we see the trail, like a string, threading its way through the land below. Chapple is humble about his own role in its creation, saying his main job has been to “keep the pressure on”.
He points out the Te Araroa Trust has grown into a grassroots organisation of dedicated staff and volunteers who have taken the vision and literally altered the landscape with practical can-do know-how.
Paths have been formed, bridges and boardwalks built, detailed maps made and Te Araroa Trail markers nailed to posts to show trampers the way.
Long trail walkers who take ‘trail names’ like Tengu, Singing Wind and Toek (Dutch for big toe) are flying in to walk Te Araroa.
The fastest of them completed it in just 90 days.
“There was a whole lot of people waiting on the blocks ready to go because there’s a strong long trails culture overseas and they were delighted to have something new,” says Chapple.
We leave the trail and make our way back to Puhoi. The village is a good example of what Te Araroa is offering these long-distance walkers.
“We’re trying to create a continuous off road route that includes historic spots, scenic spots and cultural spots,” Chapple explains. “Like beads on a string. A little town like Puhoi is a bead. It’s a good bead.”
Chapple believes a continuous off road trail – passing through the best of New Zealand – will be complete by the end of 2011.
If alive, Sir Edmund Hillary, a patron of the trust, would be pleased.
When Chapple visited Sir Ed in 2002 to give him the manuscript for his book about his walk, the first man to climb Mt Everest made sure the trail would be finished.
“As I was leaving he stood at his door with his hand up and said ‘I know Geoff won’t give up until the trail is finished, will you Geoff?’,” recalls Chapple. “I said, ‘No Ed, I won’t’.
“He locked me in. He didn’t have to, but it’s part of the bond.”
With the pact coming close to being fulfilled, Chapple is planning a book about the 17 year project.
“I’m a journalist and I like a good story,” he says. “Te Araroa is a great story.
“It wasn’t a Government enterprise. The people pulled the trail up by its bootstraps. A whole lot of Kiwis believed in something and made it real.
“A great trail – out of nowhere, out of nothing.
“That’s a good story.”