We can be heroes, just for one day

A trek into the New Zealand bush isn't for wimps, says Simon Heptinstall, unless Kiwi Dundee is at hand

We drove as far as the four-wheel drive truck would take us, then trekked on through the dank, dripping rainforest on foot. Along the floor of the gorge in New Zealand's Coromandel peninsula exotic plants shone with slippery humidity, colourful birds chattered overhead and there were unidentified eerie rustlings in the undergrowth. Yet my mind was focused on just one thing: Kiwi Dundee's bare legs.

We drove as far as the four-wheel drive truck would take us, then trekked on through the dank, dripping rainforest on foot. Along the floor of the gorge in New Zealand's Coromandel peninsula exotic plants shone with slippery humidity, colourful birds chattered overhead and there were unidentified eerie rustlings in the undergrowth. Yet my mind was focused on just one thing: Kiwi Dundee's bare legs.

I, like any sensible city-dweller exploring the jungle, was wearing creepy-crawly-proof jeans tucked almost air-tightly into the thickest socks you can buy at Millets. My long-sleeved hooded top defied even the cheekiest mosquito to find some bare un-repellent-sprayed flesh. But my guide was striding through the thick vegetation in baggy shorts and T-shirt singing at the top of his voice. It was as if his tree-trunk legs were inviting any passing insects, snakes or spiders to come and have a go if you think you're 'ard enough. Suddenly, he turned and beamed into my face: "This is the greatest bloody country in the world, isn't it, mate?"

I confess there's something about a man with a face that looks like it's carved from concrete. I nodded with a weak smile. He slapped my shoulder just short of dislocation and we marched on. All the while, Kiwi was jovially pointing out rare plants, insects and birds, and talking about the history, geography and ecology of the area.

For anyone used to holidays by coach or hire car, tourism Dundee style isn't just a breath of fresh air; it's a tanker load of liquid oxygen. He can customise a tour to take in anything you want – but you'll see it his way. One of Kiwi's "adventures" means feeling, touching and smelling New Zealand right up close. The stereotypic New Zealand holiday may involve, in equal measure, mountains, beaches, bungee jumping and sheep, but stereotypes have their limits – apart from this bloke, who seems to have none. In the role of Crocodile Dundee, the Australian comic Paul Hogan may have portrayed a fictional equivalent, but Doug "Kiwi" Johansen is the real thing.

His nickname was awarded by a Sunday newspaper, which ran a poll to find New Zealand's rival to the Aussie film hero. Adventurer, environmentalist and tourist guide Doug didn't even know he'd been entered, but he was the perfect winner. He'd spent his whole life on Coromandel and was already well known as the man who had rescued a group of walkers from a ferocious flash flood by swimming through a swollen river ... twice. He'd also single-handedly carried a dozen injured people out of the bush to safety, one by one, and had survived falling 45ft out of a tree. And he'd once jumped into the sea to ride on the back of a hammerhead shark. Oh, and his personal diving height record is 96ft.

So now he's known as Kiwi Dundee and he takes small groups of tourists on nature hikes and adventure tours. I joined him for a day on Coromandel. Kiwi lives nearby in a ramshackle cabin with fellow environmentalist guide Jan Poole, whose party trick is to surprise her walking groups by suddenly leaping from a rock into a tiny freezing pool far below. They seem an ideally matched couple.

Meanwhile, I stayed at the five-star Puka Park Lodge in the upmarket beach resort of Pauanui. Puka Park is a series of individual wooden chalets on stilts in the rainforest halfway up a mountain. They are linked by wooden walkways to a central luxurious bar, swimming pool and very posh restaurant. I enjoyed a superb evening meal with the owner and my travelling companion, a chap from the Financial Times. We agreed that the southern hemisphere is much more sophisticated than us northerners generally give it credit for. I strolled back to my sumptuous single cabin feeling quite at home.

It didn't last. Stepping outside next morning, I was greeted by old concrete face. After a handshake that would have uprooted a medium-sized tree, he made me feel exactly what I was: a lily-livered city dweller from the other side of the world.

Growing up among Maoris, he learnt how to survive by eating what you can find in the bush. It's not as romantic as eating berries and nuts from an English hedgerow. I saw him put things in his mouth that I wouldn't want on the bottom of my shoe. No wonder Kiwi has become a tourist attraction in his own right.

Kiwi likes to point out the pertinent environmental facts during the expedition. "Look at this, mate," he suddenly boomed at me. "The air's so clean here you can't bloody well see it." There's a moment's silence then he breaks into a huge craggy smile, wallops your shoulder and you're off again.

At one point he stopped and pulled apart the leaves of a giant kauri fern as if he were the Queen unveiling a plaque, to reveal a stunning view of black jagged volcanic mountains rising through a white lacy sea of mist. "I know a path up that one, if you fancy it, mate," he said, pointing at an impossibly vertical pinnacle.

"Er, perhaps if we have time," I replied, looking at the man from the FT struggling up a slight incline behind us. Further on, Kiwi cheered us up by eating some disgusting-looking things he found under a tree and then washing the slime off his hands using a plant as a natural soap.

Coromandel is constantly under threat from companies wanting to dig open-cast gold mines. "There's hills in them there gold," is Kiwi's favourite protest. After a while I felt we'd bonded enough to ask Kiwi the big environmental question: why does he wear shorts all the time? He looked stern then broke into a big smile: "Heck, mate. It might be cold on my legs but I reckon it makes the tourists feel warmer. They see me, this strange bloke in shorts, and think it must be hot!" Cleverly, Kiwi arranged for our day's "tramp" to end at a deserted mine dating from a gold rush of a hundred years ago. He was subtly making a comparison between the short-term gain from mining and the timelessness of nature.

With persuasion verging on downright bullying, I was cajoled into a disused tunnel by torchlight. When the torches went off I realised we were surrounded by millions of glowworms. It was a strangely beautiful moment. Encouraged, I willingly entered a smaller tunnel, bending low to avoid the roof hewn from the rock. Kiwi stood blocking the entrance. I wasn't suspicious. Kiwi would save us whatever happened. He folded his arms and delivered a talk about how difficult it was for the men to sleep in such tunnels.

"Why's that?" I asked.

"Because of these," said Kiwi, shining his torch above our heads. It was a nightmare vision. The whole roof writhed with shiny seething insects the size of CDs. They looked like huge cockroaches. The man from the FT yelled something unprintable and rushed at Kiwi, trying to push his way out. "Those beauties are giant wetas," explained Doug, as Mr FT bounced off his chest. "They're the biggest, heaviest insects in the world. They weigh more than 70g. And they have a habit of dropping off the roof on to people."

At that point, national hero or not, no man could have withstood the onslaught of two feverish Brits desperate to escape a cave full of dropping wetas. Kiwi stood aside with a smile. And when we'd stopped running around in circles checking each other's backs for clinging creatures, he shouted to us: "Hey, fellas – don't worry, they're harmless."

Despite feeling like we'd had a near-death experience, we quickly set off back to the hotel, before Kiwi got hungry and started chomping on wetas.

The Facts

Getting there

Return flights from Heathrow to Auckland via Los Angeles with United Airlines, booked through Austravel (0870 166 2020; www.austravel.com), cost £914 per person in October.

Being there

Austravel can also arrange accommodation at the Puka Park Lodge in Pauanui for £47 per person per night, based on two sharing a tree-hut chalet room with balcony on a room-only basis. A single costs £95 per night, room only.

For transport from Auckland airport to the Coromandel peninsula, Austravel can arrange car hire for around £23 per day. Alternatively, an Intercity bus ticket to Coromandel is likely to cost around £20. Austravel can also provide five-day (£151) or 15-day passes (£269), covering all New Zealand coach, train and ferry services.

One-day rainforest treks with Kiwi Dundee (00 64 7865 8809; www.kiwidundee.co.nz) cost NZ$202 per person, including lunch.

Further information

New Zealand Tourist Board (0906 910 1010, calls cost £1 per min; www.purenz.com).