The peninsula lies in warrior pose. The bush-clad arm of the highest ridge ends in a clenched fist of steep knoll scarred by red-clay landslides. The bent knee of another ridge angles steeply down to a small, sandy beach, the only flat land visible. The beach is empty – access blocked by the rocky foot of land kicking viciously at the heaving surf around it. Lee hands the photo to her daughter. ‘That’s where we walked.’
‘I told you it was steep,’ Deb says.
‘It was more than the steepness. I felt dwarfed by the emptiness, the stillness. We walked all that way and there’s no sign that we were even there.’
‘It’s the bush, Mum. You’re not meant to leave signs that you’ve been there.’
‘That land erases everything it doesn’t want. If someone died there, the body would just disappear.’
‘But no one died. One of you was injured. That’s all.’
Lee wonders how Deb can so easily ignore the land’s indifference to those who walk on it.
Joining a walking group seemed a good idea when discussed with Deb beside a winter fire. It would be exercise, fresh air and a way to meet people. Lee loved living closer to Deb and the grandkids but it bothered her that the locals thought of her as ‘Deb’s mother’ rather than an independent person making a new life of her own. She didn’t regret her decision to sell their Auckland house and move north after Tom’s death. She only wished she’d realised how much energy it took to start again.
There’s something uncomfortable about living here – a rawness, a feeling that to live well, you need a toughness that she doesn’t have. Sometimes she doesn’t feel safe. Auckland have-nots kept their distance from her old house. In this town their peeling-paint houses plonked on lawns decorated with dead cars, are just two streets away. Some nights are punctuated by shouts, after which the silence seems even louder. Deb shrugs off her concerns about a three day wait for a car part, the still unknown date for an electrician to fix Lee’s security lights.
‘He’s busy, Mum. He’s the only one in town.’
‘But I need it fixed now.’
‘Why? It’s been broken for ages. A few more days won’t matter.’
More than the people, it’s the land itself. In Auckland, the sea knows its boundaries even if does occasionally throw a wave of spray over the rock wall of the water front as a protest against captivity. Here, the sea surges where it pleases – up the river to gouge out a few more metres of frontage from the houses clinging to the banks, across the bridge that connects the small town to the main highway. One day Lee was forced to take a muddy, single-lane detour. Optometrists, specialist doctors, nice clothes shops – all of them are a winding, two hour drive away, yet no one seems to mind. Up here, there’s a feeling of somehow being lucky that they live so far from traffic jams and the chaos caused by the housing crisis. Lee wonders why she didn’t notice the rawness in the days when she and Tom came north to visit – and how long it will take to learn to live at peace with it as her daughter does. Most days still open onto an unknown world.
‘Which way from here?’
The leading group of walkers has climbed up the steep hill to the ridge path. The rest are still strung out along the narrow, muddy track below. After the recent rain it’s more waterfall than track. The ridge path undulates across the top of several valleys then suddenly climbs to a trig station on a knoll at the end. Lee drops her day pack next to a woman whose name she can’t remember and slumps down beside her, grateful for the chance to rest. This is her second walk with the group of older, mostly retired people. Last time, first names (no surnames) were thrown around in a hail of introductions interrupted by scrabbling for packs, walking sticks, directions and parking arrangements. She caught as many names as she could. She may have to acquire the rest by stealth.
‘We’ll climb to the trig station, have lunch, then figure out how to get down to the beach,’ says Hamish, who seems to be the leader. He shoulders his pack and strides off.
‘Shouldn’t we wait for the others?’ Lee asks the woman next to her whose name she now remembers is Trish.
Trish shrugs. ‘They’ll see us when they get to the top.’
The climb to the trig is difficult and Lee falls to the back with the slower walkers.
‘How much further?’ she hears someone ask Hamish as she staggers the last few steps to the top where the fast walkers are already sitting down eating their lunches. Hamish looks at the map then down towards the sea. ‘That’s Seal Cove down there. From there we should be able to walk around the coast to Clemens Bay. Then there’s a short bit of gravel road leading to the car park. Who’s still behind us?’
‘I think there were four behind me,’ Lee volunteers. ‘I’m sorry, I don’t know the names.’ ‘John stopped for photos,’ says a man whom Lee thinks is Wes. He wanders off to peer over the edge of the cliff. A few of the group look around in a desultory fashion then turn back to admiring the view and eating lunch without offering any more names.
‘Has anyone done this walk before?’ Trish asks.
It turns out that no one has. Lee thinks of the time that she and Tom walked the Routeburn track in the South Island. The slower walkers set the pace. There were safety briefings and a guide at each end of the group with morning tea and lunch at designated spots and the arrival time at each hut specified in advance. One day the track was obscured by flurries of snow. It was cold, the walking slow and difficult, yet she never once felt as intimidated by her surroundings as she does looking across the waves of dark, melancholy ridges marching relentlessly across the land. She never once felt lost.
‘My nephew hunts stoats here. There are trap lines all over the place,’ says Sylvia who is one of the fast walkers. ‘Look for the pink markers.’
‘There’s one.’ Hamish points to a pink tatter of ribbon tied to some distant manuka. ‘Tide’s coming in. We’d better move.’ He picks out a narrow track at the edge of the slope and the walkers file from the bright lunchtime sunshine into the gloom of the bush, the last of the slower walkers not stopping to eat. Lee gets up quickly, swings her day pack onto her back, stuffs her sunglasses into her pocket. She daren’t stop to put them in their protective case. She concentrates on staying as close to the man in front of her as she can, hoping that he’s following the pink markers. She copies the way he grabs a wet, black, branch with one hand and uses it to swing himself almost backwards, his feet sliding in the mud beneath them, while his other hand searches for another branch slightly lower down to hold. Sometimes she fails to grab a branch in time or it breaks and she lands hard on her bottom.
‘Bum slide,’ someone behind her yells.
In some places it’s the only thing she can do. Her face stings from the branches that flick against it as the man in front lets them go.
‘Sorry,’ he says. ‘Name’s John. You’re probably calling me something else at the moment.’
She brushes away his apology because she knows that she’s doing the same thing to the person behind her – and worse, she doesn’t care. She ignores the voices that float back and forth between the trees, laughter, jokes, teasing. When John suddenly stops to listen to the air-thumping flight of a wood pigeon, she crashes into his back. She keeps her eyes on the black mud beneath her instead of lifting them to catch a glimpse of a rare native parrot that the person behind her points out. At the bottom of the hill only a surge of fear-induced adrenaline enables her to wade through the slimy, rock-bottomed creek then use the roots of some massive puriri trees to drag herself up the other side out of the smothering darkness of the bush and onto a patch of long grass a little way above the beach.
‘How far is Bill behind you?’ Hamish asks.
‘Is he wearing a red shirt?’ Lee asks.
‘He was in front of me.’
‘He stopped. Nature called,’ Hamish replies. ‘You would have passed him.’
‘I didn’t see him at all,’ Lee says.
‘I don’t think that’s Seal Cove.’ Wes leans over Hamish’s shoulder to look at the map. ‘That’s Te Koha over there.’ He points to a small settlement further south on the other side of the harbour. ‘Seal Cove’s opposite that. I think the trap line curved around somehow and that we’re about here.’ He points to somewhere north of Seal Cove.
Hamish squints at the map. ‘Yeah, you’re right. Doesn’t matter really. Tide’s too high now to go around the coast.’ He points to a giant kauri tree. ‘We’ll climb in that direction and hit the ridge track lower down which is closer to the car park turn off.’
‘Ha, we’re lost. Again,’ Trish says and everyone laughs.
Sylvia glances at Lee, pats her arm. ‘Don’t worry. You’re not lost if you can see the sea.’
Lee listens in on the conversations while everyone waits for Bill – macro diet versus paleo, new yoga classes, the number of Kiwi supposedly in this area, bells on cats and local elections. The air cools, the sound of the waves against the rocks grows louder as the tide rises. Bill doesn’t appear.
Lee missed whatever signal caused Hamish, Wes and John to suddenly head back down into the puriri trees. They’re immediately out of sight, the bush muffling their voices. Lee follows Sylvia and Trish to the highest point of the grass which gives them only a wider view of the bush canopy below them and nothing else. When Lee thought about it later she realised that she was the only one who reached for her cellphone – an automatic response to the thought of an accident. Everyone else knew that there was no reception. Conversation ebbs around her.
‘I didn’t think that Bill looked too good.’
‘He only got off his crutches two weeks ago.’
‘He’s made a good recovery then. Still, this isn’t the easiest walk.’
‘He was going stir-crazy sitting at home. If it’s his leg we might need to strap it. What first aid stuff do we have?’
It seems that everyone has lots of first aid equipment at home but not with them in their day packs – Lee included.
‘Hamish and Wes will have some,’ says Trish and Lee thinks that next time she will too. Still, no one seems too worried so Lee lies back on the grass and shuts her eyes.
It seems ages before the men reappear. John holds the branches aside to make a path wide enough for Hamish and Wes who are holding Bill up between them. The rest of the group walk down the slope to meet them.
‘It’s his leg. Slipped in the creek,’ Hamish says.
‘Sorry about this.’ Bill’s face is white, his clothes wet and muddy. He is shivering with cold.
The men are calm, quiet and they work fast as they strap Bill’s leg with a make-shift bandage and change him into an assortment of dry clothes pillaged from the others’ packs. They help him to drink the leftover drops of hot coffee from various thermoses, all the while teasing him about how much he owes them. In fact, as soon as they reach the car park he should just hand over the keys to his new boat plus the Scotch he has hidden in his garage. Sylvia and Trish quietly divide the men’s packs between the women, handing one to Lee. It feels like a measure of acceptance.
They set off. Two men walk in front holding back or breaking off branches to make a track wide enough for the two men supporting Bill between them. They take turns swapping between clearing the track and carrying Bill. It’s a hard, slow slog and the conversation fades with the light, but to Lee, the climb up to the ridge feels easier than it did coming down to the beach. The extra pack is heavy and swings awkwardly against her spine, sometimes pulling her off balance but she seems to have discovered a reservoir of energy she didn’t know she had. At the car park Lee hands the extra pack back to its owner. She hovers in the glare of headlights, the air filled with the sound of phones and voices of people reassuring their families that everything’s fine, they’re on their way home. There seems nothing more that she can do to help so she quietly says goodbye to those around her and slips away.
Deb hands the photo back to Lee. ‘Friends of ours have got bee hives up there.’
‘We passed quite a few along the ridge.’
‘I love it when we go up to help with the hives – the sound of the bees, and all the different smells and shades of green and fantails darting all over the place. The bush is so alive. It’s a complete world just going about its own business.’
‘I hadn’t really thought of it like that.’
After Deb leaves, Lee looks closely at the photo again. The bush-clad arm of the ridge extends to a steep knoll where tiny manuka are pushing their way through the scars of red-clay landslides. The bent knee of another ridge angles steeply down to a small sandy beach, the only flat land visible. The beach is empty, access to it blocked by the rocky foot of land holding the heaving surf at bay. The peninsula lies in a warrior pose, protecting the teeming life within.
Karen Phillips explains her story. “The shape of the land in the Far North makes a huge imprint on how we live here. We adapt or we leave. Lee, the main character, has been in my head for a long time – drawn from the many women I’ve seen come and go over the years we’ve been here. The setting is the rugged east coast peninsular between Hihi and Taupo Bay. It’s a tough walk but no-one was hurt the day we did it.”