A 4-part report about a trip to New Zealand.
-Rivers and jungle-
Rivers have this perpetual magical inspiration for traveling souls: continuous motion, never ceasing, never returning, always going from somewhere to somewhere. Rivers are messengers, they tell us that there is more of the world than what we just happen to see around. They come from places far away; you cannot read on their water what they’ve seen. You know they have been there beyond the blue haze of the mountains, seen it all, and they don’t stop where you are, don’t even find it worthwhile to hesitate. They go on toward the horizon, to other places, other worlds, more wonders to see. Why do we stay?
When we travel on rivers it’s not only the fascination of leaving the choice of direction to the water, often it’s even more the natural pace of the flow that has an irresistible spell on us. It is not traveling like moving from A to B, on a river it becomes more a state in which A and B don’t matter anymore. And isn’t that the ultimate condition of life after all?
Rivers are also borders and barriers. And they are tools of Nature to shape the landscape; they cut, they carve and change things. Rivers have always been a route relatively easy to follow for people, so by being natural means for transportation they became paths of expanding civilization. In New Zealand it’s not different, even though most rivers there are wild, fast, and short.
The Whanganui River on the North Island is one of the few longer ones, its temper is rather modest, but it’s wild and untamed by all means. Coming from the Tongariro Mountains, it cuts through deep gorges, flows through vast areas of untouched totally roadless jungle and finally becomes a large tidal flow when it empties into the ocean between sand dunes and beaches. Coming down from the north, we have seen it several times and, as I say, rivers a magnetic influence on us.
Robert Baldwin has a little canoe-hiring business in the town of Whanganui at the sea. He has actually been a canoeist for the NZ-Olympic team one time, but you wouldn’t have guessed that when you see him. Another fragment of Kiwi characteristics. They can appear a bit rough on the surface, somehow oldfashioned, but I’m always amazed how well-informed and superbly educated these island people are. They know how they have a paradisiacal place and how their remoteness keeps them on the sidelines of the big show in the world. But they are far from being just uninformed bystanders, who are not interested and don’t really understand what’s going on. New Zealanders, maybe due to their somehow distant vantage point, actually often have a more profound understanding of our world.
When Robert drives us in his incredibly beaten up pickup truck – I expected it to fall apart any minute – to the put-in at Taumaranui he tells us fantastic stories about pig-hunting. They “stick” wild pigs with a spear. He almost apologizes to take money from us for the canoe and the 250 km (one way) shuttle.
The canoe is big and heavy. The river digs into the thick jungle right away. Floating under an overhanging roof of fern trees one barely notices to be in a deep canyon. Even vertical rock is hardly visible under a dense cover of ferns and mosses. The rock is extremely soft, it looks like slightly hardened mud and is dramatically eroded from endless rain and flooding. Side-rivers come pouring in through incredibly narrow deep gorges. Sometimes a little creek trickles in from a canyon only a few inches wide but close to 200 feet deep. Quite often tributary rivers don’t reach the Whanganui on equal levels but plunge into it in a final dramatic water fall. To find a spot to put our tent on at night is not always easy; it’s steep and, almost always muddy.
The nights are utterly silent, it’s still fairly cool. The nights are like the moss you sleep on: soft, formless, bottomless, alive.
Animals are one thing we miss in NZ. Except of 70 million sheep, some cows, goats, and possums we don’t see much. (Kiwis are not very impressive and you can only see them in zoos, even in NZ). Birds are there, quite a few, but not as many as you’d expect when you compare it to Australia. No snakes, few insects except sandflies, called no-see-ums in America, tiny biting midges.
The jungle is so dense and the terrain so steep that it is nearly impossible to walk anywhere. Any attempt to go exploring on foot inevitably ends in a hopeless, bone-breaking struggle, never covering more than maybe 100 m in half an hour. However, it’s fascinating to see heroic attempts to settle along the river. Already in the early years the river has been navigated by special steam-engine powered flat-bottom boats. I have no idea how they managed the numerous rapids.
We find remains of old farm houses, overgrown with jungle, re-naturalized, reoccupied by the forest. A pretty intact iron stove standing in a cushion of moss, a fern tree growing out of the fire door. Half fallen wall structures and a collapsed roof look so beautiful with all the vegetation embracing it and integrating it. Even recent attempts of development have failed: There is a famous “Bridge to Nowhere”, a mysterious big concrete bridge, spanning some 50 m over the side river Mangapurna in the middle of nowhere. Built in the 50s, completely intact, never been used, as the road to lead over it proved to be impossible. So the jungle took it all back.
Sometimes the current is pretty fast and in order to make it around fallen trees and debris our old paddling skill is put to a good test. We try to paddle up little side streams but never get very far; fallen trees or rapids always block the way. Once, one of those big tree branches under water we bump against turns out to be a huge eel, a monster of an eel that explodes to life trying to escape.
We meet two people in one week. Close to the end the landscape becomes open and rural; sheep, the universal ingredient to the green rolling hills of NZ, dot the banks. And finally, when the ocean is near, we have to fight a reversed current as we happen to face an incoming tide.
* * *
Matemateaonga, the lovely, strange sound of a name lingers in my memory. Maté-Maté-Aonga. A soft mysterious sound reverberating in the eternal forests of the Whanganui Wilderness. A track weaving right through the heart of this green jungle realm. The spell of the Whanganui River has pulled us back. The season is long over and there is a gentle aroma of autumn in the air, the days are dry, warm, and still.
Matemateaonga is quite a long track ending in utter solitude at the banks of the Whanganui River; and it’s quite a trip on a long nasty dirt road to even get to the trail head.
Day in day out it’s only us wandering along this muddy trail, squeezing through dense bush, scrambling over fallen decaying tree giants, wading through fern meadows, always enchanted by the stillness and the soft green light gently cascading down through the cathedral canopy of the huge moss-covered trees. The track follows the rim of a mountain range and often we can look out through the trees over the vastness of jungle underneath, fog, entangled in the tree tops, hovering in the valleys, the snow-covered Tongariro Volcanos in the distance.
We find an old romantic hut under a majestic tree leaning over it in a lovely gesture. We spend two magical days there in solitude and utter silence, meditating and listening to the forest. I lie in the sun before the hut, I close my eyes and go exploring with my ears. I “observe” the faint whispering of the fern leaves swinging in the breeze. Insects are buzzing by, wood is expanding in the sun and cracking. Far away a soundscape of trees, very, very faint, hardly perceptible but full of detail when you really pay attention. The longer I sit and listen the more perspective there is in all the nuances of sounds and noises, I can “hear” the landscape. I’m wide awake and seeing with my ears.
When we emerge from the forest after a week or so we are very quiet and content.
* * *
The west and southwest of the South Island has probably the most celebrated scenery of NZ. Snow peaks, glaciers, 2000 m walls rising directly out of the sea, narrow fjords, reaching deep into the land, long, narrow, windy lakes, but also surf-battered rocky coast lines and lonely sandy beaches.
A rare sunny day on the Routeburn Tack
To be continued with New Zealand III
Klaus March 2012