Circumnavigating the keel of Te Waka a Māui

Circumnavigating the keel of Te Waka a Māui


Awa/Ngakau, Tai Poutini

Fujifilm X-H1, XF 16-55/2.8 LM WR

ISO 320, 1/500s @ f8




It is not an easy thing coming back to the place where you grew up. It is not an easy thing to wonder what has changed and how you will feel about it. It is not an easy thing to wonder if you will feel the same or different, as you wander through the clothes cupboard of your past, confronting old choices, some of them of necessity painful ones.

However, I was excited and ready for the journey back to my old home in Te Waka a Māui, the South Island, Te Wai Pounamu. Would it still feel like home, or would we both have moved on?  Would we be old lovers meeting again, remembering the good times and not-so-good times, noticing the wrinkles and marks of time passing and passed, remembering tender moments, and somehow knowing they could never come again? I worried, and I fretted that it might all be an enormous let-down.

The artist in me was particularly anxious. Having found a/my narrative in the north, and working with and confident in that, would I fall into old tried-and-true patterns, and revert to a former way of seeing and expressing? I was especially troubled about returning to the Maniototo, where I was born, and where I had engaged with the land on both of my returns. Would I fall back into doing Grand Landscape as I had before? Would the Maniototo be an old lover or, worse still, would we be like one of those elderly couples you sometimes see in a café or a Martin Parr photograph, sitting there without talking, because they have said it all and there is nothing further to be added?

 There is a wonderful Buddhist koan that goes something like this:

 In the beginning a rock is a rock. Then it is not a rock, then it is a rock again.

 I remembered a morning in Queenstown, four years ago, when I arose early and looked up at the Remarkables. Something had changed. I was looking at…a mountain. Nothing more. The not-rock had become a rock again. Mere geology and geography. It was time to leave for other places, for the Far North of New Zealand, weher my whakapapa was crroking its finger and beckoning me, for a place  which was Not. Would this return be a slow slide through the Slough of Ennui, struggling to find meaning?

 I need not have worried.

 The land will ALWAYS speak to those willing to listen. In fact, I suspect it is speaking constantly and sharing its truths, whether we choose or are willing to listen. Or not.

 At first it was re-cognition. Re-connection. Re-membrance. At first all I saw were the labels. I drifted further south, noting what was still the same, and what had changed, mentally ticking off the time since I had last travelled a particular road. South of Arthurs Pass the vicious little snake of road down to Bealey had morphed into a lazy, languorous, well-fed python. Gone were the nasty corners, straightened out and armoured with Armco barriers. Other than these small reminders of Time passed, things appeared pretty much as they had done the last time I passed this way.

 I studied the sky and the light. I watched the lazy passage of clouds and wove myself into their slow ambling above the Canterbury plains. Time held its breath, and yet the sun continued its benevolent crawl across the underside of the sky. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

 I wandered through the open yawn of the Maniototo, stitching myself to old memories and old narratives, shuffling through the treasure chest of my memories and life. No new memories here, just the joyous embrace of what had been. Again, I was reminded of its greatest gift. Silence. How do you make an image of silence, I wondered? The answer didn’t come.

 The rock remained a rock.

 Until I crossed the keel of the waka into Te Tai Poutini, Westland. Then it shifted.

 It began at the Blue Pools, above Makarora. I stared into the crystal blue of the water and something looked back. Something older, something much older. I responded to it and made an image of its likeness. An emerald hoiho (horse) emerged, trailing a mane of shimmering pixels behind it. An older truth was emerging, a sense of a march towards Destiny, and a perhaps-meeting at the crossroads. I had crossed the keel of Te Waka a Māui into another time and place.

It was when we were able to get up in the air and wander the length of Tai Poutini that things became clear, became more obvious. At ground level our vision is held by the trees and hills, by the necessity of remaining focused on road four feet narrower in width than elsewhere in the country. It is remaining cautious of tourist drivers, and alert to the fact that many of them seem to travel in a bubble of self-oriented contentment, and likely to make sudden changes of direction without warning, reason or indicating, like the camper van just north of Whataroa, which suddenly slowed without warning or indicating, and turned right across the highway onto a small gravel road just as I was about to overtake it.  With these imperatives it is almost impossible to feel the mauri and respond to it. Little wonder then, that the great photographer, Edward Weston would never drive, preferring to let one of his many partners sit behind the wheel, while he studied the land for a likeness waiting to be made.

It was at altitude that I could see the place in its entirety, see the patterns which had been calling to me for so long, and begin to comprehend the relationships and whakapapa of the land, for all landscape photography is a record of relationships and a conversation. It is about whānau and whanaunga. The taonga (treasure) is in the story, not the objects themselves, and the taonga is held in the hands of both parties, shared as a creation.

It continued at Lake Matheson. A rainy afternoon, few tourists, and the place pretty much left to us. We wandered slowly among the patupaiarehe, kaitiaki and tupuna of a place which still held its mauri. Clouds of tiirairaka, fantails, followed us, feasting on the invisible insects we seemed to stir up. When we got to the jetty at Reflection Island, the cloud peeled apart, revealing the towering indomitability of Aoraki, Mt. Cook, overlooking a rainbow and the soft wonder of the lake. I stared into the dark waters and the kaitiaki stared back up at me. I had deliberately left my cameras in the car, even my phone, because I wanted to feel and not get caught up in the acquisitiveness of photography. Sometimes the greatest images you make, and the ones that stay with you forever, the ones that never need improving, are the pictures you make with your heart.

 Here, in Tai Poutini, on the West Coast, it was possible to get close to Papatūānuku, to Mother Earth, to nestle amongst the green feathers of her korowai. Here Nature ruled the place, here the long, slow rhythms of her heartbeat could be felt.

 Suddenly I was seeing the land as a living creature, a Being on which I travelled. The rivers became her veins, the trees the living raiment that clothed her. The mountains became slow, sleeping giants, slumbering peacefully, thinking mountain thoughts. Like a true mother, she held her children close: Tangaroa, uniting all the waters; Tāne Mahuta, god of the Forests and grasslands; and Tāwhirimātea, the Angry God, ever circling, close but not too close. In the shape of the land forms I felt the silent presence of Rūaumoko, her unborn child.

 Then I crossed back across the keel into Waitaha, into Canterbury, for a few days. It was when I left on the road south, for my second circuit of Te Wai Pounamu, that the thoughtless Hand Of Man became apparent. The plains lay lifeless, crushed under the weight of hundreds of thousands of dairy cattle hooves, malnourished slaves in a relentless servitude to Mammon, the God of Profit.

 A deep depression gripped me, a horror at what my species had done to Our Mother, in the name of something which was a mere and transient illusion. The land pillaged, wildlife species made extinct, the veins polluted and corrupted.

 Then I remembered that wonderful whakatauki, Māori proverb:

Whatungarongaro he tangata, toitu te whenua.

People disappear, but the land remains.

There was still Hope. And there was still time to do something about it.

Not-Rock. Again.



6 Responses

  1. Sarah Stirrup says:

    So pleased to hear that the South Island is ‘talking’ to you again and drawing you back – that can only be to our benefit – and thank you for reminding us that altho people will ultimately disappear, the land will remain and regenerate. So there IS hope for her.

  2. Virginia Gray Pennell says:

    A moving exposition Tony.
    Dairying is a blight one land.
    My latest concern is a proposal for an enormous dairy farm in the MacKenzie country.
    On another matter, EE says you need a proofreader for your posts!

  3. richard gemmell says:

    My mauri soared with yours as you rediscovered that beauty of the land. And then crashed back to earth with mention of the effects of intensive dairying. A wonderful piece. Kia ora.

  4. Max Ross says:

    The highly agile fantail is once more circling – perhaps more aware than ever – seeking familiar weathered branches…
    Most enjoyable Tony. Thank you.

  5. Tony Bridge says:

    Maybe seeking unfamiliar weathered branches….
    Thanks, Max

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