Last week two visiting New York friends, Bipin and Mridanga, accompanied us to a favorite spot in the mountains for three days, a six hour drive down through New Zealand's central North Island. At the tiny rural settlement of Raetihi we take a back road out of town, a slow ride south down a bony, narrow gravel road that winds down to the Whanganui River, snakes through scrubland, hill farms, valleys clad in the variegated olive greens of native forest and bisected by dark ravines. Arriving an hour and a half later, weary from the corrugated road, at our destination the The Flying Fox. Here two cabins await you over a river and your only access is by a small box car suspended from a single wire cable.
At The Flying Fox you should leave behind your cell phone, laptop, wristwatch, your urban toys, all the things that imprison you in your orderly life and your old self, all your mind baggage too. The river is the living edge and boundary of another world and when you cross it you must be open to new things which may or may not be to your liking. Nature is powerful here and dominates, the river brooding and alive and concealing in it's depths animistic forces; the forest that encircles you a dark wall that confronts you with yourself, the limits of your daring, the subtle menaces that populate your imagination. Here wilderness meets the wild places of your mind. You might shrink a little for it can humble you, turn you inside out, these strange and trackless folds of hills and deep bottomed valleys where you sense elemental forces, the indifference of nature, the precariousness of life.
But the mountains are also an antidote to the world we always occupy, a world wholly constructed by man, and wild nature will restore some balance, fill you with awe, offer a gateway which if you dare pass through will deepen you and make you more human and whole. Here you can make connections to other realities, other parts of yourself, become filled with wonder and surprise.
At dusk we slip down the river, moving quietly along an animal trail through the forest and sidle up into clearings – two shy black fallow deer melt away into the trees. A young foal lingers near the cottages, tall and gangly and rib-skinny – we try to befriend her with apples but she keeps her distance. The mother's white bones, still partly clad in her tawny hide, are filling up with grass down on the river flats where, a while ago, she lay down and died.
Light drains out of the land, the colors decompose into dark hues of gunmetal sky and inky black forest. During the long night you can hear only the quiet river and the native owl, ruru the message-bringer, calling from the ridge lines and dark folds of hills. By my bed an enchanting Poetry of James K. Baxter volume – at the end of one poem he writes with that sometimes melancholy air which these landscapes can induce:
"What is a man
This glittering dung-fed fly
Who burrows in foul earth?
All; Jehovah's sky
And earth like millstones grind us small."
At dawn we meditate and head out early on a five hour hike back into the forest. Cicadas are trilling high up in the canopies of black beech; a hawk rides the thermals, head swiveling as it scans for carrion or prey. Well back in the ranges, we drop down into a steep sided valley that should take us back to the main river. Down one spur, a big black and tan wild boar bursts out of waist high fern, clearly annoyed by our intrusion and snorting in warning. He comes up the ridge towards me and stops only ten metres away, still barely visible, while I'm glancing round for a close and climbable tree. Then, unchallenged, he moves around the side of the spur and slips away, grunting in irritation. The ravines at the bottom of these valleys are carved deep out of soft pale sandstones by heavy winter rains and form steep sided chasms that can be death traps. If you are navigating through the forest by these perilous waterways you can find your way down steep drop-offs, but might at any point reach an impassable vertical fall – then find you cannot get back up the steep chutes you've descended. Such errors may be costly...
But we work carefully down and finally reach the main valley. In spring this river with it's sombre moods and 1,000 years of Maori history fills up with yellow floating kowhai flowers, a beautiful and scented miracle that snakes down from the central volcanic highlands of the central North Island on its long journey to the sea.
A week later I overnight in the small hydro town of Turangi, stay with a family known for as long as I can remember. Their daughter Raewyn with whom I shared our long ago childhood is honouring her mother's birthday in style and I am a secret guest. Other guests arrive that night – helicopter pilots, river guides, characters and personalities who live unusual lives, some surprises from my own safari guiding days of decades past – and I am hugged warmly by a stream of people, mostly strangers. I meet riders and horse trainers from the Lord of the Rings movie set – Raewyn's daughter was a stunt rider and doubled for some of the less accomplished stars on horseback.
That night before the birthday party I sleep in a room filled with photos – Raewyn's deceased father in plus-fours and braces in 1949, wielding a shotgun and a clutch of unfortunate pheasants; formal and unsmiling family portraits of long departed kin; endless snaps of horse jumps, three generations of the family's equestrians bottoms up and primly correct over barrels and brush hedges and railing fences; coy snaps of grinning relatives and of ourselves in a far off time.
With a start I notice a photo of myself with five river rafting clients from the mid-70's – on my right the ill-fated German hunter Bernhardt Stoll posing with his .270 Mannlicher and signature pince-nez glasses. A month after that expedition he swam ashore for help from a disabled boat in the headwaters of a Borneo river – a returning search party wades ashore ten days later only to find his remains, his rusting Mannlicher, the oddball glasses and his white bones. It appeared he had been eaten, though the culprits were never found.
In my room trophies line the walls, jostle for space – 1st prize, Waimarino Women's Open Jump; 2nd prize, New Zealand Show Jumping National Champs; a medley of dressage medals and honors. At the end of my bed a thirteen point stuffed stag's head leans against the curtain, the long white tines gleaming like pale daggers in the moonlight. The glass eye watches me, bland and forgiving and unperturbed.
Next day the birthday celebrant clatters down out of leaden skies in the grandson's helicopter – pilot Rob executes a few festive jigs and turns before settling carefully down on the grass lawn. Four kilted pipers play the bagpipes as all the guests form a gauntlet's guard of honour. Speeches follow, a huge meal, charge your glasses, spontaneous songs sung by uninhibited, merry guests, a table groaning with gifts. Hiding to avoid karaoke. And standing outside in mist and light drizzle, catching up with folks from an almost forgotten part of life.
I look at these people that I so liked thirty and more years ago – and still like them now. Is it a measure of how little we have changed or of how much we have in common? Destiny has led us along very different pathways, yet we return together after so long apart to find that friendships have endured, our destination the same.
Raewyn tells me of her parent's comical first meeting on the inter-islander ferry in 1900 and something. They had met and played cards together on the top boat-deck during the five hour crossing, a random meeting of two strangers. A poor hand at poker, Bob loses his travel money and then wagers his coat, hat, shirt, trousers, shoes in quick succession against Alpha's own wardrobe, an outrageous turn of events. Ill-luck dogged him and he endured varying states of undress till they dock at the port of Picton where he steps bravely ashore, bare-chested in that winter morning and clad only in long johns and one shoe and sock. But that eccentric daring-do won him loyalty and love and so began their life together.
I am moved by the heart power of these ingenuous and friendly people, by their spirit and kindness. God plays hide and seek in every human life and sure enough there He is in the warm smiling eyes and generosity of these people from our heartland.
"Friendship is the butterfly-play in the life-dance of today's Truth-seekers and tomorrow's God-lovers."
– Sri Chinmoy.