The sun was closing on the horizon when we got back to Waitangi, the village that’s the main centre and de facto “capital” of the Chatham Islands, nearly 900 kilometres east of New Zealand.
A staff photographer, Ross White, and I had been sent for a week to the “Chats” by our employer, the New Zealand Herald. It was less a chase after hard news than it was a biennial ritual of cultural sovereignty, and a recognition that the Chathams were New Zealand too: the first part, in fact, to catch the dawn, if not the opportunities, of each new day.
We’d spent the day in rugged bush up the Tuku river valley where a dedicated ornithologist called David Crockett and a team of volunteers were anchoring the survival of the endangered Taiko Petrol — Pterodroma magentae — a far-ranging seabird that had long been thought extinct.
Hungry and tired we went looking for a meal. But Waitangi was not only scarce of restaurants. It was devoid of them. All of the island’s imported supplies were due to arrive the next day on the Holmdale: the islands’ supply ship from Christchurch back on the “mainland”… even the general store had closed its till until its shelves were re-stocked.
But the pub was open and we asked the barman about food. Along with a sad look, he gave us each a big, brown quart bottle of beer and a crackly little package of crisps.
Ross and I had scarcely poured our beers when a shadow moved behind us and a quiet voice barely whispered in our ears: “’na koe, bros. You hungry?” Behind us stood a muscular Maori in a stained woollen shirt with a smell that announced his profession. “You eat kina?”
I said “sure”… Ross, I think, was more warily taking in the implications. “Kina” is a delicacy to many; a gag-inducing nightmare to some. You take a big, spiny sea urchin (Evechinus chloroticus), crack it open, tip out the slimy entrails and, if the season’s right (summer), you’re left with five, plump yellow roes, like orange segments, adhering to the inside of the shell. You scoop them off with your finger and pop them into your mouth. They are salty, sweet and splendidly pungent with the savour of the sea. They are — I am ready to swear to it — one of nature’s purest and most healthy forms of delectable protein. And they are best raw, fresh from the shell.
“Come with me,” said our benefactor. “Bring your beers.”
He led us outside to a battered flatbed truck and pulled sacks off the pile of crates. He set one of the crates in from of us. It was full of grapefruit-sized, premium-grade spiny sea-eggs… and he began splitting them open.
We set our glasses on the deck and ate. Before us, the sun was setting over the sea and a long, slow Southern Ocean swell was hauling long, scarlet and orange seams of fading sunlight towards the shore. Behind us was the light and buzz of voices from the pub, the puttering of generators — there being no power grid on the island — and the towering darkness of night-time cloud. The air was cool and sea-sweet.
Unexpecting, we had toppled headlong into one of those timeless experiences, when every sensation connects in a way that leaves nothing to be said… a perfect completeness of being you can recall in detail just by closing your eyes and letting your thoughts wander away into whatever silence they can find.
The smells, the sounds, the flavours, the sight, the sensations, the significance of it all slid into the ocean of our consciousness like a magical island: uncharted, distant, but — once you have been there — forever accessible and with far more to explore than could ever occur to you at the time.
I have others.
Sometimes I stand a night watch in my memories on one of the old “harbour defence launches” that the New Zealand Naval Reserve used for training and fishery protection patrols: the stars blaze above and phosphorescent trails mark, not only the little ship’s wake, but also the trajectories of porpoises and fish… so I am riding a moving platform of diesel-grunting shadow that rises through and is surrounded ahead, behind, to left and to right, above and below, by a shifting, multi-dimensional display of light.
And there is the first time I leapt from a yacht into one of those phosphorescent night seas and, looking up, saw the luminous path of my plunge and the glow of the hull… and, looking down, the light-trails of fleeing fish and startled squid, speeding into the darkness.
There is crawling through a never-before visited passage deep underground, then standing mud-caked in the stream-bed and looking around: the glittering, delicate, complicated and startling perfection of undisturbed limestone cave formations.
As well, I have somehow stored away a constellation of daylight moments: seeing my wife for the very first time and continuing to see her in ways that startle me with new, dazzling facets of that moment; the lift of a wave under a surfboard and the kick of a sail filling with wind; the rushing sound of being airborne in a glider after the towline’s let go; watching, then feeling a very rare giant weta* crawl onto my hand from a broken, rotting piece of log and being amazed by its weight, beauty and deliberation; watching clouds part beneath me from a windswept mountain-top; holding my baby daughter; the very particular way my first pet dog, Robin, would look at me…
There are many other moments I repeatedly continue to enjoy this same way — my first meal in Isernia, Italy, is one — people and places, performances, conversations, smells, moments, sights, emotions and sounds… even a few dreams. Some are very recent. Some were kindled when I was a child. All have the quality of visions.
And, it seems, the more that these islands of magic dot themselves around my inner ocean, the more eager I am to welcome more.
It is as though these memories, for that’s what they are, excite an appetite for more and more new experience, new visions, and open me more and more to the unexpected, the fortuitous, the wonderful… and the everyday (and there IS such a thing as an “everyday” vision). You can’t plan them; you just have to be open to them.
They work like demolition charges… they bring the bullshit down. They turn the dull opacity of routine to rubble. They snap the bonds of schedules and crack the niceties of conceit like bubbles. The trivia all explode into blown puffs of dust so that…
… yesterday, I saw a tree dance: the wind resistance of the leaves, the relative flexes of stem, twig and branch, the anchoring solidity of trunk, they all joined in and conspired with the gale then, with the emphatic intensity of a symphony orchestra, the leaping fluidity of a mountain stream, the hoof-beat thrill of a wildly galloping horse and the grace of a wheeling bird… the tree, a soft maple, danced.
*giant weta (Deinacrida heteracantha): this gentle, anciently-evolved Antipodean relative of grasshoppers survives only on Hauturu (Little Barrier Island), a wildlife sanctuary in the Auckland Gulf, New Zealand. The “giant weta” weighs in at 20-30 grams and can have a body four inches long. It’s one of the world’s heaviest insects.