Cry of the Kiwi: A Family’s New Zealand Adventure, Book 3
TANG OF THE TASMAN SEA
©2015 Magi Nams
The sky is grey, the highway damp, and Dainis’s wet socks are drying on the Bomb’s dashboard as we drive through West Melton en route to the West Coast. Fallen grape leaves in the vineyard near Andrea and Andy’s house blanket the ground with yellow.
“Ah, it’s brighter here,” Vilis says.
Dainis glances up from the final health exam he’s writing while Jānis reviews skin and teeth. “You mean it’s a little less grey.”
Cloud rises from brown-green hills like steam from the vents and fumaroles of Rotorua and Craters of the Moon. Gone is the parched look of the landscape. In the distance, sunlit cloud pierced by mountain peaks shimmers, beckoning like a magical kingdom. Farther west, long tawny slopes and reaching plateaus remind me of Otago’s rangeland and the Lindis Pass area we drove through in late November and early December.
Beyond Porter’s Pass, Castle Hill Conservation Area’s jumbled limestone formations are like a giant’s playground. Unable to resist the lure of the boulders, we pull into a parking area, step onto a “Stile of New Zealand” that Vilis photographs, and cross a page wire fence into fantasy land. Tors (rocky peaks) jut against the sky, their weathered limestone outcrops resembling mobs of misshapen trolls frozen in place by the light. Others lie fractured and broken, collapsed into sprawling mounds of rubble.
Redpolls flit through rock clefts and sweep around towers of stone. Rabbits bound across the boulder-strewn landscape. Roses’ red hips and yellow leaves paint bright colours against pale, lichen-wrapped rock. We climb smooth limestone boulders pocked with large holes, and stand against the sky. I spot a New Zealand falcon with prey in its talons and hear the echoes of magpies’ songs bounce between rocks. We scramble down from atop gigantic boulders, squeeze through narrow crevices between stone behemoths, and work our way up onto others. Like Ōhinetonga Lagoon on North Island, this is a place out of time, a place caught in wonder. Loathe to leave it, we nonetheless step away from the boulders, cross the stile, and pile into the station wagon.
Westward, beech forests cloak the slopes at Craigieburn, and Flock Hill resembles a gigantic slip, its side scored by deep rents. Lake Pearson’s grey sheet broods between olive and ochre slopes, and distant blue tendrils thread through Waimakariri River’s massive bed of grey shingle. The burn that closed the trans-island highway in late March left a trail of fire-scorched slopes and shrub skeletons with blackened, reaching fingers. Past Klondike Corner, half way to our destination, high, beech-covered hills edge the highway. “This is where Jānis and I went camping when you and Dainis were on that Scout camp,” Vilis tells me.
I envision The Blue Bomb parked at the base of a hill while my husband and younger son backpack their way up the slope through dense bush.
In the highest reaches of Arthur’s Pass, the valley narrows into Ōtira Gorge between steep-sided, bulging mountains scarred by avalanches. Highway, railway, and electricity transmission towers share the narrow corridor, then the railway disappears into 8.4-kilometre Ōtira Tunnel that offers trains safe passage through the spine of the Southern Alps. Here, the highway is pasted to the mountainside, supported by concrete braces and protected from avalanches by concrete shelters. Farther on, it’s suspended above ground on a pillared viaduct.
Beyond Ōtira and Aickens, the northbound highway curves southwest and parallels Taramakau River. We cross the river and drive north to Rotomanu, where dairy herds and pūkeko amble through lush green pastures. The landscape is noticeably more verdant than in Canterbury. We push on to Stillwater and south to Greymouth on the coast, then north on the coastal highway to Punakaiki and Paparoa National Park. Lumpy hills covered with needle-leaved podocarps flank the road. At Punakaiki, massive limestone cliffs tower over dense coastal rainforest frilled with the flaring leaves of nīkau palms and fronds of tree ferns.
A few kilometres north of Punakaiki, amid shrubs and trees sculpted by blasting winds off the Tasman Sea, we turn inland onto Bullock Creek Road. The narrow gravel road parallels dry Bullock Creek, which lies at the base of steep cliffs to both north and south and is posted with warnings of floods after heavy rain. At 5:00 p.m. and with no sign of the Bullock Creek “Campground” we were looking for, we set up camp on a patch of grass next to a locked gate. Dainis cooks chilli for supper while Vilis and Jānis erect the tent, after which I place foam mattresses and sleeping bags within the shelter.
At dusk, mist gathers like soldiers of a silent army and advances eerily until we’re surrounded – our tent coated with their cold white breaths. Vilis reads from C. S. Lewis’s The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, wherein Eustace creeps into a dead dragon’s cave and finds a bracelet that he slips onto his arm before falling asleep, only to wake and find that he himself has become a dragon. “It’s different being read to in a tent by a candlelight,” Jānis says, his eyes lit with the magic of Eustace’s adventure blending with our own. “It makes it seem that this could happen.”
Beyond our tent and the mist, stars shine like blurry beacons. The forest is alive with wild kiwi cries and moreporks’ begging requests. This avian night music is so different from the night’s silence at Lake Daniells, where beguilingly beautiful reflections of hills in the lake were belied by the presence of egg-eating mammals: possums in trees beside the hut, and rats scurrying about in the grass in front of the building and chewing on its walls.
In the thickness of this mist-shrouded night, we hear the approaching roar of a vehicle. It halts at the locked gate. The engine quits. A door opens and slams. In the mist, we see nothing and hear no human voice. A short time later, the door opens and slams again. Then we and our unknown neighbour are cloaked in white darkness.
This morning, tree silhouettes create black lace against white ground mist. The meadow beside our camp sparkles with dew drops that adorn every grass stem bent beneath its beauty. The Department of Conservation visitor pamphlet for Paparoa National Park states, “Be prepared for rain at any time of the year,” but today, sunshine reigns.
We battle chilly air with a breakfast of steaming porridge sweetened with brown sugar and raisins, and with mugs of hot chocolate. Then, while mist rises against the hills and bearded forests, we walk past a white uv parked next to the gate (its driver asleep in his seat), climb over the barricade, and follow a pasture trail to where a river disappears.
Riddled with caves and sinkholes, the limestone karst landscape of Paparoa National Park creates waterways that are a medley of aboveground passage and belowground entrapment. Bullock Creek is one such trapped river. Soon we encounter one door to its prison – a dry, gravely creek bed with nothing much to see except that past a shallow pool the creek is gone. We listen carefully and hear the trickle of water pouring down into a sinkhole, one of the half-dozen or more that drain the aboveground creek and send its water into an underground riverbed.
“Is this all?” the boys ask, unimpressed.
“Later, we’ll hike to Cave Creek, where the water comes out again,” I tell them.
We leave the creek bed and tramp a section of Mount Bovis Track through pastures on a valley floor bounded by tree-clad ridges. We spot goldfinches, shelducks, and plovers, as well as a fantail frolicking in a patch of shrubs. The sound of a pickup truck startles us, and a few minutes later we watch a man attend beehives seemingly in the middle of nowhere. The honey man’s movements are quick and efficient. He takes no notice of us or the bees crawling in his hair.
In late morning, we retrace our path to where Mount Bovis Track, one of a web of tracks in the valley, links up with Cave Creek Track. At the base of a plaque beside the path to Cave Creek, a withered bouquet rests on grass, the flowers’ brown stems encircled by a yellow ribbon tied into a bow. The plaque itself stands like a sentry too slim and straight for the commemoration it bears – that of fourteen people who lost their lives when an observation platform collapsed on April 28, 1995, sending them plummeting to their deaths on the rocks of the creek bed below. Here, in bright autumn sunshine, we walk toward what was a scene of disaster six years and twelve days ago.
Amid posted warnings of danger, we approach the steeply-cut gorge of Cave Creek near Cave Creek Cave. Downstream from here, the trapped waters of Bullock Creek return to the surface as springs that feed this creek. In times of heavy rainfall, when the underground system of conduits and caves fed by Bullock Creek is filled to capacity, excess water gushes out of Cave Creek Cave into this creek bed and also surges down the normally dry creek bed beside Bullock Creek Road.
In the rich dimness of the gorge below us, mosses and liverworts create lush, velvet tapestries that cover huge rock plates jumbled into heaps in the creek bed, which is dry now, but everywhere speaks of moisture. Cautiously, as though entering a muted, mossy shrine, we descend steep steps to the creek bed and are enveloped by its cool, damp breath. Every rock surface on the gorge walls is green with plant life, as are most of the rounded stones and plates of rock beneath our feet. Fronds of ferns and tree ferns flare outward from the gorge walls, and trees extend crooked limbs that drip long moss tendrils.
While Vilis sets up his camera and tripod to photograph the rich vegetation and brooding creek bed, the boys and I make our way upstream to where a massive, plant-hung wall split by a narrow crack looms over us. It marks the resurgence cave of the trapped stream. A circular hole in the cleft wall becomes a target through which my sons and I toss stones and calculate our throwing averages. The sounds of stones quickly hitting water tell of our misses, while stones clattering on rock and eventually plopping into water far below tell of our successes. Each of those long, clattering falls elicits a grin. That a river flows deep beneath this shrouded cave and creek bed is an exciting thought. On the heels of this knee-jerk excitement comes the eerie knowledge that the trapped river sometimes spurts out of the cave and pours through this gorge as a raging torrent.
A dusky New Zealand robin keeps the boys and me company while we toss stones. Later, it lands at the base of a tripod leg while Vilis photographs the creek bed and its lush plant life. We feel the presence of no ghosts, but later find where the old viewing platform must have been – suspended over a sheer drop of at least thirty metres, nearer to the cave entrance than the present stairs. No wonder so many died when the platform collapsed.
I tell Vilis and the boys, “Gary, the Landcare technician, said that a DOC worker he knows had to retrieve the body of his boss, and that he thought some of the victims were Scouts on an outing.”
“Scouts?” Dainis murmurs in shock. His shoulders slump with grief. (But the technician was wrong about Scouts. Thirteen of the fourteen victims of the Cave Creek Disaster were outdoor recreation students from Tai Poutini Polytechnic in Greymouth. The fourteenth victim, as the tech said, was a Department of Conservation field officer.)
In mid-afternoon, we break camp and drive to Punakaiki. There, beneath looming limestone cliffs ribbed with rock strata, topped with nīkau, and draped with cascades of shrubs and ferns, we locate Pororari River Track. Its entrance is edged with massive clumps of pale-leaved flax, beyond which palms rise in stately elegance and cabbage trees in kinky crookedness, both throwing their blade-like leaves against the sky.
Once on the track, I feel as though we’ve truly entered the rainforest realm. Vegetation cloaks every surface – ground, rocks, and trees whose trunks provide habitat for perching lilies, clumps of kiekie with their trailing vines, and delicate curtains of filmy ferns. The air is ripe with the scent of living and decaying plants whose fronds and leaves thrust into and hang down onto the track in a wild collage of shapes and textures. From a small opening at the forest edge, we look across brown Pororari River to the opposite shore. A solid forest canopy lanced by soaring tree ferns and nīkau climbs the hillside like a plush green bath towel rumpled and casually hung over a slant-backed chair. I want to reach across the water and touch it, to feel its softness.
In late afternoon, we book a tent site in a motor camp at Punakaiki’s north end and visit a craft shop posted with large notices that possums are pests. The shop sells possum pelts as well as hats, mittens, insoles, and cushion covers made from possum fur (elsewhere, we’ve seen possum fur nipple warmers). The boys are captivated by small matchboxes decorated with reprints of paintings of New Zealand birds, each box one of a series of forty-five. We leave the craft shop stocked with more than enough matches to last the remainder of our time in this country. Next, we hand over the exorbitant sum of thirty-two dollars for a can of taco beans, a can of peas and corn, a small box of risotto rice, a box of muesli bars, a small packet of cookies, a bar of soap, and six slices of bacon.
Before our evening meal, we walk Punakaiki’s stony shore to its south end near Dolomite Point, then cross the highway and duck into low-roofed Punakaiki Cavern. The sound of dripping water greets our ears when we creep into the cave along a muddy trail posted with trail markers. Crystals and a few small stalactites stud the rock ceiling above us. We look for glow-worms but see none, yet the trail markers lure us deeper and deeper into the cave.
“We’d better go back,” Vilis warns. “We’ve only got one torch and my LCD pinpoint light. I wouldn’t want to be stuck in here if the flashlight batteries give out.”
Jānis begs to go on, then just as fervently, to go back.
“You’ll have to become a spelunker, Jānis,” Vilis tells him.
“What’s that?” Jānis asks.
“Someone who explores caves,” I say.
“I’ll be a spelunker,” Dainis quips. “Just give me a big stone and I’ll throw it into the pool at that cave, and that’s the sound it’ll make.”
Back at camp, the boys chatter and throw things at each other while they supposedly help to cook supper. In drizzle, we hurriedly wash dishes, then take refuge within the tent. Jānis lights his candle lantern – one of the old, battered DB Draught cans we hung outside our tent on Christmas Eve. Vilis suspends it from the tent ceiling before reading aloud more of Eustace’s adventures. In the background, surf pounds against the stony beach, traffic chews up silence on the coastal highway, and whispering rain patters on the tent’s exterior while the candle sheds its golden light within.