31 January 2006

Head games

These are a few hastily written impressions from last Saturday, when I drove to Baring Head, the south-western tip of Wellington Harbour, for the National Bouldering Series event. It's hastily written because it's now late at night and I need to get organised to go climbing tomorrow. Don't expect much from me over the next three weeks; much of my time will be spent on the road or climbing. I might manage to post something small and nondescript, but do come back! [click on the photos for a larger view]

The interior of the car’s like an oven and turning the fan on does nothing but turn it into a fan oven. I’m close to expiring, or at least melting into a grease puddle, but I console myself with two thoughts: that the lack of air conditioning means I’m saving fuel and thereby the planet; and heat and humidity like this is good preparation for India later in the year.

Two and a half hours after leaving Pohangina I’m approaching the coast South of Wainuiomata and looking with delight at a large bank of hazy cloud. Baring Head will be under that cloud; the light for photos will be softer, less harsh and contrasty, and the Rock Hop competitors are more likely to be still climbing hard rather than retiring to the shade or slipping off sweat-greased holds. The stream, often a deep wade near the road or a scary dash between booming breakers where it enters the sea, is completely closed off from the ocean, so it’s a straightforward, 20 minute trudge along the shingle and coarse sand beach. Two young people amble past, returning to the car; the guy’s picking up stones and batting them landwards with a bleached stick of driftwood.

“How’s it going?” he says, grinning a big cheery smile.

I grin back, enjoying the sight of someone so obviously happy and untroubled—someone just having fun, just playing. A little further on an old guy sitting on a folding stool takes a swig from a canteen, rinses his hands and nods at me. He’s just set a big fishing rod in its holder, closer to the surf; the tip vibrates very slightly as the sea pulls at it. I wish him luck and get another smile. Close to the boulders, two big women arrange picnic gear while a man sets up a rod, flinging the tackle far out into the slow-heaving sea. Everyone’s friendly and happy today. I see the silhouettes of small figures hopping along the top of the Long Wall, dark forms against the salt-hazy sky and wonder if any of the fishers have any idea what all the crazy people are doing scrambling over those rocks.

I’ve arrived late, but because the event started behind schedule, I have about an hour and a half to scramble around looking for photos. I recognise a few people but none I know well, so I wander towards the Split Apple and the Only the Good Die Young area. Someone calls out, laughing. It’s Fionn, sunburnt, happy, with trashed and taped fingers—he and Matt have been going hard out but still think they have a few climbs left in the tank. We yarn for a while, but I’m conscious of how little time I have to work on photos, so eventually I excuse myself and carry on, looking for good angles for photos. Photographing climbers can be difficult. Looking up from the ground is seldom a good choice—a wideangle lens foreshortens the climb, reducing its apparent height and steepness; and wideangle shots of climbers’ bums are, well, ... I suppose you could use them to poke fun at your mates—or, perhaps, to make lifelong enemies.

I’m sprawled on top of the Split Apple rock, leaning over as far as I dare, looking directly down.

“Hey Neil,” I yell, “less talk and more action!”

He looks up, startled; eventually recognises me and laughs. Later he obliges, and I get a shot of him crimping hard, reaching up, totally focused. Absolute concentration; years of experience being called into play. He created some of the famous boulder problems here—explored the rock, found a series of holds that looked possibly climbable, and worked out the sequence of moves enabling him to make the first ascent. I’m watching one of the Baring Head legends.

He falls off and goes to find something else.

Vic, lean, strong, and colourful in her knitted beanie, crouches low on the face, ready to spring.

“Er, you might want to move a bit,” she says.

I realise I’m lying on the hold she’s aiming for. I mumble an apology and hastily wriggle sideways, not wishing to have her dangling from my eyebrows. When you’re peering through a wideangle lens it’s easy to forget where you are. I notice it again when I’m photographing John, Peter, and Dan taking turns working hard on Chris and Cosey, one of the hardest problems at the Head—I’m dangling from one hand, Tevas on tenuous footholds, photographing with the other hand; I lower the camera and realise I’m mere inches away from John as he’s heading for the next hold. I hope I haven’t distracted him, so console myself by believing he’s putting in an extra-special effort just to look heroic for the camera.

Switching lenses, I switch photographic modes, focusing on details, closeups—particularly on expressions. When you’ve watched climbers enough, you begin to sense when the action’s about to happen; you see them pause, shake an arm, pinch the hold again, shake the other arm, grasp the hold... a pause, then the tension—and that’s the moment; here comes the move. Each moment has its expression; each expression reveals the focus, that single-minded attention to just one thing.

That’s one of the things—possibly the most important—that draws me to climbing, particularly to bouldering. That intensity. For that brief period, sometimes as little as a few seconds, you forget everything else. All thoughts disappear except those few you need to make this move, to complete this sequence. Perhaps, in that respect it’s a form of meditation—a clearing of the mind by intense focus; but meditation is usually associated with being still. Bouldering is anything but still—unless it’s the stillness of Zeno’s arrow. Maybe, without realising it, what we’re doing when we’re bouldering, or climbing in most forms, is really a kind of dynamic meditation.

Or maybe it’s just fun—pure and simple play.

Photo 1: Vic works Split Apple.
Photo 2: Tomasz putting the effort in.

Photo 3: Pete starting out on Chris and Cosey.

Photo 4: Matt meditating.
Photo 5: Bye...

Photos and words © 2006 Pete McGregor

25 January 2006

What Murray would've wanted

“I’m sorry I had to be the one to break the news,” Raewyn said, but she’d done it well, come straight to the point.

Murray had been killed in a cycle race in Hawkes Bay. I couldn’t believe it; even now I have moments of disbelief. I hesitated, wondering whether to call Nobby and postpone the whio [1] survey, but the notice was as short as it could have been: I was about to drive to the field station to meet him and head for mid Pohangina hut. We’d already postponed it from the week before Christmas, and leaving it another week wasn’t ideal. He’d probably have to find someone else at short notice—no notice, in fact. Yet, that seemed unimportant compared with the need to be with friends and colleagues.

I wondered what Murray would’ve wanted, and the answer seemed very clear. I could imagine him looking at me with that slightly sly smile, head tilted back a little, then very deliberately telling me to go out there and enjoy the environment that means so much to me; go out there and do a good job. I know he’d have trusted me to do the job well. And I’m pretty sure he’d have told me to enjoy the beer when the trip was over and have a few in his memory as well. It all seemed plausible, but it all seemed like a convenient rationalisation.

The last thing she said was, “You take care up there, won’t you”.

It’s what happens when we lose a friend—suddenly everyone we’re close to becomes especially important; we want to look after them, protect them. The thought of losing another friend is too much to bear.


I drove to the field centre as the knowledge of Murray’s death began to sink in. That tight feeling, a cramp in the throat; remembering those Murray moments, like the time he emailed everyone asking if anyone had seen his spectacles only to discover they were perched on his head... or the time he stopped in the doorway of my office, talked for ages, got halfway down the corridor then returned to talk for another 20 minutes because he’d remembered something else. Then he did it again. I couldn’t believe I’d never again enjoy times like that—I didn’t want to believe it.

We made good time to mid Pohangina hut and relaxed while we waited for evening, when the whio would become active. Bro curled up in the long grass by the verandah and dozed in the sun while Nobby stretched out on one of the bunks and read and explored the map. I made my way through tall, rustling grass to the river and sat on a sun-warmed boulder, listening to the rush of water, watching the breeze tremble toetoe heads. A big dragonfly [2] rattled past; afternoon sunlight glittered on the big pool. I realised that two things are—and probably always will be—incomprehensible to me. Being born, and dying.

That evening, Nobby and Bro climbed over the spur behind the hut to drop into Cattle Creek while I waded and boulder-hopped downstream, below the swingbridge, past the Cattle Creek junction and partway into the gorge. I saw no ducks on the way down, but on returning, heard a whistle from the river just downstream from the junction. A lone, male whio, clearly agitated, swam and whistled in the pool where the river turns sharply. Eight o’clock in the evening. The bird climbed out of the water onto a rock and through binoculars I could see it had no bands. It dropped back into the pool and I managed one blurry photo in the dim light before it took to the wing and flew upstream, out of sight. I followed it, past the hut and on to where the river split into two channels, but I never saw it again. Nobby and Bro saw no sign of whio up Cattle Creek.


Early the next morning we searched downstream to the gorge but saw nothing other than an occasional whio shit—desiccated, disintegrating, sandy with the homes of digested caddis larvae. Of the whio I’d seen the previous night, there was no sign. Back at the hut we packed and left for Ngamoko; the warmth of the day just becoming noticeable, replacing last night’s cold. Despite the overnight chill the river wasn’t cold; crossings were easy and seldom above the knee. The morning sun lit rapids, pools, boulders, the edges of trees, and I remembered the time I’d walked from Leon Kinvig hut to Ngamoko and thought the Pohangina to be one of the most beautiful rivers I know. That thought returned as we boulder-hopped and waded upriver. I looked around, remembered Murray; how he’s no longer here to delight in this sort of experience. The sun rises, fills the world with joy, but it’s a changed world. What Raewyn had told me didn’t seem possible.

I thought of Murray’s family and all his—and my—friends at the Landcare Research site [3]. Had I made the right choice? Was it really what Murray would’ve wanted?

Years ago I’d seen and photographed whio in several locations along the Pohangina, but when we reached Ngamoko hut we’d still seen none. Just some feathers in a little cave under jumbled boulders by the water, and some very fresh shit, not yet dried out, still moist and coherent—probably less than a day old.

Two o’clock and the sun’s brilliant in a cloudless blue sky but the strong gusty wind’s cold. Bro keeps shifting from sun to shade and back again. I’ve split a couple of big, tough rounds of saturated contorta and spread the blocks in the sun—something useful. A little mouse runs out from the long grass towards the hut, stops, looks at me, and runs back. A small, quivering, sleek-furred life with shining black eyes like beads. Or: vermin.

We split up again in the evening. I checked upstream; Nobby and Bro climbed the track, dropped into the downstream sidecreek and came back upriver. They saw three whio and Nobby managed a few photos on his powershot—much better than the fuzzy image I’d snapped the previous evening. I walked upstream for a couple of hours, slowly, slightly uneasy at the apparent absence of duck shit—just a single, old streak of it. I stopped and took a few photos but felt uninspired. Cloud had begun to build; the sun came and went; and I wondered what the next day would bring. By the time I started back downriver the sky had turned to a grey overcast; by the time I was 20 minutes from the hut, misty cloud had settled low on the the ridges and spurs and a cold, strong wind knifed through both layers of clothing and chilled me. I was glad to get back, just ahead of Nobby and Bro.


The weather the next day, while lacking sun, was good for tramping—overcast, an intermittent wind, cool, but not uncomfortably cold. We left Ngamoko at 7:45 and made good time up the river, confirming what I’d seen the evening before—nothing. But, a short distance upstream from the small gorge, Nobby saw a lone whio fly upriver. We moved on cautiously, hoping to see it before it saw us, but the next sighting was when I glimpsed it flying further up the river. We came upon it again, but this time it was swimming in a large pool where the river turned. I dropped my pack and poles, handed my binoculars to Nobby and crept forward while Nobby stayed behind where the bird could see him. I took a few photos as I edged closer, then slowly moved into full view, angling across the river to a small beach. The bird seemed cautious, but happy to continue drifting and bobbing in the pool. At the gravel beach, I lay down and took many careful photos but the dull light wasn’t flattering and the shutter speeds marginal. I think I’d most enjoyed simply watching the bird through the telephoto—the golden eye, the bright, pinkish-white bill, the texture and colours of feathers, silvery beads of water... taking the photos seemed incidental. Of course, after I’d slowly retreated and walked back to where Nobby was waiting, the sun almost broke through.

Last night Murray appeared in my dreams, as two people who looked identical to him but weren’t. I couldn’t explain this but as in all dreams I understood it perfectly. Seeing him, I couldn’t speak; a deep sadness enveloped me. I don’t know if I dreamed this or it was real.

From Leon Kinvig hut we walked a long way upstream in the evening, reaching a point not far from the top gorge. We’d walked slowly for an hour and a half and had seen no whio, no whio shit other than one, old streak. By then the river carried very little water, the skyline under its grey cloud seemed much lower; everything had the feel of a smaller-scale world. The skeletons of old, dead trees clawed up from low, mixed scrub and forest; dull yellow snowgrass and the long fronds of toetoe partly covered slips; rubble and logjams littered the riverbed. It looked like a good place for deer, but a strong wind blew at our backs, occasionally switching to send a gust downriver, making any sightings of deer improbable. Near our turnaround point the predominant direction reversed, now buffeting hard down the river with a few upriver gusts. Nobby and Bro checked a promising sidecreek for duck sign while I carried on to the hut; once, a tremendous blast of wind ripped down the valley, almost blowing me off my feet. That night the weather finally decided to make up its mind. It decided to rain, and just for good measure to hurl occasional, violent gusts at the hut. The river rose, and by morning it was huge, dirty, frothing, and unquestionably uncrossable. To have set foot in it would have been suicidal. But, during the night, we heard a whio whistling opposite the hut. I imagine it was perfectly happy to bob about on the floodwaters, as impossible to drown as a cork.

After an early lunch we cleaned, packed, and began the climb to the main Ruahine Range. The weather had partly cleared and we’d expected to suffer from the heat, but for much of the climb we were in shade under a canopy mostly comprising beech, kamahi, and kaikawaka [4]. At the summit, where the track forked, one way going to the eastern access, the other to Longview hut, we stopped while Nobby called the field centre and I took a few photos. Misty cloud swirled around the tops near Pohangina Saddle and hung over the foothills and valleys in the east; in the distance, we saw farmland; even further, in the haze on the edge of the world, a glimpse of the sea. The recently cleared track offered fast travel, but beyond the southern Makaretu hut junction, it reverted to an idiosyncratically graded, boggy, somewhat overgrown path; enough to slow us slightly until we reached the northern Makaretu junction and another recut section.

By then, the cloud had thickened and the overcast sky threatened weather the forecasters hadn’t predicted. We cruised on, coming to a slight saddle in the ridge, where boggy ground supported a straggly cover of snowgrass, turpentine bush, and leatherwood. Something called from the low vegetation: a soft tchkk! tchkk! Nobby stopped; listened.

“Fernbird,” he said [5].

We heard it calling, but couldn’t see it. Another bird started up on the other side of the track; a different, 2-note, bell-like call that puzzled both of us. I scanned the area with the Swarovskis. Nothing. Checking without the binoculars, I saw a bird fly over the low canopy and alight in a dead, gnarled leatherwood. I found it in the binoculars—about the size of a pipit, drab, strongly speckled underneath, a long, ragged tail. Fernbird. I’d seen them only once before, many years ago, and had always thought of them as associated with low-lying areas. The top of the Ruahine Range was the last place I’d have expected to see them.

A little further along the track, short of Rocky Knob, we dropped down to the river via a slip and a short section of straightforward bushbashing. By the time we’d reached Top Gorge hut we’d been walking for a little under 5 hours all up; soon afterwards, the rain began. But Top Gorge is a lovely little hut—just two bunks but with a spacious feel and two beautiful windows framing views of the beech forest—and sitting there yarning with Nobby, enjoying a brew, hearing the rain tapping on the tin roof, I thought again this might be what Murray would’ve wanted me to do: to relax and enjoy myself. When I caught up with friends after the survey, someone told me how so many people were doing things and saying, “It’s what Murray would’ve wanted.” I was just one of his huge circle of friends and colleagues, and many of those people knew him far better than I did—they would have known better what he would’ve wanted. But we’re all just guessing.

By morning the rain had stopped and a little blue sky appeared. We searched downstream as far as the point we’d reached the previous evening. Negotiating the gorge wasn’t much fun: a couple of nerve-wracking traverses across near-vertical, slimy, moss-encrusted rock walls with deep, oily water waiting below; a couple of bush-bashes, clinging to tenuous shrubs and fistfuls of toetoe or fragile fern fronds with a long fall underfoot... later, on the flats below the gorge, Nobby remarked that he wasn’t looking forward to going back up the gorge.

Yet again, we saw no whio. Any shit more than a few hours old would have been washed away by the rain, and we saw nothing fresh. Finally, where we turned back, I saw a small depression under a river’s edge boulder, and in it, what might have been a splatter of crap. I called Nobby over. He got down on his hands and knees and peered closely, then picked up a bedraggled feather. We looked at each other. He inspected further, and found two more, both pale with a faint slate-blue tinge, one with a hint of chestnut at the tip. It was the last sign of whio we saw on the trip.

The return through the gorge seemed much easier—fortunately. We walked the final, upper section of the river almost to Pohangina Saddle before climbing the short distance to the ridge and Longview Hut. Not surprisingly, no one was there.

The trip’s drawing to a close, and I wonder when I’ll be back; when I’ll have another opportunity to work with Nobby and Bro again. They’ve been wonderful company. I shoulder my pack and set off after them, on the last section down to the car park at the end of Kashmir Road.

Duncan picks us up and drives for two hours, back to the Pohangina field centre, through the dry Hawkes Bay. Fields of ripe, yellow wheat ripple in the wind; grey sheep gnaw dusty, stubbled paddocks; the road shimmers with heat and cars. This is the Hawkes Bay. Somewhere over here, Murray, racing downhill, failed to take a corner and came off his bike. I don’t want to think about it. In those circumstances, people often say, “At least he died doing what he loved.” But for me that’s no consolation—he’s gone and I miss him. And for me it’s no consolation, because I’m sure it’s not what he would’ve wanted.


1. New Zealand's endemic blue duck, Hymenolaimus malacorhynchos. Classified as nationally endangered.
2. Uropetala sp. (probably carovei).
3. Manaaki Whenua–Landcare Research, at Palmerston North.
4. Respectively, Nothofagus spp.; Weinmannia racemosa; Libocedrus bidwillii.
5. Bowdleria punctata; matata.

Photos 1 & 3: This is what we were looking for—whio. This is the bird (male) we saw about 20 minutes downstream from Leon Kinvig hut.
Photo 2: Pohangina river above Leon Kinvig hut, before the river flooded.
Photo 4: The eastern foothills of the Ruahine Range, from the main range above Leon Kinvig hut.
Photo 5: The recently cleared section of track along the main Ruahine Range between Leon Kinvig hut and Longview hut.
Photo 6: Top Gorge hut; upper Pohangina Valley

This is for Murray.

Photos and words © 2006 Pete McGregor

15 January 2006

The fringe of memory

What we perceive as present is the vivid fringe of memory tinged with anticipation. –A.N. Whitehead

On Friday I drove back from Point Howard after a week with BJ, R, H, J and LH. A week of sleeping on the floor in BJ’s lounge with the ruru calling outside, kereru peering in the window from the kowhai branch framing a view of the bush covered hills behind Eastbourne. When I first arrived we sat behind the house drinking tea and eating Christmas cake before the ants got it, with J and LH honing their coordination by biffing lumps of clay at the mummified rat BJ had retrieved from his ceiling. A relaxed week of late mornings and later nights watching DVDs—the wonderful Spirited Away and the parody/comedy Shaun of the Dead; reading books; having conversations and trying to teach LH words like ‘ruminate’, ‘neglect’, ‘grudgingly’, and ‘erudite’—and the meaning of words like ‘silence’, of which he seemed to have no comprehension. We spent one day visiting the Wairarapa, at Martinborough where a woman in her 50s looked at us with the kind of look you wear when you’ve stepped in something dogs have coughed up—she looked so far down her nose it’s a wonder she didn’t keel over from vertigo—but the food was fresh and delicious and the waitresses were friendly and cheerful (I secretly wished it were the other way round, although I don’t know what friendly and cheerful food would be like but it sounds good) and they knew the antics 8-year-olds get up to in cafes and how to circumvent them with a smile. Afterwards, we drove to Lake Ferry where we sat in the warm sun and brisk wind watching big blackbacked gulls soaring and tilting; through binoculars they looked translucent, lit from within and shining against an utterly perfect blue sky. The olive-green sea heaved up in huge rolling swells, curved over and burst in mighty explosions of churning foam; three surfers bobbed beyond the breakers, waiting endlessly for the right wave and three seconds of heaven—several times I saw one catch a crest, stand, and immediately topple off, but finally one managed to get going and rode the wave the whole way in. I’ve never surfed, but I knew how he felt.

Te Papa, the Museum of New Zealand on a rain-drenched day. On the risers of the stairs to the first floor, provocative questions encouraged visitors to view the exploration of genetic modification—“Do you love me enough to clone me?” one asked. We stood beneath the life-sized replica of Harpagornis moorei, poised at the instant of attacking a giant moa, and I felt the mixed emotions of relief that I could tramp safely in the New Zealand mountains with no possibility of being fed to a giant eagle chick, yet the deep sadness and hopelessness of extinction. Gone forever.

We moved on. There’s too much to take in; everything from the natural world to the technological: glacial moraines to genetic modification; the bone-white skeleton of Phar Lap with Bill Manhire’s wonderful poem to the spectacular colours and aerodynamic gleam of John Britten’s superbike. At the shop on the first floor, a boy with a digital camera snapped a photo of a Lord of the Rings helmet, but no one was photographing the Holden Kingswood station wagon Jeff Thomson had repanelled with corrugated iron painted the colours of rust. I love that car—it may be the only car I have any affection for. The everyday turned to art—for me, both inspiration and aspiration.

Outside, steady, saturating rain glazed buildings and pavements and veiled the harbour. My ancient Nepalese woollen jacket kept me dry, but smelt like a wet dog for the next couple of days.

We visited Wellington Zoo the day after I arrived, a day of heat and sirens—sirens, as it turned out, that were heading for the zoo. We’d admired the otters, been captivated by the cotton top tamarins, gazed back at the goanna, and paused in the shade near the giraffe enclosure where the enormous beasts with their prehistoric heads took slow, curling, tonguefuls of leaves from the outstretched hands of entranced visitors. From another part of the zoo, out of sight, lions roared—a deep, immensely powerful sound stirring a primitive urge to run like hell. The African wild dogs had stretched out in the shade near the fence; I’d never seen them live and close and was fascinated by how strong and intelligent—and beautiful—they appeared. I raised the camera and pointed it at one of the dogs; immediately it looked straight at me and growled quietly, stood up, and walked to where I couldn’t take a photo. Awed and full of respect, I honoured its request and didn’t try to photograph any of the pack.

We carried on past the Eastern grey kangaroos, to the hamadryas baboons where youngsters fought each other for possession of a battered, empty, soft drink bottle. Disputes over useless, shiny stuff; conflict over the concept of possession. I found it easy to believe these are our cousins. In contrast, the chimps seemed quiet, pacific, possibly bored. They sat high on their eyrie in the sun, occasionally picking morsels from someone else’s hair and ignoring the approaching sirens. We walked over to the lions, to the platform where we could look down into the enclosure. A sign said, “Danger! Do not sit children on the railing.”

I looked at LH. “Would you like me to sit you on the railing?” I asked.

After he’d declined the offer, we leaned on the railing instead, and watched the lions. Two lionesses, later joined by a third, sat on the huge boulder in the middle of the cage; they seemed intent on studying something happening out of sight below. We watched for a while, then left.

“I’m not keen on lions,” I said.

“Why not?” LH wanted to know. “Lions are great; they’re my favourites.”

“They eat their young,” I replied, then corrected myself. “Actually, they eat other people’s young.”

“But you like tigers.”

“Tigers are solitary; they don’t go around in groups ganging up on other animals,” I said, unreasonably, not quite sure myself why or even if this explained my dislike of lions, and fully aware of the inconsistency with my love of African wild dogs. Actually, I’m not sure why lions are my least favourite cats—in fact, they’re among my least favourite animals, which is saying a lot, because they’re cats and I love most cats, particularly the medium sized cats. I was far more delighted to have seen the servals.

We finished by visiting the red pandas, by eating icecreams in the shade near the meerkats, and by watching two cheetahs being taken for a walk. Theirs was an alertness—an attention to their surroundings—I’d noticed among few other animals; a marked contrast to the look of lassitude I’d seen when they were sprawled in the shade in their enclosure. The guides repeatedly warned onlookers not to run, and I wondered when those cheetahs ever had the opportunity to stretch out and chase something. I suppose it’s a problem all zoos must face: how to provide, or compensate for the lack of, opportunities for animals to behave as they would in the wild. Perhaps most animals don’t care; perhaps they’re perfectly content to eat, sleep, and measure out their lives with cat food spoons—or maybe, for some, that’s not enough. Put simply, while I acknowledge their value in many important respects, zoos leave me uneasy.

As we finished our icecreams, one of the zoo staff walked by and told us the area near the lions’ enclosure had been closed. I asked if she’d mind telling us why, to which she replied just that there was an ambulance there. I didn’t press her for details, but later we discovered a keeper had been attacked by two lions. He survived, shaken and hospitalised but without life-threatening injuries. Apparently the lions seemed mostly intent on playing with him, but I suspect that means the way cats play with mice rather than the way dogs frolic with their owners. Since then we’ve heard several different explanations, but what’s important is that everyone survived—the lions as well as the keeper.

The evening before I left, we walked the Mount Lowry ridge track, through tunnels of overhanging tree ferns, past beeches with that magnificent warm sweet smell like a botrytised riesling and wasps stealing the honeydew. Tui whirred between branches, fluffed feathers and clucked, wheezed, and warbled. On the way back, BJ and J and I stopped at the roundabout at the top of the road and looked out over the harbour. Shafts of sunlight streamed down from broken cloud, lighting the water, silhouetting foreground trees and the Wellington hills; an interisland ferry slid into the light and a gull floated past like an elegy. I thought again of Harpagornis and the moa. Gone forever—but so was this moment; so is every moment. All time is unredeemable, according to T.S. Eliot—but right then I needed no reminder to make the most of every moment.

Photo 1: Red panda, Wellington Zoo. [Captive animal]
Photo 2: Blackbird (Turdus merula) sunbathing,
Wellington Zoo. [Not captive!]
Photo 3: Meerkat,
Wellington Zoo. [Captive animal]
Photo 4: Lion,
Wellington Zoo. [Captive animal—thankfully...]

Photos and words © 2006 Pete McGregor

08 January 2006

Sleeping with Anna Kournikova

This is an account of a long and eventful day. Some names have been changed, but otherwise it's true, whatever that means. I'm taking a spell from this computer for a few days, so I hope this keeps you satisfied... Oh yes, if you got here by searching for salacious stuff about Anna Kournikova, well... read on... ;^)

Last night I slept with Anna Kournikova.

I’d begun the day by dragging myself out of bed after an uncomfortable night, throwing a few essential items and a hefty collection of camera equipment into a day pack and driving off to collect Pat and Josh. I didn’t even make it onto the main road before having to return to collect my driver’s licence. So much for being on time.

Soon after reaching Palmerston North, I noticed a few drops of rain on the windscreen, and a grey pall advancing across the city from the south. I turned the wipers on to the intermittent setting. A minute later I turned them to continuous; then to fast. By then I’d run out of wiper speeds and was wondering whether I could create an extra-fast setting by forcing the knob to a position it wasn’t designed for. Yes, I thought, a nice day for a walk in the hills. But the rain eased and stopped, and I arrived on time, with the wipers off and still functional. At the door I was greeted by a keen dog and a swarm of enthusiastic small boys.

“Come on in,” Pat said. “Sorry, we’re a bit disorganised.”

That suited me just fine, so I sat in the kitchen, watching in awe as Josh converted an entire loaf of bread into honey and vegemite sandwiches.

“That’d keep me in breakfasts for a week,” I said.

Pat grinned. “You just watch. You’ll be surprised.”

Surprised wasn’t the right word. We drove to the Ballance bridge end of the Manawatu Gorge Track, with Pip sitting happily and quietly in the luggage space and Josh sitting happily and not quietly in the back seat. As we began walking, I realised that one of Josh’s methods of propulsion was talking. I decided to try it, and was pleasantly surprised to find how effective it was. After 20 minutes, Josh indicated that he needed a rest and was getting hungry, so we stopped and he raided the sandwiches, alternating bites of honey sandwich with bouts of talking. The sandwich consumed, we continued walking and talking. He mentioned that his shoulders were uncomfortable because of the weight of his pack, but it wasn’t a complaint, just an observation.

Pat made a rough calculation. “You’ve only got about 3 kg in your pack,” he said.

“How much do you weigh, Josh?” I asked.

He thought briefly. “About 30 stone?” he suggested.

“Let’s see,” I said. “A stone’s 14 pounds. A pound’s 454 grams; roughly half a kilo, so that means about 7 kilos per stone. So, you reckon you weigh a couple of hundred kilos?”

I heard Pat laughing up front. “That’s about two Jonah Lomus,” he said.

Josh realised he’d made a mistake, and began telling us about someone overseas who was four metres wide. I stopped and looked at him. “I’m not even two metres tall,” I said, “so if you stood another one of me on my head and added a bit more, that’s how wide he would be.”

I could see him considering the concept of a four-metre wide person. “Maybe you mean he’s four metres around?” I suggested. “So, if we divide four metres by pi, we’d figure out how wide he is from one side to the other.”

“Mmmm... pie...,” Pat said.

“I like pie,” Josh said. I gave up. Then, “What’s pi?” he asked.

“3.14159...” I began.

“...2654 um...,” Pat continued. Josh looked at us and continued walking. After a few metres he began telling us about 4-leafed clovers and how a friend’s father had found a 48-leafed clover. I showed him pate [1], pointing out the usual pattern of 7 leaflets and the tiny teeth edging them, and kawakawa [2] with its caterpillar-perforated leaves. Later I pointed to a small pate.

“Hey Josh, what’s the name of this one?”

He couldn’t recall the name, but remembered that it was the one with the 7 leaflets. “Hey, this one’s only got 6!” he said. Sure enough, that leaf did only have 6 leaflets. When I asked him to find me a kawakawa he looked about for a few seconds and pointed to a small shrub. “There’s one!” He was right, of course. He then told us all about the structure of the forest; how it had different layers. “The forest floor, the understory, the canopy, and the emergent layer,” he informed us. We discussed the emergent layer for a while; Pat pointing out how awesome it would be to be up there in a South American jungle with all the monkeys and macaws and things, and Josh asking about African jungles.

Partway up an uphill section Pat remarked on how this was getting the heart working.

“I reckon my heart must be beating every half a second,” Josh said. Not a bad estimate for an eight and a half year old (actually, eight and three quarters, as he later told me).

“Your heart’ll be getting strong, doing this,” Pat said.

Josh liked that idea. “We should do this at least once a week,” he said. He was keen on the idea that his muscles would get strong, and—ignoring the fact that the only exercise his arms were doing was providing visual emphasis for the exercise his vocal cords were getting—showed us his biceps. We admired the size of his biceps, then, in response to his query, tried to explain why you’d live longer if your lungs stopped working than if your heart stopped beating, or if you didn’t have a heart at all.

By this time my credibility had begun to erode because I’d kept suggesting we weren’t far from the lookout where we could have lunch. Fortunately, we arrived there before Josh had written me off completely—Pat had done that ages ago, but he doesn’t matter. The Department of Conservation had recently erected a wooden bench seat so we (the Department of Conversation) sat there and ate lunch. At least, Pat and Pip and I sat—Pat and me on the bench, Pip directly in front of me where he could examine in minute detail the bier stick I was eating—while Josh sat, talked, ate, jumped up to take a photo while talking, sat down (also while talking), ate, talked, jumped up to check something, continued talking, and ate (between spells of talking).

“Where are the vegemite sandwiches?” Pat asked.

“I made some. I made honey sandwiches and vegemite sandwiches,” Josh replied.

“You made ONE vegemite sandwich.”

“It’s hard to spread vegemite on butter.”

“Yep, it just skids over the butter. You end up with skid marks on your sandwich,” I said.

“Ewww, gross,” Josh said, and continued eating.

I’m not sure who eventually got the one vegemite sandwich, but Pat’s prediction that I’d be surprised at how the enormous stack of sandwiches would disappear proved correct, albeit understated. Within minutes, they’d all been eaten. In the distance, a kereru soared high above the canopy, stalled, then swooped down. It repeated the manoeuvre several times and I pointed it out to Josh, who immediately spotted another one. Pip snuffled at my pack, tantalised by the aroma of bier stick; across the gorge, a battalion of huge windmills churned like alien invaders in a post-apocalyptic world. We could hear the roar of a nearby windmill on our side of the river: background noise to the rush of the wind-whipped vegetation and the drone of an aeroplane. Pat scanned the lumpy cloud.

“Let’s see who can spot the plane first.” Soon after, he saw it and pointed it out. Josh spotted it shortly after. I kept looking, but couldn’t locate it.

“Over there, next to that mushroom shaped cloud,” Pat said, pointing to a sky full of mushroom shaped clouds.

“I can see it!” Josh yelled, pleased not to be the last. I never did see it.

At the next lookout point, Josh decided he wanted a photograph of the Manawatu gorge with cars and trucks winding along the road. He put his eye to the viewfinder and began composing the shot, so I jumped in front and pulled a face.

“You need people in the photo,” I said.

He laughed and waved me away. “Getoutofit!”

So I got out of it.

He seemed to be having trouble with the composition. “That pine tree’s in the way,” he said.

I looked where he was pointing. “That’s not a pine tree. That’s a horoeka [3]; a lancewood. They’re cool trees; when they get big they get really gnarly. You want one of those in the photo.”

It seemed to do the trick, and he took a photo with the horoeka in the foreground. We walked on, surprised by the lack of windfalls on the track. Josh saw a giant epiphyte high in a big rimu and pointed it out.

Collospermum [4],” Pat said. Even from a distance, its size—perhaps 1–1.5 metres diameter—suggested something enormously heavy.

“You wouldn’t want that to fall on you,” Josh said.

“Yeah, some of them weigh a tonne or more,” I said. “If it fell on you your eyeballs would shoot 20 metres.”

Josh was intrigued by the concept, and wanted to know whether you’d still be able to see out of them. We discussed diverse scenarios involving eyeballs at various distances from their sockets, attached, or not, or reattached, to their optic nerves and the circumstances under which you might be able to see, or not. Josh considered experimenting but we dissuaded him, pointing out that although it might be a good excuse for not doing your homework—“I’m sorry Mrs Krabapple, but I couldn’t see where my pencil was ‘cos my eyeballs were somewhere else”—it would likely make life difficult if the attempt to reconnect eyes and optic nerves failed.

Near the end of the track, Pat and Pip jogged on ahead to meet Kate and Jack and Lee and reassure them we were ok, as we were running late (it had the opposite effect, when Kate saw Pat running down the track with no sign of Josh and me: she naturally assumed something bad had happened). Josh and I walked on, talking, and eventually decided we’d jog too. We ran downhill, spinning around corners and leaping patches of mud and continuing our conversation, which mostly comprised a discussion of how to run downhill without face-planting. We met the others about 10 minutes from the car and Josh immediately began a detailed description of the day’s events.

Pat looked at me, then grinned at Kate, and said, “I think I’ve at last found someone who talks as much as Josh.”

We negotiated the short section of streambed, Jack and Lee happily scrambling barefooted over the rocks and gravel, climbing the footbridge railing and hanging over to look at the little waterfall. If there was a longer, more difficult route that involved climbing something and getting covered in dirt, they took it. My kind of kids.

Kate drove us back to my car, the kids in the back seat and Pat huddled in the luggage space with Pip. Josh thanked me for coming tramping with them.

“A pleasure, Josh. We’ll do it again.”

“Yeah, once a week!”


That evening I took the back road to Palmerston North to meet Dee and Ian. The sun still hung well above the horizon; a kahu circled over a freshly cut hay paddock. A few kilometres beyond Ashhurst, a weasel ran across the road. The Lombardi hadn’t yet reopened for the new year, so we headed for the Celtic but too many loud conversations were already in progress. Eventually we settled at a table outside the Mao Bar and talked over a Monteiths until it got too cold. We moved inside, upstairs, and resumed the discussion—a wide-ranging conversation about how to save the world, about how to influence attitudes, about information and understanding, about noticing things and how to describe them. When someone turned the music up, signifying the start of revelry and the end of meaningful conversation, we drove to Pacha’s to pick up kebabs. He recognised Dee and Ian and began conversing with them in French, then indicated a friend who had stepped outside for a smoke.

“Odile!” he called, and introduced him. I sat there, delighted, understanding nothing except the occasional “oui,” or “vous.” Pacha apologised for my exclusion from the conversation, but I didn’t feel excluded—for me, it was enough to see and hear the enjoyment and animation of the dialogue. People having fun; friends communicating.

After collecting our kebabs I drive us back to where Dee and Ian were house-sitting. We watch Darwin’s Nightmare, a desperately grim, almost savage documentary about an African village surviving—if that’s the right word—on a fishing industry based on Nile perch. Some of the conversation is in Swahili and Russian, with subtitles in French, so Dee translates for me. A man places a basin of food on the ground, and instantly it’s an explosion of hungry children, fighting, grabbing handfuls, running, stuffing the porridge-like food into their mouths, trying to protect what they have, punching, wrestling... A security guard, armed with a bow and poisoned arrows, tells how the previous guard was murdered. A thin young man in camouflage pulls a boy along by his sleeve and punches his face. A woman stacks the filleted remains of fish on racks to dry; she’s surrounded by a sea of racked, rotting, shrivelling fish and she stands in a writhing mass of maggots. The stench must be unimaginable, but she doesn’t complain—she has work, she explains. The ecology of the lake has been destroyed; in its murky, algal depths, the only fish now are the Nile perch. Someone says the perch survive by eating their young. The factory manager says they harvest 500 tons a day, it’s exported on two flights a day but each flight carries only 55 tons. What is true? This is a nightmare; this is Hobbes’ vision: “And the life of man: solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” What can be done?

It’s half past midnight and I’m shattered. Dee sets me up in a spare room; I toss my sleeping bag on the bed, clean my teeth, take out my lenses, and crawl into the bag. I look up and realise I’m sleeping with Anna Kournikova, but I’m too tired to enjoy it. Besides, I’m also sleeping with a giant Brontosaurus.

1. Schefflera digitata
2. Macropiper excelsum
3. Pseudopanax crassifolius
4. Commonly called a “perching lily”.

Photos 1 & 2: A few days ago, just on dusk, we had a rain squall so loud I could hardly hear myself think. It stopped suddenly, and this is what the evening looked like.
Photo 3: Spurwinged plover; Vanellus miles novaehollandiae. This is a cropped and resampled image—these birds are very hard to approach.
Photo 4: Yep, it is indeed a house sparrow. Quite an old photo, from Whitewash Head near Christchurch, about this time last year.
Photo 5: This is the peculiarly flattened jumping spider, Holoplatys sp. Photographed on my verandah.

Photos and words © 2006 Pete McGregor

04 January 2006

Every day is a journey

Every day is a journey, and the journey itself is home.” —Matsuo Bashō

A few years ago a friend told me how, before travelling overseas, she always imagined dying on the journey. As I was about to travel overseas I took this as encouragement because she’d travelled overseas—extensively—and still hadn’t actually died; I also found it encouraging because I was imagining the same thing—my dying, that is; not hers. As far as I’m aware, we’re both still alive, but I was intrigued to discover recently that we were in famous company:

“...as with all long trips,” writes Paul Theroux in Dark Star Safari, “I fantasized I might die there.”

Given how Theroux described some of the people he encountered, I’m sure many wished he had died, but that’s beside the point. Theroux, my friend, and I are about as different in many respects as you’re likely to find among people from affluent, western countries, yet the idea of dying on a journey overseas united us in a way that seemed more than coincidental. This seemed significant despite my general scepticism about coincidence. I began to wonder whether the idea or fantasy is ubiquitous among those about to undertake (an appropriate word) a significant journey, and if so, what prompts it.

Perhaps, I thought, it’s just the realisation that you’re about to leave the comfortable, geographically located place you call home and it will be months or even years before you return—if you ever do. In a flash of insight which quickly proved erroneous, I thought I had a way to test this hypothesis. If it’s as simple as that, then homeless people—and here I’m thinking of home as a much wider concept than as a place—should be much less likely to find themselves fantasizing about dying on a long journey. The problem, of course, is that if you have no home—if you never feel at home—you can’t leave it to go off and die. While my beautiful hypothesis hadn’t been slain by an ugly fact [1], my elegant test had been bumped off by brutal logic.

That got me thinking about two things: the concept of home, and the way science works. Later, I thought about how ideas lead to other ideas; how connections form among ideas. Thinking about thinking, I suppose. Perhaps you could call it metathinking, although I suspect many people would call it confused thinking—not metathinking but messy thinking. By that stage, I was hopelessly confused, so I returned to my original thought, which, it turned out, I’d forgotten. I gave up; abandoned thinking and went for a walk up the No. 1 Line track instead.

I drove up the winding, gravel road, past hay fields where wind swirled shimmering patterns in the long grass—the air apparent to the eye. A kahu [2] twisted and bounced in the turbulent sky, soaring over the hay field, over gullies filled with rushes and thistles and flowering manuka, circling behind a row of unkempt pines and macrocarpas that writhed in the gale. On to where the road narrows, squeezed rough and lumpy between the high bank and a series of washouts that plummet down the steep, scraggy hillside. I opened the gate at the road-end and looked up when a movement caught my eye. On the track ahead, a hare stopped, turned, half-crouched, and looked back at me. I froze, thinking then forgetting about the camera in the car. We looked at each other for several seconds; me caught up in the moment, the hare probably close to freaking out. Finally it jumped from the track to the slope above and disappeared into a thicket of long grass and Californian thistles.

By the time I’d reached the pepperwood zone I’d begun to think again about home, and what it means. Some time ago I’d suggested that home was where you could die without wishing you were somewhere else. I’d said it half-jokingly, but later recognised it was probably truer than I’d realised. If you think of home as a place, the definition fits well; if you think of it as a circumstance, a situation—being with the people or person you love, for example—it fits just as well. Where it fails is that it’s not actually a definition. It enables you to recognise when you’re at home, but it doesn’t tell you why you feel that way. It’s possible, for example, to be with someone you love and yet not feel at home, or vice versa; it’s possible to feel at home in a place you’ve never been before, with people you’re meeting for the first time, and yet you feel at home.

I remember catching the end of a radio interview with Doris Lessing; I was driving home in the evening and turned the car radio on too late to hear more than the last few minutes.

My home now is in literature,” she said. “All my other homes—all the places I’ve lived—have gone now.”

What she said seemed to confirm for me that home is not a product of geography—at least, not solely—and it reminded me that while my semi-serious suggestion focused on dying as a way of defining home, another, more positive way to think of it is that it’s where you live. Live: in the nontrivial sense—and if I have to explain that, then you’re already dead.

Where the track levels out, not far from where it becomes indistinct—where it could be over there or that way or perhaps straight ahead, and at last you realise you’re no longer on it—I stopped and rested. Grey, wild cloud scudded overhead; occasionally a break revealed a small, powerless patch of blue sky, bright and hopeful before being overwhelmed. The dense, head-high vegetation protected me from the worst of the wind, and I pottered about, nibbling a muesli bar, peering at tiny orchids growing from cracks in long-dead stumps, wondering if I’d be lucky enough to see a falcon arrowing overhead, skimming the canopy. Sunlight lit a distant ridge then vanished. I felt at home, and couldn’t care less about wondering why. I still don’t know why the prospect of travelling seems to foster thoughts of dying, but the thought did occur to me that the longest journey we ever make begins when we first become aware of who we are. At that stage of life, no one fantasises about dying on that journey, yet it’s the only one on which it’s certain we will.

1. T.H. Huxley: "The great tragedy of science—the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact".
2. Australasian harrier; Circus approximans.

Photo 1: Manuka (Leptospermum scoparium); Pohangina Valley. Just down the road.
Photo 2: Not the No. 1 Line hare (Lepus europaeus occidentalis). This one lives in the Wairarapa, next door to where I enjoyed New Year's eve, which was when I photographed him/her.
Photo 3: Welcome swallow (Hirundo tahitica); juvenile.

Photos and words © 2006 Pete McGregor