31 December 2007

Where to begin

Vegetable vendor, Jamnagar

At the end of a year, where does one begin?

One begins, of course, most often by stumbling, by tripping over words that aren't there, or words that, like the long, wiry seedheads of ryegrass in the paddock in front of this verandah, are far too abundant (how do you choose?); far too tangled to move through easily (how do you create a path?)

A scraggy blackbird, not long from its morning bath in the stock trough, wobbles through the air and sets down among the stalks. Cocks its head, peers, Vegetable vendor, Jamnagarhops—exaggerated jumps because it must leap the annoying stems, which to it must appear like a sparse brake of partly lodged bamboo—and approaches the scrap of discarded bread.

One begins by immediately taking an unintended path—a sidetrack—and trusting it will go somewhere interesting. Perhaps it will even meet the path one wanted to follow. Mostly, though, in an act of unreasonable faith, one trusts the path itself will prove interesting, worthwhile; that one will enjoy the exploration, even if it leads nowhere, because paths are always somewhere. Some of us go to the mountain not to go somewhere nor even “because it is there” [1] but because we can be there; and the more time one spends among mountains the more the being supercedes the going. The same could be said of coasts, or any place with an appreciable degree of wildness or other desirable quality—even, I suppose, of some cities. Go to Jamnagar because it's Jamnagar; while there, go to the vegetable market but don't go to Jamnagar to go to the vegetable market. The difference is subtle but enormous.

The conclusion seems inevitable. If you're focused on a destination—somewhere else, in other words—you're not where you are. So, enjoy the travelling. Eventually, you will arrive where you are. Then, you're always at home.

It's the same for a life. If one thinks of life as a path—not a particularly good metaphor given the complexity and connectedness of lives, but let's use it anyway—then the destination, while not to be feared, seems hardly desirable. Me, I'd rather take my time and enjoy the walk, and I have every intention of doing so.

On the edge of the terrace, manuka in flower looks from a distance as if it's frosted with snow. Incongruous in midsummer, but a kind of Antipodean nod to the Vegetable vendor, JamnagarNorthern Hemisphere where this season's ancient acknowledgment of the world's turning evolved (and was appropriated) into what we called Christmas and now celebrate as the year's major retail event. I'm being cynical of course, but not without justification; moreover, I do acknowledge that among the frenzied consumerism, much of what's best about life survives. Thrives, even. One senses it even among the stressed crowds cramming the malls — perhaps, and not entirely paradoxically, particularly in those fraught places; that sense that we're all in this together; it's madness, this madness, but I understand how you feel because I feel it too and the sooner the season's over the sooner we can relax and enjoy our friends and families. (For some, though — especially mums — the respite, if it comes at all, can be slight. One meal finishes, another must be provided; kids and visitors (sometimes indistinguishable) must be entertained, households kept running. When do mothers relax; when can mothers relax?) The pressure of “the holidays” arises largely from materialism in its worst form: the induced lust to spend and buy; paradoxically, it can foster comradeship. We share this adversity and (mostly) seem more willing to make allowances for others. Someone loses it, and the response is more likely to be empathy, or at least sympathy: “The poor bugger's obviously stressed out by Christmas”. It's a trend, not a rule; exceptions abound, but it does seem noticeable. This is my experience; I hope and trust it's yours too.

But I've digressed, taken a sidetrack. The flowering manuka reminds me of where I began. Where my memories began, that is, (and if I began before my memories — even those I've forgotten — in what sense had I begun?) Vegetable vendor, JamnagarOn the hillside opposite our house, a lone manuka flowered each year. Virtually inaccessible to a small boy because of its location within a gnarly thicket of lower, weedy scrub, it promised rare and wonderful beetles. Actually, it was G.V. Hudson, in his rare and wonderful book on New Zealand beetles who promised rare and wonderful beetles, although he actually only promised “many beetles” — my small boy's imagination supplied “rare and wonderful” [2]. The book belonged to my uncle, who had left New Zealand for England long before I was born. He never returned, and he and my father never saw each other again. I didn't meet my uncle until 2002. A brief visit, but long enough to know he and my aunt were family in every best sense. When I left them at the train station as I departed for Bristol I thought I might never see them again, especially my uncle, whose frailty felt shockingly apparent as we hugged on the platform.

I was wrong. Wrong about his frailty — he proved far more resilient than anyone could have imagined. Vegetable vendor, JamnagarWrong, too, about not seeing him again. I visited again in 2004 and the bonds of family and friendship strengthened. When, once more, I left on the train, I felt this time might indeed be the last time I ever saw him.

I was right. On Christmas Eve 2005 he left on his bike to deliver by hand the last of the Christmas cards. He never returned. He was found on the roadside with a severe head injury. No one expected him to live, and in a sense he didn't — the uncle I loved never returned to the body that survived. I guess he took another path, one none of us could follow. But, at the end of last year's travels I visited my aunt and left knowing we understood each other and could talk with each other better than if my uncle had still been alive. Now, despite the geographical distance, she's one of the special people in my life. Endings and beginnings often cannot be distinguished.

A korimako [3] flies across the paddock to the flowering harakeke [4], a slow, relaxed flight in the bright sun; flight from a moment ago towards a moment about to happen, each wingbeat beginning the rest of its life. The bird that left the grevillea a hundred metres ago now belongs eternally in the past; the I — whatever “I” might be — that saw the bird launch into flight that moment ago also belongs eternally in the past. I (the same or not?) wonder why we believe we can change the future but not the past? Is it because we remember the past but believe we cannot know the future? How does knowledge differ from memory? The semantics of those questions, I suspect, are a mire — or perhaps they're a forest where paths fork often, with the branching more than dichotomous? But,Robber fly getting back to the question, which I accept is ill-formed: can we change the future, or is it just as fixed as the past?

No. A bald statement, but I see no alternative. Ignoring multiple other universes, one and only one “future” exists; if I could change it, it would become the the one future which was always going to be the one and only future.

On the other hand, maybe the future does not exist. Perhaps it's something we construct to save ourselves from going mad. Perhaps we're always and inescapably at the boundary between the possible and the unchangeable; the present is that moment at which the possible becomes the unalterable. Seen this way, the future does not exist until we create it; having made it, we can do nothing to influence it. While it places on one an almost impossible degree of responsibility (the future becomes one's personal responsibility, making us, in effect, God), this also confers ultimate freedom: let the past be the past; one can do nothing about it; all that matters is to begin.

One could go crazy thinking about these things, but would it be any worse than losing one's mind in the madness of a Christmas mall? In any case, all the world is mad except thee and me, and sometimes I think even thee is a little crazy. Leave me lost instead; at large in a world I can explore the way I want; let my beginnings take me where they will. The destination doesn't matter. And where does one begin? At the place where everything begins — that place in your life that we call, “Here, right now.”

Pourangaki headwatersNotes:
1. Attributed, perhaps apocryphally, to George Mallory.

2. “Flowering manuka attracts many beetles...” p. 18 in Hudson, GV 1934 New Zealand Beetles and Their Larvae. Wellington, Ferguson & Osborne. 236 pp. + XVII plates.
3. The bellbird, Anthornis melanura.
4. Phormium tenax, New Zealand flax.

Photos (click to enlarge them):
1–5. Vendors at the vegetable market in Jamnagar, Gujarat, India; 13 February 2007.
6. Neither a beetle nor rare, but unquestionably wonderful. Flies rate among my favourite animals, and a robber fly (Diptera: Asilidae) like this (Neoitamus sp., I think) never fails to, er..., give me a buzz. You can't tell from the photo, but this was a male; he decided to rest on my windowsill and obligingly posed for me. Fearsome hunters (check out that proboscis), they're even thought to be major predators of tiger beetles — and if you know tiger beetles, you'll understand why robber flies impress me.
7. Like this post, the photos meander all over the place. This is the view from the Ruahine tops just before Christmas, looking out across the Pourangaki River in the late evening.

Photos and words © 2007 Pete McGregor

17 December 2007

One more; once more

Whio and chick

Here's another photo of whio from the Waikamaka river. I'm off into the Ruahine again today, for the rest of the week; the weather forecast's not too flash, but we have a comfortable hut and I'm taking a good book, a pen, and my notebook (the paper version).

I hope you have as good a week to look forward to.


1. Whio (Hymenolaimus malacorhynchos) adult and Class II chick. Waikamaka River, Ruahine Range; December '07.
2. And now for something completely different... Until recently, this grey house spider (Badumna longinqua) lived in a corner of one of my windows. As an indication of scale, that's the remains of a blowfly on the right. The untidy web is typical of these spiders. She eventually ended up outside, after I opened the window and she scuttled off and fell out :^(

Photos and words © 2007 Pete McGregor

13 December 2007


Whio & chicks on pool
Sometimes the best action is to take no action; sometimes the best choice is to carry on doing what you were doing, which might mean doing nothing much at all. Like sitting quietly, watching the dawn river river slide by, green-tinged and transparent beneath an overcast sky. Like realigning a few feathers or nibbling at a wingpit louse; digesting a dawn feed of caddis larvae; waiting until the light reaches the intensity that says time to hide away, to return to the cool dark, deep under the log jam or beneath the overhanging, tangled bank. To act differently, or even to act at all, can draw attention; to become alarmed, to whistle or rattle would say, “Over here; we're over here so keep away.” Then, of course, the predator knows.
These whio, sitting quietly on their rock shelf on the far side of the pool, know this, but not as we know it. It's just what they do. They survive whionow because this is what they've done for thousands of years. But will it ensure they survive the next thousand years — or even the next 30?
A thousand years ago, the only predators these whio faced would have been birds and eels. But then humans and their rodents arrived, then their stoats and possums, cats and dogs. Whio eggs and chicks and perhaps the occasional brooding adult provided good food for voracious predators. Axes and fires converted vast tracts of diverse, lowland forest into farmland dominated by ryegrass and white clover, and whio retreated into higher, more remote rivers. Introduced brown and rainbow trout colonised the rivers, competing for the caddises and other invertebrates on which whio feed — and perhaps a big backcountry trout wouldn't scorn a newly hatched chick if it had the chance. Trout grow big in Aotearoa. Hydro-electric power schemes beheaded some of the rivers where whio formerly lived. Now, only about 640 pairs of whio survive in the North Island, with perhaps 700 pairs in the South Island, and the number continues to decline [1, 2].
Sitting still and keeping quiet might have served them well in the past and still seems like a good strategy, at least for defence against some predators. We were anything but predators, yet we'd walked right past them and it wasn't whio chickuntil Duncan looked back to say something to me that he saw them, quiet and motionless on the low rock shelf above the pool. Even last night, when we first saw them swimming in the middle of a pool at a bend in the Waikamaka about 20 minutes downstream from Wakelings hut, they'd been remarkably silent — just an occasional, brief whistle from the male; a hint of a rattle from the female. Usually it's the whistle that gives them away, and now I wonder — how often have whio sat quietly and watched me walk past?
But sitting still’s not a good option when a stoat comes hunting, and stoats are one of the main threats to these birds’ survival. Sitting still does nothing to protect you when the water drains away to a trickle, diverted to provide power to keep lights burning, smelters working around the clock to produce aluminium, computers running, air conditioners pampering.
Millennia of evolution taught you to sit still, keep quiet. The predators then came from the sky or haunted the waters. Fly, and you’d be struck down; swim and your chicks would be swallowed. Now, you still sit on your rocky shelf, almost invisible save for that bright bill, and wait for the danger to pass by. You sit still on your rocky shelf as the stoat approaches and the water drains away.
We, though, are no danger to you today. Stretched out here on the awkward boulders at the river’s edge, I watch and photograph and wish you well; hope both your surviving chicks live long enough to raise chicks of their own. You preen and stretch and ignore me, for which I’m grateful. When I move, I do so slowly, trying not to disturb you.
When we leave, I thank you silently. At last, I have photos better than the first, all those years ago. Mid winter, 1996, in the big pool below whio chickthe mid Pohangina swingbridge; as I crossed it on the way out, I whistled and immediately received a reply; dropping my pack, I climbed down to the riverbed and photographed whio for the first time. Now, 11 years later, I’ve been gifted photographic opportunities as good as I could hope for.
We return to the hut, pack our gear, and walk a long day to Waikamaka hut, checking the big side streams on the way. Up the bouldery river bed, the day perfect for walking beneath an ominous sky; river flats yellow and green below red beech forest dense on steep mountainsides; water so clear you could read through metres of it, pools reflecting the colours of the bush, rock, flax, toetoe. At Waikamaka the sky’s so heavy that evening arrives hours early but still the rain holds off. I stand outside, looking up at the big snowgrass basin, and the ground’s so dry it doesn’t even dampen my socks.
A pair of riflemen flit about behind the hut. Not much light, but I fit the big lens and dial the ISO up to 800. The shutter speed’s still very low, so I push it to 1600, hoping it might deliver something useable. Meanwhile, the birds have disappeared, so I purse my lips and try for the high-pitched squeaking sound that seems to be a generic small-bird attractant. Immediately the riflemen reappear, flitting about close by. The female spreads her wings and vibrates them rapidly, facing me. I manage a couple of photos and try the squeaking sound again, hoping to keep them nearby.
To my astonishment, the female flies straight at me, darting just overhead and alighting close by. Another photo of her; a couple of the more distinctly coloured male. The female circles me. Curious about her reaction, I try squeaking again, and again she swoops at me, so close I instinctively dip my head. They must have a nest nearby. Enough — I don’t wish to disturb them further, so I retreat, driven away by this ferocious imp, New Zealand’s smallest bird.
Back in the hut, I’m still grinning. Duncan looks up from his book.
“I’ve just been attacked by a rifleman,” I tell him, and he laughs. “I almost expected to come back with a rifleman embedded in my forehead, or clinging to my eyebrows, pecking furiously.”
During the night sporadic drizzle becomes persistent, turning to steady rain at dawn. It’ll be good for the bush, which shows some signs of stress. It eases in the late morning, but returns about midday, bringing a blustery wind as well. We check the river upstream, towards Rangi Saddle, but see no whio and no sign — not surprising, given the very low flow. Then, in the early afternoon, we leave the hut and its riflemen, and begin the walk to Waipawa Saddle, on to Waipawa hut where we’ll stay the night before heading to the road in the morning. Light rain encourages me to pull the parka hood over my head as we climb to the saddle. Brilliant, canary-yellow Ranunculus flowers brighten the sombre day. Dark, misty cloud; the dull gleam of wet rock; the faint outline of a distant ridge.
So much depends upon/these leatherwood leaves/glazed with rainwater/beside the yellow flowers [3].
As we climb, I think of the whio photos stored on those small cards, safely tucked away in my pack, and it occurs to me that no matter how good they might be, they’re at best second rate. They’re not the event, not the whio; they’re merely a visual record. No matter how evocative, no photo delivers the actual moment, the sound of rushing water, the sharp, pungent smell of wet rock, the feel of riverbed gravel under your elbows and legs as you lie stretched out, watching the whio and their chicks just a few metres away across the transparent, rippling pool. The best that can be hoped for, of any photo, is that it will recall for you, and engender in others, the emotions of the moment. Anything else is pretence.

Whio swimming

1. Department of Conservation (DOC). Facts about blue duck/whio. http://www.doc.govt.nz/templates/page.aspx?id=33064 (accessed 9 December 2007).
2. DOC. Threats to blue duck/whio. http://www.doc.govt.nz/templates/page.aspx?id=33065
(accessed 9 December 2007).
3. Apologies to William Carlos Williams.

Photos (click to enlarge them):
1. Whio (Hymenolaimus malacorhynchos) with chicks, Waikamaka River, Ruahine Range. Late evening on 4 December '07, downstream from Wakelings hut.
2, 7. Whio, a little further downriver the next morning.
3, 4. Whio chicks, loc. cit.
5. Titipounamu, the rifleman (Acanthisitta chloris). This is the female who attacked me — all 6–7 grams of her.
6. Ranunculus sp., head of the Waikamaka River below Waipawa Saddle.
Photos and words © 2007 Pete McGregor

03 December 2007

On a long coast

"...a snufkin loathes notices, everything that reminds him of private property, No entry, Off limits, Keep out — if one is the least bit interested in a snufkin one knows that notices are the only things that can make him angry, vulnerable and at the mercy of others. And now he felt ashamed! He had shouted and carried on and it was not to be forgiven, even if one took out all the nails in the world!"
—Tove Jansson; Moominvalley in November (1971).

Coastal grass clumpPlaces like this still exist in Aotearoa. Places still unsold to the foreign millionaire, to the new rich New Zealander with his four wheel drives, his architects with their white-concrete-and-glass statements, and his delight in ownership, success, control, and the best of everything. Places like this have not yet become playgrounds or reserves for privilege.

Places like this, where three or four old caravans from the 1950s or '60s decay quietly in front of a line of old macrocarpas; where they blister and peel through the summers and leak and moulder during the winters, enduring the salt and storms lashed in from the sea beyond the spit. A bach with grimy windows and rusting iron keeps the caravans company; an old tractor rusts nearby, its perishing tyres slowly sinking into the accumulating sand. On the lagoon where the stream slackens and spreads before finally escaping through the sand bar to the sea, a small flotilla of black swans [1] rocks on the wind-chopped Evening surfwater and four shags perch, heads drawn down onto their shoulders, on the emergent branches of a sunken tree. The wind scurries in from the sea, hissing over the sand, abrading and burying.

Amelie lies half asleep in the sun, behind the big bleached driftwood log. Nowhere else on the beach offers any better shelter from the cold, incessant wind. We eat the bacon and salad rolls we'd prepared in the morning, and laugh about the telling off we'd received from the oystercatchers [2] further down the beach. I'd suspected a nest or chicks nearby, and sure enough, I happened to look across at the right time to see two small, fuzzy, speckled pompoms on legs trotting away along an old quad bike track in the sand. Then a third, a little way behind. We watched briefly through the binoculars, then hastened away to minimise the disturbance. Later we wondered at the adults' behaviour; how it seemed counter-productive — surely all the fuss would indicate to a predator that tasty morsels waited nearby? Surely, going about your usual activity would provide less incentive for any moderately bright predator to check the area more thoroughly? We walked on quickly until the agitated parents finally stopped following and circling us.

Halfway between the stream and our mediocre shelter behind the log, something pale and slightly gleaming lies on the sand. A fish, I assume, but when I put the binoculars on it, I see I'm wrong. White-faced heronIt's a dead penguin. Up close, it's identifiable as a little blue penguin [3], perhaps a day or two old. Lots of blowflies; a broken beak. I have no idea what killed it, but find the sight sad. The broken bill gapes open like a soundless scream.

Fortunately, all the other birds in this place of birds are alive. White-faced herons [4] hunch on a massive rock near the beach; a pheasant [5] calls and beats his wings in the jungle of long grass and bracken and fallen branches behind the cabin and another calls from the wetland near the stream; swallows [6] flit in the early summer sky and yellowhammers [7] startle in the wind. Kereru, kotare, kahu [8]. The sparrows [9] here are so unafraid they'll almost (but not) land on an outstretched hand (food would have to be proffered, of course).

Gannets [10] cruise along the coast, sometimes coming in close as we walk the track below the cliffs and above the jumble of huge, fallen blocks of mudstone; as the big birds glide past on powerful, deliberate wingbeats, we can see the strong markings on the head, the streamlined bill and tapered wings; elegance to the point of perfection. Out at sea, one suddenly jinks, its wings folding as it flicks sideways and down, almost backwards, and begins to plummet towards the ocean. But it breaks from the dive and resumes its patrolling. A fish survives, somewhere down there in the silvery-blue sea. Two gulls fly low overhead and Wind sculpturesettle at the edge of the surf by the mouth of the stream. Something about them seems to differ from the usual tarapunga, the red-billed gulls [11]. Of course! — the bills are intensely black; they're longer, more slender than the bills of tarapunga, and the legs and feet are also that deep black. They're black-billed gulls [12], the first I've seen in years; in fact, the first for which I've ever been confident in my identification — I suspect those I thought were black-bills, all those years ago when I was a kid, were probably juvenile red-bills. Amelie studies them through the binoculars. She too is delighted by the sighting. They seem distinctly more elegant than tarapunga, and when a pair of those hover overhead and alight on the sand only a few metres away, the difference in bill shape (not to mention the vivid vermillion compared to the basalt black) becomes strikingly obvious.

If only the black-bills had settled where the tarapunga now strut, so close the head and shoulders of the nearer bird fill the viewfinder. I don't even bother trying to photograph the black-bills. Anyway, we're satisfied just to watch. Yet they're not rare, at least not in the North Island. Why haven't I seen them more often? Well-gnawed driftwoodMaybe I have; maybe it's not a matter of seeing, but of noticing — maybe I've glanced and thought, “juvenile red-bills.” I'll look with more care from now on.

Now a pair of black-backed gulls [13] lands. Near the black-bills, the new arrivals look massive, almost ungainly. They're nesting along the coast; we saw two sitting as we walked here, and on our return both birds have left their nests, revealing, in each, three grey-green, black-speckled eggs. Again, we don't tarry, allowing the adults to circle and settle. I wonder how safe the oystercatcher chicks might be with these birds around, or with the ever-present, slowly circling kahu with its marvellously keen eyesight. It's part of life I suppose; one bird becoming another; life and death as transformation. Sentiment, sometimes excruciatingly painful, is uniquely human.

Out at sea a few clouds darken the water from turquoise to aquamarine, and away North the line of coastal cliffs recedes into the blue haze of distance, like the impossible knowledge of the future — when you get there, it's solid beneath your feet but fromEvening reflections, main beach here, now, it could be almost anything.

“Guess how many settlements there are along the coast from here to Moanaroa,” Amelie says.


“None. Maybe the odd hut or house, but no towns, nothing like back at the beach.” She estimates the distance, then adds, “Wouldn't it be wonderful to walk all the way there?”

I look at her and do a quick calculation of how many days it might take. Perhaps the better part of a week? There'd be rivers to cross, of course, and some of the headlands might be impassable along the coast, but I wonder what it would be like to wander for a week beside the sea, meeting only an occasional farmer, someone fishing, perhaps a distant glimpse of a white-haired hermit moving slowly out of sight like some ghost from an old world. For me, the question doesn't even need an answer.

Places like this still exist in Aotearoa.

Evening surfNotes:
Place names have been changed. Bird names are accurate to the best of my knowledge.
1. Cygnus atratus. Black swans, although deliberately introduced to New Zealand in the 1860s, probably arrived naturally from Australia about the same time. They're now widespread throughout the country.
Haematopus unicolor, the endemic variable oystercatcher (torea), often called black oystercatcher (toreapango) in the completely black phase (the birds we saw this day). I was startled to discover later that they're considered rare, with a total population of about 4000 birds. Despite this, I've found them to be easily seen along the Wellington coast — walk South from Eastbourne, for example, and you'll definitely see them.
3. Eudyptula minor. On the last evening we walked to the small bay South of the beach; there, while I stood on a car-sized rock with the surf surging below me, a blue penguin bobbed and dived and swam, as unsinkable as a cork, only a few metres out and immediately in front of me. It seemed like a gift; as if the land and sea and sky were saying, “Remember us.”
Ardea novaehollandiae, often called the blue heron, a colloquial name formerly used (but now discouraged) for the much rarer reef heron (Egretta sacra). Self-introduced from Australia in the mid 20th Century and now the most common New Zealand heron.
Phasianus colchicus.
6. The welcome swallow,
Hirundo tahitica.
Emberiza citrinella. Introduced in the late 19th century and now widespread.
'Underground mutton'
8. Kereru, kotare, kahu: respectively, the native pigeon Hemiphaga novaeseelandiae; the kingfisher Halcyon sancta; the harrier Circus approximans.
9. House sparrows,
Passer domesticus.
10. Takapu, Australasian gannet,
Morus serrator.
11. Larus novaehollandiae.
Larus bulleri.
13. Karoro,
Larus dominicanus.

Photos (click to enlarge them):
1. On the cliffs above the small South bay; the last evening.
2. Same place, same evening.
3. White-faced heron.
4. Wind sculpted cliffs on the way to the northern bay.
5. On the beach at the northern bay.
6. Main beach, evening.
Birds weren't the only animals around.

Photos and words © 2007 Pete McGregor

27 November 2007

Over the Ngamoko

Here at Leon Kinvig hut I settle in for the evening; wait for the billy to boil for an after-dinner brew. I'm here because the tops South of Toka were enveloped in cloud — lifting and lowering, to be sure, but mostly it stayed well below the ridgeline and I didn't want to risk losing my way to my original goal, Ngamoko hut. In that murk, losing my bearings would have been too likely. So, here I am, doing the walk in the other direction.

The billy's boiled.

I trudged my way up Knights Track, stopped for water and a muesli bar shortly after reaching the snowgrass, again for photos above the tarns on the summit of the Ngamoko Range just East of Toka, and arrived here at the hut comfortably in a bit over three hours.

Then it took me most of an hour to fix the leaking on-off valve on the MSR. I thought about lighting a fire instead, but persistence paid off and I managed to get it running safely.

The hut's been painted, only a few weeks ago; a pleasant two-tone scheme in dull greens, one pale, approaching grey-green, the other a darker muted green. I prefer this over the the old reddish-brown. Outside, the wind, as always here, and the sound of the river, the two merging. Which is wind, which is river? I can't tell, and don't care — I simply like the sound; it tells me where I am.

The flowers of Clematis festoon the bush, looking strangely incongruous, as if some god had strewn sprays of the big white-and-yellow flowers at random on her journey down the valley. A quarter past eight. Slowly, the light begins to fade. Big spiders hang in their webs — enormous, bloated, gravid Eriophora — while the gibbous moon hangs in the evening sky, framed by the silhouettes of stag-headed beeches. The cloud has cleared completely now; in the South-West the sky's taken on that indescribable, brilliant colour which seems to be no colour at all, not even white, just the colour of the concept of light. Further North, the darker sky's tinged with the faintest imaginable trace of salmon-pink; the moon brightens, burns in the evening. I stand on the verandah, warm boards beneath bare feet, hands cupped around the mug of tea. Taking sips, looking up at the moon; just the spiders and me. Thinking, if anyone saw me they might think I'm praying to that brilliant moon. Here, at home among the simple and elemental, I might almost feel the urge to do that — to pray.

But I watch instead; finish my mug of tea; go inside and write. If I could remember how to pray, I wouldn't know who, or what, to pray to. But, if I did, it wouldn't be to ask for anything for myself, other than to let my life continue as it is.


About 10 minutes downriver from Leon Kinvig hut a deer barks at me. Close. Out of sight, of course. The sound again, somewhere between the woof of a dog and a cough, but louder than either. Much louder, filling the forest. As I continue down the river, hopping from boulder to boulder, wading limpid water, sometimes thigh deep, I can follow the deer's progress by locating its bark — following me downriver but climbing higher into the forest, always out of sight.

The small, coarse-sand beaches disclose other signs of deer, too — hoofprints, some not more than a night old. That's a stag — you can tell by its size and shape, broader, with a more prominent heel than the print of a hind. And that must be a yearling, judging from its size.

Footprints, annotations in the sand, tell of other lives too. Below Leon Kinvig hut I found a few prints, several days old; prints that say whio, the only sign I've seen so far of these strange, beautiful birds. Here and there, possum prints, and, only 10 minutes or so from Ngamoko hut, suddenly I come across a bootprint. It looks fresh. Surely no one else is here, mid week? A slight trace of apprehension creeps in — if someone else is here, he's probably hunting, and not likely to be expecting anyone else. I think about donning my hi-viz vest, but as I find more bootprints it becomes clear they're several days old.

At Ngamoko the hut book reveals a surprising amount of activity: a hunter and his dog here for the day, up from mid Pohangina hut; Jean and Ivan were here last weekend; Kay and Phil here the Monday before that, passing through en route from Leon Kinvig to mid Pohangina. Two hunters here a few days before Phil and Kay, returning to Leon Kinvig. But before them, apparently no one has been here since April; Ngamoko has been deserted (apparently) for seven months. A year ago I was in the Indian Himalaya, where the idea of being alone for even a day was inconceivable. Here, seven months of solitude. In my seven months in India and Africa I never lived a day without meeting another human being. Usually, many human beings. To be born and raised in India, or Ghana, or Malawi, for example, must be to grow up with no concept of solitude, let alone seven months of it. Nor of clean, clear, safe water — in a global context, this achingly beautiful river must be like a dream. Such things are possible.

Am I the luckiest person alive? By what right did I earn this privilege?

But Ngamoko hut's solitude must be at least partly false. Someone's been here but shunned the hut book. Two almost-empty flagons, one of Jim Beam, the other of generic ruby port, sit in the alcove above the door, and a bag containing half a dozen sprouting potatoes hangs from a wall-mounted candle holder. Hunters, I guess; flown in, for sure — no one carries in flagons and bags of potatoes. Still, they'd have been here during the roar, around April; maybe May at the latest, so the seven months of solitude seems intact. And it seems they left the hut tidy, too, as none of the subsequent visitors noted anything untoward— unlike the scum who cut up their deer inside Leon Kinvig hut, crapped right outside the hut, and left the filth for the next party to clean up.

Try not to think about it.

So, I have Ngamoko hut to myself after all. The meander down the river, in no hurry, stopping for photos, taking my time, took about 3 hours. You could do it in under 2 if speed's important, but for me it wasn't. I took my time, crossing and recrossing the river through water hardly cold enough to be called cool; beautiful clear water, green in the big, deep pools, colourless where shallow, the ripples forming a network of light on the gravel bed, as if the water wasn't even there. Toetoe and cutty grass bending in the wind, white water rushing, pale grey riverbed boulders bright in the midday sun.

In the warm hut the light begins to fade; dusk settles. But the clear, infinite light of last night has been replaced by ominous clouds, thickening to overcast. What if the weather's ugly tomorrow? Do I still try to get out over the tops? I've done it before, but I was fitter then, with more margin for error, or at least more with which to battle the gale, the bitter cold, the poor and confusing visibility — and believe me, it's not to be taken lightly. I've been there, I've been disoriented up there in those conditions several times. I know how to survive, but tomorrow I don't want to have to employ those skills nor call on that experience. What should I do if the weather's bad? If I navigate without error I'll make it regardless of the conditions, but what if I head down the wrong spur? Should I, therefore, if the weather's bad, retrace my steps all the way to Leon Kinvig and cross the Ngamoko Range the way I know well? The thought's daunting, but at least I'd be certain of getting out (barring mishap) — shattered, for sure, but safe and on time.

I can't make the decision now. Wait for morning, assess the weather then.

And I don't want concern about tomorrow to detract from today. It's been an excellent one, and I've made it back to one of my favourite places in the Ruahine, after 22 months — 22 months that included time in India, Nepal, Africa, the UK, Paris. Time during which I often thought ahead to doing exactly this — putting a pack on my back and heading into the Ruahine; meeting no one. Solitude. Remoteness. Like stepping out of the imaginary world and into the real.

I write this by candlelight, in a darkening hut, the sound of the wind and the river coming and going.

And now — the sound of a whio, whistling in the river.

Grabbing the binoculars I make my way down the track to where I can see the river. I whistle — I'm here; please, speak to me. Immediately he answers, and the sound draws my focus to the middle of the pool, a dim shape, the distinct pale bill. I watch through the binoculars as he swims about, head stretched low over the water as he whistles. A little way upstream, then he turns and drifts, quick, bobbing, downstream, where he circles and whistles. He swims to the near edge of the pool, climbs onto a rock, turns this way and that a few times, then slips back into the pool.

I watch, with a tightness in my throat, the beginnings of tears behind my eyes.

I remember the Maharaja of Jamnagar, his love of his birds and his wildlife, his particular knowledge of and love for whio. How can this be possible — the impossible coincidence of our meeting? Part of the reason I came here, carrying the big lens, all one and a quarter kilos of it and the camera and other lens to boot, was the hope of a good photo of a whio, least in part so I could send my friend a print.

But photography's out of the question. Even through the brilliant Swarovskis the whio appears like a dream, intense yet indistinct.

It's enough. I've seen a whio; I've met my friends again.

As I climb back to the hut a ruru begins to call.


Shortly after 5 a.m. dawn begins to lighten the hut. When I crawl from my sleeping bag and check the sky, the decision, like the sky, is clear. I'll go out over the tops.

I'm away by 7, feeling strong, climbing fast and steadily, slightly surprised at how good I feel, the great energy. When a stag bearing a good head of velvet crashes away across the track no more than 20 metres ahead, I almost feel like bounding after it.

On the tops, though, the visibility's poor, down to a few hundred metres, and I'm relying on vague episodic memory, the recollection of the last time I walked this route, several years ago, and last night's working memory, recalling the scrupulously studied map on the hut wall. I walk steadily, carefully, methodically, not pushing too hard in the strong, cold wind. Near Whaingapuna the first decision's easy enough although I still feel a trace of anxiety — what if I'm wrong? Where might I be heading? I console myself with the knowledge that I know what to do — park up and wait; keep warm; I know R will do as I've asked and call the cops and the worst outcome will be nothing more than acute embarrassment and a little discomfort. But it's soon clear I'm on course. The anxiety sets in again later though, where the ridge seems to veer sharply to the left — much sharper than the map suggested. The alternative doesn't look right, though. I call on experience; that way seems too low, it seems to drop away too steeply. I veer left, looking back to memorise what it looks like if I have to return; again keeping the anxiety in check by reminding myself I'm in no danger other than that of the humiliation of being the object of a SAR operation or of the torment of waiting until I'm found.

But, as the ridge rises to a low peak, I'm sure I recognise where I am. Yes! There's the main ridge, lower and off to the right. I follow it, recognising the small bank with the well-worn step — and then, a bootprint. A few more, and a vague trail. And then the waratahs, emerging from the mist. The top of Shorts Track.


I drove home, nursing the almost empty tank. In town in the evening I looked around at all the people doing town stuff and in some way I saw through the pointlessness of most of what was happening around me; how superficial it seemed; busy yet idle. Perhaps I hadn't really made it all the way out from Ngamoko hut after all.

1. I'm away again for the next three days. Off to the ocean this time; a small, quiet East Coast beach. Reading, writing, photographing, eating, relaxing, conversing.

Photos (click to enlarge the smaller photos):
1. The ridge leading down to the Pohangina River and Leon Kinvig hut from just below Toka. Wednesday.
2. On Knights Track a few weeks ago. Similar weather. The dull green vegetation is leatherwood (tupare; Olearia colensoi); if there's no track through it, you're in trouble — a few hundred metres an hour is good going.
3. River terrace just upstream from Ngamoko hut, evening. This is a composite photo, stitched together from four handheld photos. The original's huge; this I've reduced to 1024 pixels wide.
4, 7. Pohangina rapids.
5. Snowgrass on the Ngamoko Range on the day I walked out.
6. The weather on the tops.

Photos and words © 2007 Pete McGregor

21 November 2007

Off into the hills

Ngamoko Range looking South

This is where I'm heading. Off this afternoon, on my own, over the range and down to the Pohangina headwaters. With luck I'll meet up with my old friends the whio [1] and with even more luck I might see and photograph a deer. But the weather's looking good and the river's beautiful. Back out on Friday.

Life is incomprehensible, astonishing, and wonderful beyond words.

1. Hymenolaimus malacorhynchos, the blue duck.

1. The Ngamoko Range looking South from the top of Knights Track, near Toka, the headwaters of the Pohangina forming the catchment on the left. A much better day than when Rob and I were up there last week. I played around with filters and blend modes in photoshop and quite liked the slightly painted feel I ended up with. It's subtle—almost undetectable at this greatly reduced size—but it seems to suit the photo.

Photos and words © 2007 Pete McGregor

18 November 2007

The hunted animal

A cold wind at the cleared lookout point at the top of the No. 1 Line track [1]. We sit, bundled in parkas, eating bier sticks, looking out over the headwaters of Matanganui Stream; we sit, studying the far mountainside, the slips and clearings, wondering whether we might see a deer [2] feeding in a sheltered place in the sun.

Whenever I've seen a deer among these mountains, something changes; the life already here seems to intensify. I remember how, years ago, I watched someone shoot a chamois [3] on a wild mountainside near the Whitcombe Pass, in the Southern Alps. As the echoes of the gunshot faded, something essential seemed to vanish from the mountain. A life taken, another kind of life diminished.

Yet many would have applauded the act—those who argue for the destruction of introduced ungulates as well as those who hunt and would have respected the clean shot. Chamois were introduced to New Zealand's South Island 100 years ago; my ancestors arrived here only a few decades earlier, roughly the same time red deer were released. How long must you inhabit a place before you're accepted? How do you earn the right to call a place home? Is it a matter of time, or of engagement? What you cannot escape is that while you might call this your home, others might refuse you that right.

I cinch the parka hood tighter against the wind. High up, near the crest of the range, among the snowgrass on a small spur, a clearing in the leatherwood — a form, a colour, the possibility of a deer, bedded down for the afternoon. A deer or wishful thinking? An animal or its imagined form? I don't know. I'll never know. I'm 75% sure it is a deer, but later I'll think back and say I'm 75% sure it's not.

It doesn't matter. Deer do live there, in the basin, among the low, scrubby bush, coming out at night, at unpredictable times to feed on the open slips, the erosion scars, the edges of the feeder streams. You see their trails; if you make your way over there — a mission — you'll find their shit, the trampled and eaten-out understorey here and there. You'll sense their lives, the life of the constantly hunted animal, fear on the edge of need, unrelenting vigilance. To see them you need great skill, long experience, an eye for the out-of-place, a sense of imminent encounter. And luck.

And, always, they'll see you first.

This is the life of the hunted animal.

1. I took Rob up the track for a bit of exercise and to show him what I could of where I live. The weather didn't allow much more than that. We did climb Knights Track to the top of the Ngamoko Range the next day, but ended up trudging through snow, in a howling gale, inside the cloud, visibility down to about 100 metres. The tarn on top had frozen solid; icicles hung from the small bank by the edge. Wild and wonderful—and the antithesis of the forecast.
2. Red deer, Cervus elaphus scoticus, are the most abundant of the seven species of deer in New Zealand (excluding moose, which no one has seen for decades and which might or might not still survive in Fiordland). All deer in New Zealand were introduced here in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and are now considered destructive pests by some, magnificent game animals by others, and a resource by farmers and commercial hunters. Some people recognise they're all those things and more.
3. Chamois (usually pronounced "shammy" by NZ hunters), Rupicapra rupicapra, were introduced here in 1907 and spread rapidly throughout the Southern Alps.
Forsyth and Clarke (2001) point out that environmental damage caused by chamois is unknown although presumed to occur in some plant communities [Forsyth DM, Clarke CMH 2001. Advances in New Zealand mammalogy 1990–2000: Chamois. Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand 31(1): 243–249. Online pdf (840 Kb) ].

1. Near the top of the No. 1 Line track, a week or so ago.
2. I photographed this chamois in Arthurs Pass National Park in early 2004. The photo's heavily cropped, as I didn't have the big lens, and — of course — the chamois had bedded down in a spot almost impossible to stalk. That's his summer coat.

Photos and words © 2007 Pete McGregor

12 November 2007


Ruins of the woodpileShe crawls from the ruins of the woodpile
slow, still buried in winter dreams
a threat to the grasping hand. Up again
the wind roars in the poplar tops shaking
the apple showering petals. September
blossoms, October closes the door as it leaves
November blows in like a prodigal sun.

She rests, tries to shiver away the winter
and hunts for the spring in her step. Lambs
lose their baby faces, meat in unprepared packs
soon for the chop. Dogs rage at the wind
the unannounced car the cat a shadow
of a bird returning.

It's always the same in spring. Nothing changes
—only a different cat dogs another bird's shadow
passing. Another generation of spring lamb.
Another mother's daughter, crawling, slow,
still dreaming, from the ruins.


1. Ideally, this should be heard rather than read (as in "viewed"), preferably before
you've seen it written down.

2. I'm having trouble writing. Writing anything of any quality, that is, and I'm off
into the Ruahine with my brother soon, for a few days. If I don't post something now, another week of silence will pass. So, this will have to do. I drafted it a couple of weeks ago, tinkered with it a little, have decided to abandon it. Another fragment to shore against my ruins, I suppose.

Well, it began with a photo... I thought I had something more appropriate, her portrait, but I couldn't find it.

[Update, 8 May 2008: Added a portrait of someone like her; perhaps a daughter.]

Photos and words © 2007 Pete McGregor

29 October 2007

Getting to the point

Tom Paki's fishing the point again
tying tackle on a raw day with
rain washing down the coast
but his mind's not on the job

he wonders why the sea took
his kids and whether his ancestors
had anything to do with it or even
whether he believes in Tangaroa

big fingers numb fumble knots
he thinks of his friend the pakeha girl
with green eyes and satellite boys
who circle hope and fret

she's seen the world but still
eats kina and hugs him for the present
'though when he gets home he gets it
in the neck

heck he says it's aroha don't you see
not the other he wants to say she's
the age that Sue would have been
but he's not that dumb

and thinks instead perhaps it's time
he got to the point where
the sea smells like fish heads or
the fresh shucked juice of kutai

but it's a cold day on the rocks as
the wrinkled sea slides and coils
around his feet and rain knocks
at his parka hood he wonders

where his kids are and if they're warm
and whether she's curled in front of a fire
and why it's so hard to tie knots
with the rain in your eyes.

1. None of the characters in this bear any intentional resemblance to real people, living or dead.
2. Tangaroa: god of the sea.
3. Pakeha: the definition is sometimes contentious, but it generally refers to people of European descent; however, the range of interpretations is broad and the word is considered by some to encompass New Zealanders who have no Maori whakapapa (loosely meaning genealogy). The origin of the word isn't known, although some interesting suggestions (as well as fanciful theories) have been put forward. The Wikipedia entry on 'pakeha' (accessed 31 October 2007) seems to offer a reasonable summary, but if you're keen to understand the concept better, I suggest Michael King's Being Pakeha Now (2004) (although I haven't read it).
4. Kina: the sea urchin (sea egg), Evechinus chloroticus. A delicacy (apparently), particularly for Maori.
5. Kutai: mussels, particularly the New Zealand greenshell mussel (Perna canaliculus), rock mussel (Mytilus edulis), and blue mussel (Mytilus galloprovincialis).

Beach detail near Pencarrow Head, Eastern coast of Wellington harbour.

Update (31 October 2007): edited the note about the word "pakeha". (Thanks, Anne-Marie).

Photo and words © 2007 Pete McGregor

12 October 2007

The ruins of the moment

Langur & baby

Tuesday 27 February 2007
The sun rises through dawn mist over fields, crops, and small trees; its huge disc burns orange. A man stands washing his face in a misty, mirror-like river, the perfect ripples spreading out from his legs, on through India's history, the way memories flow through a life. Moments like these leave you unable to speak.

A man in uniform gets off the bus, rubs his hands together, then puts them to his face. His big, flexible fingers mould to the contours as if the bones had become plastic, following the curves of his cheeks, filling the hollows of his eye sockets. The bus lumbers off; crows occupy the power lines. India must be great for a crow, as there's always so much to scavenge, and the advantage of being a crow—or any flying bird—is that when you're tired of the filth and squalor amongst which you feed, you can fly up, away from it. The ability to look down on something usually makes it more tolerable. On the other hand, the opportunity to look up to something—a crow alighting on perfect wings, a god, a mountain at dawn, the memory of wild eyes—helps us, those of us who cannot fly away, to bear the intolerable. This arises, I think, from more than hope, from more than the idea that perhaps one day we too might lift ourselves out of our small, hard, caged lives. It arises, I think, from gratitude that something survives: we are ruined, but the things we look up to are not.


I'd taken a cycle rickshaw from the Parihar to the bus stand, where I'd found myself standing immediately beside the Kota bus. Despite the vehicle's characteristics—the usual old, decrepit monster—the ride proved enjoyable, particularly since the bus never filled completely and I'd had a seat to myself, leaving me free to gaze out the window, to lose myself in thoughts. To lose myself in India. Who knew where I was? Everyone I knew and everyone who knew me knew nothing of my whereabouts beyond knowing I was somewhere in India. Perhaps a few guessed I was somewhere in Gujarat or Rajasthan; others had no idea or just a vague recollection of something about India and Africa. This is the anonymity of travelling; it terrifies some and delights others.

I think I'm one of the others.

At Kota a rickshaw took me to the railway station, where I bought a ticket for Sawai Madhopur and with help from several people found the platform, the train, and the carriage. Squashed into the entranceway to the carriage, I had to endure a Treepiesteady stream of people squeezing past to get to the toilet, but the journey took less than an hour and a half, and a slight breeze made it, if not comfortable, at least bearable.

At Sawai Madhopur a man rushed up, offering me transport on a horse cart.
“The Aditya?” I asked.
Yes, yes, he nodded, he knew it.
“How much?”
“Ten rupees.”
At that moment another man rushed up and offered me an auto rickshaw ride for the same price, gesturing for me to follow as he walked off. A common ploy—this was such a good deal that of course I'd accept his offer; after all, an auto rickshaw's much faster. But haste wasn't important for me. The first man, almost distraught at the prospect of losing a customer, immediately dropped his price to five rupees. I accepted, and, after a slow but enjoyable journey, gave him the ten. Clearly pleased, he insisted on carrying my bag into the hotel.


Ranthambhore National Park is a much modified fragment of the extensive forests that covered the Aravali and Vindhya ranges until early last century, when about 40,000 tigers were thought to survive in India. The forests received some protection in 1955, as Sawai Madhopur Sanctuary, but by 1972 the first census of tigers throughout India suggested a surviving population of fewer than 2000 tigers [1]. In 1973, following the shock of that census, Project Tiger was launched and Ranthambhore was designated as one of 9 tiger reserves [2]. By then, tigers were close to extinction in the region and none were officially recorded in the reserve until 3 years later. The core area of the reserve, 282 km2, was designated as Ranthambhore National Park in 1980 and substantial adjoining areas were added in 1983 and 1984 as part of the tiger reserve. Prospects looked bright.

But tigers in Ranthambore have faced continuous pressure from human activity, and serious bouts of poaching in the early '90s and again only a few years ago decimated the tiger population. A survey in May 2005 used three methods to estimate the tiger population in the park: camera traps operated by the Wildlife Institute of India; the heavily criticised plaster cast/pugmark tracing technique used by the Forest Department; and the recently developed digital pugmark technique implemented by the Wildlife Protection Society of India.

The results were depressing. The unreliable plaster cast method estimated 31 tigers, camera traps suggested 21; the digital pugmark technique identified 26 tigers, two of which might have been transient. Offical figures a year earlier had claimed 39–41 tigers. Either those figures had been inflated—likely, according to those who pointed to the “Sariska disaster”, where a census in 2004 showed tigers had been exterminated from that reserve while officials knowingly overestimated the number of the few survivors—or about a third of Ranthambhore's tiger population had “gone missing” within a year.

Would I be lucky enough to see one of the survivors? Only the next few days would tell. Ranthambhore is reputedly the best place in the world to see wild tigers. Right now, they still lived here. But for how long?


In the afternoon I walked along the road towards the entrance gate to Ranthambore National Park, past the tourist reception centre where I noted the times and costs of entry to the park, on along the road, on in the heat and glare. Always, the gate seemed just beyond the next bend. Two camel carts with enormous loads passed by, returning to town. The driver of the first grinned at me and patted his load of plump sacks, indicating for me to climb aboard. Tempting, ... but I grinned back and gestured I was headed the other way.

Not much further down the road I began to wish I'd taken up the offer. Finally, I abandoned the idea of walking to the gate and turned around. Soon after, two young guys on a motorbike picked me up and gave me a lift back to the Aditya. Helmetless (of course) we hurtled along the tarmac, three of us reckless on the Pulsar in the afternoon sun and wind. Later, I discovered the park entrance gate was just beyond the corner where I'd turned back.

I ate that evening at Tiger Safari, about 2 minutes' walk back towards town, hoping to meet others who might want to share a jeep. I'd only been seated a short time when Clive introduced himself. He was in his late sixties, although he looked about ten years younger; a former school teacher, English but now living in Canada, Clive was a keen birdwatcher—a birder, to use the North American term. We arranged to meet the next morning to share a rickshaw to the entrance and walk along the road through the buffer zone, towards the fort, looking for birds and whatever else might choose to appear. I remembered Robin and Erika's advice and hoped I might, like them, be lucky enough to see a leopard from the road. Still, bolstered by my heightened trust in fatalism after the motorbike ride, I decided to accept the outcome with equanimity; to be prepared, when asked, “Did you see the leopard?” to reply, “No! Isn't that wonderful?” [3]

Wednesday 28 February 2007
Birds abounded along the entrance road. Francolins, spotted doves, treepies, babblers, drongos, lapwings, peafowl, a pair of vultures high on the cliffs, and many others. But the leopards, if they had indeed been prowling during the night, had gone back to their hidden places, to their cool, dark caves or the breezy shade in rough ravines beyond our peering eyes. Other than langurs, the only mammals we saw were a sambar hind and yearling.

Back at Tiger Safari I booked a seat in the afternoon canter—an open-sided, roofless, 20-seater truck. It looked promising when we began with just eight people, all but me from Tiger Safari, but when we stopped at the reception centre the remaining seats filled up with Indian men in high spirits. Every time a jeep or canter drove past carrying foreign women, the testosterone kicked in, and as they whooped and called out, my heart sank. The prospects for seeing wildlife with a boisterous, rowdy crowd seemed remote. But in fact they proved fine; freed from the temptations of exotic women, they seemed easily able to appreciate the charms of the park and its nonhuman inhabitants.

Black-tailed mongoose, langurs, sambar, chital, six tiny muggers in a small pool, three nilgai. Nothing else but the faint possibility of a tiger or leopard and the enjoyment of being in country belonging mostly to animals; where humans are visitors, not invaders. We spent a good three hours in Zone 2, one of the best—possibly the best, given Zone 3 had been closed just a few days before—and finally left the road gate shortly after 6 p.m.

Thursday 1 March 2007
A series of loud explosions during the night, followed by heavy rain. The explosions were thunder, I guess. I tried to sleep late but couldn't. This was to be a morning to recover from tiredness and activity and sensory overload; a morning also to attend to important tasks. I walked into town and on the spur of the moment booked a canter trip for the following morning. Buoyed by the uncharacteristic ease with which I’d made a decision I strode on through the bazaar, which buzzed with activity and people and flies; I picked my way through puddles and mud and rubbish and found the Post Office, where I mailed the CD of selected photos I'd taken at Jamnagar and Kileswar, with a note of thanks, to Jagat.

With help from a Sikh man and his son I booked a ticket on the Golden Temple Mail back to Delhi on Saturday. I could only get on the waiting list; however, I had few other options and in any case assumed I'd somehow manage to get on the train and would survive the journey even if it proved uncomfortable.

Clive had booked a jeep to take him to the fort in the afternoon, and had acquired another passenger, Clements, an Airbus manager from Hamburg. About 30, Clements shared something of my attitude towards wildlife, being less interested in seeing particular or novel things and more interested in enjoying what he saw. Like me, he had a particular fondness for tigers and little interest in lions. We climbed to the fort and wandered around. Views over the lakes; herds of chital grazing near the water's edge. A few sambar; ruddy shelducks, cormorants, stilts, painted storks, a woolly-necked stork, other birds I didn't record and have now forgotten. On the far shore a large congregation of muggers basked in the sun like beached canoes. I counted at least 40, most of them a good size. Clive seemed delighted with the view, the sense of possibility.
“This'd be a good place to wait and watch for tigers in the evening,” he suggested.
He recalled seeing documentary footage of a tiger attacking deer at the lake—charging from the long grass into the water. The image had clearly had a powerful effect on him, as several times over the next day he mentioned how good it would be to see a tiger burst from the long grass in pursuit of prey.

Clements decided to explore more of the fort and arranged to meet us later on the road, which Clive and I intended walking in the hope of seeing a leopard. We saw no sign of leopards, but did encounter a chital close by. On foot, this one encounter seemed more meaningful; the animal seemed more present, the interaction more real. Of course, the animal was also more aware of and concerned about our presence, and bounded away into the open forest and the developing evening. I lingered opposite the leopard cliffs while Clive walked on down the road, searching for birds. I wasn't expecting to see a leopard but wanted to allow a good chance for it to happen. Besides, the troop of langurs frequenting the area had been illuminated beautifully by the evening sun, and I decided to make the most of the opportunity for photos. But perhaps most of all, I simply enjoyed being alone, my only company the langurs, occasional birds, and the faint possibility that somewhere, perhaps up on those sun-warmed cliffs among the evening rocks and Euphorbia, a leopard watched.

Clements still hadn’t appeared, and I began following Clive along the road. I stopped by a small, lushly overgrown pool and studied the dense vegetation for a few minutes. So much cover, so much shadow in which to hide. In the fading light, anything seemed possible—the twitch of a long, spotted tail perhaps, or maybe the flicker of a soft ear rimmed with black above the gleam of a pale yellow eye. The forest seemed to hold its breath; nothing moved other than the quiet trickle of the stream. I waited, then began to walk on. But as I did so I glimpsed something brown, something that seemed not quite right. Through the binoculars the brown resolved into hair, the pelage of a large animal. Then the head, partly obscured, staring at me. A section of antler. A sambar stag. Behind me, I heard a motorbike climb the road past the leopard cliffs, then slow and stop. Clements dismounted from the pillion seat and joined me. With difficulty I explained the stag's location to him. When he finally saw the animal he could hardly believe how I'd managed to see it. I didn't tell him it was a skill acquired from years of long evenings, long ago, sitting and watching the wild little valley where I’d lived for the first two decades of my life, watching to see what might appear.

We reconvened at Tiger Safari for beer, and I placed my camera, still with the big lens attached, and binoculars on the table in preparation for changing lenses and packing the gear. Someone asked if he might look through the lens.
“Sure,” I said, but as he picked up the camera its strap caught on the binoculars and knocked them from the table to the floor. The concrete floor. Unfortunately, my usual luck deserted me, and I checked them to find they'd been knocked out of alignment. They were still usable, but only just, and only for very short periods—when I took them from my eyes, I felt as if my own optics had been knocked out of alignment.

But the conversation that evening partly compensated—an interesting discussion about travelling; about attitudes and perceptions. The beer probably helped, also. And the damage to the binoculars was another lesson in nonattachment—a hard one, though. They'd been a gift, many years ago, and with their damage, she moved a little further into the past.

Friday 2 March 2007
A poor night's sleep, waking often. I rose before dawn and made my way to the Raj Palace where two young German men joined me to wait for the canter. When it arrived, late, we found the cold vinyl seats wet with dew. I put my little rectangle of blue closed-cell foam down and kept my bum mostly dry, mostly warm. I'd had the foresight to bring not just my light fleece top but my light parka as well, and managed to avoid getting chilled; I did wish I'd thought to bring my fingerless mitts but completely forgot about the ancient nylon-and-fleece gauntlets I'd stuffed as padding in the bottom of my daypack. But with my hands encased in those, I wouldn't have been able to use the camera. Some things are more important than numb fingers.

We stopped several times to pick up passengers. The last group turned out to be a large contingent of young schoolgirls from New Delhi. As with the group of Indian men on the previous canter trip, my heart sank—and, as on the earlier occasion, my misgivings were largely unwarranted. Their teachers had clearly drummed into them the importance of keeping quiet, and although their natural exuberance got the better of them at times, a “sshhh!” or urgent whisper from a teacher worked remarkably well. In fact, on a canter ride the previous day they’d seen a tigress with three cubs. I couldn't help feeling a twinge of envy, but it was fleeting and tempered with the thought that if anyone should be lucky enough to see these tigers it should be these young girls, because they're the people who will most directly affect the tigers' future. It's their country; the tiger is as much a part of their heritage as anyone's, and if they learn to respect and appreciate the tiger now, perhaps they'll eventually be able to turn that respect and appreciation into action.

But on this trip we saw no tigers. We saw little compared to the ride I'd done two days ago—fewer chital; no sambar; no new species. Ahead of us, a jeep and canter had stopped. Apparently a leopard had been glimpsed near the top of distant bluffs, but if it had indeed been a leopard, it was so far away that even if anyone else had managed to see it, the real value of the sighting would have consisted more in the confirmation that a wild leopard exists than in the image of the animal itself. The sighting remains unconfirmed.


I returned to the fort with Clements and Clive in the evening. We watched while the sun left the land and shadows crept out; a tide of darkness spreading from the base of the fort out towards the lake. Many rose-ringed and a few plum-headed parakeets; peafowl flying up into trees, onto walls and buildings and battlements. Everywhere I looked I saw animals—birds in the trees and on the hills; sambar wading in the lake; a group of nilgai; muggers lined up on the far shore. I tried to work out how a tiger could possibly approach without alerting something, especially as the katabatic breeze had begun to drain towards the lakes. Clements joined me and we talked quietly, high up, looking out, watching the visitors leaving below us, until we saw Clive, lower down, begin to make his way back to the jeep. We met him there at about ten past six and Clements asked if we could stop briefly on the way out for a last look at the lake and crocodiles.

We'd have stopped anyway, as several canters and jeeps had pulled up there. Apparently there had been a tiger sighting. We pulled up in front, but could see nothing because the wall and topography blocked the view of the lake. The tiger had obviously disappeared from view, because no one seemed excited—just hopeful,Tiger gaze expectant. Employing what remained of my climbing skills I scaled the canopy frame and balanced there, scanning through Clive's binoculars.

That's when I saw her. Walking along the shore; a glimpse for several seconds through a gap in the trees. Against the light reflected from the lake she was little more than a silhouette, but utterly unmistakeable.

“Yes. Tiger,” I said, quietly.

Immediately, our driver became excited, animated. He pointed—I think he must have seen her too, as he'd stood up on his seat—and started talking loudly in Hindi, presumably explaining where the tiger was.

All hell broke loose. The place became a circus, people scrambling to get a better view, canters and jeeps revving and adjusting positions. An Indian man left his canter and tried to climb up on our jeep, only to be told off in no uncertain terms by Clive, who was balancing a little unsteadily lower down on the top of the seat, holding onto the frame and less than happy about having the jeep bounced around by an uninvited guest. Meanwhile, I'd seen another tiger. I passed the binoculars down to Clive, but they were hardly necessary. It soon became clear that this was the tigress with her three cubs. Machali, she's called. Now ten years old, she's the most photographed tiger still living in the wild. If Ranthambhore is sometimes called the jewel in the crown of India's wildlife sanctuaries, Machali, because of her tolerance of human gawpers, confers much of that jewel's brilliance.

I dialled the ISO to 1600 on the camera and managed a few photos, which actually show the stripes and colours, but the images are little more than records of darkness and light, tangled vegetation, glimpsed outlines of legendary animals. But perhaps this is how this moment should be remembered. A sharp, clear, well-lit photo would create its own memory, a fragment which in time would replace the actual memory of the moment. Perhaps this is the way with all photos. And perhaps it's also the way with all memories—that they're fragmentary: memories are the ruins of the moment.

Baby langur

1. According to the Wildlife Protection Society of India, the current number of tigers in India is about 3000 to 3500.
2. There are currently 25 Tiger Reserves in India.
3. If you've been reading here for a while you'll probably recognise this. For those who don't, it's a paraphrase from p. 225 of Peter Matthiessen's The Snow Leopard (1978; London, Harvill. 312 pp. ISBN 0-00-272025-6).

Photos (Click to enlarge them. Unless otherwise noted, all photos are from Ranthambhore National Park):
1. Langur (Semnopithecus entellus) and offspring. At the leopard cliffs along the road through the buffer zone.
2, 3. Indian treepie, Dendrocitta vagabunda. Often called the rufous treepie (see Manakadan R, Pittie A. 2004. Standardized English and scientific names of the birds of the Indian subcontinent (222 Kb pdf)).
4. Chital (Axis axis) stags.
5. Sambar (sambhar, sambhur), Rusa unicolor (often referred to as Cervus unicolor (but see Pitra C, Fickel J, Meijaard E, Groves PC 2004. Evolution and phylogeny of old world deer. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 33: 880–895. Online as a 613 Kb pdf file.)). If you look carefully, those are langurs in the background.
6. Roots along the entrance road.
7. Langurs at the entrance to the park's core zone, below the fort.
8. Evening feed, below the fort.
9. Moon over the leopard cliffs.
10. Tiger at Naini Tal, Uttaranchal. CAPTIVE animal. This single male tiger was confined within a surprisingly large enclosure which—perhaps even more surprisingly—included areas where he could hide from view. He seemed in magnificent condition. Most significantly, he was interested in his surroundings—including me, perhaps as potential prey (hence the gaze).
11. Juvenile langur below the fort.

Photos and words © 2007 Pete McGregor