Sea lion in the surf
I’m not sure where Ōtepoti Dunedin’s Middle Beach ends and St Kilda begins but we park close to the muralled surf club, on the road that was closed for a month in 2021 so a mother sea lion and her pup could have safe passage from the golf course to the beach. We head right, away from the glitz, the groynes, the sand sausages, the coffee shop chic and the actual good surfers at St Clair beach.
Our New Zealand sea lions/pakake are a protected species, a taonga. Hunted in the 1800s, slow to recover, but the one we met in the surf was on the hunt for some fun. A mocha flash through the blue of the wave. Two of us thought it was a dolphin. One of us was already on the way to the shore, chased there. She left her friend’s surfboard in the shallows and we watched as the teenage sea lion nudged, nuzzled and mounted it for twenty minutes while we begged the bystanders for copies of their videos and photos. Pics or it didn’t happen. It did.
Inked on my arm
My favourite wild place is Castlepoint, Wairarapa. I live 30 minutes away and have been taking closeup photos of the shore for the past five years, even committing some of my favourites to my left arm as tattoos. The imposing Castle Rock looms over the sturdy, wind-blasted lighthouse and looks out to the Pacific: an impossible variety of blues and greens stitched together with white-crested waves. But I love to look down at my feet when on the beaches that stretch out from Castlepoint.
The variety of miniature worlds on view is stunning. Close to the small Castlepoint settlement, the beach is gold to muddy orange with flecks of glittering black volcanic grains marking the edges of channels like veins on the back of an ancient hand or the exposed roots of trees threatening to twist your ankle on a bush path.
Heading north along the shore you walk over sensuous, shockingly nude rocks in mutual embraces. Then lumps of pitted boulders shining with pink algae, green weed and tiny mussels clustered like seeds in a halved papaya. To reach farther north there’s a turnoff just after the golf course and it climbs steeply through solemn, dusky pines. On your left, convoluted folds of strata peak through soil and sand. Then as the road descends these same strata are revealed: sliced by the waves into perfectly straight lines of tombstones stretching out into a sometimes treacherous sea. And the sandscapes continue: lakes of snowy broken shells; collapsing dunes; wind-sculptured miniature canyons; braided kelp; fractal deltas – always changing, always fascinating.
‘After steady scrambling we would finally break free’
My favourite place is a grassy knoll high on a ridge. To the west, the Tasman Sea, a becalmed Kapiti Island, and at my back the corrugated bush clad tangle of the Tararua Range.
Behind the farm where father spent his youth lies a hilly backdrop, a bushy finger. The family name for this finger was the Fifty. On its southern side the Oriwa Ridge, a muddle of broken trees downed by a devastating hurricane in the 1930s. The route to the clearing was through a knotted skein of debris with the Oriwa ridge on the right and the Fifty on the left.
There were no paths, no fence line, only a labyrinth of contours and an instinctive tack through tangled undergrowth, supplejacks, tree ferns, bush lawyer and uprooted trees.
After steady scrambling we would finally break free on to the summit clearing. A fire lit, a newspaper screw of tea produced, a special tin of condensed milk, billy boiled and a mug of tea to savour. Snug in sleeping bag protected by a weatherproof cover and the ground softened with a fern bed, the southern cross overhead, the sound of a distant train lulled me into blissful sleep.
Chased by a wild bull
Since I could walk I’ve always loved the outdoors. I grew up in the Mangamuka Gorge in Hokianga in the late 80s. Me and mum n’ dad, we stayed in a tin roof shack with a small water tank and a gas bottle was used to do the cooking. The long drop was a good five minute walk in the dark with a hurricane lantern and sleep was always heralded by the call of the morepork owl.
We had a dog named Brownie and a horse named Dooley. We used to eat the cat’s eye snails from the mangroves with garlic butter and I’d race my toboggan cut from an old plastic drum down the steep banks in the bush. I remember getting chased by a wild bull in the forest and hiding in the long grass outside the bush knowing it couldn’t spot me. Man those were the days. Since then I’ve become fond of so many beautiful places it’s a hard pick at best, so I’ll throw a quick shout out to a new place. Just recently I was at Stingray Bay in Coromandel. God it was so nice to finally leave Auckland after not having left the city in well over a year. I spotted three stingray while swimming in the pristine clear waters. I gotta say Aotearoa is and always will be a beautiful country.
This magical stretch of water
For seven years in the 1990s, I could see the Mātakitaki River from my kitchen window and hear the rumble of river stones rolling under Horse Terrace Bridge at night. Today, the Mātakitaki is still my awa.
In 1985 I left the coffee-coloured waters of the River Thames behind, and in 1994 found myself living beside a river so clear and blue that my daughter and I could cross on horseback and watch the riverbed ghosting by beneath our horses’ hooves. We heard the calls of ruru, kea and kākā and didn’t understand their peril.
Recently I’ve spent more time in and on this river than any other in Aotearoa or England. It terrifies me – learning white-water kayaking in your 50s is not for the faint-hearted – but it uplifts, energises and washes me clean. I’m a new person after a paddle on the ‘taki. Kayaking became my way to be with this river, with my past, and with my son who grew up learning to roll and ferry and eddy on this magical stretch of water.
Mātakitaki means to observe, to watch. I’ve watched this river for 27 years, and I still can’t take my eyes off it.
A wild hillside with imaginary creatures
We could’ve been sisters except she turned six just two months earlier. Our pre-television New Zealand childhood was conducted outdoors in Te-Whanganui-a-Tara/ Wellington – at my place in the bush behind the henhouse, or on the freesia embankment. I preferred playing on the enchanted hillside behind her house. There we’d slide on shiny strappy flax leaves and tall grasses that bent flat as we passed down to rocks swathed in lichen with creviced dips where insects and dew gathered – tiny pools that varied with cloud, sunlight and tree-shade. We populated our wild hillside with imaginary creatures. Where the track forked we always took the left path on the shadowy side with the child-high weeds.
At home I was mama’s helper with younger siblings. On our hillside, chore-free in school holidays, my chosen sister and I were adventurers in our own wilderness that remains close to my adult heart. Along with my Irish ancestry, it’s why I feel right at home on any hill on the west coast of Ireland. That numinous hillside now resembles a forgotten scrubby slope wedged behind suburban streets. Yet its gateway magic meant later travel was sometimes a half-familiar journey of return with hints of freedom I’d experienced at age six.