The breathless day seemed endless. I fished out my bright-green travel towel and fashioned a sun shade for my neck by tucking one edge under my hat, and the other under the solar panel on the pack lid. While I plodded southwards under this awning, a few cars hissed past on the hard, flat sand left by the receding tide. The occupants, remote behind their windows, seemed to cruise by in a trance. Air-conditioning, Coldplay on the stereo and iced soft drinks insulated them from my reality, or, so I fantasised.
The first watercourse showed only as a trail of damp sand. I licked my dry lips and carried on. Near the second shallow stream, a Maori man wearing tattered board shorts, a singlet and a smile pedalled around me on a rusty bicycle, flanked by two friendly dogs. “Water?” I croaked. “Just there, bro,” he pointed. I flopped into the shallow stream fully clothed. My companion dismounted, tossed a water bottle to me and grinned while I drained it.
Replenished, I sat across the narrow stream, pulled out my overweight stove, lit it and scooped water into a pot.
“Cup of tea or coffee?” I asked.
“Awesome, bro. Thanks,” he flashed another quick smile.
His name was Pete. I sensed a sensitive person with a big history and a retreat from the perils of the wider arena, scared to move on lest he make another mistake. Northland is Maori land, a world within a world, with its culture, history, taboos and customs. Reputedly, secret marijuana plantations protected by attack dogs, sensors and guards flourish in hidden glades amidst the forests.
After a cautious appraisal on both sides, I accepted his invitation to rest at his house, a hundred metres beyond the dunes. After the white-hot sand of the beach, Pete’s place, a small freshly painted white cottage set among fruit trees, vegetable gardens and a green lawn framed by pine trees, soothed me. I thought, “Gosh! I wouldn’t mind living here.” We shelled fresh pipis, sipped tea and munched on homemade buttered bread while the dogs panted in the shade of an old picnic table and bench.
“Found it on the beach,” he grinned. “You’re a beachcomber,” I said. He laughed. “Yeah, bro. That’s the truth.” He was more than a beachcomber, though. A self-appointed guardian for this section of beach, he patrolled it daily for sick or injured penguins, seabirds and dolphins, for food and bounty, and for tired trampers.
“Been here eight years and I’m seeing big changes,” he said. I told him about the shark and he grimaced. “Lot more dead animals on this beach,” he said, a note of genuine mourning in his voice. Then he flashed his smile. “Lot more trampers to keep me company!”
We talked about Maori ways and connection with their land. Inside the cottage, he showed me a book of maps, legends and place names put together by his iwi’s (tribe’s) corporate body. I pored over it and a new world open before me. “That’s where you’re going tonight, The Bluff,” he said, pointing. An inset in the text showed that every rock jutting out from the headland bore a Maori name. “Names and stories passed down through the generations,” I thought.
Pete cooked me what he called “kai” or dinner: fresh kawahai he had caught that morning, fried lightly in butter until the meat barely flaked, yellow on the outside, white, tender and juicy beneath. On the beach, the sun was setting. Here, in tranquillity, his refuge glowed in patterns of green and gold illuminated by the sinking sun beyond the pine trees.
I began to gather my gear in the twilight. He offered a bunk for the night. I thanked him but said I wanted to walk. Even though my body screamed for rest, reaching The Bluff had fixated me. He said he would keep me company for an hour or so.
At full nightfall, we walked with the bicycle and dogs down to the beach and turned south. The dogs trotted into the dunes. “They’ll catch a possum soon,” he said. We reached a driftwood log and paused. A pair of squawking seabirds fluttered overhead in the dark, warning us away from a hidden nest. I jumped when the dogs arrived in a sudden rush. A dark furry shape hung from the bitch’s mouth.
“Possum. He finds them, and she catches them,” Pete smiled. His teeth glinted in the moonlight. The dog released the possum and sat back, tail wagging in the sand. Pete plucked the fur from the lifeless body with swift wrenching tugs.
Suddenly, a skinning knife shone in his hand. I did not know whether to run or stay. The blade flashed ias he gutted and quartered the hairless carcass. He tossed two pieces to each dog. Strong teeth crunched on bones. Whether through exhaustion or paranoia, I felt spooked. The seabirds still swooped and cried overhead, anxious for their chicks. I politely waited until the dogs had finished before I stood up. “Well, I’d better be going, Pete,” I said. “I’ve got a long walk before I sleep.” We shook hands and I thanked him for his hospitality. Pacing the margin between sand and water, suspended on reflected moonlight, I sensed his gaze until until darkness concealed us.