New Year Odyssey

Last day of 2006...

Nine boys from our Auckland Sri Chinmoy Centre are spending a few days away over New Year, an unhurried ramble by car, looping 700 miles around the northern part of New Zealand. No maps, no plans, the winds of impulse and whimsy filling our sails. I love landscapes, opt to sit in a back seat exempt from chatter, watch instead the ever new beauty of life unravelling all around. We head north early, over the arched spine of the Harbour Bridge and out through multiplying suburbs, industrial estates, a green field dotted with white cricketers, someone running up to bowl.

Then slowly for a time through motorway construction, yellow clay scraped bare, black irrigation piping coiled like sleeping anacondas, a tired all night crew flagging us down. Out at last into country, a hawk scrambling up from a roadside mat of fur and bone, calm fields of contoured grasses, yellow bleached under the harsh burning of summer. Squat grey pylons march away across farmlands, raptor shapes, skeletal hanging arms dragging cables across valleys, on down to the coast, the shoreline's musket blaze of scarlet blossoming pohutukawa, coruscations of light through fast-tracking trees, glimpses of shimmering grey-blue sea, the pencil lines of pale islands at furthermost rim of earth. Gumbooted fishermen, redolent of cod and gasoline, fix roadside signs – oysters, scallops, fresh fish, crays, this mornings catch.

Tane Mahuta – lord of the forestNorth we go, a caravanserai at the waning of the old year, travelling a sweet-flowing road that curves like a ribbon through soft hills on into another year of promises and hopes and surprises. Contours of hills free flowing too, the smooth nape of earth, overlapping ridgelines folding into step-back silhouettes against pale sky. Skylines merging, blending like folded arms.

Now at a junction we turn down a dusty gravel road towards the sea, stones pinging off the metal underbellies of the cars. A wide tidal flat, beyond calm sea; swimming and playing for an age in the clear waters. Two hundred metres from shore thousands of black seabirds slash and scavenge, dense-packed over a sea boiling with harried silver fish, shoals herded by the lightning blur of kingfish – in depths of sunlit jade the dark lurking of dolphins. The sea churns in a frenzy of living and dying, the unabating raids of gape-jawed predators tearing through the panicked, huddled shoals.

At Dargaville, two hours north, a lunch break in a café then on to Waipoua Forest, home of the largest kauri remnants, a range of folded mountains where kiwis still thrive. Here a glimpse into a beautiful past. The great tree monarchs seem more of stone than sap and wood, the dark scales of bark with their smooth hammer-like indentations the armour of some prehistoric thing. Two thousand years old. Bashful snaps of tree-hugging, Tarzan poses, swinging from vines trailing down from the wide spreading crowns where nests of hanging ferns bunch and thrive.

A cellphone rings, a voice asks where are you? Danny lost out there on a country road in a big wide valley dotted with Lilliputian cottages and hay barns, crouched over a map spread across the hot car bonnet. Coursing like hares down country lanes till we find him. There he is, lounging beneath the shade of an acorn bough, all around poplars and the grandeur of old kapok trees, drizzle of white fluff like snow banks lining the roads. In an empty nearby paddock an old homestead with rusted roof, open doorways and gaping windows like empty eye sockets, poignant shell of a dead generation, imagining autumn winds howling through. And as always never far away, the jumbled skyline of forested mountains with their variegated greens and deep shadowed valleys while above the wind brushed skeins of summer cirrus.

Evening is creeping in. We drive up another gravel road to our lodgings for the night, Okarito Lodge, bunk beds and a communal kitchen on the side of a mountain, either this or camping in a lumpy paddock somewhere down the line. Andy our bearded host stands on a hillock looking at his vege garden and I ask him about the local hills. Mistake. He's off and half an hour later he's still hard-talking, of Maori legends, opossum populations, pig hunts, the family genealogy, tractors, his early years truck-driving in Queensland, his most memorable fishing expeditions, daughter doing well at Uni, organic gardening, neighbours good and bad, his private arsenal of firearms – an old snipers .303, some illicit stuff that draws a conspiratorial wink, several shotguns in varying gauges, a short barrelled scattergun for night prowlers. Yeah, he says, you wouldn't believe about that...

Anecdotes too about each of the derelict car wrecks up in the back paddock, wheels gone, hoods up, dissolving into rust and long grass and rain – I can tell you a story about them, he warns, does that, on and on. I'd like to say, they're an awful eyesore Andy, get them to a wrecker but Andy won't pay heed to an upstart city slicker. Then reminiscing about a long-ago cattle muster still seared into memory like a branding iron, herding a half-wild mob out of the steep bluff country and dark forest and the new shepherd's dogs pushing too hard, fifty head of cattle over a cliff in the dark.

My local knowledge is now encyclopedic – a book maybe? Andy barely notices when I thank him and walk away, he still tugging at sentences, eyes self-absorbed and immersed in the long unfurling of his life.

Northland sand hillsA late awful dinner of baked beans and hard potatoes, lashings of redemptive pasta almost cooked. That night, mind still reeling from Andy's expletives and blowtorch life, I dream of riding at the rear of 400 bush cattle, straggling down late under blazing stars, a fern-lined ridge track, dark banks of glow worms, mud a foot deep, trail jammed with steaming, bawling cows but stop before reliving their awful plunge.

Then to wake around 3am, seized by hunger. Pitch black night. Stumbling around, careful not to wake the other's heavy breathing, bemused by the unfamiliar bunkhouse, hands sliding across the walls, searching for things that might give a clue to lights, doors, windows. Morepork are calling from the invisible folds of hills, rain is thrumming on the sheets of fibrolite roofing, curtains of grey sliding over the dark land. First dawn of the New Year. Across the tops of plum trees, cloud blanketed valleys far away materialize out of night, the slow contours of dark hills against a paling grey sky.

We sit in plastic chairs on the wooden verandah decking to meditate. Sri Chinmoy's photo in my much-travelled portable shrine is there before me on the balustrade, a reminder of what for me is ultimately and only real and true, and then, too, of what is not real and not true in the endless verisimilitude of life. Then to sing one song while incoming dawn extinguishes stars, light flowing above the orchards, magpies caroling over in the paddocks and pines. The first day of the New Year, but I make no promises – though hopes still linger. Especially the one that I never forget why I am really here, another that I never break the golden cord that ties me to my teacher. And, though less importantly, the hope to sometimes enjoy (at least a little) playing leading man in the awkward drama-dream of my own life – yes, to be happy!

Breakfast – another attempt at last night's failed potatoes – a forest run then a cold-water shower. The electricity has gone out during the night when a reveler drove into a power pole. Mid-morning we cross the Hokianga harbour by boat, the receding crest of our wake a white road across a beryl green sea, waves slap-banging on the aluminium hull. Across the wide harbour sun-flooded golden dunes shine wave after wave, banking up 800 ft to a high smooth skyline – far above, cloud wisps hang like condors riding thermals, hovering high up in the blue. Ashore, steep golden sand hills plunge into the sea and we slide down them endlessly on curled boards, the velocity carrying us 30 metres out into the clear tide. Screams of other children skimming out into the harbour's lazy calm.

I trudge up to the far skyline, a half hour slog, up to a place of beauty and isolation and vistas, feet bare in the warm yellow sand. From a high outpost you look north along 70 miles of shoreline, the deep blue ocean a vast tablecloth rumpled with white borders where slow rollers break. Past here, the winds have scoured the plateau back to bony outcrops, ironpans, strange shapes of sculpted harsh sandstone. Here too, raw and deep ravines, cavernous wounds gouged out of the headlands by something inexplicable, sink holes where you would never be found nor find your way out of if caught, blocks of misshapen sandstone, deformed and malign. An eerie place of troubled landscape, den of spirits.

From far up on the skyline I see our Maori boatman returning, a faraway silver dot inching across an emerald meadow, a meteorites white tail across the falling green tide. At last the bow crunching onto the sand. Good natured and with a raft of local jokes, our pilot looks unwell; the last hours of the old year saw much unbridled revelry and the first hours of the new year are exacting their toll.

Patvakan's car is having problems and in the village of Opononi, we switch from four to three vehicles, abandoning the old Honda in a gravel yard. The kind local dairy owner points to the back of her section for safe keeping – tomorrow we'll be back through.

Auckland city

And here we split up, myself with two friends one-way, the others turning at a road fork to the north. Four hours down the eastern side of the island we go, through small rural villages where Maori families grow corn and potatoes, trap eels in the creeks, then coastal holiday towns filled with shoppers, jandaled strollers, nut-brown, neat rows of boats in marinas. At last home, glad to be back in my own place.

Wandering the nooks and crannies and beautiful places of earth is fun, though only offers a brief reprieve from the serious stuff of attaining that other and more fulfilling freedom at the end of all striving. The Greek poet Cavafy reminds us of this: "No ship exists to take you from yourself." And this from Sri Chinmoy's vast anthology of writings and gold nuggets on freedom:

Earth -freedom:
Disastrous madness.
Harmonious oneness.
Prosperous surrender.

But it's nice now and then to break out and roam to a far horizon...

    – Jogyata.