‘There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, ‘Morning boys. How’s the water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, ‘What the hell is water?’ DAVID FOSTER WALLACE
‘Beyond the beauty of external forms, there is more here: something that cannot be named, something ineffable, some deep, inner, holy essence. Whenever and wherever there is beauty, this inner essence shines through. It only reveals itself to you when you are present.’ ECKHART TOLLE
‘Beauty is some kind of laser connection to higher worlds.’ VOYTEK KURTYKA, the world’s most extreme and visionary alpinist
The book will be out in May 2015. You can pre-order a signed copy of THE SMALLEST CONTINENT here
From the summit of Aoraki/Mount Cook you can see the curvature of the earth, though this maybe a trick of perspective since, with nowhere higher to go, up here you feel not only on top of the visible world but at the centre of it too. To the south, the summit ridge — New Zealand’s Highest Mile — runs towards the two lower peaks, sharp and jagged, like a westerly wave frozen at the moment of cresting, and, way below, though Antarctic in its grandeur , the twenty-seven-kilometre-long Tasman Glacier is but a thin squiggle of white, the shape of a question mark. East and west you can see both oceans, and to the north a choppy sea of snow-white peaks all the way to the horizon.
Aoraki is a huge mountain by any standards and this is not just because Sir Ed Hillary cut his mountaineering teeth here, before ‘knocking off’ the Big One. If you’d travelled, as he did, into the heart of the Nepalese Himalayas, where mountains crowd the sky above the Khumbu Valley, and imagined Aoraki there, it would make a fine companion to the earth’s highest peaks. The summit of Everest would still dwarf it by some 500 metres, but Lhotse would be about the same height and the nearby Cho Oyu 200 metres lower. The relative height of Aoraki, from its base in the glacial moraines to the wind-sculpted summit, approaches 3000 metres, and so from below, from the flat, desert-like Mackenzie Country, the mountain cuts an imposing figure.
From the summit the views are grander still, though the place does not encourage epiphanies or contemplations. On one side the sun burns with the intensity of a welding torch; in its shadows the frost is equally fierce. This is one of those rare places where you can get sunburnt and frostbitten at the same time.
There is also that constant if vague sense of unease that we are really only halfway through our twenty-hour escapade and that the descent, in the armour-plate ice conditions we had struck, will be harder and slower than the climb itself. The clock is ticking and we are a long way from home.
But still we linger, mesmerised by the views, enchanted by the absolute stillness, reluctant to leave, knowing too well that we should. These are snatched moments of almost transcendental beauty and I for one don’t want to break the spell. The silence here is multi-layered, like an orchestral arrangement, not just the absence of all sound but something to listen to, to fall into . . . seductive like a siren’s song, and just as dangerous.
Finally we can dally no longer. Utilitarian sounds creep in — crampons grinding on hard ice, snorting of runny noses, the rustle of wind-shell clothing, gurgling of a hot drink poured out of the thermos. Although the reality remains unchanged, our perception of it alters. Magic and poetry recede, and we return to more pedestrian considerations of survival.
We start down the mountain, abseiling the Summit Rocks, clawing our way down the steep ice that never softened, facing the mountain, our ice tools and crampons exacting a steady staccato 4/4 rhythm.
Thump! Thump! Ice-axe! Ice-hammer! Left foot. Right foot. Ice-axe. Hammer. Thump! Thump!
Each stab of steel chips away shards of ice and sends them hissing down the curtain-like flank of the mountain. We climb down steadily and deliberately, aware of our fatigue which can cloud judgement, exacerbate danger. Aware too that we are carrying within us something delicate and immeasurably precious, something worth bringing back. The view from the summit, a peak encounter with the landscape.
* * *
What hidden powers lie within the landscape, what indelible spells it can cast upon us. I have forgotten names of lovers, the delicious topography of their figures and curves but, even though my climb of Aoraki happened years ago now, I need only to close my eyes to recall that summit view with all the detail of an Ansel Adams photographs: the lines of breakers rolling in from the Tasman Sea, the striated bands of rainforest coming up to meet the glaciers, the blinding-white sawtooth profiles of receding ranges, the surreal turquoise blue of the lake.
For the past twenty years I have been fortunate to work with some of the world’s most illustrious geographical magazines and, better still, their visionary editors who burnt with both curiosity and an appetite for good tales. We would brainstorm ideas — always a two-way process — choose the most appealing ones, and then they would send me off, a hound on a scent, to sniff out, hunt and gather, and to fetch the stories from the land.
For me, this was effectively ‘we’re cutting you loose’ licence to roam and explore, and to live many lives, often at a considerable expense and without briefs, synopses or guidelines, the only unspoken but inviolable prerequisite being that I would always come back with a good story. And since I never failed them, with time the editors came to think of those commissions not as gambles but as worthwhile if sometimes eccentric investments.
This trust allowed me to indulge a multiplicity of interests, both core and peripheral, and to find many new ones too. Some of those at first seemed unappealing, but I engaged with them all the same, following the wisdom of an early mentor who cautioned me to ‘look for the extraordinary in everyday life’ because ‘there were no boring stories, only boring writers’.
I found out early on that it was the people — the characters — who were at the heart of each story. They were both the motor and the fuel for every narrative, but as I travelled and lived each of my assignments I found it was impossible to separate the people from the landscapes. The forms, moods and seasons of the land permeated people’s lives, inspired and shaped them, showed in their work, attitudes, often in their countenance, in their hands, their sense of identity.
Trying to depict people outside the landscape in which they lived, in which their story occurred, produced abstract, two-dimensional figures, uprooted and unengaging. It was like painting a portrait without a background or, worse, without the canvas on which it belonged.
Along the way, I had many more Aoraki moments with the land and its inhabitants. Watching a whale tail slide into the ocean ink against the snowy backdrop of the Seaward Kaikouras. Hefting a ten-ounce nugget of raw pure gold found in a mountain river and running my hand against the scalloped and perfectly youthful bark of a kauri tree as old as the time of Jesus. Floating through the cathedral grandeur of underwater caves beneath the Poor Knights Islands and flying low over the golden-white beach of western Kahurangi, the stands of nikau palms planted like darts, their coiffures those of old-fashioned feather dusters. Without realising it at first, or not putting it into words at least, I began looking more closely at landscapes, their power and the meaning they have in our lives.
* * *
Outside my door the sea is breathing heavily. Its exhalations are short and explosive, violent blasts of white water that bulldoze the stony beach and crumble the rocks that guard it. There are brief moments of silence before the sea begins to draw another breath, sucking itself in with a slow asthmatic hiss, raking the gravel as it goes out, gathering itself for another blow. Sometimes I sit on the porch, in an old wicker chair, and synchronise my breathing with it. Like the Aoraki silence, the sensation is comforting, the rhythm natural and entrancing, and, after a while, impossible to get out of tune with. It stays with me as I go about my days. The breathing of the sea.
I am living in a rented bach along the Paparoa coast — my own attempt at a Thoreauvian ‘cabin in the woods’ and ‘living deliberately’ — and this heaving sea is my closest neighbour. The bach, nick-named Biscuit Tin, is a simple corrugated iron and plywood affair, painted bush-green, with rusty red trimmings, floorboards that slant in every which way and a weathered wooden deck facing the sea. The deck is a miniature museum of beachcombing existence: bits of driftwood that resembled something to someone, stones and shells, a faded buoy, a decaying cray pot with a rope stiffened by sun and salt, a blue-and-yellow flipper. My own additions include a stone calendar: a dark grey rock to mark each day’s beach walk and white egg-shaped quartzites for Sundays.
Every day, using leathery flax leaves for handrails, I climb the steep track leading down to the beach. The air is always hazy here, thick with sea mist that settles on my face and clothing like fine dust and makes my lips taste salty. Short of being on a boat I could not live any closer to the sea.
There was a time in my life — early and formative — when I used to live for the mountains. Any landscape without them was unappealing, lacking visual interest, flat and boring. Back then, we climbed in every spare moment, and at other times too, skipping school, postponing work. When I could not go climbing, I would pull out my rope and hold it to my face like a bouquet of wildflowers, inhaling its fragrance. It smelled of lichens, limestone and granite, pure mountain air and freedom. It got me through the down days.
We returned from the climbs to huts or camps, and we bragged about our exploits the way the Second World War fighter pilots may have come down from their air battles, still high on adrenalin, feeling invincible and above the mundane concerns of quotidian existence. Seeing ourselves as the poets of the vertical rock and ice, romantics of the mountain vistas, who could be moved to tears by a sunset but who also had enough tenacity to tough out a fourteen-hour hanging bivouac in minus twenty degrees Celsius. Mortality, too, was a theoretical concept back then, like an exotic disease affecting others, but from which we ourselves were immune.
I came to New Zealand in my early twenties because of the mountains, and immediately gravitated towards Tongariro National Park, Aoraki, Mount Aspiring and Fiordland, as if they were the only features in the landscape. But, after the initial hunger was satiated, when I was no longer obsessed by looking up and allowed myself for the first time to look around, I discovered an entire continent’s worth of diversity. Beaches both subtropical and subantarctic, orange groves and penguins, glaciers, fiords and rainforest, caves and volcanoes, tundra and a desert, rivers with the best trout in the world and oceans of untold secrets. All neatly compacted into three main islands, friendly and easily accessible, a lifetime of exploration and learning. New Zealand landscapes have opened my eyes to the world at large and so I’ve begun to think of the country as the smallest continent.
At first, this realisation brought about a blitz of activities, an obsession for accumulating experiences. With the same ardour I climbed, I learnt to scuba dive and explored the coasts, the kelp forests of Stewart Island, marine wildlife of Kaikoura, the shipwrecks of Marlborough Sounds, caves and freshwater springs, and of course the Poor Knights Islands. I kayaked the fiords, the sounds and the golden bays, rafted and fished the rivers, cycled every trail I could find, prospected for gold, visited all national parks, saw the iconic birds and animals in the wild. I was on the move most of the time, and never at peace, finding validation in Bruce Chatwin’s Anatomy of Restlessness, not yet realising that the cure for itchy feet was not to run faster, and to more places, but to stop and examine the feet themselves, and the land upon which they stood.
When a prominent international magazine ran a story on ‘100 must-do things in New Zealand’ I saw that I could tick nearly all of them off, and offer plenty more enticing alternatives. It was about the same time that I became aware that I was going too fast, the landscapes in which I adventured passing by in a blur, always there, but at times almost invisible because of my inattention to them. Rushing from one escapade to another, bagging peak experiences on the run, does not lend itself to epiphanies in the landscape.
As my guitar teacher once pointed out, in music, rests are as important as the notes for without them all you get is just noise. So it seems with the landscape too. The true communion with the land, the noticing and the appreciation, happen in the pauses and silences that punctuate the action. It took me nearly a decade to slow down enough to be able to breathe with the sea.
* * *
The stories in this volume are a collection of my favourite encounters with New Zealand landscapes, both in adventures and contemplations, a personal journey in uncovering their intricacies, perhaps also a record of growing up in my perception of landscapes and the sense of our place within them. They reflect the quest for balance between the notes and the rests, words and silences, doing and being.
I still travel extensively in the landscapes of my smallest continent. I ski and fly fish, ride and climb, tramp and camp, continue pursuing the stories of the land. But the compulsive greed to accumulate these experiences is gone, the ‘bucket list’ no longer burning in my hands.
The landscape, though seemingly timeless, has taught me to pay attention to the present moment, for it is possible, and likely, to go for a most beautiful walk in the world and be so caught up in your mind and its dramas, you can miss the experience entirely, so that the walk becomes just a mechanical movement through scenery, without engaging with it, and that is such a waste. And so, every time I am in the landscape now, I train myself not to go faster and further but to go deeper, as T S Eliot wrote (’), ‘and know the place for the first time’. Every time.
Much has been written about the role of landscapes and our place within them because questioning them, and examining the answers, appears as important to the human quest for knowledge as enquiring into our own identity. To my mind, many of these enquiries seem overly cerebral, lost in their own eloquence and sophistication, concocting big words like topophilia (the love of landscape) and psychogeography, while devoting minimal time and space to the direct experience itself.
Yet to understand a landscape is not a theoretical pursuit. It is to be with that landscape, immersed both in its breadth and details, not talking about it, but letting it talk. The glimmers of larger truth and insights that come from this may not be communicable to others because the messages from the landscapes are largely wordless and non-conceptual. The best the words can do is to inspire you to get out there and into the landscape, to have a direct experience of that to which the words point.
Henry David Thoreau hinted at it already in the 1850s, as did Waldo Emerson, the inimitable Edward Abbey, and New Zealand’s own Charlie Douglas, all of whom spent inordinate amounts of time alone in natural landscapes. Most of the world’s indigenous cultures also related to the land around them in non-verbal and non-conceptual terms, though invariably with reverence and by ascribing unseen powers and qualities to various features in their landscapes: rocks, springs, mountains and rivers, trees and gorges, sunsets and solstices. Until we nearly obliterated their traditions with our ‘know-it-all’ religious zealotry and technological dominance so that now much of it seems lost and we have to rediscover it all for ourselves.
And it is there to be found, because that wisdom which is at the heart of all spiritual and religious traditions is like the nuggets of pure gold you will encounter later in this narrative. It may be obscured, buried or hidden, but it is indestructible and impossible to tarnish, waiting for us to rediscover it. Recently, drawing on his own direct and most profound experiences, Eckhart Tolle restated this wisdom in a way that brings our relationship with the landscapes — with the life around us — into a wider perspective: ‘Everything is alive. The sun, the earth, animals, humans,’ Tolle writes in his mega-seller The Power of Now. ‘Even a stone has rudimentary consciousness; otherwise, it would not be.’
The most recent cutting-edge research in quantum physics begins to confirm that too, offering for our consideration game-changing ideas that within the universe, nothing is separate from the rest, hinting at a real possibility that William Blake’s ‘the world in a grain of sand’ may not be just a poetic figure of speech.
* * *
I once lived in the Swiss Alps where I came across the concept of hausberg, literally a home mountain. The local tradition has it that a person needs a mountain with which he or she has a particularly deep and personal affinity. The mountain needn’t be anything dramatic, no Matterhorn or Eiger, a simple hill will do, what’s critical is the strength of the connection.
A hausberg is the hideaway where you play as a child, and where, later, you may seek solitude during life’s tempests, or a place to share with your loved ones and only the closest of friends. In New Zealand, I’ve learnt that a hausberg does not need to be a mountain. It can be a beach, a river, a path in the woods, an ocean-view hilltop, an urban sanctuary, but whatever it is, as the epicentre of your personal heartland, it’s the landmark which springs to mind when you think of home and the power point where you connect with it. And it seems as if we are compelled by gravity, to go to this place regularly, in order to recalibrate and recharge and let the inner pendulum of hopes and anxieties find its natural balance again.
Finding your own personal connection point with the landscape gets you to ask all the right questions, even if the answers may not be immediately forthcoming. A nomad at heart, I have several such power spots and they change with the seasons,. Some, like my favourite rivers, are too personal to name or mention, but most are included in this volume.
Indulge in your favourite activities and have adventures in this smallest continent of ours, whether it is a beach walk, ride or a paddle, fish or a dive, a most radical line in the mountains, or anything in between, because ultimately it’s your own direct experiences with the landscapes is what matters most.
Just make sure you pause often enough. Look and listen.
Let the land speak.
The book will be out in May 2015. You can pre-order a signed copy of THE SMALLEST CONTINENT here