It’s rare these days that Filip and I have two days off together. In fact, these two days in March may be the last ones I can remember. We decided to get away from Wellington and go exploring in our new car. We drove north, then east, and then south again to the southernmost tip of the North Island, passing both the eyes and the mouth of Maui’s fish.
In Māori mythology the North Island of New Zealand is the ika (fish) that Maui, a mischievous demi-god, fished up from the Pacific Ocean. The South Island is his waka (canoe). This symbolism presupposes the early Māori’s ability and ingenuity to think of Aotearoa (New Zealand) from the vantage point of the heavens. With this picture of the North Island as a fish in mind, look at a map of New Zealand and tilt your head to the left. The Wellington Harbour and Lake Wairarapa are the fish’s eyes and Palliser Bay is the fish’s mouth. Our destination was Cape Palliser, just beyond these facial features, at a point somewhere on the fish’s gaping bottom lip.
In order to travel from the fish’s eyes to its bottom lip, you must go the long way, along the top of the its spine, through the Rimutaka mountains. The Rimutakas, along with the Tararua and Ruahine mountains, form a chain of rolling landscape from the south tip up through the center of the North Island. Each undulation in topography also forms the vertebrae in the mythological fish’s body.
In our little Mazda, we drove down narrow roads that cut and curved through the Rimutaka Ranges. The air grew cooler and the sun began to set, leaving a golden nebulous behind the mountains which stretched across the horizon. The more winding and isolated the roads became, the more spectacular the scene, and the more nauseated I began to feel. Motion sickness is always a palpable, albeit uncomfortable, reminder that I’m somewhere far-flung and beautiful.
We arrived to Cape Palliser by nightfall and set up our tents by the light of our iPhones, fumbling through a pitch-black darkness which we forget exists in cities. We went to sleep to the sound of waves lapping and breaking on rocks, wondering what scenes awaited us in the morning.
I love waking up from camping not knowing the surrounds of where we just slept. In the morning, there is surprise and anticipation to unzip the tent that has obscured our view and swathed us in a tiny, simple world, the outside still a mystery. We greeted other dazed campers waking up slowly in a fog, confused by our chipper attitudes and ceremonial breakfast. We found a picnic table next to the water, made a pot of oatmeal with sliced bananas and enjoyed two steaming cups of coffee.
Later, we went for a slow drive on a gravelly road and stopped to take pictures of oddly placed objects and weatherworn baches with unmistakable facial expressions. We passed no one on the road. There was an eerie silence about this place, but despite the isolated feeling of the landscape, people did live here. Nearby was a small settlement called Ngāwī, whose main source of income is crayfish, but I had the sense that these were private, hermetic people. People who went fishing in the early morning and sat indoors by the window drinking tea and reading the newspaper, who remained unconcerned with the handful of tourists that showed up every now and then, or the rapid changes of the erratic weather outside, or the slow passing of time, while waves crashed rhythmically at their doorstep.
A red and white striped lighthouse perched atop a craggy clifftop became visible after we rounded a turn. It beckoned us further, toward it and a swirling gray and gloomy sky. The 251 narrow, wooden steps that led to the lighthouse’s perch looked like a giant zipper on a grassy coat which kept the hill warm from the chilly gusts of wind that whipped in from the open ocean. There was only one way up and only room for one person on each step, which taught people at the top and bottom of the staircase to be patient. At the top a couple told us about a seal colony, the largest in New Zealand, that lives amongst the rocks just a few minutes down the gravelly road we just came from.
We wait for three people while they huff and puff their way to the top and then descend the 251 steps, this time with renewed energy. We hop in the Mazda and open the windows, scanning the rocky coast for seals.