When I am exploring the world (remember all that?), I write a travel blog, to help me make sense of where I am, and understand how I feel about it. Okarito featured in February 2019, in my blog lazgoez2oz.com Reproduced here in full...
M is beautiful. He smells of the bush, and his dark curly hair partly obscures a weather beaten face. Beneath his clothes you sense quiet, efficient muscles which might once have been a surfer’s. He wears badly ripped jeans, that show a colour tattoo of a map of the world on his right thigh. You wonder if it’s an affectation. He moves constantly without shifting his feet. He looks without moving his head: his eyes swivel in their sockets. He knows what you mean before you speak. Some say he’s from Sweden or South Africa, but he was born in Canada. Anyway, that’s irrelevant now. The small hamlet of Okarito has been home for 10 years.
This place lies seaward of Mt Cook and Mt Tasman, the highest points in the Southern Alps. Together with nearby glaciers, Frans Josef and Fox, they form an area of high majesty – and tourism. Here, I joined others in a chopper ride and walk, on Shackleton Glacier, hiked up Frans Josef and around Lake Matheson. I was extremely lucky to avoid busloads of tourists. The landslide last week had forced the tour operators to panic and cancel trips up and down the west coast.
But I’d got through with the help of Pregnant P. As she lay in her hospital bed in Hokitika, waiting to be induced, she still couldn’t do enough for me. She navigated me down the coast keeping an eye on the community boards and FM radio, letting me know the short times they were opening the road to let traffic through. I drove through the slide, with trees and mud and gravel piled high above my truck on both sides. A biblical parting. I sang the old James Taylor song to myself as I went through…
‘There’s nothing like the sound of sweet soul music to change a young lady’s mind / there’s nothing like a walk down by the bayou to leave this old world behind / Mud Slide I’m depending on you, oh Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon…’
P lives in Okarito with her partner R, who I chatted to when P was otherwise engaged (welcome to the world, Robert Patrick! All 10lbs 3oz of you!). There’s a permanent population here, of 8 to 30 people, depending on who you speak to. It’s a flat wetland where sandfly roam and pick you off ten times a day. There are many more second home owners, like J and T, my next door neighbours, who invited me in for a beer. She was intellectual, he dealt in sheep IVF. But still they couldn’t answer my question ‘So, tell me one thing you don’t like about New Zealand?’ The best they could do was kick Australia for forced repatriation of white and Mauri undesirables, even if they’d been born in Oz and never set foot here. And residual casual racism. That was it, nothing else. ‘It is paradise.’
Also in Okarito I tried to make friends with S – a withdrawn handsome man in his late 50s, for whom the lagoon is everything. We went out on his flat bottomed boat one still clear morning to see the Great White Heron, kingfishers, spoonbills and a host of other beautiful birds, lolling about in the sand flats while the sun glinted off Mt Cook. They’re trying to get this area protected – but its sheer isolation helps it anyway. There are just enough tourists like me to keep it all viable. But they can’t even get the garbage picked up here. His partner P takes me on a trip round the village. Shows me where the meagre sea defences have been breached, shows me where the salt water kills the trees. Tells me stories of artists and writers who have come, stayed and gone.
I love it here. I was expecting to want to run away: when non TC decided not to come, I almost cancelled, but thank you J so much for having told me about this place.
M takes me and a few other straggling tourists out for a night in the bush to find Kiwis. This, after all, is what keeps M here. We get togged up, mosquito hats, no technology, no repellant, no lights cameras or watches, put our boots on, and ride out to the remote bush. It’s 8pm and we’re just starting. The light falls, and we’re instructed how to keep quiet. Later, someone who hasn’t eaten that evening constantly disturbs our group with his tummy rumbling. By the time we’re really on the case, in the dark, around 11pm, you can’t see or hear anything else, apart from the sounds of the Jurassic rainforest. Owls, frogs, possums, Kiwis calling to one another and a myriad of rustling sounds in the undergrowth.
All the while, M is pacing to and fro, leaving us at times for 15 minutes in the silent black night. It’s been pouring with rain today which means the Kiwi don’t have to travel to find food, it’s there underfoot. They are soundless tonight. It’s incredibly difficult for us to move silently amongst the bush, as water sloshes around our ankles, or comes dripping noisily from ferns we brush past. It’s getting colder. M signals to us to crouch, and the guy with the tummy coughs. 20 minutes wasted as the Kiwi scuttles off unseen. I want to throttle the guy. More tracking as M moves soundlessly along the hidden paths he knows so well, floating, using only the red light he has – which Kiwis cannot see. We move in single file, hands on shoulders of the person in front. The person behind me is shivering, I can tell. I can even tell the person at the back is getting bored – I can hear her feet starting to drag a little.
M motions us to stop. He crouches. We follow down in formation, as instructed, left, right, centre. There ahead of us is a beautiful Kiwi, feeding on the path, nonchalantly. Inspecting, probing, eating, scurrying, stopping, returning, ten feet away from me. We barely breathe. We don’t even switch weight from foot to foot. The bird seems oblivious to us. But maybe she’s been tracking us these last few hours, and has decided she trusts us.
It’s been one of M’s Top 5 most difficult night he tells us. The rain during the day, the wind, the moonless night, the skittishness of this type of Kiwi, the Rowi, the smallest and least numerous. He doesn’t mention the tummy rumbling. We’ve been out now for 6 hours, and we start our way back to the truck. We’re almost there when even I can hear the distinct footsteps of a Kiwi close by. They are heavy, flightless birds, and have developed strong hind quarters, and heavy dense, sturdy legs. They might be reclusive and cute, but subtle they are not. We’re in a clearing, M moves quickly and silently, beckoning us to do the same. For once the tummy rumbler is silent. And now, meandering along, in front of our line, sauntering, lingering, comes a Kiwi as close to me as this screen is to you. I could bend down and touch it, if I dared move and let everyone else in the team down. I want to stroke its fine feathers, I would even stroke its beak.
It wanders off like a dream. I realise I’m not cold any more, the moon is rising, M is smiling, and I have a warm bed waiting for me back in Okarito.