Walking on Waiheke

7th January 2017

When I think of Waiheke now, a few days after leaving its azure shores for nearby Auckland, it is the sounds I think of most.

The layered birdsong that accompanies late dusk, and is the constant backdrop of day. Birds are more plentiful here, and less inclined to fright. There is confidence in their calls, and in the languid manner in which they clear the walker’s path, just before you might tread on them.

This island has the romantic, cut-out shape of a child’s Treasure Island. Its bays and inlets are multitudinous, and the sound of waves is hardly ever out of earshot. Ah, those waves: the most soothing tinnitus a man can know. In their repetitive whisper, they echo the coddling Hauraki Gulf, and gently suggest the great southern Pacific which lies beyond.

But the sounds on Waiheke come from us people too. We, the embodiment of Nature’s most audacious idea. In New Zealand, I more readily remember that humanity is a proud part of Mother Nature’s design, not some abstracted monstrosity bent on matricide.

I create sound as I walk through the island’s forest floor. The breaking twig, the deep hollow sound of my feet on moist bog, moving a little quicker to avoid mosquitos. There is no progress in perfect silence, I decide.

Suddenly, a sound no agent of Nature could make. The loud, long drag of a float plane fills the air, as it lifts off from an isolated bay. The intensity of effort needed to break free from water can be heard in its throbbing, sonorous wail. For all of its bigness, the sound does not feel misplaced or unwelcome.

From time to time, I pipe music from my smartphone into my ears. I take care in my choices. Sinéad’s Sean-Nós Nua at one stage; John Denver ballads another; the spoken and sung poetry of WB Yeats, arrived at by chance. When I think of it now, each brings a sort of natural, organic calm in the listening.

I am here, not just to visit dear friends, but to walk the trail around the island’s coast – a four day escapade of 100km. It is a decision I have taken on impulse, and with relish.

The marked out trail is an amalgamation of many smaller walks. At times I feel like a herded tourist, drawn into contrived woodland walks which seem to meander with the object of entertaining me, rather than making progress. In populated areas, thousands of timber-enclosed steps allow me to go up and down the island’s undulating hills – linking villages, vineyards and beaches. Each timber rectangle is filled with compacted dirt. Sandboxes, I decide. These steps are like endless, stacked sandboxes, made for progress and play.

Then suddenly, when you think you have the trail under control, it reminds you that Waiheke is not all coiffed ease. Deep ravines and dramatic summits follow, one after another. The ground grows thick and prickly. It is no longer a stroll, but a climb. I drag myself up steep inclines. It is thirsty work. And I am fully alone.

On the third day, I walk into Rocky Bay, in need of supplies for the 15km of hot and hilly walking that afternoon.

But, alas, the village shop has burnt down.

I move to the community hall where an event is in preparation for the evening. It is January 1st, 2017 and 40 people – locals and whoever has thrown anchor in the bay – are expected to celebrate the new year. I fall into conversation with the couple doing the organising. They are the only people here. It is clear from their calm enthusiasm that they are doing their work voluntarily. But they have no food for sale.

I figure I can get by with loads of water, and tell them so. Something in me likes the adventure of living on the edge of scurvy, just for one afternoon.

Dot – her name is Dot – graciously takes my empty water bottles and promises to fill them. She explains how she has already done part of my walk, up to Trig Hill, with her eight-year-old daughter. She relates this with all the freshness of the near past – like it happened last week. Dot is kind. Warm. And perhaps 62 years old.

I resolve to look up ‘New Zealand’s oldest mum’ on Google, once I get a signal.

I chat to her husband about his and Dot’s trekking in Sligo in the 1980s, when the world was young. He has established that I’m Irish.

‘Yeats is my go-to poet these past 50 years’, he says. We talk of Ben Bulben. Of Irish lore. Of his favourite poem (The Second Coming). I do not mention that I have had William Butler in my ears that morning. It seems corny. Contrived. Like I’d be ingratiating myself to him, in thanks for the water.

Dot reappears with a bounty of picnic goodies. Heaps and heaps of welcome calories. Bread. Cheese. Biscuits. Plums. As well as two large water bottles.

A rush of gratitude comes upon me. I feel like the richest of men, in an island of plenty. I pack the supplies into my rucksack and say thank you. It is the deep thanks that transcends words and marks an act of kindness that will live forever, within me.

‘The centre cannot hold’ Yeats had said in that famous poem we had briefly discussed. I meditate on this as I make my way to the beach beyond the Community Hall.

Can that be true?

Maybe. But not for me. Not now. Not with Dot’s picnic on my back, and Waiheke’s birdsong in my ears. I feel lightness in my step. Because this afternoon, I decide, the centre is holding very nicely.

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