It's Time to Fly

People have been asking, "When are you off, Richard?" "When I'm ready," I reply.

Now I'm ready. It's a new moon, New Zealand's unpredictable weather has settled down (for the moment) and there's a 'Village Gathering' party tonight in Grey Lynn when I can say, "See you on the trail, mon brave" to those I want to.

Monday morning is "I'm Off Day". At this stage, I'm hitch-hiking the six or so hours' drive north to Cape Reinga but whenever I mention it, Rosa gets that look in her eyes which tells me, "Over my dead body!"

Still, she humours me as we drive to the hall where the Village Gathering is being held.

These events happen four times a year. Two good friends and occasional walking companions of mine, Roger Monkton and Johnnie Coombs, organise them. I've only been to one before and I'm looking forward to it because for me, it's pure theatre. 100 or so radicals, alternatives, activists, artists, bohemians and unalloyed eccentrics get together to share food, listen to music and poetry, watch fireworks and generally let their hair down on and off the dance floor. There's a lot of hair and it's had a lot of time to grow. The average age of "gatherers" is about sixty so we're talking serious commitment to the cause.

The evening got off to a wonderful start when Rosa was invited to open the Gathering party by blessing the food. We stood in a big circle around tables laden with nut loaves, veggie "glop" of various hues and the odd forlorn wheel of cheese (no doubt brought by those too anxious or rushed to cook).

I kept a close eye on the cheese wheels (I had no intention of starting my travels with a thunderous series of vegetable-induced gases) as we held hands and connected.

Rosa gave a beautiful blessing: "On the eve of my husband's departure, I'd like us to wish him a safe journey as he walks from the top of NZ to the bottom over the next three months."

Silence. I don't know that many people here but hey, come on, a little "Bravo!" would be nice.

Rosa carried on briskly. "Now to bless the food. Mother Nature, who comes to our table as food, endlessly bountiful benefactor of all, we ask that this food is blessed and filled with peace and harmony."

Her lovely voice was as clear as a bell. Silence descended on the room for a sweet moment. Then the circle broke around the tables, like small waves around rocks. "Ladies first, please!" Johnny called. Abashed, hungry men-folk fell back.

Paper plate in hand at last, it was time to look for someone I didn't know.

I found a lonely figure standing shyly by a doorway: tall, thin, bowed, a mop of white curly hair floating like a downy nimbus around his face and shoulders. I introduced myself with my customary polish. He answered so quietly I had to strain to hear his name.

"What do you do?" I asked next.

He offered a shy smile. "I love birds," he said.

"Feathered ones?" I asked. You never can tell at a Village Gathering party.

"Yes, All feathered birds. I love them."

I collected my thoughts while I nibbled the rind off some supermarket Edam. Decision time: do I stay and talk or do I ever-so-politely brush off this avian-obsessed stranger and find someone else to get to know?

The gentleness of his voice helped me decide to stay. I'm glad I did.

He told me about badminton, which he plays once a week.

"What do you like about it?" I asked.

He closed his eyes for a long pause, then opened them again.

"It opens a doorway into parts of me that are dark and usually closed," he said. "And I bring along my birds in six or seven cages and put them along the court. They like to watch the shuttlecock. It teaches them new ways to fly."

"Wow!" I said. "The other players must love you!"

"They call me 'Bird Man,' he said with a sweet smile.

I could have listened to Bird Man all evening. He was a true poet. Is this what St Francis saw in birds?

"I keep my eyes down when I walk," he explained. "I'm looking for wounded birds. I try to heal them myself but when I can't, I take them to the sanctuary. If they die, it puts a hole in my heart which can only be filled by one that lives."

Yes, the time is right to leave the nest.

And there's a hole in my heart and in Rosa's heart. And we'll fill it with stories and experiences along the trail.

We're ready to walk (or maybe hop). Thank you, Bird Man.

I'm off tomorrow. See you on the trail, mon brave.