The Beachcomber

While plodding on southwards in the heat of the day, a number of cars hissed past on the hard, flat sand left by the lowering tide, the occupants remote behind their windows.

At one of those infrequent freshwater courses that leak from the dunes, I met a Maori chap wearing tattered board shorts, a singlet and a smile as big as Stevie Wonder’s. He was pedalling a rusty bicycle, flanked by two friendly dogs.

I flopped on the margin of prickly grass and burning sand, and more or less rolled over into the shallow water fully-clothed, where I blew bubbles of relief. A dog joined me.

My companion watched all this in silence. I got out my fat stove and lit it.

“Cuppa tea or coffee?” I asked.

He shook his head but we started talking, getting to know each other. His name was Pete. He was 46. He had a big history and had retreated from the perils of the wider world, wiser perhaps but burned, scared to move on lest he make another mistake.

An hour or so later, he invited me up to his house a hundred metres beyond the dunes and I accepted.

After the white hot sand of the beach, his place was a welcome oasis of fruit trees, vegetable gardens and a green lawn framed by pine trees on which stood a small white cottage, freshly painted.

While water boiled, Pete showed me around. He grew all his own food.

Then we sat, shelling fresh pipis, sipping tea and munching on home-made buttered bread, while the dogs panted in the shade of the old picnic table and bench.

“Found it on the beach,” he grinned.

“You’re a beachcomber,” I said.

He laughed. “Yeah, bro. That’s the truth.”

But he was more than a beachcomber. He was the self-appointed guardian for this section of beach, patrolling it daily for sick or injured penguins, seabirds and dolphins. And for booty. And for trampers.

“Been here eight years and I’m seeing big changes.”

I told him about the shark (was it only this morning?) and he grimaced.

“Lot more dead animals on this beach,” he said, a note of genuine mourning in his voice.

Then he flashed his smile. “Lot more trampers, too. They keep me company!"

We talked about Maori ways and connection with their land. He took me inside the cottage and showed me a book of maps, legends and place names put together by his iwi’s corporate body. I pored over it, fascinated, a new world open before me, mysterious, hidden, revealed only in small ways.

“That’s where you’re going tonight, The Bluff”, he said, pointing. I’d told him already that I liked walking at night.

An inset in the text showed that every rock jutting out from the headland bore a Maori name. “Names and stories passed down through the generations,” I thought.

A new intention for this walk suddenly opened up. “I’m going to learn some Maori language, hear the legends, discover their ways,” I said to myself. The experience at Cape Reinga was still with me.

Pete cooked me a fish dinner: fresh kawahai caught that morning and fried lightly in butter until the meat just flaked, yellow on the outside, white, tender and juicy beneath. On the beach, the sun was setting. Here, in tranquillity, the oasis glowed, green and gold.

Later, I gathered my gear.

“You can sleep here tonight,” he offered.

I thanked him but said I wanted to walk. He offered to accompany me for an hour.

In the dark, we walked with his bicycle and dogs back down the path to the beach and turned south.

“They’ll catch a possum soon,” he said as the dogs loped off into the dunes.

An hour later, we reached a large fallen log, Pete's destination for tonight. We paused to rest before I carried on. A pair of seabirds fluttered overhead, squawking. “Must've disturbed their nest,” Pete commented.

The dogs came up, A dark furry shape hung from the bitch's mouth.

“Possum. He chases them and she catches them,” Pete smiled.

She let him take the possum and sat back, tail wagging in the sand, jaws grinning in the moonlight.

Pete plucked the fur from the lifeless body. Suddenly, his hand held a skinning knife.

The blade flashed in the moonlight, gutting, then quartering. He tossed two pieces to each dog. The bones crunched between their teeth. The pair of seabirds swooped and cried, still anxious for their chicks.

I waited until the dogs had finished and stood up. “Well, better be going, Pete,” I said. “Long walk before I sleep.”

We shook hands as I thanked him.

I sensed his eyes on me, striding the margin between sand and water, suspended on reflected moonlight, until I passed from view, lost.

Tonight, I’m a beachcomber.