River of Tears

When I rolled out from under my dew-streaked tarp and blearily took in the lowering rain clouds flooding over the hills to the north and tasted rain on the humid air, I didn't bother with breakfast. Instead, I raced to stuff my gear into my pack and slid downhill in a cloud of stinging black flies.

Standing on the road to Pipriki, I paused to pluck the clusters of tenacious grass seeds that had ambushed my bare legs on the way down. The possum trapper hadn't mentioned them when he'd pointed out the hidden meadow. Removing them from each hair was an eye-watering process of self-exfoliation.

I was therefore not in the best of moods when at last I started walking toward the Whanganui River on smarting legs pockmarked with red fly bites and mangy patches of bare skin. Not for the first time, I wondered if I had become yet another pakeha victim of the mischievous Maori sense of humour.

Soon, I entered the outskirts of the village. A straggle of houses lined the hillsides on each side of the narrow road, their windows staring blankly at me. It seemed a ghost town until a powerfully-built, grim-faced man, dressed in bloodstained dark green hunting clothes roared past on a quad bike. A brown hand mastered the handlebars while the other clasped the hilt of a long knife tied to his waist. He answered my tentative wave with a fathomless black-eyed gaze and my heart sank still further.

I'd seen Burt Reynolds pursued by homicidal hill-billies in the film "Deliverance." I'd heard the jungle drums beating when I read "The Heart of Darkness" by Joseph Conrad. And just two weeks ago, Rosa and I had watched "River Queen" about the "musket wars" of the 1860s right here on the Whanganui River.

When outsiders journey along rivers that belong to other people, only bad things result, it seems. And from what I had read, the Whanganui is a river whose history is steeped in blood.

Early Maori explorers who navigated upstream in their wakas called it matapihi or a window that opened into the inaccessible North Island interior. From the first river settlements sprang trails that led like arteries throughout the island. Trade and conquest, quarrel and feud, the struggle for power and survival, Maori against Maori and then against the new arrivals who bought or took the land: these are the narratives  written in the currents and inscribed on every strategic hill by the outline of ancient pas.

Even the myths speak of violence. The Whanganui springs from Mt Tongariro. Some legends say that Tongariro loved and was loved by two other mountains who fought to claim her with gouts of lava, rock and steam. To break this destructive love triangle, the Sky Father banished Taranaki to his present position far to the west. Tongariro's tears flowed after her lost lover, carving deep channels in the face of the land.

However, this tale of conflict and tears is only one part of the story. My misgivings died when I saw the sign to the campground and heard the reassuringly mundane clatter of a lawnmower. I turned up a short, well-groomed driveway to the former village  schoolhouse. There, I found myself in a thriving 21st century business.

Josephine, the owner (with her husband Ken) of the campground and the river guiding outfit "Whanganui River Adventures" greeted my knock with a duster in one hand, a vacuum cleaner nozzle in the other and a headset, connected to a cordless phone, clamped around her ears.

In between phone enquiries and bookings, she gave me a tour of the grounds. I felt impressed by what they had created in this remote spot and longed to know more.

Memorabilia adorned the office walls and lounge area, a tableau of river folk,  farmers, fishermen, loggers, traders and tourists. In its 19th century heyday, Pipiriki hosted tens of thousands of sightseers every year. They journeyed upriver in sumptuous steamships and stayed in a sprawling hotel with all the modern conveniences, drawn by the vision of cruising "the Rhine of the South Seas".

"Was your family here then?" I asked.

Josephine answered with a proud nod. "My family's always been here," she said. "I've counted back fifty generations."

I performed a sluggish mental calculation. "But that's 750 years!" I cried. This sort of thing excites me, I don't know why.

She sighed and flicked her duster. "I could go further back," she said, "But I've got too much to do."

I can take a hint. Before I left, she pressed a cup of coffee on me. It was excellent, as good as you'd find anywhere. While I sipped it, Josephine showed me the beautifuly-crafted fishing baskets at the foot of the display wall.

"My father made these for eel fishing," she said. "He still does. He knows all the old ways."

"And long may that continue," I thought while I cooked my breakfast in the shelter at the bottom of the road with it's thoughtfully-designed history of the river displayed on the  walls.

Opposite me stood the ruins of the old tourist hotel, burned to the ground and never rebuilt. The irony was not lost on me.

"I'll bet there are enough people like Josephine living here now, with one foot firmly grounded in the past and the other reaching confidently into the future, to make sure that happens."

And I now know who I'll be booking canoes through when Rosa and I finally venture onto the Whanganui.

I know who I'll entrust clients with when I put together my first "Nature's Therapy Room" trek.

Josephine, that's who.

Suddenly, I didn't feel like such an outsider.