River of Hope

I paused on the road five kilometres below Jerusalem and surveyed the straggling line of houses that make up Ranana-London. I smiled. If this hamlet had any connection with one of the world's greatest cities then it could only be as a reminder that from small beginnings, great things can grow.

Like everything else on the Whanganui, evidence of the river people's love for their home lay all about. Mowed lawns, banks of flowers, well-maintaned fences, healthy livestock and a complete absence of litter showed how much this community values where it lives.

Halfway through the village, reggae music blared from a car parked in a driveway. Nearby, three or four men sat on a verandah with open beer bottles in front of them. For a moment, I felt tempted to walk over and introduce myself but it didn't feel right to intrude.

However, someone had spotted me.

A boy on a BMX bike shot out of a driveway to keep pace with me.

"Where are you from? What are you doing?" he asked.

I told him and felt absurdly gratified when he said with conviction, "Co-o-ol! I want to do that!"

More questions came thick and fast. "You got a knife? Carry a gun? Where do you sleep?"

While I answered, a few more kids joined him. I stopped and dropped my pack. It was time for a rest, anyway.

The boy tried on my pack for size and then they all had a go, except for the two smallest ones, who could have easily fitted into it.

As always, the boys coveted my walking stick.

"What do you use it for?"

"Sticking pigs and wild dogs!" I said and pantomined how to take on a boar. For a moment, they believed me, standing tense and wide-eyed, before their faces creased with smiles and they laughed, "Nah! He's foolin'!"

I asked if I could take a few photos and the posing began. For a little while, it was a camera feeding frenzy. These children don't have smartphones, Nintendo games or iPads to while away the empty hours. Instead, they fish, swim, work, hunt and learn.

I call it growing up in "nature's therapy room" and as a result, I found them simply delightful.

Mum wandered down the road with a "cuppa" in her hand to see what all the fuss was about. We exchanged names. The girls pouted when my tongue tripped over the Maori syllables.

The smallest girl, a raven-haired little beauty of about three, gained confidence with mum there and crowded in closer, reaching with small fingers to tap the iPhone screen.

I knelt and said, "Don't you touch that!" Her eyes flashed and a small finger came out. We teased each other back and forth before she grew still and serious. I sensed she wanted a photo, just for her.  As I took it, she tilted her shoulder, a natural beauty queen, checked the result carefully, breathing hard with concentration. Satisfied, she scampered off.

Mum told the boys, "Take him up to the marai and show him where the island is."

"What island?" I asked.

"Moutoa," she replied. "There was a famous battle there."

Later, I learned that this island is a field of honour for local Maori. A marble statue in Whanganui commemorates their fight for survival in May 1864, when they routed 100 upriver tribesmen on a mission to drive the pakeha into the sea. Half the invaders were killed and the locals lost 15.

Local Maori, I have read, fought first for the mana, the power, of the river and second as guardians of all the river touched, including the citizens of Whanganui, way down at the river mouth.

It's a powerful story and one that continues today in the courts and in Parliament. The Whanganui people have maintained a persistent claim on the river since 1887 and that endurance is about to result in a world first.

Parliament is debating a bill that wll acknowledge the river as a living, breathing entity.  This will give the river a  legal identity and protection no different to the one you and I have.

It will be an extraordinary result for the people, for the river and perhaps, ultimately for humanity. Where one river goes first, then perhaps others can follow.

The boys walked me up to the marai.

I asked if they liked living here and the one who had first approached me, breathed deeply.

"It's the best place in the world," he said, looking around. "I'll never leave."

That's a rare thing to hear and a precious moment to remember.

His love, conviction and sincerity filled me with hope that the next generation, here at least, will guard the river as they forebears have done.

The child is the father of the man, it is said, and that makes the Whanganui a river of hope for us all.