The Flying-Off Place
on Ninety-Mile Beach
by Robin Hyde
“Te-rerenga-wairua.” The flying-off place of the spirits. A young man in Whangaroa told me this was its proper name — New Zealand’s own Land’s End, beyond Spirits Bay and Hector Macquarie’s funny little Pandora, beyond that bare country from which the godwits make their yearly flight to Siberia.
Not so very many people have been to the flying-off place. In Auckland it was almost legendary, and even in Whangaroa, the Maoris, many of whom had migrated from further north, spoke of Spirits Bay as a place a long way off. But we were going, because of the same restlessness that drives the godwits, when autumn is in the air again and the bush-fires start.
The road to Spirits Bay goes through Kaitaia, which is quite a town, with more energy and enthusiasm about it — outwardly, anyhow — than any of the other northern centres, Whangarei excepted. Dargaville I remembered as a quaint main street where there were gas-lamps, countless dogs, and Maori boys wearing magenta blazers plus peppermint-pink berets. Dargaville has electricity, and has gone in for brick and concrete. It looks almost incongruously respectable; north, south, east and west run the rambling northern roads, low bare hills either naked or massed with manuka, sudden surprisingly tall and grand outcrops of black rock, wooden houses quite isolated, built in the style of the ’eighties and still possessing a few creaking old apple trees by their front verandahs, and Maori cabins.
We ate fried fish, considerable quantities of fried fish: the rain slipped down in a silvery drizzle, which bothered us, because the roads north of Kaitaia were a complete mystery as far as we were concerned. But a garage proprietor reassured us. There was a good clay road, all the way up to Spirits Bay: a hotel at Houhora, if we wanted to sleep indoors: and, if the tide was right, a fine run down Ninety-Mile Beach for our trip home.
“Can we get right to the very edge? To Rerenga itself?”
The garage proprietor scratched his head.
“There used to be one of those rope and basket arrangements,” he said obscurely, “Only the last time I was there – that would be twenty years back – the rope looked as if it had been there for ever. Yes, that rope was pretty near worn through.”
“Oh...we can get near, though?”
“If you ride hosses.”
Sounded a bit doubtful: my experience of hosses was negligible. However, never do to-day what you can put off till to-morrow, planning included. Filled with fish, we sank again into the motherly bosom of the Liz, and drove on. A show-tent, with tags of red, white and blue climbing up a flagstaff, fluttered patriotically at us as we started: somebody’s “Greatest Show on Earth —See the Child Wonder.” Poor dears, in all that rain.
By the way, the mana of Allan Bell stands high among Maoris and others in the north. It was he, they said, who made Kaitaia. One man told me that if any white man had ever seen the godwits fly, it was Allan Bell. Others have seen the great gatherings of birds, and the frequent false starts, but Bell laid a regular plan of campaign, and is said to have caught the godwits in the act. He died at Spirits Bay, and, like the Maoris he loved, departed from Te-rerenga-wairua. It was explained to me that the spirits wait until a great number of them are gathered together. Then they travel along their last journey, and make the plunge in company. And a female taniwha is said to follow their footsteps, but whether she is there in friendly capacity, or waits like the monsters of an Egyptian stream, nobody seemed to know. Fear of the spirits of the dead must have been particularly strong in the north, for Edward Markham’s journal says that the meaning of the name Ngapuhi — the name of the great Hongi’s tribesmen, who were lords and masters here — is “Night-Goers.” They alone were not afraid to travel about after dark, and because of this were able to carry on surprise raids and attacks which helped to put them in a position of supremacy.
Your last little glimpse of semi-civilisation is Houhora, where the White Pig still stands, the remnants of a glory. This was the gum-diggers’ hotel, in the great days of high kauri gum prices, when Maoris and Dalmatians might be digging with a titled Englishman alongside them in the swamps. Dalmatian and Austrian people still live as far north as Te Kao, in little weatherboard cabins like those of the Maoris. Two of them jumped into the Liz for a lift of a few miles towards the sea: one had been in New Zealand seven years, and couldn’t yet speak the language — proof of the isolation of his life — and the older man, wrinkled, tanned like mahogany, smiling and resigned, explained that he had come here twenty years back. They both wanted to own land, but times were hard. Now that gum prices were down among the dead men and dead markets, casual farm labour was all that came their way.
I never saw a fat man or woman in the north: they may have been there, I can only say that they weren’t conspicuous. The Maoris, about whose health troubles so much has been written lately, are, whatever their tuberculosis and infantile mortality rates may be, a distinguished-looking and remarkably courteous type. If some Hollywood producer were filming “Antony and Cleopatra,” and wanted a Cleopatra who wouldn’t chew gum or roll her hips like a ship at sea, he could do a great deal worse than seek among the Maoris for one of the straight-haired, high-cheekboned slender girls of the north. We met, after dusk, with a carload of them, stranded through an accident. Their ancient and dilapidated motor had broken down: they had been trying all day to get a sick man to hospital. They were quite quiet, strange brown figures with sad black eyes and flowing black hair, like harmless witches.
The Maoris have an odd way of starting little roads among the manuka, roads that look as if they meant business, and suddenly fade out, leaving you beached, bogged and cursing. Half a dozen times we curved grandly into the unmistakable road, only to find ourselves in a wilderness, stalled, the Liz panting cruelly. And every time a polite Maori and several little boys and girls came across, and gave us expert directions. On the right side of midnight, with only a memory of Houhora’s few lights and Te Kao’s little schoolhouse twinkling in our minds, we gave the darkness best, and blew up the Lilos.
Sleeping in the manuka is good: I don’t vouch for it without the Lilos, because one has to admit that the sharp little leaves prickle, and prickles at 2 a.m. are apt to take romance out of any situation. But plus Lilos, and a sprinkling of vague cold silver-daisy stars, and a wind blowing, it is worthwhile.
In the morning we drove on to Te Hapua, and had bacon, lots of bacon, not to mention currant scones and jam, and beautifully amber tea, in a Maori household where there were red amaryllis lilies on the breakfast table; everyone was rather distressed about the recent newspapers’ stories of Te Hapua’s degeneracy and disease. Plenty of mental vigour in that house, anyhow, and plenty of commonsense: not to mention a brown-eyed nine-year-old who sat on the balcony and played a Hawaiian guitar for us. We saw the first glitter of white sands, over at Parenga. The sea looked cold and choppy, and remembering the fuss the pakeha launch-owners made about going beyond Whangaroa Heads if there’s the merest ripple on the waters, I didn’t blame the Maoris for preferring to buy their fish canned rather than turn out in ancient craft in all weathers. A Maori health movement has been started in the vicinity of Te Hapua and Te Kao: well, it has a foundation of real physical beauty and charm to work upon, if the Maoris get their chance. The northern type is too good to be wasted.
Clay road to Te Paki: in boom days, Te Paki was a famous station, and even now, as we drove past, it had the alert and up-to-date look of a big farm where things are living and moving.
The raupo huts, quite empty, were Hector Macquarrie’s Pandora. I remember he mentioned that even when inhabited, the little settlement was subject to specially ardent and agile bugs, and now the bugs are monarch of all they survey, I hate to think how many of them must be flourishing there. An ancient black and white cow — the original one that jumped over the moon — tossed her horns at us skittishly. We walked on over the glistening white sandhills.
White sandhills: bleached, clean, silvery white, white as the moon, moulded in windswept curves and fine ribbed patterns, stretching away down a coast of foam, as far as one can see: and tearing in to meet the sand, two diagonal lines of surf, clashing together a hundred yards from shore, spouting up, a great creamy mass.
There are things to be seen in New Zealand, but nothing else that gives the thrill of that lonely surf at Spirits Bay. The solitude is complete. Nothing lies in sight but the miles of shining white sand, birds flaking up and down on a light wind, the surflines pouring into one another, the sea speaking with a massive voice, and out against the rocks great pillars of foam lifting into the air. It is not a sad place, but a startling one, this Spirits Bay; and wherever the waves have crashed through the centuries, they have pounded and broken millions of little gleaming shells, biscuit and heliotrope, so that you walk on a beach of purple and gold, shining with salt. There is no vegetation but the paraha vine, that used to be used for wrapping up the bodies thrown into the ovens at cannibal feasts: it’s a delicate, wind-trembling little flower that doesn’t know its own sinister history. Its mauve bells are like silk.
That is all, except that the spirits of the Maori dead did rightly to come to Spirits Bay: it is a magnificent place, Te-rerenga-wairua.
We had given up the hosses: in the first place, I didn’t feel confident of controlling one of these temperamental beasts for eight miles (which was the distance onwards to the very last bit of New Zealand), and in the second, so far as we could see, there weren’t any available. So, inaccessible by those few miles, the last cliff and rock, and the cape Tasman saw, lay unassaulted, and I made up my mind to go back again, perhaps in winter when the big storms would be towering here, and look over the edge.
In the meantime, Ninety-Mile Beach; the exhilarating snow-white desert on your left, the exhilarating snow-white surf on your right, and between them, a beautiful sweep of firm, iron-coloured, unflawed sand.
We had just agreed that “The Sheikh,” “The Garden of Allah,” “Belladonna,” “Beau Geste,” every desert picture ever filmed, could have been made and better made, in this snowy and picturesquely curved desert of New Zealand’s very own, when up the sands came a wave. It did no more than take a look under the bonnet of the Liz, and then retreated. The Liz stopped.
A little gentle cursing from behind the wheel; but it was all right. The Liz, coaxed and blarneyed, agreed to start again.
Five hundred yards further on, the Liz stopped once more.
This time, it took action. We were rather expert about it. We dragged out a large tarpaulin from the car, spread it before the wheels, like Sir Walter Raleigh’s cloak before Queen Elizabeth's red slippers and shoved pieces of driftwood under the rear wheels. After that, I lay in a graceful attitude shoving the car from behind, and wishing that just for one perilous minute I had the girth of the fat lady in a circus. The Liz muttered and argued, then suddenly hiccupped, and was off, leaving me picking myself up from wet sand.
“Wouldn’t it be better to turn back?” I suggested. I didn’t want to turn back: nobody, once having set wheel on Ninety-Mile Beach, could conceivably want to turn back. The seagulls would sneer so, and the breakers shout such loud hoarse laughter among themselves, as they come rolling up the beach. We didn’t turn back.
About fifteen miles from Spirits Bay, the Liz did it again. This time it was serious. The tide had turned, and was just coming in. Not a soul, not a tyre-track, had been visible from first to last. We once saw a goat, which sprinted away without uttering any helpful suggestions. We ought to have milked it, of course. We hadn’t eaten since breakfast at Te Hapua: but this was no time to bandy suggestions about food, or even drink. Action, more action...
I like to think of the next three hours. When I am an old woman, and have kept all my dependents running about like beetles waiting upon me hand and foot, I'll still like to think of them. They were action...
The Liz had sunk in a lopsided, ungainly way on her seaward side. Her tyres were down eight inches in a mixture of sand and water, which even as we gazed became soupier and soupier. I was told to go comb the beach for driftwood — not matchwood, but heavy stuff — and departed. I found a place where several casks and apparently a vessel also had come to grief. There was plenty of sea-washed plank timber, also logs; large, fat, knobbly logs, the happy home of countless bugs and beetles. I started to haul them.
There was no comment, no verbal reward, except an occasional terse, “Get some more wood...Hurry, she’s going down again.” The car, jacked up in front, rose beautifully: our little tower of driftwood fitted in underneath, we wiped sweating brows and said, “That’s got her.” Liz objected: she wobbled for a moment, then crashed.
“Hell,” said a dreadful voice. Then, “It’s about forty miles to Kaitaia. I’ll have to walk. You will stay here.”
“The tide will cover Liz to her bonnet. Can’t be helped.”
“Yes. But they’ll probably blame me. They’ll point out that reason and De Witts’ Almanac and the meteorological’s office all said it wasn’t right to do Ninety-Mile with the tide on the turn. They’ll argue, and they won’t pay out in full. This will probably mean a hundred gone west.”
“It seems funny to think there is so much money.”
“Well, couldn’t you get some more driftwood, instead of standing there?”
Besides bugs, some of it had rusty nails; I’ll probably die of blood-poisoning, I thought, and wondered whether I really wanted the Liz to be saved, or whether it wouldn’t be glorious to spend a night alone by those gigantic booming waves, with a huge driftwood fire. Nothing to eat, except a little marching chocolate and toheroas — if I could catch the toheroas, and if toheroas are bearable raw — but still, fun; however, a hundred pounds is a hundred pounds.
I was told to stop hauling driftwood logs, and make channels in the sand, letting the water seep away from the wheels. Hauling driftwood was a fool to this. The more industriously I channelled, the better the water seeped. I felt like a beaver, and the tide came in.
“Can’t jack her any higher. Where’s the tarpaulin?”
Sir Walter Raleigh’s cloak went down before and under the car once more. I looked at my blistered hands and thought, “Of course it won’t start. At midnight to-night, I’ll be sitting in front of a driftwood fire, eating toheroas and wishing they were steak.”
She started. It was a somehow glorious moment, a triumph of mankind over the sheer, dumbheaded, reasonless, bulldoggy, big-Swede obstinacy of the machine. She slid the length of the tarpaulin, gasped, hesitated, and made the higher sand, where the water didn’t seep. I looked back at my pile of driftwood, and thought, “Good-bye, fire.”
After that nothing mattered any more. A happy voice said at intervals, “There’s chocolate under that flap,” “Look in the back seat and I think you’ll find the glasses,” “Look, those people are digging toheroas – want to get out and take a look?” I didn’t care what toheroas they dug, though later we had a dozen wrapped up in batter and tossed into fritters — can be recommended. But there wasn’t anything real except a few blurred faces, Maori and white — the huge surfs pounding in, white plumes in their hair — a beetle dropping off his driftwood home and beating it away, for the lick of his life, into sands that are whiter, shapelier, lonelier than anything filmed at Hollywood.