KAUERANGA VALLEY CAMPING – JANUARY 2023
We arrive on the 28th of December, and this time She drives me all the way down to the campsite. The first time I came here two years ago, she left me at Hajrama’s daughter’s place and she didn’t understand the problem with my electricals so my battery flattened all the way down and it took them ages to work out how to start me after the camp was over.
I wasn’t in her good books after that. She was scared of me and didn’t pause all the way back to Raglan. No shopping, no ice cream, nothing. The next year I was left in Raglan. Now the track down to camp has been graded somewhat, and with my high wheel base everyone is sure I’ll be fine. She’s a little scared, but then it doesn’t take much for her eyes to over- blink and her jaw to clench. I bounce along happily, all the way down, and then up a side track to her campsite.
It’s very pretty here, with all the bush and tree ferns and the Kaueranga river burbling over the rocks. It is hot, but I am cooler than her tent, and she hangs out on my squabs reading in the afternoons with the tailgate and side door wide open. I have an awning now, a Kathmandu tent fly attached to the gutters with clamps that come off in the wind, so she ties the fly to the solar panel frame as well. It’s the same red and grey colours as her tent, so we are colour co-ordinated.
I’m surprised how protective I feel of her, but then she’s looked after me so well. Not sure where I’d be now if she hadn’t bought me and spend all that money. Probably in a wreckers yard waiting to be squashed into scrap metal.
Over the next couple of days more families arrive bearing babies, toddlers, older children and tons of food. No teenagers yet fortunately. It’s going to be different in a few years. When I count up the people staying, I get a shock. Forty two. Fortunately they aren’t all here at once, but most of them are. One day Gigi, the first generation matriarch of 92 years arrives with Tanya, the fourth sister’s daughter.
Another day, Hajrama’s ex-husband and his new wife visit. It is so hard to keep track, as they are all so similar and they all get on so smoothly, no fights or stand-offs between the adults. I’ve seen a few in my time. No story tellers or drama queens or extravagance of any kind. They chat about babies and schools rather than politics, philosophy and psychology. They are in that settled stage of life, the angst over life choices and priorities and partners finished with. It will probably startup again when the children go. Now they all have children to love and raise and give infinite meaning to their lives; they have careers to grow, hobbies to indulge, friendships to maintain, gardens to weed and many other daily chores and responsibilities to meet. Only one of the marriages has exploded, but that was expected. The partner never relaxed into the warm freedom of this huge family. He never allowed himself to feel loved.
The grandchildren visit me regularly and clamber around my table. They are delighted I should be here; they definitely want a van like this when they grow up so they can go on adventures. The girls are learning the words for a concert. ‘You hear my voice, you hear that sound. Like thunder gonna shake the ground…..I got the eye of the tiger. A fighter, dancing through the fire.’
This is different from the songs She used to sing. Simon and Garfunkel, she said. ‘I am a rock, I am a mountain, I am shielded in my arbor, Hiding in my room. And a rock feels no pain And an island never cries.’
The first evening was acroyoga with Her. The grandchildren call her Khandro, a Tibetan name which means Sky dancer. They all wanted a turn folding upside down into a plow on her legs and which stuck up like tree trunks from the ground, and then on her hands digging into their shoulders if they were brave and steady and light enough. Elijah was the star; he could stand up on her vertical legs and then on her vertical arms, no wobbling. Even tiny Nivedita braved the elements to stand on her shoulders. They practiced their cartwheels, quite badly actually, and walk-overs and forwards and backward rolls. They kneed along the grasses in lotuses. I think She is happiest messing about like this, doing physical stuff with the kids.
Most evenings now there is a concert. Hans, Hajrama’s partner, has all the gear. He plays an electrified guitar throughout the day, an old hippy turned psychologist. I can hear it up here if I listen carefully, songs I remember – I’ve been around since 1996 – rock’n’roll, country and blues. I have been part of so many romances and break-ups. The stories I could tell. I do hope She takes me on that long trip around the South Island. She’s been talking about it. I have been dreaming about it.
Jenny, the eldest sister of the twins, Khandro and Hajrama, and her husband Phil arrive and camp nearby. She also has a special name, Savitri. So we have Tibetan, Nepalese and Indian names for the three sisters. The new arrivals walk past, wet and cool from a first swim. Jenny’s long hair is pushed from her strained, somewhat defeated face. It has moments of beauty, but seems mostly preoccupied. This is what getting old can do. Phil, who I heard was a Natural Therapies principal and teacher, is rather gaunt and stooped now, but his face is quieter. This is why the grandchildren are so precious. They have bodies like straight sticks and clear faces, curious and full of promise. It reminds us how naive we once were.
Phil and Jenny have just returned from five months in India. They go every year to this second home, their place of spiritual pilgrimage, and live under the shadow of the Himalayas at Tapavan, up in the snow where it is harsh, inhospitable and pure. It has become harder to understand what exactly this spiritual journeying is about. She and Jenny talk, as they always do when they meet up once a year. I know She goes all around the block and back reformulating her ideas and insights. I get why She needs to do this. Without some intrigue and sense of question, her life would seem mundane and pointless. But not everyone’s like this. I should know because I’ve had many of them writing journals inside me, and none of them are quite as perplexed as her and Jenny. For most people life is straightforward, it’s just what it is with all its real life dramas, no need to search behind the back curtain to find nothing there, even if it is a radiant nothing.
Children run past in togs and life jackets talking about lollies, followed by the oldies, who will coax them in to the water and then save them from drowning. It’s a rather tortuous path down to the lagoon, through gorse, manuka, bleached logs and uneven ground. The smaller ones struggle the first couple of times, squealing at the prickles, stumbling on the branches, but the whining soon stops because no-one is interested, and in time they accurately trace the footsteps of the older children through the scrub down to the sandy shore. The river is rather mysterious in all its bewitching colours, spreading so smoothly down to the rapids and the far beach, and across to the leaping-off high cliff.
Water is one of nature’s great marvels. The young ones splash and dog paddle and kayak, and catch a ride on the grandies when they have run out of puff. Even I, a mere van, who has spent so many nights parked up by rivers and beaches, am still moved by water. That it should be what it is, this stuff you can slip through that is cool and heavy but you can float in. It is moody like humans.
I wish I had a human body, so I could really experience it. I only know the rain as it pounds my steel body and runs down the gutters, finding bare metal to start eating me up. Water is dangerous to vans of my vintage. The grannies keep warning the children about the dangers of water. What is so beautiful is so treacherous. Just like the minds of the children themselves. On the outside, beautiful and free, but on the inside tormented by insecurities and jealousies. They have nightmares, just like me. None of us escape the dark side.
Today the girls’ hair is beautifully braided down the backs of their heads onto their shoulders. Long golden-brown braids. There are so many of them, all in together, never mind the weather. They have been playing secret handshake games, clapping games and a card game called Taco, Cat, Goat, Cheese, Pizza. They have been drawing and colouring in. They move between the tents in small groups. No-one is left out. The boys are with the men, playing cricket and other ball games, or climbing the swings and ropes.
The girls’ nails are all painted, including toenails; they are lipsticked and rouged, even the very little ones. As I have said, they are preparing for a concert. Evening arrives and the chairs are arranged in a semi circle in front of the imaginary stage. The microphones are tested and the girls line up.
One of the babies, Wolfran, sets out crawling across the grass towards his parents, Prema and Walter. Female voices leap above him across to the audience. His face is aglow in the wonder of it all, the overwhelming warmth of this huge family on the ever so green grass on account of all the rain. It is dusk and the light has that pearly quality and the manuka has stopped throwing shadows and is falling asleep. The father’s face, Walter’s spills the fullness of his heart, that this should be his son, this wondrous creature, his own. Prema is standing a little further back. Her face is the same, gobsmacked with pride and joy. I know they don’t feel the same at night when Wolfran just won’t sleep.
The next morning, Great Uncle Phil gathers the children together for the morning’s activity. Polishing pounamu. They each choose a small offcut from his packet as their treasure in the making. In the middle of the circle is a bucket of water and to its side the sandpaper, 600 grit, then 800, 100, 1200 and finally 1600 grit. I’m surprised how patient the children are as they polish over and over, moving up the sandpaper grades as their treasures progress. The grass collects the wet, torn discards.
Next day, as the drizzle arrives, the children begin making paintbrushes and paints. Each child is given a small oak stick. With help, they remove the bark from the top inch, and then they grind and chew the stripped tip in their mouths until it is stringy fibre. The young ones pester the adults to help, until there is a very big exchange of bodily fluids, all in together. They each have a paintbrush. Now for the paint. Sarah has the recipe. She has a large mortar and pestle and some fresh eggs. The yolks will bind the pigment into a glossy paint.
The children swarm to the beach, searching for a flat rock to paint on. The river displays its wares, smoothed from years of tumbling, specked with jasper, quartz and shiny seams of maybe-gold. They look for soft rocks to pummel in the mortar, to grind as fine as dust through a sieve, to mix with egg yolk and turn into paint. Back at camp, the smashing and grinding begins. Who would have thought it possible to grind rock to a fine dust like this? White rocks, pale green rocks, softer orange rock and then charcoal from the fire, four earthy colours. Copying ideas from each other, stripes, flowers, splattering and layering, the little masterpieces emerge. The rock pictures are laid out to dry, and later on given as presents to the parents.
Again in the evening, the children perform the songs they have been learning inside me, cooped up for hours intently listening and singing along until they have them. Great words. ‘This is my fight song,’ and ‘This girl is on fire,’ and ‘I’ve been running through the jungle, I’ve been running with the wolves.’
The camp is all about the children. The parents would probably be doing something much more exciting, like travelling around in a van like me or flying to some exotic Greek Island, if it weren’t for the children. The parents and grandparents get such pleasure from the excited, happy, tumbling, cuddly, cosied-up-to-each-other children in all the huge tents. The parents are tired; it’s been a long year, but now they can chill, read and listen to the abstract symphony of children at play. The parents are keen to manifest the words of the Bible. Jesus said: “Except ye become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.”
Now is their moment. So many children here. Life will soon return them to the stifling adult world where heaven is far out of reach. The grown-up world of drinking and drugging and constraining routines. They swing their children jubilantly, kick balls and fly to meet heaven with its promise of everlasting joy, for these few days. The laughter and squabbles waft up to me. The adults’ eyes soften in the manuka thickets, the bronze-skirted tree ferns, over the grass and up the vertical hill behind, where the children roam speedily up to the top and down again. Even the small kids go up, even though it is slightly dangerous, not mortally, just a broken arm kind of dangerous. The boys are whacking each other with pool noodles then smashing them on the ground until they break.
Hans is an early riser, which is good for all the parents because the children are as well. He makes a small fire and the children gather around with their marshmallow sticks. This is the morning ritual. Porridge follows, and when all the children are full, the parents wander into camp bleary eyed from broken sleeps, commenting on the night filled with the sounds of crying babies.
It all happens so smoothly, the large plastic buckets with dirty dishes, trundled down to the river in a wheelbarrow, the occasional tag along children thinking they might want to help, but they don’t really. The cooking roster, the shared meals, so much food, such a variety and it’s all fun. No-one is slaving away alone in a hot kitchen enclosed in bland white walls, protected from wind and sun and rain. Here life is easy and has become all about the children, who are mostly very excited to be back amongst their cousins, a year older now. The children are always fed first, and then they pretty much look after themselves, except for this new round of babies, who will be easier next year when the mums and dads will be able to get a good night’s sleep because the babies will all be weaned and so there will be no point in them crying out at night.
It’s ACC time. The Annual Christmas Clearout of everyone’s old clothes. Over half a dozen black plastic bags spill clothes onto plastic mats under a new, second tarpaulin. The children weave through the seated adults as every garment is held up for inspection. Some have returned for a second or third viewing, some are returned to their original owners. They fly like little bombs across the space to whoever is keen, most are discarded and piled up to go to Seagull, the dump shop in Thames. The children grab dresses that are now too pretty and lacy for the aging mothers. For the first time the children have their own ACC, they have their own clothes to swap, but they find the adult clothes more exciting.
The next day Khandro unpacks her tent, her hiking poles, sleeping bag and other tramping equipment from my lockers. She is taking a group of children tramping. I hope it goes better than her Timber Trail hike. This is a yearly event, a way for Khandro to share her love of wrecking herself climbing steep hills.
Back down at camp the children’s gear spreads out on the grass. Sleeping bags, bedrolls, raincoats, warm clothes, water bladders, headlamps, toothbrushes and a share of the food. Scarley changes her mind at the last minute, she wants to stay with her Mum, so Hajrama will go in her place. In the old days Khandro and Hajrama took their children into the mountains every year, sometimes twice a year. Hajrama is not fit anymore, but she’s over the noise and chaos of camp. She hasn’t been on any of the past Kaueranga tramping trips, because she’s preferred the camp which was quiet minus the noisy trampers. But this year there will be too many babies, too many people of all generations still buzzing around altogether. It will be quieter tramping. That’s the reason she gives for going. She has forgotten how hard the walking will be.
The six trampers pile into Laura’s newly acquired seven-seater Wish, and head for an entrance along the Tapu-Coroglen road. They are heading for Crosbies hut, a long tramp wherever you start on the many different beginnings and endings. They are hoping it will be a downhill walk all the way to the hut as they’re driving way up into the Coromandel Ranges. It isn’t. They discover a lot of the walk is steeply uphill and then downhill and then uphill again and it seems to be going on forever. Nothing new here.
The bush is dark and close, the track interrupted by fallen trees and detritus and roots so it’s very hard walking. The smallest, Elijah, eight years old, has never been tramping before. He was determined to come this time because last year he too changed his mind at the last minute and stayed behind. Last year was an easy walk into the Billygoat camp. He should have gone then and stayed home this time. He knows he can’t complain. That was the rule for being allowed to come. He doesn’t think he can keep walking, his legs keep giving up but he has to go on. He borrows a walking pole, Hajrama takes his pack for a small while. He just can’t give-up, there is no other way out of this. His older sister Everest keeps saying how happy she is, what a wonderful walk this is. No-one is actually feeling like this but it is her way of keeping everyone cheerful. I’m not sure it has this effect. Maybe it just highlights how miserable everyone is feeling.
After six hours of walking they arrive at the hut. Whew! Exhausted. There are many trampers at the hut, mainly women. I’m not sure men are so keen on this kind of slog-it-out tramp. They set up the tents around the back, sheltered from the wind and view and away from the warm hut fire and bouncy mattresses. Khandro is very pleased to have her sister to help with the now supercharged children. The four children have the three-man tent and the adults the hiking pole tent. Dinner is instant macaroni cheese with added things. In spite of the weight She knew to bring lots of cheese, fresh cucumber, capsicum, lettuce, avocado, carrot. A lolly and vegetable walk!
In the morning the children complain of hard wood chips under their mats. Hajrama might buy them some thermorest sleeping mats for the next trip? Hajrama reminds them that their mothers used rolled-up plastic mats all through the mountains and they slept fine. She will get them some good back packs and hiking poles. School bags and adult day packs don’t work that well and she needs her hiking poles for herself. She notes how convenient the water bladders are. Khandro and Hajrama bought all the best tramping gear back in the nineties. Khandro is already up to speed with the new techno generation, so now the other twin has to catch up.
They are back in their old roles, making plans for the next year, making filled wraps for lunch while crouched on the damp tree litter. In the old days they always fried the pita bread pockets for lunch and brewed hot tea. Khandro hasn’t been doing this at all. That must change. The memories they are laying down in the children are important, Hajrama reminds her. Khandro goes in front the second day, finally realising that the children dawdle because no-one is setting the pace.
Hajrama is at the rear, quite a bit slower now the children have picked up pace, but cheerful and determined to get fit so she can actually enjoy the walking. She does notice the stunning forest, tall leggy regrowth, larger rimu and rewarewa, low lying lycopodium, liverworts, ferns and native orchids, the sporadic views over the vast forest giving a sense of expanding wildness and belonging. This second day delivers the kind of six hour gentle downhill walk anyone might enjoy. The rain holds off mostly, and Khandro is strong which is good because she is carrying most of the weight. The crew emerges at the Whangaiterenga campsite in good spirits, three river crossings behind them. Elijah used up all his legs in total but he made it.
It’s now the 2nd of January with a wild weather warning, a tropical storm heading straight for Coromandel. The oldest sister Jenny and husband Phil have just left. Their daughter Prema left with husband Walter on account of a bad night sleep with baby Wolfran. Her sister Prasanthi, husband Wilbur and baby Gus are about to leave also. The next afternoon Elizabeth, Hajrama’s youngest daughter, husband Ram and their five children leave for a couple nights of comfort at sister Kerry’s place before heading home. The group is back to its more usual, comfortable size of previous years.
That night Khandro has a dream. I hear her telling the family the next day. In the dream she is walking through her new home, which is her grandmother’s. The slightly sunken bedroom is in front of the house. It is square and totally empty except for a row of seven bedroom drawers along the left hand side when facing the rest of the house. Around the four sides of the room and slightly depressed is a moat full of running water, most likely diverted from a nearby stream. She is excited about the drawers and doesn’t know if there is anything inside them. It isn’t the time for her to open them. She will wait until she has moved in. She doesn’t realise the dream is a ‘be prepared’ warning.
The next and last afternoon she is in her tent reading her harrowing novel about the women of Afghanistan surviving invasions by the Soviets, the rule of the communists, the civil wars of the warlords, the abusive treatment of husbands and the misogynistic, ruthless Taliban. It’s a love story of sorts. She has been closely following the war in Ukraine, checking in several times a day for updates. She is full to the brim with the dark side of life. This is not good holiday reading.
She needs to go down to camp. She doesn’t realise the children have begun their last concert. Her dream from the other night is about to fulfil itself and she isn’t prepared at all. Belatedly she puts her book down and strolls down the path. When she arrives everyone is seated around the stage, where the children are finishing their last song. Everyone is there except her. The children’s hair is immaculately plaited, they are radiant and very excited, they are lipsticked and prettily dressed.
She storms into the group, an unconscious barb ripping her insides to pieces. ‘Why didn’t you come and get me? Why did you start the concert without me?’ She berates her sister and her children. She is beside herself on account of being excluded, unnoticed, irrelevant, in spite of all her best efforts. She had thought herself an integral part of the group but no-one seemed to even care enough to call her. They protested that they hadn’t realised, they hadn’t thought she would be interested, they had only realised half way through, they were singing the same songs as the other night so it didn’t matter, the children were barely audible through the music. They apologised, they had no idea she would be so upset.
Khandro was so so distraught and there was nothing she could do but experience irrelevance, the fear of counting for nothing in the end. She could only wait for the horror to pass. In that moment, this home she had made for herself in this family seemed nothing more than a mirage. The grandchildren didn’t really care, her children didn’t care, her sister didn’t care. She relived all the times she rushed off to the mountains to discount her life before it discounted her. She always wondered whether she was pushed or pulled by the mountains. Both probably. This unbearable aloneness taunts her over the next few days and then it is gone and she sinks briefly into the warm tranquil undisturbed sea at Orere Point.
She is good at laying down in the arms of the land, completely given up to its good heart, but she is a human being so she must carry the cross that will crucify her. All humans are crucified by something. Humanity is grounded in self-consciousness which inevitably leads to suffering. Humans are all desperate way down underneath. At least that has been my observation from the vantage point of a van.
The skies are overcast, the wind is rising and, because the storm is approaching, the decision is confirmed to break camp the next morning before the deluge and possible nightmare of ripped tarpaulins, collapsed tents, sodden sleeping bags and road slips. The ford they crossed on the way in will be dangerously high once the rain arrives. I might be okay, but modern cars that virtually scape along the road will have trouble. She loves it here; so do I. I love having the children visit and Her pottering inside me making coffee and lunch. We don’t want to go, we are just settling in, but there is no choice.
I am eager to help, and when we are packed she drives me down to camp and fills me with all her kids’ gear, so many tents, sleeping mats, sleeping bags, food, miscellaneous everythings. I love being useful, and easily track back up over the grass track and rocky grades up to the car park under the shady macrocarpa. Now she has sorted out my electricals, I have become very reliable. I am emptied out into waiting cars only to then be stuffed unceremoniously with a forest of plant matter from Kerry’s garden.
She and Hajrama are back shopping together at Seagull and here am I with so much empty space. Two huge sun loafers and four oversize screen printing screens join the plant forest. She fills me with more food, over- pumps my tyres, 55psi, tops up my diesel, and then we are off back to Orere, where I am used almost immediately to lug corrugated iron from Hajrama’s bach. She and her son Sebastian are building a woodshed. That’s over now and I can finally rest, briefly forgotten, alone with the quacking ducks, clucking hens, and windfall apples rattling to the ground.