Six days, 100 kilometres

I’d been planning this trip for three years and cancelled it twice—you get marooned if the rivers rise—and when I finally boarded the flight to Queenstown I’d just been given notice to move out of my house. Sitting on the tarmac, I scrolled frantically through Facebook and TradeMe, not knowing where I’d live when I returned.

At Makarora, my phone lost signal. Kate and I crossed a stile and a paddock and set off up the Young River, beside water the same cold blue as the heart of an iceberg. The next day, we crossed the Gillespie Pass in the rain, listening to kārearea calling from within the mist.



On the other side of the pass is a vast meadow where yellow tussock moves gently in the breeze. Tucked into a corner of the valley is Siberia Hut, and the bad weather meant it was nearly empty. Kate and I met a pair of American women, younger than us, who were tramping together but not together; they’d separate during the day so that they could walk alone. I didn’t understand it at the time, but I do now.

The next morning, waterfalls threaded down the valley faces, and we banded together, arms around each others’ waists, to cross the river, still running high with the rain washing down from the ranges. It was the better part of three hours to Crucible Lake, a bright-blue cup of water in the arms of the mountain. We’d been strangers twelve hours ago but now we stripped off and leapt into the water, knocking our breath away.



The next day dawned with low mist and a rose-coloured sky: sunshine. The Americans were going over the pass. Kate and I followed the Siberia valley down to where it met the Wilkin River, and then headed up the Wilkin valley, another rift in the mountains, crossing the braided floodplain of the river under the glare of the sun.

I’ve never hiked for longer than a couple of days. I thought I’d have more thoughts, but the opposite happened: the longer I walked, the less conscious I was, the less I attempted to put what I saw into language. A slow erasure of the brain. By the morning of the sixth day, I was down to pure experience: blue water, indigo shadows of the forest, weight of the sun.

I didn’t have anything to say to Kate, absorbed in the work of uphill, downhill, tree roots, heat, streams, the ache in my feet, the blister on my collarbone.



I return to that week often in my mind. It’s more vivid than any other memory of travelling I have, and I’m not sure if that’s because it was arduous, or because I paid so much attention to the details of the scenery around me, or because I felt so clearly of nothing the whole time. I didn’t care where I’d live when I returned. I couldn’t imagine returning.



The future is Tiritiri

When it rains, it’s very quiet on Tiritiri Matangi, except for the white-noise pattering on the canopy. When the shower passes over, there’s a pause in the forest, like a singer taking a breath before her first note, and then it begins: the fluting of korimako, the buzz of a stitchbird, the propeller-like whirr of a kererū flapping heavily through the canopy.

Ahead of me, there’s an unfamiliar chuckling, and a heavy grey shadow on a branch.

I’ve walked hundreds of kilometres through New Zealand’s national parks and visited some of the country’s remotest places, but I’ve never seen a kōkako. There are two right here—a minute’s walk from the wharf, an hour’s ferry ride from the middle of Auckland city—gently murmuring at each other, hopping from tree to tree. The black mask over their eyes makes them look like old-fashioned bank robbers, or guests at a masquerade ball.

I grew up on one side of the Waitematā, and now I live on the other. I’ve spent almost my entire life in Auckland, but this is my first visit to Tiritiri. The island is, according to TripAdvisor, Auckland’s number one tourist attraction.

I’m delighted that it hasn’t been developed by a tourism company, but rather by an army of weekend warriors who have spent the last couple of decades planting hundreds of thousands of trees, transforming the island from empty farmland to a well-stocked bird sanctuary.

Volunteers still do most of the work. The weekend I visit, a group is rebuilding a washed-out trail, and another dozen are tour guides, explaining the ecology and history of the island to small groups of visitors. The tour fee goes towards the island’s upkeep.

Our volunteer guide, Trish, has a demonstration photo book, so that she can show us kororā when the nesting boxes turn out to be empty, kohekohe flowers when the tree turns out not to be in bloom, and a little bag of pohutukawa seeds so that we can see how tiny they are. When my friend asks her about the difference between mānuka and kānuka, she’s thrilled, and whips out a botanical illustration.

Some tourists, she says, book their Tiritiri tour before their flights to New Zealand, and it’s the first thing they do—an early-morning arrival at the airport and they’re on the island by 10.15am. Tiritiri is the first impression we make.

Nowadays we’re used to hearing about the environment in a state of perpetual decline, but Tiritiri is an example of the opposite: we came, we saw, we conquered, we regretted, we restored.

In some places, we’re getting closer to the end of the trajectory than the start. There are so many Archey’s frogs—an IUCN Red List species—in a six-kilometre-square area of Whareorino that researchers have to be careful not to stand on them during monitoring. When urban streams are ‘daylighted’ in Auckland—opened to the air, rather than funnelled through concrete pipes—eels return as the streams’ health improves.

And in those places where restoration and recovery are not within the Department of Conservation’s budget—as Tiritiri wasn’t—they remain within our capability to improve, as Tiritiri was. Someone had to stick the first spade in the ground at Tiri, plant the first plant, release the first bird.