Topic: Northland: My ‘Soul’ Place by Ruth Plank

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Archived version here.

At the top of the North Island of Aotearoa lies the Houhora harbour on the east side of the Aupouri Peninsula. Its position 41km north of Kaitaia makes it a remote area. Not far from Houhora is Rarawa beach where the sand is pure white and scrunches underfoot.

Visiting this area a few years ago I felt somehow spiritual whilst sitting on a log of driftwood, staring out to sea. I remember thinking that I would dearly love to put pen to paper and write about the place, but felt unsure that I could do it justice.

I wish I could write succinctly about how I felt and what life was like for me at that time. Worries were a thing of the past; whatever I did was entirely my own choice. There were no people around, nobody to criticise or bother me, nobody to make inroads into my personal thoughts. I was at peace with myself.

I wish I could write about the emotions that enveloped me, almost bringing me to tears. For there I was, walking across the isolated curved beach where I’m the only person to be seen. What rarity it is on any day to be the sole person in sight, it was elating and yet somewhat eerie to be so alone.

I wish I could write about how I had to shade my eyes as the dazzling sun shimmered over the pure white sand and turned the sea into dancing diamonds. Through the light mist on the horizon a rainbow stretched across the ocean lightly touching the bordering hills in a profusion of colour. I needed no treasure from the rainbow’s end for I was at peace. I had Houhora harbour.

Leaving the beach behind me I reached my car and drove some way along the highway before turning onto an unsealed road. How can I write about my surprise and delight when I came across an old, rickety wharf where a couple of local people were fishing for their dinner? I’d love to be able to define how humble I felt when an elderly gentleman willingly and happily shared his knowledge of the area and told me of the secret places (secrets no longer!) where the best fish are caught.

Fading daylight encouraged me to return to the camp at Pukenui where, after a day of breathing in fresh air tinged with the tang of the salty sea, it wasn’t long before I settled down for the night.

How can I explain the wonderful feeling of waking up, happy and replenished?  I ate breakfast before gathering up my fishing gear and heading down to the Pukenui Wharf to try and catch my own dinner. John Dory was definitely on the menu as they were in plentiful supply around the fishing vessels tied up at the wharf. The water was the clearest I had ever seen; quite a few people were there already with their lines in the water.

As I looked over the edge of the wharf there were at least three fish swimming lazily around the fishing lines that were loaded with ‘live bait’ but not one of them seemed eager to get hooked. The sun shone through the water making their silver bodies shimmer and shake with movements enticing those fishing into, almost hypnotic trances.

Also, staring hypnotically at the fish below the water was a regular visitor to the Pukenui wharf. A beautiful white heron, or kotuku, quite a rare bird I was informed.

 

“In Maori oratory, the most telling compliment is to liken someone to kotuku. It symbolizes everything rare and beautiful. It was said that kotuku is an inhabitant of the nether world, the spirit land of Reinga, and that an old funeral chant ends with these words to the departed: “Ko to kotuku to tapui, e Tama e –Kotuku is now thy sole companion, O my son!”

So seldom does kotuku appear in any locality that ‘rare as the kotuku’ has passed into a proverb among Maori.” 1

 

The local folk had named the heron Hector. He arrived every year on practically the same day, before departing for wherever he came from, at summer’s end. Hector was like a member of a family, never going hungry for everyone threw him fish bits. In general Hector didn’t steal food though occasionally he would strut along the wharf rails, his bright eyes ever-watchful. 

Landing on the deck, he would bend his long neck, lower his beak into a bucket of fish and stand proudly showing off his own catch. My camera captured many pictures of Hector and one of them was transferred onto a T-shirt upon my return home.

Suddenly, amidst plenty of spraying sea water and flap-flapping on the wharf Jim landed a John Dory. Jim was an identity at the wharf, rather like Hector, as early every morning he walked to his spot and made ready to do some serious fishing. Jim was tall and skinny, with the weathered look of a man always in the open air. He wore khaki overalls, a floppy hat and white gumboots. He was a master at catching John Dory, not with live bait as most of the other fisherman, but rather by ‘foul-hooking’ them.

Jim reckoned he didn’t need live bait and I never saw him use it. I never saw Jim anywhere else except on the Pukenui Wharf, even when I ventured further down the road, even near his house, he was never obvious.

Jim’s latest catch lay on the deck jumping and jerking as is the way with fish. Prior to placing it in his bucket he turned to me and grinned. A rather toothless grin, I recall.

“Would yer like one o’ these for yer tea?”

How could I refuse? Already I could almost taste it.

Holding out my hand for his gift I thanked him profusely. This man had no idea who I was, but was aware that I was a visitor to the region. I wondered if he realised how much his generosity affected me, but after spending a few more days at the wharf it became clear that Jim was happy catching plenty of fish but just as happy to give most of them away. As long as he had enough for a feed all was right with his world.

Putting the John Dory into my bucket I made my way back to the camp. The thought occurred to me that I had not the slightest idea how to fillet a fish and needed some help. On the grass just beyond the wharf were two men filleting their own catch. Both men were large, hair in dreadlocks, bodies swathed in black leather, faces heavily tattooed and on first glance slightly intimidating.

But this was Pukenui, my soul place, and as I drew level with them one waved a hand in my direction, said “Kia ora” and smiled with a flash of pearly white teeth. I replied by saying “Hello”, then felt guilty because I didn’t reply in the Maori language.

Because he seemed so friendly I asked if he would be kind enough to fillet my fish as I was hopeless at this sort of thing.

“No problem,” he replied and in no time he did the deed and handed me back two choice John Dory fillets.

“Just rinse them off,” he said, “and enjoy your kai.”

Which, of course, I did.

As I began with ‘I wish’ so I finish with the same words.

I wish I could put pen to paper and succinctly explain why, of all the places in New Zealand I’ve visited over the years, Pukenui on the Houhora Harbour takes pride of place. The remoteness, tranquillity, generosity and friendliness of the local people, the temperate climate and the vastness of the ocean make it a fantastic area.

I still yearn to go there again, just one more time because it puts my heart and soul in their rightful places.

 

NOTE 1. Extract from www.nzbirds.com/kotuku.

 

Afterword:

I did, indeed, return to my ‘soul place’ in November 2011, and found the area affected me in the same way as it had in the past. The experience will stay with me and the place will always be special to me

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pukenui Wharf - Northland

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mount Carmel – Houhoa Harbour

 

 

About the writer: ‘Northland - My Soul Place’ was written for the Memoir & Local History Competition 2011, run annually by the New Zealand Society of Authors (Bay of Plenty Region) with support from Tauranga Writers.

 

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This page archived at Perma Cc in October of 2016: https://perma.cc/6XXB-3GJH

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