AWAY FROM HOME STORIES, ONE — TAPU BAY.
The road all the way to Tapu Bay curves, turns and curves. Big old pohutakawa, cliffside and seaside, stretch towards each other, they tunnel the road, diffusing daylight.
“Imagine them flowering, come summer,” I say to Mick, and remember what Pico Iyer wrote, “……what really draws me is the prospect of stepping out of the daylight of everything I know, into the shadows of what I don’t know, and may never know.”
The road to Tapu Bay — in and out of the light, and then - there it is. A small camp — we had bypassed Te Peru, too big, too crowded for us — and are immediately glad. Tapu camp looks perfect. Our very first time here on the Coromandel.
In the same moment we find the office door is shut, Gavin runs between two caravans towards us, he’s on the balls of his feet even when he stands still. His welcome is that of an old friend, he has the face of a man who might never be far from making a joke. Looking for the key for a caravan-with-annex, he waves to a man walking past carrying a door on his head. Gavin remembers names and uses them, he is, I am thinking, all good cheer and good nature, pivotal to this place.
Bruce owns the camp, owned the pub across the road too, until a few weeks ago, new owners haven’t quite taken it over yet. Grew up here, he tells us, but sent away to boarding school in Kaikohe because his father wanted him to be a farmer and not a fisherman.
“Didn’t work, ended up a fisherman anyway.”
We talk about the heyday of Northland College, about the challenges and ultimate futility of running a country pub. We describe our local, in Taheke, well gone to the dogs. “A familiar story that,” says Bruce. Connections — you are never far from home in this country. He’s a big man Bruce, with a big, tired face. He cheers himself up momentarily making a sexist joke, reads my face, apologises immediately.
“Fifty dollars, you got your own bedding?” says Gavin.
This is us, perching for one night a few feet up from the tidal river. The camp, at mid day is almost in silence. Gavin points to a tide chart on the office window, the tide has not yet begun to come in. Time for Mick to doss down, have a moe, a rest, a read of Paul Theroux’s “Deep South” now I have finished it. Sitting with my eye on the sea I recall Theroux talking about, “….the heightened awareness you feel when you are in a place you don’t belong.”
Mick makes himself a cup of tea in the tiny annex with its simply, perfectly equipped kitchen. There is a thin, comforting smell of worn cabinetry. Our nasty bunk room the night before, at Miranda, had smelt sharply of cleaning products. How many happy campers have holidayed here? What more could we want? An annex/with a caravan, one in permanent possession of the other.
What I want — to quicken my steps and be off and while I pull on my boots and strap camera around my neck, I talk to Dennis who is parked up next door. I admire his small camper van, “a manageable size, I could drive that.” I suggest.
Dennis, is in convoy with his two brothers and a sister in law, Dennis with bright, high cheek bones, wearing a cowboy hat, his mountain bike leaning up against a post. “You can take it for a ride,” he offers, and there we stand talking, until distracted by a kerfuffle within a group moving in next door, on the other side — two boats, more men than I can accurately count which might be because two or three of them look so alike. Up from Havelock North, one of them tells me, carting boxes of beer and an arm full of fishing rods towards their caravan-with an annex. “This place,” he says, “it’s like going back in time, feels like something out of the 50s”, and I’m thinking this sounds like a cliche. I get the giggles, listening in to the on-going-kerfuffle, and start working on a joke, how many men does it take to back up and park a boat?
“Yeah yeah, keep it going/chase it, chase it/watch the tree/you’ve got plenty of room/I think you’re gunna stuff it up Gary/Nah, I don’t like the look of that. Their SUVs and trailer wheels leave deep ruts in the grass beside the fish cleaning table. There has been a lot of rain here, everyone will tell me that.
Dennis, asks if I might go down to the pub later, then pulling off his hat goes inside his camper van and I wander off up the river, thinking about the six or seven men and their two boats, wondering what they might do. Accountants, clerks? I could be wrong about all of them. I hold the camera in my hand to take the weight of it off my neck.
Tapu Bay is tiny, timber trucks lumber through its one, narrow road too fast, houses along from the pub show signs offering to ‘professionally fillet fish’, sell ‘flakey salt ice’. There are boats for hire -we launch/and retrieve. Ken, one of Dennis’s two brothers is bent over his smoker with an earlier catch.
The wind has settled, the tide has turned and Mick will be off by now to fish, walking south. Feeling that I have all the time in the world, I cross a small stone bridge to the north walking down towards the Urupa where I skirt the periphery, leaning in against the fence to read names on graves. Half closing my eyes, looking across the Firth of Thames, the graben between the Coromandel and the Hunea Ranges. The Firth, that long arm of sea reaching down to the Hauraki plain and meeting the Waihou and Piako awa. There is a whip/whip/whip sound of birds in high flight, rapid take off and graceful, full throated landings. The variable oyster catcher and New Zealand dotterel are ground nesting, the signs say, take care. Waipatukatu point, where freedom campers are welcome. My boots become so wet they will stay damp for days. Bird like, I stand on one foot for a long time and leave behind a sandy sole print on the knee of my jeans. Birds/birds. Everywhere you look, I swan off.
If you lived here, this is what you would see every day.
John is bringing his washing in from the line and stopping to talk he wraps a bright red fluffy blanket around his neck, tucking his pony tail under it. The sun has gone, and there is a sudden chill. John has the bluest eyes and I want to recite out loud, Larkin’s line, “….deep blue air, that is nothing, is nowhere, and is endless.” He had come to Tapu for a few months, “up from Hamilton, and that was fourteen years ago.”
There are, he thinks, about ten permanent residents, but it depends on the time of year. Might I take his photograph, I ask. He says no to that, “but ask Duckman, he will let you.”
And, Duckman does.
David is mother and father and kaitiaki of the ducks, a ferrel flock, and while he works at securing a cot for recently born chicks, we talk, and I watch, transfixed by his thin, thin skinned hands, the skin blue with veins and tattoos. He’s pulling sharply on collar ties until he runs out and starts cutting short lengths of string with kitchen scissors instead. Tender, resourceful, hardworking hands.
“I guess I spend about $500 a year on feed, pellets for them,” he shrugs, matter of factly. “This frame, it’s a temporary fix.” The babies need to be protected before next week when the camp will fill up with school children, “little tu tus, well, some of them. Run over the birds on their bikes, and you know what, laugh at them hurt.”
“You are caring for the duck population of Tapu bay,” I say, and he looks directly at me for the first time, “you got it, in one.” He’s preoccupied but doesn’t seem to mind me hanging around, asking questions. He has a soft spot for wild life, so many people are indifferent and then there are those who complain, about the droppings, the coo-ing of pigeons. I start to laugh and tell him about a woman the night before in Miranda who had hissed, “ssshhhh” at a low flying dance of ducks above a flat field at sunset. And, I tell him how much we had disliked the camp there and love this one by comparison. “They call this affordable, which means budget,” David says.
“Wait a minute,” he makes a sudden dash towards a stubby sea weathered hibiscus in front of the fence, budding up for early summer, “there is an escapee, now where did she go?” He burrows down, a tiny man with a crooked body and a crooked smile, comes out with a hand full of fluff.
“Have you voted yet?” I ask, “Yes,” David replies, “voted on the day the polls opened, didn’t want to die and miss out.”
Tapu Bay — its camp ground, the recently sold Royal Oak , a well kept voluntary fire brigade with well mown lawn and well pruned shrubs, the memorial hall with notices on its front window, “Come and give us a hand sprucing up our hall and improving it as a community venue/we will provide home baked morning tea.” and “HELLO SPRING, pot luck/Tapu hall, everyone welcome.” I bet they are.
At the war memorial I sit with a warm cheek against the white concrete wall and read the dedication aloud. It has the sound and feel of a prayer. A fine place to stop and consider the past. In a house opposite I can see a woman under a wisteria just blooming, strumming a guitar. The small art gallery next door is closed for the day, and in the front garden bird of paradise hold the last vestige of sunlight at their tips. Beside that glowing clump of bright orange and blue, under a heavily flowering kowhai, someone has nailed orange halves on to a small off cut of pine for the tui. Walking past on his way to fish, I wonder if Mick had noticed the kowhai. Good flowering/good fishing.
Tapu school, ten children, some of them siblings. “Come in, have a look around,” Kerry the school manager tells me, and in I go, to the one big, bright classroom, where tamariki and Annette the relief principal are packing up for the day. The walls are covered in artwork. In Tapu bay, ten tamariki have been studying Van Gogh’s “Starry Night”.
I wander around this seaside school thinking of my own school aged mokopuna and their, much bigger beachside school. I am sniffing with a kind of sadness, it is so beautiful here, seaside, just out the window, ten high spirited children educated here, and not bused way down the road.
“Do you love your school?” I ask, “Ae.” Smiling. If you lived here you would see this every day.
David’s wife and his daughter Vicky are just back from shopping in town.
“When people say town,” I ask, “do they mean Thames?” They do.
“You know what people call my dad?” Vicky grins at me, Vicky, a young woman with a smile in her eyes. “They call him the duck whisperer.”
“Where you from/where you going/how long you staying?”
“Hokianga, that’s where my mum is from, and my granddad is buried at Taheke.” I ask the name, and know it well. Hokianga, at my back, never far from home.
“You coming to the pub later?” Dennis had asked, and pushes a bar stool towards me when I get there, introduces me to brothers Ken and Trevor, and Ken’s wife Bev. Parked up, all our elbows on the table we talk Christchurch where the brothers and I grew up.
“You’ve lost your Christchurch accent,” Ken says, and we all manage to avoid that very Christchurch question about which school you went to. We talk roads travelled, ask, have we voted, yes/no/not yet. Can you vote if you are in jail/how likely are you to get caught if you vote twice? Ken pulls out his phone to show me photographs of his classic car collection, Bev and I talk sewing machines, both our mothers used Singers, as did we till recently. We name our children and our grandchildren. Bev and Ken have greats. I have been trying, though I am not very good at it, I tell Bev, to sew for my first grandaughter.
I can’t stop thinking about three brothers and one wife in convoy together . Imagine that.
Propping up the bar a proverbial group of men in camos and caps, booted, half way up their calves, they have the look of men who have no place for women in their lives, all their faces grey with stubble. Hunters? They’ve been around, they laugh loudly and often, but I can’t hear a word they say. There is dog racing on the tv, “could be Addington,” suggests Ken, a local radio station is playing old pop. There is a small piano in one corner, a notice on the wall saying no dogs/no naughty children and beside it a large pin up of a bosomy woman with a towel just covering her nipples. Beside her, a notice reads, “Blow the cobwebs out of your old gun, your black powder muskets — bring the whole family.” Shooting practice beginning soon at the local club. Paul Theroux drove around the deep south stopping at gun shows. The friendliest, most polite people, he said of them!
Just on dark, Mick walks in. No fish, but a local man had advised he move further along the big flat rock at the bottom of Diehard creek, catch something in the morning for sure. Mick buys himself a dark beer, and on his footsteps, an unpleasant drunk with a shiny, shaven head wearing a leather bomber jacket the colour of sick. He pauses long enough to ask me why I’ve got a tea cosy on my head, knocks our table and spills his own drink. He heads to the bright-lights-flashing bank of ching-chings in a corner where he begins a game with his head resting on the machine as if he needs it to stop himself falling. The bar maid, wearing a black Metallica t shirt walks by with a damp cloth in her hand and in between a reluctant conversation with the drunk she, forlornly wipes tables. He’s flirting, sort of. Her eyes are flat, she’s indifferent, has heard it all before. Her hair, the grey/gold of sand is in a single plait, unravelling itself, as if it too is tired and wants to go home to bed.
“He told us he’s from London,” Mick remarks, “that’s not a London accent. He’s from Scunthorpe.”
A woman walks into the bar from the restaurant, brushing her palms down her apron- she could be the cook, the waitress and the dish washer. She looks around the very nearly empty lounge, no one else is eating tonight. Like the barmaid, she can go home soon, though Bruce, the ex owner, just walking in, wants a cup of tea first. He’s weary, they’re all weary, Bruce’s great weight and his woes wears him out. He talks tax and politics like a man who has for a long time had a captive audience — “What happened/put it this way/what you and I both know/when you think about/a lotta people don’t realise this, but……….”
It’s time to go home. For isn’t home where ever you put your head at night, or can be. Words keep me awake and I listen for the sound of the river on the rise or fall, but Tapu camp is almost silent. The late A.A. Gill wrote about how he hurried up his habits, laying down a pattern, in place of roots, when he was a visitor to a place. I am wide awake, in possession of a caravan/and an annex for just one night with a sliver of moon behind the thin cotton curtains, thinking about my breakfast.
Dennis eats rhubarb. I tell him I’ve brought mine frozen from home. Bev is sitting with a bowl of cereal and kiwi fruit on her lap, wanting Ken to get a hurry along so she can tidy up. They travel with their whippet/shar-pei, Kahn whose water bowl has gone missing over night. Ken rolls his hands around the loose skinned back of Kahn’s neck, telling me, “See, see you can see the shar- pei in him here.” We’re all back on the road again today, but Ken, Dennis and Trevor will go out in the boat first. “What a life eh,” says Dennis, smiling, putting his cowboy hat back on.
Tapu camp, not so quiet in the morning. A man wearing a blue singlet with a fishing logo in black on the back is bent over a saw horse. There is pottering and puttering going on, fixing up, home improvements. DIY. I smell bacon cooking and a moment later a caravan window opens, a hand holding a frying pan, tips it up and tips out sizzling hot fat. Two men and a woman walking towards me, at odds, the woman in tight black jeans and bare feet has strode ahead, tossing her head and yells back at them, “you can keep your f…… boat!” One of the men growls, and she says, “no one heard me!” I did, I tell her and we catch each other’s eye and both of us, laugh out loud.
And there, perched on the tyre of an old, slightly battered at its rear, galvanised trailer, is a woman I think might be Winnie. Gavin, the day before had said, “Ah, Winnie, she’s from up your way.” Winnie is watching two men use a pair of pliers to wrench a piece of chain wrapped around the leg of a picnic table. “This here, is crime watch,” says one. Tapu camp collective? If not to lend a hand then to lend an ear. Photographing Gavin the day before, good natured, he’d stood in this same spot. “Do your hair first Gavin,” the same man in the blue T shirt had said. Good natured. Gavin who had got out of Auckland, lived in his car for four years, been here at Tapu about eight.
Tapu camp, home for some people.
Winnie is from Punguru, related to the Leefs, “ah, we’re all related up there.” She’s not long back from the north, went up ‘cause her cousin had passed away. Cousin was a free spirit, an independent type, built her own whare out of tin, “we’d go up there, to Koutu Loop, all our other cuzzies had flash-as houses but we’d stay with Di. She’d say, youz wanna kai, and ha ha, we’d be waiting, breakfast, lunch and dinner.”
Cousin Di had been cremated, “that’s the kind of woman she was, didn’t want to make a fuss.”
I fuss myself, knocking on the door of David’s caravan/with an annex, to talk to his wife, can see her behind the lace curtain. She calls out, her voice reedy with anxiety, “I’m sorry, I’m busy right now.” I step away, as if stung and sit, my feathers ruffled, and reprimand myself. Not everyone wants or likes talking to strangers.
But Craig talks, “happy to,” he assures me when I ask, just checking. I need to check his bull arab/neo mastiff cross Tess, too, straining on the lead, “ahh, she’s placid as,” he smiles. Tess slobbers a little at my knees, she’s mottled and I can see, benign - though Craig wraps her chain a little tighter in his hand, “placid as, not like the other one.”
“Bacchus, HE HATED PEOPLE!” That comes out in a roar, deep, and full of air, from the back of Gavin’s throat, reminds me of Ralf Spall at his father’s funeral in “The death of England”.
Craig and his wife, whose doing the nine to five in town, in Thames, are not long home from forty years in Australia. Bacchus, at seven months, had been bitten by a brown snake. “I was carrying in the fire wood, tipped it out, snake had been curled up in the bottom — whoosh, whoosh, bit Bacchus. He was lucky to be alive, but HATED PEOPLE, after that.”
Craig has five or six silver rings in one ear, a face full of kindness, a gingery mustache, his checks smudged with freckles, he asks, “what you writing, which daily rag, where you from?”
He tells me it’s good to be back home but it hasn’t stopped raining since they got here. He wants to know if it is a rugged coast line up north?
“In places,” I reply, “they say, never turn your back on the sea.”
I set off for the sea, thinking about Winnie saying she likes it here because there is plenty of kai moana. A woman with dreadlocks pulls up and asks do I want a ride anywhere? Mick is still on the big flat rock at Diehard creek where mud can flood down in a storm and on to the beach, but he’s ready to stop. He has caught two snapper, the second one got off and he jumped into a small pool to retrieve it. “Look at this,” he calls out, stretching his arm up with a handful of rubbish to show me. Some one had bought themselves a brand new reel and left its moulded plastic casing behind, with a pile of magazines and food wrappings. We rant, as the rising tide begins to darken the rock Mick stands on, we rant and blaspheme this person who chose a perfect, unblemished spot, with their undisputed, self righteous right to fish from it, and defiled it, leaving their shit behind. If they had caught fish, I hope they choked on a bone.
The duck whisperer had told me the day before he no longer eats any fish, for there is too much plastic in the sea.
Mick says sit is a privilege to fish on a Friday, he thinks it pays to fish on an empty stomach. Atavistic man. He will put the snapper on ice to cook for our eldest son who for now, is living further down the road. Walking away from the rock which Mick had been advised to inch further along, a crane flies overhead with a long twig in its beak. Nest building. We’re off, wending our way back to camp. The next day we will vote.
David told me he would like to live at Tapu Camp until the day he dies. John said if people there don’t get along, they just ignore each other. I would think they are scrupulous about respecting each other’s privacy, but I might be wrong. In a way, they are people living off the grid, and all the human stories are there in that small place. The heart breaks, partners becoming ill and dying before the camper van is bought for holidays, or for living in altogether, so people go it alone. A man with a daughter who had a lead foot on the pedal, killed herself and her children in a crash. “She had a drug problem,” he had said, “and put it this way, it wasn’t just marijuana.” Ten tamariki at the tiny school beside the sea, ten people who for now, and for some time have made their home at the camp, whatever their reasons. Came for a few days/months, still there years later. I hope they can stay there till they die. Tapu/sacred. There had been a battle and the river had run red with blood. All the human stories in that small place beside a long arm of the sea.