“EYES TO SEE AND A HEART TO FEEL”

It is Vivaldi weather when my friend Gerard comes to visit. Early summer can never make up its mind. When visitors — manuhiri — come to stay, I crow a little, want to show off. Gerard has been to the Hokianga before but not the north side. We fill a picnic basket with left overs from last nights middle eastern, we wrap wool around our waists just in case, put sun hats on the back seat because you never know. There is always SPF90 in the glove box for celtic skin, and we are off, westward in my waka ma, my white car.

I pause briefly on the bridge to point out to Gerard the sandbags on the bank, “That’s how high the awa can reach in a flood,” and yes, it does some times run cross the road, smaller, older bridges than this one have been washed away.

We talk awa, all the way to Waima, “You glow Mortie, when you talk about yours,” Gerard says. “I love its energy, the sound of it, the roar of the falls in winter.” He too lives on a river, and on Waima bridge I pause again, to ask does he think as I do, that it has a look of the south island, its shallow, clear fast running water, the colour of its stones.

Just shy of Omanaia I slow for there on a small hillside is a statue of Mary, Mary of the highway I tell Gerard, describing the morning she was placed there, the procession on foot from the oddly named Duddys Road led by the pensive priest. A Mass was said with the congregation on white plastic chairs, fanning their faces in the heat with prayer books and song sheets. Mary has recently been restored, repainted and returned to the Hokianga, she stands now under what Mick calls a bus shelter. He’s superstitious, wouldn’t pass her, ever, without waving. Te whaea tapu, o te ara, I tell Gerard, the holy woman of the way.

Past Omanaia the tide is low, and the pneumatophores of mangroves are a lovely abstraction of light and shade as the sun dapples, higher up through the branches. On a morning like this Mick had recently made his way over the mudflats cleared by a P.D. gang, to gather up lengths of mangrove trunk, big enough for turning, something he had always wanted to do. The percolating sea smell of them, briny and brackish had filled his shed for days, the streaky purple wood going grey as it dried out, a hard wood, but pith rotten at its centre. In Maori, I tell Gerard, mangrove is manawa, as is heart.

As we come down the hill to Rawene the ferry docks from its short journey across the harbour from the narrows. The sky clouds over in the west and for a brief moment the church of our lady of assumption at Motukaraka is lost in a mist which has dropped from the dark forest on its way to the sea. The sun begins to beat hotly as it comes towards us from the east and the ferry clangs and bangs loudly letting down its ramp as vehicles roll quickly off before the northbound roll on. Kihu Ra Tuarua is packed to capacity in no time.

We stand with our backs to port side, there is an under foot hum from the idling engine and the smell of diesel fumes. A young man with dreadlocks he has gathered up and looped high at the back of his head, a small child on his hip, is leaning against the bonnet of his waka, its door open, Bob Marley playing on the sterio. Perfect. I am bursting with joy at this Saturday morning scene in this place I love, glowing, when I catch the eye of someone I vaguely know, and say to Gerard, “I think you should meet this woman, there may be a connection.”

Why am I not surprised by this when there is. Small place, in a small country, small population. Gerard knows Susy’s cousin. They are both film makers. Gerard once made a film about Susy’s cousin’s husband. They talk, the two of them in that way which joins up the dots, so easily and often done here, while I stare and eavesdrop and stare and eavesdrop until my reverie is interrupted by the ticket collector. Gerard, putting his hand out with the cash gets the big bypass, the ticket man approaching me instead to ask, “You a local, half price for locals.” I laugh, plucking playfully at my beret, “Must be the hat Gerard, he knows a local when he sees one.” The man’s belt bag with its rows of different coloured tickets fans out from it like a fancy dress skirt, he’s in a broad brimmed hat and high viz.

“Where are you two going?” Susy asks, “Motuti, Punguru and later in the day, Kohukohu.” I tell her, and she tells us she is speaking at the opening of an exhibition at the gallery in Kohukohu. “Whose?” I ask, and when she answers, Gerard says, delighted, “Ooh, Chris Grosz, he’s a friend of mine.” Small world.

“Why don’t you come and speak too?” Susy suggests, and so we do, for of course we can change our plans and drive north at the narrows when the ferry docks.

Kohukohu, I tell Gerard, always makes me think of a small slice of Wellington, with its charming hill side villas and beautiful village green where we stop to gaze at the Poutiaki — Te Tika, Te Pono, Te Aroha, who stand watching over the town and the sea. Gaze upwards for their statue demands it, and in those moments, not speaking, the sky is washed out and goes grey around their lovely faces.

Kohukohu resting, but not quite somnolescent on the waterfront, a woman standing by the community notice board tells us there is always something new to read as a man wanders past to drop books through a slot in the library door and they land with a soft thud on the floor. At the very end of the jetty children drop - shouting and plonking and splashing into the sea with a loud thud. Before crossing over to the exhibition I stop to press my face against the window of the op shop, closed because it is Saturday — it must be the smallest op shop in the world, Secondhand Rose.

At the gallery, an elegant place, local musicians perform and there is the curiously polite culture of gallery goers, voices mostly muted, nods of recognition, the occasional peel of laughter and chilling, solemn moments at any mention of the American presidential election held a few days before. Here, in this lovely place you know you are among like minds. Heads bend towards paintings and the programme, Susy and Gerard tell their stories well about the painter and political cartoonist, their reminiscing and reflections from a time most of us there can recall.

Leaving, I say to Gerard, “This is a day for suggestions and changing our plans.” A man I’d not met before introduced himself at the gallery, asking were we going to the Kutai festival. Kutai? not a word I know. “Mussels, the mussel festival at Mitimiti.” he tells me, Ahh, that explains the ferries’ festive air. “You should go.” he insists. Mitimiti, I had thought it too far, but there will have been rain on the road, the warm fug of dust which gets up your nose will have been dampened down, and Gerard is happy to drive. “Ahh, Mitimiti,” he says, “I have long wanted to go there.” And so we do.

We talk trees and forestry, passing great swarths of bare, bruised hillside. Gerard tells birdsong stories, I name the tiny places and their rivers and churches we pass or pull up at along the way. Totara Point where the first Catholic Mass was said by Bishop Pompallier in 1838, his remains reinterred at St Marys in Motuti. We’ve been talking about our Christchurch childhoods, Gerard growing up Catholic in a Protestant city, I tell him to stand in the church doorway so that I might photograph him. One for your mother, I say.

Punguru is sombrous in the rain and we miss seeing its mountain, its maunga and the Warawara beyond. From the highest point where I live, I can watch the sun set behind Punguru and from that distance it is a perfect, small violet triangle across the water. We are a long way into the north Hokianga now, talking about the different worlds we inhabit, our korero about what draws us to a place and holds us there. All heart. “An eye to see and a heart to feel,” I quote, and Gerard says, “sounds like Wordsworth.” I think it is.

“You are crowing Mortie,” Gerard laughs. “Speaking of crowing,” I reply and launch into my fairly new love affair with magpies who have begun to frequent our garden now our late neighbour is not alive to shoot them. “What is it about magpies?” Gerard asks, “They are so well dressed,” I say, “dressed for dinner and in your face, all that squawking and making themselves heard.” Birds - we love birds, Gerard and I, but gossip instead for a while, cheerfully name dropping with impunity and pleasure, joining the dots again, unabashed by our need do so.

Until — Mitimiti, a cluster of carnival tents, the church, the marae, sand, hillsides, a very small school and the bright bright blue and snow white break of glorious surf. We are suddenly speechless, both let out a long breath and fall in love with the little place.

Parking in a field we set off to the other side, oblivious to the rod casting competition we have stumbled into the middle of and are told, with gentle grace by a young woman to go another way. My mind is on Tuwhare’s poems, for there is Hato Hemi, and his words I most love, “the mass and the mountain talking, see sand whipped the toy church does not flinch…….”

We are comfortably complicit, my friend Gerard and I. I want to be alone here — he goes one way with his camera slung nonchalantly from long practice in one hand while I clutch mine, for my heart is always in my mouth with it in my hand, and I wander off another way. Gerard eats taniwha burger with special sauce, tells me later it had been hard to choose between that and kutai wontons, kutai pizza. We catch sight of one another from time to time in the middle of that big and glorious crowd, kia ora, kia ora, kia ora. What a welcome.

Mitimiti, the husband of the school principal tells us, has the biggest mussels in the world, the sweetest green lipped mussels in the world. The tamariki at the school, Te Kura O Matihetihe had been studying them, and the festival has grown from that. We watch tug of war, Scottish rock throwing, dunk the teacher, kutai shelling, log jousting, tow the truck. The crowd is thick and close and warm. What a feast we have found ourselves in the middle of. “What a world this is Mortie,” says Gerard, “how different it is to mine.”

We talk less driving home. Our energy peters out and we are tired, Gerard yawning tells me he’d been kept awake in the night, in the tree house half way up a grand old totara, by a possum. Must have had some sleep though for he’d not heard the subsequent snap, thud and thrashing of the timms trap. Only good possum is a dead one.

We’ve not long to wait for a ferry back, not that we’d mind waiting. Maui vans pull up with their weary travellers, map books in front of their faces. The sun has lost its heat but Rawene across the water still glows and the gulls circle and squawk. Half way across the harbour Gerard tells me he and a fella at Mitimiti had had a hongi, “I said, ‘bro, my first hongi,’ and then he gave me a hug Mortie.” Gerard is a long way from home.

The ticket collector asks have we had a good day.

Mick has dug a hole and buried last night’s possum in his cider orchard. Always room for another tree. He has lit the pizza oven, kai time. He has lit a fire under the bath. “What a life Mortie, Mick.” says Gerard, our manuhiri. There are shouts from the falls, the thud of someone jumping in from the rocks. I shiver for it is early in the season and the water will be cold. The sun will have gone down behind Punguru though I was not here to see it. Standing with pizza dough warming in my hands a kereru flies out from the forest, whosh, whosh, that beautiful sound, full of air, and I wait, holding my breath for its mate, and there it is, seconds later, its mate. Whosh, whosh. At the falls, a car parks up and someone turns the sterio on. Bob Marley, perfect.