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Deep in the Land of Our Ancestors

Cape Reinga, Far North, New Zealand. Unsplash

Northland. Two weeks after the New Year. Burning in the hot summer sun. But dry heat and I can take a lot of that. We leave early-ish, as early as we can, in mums SUV dubbed the Stormtrooper. The traffic doesn’t get heavy until we reach the narrow entrance to the North, the Gateway bridge we’ll still be paying off for decades to come, but at least the cars aren’t at a standstill yet and the gravel is all sealed over. We’re passing all the landmarks and heading out on Highway 1 straight up the inside to the top of the island and Cape Reinga, the closest white people can get to the leaping off place of spirits. Not the actual place but they don’t know it.

It’s a different country and I can feel it as soon as we hit the end of the motorway. It’s wild and dense with all the dangers of a time portal. Mum, me, Robert and Aroha armed with our devices — the Stormtrooper, the phone, the iPad and laptop and the retro Instamatic. Aroha’s electric blued hair lights up the front, the playlist has started and my mother sits contentedly peering out the window. This is an ancestral trip — the historian, the archivist and the reluctant 15 yr old recipient of the only knowledge she’s going to get about where she’s come from. Both sides of the family from the same place, the history stretching out for hundreds of years in every direction, white and brown, invader and invaded, all in one hit on a three-day road trip. Bam! Enjoy your baggage.

Day One we see the glow worms at Kawiti, the Hundertwasser’s at Kawakawa, then head up to Paihia where Aroha and I stand in front of a sign that exclaims how good it is to be so far away from Auckland: Amen! And still we’re driving — up to Waitangi, the Treaty House, the Marae, the tribal canoes, the flagpole, the blue sky roasting overhead, then the Kerikeri waterfalls, the Mission House — oldest standing structure in New Zealand which my 5x Great Grandfather helped build, past Kaeo, where my Grandparents met in a dance hall during World War 2, and up to the Mangonui waterfront, where I’m going to live one day (but it will have to be when I retire ’cause there sure as hell aren’t any jobs in the whole of Northland now). Across the island to Awanui, past tumbledown farms and baking shacks, and back down the Awanui Straight where the abandoned, crumbling homesteads sit right next to massive billboards advertising cheap loans for new housing. Past the old farm which has almost been overtaken by the tide line of the town (it’s all industrial growth this side, which is a pretty gross testament to my childhood) and on into the town Kaitaia, the family breeding ground. The motel is this side but we park up and walk through town. It looks as if even the ghosts have abandoned it, half the shop fronts boarded over, but there is a MacDonalds and The Warehouse, which I find equally disconcerting. We scrounge dinner and the sun is getting low so we make our pilgrimage up the hill to the graveyard where all my significant’s rest.

First stop is always my maternal grandparents, even though they’re on the far side and I literally have to ignore my other grandparents to get to them — I’ll catch them up on the way back. We can’t find the grave at first. There isn’t a headstone yet because, even though my Grandmother died 30 years ago and my Grandfather 12 years ago, their children can’t decide on the wording for a tombstone. Finally, we spot it — the maintenance guy hasn’t been trimming the grass and it’s growing over the flat plaque laid into the concrete. There are jars there — one whole, one broken, with bunches of flowers stuffed, one on top of another, inside their necks. Though none recently. None for a very long time; it is all barely recognisable plant life now — the gravesides rotting out as fast as the corpses. Deep in the land of their ancestors and forgot.

My mother says to leave it alone but I ignore her. I have the right: they’re my family too. I pull the weeds away, get rid of the broken jar and the rotting tributes and replace them with my own — fabric flowers and a whirligig from my youngest daughters collection — they’ll last and there’s love in them.

While we’re there we do Awanui Kauri Centre, where we walk up the insides of trees, the Cultural Centre and the Mission Station. Aroha says she doesn’t feel Maori cos she’s too white and what does it mean when your skin doesn’t show your blood? All I can do is show her history; she has to decide who she is.

Next day we head up the last leg to the top of the island, up 90 Mile Beach, through Te Aupouri Forest, past the young saplings and the wild bands of horses, past pristine white beaches and isolated general stores with picnic benches worn so smooth with age even my great-grandparents helped smooth them down.

Aroha’s never been to Cape Reinga before. She stands at the tip of her country gazing at the Tasman Sea smashing into the Pacific and we wonder out loud whether that massive rip in the ocean is where the spirits leap into the underworld. We take a photo under a signpost with directions to all the places in the world Aroha wants to see: London, New York, Japan. I hug her tight, grin at her and say start swimming!