ALL THE TIME there was Piha, wonderful, free flying, fresh Piha with its knotty cliffs, black sand, wild beach, the great haunches of Lion Rock rising out of the surf – the blessed place where our family members could forget all our angst. The wild coast that became famous later through Jane Campion's film The Piano.
We used to hurtle along the rough road out to the west coast in our shabby Bradford van, loaded to the gunnels with cartons of food, flagons of wine, children and bedding. We girls were born animists – we were sorry for the stones being flung out from the wheels, the toitoi crushed by cars, the trees being choked by the dust.
In the back seat, jouncing with the bumps, I tried to concentrate on not being carsick, mostly without success, gulping in air from the open window, staring fixedly at the trees as we dipped and turned giddily past, counting off each mile to our arrival. And when we did finally arrive – what a sensuous rush to the heart it was. The first thrilling glimpse of blue ahead through the leaves, lumbering around the last few interminable corners and then emerging from the bush and zigzagging down the bare hillside, with the panorama of the beach in front of us, Lion Rock, the surfy sea stretching forever into the horizon. We never tired of it – the unchanging rituals of our arrival in paradise – the first child to see the sea, the pohutukawa growing on the rock, toitoi massing beside the road with their fluffy white plumage, the hit of fresh air, the plunge down towards the sea.
'Smell it, kids,' our mother Elsie would urge, sounding very Danish. 'Inhale it! Good fresh air for your lungs.'
We children swam every day. We walked down Rayner Road, then onto the steep track that looped and turned through the bush with its rich tasty smell of whiteywood and damp, down the hill to the sea, the well-trodden earth soft under our bare feet.
WE WERE BODYSURFING before we knew the word. Coming in on a wave in a huge rush, or being dumped and churned over and over, spluttering, swallowing water, tumbling in to shore. We knew to stay between the flags; anyone who didn't was despicable in our eyes. Out by Lion Rock there was a strong rip and people who swam close to the rocks or fished there were in serious danger – there were quite a few drownings at Piha. We knew from experience that if you didn't panic and allowed yourself to be carried along you'd end up coughing and half-drowned but safe on the sand.
After our wild buffeting swim, we threw ourselves on our stomachs, teeth chattering, shovelling the hot velvety drifts of black sand up to our chests to warm ourselves.
Further around the beach the lagoon provided a gentler swim, with its faint decaying-leaf smell, the damp sand at the edge of the dunes perfect for mucking around with sandcastles and digging tunnels to China. I once nearly drowned there, falling into endless choking greenness, trying to struggle up towards the dim light in slow motion. My father leapt in heroically, fully dressed, pound notes floating out of his pockets, to save me. None of us children ever forgot the weirdly majestic sight of the pound notes floating on the water.
THE GAP COULD only to be reached at low tide, a clear deep rock pool with kelp waving languorously in its depths and surf thundering out beyond the line of rocks. I was fascinated by the Blowhole. Gazing down I was sucked into the echoing chasm with its dark sunless water whistling eerily below, knowing it was certain death to go closer, wondering what it would be like to jump, whether you could climb back up the vertical dripping rocks.
One particular day, the waves were so high that even at low tide they had washed over into the Gap pool and spread a sea of thick brownish bobbing foam which covered the rocks and sand in soft piles. We smeared our little pagan bodies with it and threw ourselves into this heavenly softness – it was like swimming in clouds.
I nearly drowned for the second time in one of those rock pools at the Gap. I had the same sensation of endless suffocating weight, intense greenness. But this time I was old enough to appreciate the muscular young surfie who waded in to rescue me. I felt deeply embarrassed about my skinny little body when he deposited me, a shivering drowned rat, in front of a group of gaping bystanders who seemed remote, dreamlike, as I stared up at them from the sand.
None of these experiences made me afraid of the water – for us swimming was a sacrament. Every summer I noted each swim solemnly in my diary, superstitious about missing a day.
THE GLEN ESK Valley was another special place for us – once you entered the bush there you were in another, older world, with massive tree ferns standing primal in the shadows, their fronds scrolled like delicate fretwork, tenderly perfect.
From the depths of the trees we'd hear the sound of the stream splashing and murmuring over boulders, collecting suddenly in shady pools deep enough for swimming, the icy water thrilling as a benediction. The path became steeper and rockier, the dull clamour of the water louder in your ears, and then suddenly you came out into the magical clearing of the Falls, beautiful as a dream, its three tiers of mist and roar suspended, frozen music, between the sky and the clear pool below. All around was the bush and birdsong, the stillness of the valley, a feeling of exaltation. We sometimes bathed and washed our hair in the pool, naked nymphs in the cold water, playing around our mother and swimming over to tread water, greatly daring, then lingering for a few minutes under the punishing weight of the waterfall itself, its roar deafening us. We could glimpse the cavern behind with its tiny ferns trembling ceaselessly beneath the torrent and wash of the water, its shadows and secret depths hidden in the watery tumult.
ONCE, PLAYING BY myself in the stream, I saw a small translucent white hand glimmering in the water. It was so shockingly similar to a drowned child's, that my heart thumped with fear as I turned the rock over. It was a dead possum, bleached white by the water. We played Pooh sticks from the wooden bridge, imagining Eeyore (our favourite character) swirling along grumpily underneath. It was like playing in a fairy bower, just as soft and green and unworldly, just as bountiful.
OUR BACH, OR beach house, was tiny and musty with uncomfortable chairs, everything plain and unadorned, surrounded by bush on three sides, with tree ferns and manuka growing up close to every window. It was little more than a garage, its size and shape like a small chapel, pretty well unchanged except for the tiny sleeping annexe tacked on to one side. My father Dick sometimes had to fish out the sodden corpses of rats and possums from the rainwater tank out the back, manuka sprinkled like tea leaves on the surface of the water.
The toilet was a long-drop dunny in the bush. You walked along a soft, leaf-strewn path and there it was, the door permanently propped open, immovable, cobweb-covered, the walls rough creosoted planks. You could sit and gaze straight out into the heart of the trees, the wooden seat warm and smooth on your bum, hear the tiny muffled plop as your poo disappeared down into the darkness and hit the earth floor, the Daddy-long-legs spiders scuttling up into the walls at the sound.
Inside there were beds everywhere, crammed into the annexe and against the walls in the main room. There was a fireplace at one end, and a kitchen corner where open shelves stored plates and saucepans, salt and pepper, matches, candles, the Primus and the Tilley lamp. The table was the heart of the place at night, where everyone gathered to eat 'Piha stew', full of rich fatty meat, potato, carrot and peas, and to wash up afterwards in water heated on the Primus and poured into the cracked enamel bowl. The meal things were cleared, the dishwater thrown outside to water the trees and the Tilley lamp was lit, and then we played cards, Monopoly, Scrabble and Newmarket around the table with our usual convivial competitiveness, the adults drinking wine, the fire crackling. It was lit even on warmish nights, its long shadows dancing on the rafters above us.
WE GLORIED IN the elemental roughness of the place – we had no need for electricity or a bathroom or bourgeois conveniences, according to our father. We had our own beach culture, full of pride in roughing it. We were taught to despise the dinky baches down the road with their orderly English gardens and damaged remnants of bush, with names like Dun Roamin, the clutter of plastic furniture and umbrellas our neighbours lugged down to sit around solemnly on the beach. Sometimes in wintertime we would prowl the empty baches, looking through the windows marvelling, shocked at the luxury inside. Ours was a calling – the purity of the New Zealand bach was sacrosanct – and even electricity was an affront. How my mother managed with four children, a feral husband, and an endless stream of visitors and guests in that tiny place, I don't know. There was always an undertow between my mother and father, which began with the process of packing the car.
He hated preparations and fuss so it was always fraught. His idea was that they should just throw in the kids, a flagon of wine, bread and cheese and hit the road; and there, thwarting him, was Elsie, my mother, with her cartons packed full of useful things, handles sticking out and jabbing us in the back, tea towels, mozzie stuff, a tin of Rawleigh's 'man and beast' ointment for cuts and burns, the big pot of Piha stew with its meaty smell, her anxiously calculating expression.
Dick pulled things out as fast as she put them in, raging, 'What do we need this pan for? Trivia!'
The thing was, though, that we all loved our Piha bach dearly, each in our way. If perfect happiness were possible, however fleeting, there it was: Dick leaping wildly around the lawn, his glasses flying off, playing killer quoits; my mother relaxed for once, a glass of wine in her hand, laughing and kind; the great gatherings of friends and family – on the beach, the lawn, the verandah – always sunlit with wine and picnics and children and laughter.
CAMPING AT PARAHA Gorge (we called it Our Beach), we slept under the stars with the smell of wood smoke and the creek gurgling beside us. The ecstasy of swimming in wild places, fresh and untainted – lagoon, rock-pool, sea, freshwater stream – the water pure on your skin, the feel of clean sand underfoot, lupins rattling as you walked quietly through the dunes. It was a place at the rim of the world where the horizon seemed to stretch forever, winds coming fresh from the Antarctic. The rigidity of suburban life was simply blown away in minutes.
In the end though I loved the bach best at night – the sound of the surf booming comfortably far away, the Tilley lamp hissing, my parents' occasional soft remarks, the whisper of turning pages, a circle of light on their bent attentive faces as they read in bed. Outside the night was alive with creatures and the murmuring bush, rats and possums scampering on the tin roof, the possum making its hoarse hissing grunt, an electric presence frightening and thrilling at the same time. I lay awake listening to the mysterious wildness of the owl calling morepork into the layers of darkness, its forlorn cry filling me with a pleasurable desolation as if I could dimly sense some ancient sorrow not yet mine to understand. I'd fall asleep with the untamed darkness so close, but safe, tucked in by my mother in my narrow musty bed, dreaming of the sea. It was like a medieval hut with its smoky fire, the warm breathing bodies of the sleeping family, firelight flickering on the walls – and all around the rustling of the bush and the wild sea calling.