Te Araroa is unwillingly blooded, crosses a river, and seeks enlightenment at Jerusalem

Water arced from every drainage pipe that stuck out of every hill. The rain was still falling, and, as I walked beside the Manganui-o-te-Ao my mind kept tessellating each pipe I passed, each gushing feeder stream I crossed, into the million pipes and feeders of the Manganui catchment. All of them spouting water and all headed one way - the river of my imagination was pumping.

I had no final arrangement with Baldy Haitana - simply that he'd try to make it, and if he didn't . . . he'd marked up the safest place to cross the river, the position of Smith's Hut where I could dry out on the other side, and the bush route from the hut to Pipiriki. If he didn't arrive I'd have to do it alone.

I arrived at Doug Prince's farm, the agreed rendezvous. Prince himself wasn't home, but his partner, Christine Renata opened up a caravan in the yard. Night fell, and I waited. The rain, at least, had stopped.

I rang home, seeking comfort, and my daughter Polly closed the conversation with a bright observation on the river.

"You be careful now. Death by drowning was the chief cause of accidental death in colonial New Zealand you know."

But Baldy did show, his car lights swinging up the drive. He couldn't do the two-day tramp himself, but he'd brought his 20-year-old son Randal, and two life jackets.

"Yeah, the river," said Baldy just before he left. "It's up a foot, but that's okay. Get yourself a good waddie. Then lock up - one fellow holds onto the other fellow, and doesn't move until his mate has a firm footing. Boots? I usually wear them for a river crossing, but keep them loose."

Randal bedded down in the caravan, tucked a rifle under the mattress, and ran a thumb across his hunting knife.

"Do you have a steel?"

He was a pig-hunter, a casual farm labourer, a rugby player who'd made the King Country under-21 colts. He helped with his father's jet-boat business in summer, but he had plans to go to Australia and work on the drilling rigs.

"I want to see what's out there. See the world instead of looking at it on the box. Like Shortland Street eh. Flash clothes. Cars. You don't see much like that around Pipiriki."

Next day we headed over river bluffs. We hit bush, and the cry that echoed out of the valley below was so like a human call for help that I stopped.

"That's a stinking billie peeling back a nanny," said the hunter. "I like to stalk them, and shoot them in action."

Soon after a goat appeared briefly on the bushline and he fired at it. The animal disappeared at a run, and it seemed to me the shot had missed. Randal didn't think so.

"I hit him in the neck. It will puss up. It will get as big as. It will get a disease and it will die."

Randal Haitana
Randal Haitana

We went on, still high above the river - Te Araroa was being baptised in blood, and I would have liked it to stay clean, but when you come to the country, the pig-hunters are all round you, and the wild goats are a target, shot as food for the pig-dogs, or simply shot as pests.

Randal didn't want goats, he wanted a pig.

He stopped at fresh signs of rooting, and pig sign leading away.

"This was done last night. It's their daily pig track, like a human footpath."

You could feel the change. Randal looked about him, suddenly stealthy.

"You don't ever," I said, "feel bad about the pig?"

"Nah, I just think, choice - got us a pig. And they're getting skilled now. The ones that haven't been dogged before stand and fight. They leave your dogs in a creek all ripped up. They can really pong up your dogs.

"But I do show it a bit of respect. Bury its guts or something like that. Some formal way of saying thank you. I never sell the meat. I catch it for food, or if there's a tangi or an occasion. There's always a reason for killing an animal - even a goat. That's food for a pig, and I mark the spot and I'll come back."

Without dogs, the chance of surprising a pig was small, but Randal glided along the trail now, and within minutes stopped and waved me back. He went down on one knee, and the rifle cracked. Through the trees a black goat lay slumped on the grass, and the hunter moved towards it with his knife, pulled the horned head back and slit its throat. I saw a sheet of blood gush from the animal and Randal returned, wiping the blade.

"You're not offended by this or anything?"

"I'm not a hunter Randal."

"Okay. It was just that look."

The billy-goat began suddenly to run. Down on its side, killed twice over by the bullet and the knife, still the back legs kicked away in unison, the front legs took up the rhythm, and between each ghastly bound, only an unnatural quivering of each limb marked its end.

After five hours of tramping around bluffs, we descended to the river, put on life jackets, and prepared for the crossing.

A waddie - a pole. We would use a Leki stick apiece. We strapped on the life-jackets, and Randal led out into the river. If I'd been doing it alone, I would have camped and waited, the river was still running dirty and it looked high. We locked up and went out step by step. The water surged up around the handle of my Leki. It tugged away at hip level, but two men felt good, linked arm to arm and each with his pole, a six-legged two-backed beast that sidled with slow and sure feet out into the main channel.

You could feel the point at which the river threatened to take you. Around waist-high in the flow, your boots no longer felt so firmly grounded.

"Personally," I remember thinking, "I wouldn't go on with this." But I left it to the pig-hunter, who'd done plenty of crossings.

Randal turned: "We'll go back - it's too deep."

We edged back, ducked further upriver, and tried again.

This time there were rest-points, smooth rocks that rose above the river surface and provided a back-wash away from the flow where you could catch breath before venturing out again. We crossed, and went up to Smith's Hut.

Smith's Hut
Smith's Hut

We lit the range, and everything was drying nicely. We drank hot sweet coffee on the porch, resting our gaze on the river's pale papa bluffs that rose away sheer just a few hundred metres off, and on the bushline beyond.

Evening was coming on.

"It's times like this," said Randal, "gave Barry Crump his poetry."

"Yeah - look." Cirrus clouds above us had begun to turn orange.

"Peace and quiet."

"Yep. Hear the river?"

"Yeah. You know, if I had a motorbike with mudgrip tires I could ride from Pipiriki right through to here, wheel-stand it across the river and up the other side."

"Okay."

Randal's hand strayed to the gun.

"About now the goats should be coming out. You want to ping a few billies?"

"No."

The goats did come, but I must have been getting to Randal, for he squinted down the telescopic sight, then put the gun up.

"Some things you have to really think about before you pull the trigger eh?"

"There's no reason?"

"No."

Stone angel

Next day we sighted the Whanganui River, and came around to Pipiriki. A stone angel on the outskirts of the settlement served notice that I was entering onto a very Catholic river. Te Araroa's plan suggests canoeing the Whanganui - it's a walking trail, but canoeing is just what you do on this river, and Wai Wiari, the woman who runs Wairua Hikoi tours, loaned me a canoe. I paddled off toward Jerusalem, ten kilometres downstream.

James K Baxter, New Zealand's most precocious poet, was 41 when he had a vision. He'd been beset by trouble.

He prayed to God one night in 1968, and in the morning a single thought lay in his mind, Jerusalem, New Zealand.

Baxter felt either his reason was momentarily unhinged - he thought not, for he felt quite functional - or he'd experienced a minor revelation. He wrote to a friend that he'd been shown a Godhead. It had two faces, one Maori, one pakeha. The Maori face, he saw, was "mangled and hurt by our civilisation". He felt himself ushered to Jerusalem, to learn spoken Maori, to found a community there and to begin the labour of "washing and cleaning" the Maori face.

I sighted the tall steeple of the church, and pulled the canoe ashore. The Sisters of Compassion, an order founded in the 1880s by Suzanne Aubert, once Mother Superior at this Catholic Mission, keep rooms open in the old convent for $5 a night. I settled in, then walked up a dirt trail.

A corrugated iron fence separated the grave from the villa where Baxter had once run his commune, and where muffled voices still affirmed life. Pilgrims' feet had polished the tree roots that lay across the short final path in, and the grave itself was marked by a chiselled riverstone. A totara tree overhung it, and onion weed drooped on the plot.

Jerusalem

High Country Weather

Alone we are born
    And die alone:
Yet see the red-gold cirrus
    Over snow-mountain shine.

Upon the upland road
    Ride easy, stranger:
Surrender to the sky
    Your heart of anger.

Baxter was around 18 when he wrote that, probably his best-known poem. Or, at the same age:

The first of many griefs

The first of many griefs
for such as live by pain
was never love of girls
but that old men

not hardy and not wise
nor famed by singers;
whose lives are blacksmith's pride
or green fingers;

for whom mute iron spoke
and leaf sought sun;
should under earth fall
not to be known again.

Or the poem Wild Bees, also from around this time, which describes smoking out a hive from a cabbage tree, and ends:

Fallen then this city of instinctive wisdom.
Tragedy is written distinct and small:
A hive burned on a cool night in summer.
But loss is a precious stone to me, a nectar
Distilled in time, preaching the truth of winter
To the fallen heart that does not cease to fall.

Baxter had great talent, and at this time, his alcoholism and conversion to Roman Catholicism lay all in front of him.

Hemi's stone

I stood before the grave.

Poets go under the limen (Gk=threshold). They therefore seek - I am made safe from any charges of woolliness here by the sly simplicity of a tautology - the sublime.

Cathedral Rocks seen on a moonlit midnight from Ruapehu's summit ridge - sublime would be a word for it, "something more deeply interfused" etc -- but that was Wordsworth and the romantics, and we're harder now, more deliberately superficial, happier to rebound off a shining surface.

Yet there's still the threshold where the linear sentence stops and beyond it a reality that yields only to what the American poet, Wallace Stevens, called "ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds". That, is poetry but the sub-threshold exploration can be strange, psychological, genuinely frightening - I've always thought that scene in Silence of the Lambs, where Lecter dons infra-red glasses to stalk the rooms of a dark house, wasn't a bad analogy for a poet at work. It would seem entirely possible that a Godhead with a Janus face might show up there.

But the claims go beyond that. Les Murray, perhaps Australia's best poet, believes the poem joins intelligence or rationality with a subconscious dream mentation, and that the third leg, sound and rhythm, adds physical involvement. Together these can envelop you, turn you momentarily inside out.

A poem can even, Murray claims, step off the page, can be embodied and go forth. The Jesus poem. The Hitler poem that required, as bad escaped poems can do, a massive blood sacrifice. Better by far to have the poem in its benign form, within the covers. There it sits. If it's good enough, it may even have radiance - a cast of thought that lights up not just its subject, but other things too.

It's a big claim, but I have known poetry like it.

I went down to my room, lit the fire, and opened a book loaned to me that afternoon by Sister Anna Maria: The Story of Suzanne Aubert by Jessie Munro.

I'd stopped at Jerusalem for Baxter, but it was Aubert who held me until the early morning. The book was beautifully researched and written, the Aubert story interwoven with darker and more surprising threads: the fate of the nun who came out from France on the same ship as Aubert and went slowly mad here; the French priest who put in the first Whanganui River flour mills and stymied the progress upriver of the Protestant Church Missionary Society by challenging its Reverend Richard Taylor to walk through fire.

The competition was for Maori souls. Father Jean Lampila did walk through the flames. His Protestant opponent turned away in disgust from such show business, but Maori loved it and Jerusalem, though named by Taylor, went Catholic.

Aubert arrived thirty years after that, in 1883. She had almost supernatural creds, a visionary mentor, the Curé of Ars, Jean Baptiste Vianney, later canonised, who had urged her to New Zealand, and the déjà vu - when she first arrived at Jerusalem, she'd seen before, so she said, the mission buildings.

At Jerusalem she founded the only new Catholic order New Zealand has had, and wrote its constitution: "The sisters have been instituted solely for the Maori and the poor. . ."

It had begun to rain heavily outside, and I was cosy. I ate boiled chestnuts given to me by Wai, but the tree was planted, quite possibly, by Aubert. I was seated where the cross-eyed nun had padded about, the favoured red flannel underskirt (so the book suggested) flashing momentarily under her habit as she knelt to fix this and that. It seemed a rare privilege to read this book in this place, and it posed finally a 1 a.m. question. Why did I respond to the Aubert story, and not to the Baxter one?

The aims of the nun, the poet, were the same - to side with the dispossessed, Maori in particular.

Baxter
James K Baxter

Baxter on the subject, writing in The Tablet: "Whenever anybody comes to my door, where I live at Jerusalem, he or she receives a ritual embrace and is offered food and drink and a place to lie down."

Baxter again: God sides with anyone who has no means of redress, or who is poor - "I am thinking of the vast flood of mercy God pours down on a Maori car, battered and stripped of its gears, that rumbles up a hill with 11 passengers and three hitchhikers on board."

No big difference between the nun and the poet then.

Except Aubert was happy, and Baxter was not.

That Maori car. Aubert wouldn't have stood by and celebrated the thing. She'd have got it to a garage. She was a fixer, organised a distillery and vats to manufacture Maori medicine, marketed it, knew te reo so well her introductory text was reprinted for decades, planted a cherry orchard, walnut trees too, and chestnuts, and sold the produce to steamboat river travellers. She cured ailments and set bones, took aboard waifs, rode and walked far and wide, after the first Catholic church at Jerusalem burned down, to get funds for a new one.

Order.

Baxter talked and sympathised. But in his later life, when you got past all the stated principles of his commune, arohanui etc, the reality was lice, unkempt clothes, squat conditions, marginal food. The Jerusalem commune seemed like just another failed 60s experiment.

Disorder.

And the poetry. Pain, laid out alongside shattered hives and old gardeners seems a fair poetic concern. The later poems have the same pain, but laid out alongside the Catholic symbolism, it seems senseless. Suzanne Aubert didn't feel it, why should Jim? You felt like taking the poet aside: if you're so devout, what's your problem ?

Aubert was a Christian and the Virgin Mary, Jesus, son of God, the miracles, the agony of the cross, the resurrection, were all a fait accompli, real, and perfect in their explanations. She had a bible, the brightly painted plaster of Paris icons, the rosary, and the statue of Mary "Je suis l'immaculee conception" in the yard. The spiritual side was looked after, and she could, with confidence, simply get on with the good works.

But Baxter felt the inherent terror of it all. He once wrote to the man who would be his biographer, Frank McKay, about death: "My intellect can accept it . . . My feelings are frozen by it. How can a man stand, without the blanket of creatures, before the holiness of God?"

He felt the terror of it, and sought - I'm guessing of course - the real thing. The state of mind, before they turned into plaster moulds, of religion's front line. And so at the end, he fasted, scourged, accepted poverty and rags, and took the wilder path where there might be - more Sign.

I found a photocopied poem in the convent in Baxter's handwriting and dedicated to one of the nuns. It is titled The thief who died with Jesus, and has a stanza, with Baxter's own commentary in the parenthesis

'I cannot turn my head to find out
Who hangs beside me on the other tree;'

(Christ is hidden
as we become him)

Baxter the poet stepped off the page at Jerusalem and it was an awesome final gesture, but the problem was, he lost his art and became another man's poem.

Brent
Brent Southen

It rained all night, and Wai's husband Brent Southen came down to break the news: they didn't want me to canoe out of Jerusalem.

"The river has risen four metres overnight." said Southen. "When it's that high you get whirlpools."

I was disappointed. I'd looked forward to this bit, the tall ferny banks, the river pulling you along with just the odd pry from your paddle to keep your nose straight. The trip down from Pipiriki had been like that, but now the river didn't seem so idyllic.

"There's certain bits of the river where there's almost no bottom," said Southen. "Last year we had to do a body search - 40-50 feet of rope with grapples, and sometimes the rope hung straight down.

"It's unpredictable. The whirlpools will just appear. Maybe a snag starts it, or an underground stream welling up. They'll turn you the wrong way round very quickly, and they can roll you out of your boat."

Okay - I'd walk. Southen recommended a back-packer stop at Matahiwi, otherwise there wasn't much accommodation over 60 kilometres of river road until you got to a camp ground at Omaka.

"If you have to camp short of those places, be careful. Some of the locals, aren't saints."

"None of us are saints," I said by rote.

"Okay. But some of them have horns."

I walked to Matahiwi, the weather had cleared, and the river had dropped a bit. I tried to get a canoe, but came away only with another bit of advice from a local, Kim Ranginui: "It's the underbubbles on the river that have always scared me. They still scare me. If you get onto the river, watch that."

I walked on another ten kilometres to The Flying Fox. I crossed the river by, you guessed it, an electrically driven flying fox, and talked to John Blythe who, with Annette Main, ran the charmingly foxy alternative-style enterprise on the far bank, brewing their own beer, making their own wine and providing organic foods and stop-over lofts or camp-sites to river travellers.

But they didn't have a canoe either, and I went on.

The road, I had now persuaded myself, was a pleasant walking route anyway, overlooking the river throughout, and with very few cars. But at the Omaka campground, I got onto the river finally. The camp owners, Gill and Lyn Moorhouse, rang the automated river report that operates out of Pipiriki. The river was still 2.5 metres above its usual level, but Lyn stroked his chin, and agreed to lend me a canoe. In fact, he'd come with me.

We paddled away. My eyes were peeled for whirlpools, or the upwelling underbubbles where a canoe loses traction, and I saw both, but writ small. It was a swift ride, but safe enough by then.

We left the river at Pungarehu, just short of where ocean tides slow the river's flow and begin to make paddling difficult. I walked on to Wanganui.

Geoff's canoe