vanishing points

Brass dog at TekapoThe bronze sheepdog stood against the sky and a busload of Thais crowded around the plinth. A Gaelic inscription praised the dog . . . Brannachdan air na cu caurach.

Someone was at my sleeve, a Japanese who pointed and shrugged about the dog.

"A hero," I said, and pumped the muscle on my arm. "The dog is a hero. Sheep."

"Yes, yes, yes."

The Thais went, and a group of Malaysians were next to take the stand, arms about slender waists for the group photo. Nearby, a stretch limo pulled up to the Church of the Holy Shepherd, and a Japanese couple got out. The minister met them at the church door. The couple bowed and went in. Two witnesses and a photographer followed. The church door closed and a 'Wedding in Progress' sign stood propped at the step for the next thirty minutes. Then the bell rang out. The couple emerged and posed for photos.

Church of the Good Shephered, overlooking Lake TekapoBack at the motorcamp, I picked up a pamphlet that advertised lectures on stars in southern skies. A Japanese voice answered the phone. There was a lecture, the woman said politely, but it was in Japanese.

Chinese and Malaysians ate lunch in the Chinese restaurant. Japanese ate lunch in the Japanese restaurant. Not to say people of every nation didn't lunch across the cultures in Tekapo at Italian and Mexican restaurants here, and even at Kiwi restaurants. But the Kiwi volunteers from a local beautification group who were offloading soil and flowers from utes into big planter boxes on the main street seemed, amidst it all, quite as isolated and distinct as any of the other ethnic groups.

I wore a hat and sunblock because this was going to be a big day out and walked right beside it on the metalled service road. I walked the canal.

The sky was hard and blue, the land was flat and endlessly tussocked, and I followed a calm and straight strip of water towards its vanishing point. Here and there along banks angled accurately down into the deep glassiness of the canal, a stone might protrude, and when it did, a small eddy spun away. But call that an aberration. The water was dead flat and moved along at a steady pace. I threw in a stick and slowly outpaced it, but take nothing from that either - the canal water ran true to its own clear character of minimal disturbance, minimal involvement - no kayak was allowed here because those ripples would erode the banks, and even the natural streams that bubbled toward the canal down the hill were piped sternly away beneath it, to drain into the Tekapo River and - was it boring?

Not a bit. On the far side of the canal and exactly parallel to my service road was a tarmac road signposted - misleadingly I thought since the canal was built in the 1960s - The Bullock Track. And there, once an hour, sometimes twice, a Lycra-clad, iridescent-helmeted, panniered cyclist might pedal past, and wave. Too, there came a line of ducks with steady wingbeat that saw me, and turned with precision to fly directly overhead. Not boring, no, but I understood the duck's need to generate excitement on this plain. Eight kilometres in, the canal did a near right-angle turn, and at the time I took the turn, I thought it likely to be the highlight of my walking day.

Beyond the turn lay yet another vanishing point, but I'd emerged now from behind the uniformly sloped embankment that had previously blocked the view west, and the Mackenzie Basin opened right up.

The space, the light, the landscape!

I felt I could write a poem. The hump of Mt John now rose out of the plain - a forehead shape - and certain things seemed to cohere. The electricity implicit in the hydro canal and the thin steelwork of the pylons. The sun, the heat, the glinting finish of the alps, the flash of colour from the highway, the silence. And Mt John was a thinker - a buried saint. I named the poem - Tekapo Hydro Canal. I got off the first line - The Forecourt of Heaven might be like this - And then I forgot the poem and began instead to gabble.

Mobile phone reception was perfect in the Mackenzie basin. I rang two mates and talked. I rang my sister who wasn't home. I rang my daughter and talked some more. I rang Miriam. The pink Hyundai was waiting up ahead where the highway crossed the canal - I walked towards it and kept talking, and then I could see it.

"I see you! I see you!"

Talking all the way in. She'd prepared a noon picnic complete with tablecloth spread out on the tussock. The wonderful bird.

EmbankmentI went on down the embankment. I passed above the farm where Charles Hamilton had worked on his pioneering jetboat. I'd begun to edge up on big mountains. Mount Cook was now just 10 kilometres off and I looked for the summit, but it was clouded in. The wind got up, and I shut down into the slog of it, the beat of my boots on it, the whole self-absorbed long-distance rhythm of it when the cellphone beeped.

A text message. I popped it onscreen.

I love u

O Forecourt of Heaven! I inflated with a whoomph - side to side of the Mackenzie Basin. The suddeness of it almost hurt. The impact of a message like that in a place like this was almost cruel.

But hang on - who loved me?

I rang my wife.

"You text messaged me just now."

"No, why?"

"Someone did. So okay, it wasn't you then."

"What was the message?"

"Just someone wishing me well I guess."

I hunkered over the mobile. I tapped out a message of my own.

Who are u ?

I pulled up the reply function - sent the message. The answer came back in a trice -

Unsuccessful. Try again later.

I followed the canal past a trout farm. Anglers cast their lines just beyond it, and then the canal ended at a screened intake and the clear tonnages I'd followed all day sloped away down massive penstock pipes to a hydro station. I went on down the hill, found an informal camp ground beside Lake Pukaki, and put up the tent.