Bream Bay birds, the Brynderwyns, the guardians of both, and the B-grade script

Cracking the crude is a very 20th century enterprise, but the noises made by the Marsden Point oil refinery are Victorian. As I passed by it hissed and roared and rumbled like an old steam engine. Happy signs dotted the fence. Smile, you are now under closed circuit surveillance.

I didn't go in but went on past the anglers, past the writhing octopus someone had brought in and was holding by the head, the kids putting their arms to its suckers then tearing free, screaming.

Clouds heavy with rain blew up from behind, but it was a tailwind, the white sand still squeaked dryly underfoot and it was an easy walk down Bream Bay to the Ruakaka River. I walked upriver, but the tide was in and pushing the river back into uncrossable depths. I was still on the deserted northern side, when the rainstorm broke, and I put up the tent there and looked out on the baches and the Ruakaka Caravan Park just 100 metres distant across the river. The sounds of Greensleeves drifted persistently over the water, and presently I saw Mr Whippy glide away, unreachable.

I settled down, but it was still early. Much of the reserve around the river mouth is a bird refuge, marked out by DOC tapes, and the tent acted as a hide. I simply watched the birds. Wrybills, pied stilts, the oyster-catchers, dotterels, a heron.

In the morning, I waded the river at knee depth across to the motor camp, and kept on. The next river, the Waipu, was not going to be that easy. After walking a few hours I saw a colony of blackback gulls, then six of the comparatively rare Caspian terns. Those birds hang out by rivers and I knew I was getting close. In the distance I could see kids playing in the surf, scrambling on all fours up and down the beach.

Collage of birds seen
Above - gulls and other seabirds
Below - left to right - dotterel, oyster-catcher & again (above) caspian terns (below), heron (above), pied stilt (below)

As I got closer I could pick the two supervising adults. Closer yet: the man was naked, a bearded rivermouth man who simply waited in this deserted place for me to arrive. The river mouth was just 100 metres of so beyond where he sat. It was big, wide, deep.

"How do I cross the river?" I asked.

"There's a road-bridge about two kilometres up," said the man.

That was disappointing. I was carrying a Whangarei District Plan with the cadastral mapping that indicates property boundaries. There were five bits of private property between where I stood and the road-bridge, and no marked reserve.

"But if you want to wait, we're going back across in ten minutes," said the man.

We walked back upriver a few hundred metres, making the introductions.

"For me, this is a very happy meeting," I said.

"Synchronise the watches, arrange the rendezvous, that's when you miss each other," said Michael van Beek.

"Go with the flow," said Karen.

DOC tape was strung along on iron holders beside us, marking the boundaries of a bird refuge, and a bird was keeping pace, dragging one foot. "Oyster-catchers," said Michael. "I tell the kids that when they do that - when they begin the broken wing act - you're meant to follow them. They're leading you away from their chicks. People think 'Oh, I'm annoying it' and go the other way. That's what you don't do."

van Beek family

The kids, Adrian Loe, and Andrew, Matthew, and Sarah van Beek, had built a giant sandcastle near where the dinghy was moored, and as we arrived the moat was just beginning to flood.

We crossed, and the van Beeks invited me into the house that stood above the boat ramp. The family was presently holidaying here with Michael's mother Leonie, but this was the place where he'd grown up. The house commanded the southern side of the river right down to the lagoon. It was a big property that the van Beeks had never considered subdividing, nor planting out in trees: this land, and the house with its big picture windows was kept clear for shore birds.

A telescope stood in the main room. The binoculars were ready to hand on the sills.

"These are the ones my kids gave me," said Leonie.

"These are the ones my mother gave me," said Mike.

Sweeping the river mouth. Watching the refuge, which is different from a sanctuary - the public is not banned, but protective rules apply. If someone came with dogs, the van Beeks would take the boat across and warn them.

The van Beeks were the guardians of the vulnerable birds that simply lay their eggs on the sand: most of the transgressions they handled themselves, and they only called in DOC for the most serious threats, fires or deliberate predation.

Love those birds: the rare fairy tern lived on the Waipu Spit on the southern side of the river, Leonie had been within a few metres of one - there were just 30 left in New Zealand.

"But there were ten eggs this year," said Leonie. "and seven fledglings. It's been a good season for the birds. Most of the chicks were hatched before the Christmas rush and the weather was good, not like last year - one cyclone after another."

Mrs van Beek knew the river well and I established that it was crossable at low tide in a waist-deep wade only about 600 metres back from the mouth, between two promontories that jutted out there. The Waipu River need not stop Te Araroa, and a backpacker hostel did business nearby.

We got into the dinghy again, and Michael van Beek set me ashore at the top of the Waipu Spit. The sea on one side, and a shallow lagoon on the other that stretched almost to Waipu Cove: it was a natural breeding and feeding ground for shore birds.

Shore birds run the spectrum from awesome on down to clown: The godwits, the knots, the curlews have about them the mystical nimbus of their unimaginable journeys to Siberia, and most of the others have, at least, with their long legs and beak, a wonderful elegance and poise. The oyster-catchers don't have any such things.

They just have character. They seem to hang out in threesomes, and talk to each other with piercing cries. They bully the stilts just for fun. They have a muscular stride and are great walkers, and as they go the big red bill taps on every mollusc's door, overturns the empty shells too. They ransack the beach, and they are its clowns.

I was watching for fairy terns. Back at the house we'd discussed their distinctive markings and examined Geoff Moon photos. Yellow legs, not red. Lighter in build than their cousins the white-fronted terns . The distinctive black cap that all terns have, from the Caspian on down, was less severe, was deckle-edged.

I may have seen one. A single small grey sickle wavered on an inland dune, but I couldn't get close enough to know, and then the oyster-catchers simply took over the game.

Two oyster-catcher fledglings fled into the dunes. One of their parents eyed me. It seemed to me the fledglings were gone and I posed no threat, but the bigger of the two birds engaged me anyway. Hey, you big ape! He intercepted my direction of travel and began to strut along about 20 metres in front. I remembered what Michael van Beek had said. I followed briskly. This was no standard broken wing act. I'd struck the Jim Carrey of the Waipu Spit. He began to reel and limp and stumble. I followed, the bird turned towards the lagoon and you could see his drag marks in the wet sand. One seriously sick oyster-catcher.

I kept following, and finally it was all over for the bird. My persistence had paid off. I'd exhausted it. Its long red legs simply folded up. The whole body went down on the wet sand. The wings flapped feebly. The beak gaped open on its last breath and, as if falling finally on its own sword, the head flopped hopelessly forward and the beak half-buried itself in the mud.

Hands outstretched I advanced. The thing was a wreck. It remained only to put it into my bag and save myself the price of a pie at the Waipu Cove motor camp. One gleaming eye perhaps gave the game away. Bright as a bead. Calibrating speed, distance and at the last moment - hey sucker! - the long red legs kick-launched it, the wings gave a couple of powerful sweeps, and the bird rose clean and unencumbered and flew away over the lagoon.

Oystie does a Hollywood
Oystie does a Hollywood

I stayed at the Waipu Cove camp, and set off up Cullen Road in the morning. A few kilometres up it turned into a paper road and climbed steeply, linking at the cloud-swept summit ridge with the Brynderwyn walkway. I turned east down that, still on the paper road, a thoroughfare kept open by the few people who have houses up here. A couple of hundred metres in, the route ran through a collection of sheds and dwellings.

Charming - like England where the walks run right past the farmhouses. A man was in the garage.

"I like it," I said, "It's just like England."

"You're from England?"


Peter Burrowes
Peter Burrowes

Peter Burrowes was. A Midlands accent. As I enthused about the track he warmed to the subject and showed me - "Just oop here below the watertank . . ." - where he'd put in a seat for trampers to sit and admire the seascape far below.

We came back down the hill. A dark woman wearing what looked like a sari came out of a doorway and silently watched us kick the dirt.

Burrowes was showing me a survey peg. The road passed inside his boundary, but it was swings and roundabouts. One of his sheds lay outside that mark. The paper road, Burrowes was saying, ended just a few hundred metres beyond the houses, and he'd also been at work on down there: "That where the actual track starts, it gets awfully overgrown with gorse, and I clear it so people know where they're going."

I was interested in a man who would do that. Another guardian. I suggested we sit down and have a talk. We went inside his house. The same view. I whistled appreciatively.

"Yes, it's like a little bit of heaven on earth," said Burrowes.

But it wasn't the view that was the most striking thing. The house itself was still as a pond. The loudest sound was the ticking of a grandfather clock. The pictures on the wall were either prints of square-rigged ships, or mathematically ascending vase-like shapes capped with bursts of white light. Everything was clean, polished, perfectly ordered, and informed the central statement the house was making. Even down to the table mats, precisely laid and each with a picture of a chubby renaissance angel, wings peeking over its shoulders. A young woman slipped out of an adjoining room, was introduced as Violet, and quietly slipped away again.

"I have no tea or coffee," explained Peter Burrowes, and broke out something called Ecco. "Will this be all right?"

"I have no milk, can you drink this?

He flipped the latch on a carton of soy-milk stirring it in.

"No radio," he said. "No television."

The stepdown living room was plushly furnished, carpeted, with big sofas, a thigh-high and gleaming wooden elephant, and brass bodhisattva heads dotting the polished ledges. A vase stood on a central low table of shining wood, and upwards from that, arum lilies were arrayed. On the dresser, a huge encyclopedia lay open at the middle: less like a reference book than an affirmation of the vastness of all knowledge. Crystals lay in a row along the sill of the picture window, refracting the light.

I went to sit down on the sofa.

"If your clothes are dirty, I'll put down paper," said Burrowes.

We checked and decided I could sit down.

I'd come in to discuss tracks, and we did, but the house was too unusual not to enquire further into Burrowes own life.

"What do you do?"

"Let's say I'm in the service of God, and leave it at that."

That turned out to be something called the St Germain Foundation.

"We're working towards the achievement of self mastership, to bring down the perfection of God on this earth. That ascension is there for everyone. Jesus did it. At least one Indian master has done it. There is a blaze of light and the ascension occurs. The cellular structure changes and gets filled with light.

"The path to ascension is there for the choosing," said Burrowes, "and people who are not choosing to go Godward will come a gutser.

"We have made a hash of it." Burrowes spread his hands. "Greed, the pleasures of the flesh. The massed consciousness of mankind is causing the turmoil, it is affecting the weather."

We were, he said, at a critical stage

"As we pass out of the Piscean Age is it? into the Aquarian Age, time is becoming no-time. Scientists have realised the 24-hour day is now down to something like 19 hours. The outside of the universe is going faster. The vibration is raising itself to a higher state, but the negative things can't vibrate at the same pace and so a lot of things are breaking down.

How close was he personally to the ascension?


"For me personally it's a slow ongoing process, but you can't put a time on it.

"Time is compressing. My mind is not big enough to comprehend it all, but I know this. God is the supreme intelligent energy, the light of God never fails, and those of mankind who do not want to learn will die the second death."

"The second death!"

Bong! Bong!

At that moment, with an awful synchronicity, the grandfather clock struck 2 pm.

"The second death is not just that you pass out of this body - that's just the cycle of life and death. Reincarnation - yes. But if you die the second death you fall out of that cycle. You return to the universal substance. You cease to be an individuation of God. You do not exist."

I cast a hand around. "This is a beautifully ordered house. Do you share it with anyone?"

"My ex-wife is in the next house - the ablution block is in between."

"I saw her," I said. "She was Indian."

"Part English, part African," said Burrowes. "This house I share with a part-Malay flatmate." He lifted his eyes to indicate the significance to it all. "The great mixing of the races."

I went down the paper road to the start of the bush track. A good clear beginning. Gorse, but beautifully trimmed. Another guardian - the expanding universe itself directing this one. Whatever it takes I guess.

Elfin house

At track's end stood another guardian's house. It looked interesting, elfin, but there was no-one home. A gated BellSouth access road led down to the highway. When I'd designed the trail it'd seemed to me possible, once the Brynderwyn track ended, to go down a small sideroad to Anderson's Cove and make your way a short distance around Bream Tail to join up with the Mangawhai Cliffs Walkway. Mangawhai Cliffs is important to Te Araroa - by reputation it's a good walk and it offers another chance to see fairy terns. But the new BellSouth access road had moved the Brynderwyn Track's drop-point onto the highway further south than I'd expected, and I didn't want to go back.

Instead I walked a couple of hundred metres down the highway to the tidy entrance of Bream Tail Farms. The gate, the post-and-rail fencing were all creosoted, and you could see it was a farm that was proud of itself, but the signs were specific. "Private Entrance - No Public Access" said one. "Private Property," said another. "No Entry Unless on Farm Business. No Thoroughfare. No Beach Access."

It was pretty hard not to get the message. I almost didn't go in. Something in me knew this might turn into a B-grade script. But the farm was a connection through to the Mangawhai Cliffs Walkway and I did go, double-checking the gate to ensure I'd re-fastened it absolutely securely. I didn't want any silly slipups. At the least I'd sound out the farmer's objections to public access. If it involved the Health and Safety in Employment Act, we could possibly help.

I came up to a house, and knocked.

A big man wearing a T-shirt and a baseball cap pulled himself from a divan inside and came to the door.

"Are you the farmer?"

"No. That's his house up there by the shed."

"I'll just go up and see him."

"No. He's out playing bowls."

"His wife then."

"No. She won't be there."

He eyed my pack.

"He won't let you through mate, I'm telling you. Okay?"

The man turned and went back inside. I stood there a moment. That conversation was closed, but I had a pencil and paper. I could write the farmer a note, and give him a contact number.

The farmer's house was about 200 metres distant, hidden behind a screen of trees. I started out in that direction, and had made about ten metres when there was a shout from behind.

"Hey! Out the gate!"

"I do want to go up to the farmhouse," I said, "and I'll tell you why."

"No. Don't tell me why. Out the gate or I'll chase you out the gate. One or the other."

I left, and roadwalked the four-odd kilometres to Mangawhai Heads.