AWhile claiming a wild spot as your favorite may be a masked attempt to tame it, the land either side of State Highway 67 between Big Ditch and Jones Creek just north of Waimangaroa is my favorite. This stretch of highway which, if you are heading north, has a row of houses to your left and a train track and the great Papahaua mountain range to your right, is called Birchfield.
There are no streets or gas stations. Not a single corner, nor a convenience store. Just a few houses, several paddocks and, recently, a radio astronomy observatory. Maybe it seems like a tame place, and to some extent – on a quick ride through the settlement – it just is.
Birchfield is on the land of the Ngāti Waewae people. The settlement is about 120 kilometers north of Mawhera where Chief Tūhuru of Ngāti Waewae and his people established a pā (fortified village) after moving south from Karamea, defeating the Ngāti Wairangi people.
Birchfield became an industrial settlement in the 1880s. A monument recently erected in the settlement indicates that a Griffiths family arrived there from Lisvane, Wales. They uprooted dense and wild coastal vegetation to install a sawmill and a flax mill, then, in the late 1890s, a foundry and a butter and cheese factory.
About a century later, the sawmill, flax mill, foundry and factory long buried, my mother and father moved us (me, my brother and my two sisters) to a wooden bungalow in Birchfield. Children lived in almost every second home. Together we would cross the train tracks and walk through the bush to pick moist, soft beds of cold sphagnum moss, cross paddocks to climb the huge leafy trees slumped over a dark, effervescent swamp, wade barefoot through streams at the searching for gems, and casting hand lines from the bridges for herring.
I once found a dying owl, fallen from a macrocarpa tree. My mother took a ball of ground meat and rolled the raw meat in my cat’s cut fur to trick the owl into offering him a mouse. The ruru was dead within 24 hours, not fooled by the faux fur meatball. I never forgot how magical it was to hold the kaitiaki in my hands and see it in your eyes.
Once my friends and I were going camping at a nearby farm at the foot of the mountain range. We were only about two miles from home when we put our backpacks and sleeping bags in the grass and climbed a large tree. I was quite high – if I remember correctly – when I stepped on a rotting branch and fell. I was knocked out cold, maybe just for a few seconds. I opened my eyes, and my friends were gathered around me. My head has been cut off. My friends helped me walk home. Dazed and with blood running down my face quickly and burning, three kilometers seemed like a distance. My mother took me to the hospital where someone sewed up my head.
On our way home we passed the farm below the mountains. Of course, I felt pretty cool with the stitches in my head. I hadn’t noticed all the noise around me. But I was now going home to sleep in my old bed with clean sheets, when I had intended to sleep at the foot of the mountains; we planned to stay up all night staring at the stars and scaring each other with horror stories. I should have put myself in a sleeping bag that smelled of campfire smoke, dirt on my face and knees, under my fingernails, in my hair. The mountains the only thing watching over us.
The scar on my head is faint now. The fascination with scales remains bright, thick and warm.
As I understood, every beautiful thing came from the mountain range, all the energy and the water and the promise. They were covered in dense tropical forest. Trees in all shades of green and all possible textures. The mountains seemed not only to stare at us, but to stimulate an indescribable hunger to see up close what we could not reach with our tiny feet: a desire to decipher the codes etched in the lichen on the trees, to collect bones and teeth and line them up on shelves, scour the needle-punched forest floors for birds to rescue or old glass bottles to clean. The maunga (mountain) could not be colonized. Perhaps his shafts have become too thick and out of reach for milling; their mauri (life force) could not be cast in any foundry. They were the louse (pillar of support) and cornerstone of my favorite wild place.
Becky Manawatu (Ngāi Tahu) is a former Westport News reporter. Her first novel, Auē, won the 2020 New Zealand Jann Medlicott Prize for Fiction