Tane Mahuta, the Forest God

April 16, 2011 Comments Off on Tane Mahuta, the Forest God

352 km

For our last full day, we decided to drive to the western coast of the North Island to see the kauri trees. They are native New Zealanders, very very big, and of course they were mostly cut down during colonial times and now there are hardly any old-growth kauri left, yada yada yada. Frankly I’m usually a bit underwhelmed by Big Trees; they’re big but sometimes that’s all they are, and you exclaim once and then stand there trying to make yourself keep looking at them because dammit they’re Big Trees and you should treasure them. So I wasn’t incredibly excited.

The drive up to Waipoua from Dargaville, though, was beautiful, in a kind of rolling-farmland way, and then the highway plunged into rainforest, which is always cool. Out of habit born of years of visits to American National Parks, we stopped at the visitor center, but that turned out to be a mistake. It was nothing but a coffee counter (closed)/gift shop with a map of the park out front. Terrible. I would have loved to learn about these trees and how they grow; the displays at Sequoia National Park, for example, cram details about the sequoia life cycle down your throat, but it’s all there if you’re interested, and it does add to your experience to learn about how they live, even if all you know is that they only live in a certain climate belt and that they need fire to reproduce. So we were disappointed, to say the least. It began to rain. We parked at the trailhead to see several famous kauri, including the second-largest and a group called the Four Sisters, and as we sat in the car, it began to pour in earnest. Undaunted, we pressed on, Simon in his awesome rain jacket, Chacos, and quick-drying pants, me in my relatively nice shoes, jeans, and (*cough* non-waterproof) fleece. We got the Four Sisters, and it was exactly as I’d feared. “Oh. Big Trees,” I thought. I dutifully tried to make myself be impressed by them, and, yes, they were pretty and graceful, but…meh. The rain came down harder and we decided against going to see the second-largest tree because it was 40 minutes’ walk away and the path was becoming impassable. We went back to the car—I grabbed my board shorts out of the trunk and changed in the driver’s seat—and then we realized that we had yet to see the very largest kauri. It was further up the road and it was still pouring.

We were daunted.

But we did it anyway. At the trailhead (five minutes’ walk only!), there was serious psychological girding of loins before going back out in the rain. And in my case, physical girding as well: no way was I getting my shorts wet, too, so I put my wet jeans back on. Now that’s dedication. Recognition, please. Eventually we braved the path and happened to get to the viewing area when there was no one there. It’s not something you can watch yourself approaching; the path twists and turns in dense overhanging vegetation, and suddenly it widens into a platform and you look around, because it must be somewhere here and…oh.

The largest kauri in the world is named Tane Mahuta, after the Maori forest god, and…wow, is it apt. It was really something to stand there in the quietly pouring rain and see this huge tree erupting from the rainforest around it. He stands well apart from the other plants, with a lordly branchless trunk topped with a dignified scramble of thick limbs, all beautiful barkless grey. When you stand before Tane Mahuta, he fills your vision and your mind, captures you as I have never felt captured by a Big Tree before. In the pattering silence of the rain, I almost felt I was waiting for him to do something, to look at me, maybe, or give me a command.

Then a big family arrived, and the moment was lost. But I will never forget it. Somehow a California redwood or even a giant sequoia doesn’t measure up to Tane Mahuta—come to think of it, a lot of the other kauri didn’t, either. Admittedly, we didn’t see the second-largest, but really, it was worth the drive for this one huge tree, and it isn’t worth seeing many of the others. But if you get a chance you should certainly go pay your respects to Tane Mahuta.

Then came the final leg of our road trip—if you don’t count the drive to the airport. Back to Auckland. En route I called the Elliott Hotel, and, by great good luck, they had a vacancy. By even greater good luck, they had parking. And by the greatest good luck of all, they gave us our same room back! It really felt like coming home. I love Auckland; it reminds me of Hawaii, with energetic, happy people from all around the Pacific Rim. It’s somewhere I think I might like to live. So it was great to be back.

I insisted on cleaning out the car before dinner, so we didn’t have to do anything afterwards or in the morning. But then we went to Soto for dinner. The guidebook says, “Auckland has a surfeit of excellent Japanese restaurants, but Soto is the best.” Amen. I was ill at ease because I was afraid we were underdressed (but later I saw people in hoodies) and because I’m intimidated by Japanese restaurants because all I know is nigiri and rolls and I feel stupid when the menu tends towards something I’m not as familiar with. Simon and I each ordered a different set menu with something like six separate plates: some kind of salad, miso soup, three two-bite dishes in a row, teriyaki chicken, shrimp/veggie tempura, a plate of sashimi/nigiri/rolls, fried chicken skewer, fried fish, and ice cream (black sesame and green tea, respectively). It was amazing. It was all good, even though Simon’s menu was more adventurous than mine and came with a whole fried prawn. (Shrimp heads disturb me.) And every culinary experience of my life pales in comparison to the one slice they gave me of a salmon avocado roll. It was far and away the best thing I have ever put in my mouth; even other salmon avocado rolls can’t be compared to it. I don’t know why it should have been so very much better than anything else—I’m not ruling out black magic—but it must have been something about the proportions of rice and filling, the wrapping that you could bite through (instead of crimping it ineffectually with your teeth for five minutes), and, of course, the grade of the fish and the ripeness of the avocado. This one bite made my entire week. I dreamed about it all the rest of the night. Mmm. Have I made my point? Go to Soto.

Finally, back in our hotel room, I sat on the bed with a glass of wine, finishing my journal, and I realized that, exactly 19 days prior, I had sat on the same bed with the same notebook, planning out New Zealand with a glass of wine. Agreeable symmetry, and a good formal ending to the trip.

[back-posted]

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