Monday, September 14, 2015

Te Moana

Who has seen the sea?

Flying into Wellington, we followed the coast where the Tasman Sea crashes into New Zealand, then turned to pass through the Cook Strait. To drop into Wellington airport, we needed to circle around the southern tip of the North Island so that we could rock our way down through layers of wind to the peninsula the airport was built on. We might as well have been in Captain Cook's wooden ship. The city was just to the west, just to our left.

At Wellington the Cook Strait connects the Tasman Sea to the South Pacific Ocean. Going straight west from Wellington, just skirting the northern tip of the South Island, a voyager would eventually come to Tasmania. From there it is only a short trip, straight north, to the mainland of Australia. From the same point in Wellington and heading east, the voyager would die of old age before coming to the southern tip of South America. So Wellington is built where the contents of these two vast seas surge and slosh back and forth, creating tidal chaos. And then there are the fierce oceanic winds. The mountains of New Zealand funnel them right through here too. 

Soon after we came to live in New Zealand, we visited friends on the east coast and saw the South Pacific for the first time. Having dipped our toes (in lieu of full immersion) in the Arctic Ocean, South China Sea, and elsewhere, we could not resist a symbolic toe-dipping here in the South Pacific, and when done that left us with a strong desire to do the same in the Tasman Sea.

The two islands that make up New Zealand are long and narrow, and our New Zealand home was about halfway across. So getting to the Tasman Sea was not a problem; it was just a matter of when. We waited through the spring. Then one day the weather was just right. We drove from our small town down the main north-south highway, Route 1, then exited at Foxton in the Horowhenua district. Horowhenua means landslide. The Tasman Sea was straight ahead to the west, still several kilometers away.

We arrived at tiny resort town of Foxton Beach. Soon we could hear the waves thudding. We could see dunes and tall, supple grasses. The houses began to thin out. We were close!

But then the road curved right a full ninety degrees. The dunes were too high to see over. The sand-swept two-lane carpath seemed to run parallel to the coast for a bit, then turned right another ninety degrees and headed back toward the highway. 

It was hard to figure how we could have missed the sea! We backtracked to the place where the road had first turned and parked the car. We could hear the surf, so surely walking would bring us to the water's edge. We found a path through the grasses, well-marked. We slipped along in the sand, dry and almost white. The dunes we trod rose and fell until the path rose steeply. We climbed up, anticipating a perspective that would show us the way. But what we saw before us were yet more dunes. Only on tiptoes could we at times see the tops of waves.

But they were still distant. The paths divided and converged, the dunes lay ever ahead of us, and gradually the sun was setting. We felt out of place, in a strange world. Reluctantly we turned back to the car, which by now was well behind us. Another day we could ask someone we knew where to find the ocean.

What an idiot question to have to ask on a small island! We circled around to the highway, and went home. It was thoroughly dark by the time we got there.

Days later we were invited to share a meal with friends to enjoy paua and kina and other fare from the sea. It was a good time to poke a little fun at ourselves and ask where the ocean was! The response was a shock. Not our shock, not at first, but theirs. The men said, "Why do you want to go there?" 

We told them we wanted to put our toes in the Tasman Sea. They were aghast.

"It's dangerous," they said. "You can get caught in te opape and carried out to sea! We don't go there unless we want paua or kina. When our appetite gets strong, we risk our lives and dive for them. Otherwise no one would go near the sea!"

The paua, which we knew as abalone, required diving. With the surf crashing around, the wet-suited paua hunter enters the cold waters armed with a knife for prying the paua from the rocks on the seabed. Breathing through his snorkel, he searches for legal-sized shells. The surf pounds him and te opape can carry him away. His limit is ten a day.

The paua, lumpy, shadowy, blending with the sand, cover the seabed where they stay submerged even during tai iti. Sunlight is filtered by water and wave-churned debris. Diving, then resurfacing to breathe through his snorkel while searching for paua of the proper size, the wet-suit clad paua-hunter must be aware of tide, surf, and wind. 

The diver flaps from the surf with his floating basket and his ten paua. He has survived another trip into the clutches of te moana

As we heard the fear in their voices and realized the sacrifice they were offering us in sharing their hard-won catch, we were careful just to nibble. But no, they were proud to share. We were their honored manuhiri. It was for us that they had caught them. 

And then they brought out the shells. The backs were sand-colored. But inside, every color. As we held them to the light the colors changed, all centered on aquamarine, sea-colored. Later we read that this mother-of-pearl lining was a combination of inorganic and organic, brittle mineral platelets alternated with supple biopolymers, for strength and resilience. Only ancient types of mollusks make mother-of-pearl. And while it ripples and changes color like ocean waves, it bears no chemical similarity to the aquamarine gem. 

We left our friends and thought that someday soon someone would tell us how to find the Tasman Sea. But no one ever did and we never put our toes in it. But now we know from maps that the road we were on does go to the sea. We had turned toward home too soon. And that may be true of our entire stay in Aotearoa.  


  1. I did read this when you first posted it. I like the writing very much; the easy cadence, the clarity, and the occasional use of Maori words to give us some sense of entering unknown territory. The mix of personal narrative with the more detached presentation of facts reminds me of John McPhee. And the perversity of not finding the ocean reminds me of the always-lurking metaphorical readings in Joan Didion.