I once took a road trip in University. Four of us piled into an old car, making our way North. The very North, where the top of the Island reaches the ocean, and the dead go to pass on. I shared the car with Ria, my roommate and best friend. We had shared many late nights together, lying on bean bags, listening to records, watching the world pass by below our second floor flat and staying up till dawn. In the driver’s seat was Lynne. With the windows down her beautiful waist length curls tangled themselves in the breeze, tickled my face when I reached forward to talk to her. Lynn was from Tampa, an artist studying her masters in Auckland. She took beautiful photographs, lived on the wild west coast in a remote wooden house, with a possum for company and inspired me with her words. Rounding out the group was Brian, her boyfriend, warm and loveable and along for the ride.
This was a trip with purpose. Northland was my home. I had grown up here. Run barefoot on its beaches, washed clean beneath its waves, clambered over rocks and camped out beneath its trees. Mangonui sits at the mouth of the Mangonui Harbour and is home to the best fish and chips in New Zealand, a dirty, barnacle encrusted, yet still bustling wharf and Rangikapiti Pa, once belonging to the Ngati Kahu tribe. (Now, less of a defensive position and more a site for late night teenage parties.) I had lived here for the first nine years of my life and somehow, though sheer coincidence, or perhaps fate, I had met Ria, whose parents now resided in my childhood home.
But this wasn’t just a trip down memory lane and a chance to show Lynne and Brian where I came from. Lynne had a deeper purpose for wanting to take this trip. An obligation she had to fulfill, a quest she wanted completed. A close friend of hers had passed away before she had come to New Zealand. The parent’s had taken their child’s ashes and given them to close friends with the request that they scatter the ashes in a place that held meaning. Lynne had carried the ashes across oceans and now she believed she had found a final resting place for her friend.
At the top of the North Island lies Cape Reinga. From Mangonui it is a two hour drive, over rolling hills, past farmland and ramshackle houses, past stores where you can have a “Hangi in a pie” and on and on. The road turns to gravel, narrows, twists and turns downwards towards a narrow peninsula. On the road to the end of the land of the long white cloud is Kapowairua, or Spirit’s Bay. Here, according to Maori legend, is where the dead would depart our world for the next. From the top of an 800 year old pohutakawa tree they would slip into the land of spirits. Here is where Lynne decided to say goodbye to her friend.
The day was grey and cold. Ria and Brian stayed in the car while Lynne and I trekked over the sand dunes and down to the beach. In my hands I held Lynne’s camera. She wanted me to document the ‘ceremony’. It was the perfect kind of day for it. The wind buffeted our hair, tried to force us back towards the car and the waves pounded the shoreline. Rocks jutted out into the water and we clambered up them. Standing at the tip of this small outcrop you really could believe you had reached the end of the world. Ocean spread out beneath our feet cold and grey and infinite. Somewhere out there, beyond the horizon two worlds collided, the Atlantic and the Pacific, and here perhaps two worlds overlapped: the land of the living and the land of the dead.
I set up the camera and waited for Lynne. She stood at the edge, perched just above the teeming waves. The ashes were wrapped in scarf. She unfurled its contents into the air, silhouetted against the fading light. In an instant it was all over, the ashes gone, the scarf empty. We were quiet as we made our way back to the car. Even though I had not known her friend, I still felt like something powerful had transpired and I felt honoured Lynne had allowed me to share the moment with her.
We stopped halfway up the beach. A stallion had just crested one of the dunes. He stood poised at its brink, staring down at us, the wind tossing his mane. And then he began to gallop. Wet sand broke apart beneath his hooves as he stormed down the beach. Towards us. Right at us. I stood frozen, half in terror, half mesmerised as it charged. At the last minute he swerved and galloped off into the distance as though guiding the spirit on to its final resting place.
Its one of those moments that is hard to describe. Still to this day I can remember the feeling of the horses’ eyes on us. The blood coursing through my veins. Of the wonder. I don’t know why this moment was so profound to me. I’m not a very spiritual person. I’ve been to church twice in my life. The supernatural, and eerie, the magical and the divine are not things I feel I have experienced.
Except for that one day. On that wild, murky shore. With a kindred spirit at my side and another spirit slowly leaving. I experienced something truly magical.