The discovery of Limestone Country
I discovered a new land on a page of a dogeared AA Road Atlas, where the thin yellow line of a gravel road suddenly vanished, like a stream going underground. A shaky hand had scribbled 'Limestone Country' over the blank space between the upper stretches of Raglan Harbour in the south, the Huntly district of the Waikato in the east, and the mouth of the Waikato River in the north.
For years I wanted to know what lay in that blank space, but I never got the opportunity - I did once make it to Waikaretu, a little village just west of the Huntly district, before the tyre of mate's car mysteriously exploded - and I never wanted to look at a more recent map, or consult the chaotic encyclopedia that is the internet. Over the years, Limestone Country became a sort of liminal place, like Tarkovsky's Zone - a site where I could project all sorts of fantasies. Was the area covered in primeval bush, or blazing gorse, or manicured deer farms? Was its limestone arranged in strange shapes on the surface, or did it sit underneath a mine? Had the military surrounded Limestone Country in barbed wire? Had archaeologists or fossickers invaded it yet? Was the coastline menaced by millionaires' homes?
Early last in June I managed to convince Skyler to accompany me into Limestone Country, using pathetic appeals to my upcoming birthday to extract the favour. We drove in through the rough coal country west of Huntly, past flooded mines and scrubcutter's huts, then dropped down Waikaretu Valley Road, then turned north, watching massive weirdly-sculpted limestone formations push their way through the green hills, like bones emerging through flesh. Plantations of elephant grass, ragwort, gorse, and woolly nightshade were interrupted by stands of huge, intricately gnarled puriri and rimu. In the middle of this strange landscape we discovered a cafe, which was owned and run by old friends of Skyler, and which boasted a Ponsonby barista and six months' supply of fair trade coffee from Colombia. After refuelling there we pushed north, down a narrow valley where the last tributary to the Waikato ran, until we reached Port Waikato, where New Zealand's longest river had grown gray and bloated.
A month of so later I revisited Limestone Country with Muzzlehatch, during one of the storms that made the winter of 2008 New Zealand's wettest in a decade. We entered the area from Port Waikato, after barely getting across a series of flooded waterways. Soon the rain changed gear, sending sheep and goats out of the weeds and into the bush. We decided to follow them, and bush-crashed off the road. Eventually we heard the hoarse voice of a creek, which we followed into the hills, until the hoof tracks we were walking in dissolved in the downpour.
We waited near the creek until the rain eased, swigging whiskey and smoking to stay warm, and arguing about an unusual tree we had discovered - I thought it might be a baobab, while Muzzlehatch insisted it was a native which had 'gone mutant' under the weird conditions of Limestone Country. When the sky had faded to grey we detoured back to our dripping car over a series of steep bald hills where middens lay like piles of ancient fragile coins. Now that I've actually been to Limestone Country I've felt that it's safe to start researching this odd and beautiful part of New Zealand. Despite what that old atlas tried to tell me, a potholed, gravel-voiced road runs right through the region from north to south. There is no road from east to west, though, so the wild Tasman coast between Port Waikato and Raglan can only be reached by four wheel drives, horses, and - if you're in better shape than Muzzlehatch and I - Shank's pony.
Limestone Country was settled by peoples of the Tainui waka many hundreds of years ago, as they pushed north from their stronghold at Kawhia Harbour. The settlers buried carved stones in the soil, to ensure its fertility, and kept the bones of their dead in caves in the limestone. Today marae still stand on the sites of ancient villages.
Limestone Country was a part of the Waikato Kingdom, the independent Maori state which was invaded by British troops on the 12th of July 1863. After the defeat of King Tawhiao and the exile of many of his followers the Maori hold on Limestone Country was weakened, but the region's remoteness and lack of roads meant that it was not opened up to Pakeha farmers until the first decades of the twentieth century.
After the First World War a huge block of land in the heart of the region was acquired by Charles Alma Baker, a former surveyor who had made a fortune from Malaysian rubber and counted Zane Grey amongst his fishing friends. Baker named the block Limestone Downs, and ruled it like a private kingdom. He imported gangs of Dalmatians to clear and fence the wilder parts of Limestone Downs; the immigrants lived in coastal villages that Maori had abandoned during the tuberculosis pandemic of 1918.
In the 1920s Baker discovered the esoteric theories of Rudolf Steiner, abandoned the use of conventional fertiliser, and began a series of disastrous experiments in occult agriculture at Limestone Downs. Baker became steadily more eccentric, until he decided that all the nutrients needed to sustain life came directly from the sun. In his last years Baker was often seen wandering Limestone Downs naked with both arms raised toward the sun, in the hope that its life-giving rays might rejuvenate his bloated wrinkled body. Baker bequeathed his estate to a trust, which runs a sheep and dairy farm on conventional agricultural principles. Smaller sheep farms cover much of the rest of the cleared land in the Limestone Country. In the 1930s the young Elsie Locke hiked through Limestone Country with a friend. Locke would go on to become a distinguished author and educationalist, and she included an account of her journey in her 1981 autobiography, Student at the Gates. Locke remembered stripping naked to cross the Kaawa River, which flows into the Tasman south of Port Waikato, only to find that the river's waters barely reached her ankles. In the '30s many Maori had returned to Limestone Country; they lived far from roads and electricity, in tiny villages close to the Tasman coast. Many did not speak English, but they gave Locke food and shelter. Today Limestone Country is visited by the far-flung peoples of Tainui, who enjoy the hospitality of the many marae in the area during tangi or sports days, by Lord of the Rings fans, who seek out the location of Peter Jackson's Weathertop Mountain, and by the fossil-hunters who chip trilobites, ammonites, and - more rarely - dinosaurs out of the region's millions of rocks.
Many people may have seen the place before me, but I still like to pretend that I am, in some obscure sense, the discoverer of Limestone Country. I'll have to track down that old AA map and fill in that blank space.