When Skyler and I drove across the Australian Outback in 2009, I kept a copy of Patrick White's Voss
on the dashboard of our little rented citroen
. Even in the rundown paperback version I'd spotted in a Ballarat
bookshop, with a thin glossless
cover and almost transparent pages, White's novel felt monumental. On the rutted road to Lake Mungo
it shook portentously, and seemed likely to leave a dent in our dashboard.
I picked up the big book occasionally, but never quite dared to read it. I had the sense that White's novel, which retraces the largely imaginary journey Ludwig Leichardt
made to oblivion in the Australian interior early in the nineteenth century, was a sort of miniature version of the Outback, complete with its own dust storms, rutted tracks, and millions of mulga
shrubs. What if I got lost inside the book? When Skyler and I discovered a mural
dedicated to Voss
on one of the back streets of Broken Hill, the half-abandoned, half-booming mining town which styles itself as the capital of the Outback, I was confirmed in my belief that the book had a special and perhaps magical relationship to the region it describes.
What most fascinated me about Voss, though, were the circumstances of the book's composition. In the copy of Andrew Marr's biography of White that I also picked up in Ballarat, I learned that Voss had begun life in the acute ward of a suburban Sydney hospital, where the middle-aged author was suffering the most prolonged and horrific asthmatic-bronchial illness of his whole sickly life. As White retched and gasped and coughed blood and took rivers of morphine into each arm, the pokey ward around him dissolved, and the vast silent white spaces of the centre of Australia swallowed him. The fifty-watt bulb hanging unsteadily over his bed became an unforgiving sun, the eye of the stern desert God who had abandoned his wandering creature to tribulation. White became Leichardt, suffering the agonies of thirst and loneliness and existential nihilism and blistered feet. By the time he left hospital, White had sketched the first draft of the novel which would win him the Nobel Prize for Literature.
I can't in any way compete with the grandeur of White's suffering, or indeed with the grandeur of his writing, but my own circumstances have gotten me thinking about the genesis of Voss over the past couple of weeks. A flare-up of an historic nerve injury in my left arm has left me running backwards and forwards to various doctors, and seen me spend every third day in bed, dosed up on painkillers and groggily grumpy.
The re-injury of my arm has coincided with the beginning of a new, worryingly ambitious research project based upon the trip Skyler and I made to the Tongan island of 'Eua last December. As I've followed up some interviewing I did on the island, one peculiar and poignant historical fact after another has emerged from old newspapers and archives, and the writing of a book has come to seem not only appealing but historically and morally necessary. A film-maker even wants to get involved in the whole process, which terrifies me a little.
As I lie in bed, popping opioid capsules and poring over increasingly hazy documents from the nineteenth century Pacific - the diaries and logbooks of whalers and sailors, letters from beleagured Wesleyan missionaries, extracts from the official newspaper of Tupou I, the creator of modern Tonga, parliamentary reports into the 'virtues and excesses' of the cruel 'trade in native labour' known as blackbirding - my head fills with the vastness of the Pacific and its history, and I begin to doubt the idea that I am reclining in a room in a western suburb of Auckland, rather than floating past Minerva Reef, following the seasonal wind south from Tongatapu, or throwing coconuts into Fanga'uta Lagoon beside the ancient stone monuments of Mu'a.
I don't completely regret the injury which aroused the nerves in my arms from their slumber, because it coincided with a research discovery which might prove of some significance, especially to fans of geeky 1980s sci fi
Almost three weeks ago Skyler and I visited Waingaro
, fifteen or so kilometres to the west of Ngaruawahia
, near the southern edge of the little-visited 'Limestone Country'
where we had our civil union a couple of years ago. The Waingaro
hot springs have been used by Maori for hundreds of years, but the commercial pool complex there is a sort of time capsule of the 'golden age' New Zealand of the 1970s and early '80s. There is a traditional Kiwi tuck shop which sells traditional and defiantly unhealthy Kiwi tucker, including such now-rare delicacies as soft K Bars; there are cold concrete changing rooms decorated by sloppily executed acrylic depictions of lakes and pine forests; there are barbeques
stained pitch black by thousands of burned steaks; and there are loudspeakers mounted above the water which leak minor hits by Ray Columbus and Prince Tui Teka
Pools are perhaps most famous for their slide. Unlike the tubes of Waiwera
and more salubrious pool complexes, the slide is open to the elements. It twists and turns all the way down a steep muddy paddock where sheep still graze. When the bloke manning the entrance to the hot pools asked me if I'd like to pay six dollars for the 'all-day slide experience' I promptly shelled out, thinking that every self-respecting visitor to Waingaro
navigated the long pale ribbon of plastic. When I joined Skyler and a group of other thirty and forty-something idlers in a tepid bath, though, I found myself the only one wearing the bright green wristband which signified all-day access to the slide. "I think it's more for the kids" said a mother from Taranaki
, who'd been telling Skyler how she and her husband had driven up the island just to visit Waingaro
. "But since you've paid your six dollars, you should try it". "Go on honey" Skyler added. "I'll watch."
Under pressure from the residents of the tepid bath, I wandered up a muddy path to the little hut at the bottom of the slide. The bloke who sat there took my token and rather solemnly handed me a rectangular slice of black rubber three feet long. "For your arse, man", he explained, raising his eyebrows slightly. "Don't go down head first. Go down on your arse"
The kids seemed to love the slide: as soon as they'd touched down at the bottom they were back on the track that led to the jumping-off point twenty or thirty metres uphill. I climbed the track then hung about nervously beside a grazing sheep, studying the little boys and girls as they launched themselves, hoping for technical insights, and hoping I didn't look too much like an old pervert to their parents, who were presumably watching from the tepid baths and the black barbeques.
Finally I laid my black mat on the jet of white water and eased myself down. By the time I took the slide's first bend I was trying to separate the mat from the bottom of my togs, in the hope that it might reverse my extreme and steadily-gathering velocity. At the second bend I dislodged the mat, watching it fly away up toward a startled sheep. At the third bend I realised that it was only the traction of the thin mat which had been impeding my descent down the slide. At a fourth, particularly brutal bend I seemed for a moment to be taking an early exit from the slide, as my body rose up the side of a wall of white plastic. The bottom of my arm rode for a while on the slide's plastic edge, as I struggled, like some desperate drunk placed on a bucking bronco for the amusement of a rodeo crowd, to cling to the terrifying beast. I entered the tiny pool at the boot of the slide head-first, and felt something suspiciously like the back of a child's heel connect with my throat.
The man in the hut was unamused. "You don't go down head first, bro. You were supposed to go down on you arse. And where is your mat? You can't go down again unless you find your mat." But I wasn't too fussed about not going down again.
"How was it, honey?" Skyler asked, back at the tepid bath. She didn't seem to have moved during my whole adventure, except to take her lips up and down an orange K bar. "You looked like you were going really fast."
"I didn't expect to go down so quickly" I admitted. "The kids - "
"Bigger mass, greater velocity", said the other half of the couple from Taranaki
, as he slopped lukewarm water over his hairy grey shoulders. "Basic physics." I decided to go and get changed and perhaps buy a K bar.
I had almost decided I didn't like Waingaro
Hot Springs when I made my archaeological discovery. Under the awning of what looked like a disused toilet block, beside the track to the nearly-deserted caravan park at the back of pool complex, I spotted four state-of-the-art 1980s Space Invaders machines.
The machines had blank dusty screens, and no amount of tugging at levers and pounding of buttons could summoun up the old fleets of starships with their insectoid chirping and chittering and sudden pink fireballs and delicate green death rays.
The machines were dead, but their mere existence seemed evidence, for anyone willing to regress to the conspiratorial thinking of an eleven year-old living in the mid-'80s, that Waingaro Springs, far from being a run-down set of pools in a run-down corner of the North Island, is or was a place of cosmic significance.
A certain type of male of my generation will remember a movie called The Last Starfighter, in which a teenaged American - a young man who lives in a trailer rather than a house, rides a rickety bike while his peers drive hot rods, and is openly mocked bythe coolest girls - discovers that the space invaders machine at his local chippie is not some change-swallowing consolation prize for losers who can't get a date on a Saturday night, but rather a recruitment tool for a righteous alien army fighting a desperate intergalactic war. After spending a lot of change, and reaching a rare level of proficiency, the young warrior is informed of his destiny by his machine, and a UFO alights nearby to pick him up and carry him off to the stars.
After The Last Starfighter played at the Papakura Movie Theatre back in 1986 queues quickly formed for the pair of space invaders machines outside the food bar on the corner of the town's main street.
Was Waingaro Springs also once a recruiting site for the great starfleet that fought an obscure but righteous intergalatactic war back in the '80s? And were there any brave young local warriors who fought their way to the stars on these now-obsolete machines?