My walk to Mocha
Fifty years ago West Aucklanders still swam in the long, rock-edged pools of the Opanuku, one of half a dozen large creeks which flow east from the Waitakere Ranges into the Waitemata Harbour. Today a sprawling 'aquatic complex' called West Wave stands in central Henderson, just a few metres from one of the formerly popular swimming spots on the Opanuku. Instead of sharing the dirty creek water with ducks and beer cans, locals can take their pick of West Wave's covered, chlorinated, heated pools.
I am visiting West Wave in an attempt to keep the terms of a vague exercise programme devised to help me manage a chronic injury in my left arm. Emerging nervously from a changing room, I strap what looks like a fisherman's float to my midriff, descend a stainless steel ladder into the placid water, position myself between thick black lane markings painted on off-white tiles, and begin the sort of slow, exaggerated walk which John Cleese made famous forty years ago in a series of Monty Python sketches. My knees rise to hip-height, my arms make the shape of cresting waves, and my feet float a few inches from the tiles, as I begin my slow progress to the far end of the pool, fifty metres away.
In the lane beside me an impressively large man has begun what seems like a parody of my waterwalk. He dips his head as he strides forward through the water, and as his left knee rises towards his midriff his quadruple chin and supersized belly touch for a moment. Surely I can't look quite as ridiculous as him?
I wonder about the training routine that my neighbour must have followed, year after year, decade after decade, to reach his present condition. I imagine him sprawled on couches or propped up in armchairs, gutting packet after packet of potato chips with a sort of joyless industry; I see him rising early on a Monday morning and heading to McDonalds or Burger King before work, in the way a lesser man might head to the gym.
I notice that my neighbour has a smile on his face, as he sloshes onward through foaming water, and I remember Paul Theroux's claim that very large people love the water - love swimming, and diving, and lolling in the shallows of lagoons - because it frees them from the weight of their bodies. Perhaps we all seek a similar escape when we enter the water - even if our bodies are not enormously overweight, they find ways to discipline us, with their aches and spasms and tiresome fealty to gravity. As a young man, Arthur C Clarke become obsessed with the idea of weightlessness, and looked forward to the advent of space flight. Frustrated by the failure of NASA and its Soviet rival to develop cheap and easy interstellar travel, the middle-aged Clarke donned diving gear instead of an astronaut's suit, and spent thousands of hours space walking in the warm seas off Sri Lanka.
As I get further down the pool, opening up a modest lead over my panting, splashing neighbour, I can observe a group of young men, kitted out in dark blue goggles and light blue speedos, limbering up on the poolside tiles. Like all serious swimmers, they have huge jutting chests mounted on slender lower torsos. They remind me of the Ford Escorts with transplanted V8s under their hoods that jounce up and down Lincoln Road on Friday nights.
A huge screen hanging ahead of me, above the far end of the pool, shows a series of images - an unsettled sea at dawn or dusk, a flat-topped skerry loaded with gannets, a creek cutting a course through ironsand...The dozen or so photos are shown again and again, in the same order. I wonder whether they are meant as some commercial or educational advertisement, but none of them is adorned by either an explanatory text or a logo, and I decide that they are an attempt to ennoble the swimmers and dogpaddlers and waterwalkers of West Wave, by connecting these placid, chlorinated, weatherproof pools to the wild western coastline of Auckland, with its black sand beaches, backbreaking surf, and scores of wrecked ships. Staring at the images, I start to imagine myself treading the swell of Whatipu, as the Orpheus sinks into a hole in the sandbar on the Manukau Harbour entrance, or bodysurfing ashore at Karekare with Allen Curnow.
One of the screen's photos shows a island - is it a skerry off Muriwai, or is it Ihumoana, the overgrown Kawerau a Maki pa that floats beside the northern end of Bethells Beach? - in the middle distance, listing into a high sea. As I slosh my way towards the end of the pool I see the island again and again, and realise that it looks a little like the pictures I have seen of the place Chilean maps call Isla Mocha.
Despite or because of its isolation from Chile's coast by more than fifty kilometres of cold choppy water, Mocha has had a long and complicated human history. The Lafkenche tribe of the pre-Columbian Mapuche nation called the island Amuchra, or Resurrection of Souls, because they believed that the spirits of their ancestors resided there. Earthworks and artefacts suggest that at least some Mapuche settled on Amuchra before their deaths. Francis Drake and many later adventurers used Mocha as a depot and haven, and in 1839 a whaler named Jeremiah Reynolds published a book called Mocha Dick: Or the White Whale of the Pacific, which recounted his duels with an albino sperm whale in the waters off the island. A young man named Herman Melville read Reynold's book excitedly. Today eight hundred people, a few of them Mapuche, live on Mocha's fifty square kilometres. Over the last few years Isla Mocha has begun to fascinate archaeologists. In 2007 the University of Auckland's Elizabeth Matisoo-Smith examined a series of skulls from Mocha in a provincial Chilean museum, and realised that they had markedly Polynesian characteristics. Matisoo-Smith also came across chicken bones excavated on Mocha in 1934, and a series of adzes. The adzes looked Polynesian, and DNA tests showed that the chicken probably came from one of the islands far to the west of Mocha. Matisoo-Smith's discoveries created a media sensation overseas - the New Scientist reported them under the headline 'Polynesians beat Columbus to the Americas' - but were barely acknowledged in Aotearoa.
Mocha is an important setting for Polynesians in America: Pre-Columbian Contacts with the New World, a collection of essays by Matisoo-Smith and a dozen other scholars from New Zealand, Chile, and the United States published this year by Altamira Press. In his contribution to the book, veteran University of Auckland archaeologist Geoffrey Irwin argues that ancient Polynesian visitors to the continent now known as South America would most likely have travelled from Rapa Nui, riding a wind that blows from the edge of a high pressure system which often hangs over the far eastern Pacific. But Irwin goes on to make the startling suggestion that the journey could have been made from the Chatham Islands, across ten thousand kilometres of sub-Antarctic ocean. A voyage from the Chathams to Chile would have seen the double-rigged sailing ships of the Polynesians confronted by freezing thirty-foot waves for at least four months, but the similarities between adzes found on the Chathams and on Mocha suggest that it might have been possible. Did some of the group of early Maori who landed on the Chathams in the twelfth or thirteenth century decide to press east, in search of warmer and more arable islands, and find themselves driven further and further across a stormy and barren ocean? Did a few of them eventually land on Mocha and establish settlements there, intermarrying with the local people, while the whanau they had left behind on the Chathams began slowly to adapt to their bleak home, and to evolve the culture we call Moriori?
Certainly, no sailor who followed latitude 44 east from the Chathams would sight even the meanest fragment of land until he or she reached the coast of Chile, or the small islands like Mocha which lie close to that coast.
In 1843 Asaph Taber, the captain of a whaling ship named the Maria-Theresa, sighted an island or reef about seven hundred kilometres east of the Chathams. The discovery soon began to appear on maps of the Pacific, where it was usually called either Tabor Island or Maria-Theresa Reef, and Jules Verne used it as the setting for two of his novels, In Search of the Castaways and The Mysterious Island. In the twentieth century, though, repeated searches, including one by the New Zealand naval vessel Tui, failed to locate Tabor Island. A couple of other nineteenth century 'discoveries' in the same area, Ernest Lagouve Reef and Wachusett Reef, have proved similarly elusive. The route from the Chathams to Chile may be bereft of islands, but it is frequented by icebergs, which are sometimes hundreds of metres wide and scores of metres high. Is it possible that Asaph Taber glimpsed a distant berg, perhaps through mist or rain, and decided that anything so imposing could not possibly have floated to its present location, or be doomed to dissolve into water?
My mind has been drifting from Henderson's public swimming pool to the roaring forties and to Isla Mocha. Skyler suggested that I should daydream - "set imaginative goals" was her phrase, I think - while I exercise, as a way of measuring my progress. "Count your lengths" she said, "and see if you can do twenty. That's a trip to the shops and back."
Perhaps the sterility of the environments in which modern humans exercise and the repetitive nature of the 'scientific' fitness regimes created by physiotherapists and personal trainers force exercisers into fantasy. As we do lengths, or run laps, or move from one humming exercise machine to another in vast gyms, we become, for an hour or so at least, prisoners. Our bodies are trapped, and our bored brains rebel. An acquaintance of mine revealed that he imagines he is running through a teeming, dripping tropical rainforest in Borneo whenever he uses the treadmill at his gym; another sometimes pretends that he is wielding a broadsword in medieval battle when he swings his tennis racket. Aren't the images West Wave shows to its guests on that huge hanging screen an admission that fantasy is inevitable, in a place like this?
Skyler's talk of imaginary journeys to the local shops somehow reminded me of a strange trek made by one of the twentieth century's most unpleasant men. After being given a twenty year prison sentence at the Nuremberg Trials, Albert Speer decided to defy the guards and administrators of Spandau Prison by walking around the world. Speer marked out a route of a few hundred yards through the prison's exercise yard and around its dusty garden, then calculated the distance that he would cover on a walk from Germany through Poland, the Soviet Union, and the far East, across North America, and through Western Europe back to Berlin. After arriving at a sum of miles, Speer began to walk laps of the track he had made through the Spandau grounds. While his fellow prisoners spent their exercise time smoking and arguing about the war, Speer walked mile after mile. He went to Spandau's library and borrowed books - travel books, but also treatises on history and botany - which dealt with the nations he was walking through, so that he could visualise their landscapes and inhabitants. Every night Speer described his journey in the massive diary he kept at Spandau.
Speer is a troubling historical character - a capable and devious man, he was responsible for the deadly slave labour scheme that kept Germany's economy functioning dring the last year of World War Two, yet he was able to pass himself off, at the Nuremberg Trials and in books like Spandau: the Secret Diaries, as the 'good Nazi', who disapproved of the bloodlust and anti-semitism of Hitler and was happy to see the downfall of the Third Reich. Speer was the only Nazi to plead guilty at Nuremberg, and in his writings, at least, he accepted his long prison sentence as just punishment for his role in the Nazi government. But how can his epic walk not be interpreted as a symbolic rejection of his confinement, and of the authority of his captors?
There are unsettling parallels, too, between parts of Speer's journey and some of the events of the Nazi era. As Speer describes his imaginary march across the steppe of the Soviet Union, for instance, the reader of the Spandau diaries remembers that millions of Germans made a real march in that direction only a few years earlier.
And yet there is perhaps something admirable in Speer's dogged and eccentric walk. His ability to escape imaginatively from Spandau may impress us, even as it disturbs us.
As I turn to begin my second lap, I decide that I will walk across the Pacific to Isla Mocha, length by length of this clean heated pool. The distance from the Chathams to Mocha is ten thousand kilometres, and the distance from Auckland to the Chathams, when obstacles like the Coromandel peninsula and the Raukumara Mountains are acknowledged and avoided, is perhaps about two thousand kilometres. If this pool is fifty metres long - one-twentieth of a kilometre - then the journey to Mocha should take, I calculate, about two hundred and forty thousand lengths. Skyler suggested that I do twenty lengths every time I visit the pool, and if I can fill this quota twice a week them it should take me a mere fourteen years to arrive in Mocha.
Fourteen years might seem, I admit, a long time, but epic journeys are not supposed to be brief, easy affairs, like walks to the shops. And as the years pass and I get closer to my goal, covering league after league of cold empty sea, I can borrow books from the local library - journals of explorer-blunderers like Cook and Drake, novels like Moby Dick and The Chambered Nautilus, and scholarly treatises on ice floes and hypothermia - so that these chlorinated waters can become, in my imagination, epic and sub-Antarctic.
The water around me already seems colder, and perhaps a little more turbulent, as I slog excitedly to the other end of the pool, and turn to do my third lap, eyeing the image of Isla Mocha on the big screen. Before I can get much further, though, one of the big-chested young men from the pool's fast lanes surfaces in front of me, and touches me on the shoulder. "Mate, do you mind packing it in for while? We've got heats, and we've booked all these lanes for the next half hour." I wonder if I look dismayed, because he adds, in a friendlier voice, "You don't have to go home. You can have a coffee and a pie in the cafe in the foyer. It's only for half an hour."
I want to tell this impertinent intruder that I am not some saggy-stomached bloke walking awkwardly through the water with the help of a flourescent flotation device, but rather an adventurer beginning an epic journey, through icy precipitous seas, to the island of Mocha. I want to ask him why his swimming club's trivial races should be prioritised over my great endeavour. Instead of replying to the young man, though, I dogpaddle obediently to the stainless steel ladder at the edge of my lane, and climb quietly out of the water.
[Posted by Maps/Scott]