Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Looking for a river


Some notes and photos from a recent expedition
11.10 am Today we are going upstream. We are abandoning the plains of Franklin, where the Mangatawhiri, the old border of the Waikato Kingdom, has been reduced to a series of drainage ditches, & driving into the Hunua Ranges. We are looking for the old river, for the clear running water of history.
11.14 am The Waikato War was a hydraulic as well as a human conflict. Swamps & tributaries were drained & redirected by imperial engineers, who worked as ferociously as the soldiers storming Rangiriri, Orakau pa. After the war the Mangatawhiri was bridged, embanked, civilised. A journey in space can be a journey in time. Perhaps in the Hunuas, an old refuge for Kingite guerrilla bands & shell-shocked veterans, the upper stretches of the Mangatawhiri retain the blue sheen & shoals of kokupu that distinguished the old border of Tawhiao's kingdom? Perhaps time might flow backwards there, all the way to 1863?
11.34 am A photograph has lured us: an old image, chromogenic, that shows four & a half figures, trampers, Pakeha, with tanned slacks or tanned legs, on the edge of a broad & swift stream. It was taken, the archivist said, sometime in the early '60s, on the upper Mangatawhiri. The river shines like a golden fleece. 

11.36 am At what point, Ken Smithyman asks, in one of his greatest poems, does a 'shallow creek running over stone/ start to think it's a river?' Perhaps the Mangatawhiri became an awa in 1862, when Wiremu Tamihana, kingmaker, decreed it the southern boundary of the British Empire.
11.45 am Mastery over water: the credo of tyrants, tyrants' engineers. A slogan of the Khmer Rouge, whose cadres drained Phnom Penh, put taxi drivers & hairdressers to work on earth dams, canals, aqueducts. The credo of the colonial engineers who flooded the Hunuas in the '60s.
11.47 am History rhymes. A century after the bridging of the lower Mangatawhiri by imperial forces, Auckland engineers & thousands of coolies created an earth dam, a monument of pharaonic proportions, on the upper river, in a Hunua valley where Kingite guerrillas once camped.

11.54 am Now we climb a gravel-voiced road, an old Home Guard trail, into the Ranges. I see a few scraps of low cloud, imagine the campfires of a Kingite raiding party. A hermit camped outside the park gates has unfurled a spray painted banner: BEWAR 1080 POISON BOMBS. The war is continuous.
11.59 am We park, & walk thru a glade bulldozed from bush, towards the Mangatawhiri, which runs fast & clear, like the border in 1863. A dead eel lies in a pool; my oldest son imagines its silver belly is the shaft of an ancient hero's sword. The dam is a green wall in the distance.

12.13 pm The river is clear, & seems to run freely, but its flow is regulated by the gate keepers of the vast dam further up this valley, & below the valley, on the plains, it will become a drain. What we see is an indulgence, a simulacrum, five kilometres of artificial wilderness.
12.26 pm The dam lake discharges metaphors, as well as water. 'My people are a river' Rangihiroa Panoho said in 1998. 'We were walled up by colonialism, our history backed up, became confused, but now we are flowing through the wall, now we are continuing our journey.' 


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