Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Crossing a border

On the edge of the Maungakawa Hills a secret border can be crossed. To the west of the border are the dairy and horse farms of the central Waikato, and the oak-lined streets and picket fences of the meticulously fabricated town of Cambridge. To the east of the border are plantations of ragwort and sickly radiata, scrubcutters' huts shedding weatherboard panels, unvisited parks filled with convalescing forests, and small quarries, with their rows of empty graves and piles of lime and shingle.
On one side of the border is the flat land that was confiscated after the conquest of King Tawhiao's realm a century and a half ago; on the other side is the rougher country where Tawhiao's supporters repaired to build a parliament, which was almost powerless outside the Maungakawas, and to print their own money, which went unacknowledged by Pakeha stores and banks. 
To cross this border is to exchange one sort of geometry for another. The conquerors of the Waikato made the straight line into a tool and symbol of their rule. Ancient paths that curved cautiously up hills and around swamps were replaced by relentlessly straight roads, just as the scruffy stone walls that had demarcated and heated fields of kumara were replaced by hedges of hawthorn and blackberry so straight and neat that they might have been rows of soldiers standing at attention. Even water was made to march in straight lines, as creeks and rivers were demoted to drains and canals, and given the same routes as roads. Theodolites were set up like canons on the ruins of captured pa; forests fell and swamps retreated before their fire. The panoptic geometry of Descartes, with its windswept horizontal lines and its escape-proof rectangular ceilings, was raised over the empire's new conquest. 
Beyond the confiscation line, though, roads and fencelines that had been stubbornly straight become kinked and curved. Bands of kanuka and karaka sneak into paddocks, reconnoitring for the forests that have their strongholds on the summits of the Maungakawas. Creeks that had been as still as goldfish ponds on the plains suddenly roar like unmuffled motorbikes.
We were travelling in a two car convoy. I was sitting in the navigator's seat of the lead vehicle, brushing potato crisps into the margins of my father-in-law's road atlas and arguing with him about the best road - the slowest, most elaborately curved, least travelled road - to take over the Maungakawas, when we were beeped by my wife and mother-in-law, who were following sceptically with the kids. The youngest member of our party needed breastfeeding, so we all parked near a bridge at the bottom of one of the first sizeable hills in the range. Kanuka and karaka scrambled halfway down the slope towards us, then seemed to lose their nerve. A homemade sign at the end of a gravel drive offered access to a maze-garden for a price that must have been designed to maintain the owner's privacy.
I walked with my older son to the bridge, so that we could throw stones into its creek, which had found its voice as it poured excitedly over boulders. Aneirin was most interested, though, in the vehicles that were curving their ways out of the plain and into the hills. A tour bus, empty except for its grinning driver. Two late model SUVs, so pedantically clean that they must belong to daytrippers from Hamilton. A vintage Chevrolet, whose new engine and shiny purple paint job seemed, like the lycra-clad septegeneurian cyclists who clog Auckland's waterfront roads, like vulgar denials of the passage of time. "Cars are brooming like the water" Aneirin said, as he added a stone to the creek. We had crossed a border. 

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]


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