‘Aotearoa is and always will be beautiful’: New Zealand readers’ favorite wild places | Guardian readers
sea lion in the waves
Not sure where Ōtepoti Dunedin’s Middle Beach ends and St Kilda begins, but we park near the painted wall surf club on the road which was closed for a month in 2021 so a mother sea lion and her little one can have a safe passage from the golf course to the beach. We head to the right, away from the glitz, groynes, sandbags, posh cafe and real good surfers of St Clair beach.
Our New Zealand sea lions/pakake are a protected species, a taonga. Hunted in the 1800s, slow to recover, but the one we encountered in the surf was looking for fun. A mocha flash through the blue of the wave. Two of us thought it was a dolphin. One of us was already on his way to the shore, chased there. She left her friend’s surfboard in the shallows and we watched the teen approach, snuggle and ride on it for twenty minutes as we begged passers-by to provide us with copies of their videos and photos . Pictures where it didn’t happen. It made.
Inked on my arm
My favorite wild place is Castlepoint, Wairarapa. I live 30 minutes away and have taken close-up photos of the shoreline for the past five years, even putting some of my favorites on my left arm as tattoos. Towering Castle Rock towers above the rugged, windswept lighthouse and gazes out to the Pacific: an impossible variety of blues and greens stitched together with white-crested waves. But I like to watch my feet when I’m on the beaches that stretch from Castlepoint.
The variety of miniature worlds on display is staggering. Near the small settlement of Castlepoint, the beach is gold to muddy orange with flecks of glistening black volcanic grains marking the edges of the channels like veins on the back of an ancient hand or the exposed roots of trees threatening to twist your neck. ankle on a bush path.
As you head north along the shore, you walk on sultry, startlingly bare rocks in mutual embraces. Then bits of pitted rock gleaming with pink algae, green grass and tiny mussels clustered like seeds in a halved papaya. To go further north, there is a fork just past the golf course and it rises steeply through solemn, dark pines. To your left, convoluted folds of strata peak through the soil and sand. Then, as the road descends, those same strata reveal themselves: carved by the waves into perfectly straight lines of tombstones stretching out into the sometimes treacherous sea. And the sandy landscapes continue: lakes of snow-capped broken shells; collapsing dunes; wind-carved miniature canyons; braided kelp; fractal deltas – always changing, always fascinating.
“After constant jamming, we were finally going to break free”
My favorite spot is a grassy knoll on a ridge. To the west, the Tasman Sea, a calm Kapiti Island, and behind me the tangle of rolling bushes of the Tararua Range.
Behind the farm where Dad spent his youth extends a hilly landscape, a bushy finger. The surname of this finger was the Fifty. On its south side is Oriwa Ridge, a jumble of broken trees felled by a devastating hurricane in the 1930s. The road to the clearing was through a knotted skein of debris with Oriwa Ridge to the right and the Fifty to the left.
There were no paths, no fences, only a maze of contours and an instinctive navigation through tangled undergrowth, supplejacks, tree ferns, avocado bushes and uprooted trees.
After a steady scramble, we were finally going to free ourselves up to the summit clearing. A lit fire, a tea log screw produced, a special can of boiled condensed milk and a cup of tea to enjoy. Snuggled up in a sleeping bag protected by a waterproof blanket and the ground softened by a bed of ferns, the southern cross above my head, the sound of a distant train lulled me into a blissful sleep.
Chased by a wild bull
Ever since I learned to walk, I have always loved the outdoors. I grew up in the Mangamuka Gorge in Hokianga in the late 80’s. Me and mum and dad stayed in a tin-roofed hut with a small water tank and a gas cylinder for cooking. food. The long fall was a good five minute walk in the dark with a hurricane lantern and sleep was always heralded by the call of the morepork owl.
We had a dog named Brownie and a horse named Dooley. We used to eat mangrove cat’s eye snails with garlic butter and I raced my toboggan cut from an old plastic drum on the steep banks of the bush. I remember being chased by a wild bull in the forest and hiding in the tall grass outside the bush knowing he couldn’t spot me. Dude, that was the time. Since then I’ve become a fan of so many beautiful places it’s a hard choice at best, so I’ll give a quick shout out to somewhere new. Just recently I was at Stingray Bay in Coromandel. God, it was so nice to finally leave Auckland after not leaving the city for over a year. I spotted three stingrays while swimming in the crystal clear waters. I have to say that Aotearoa is and always will be a beautiful country.
This magical body of water
For seven years in the 1990s, I could see the Mātakitaki River from my kitchen window and hear the rumble of river stones rolling under the Horse Terrace Bridge at night. Today, Mātakitaki is still my wow.
In 1985 I left behind the coffee colored waters of the Thames and in 1994 I found myself living beside a river so clear and blue that my daughter and I could ride across and watch the bed of the river pass under the hooves of our horses. We have heard calls from ruru, kea and kaka and did not understand their peril.
Recently I have spent more time in and on this river than any other in Aotearoa or England. It terrifies me – learning whitewater kayaking in my 50s isn’t for the faint-hearted – but it lifts me up, energizes me and cleanses me. I’m a new person after a paddle on the ‘taki. Kayaking has become my way of being with this river, with my past, and with my son who grew up learning to roll, carry and whirl on this magical body of water.
Matakitaki means to observe, to watch. I’ve watched this river for 27 years, and I still can’t take my eyes off it.
A wild hillside with imagination creatures
We could have been sisters except she turned six two months earlier. Our pre-TV New Zealand childhood was spent outdoors in Te-Whanganui-a-Tara/Wellington – at home in the bush behind the chicken coop or on the freesia embankment. I preferred to play on the enchanted hill behind his house. There we slid over shiny thong linen sheets and tall grass that flattened out as we descended to lichen-covered rocks with crevices where insects and dew gathered—tiny pools that varied with clouds, sunlight and tree shade. We populated our wild hillside with imagination creatures. Where the trail forked we always took the left path on the shady side with the weeds at kid height.
At home, I was Mom’s helper with younger siblings. Up on our hill, without drudgery during the school holidays, my chosen sister and I were adventurers in our own wilderness that remains dear to my adult heart. Along with my Irish ancestry, that’s why I feel at home on any hill on the west coast of Ireland. This numinous hillside now looks like a forgotten brushy slope wedged behind suburban streets. Yet its gateway magic meant that the subsequent journey was at times a half-familiar return trip with hints of freedom that I had experienced as a six-year-old.