Napier, where Grandmamma lived when she wasn’t staying with one or other of her three surviving children, was the place we usually went on holiday in these years. Or, after she moved into a nursing home in Wairoa, to the beach of Opoutama at the base of the Mahia Peninsula. Here I once flattened the battery on our 1954 Ford Fairlane station wagon listening to the cricket on the radio while reclining across the front seat reading, for the first of maybe half a dozen times, the three volume hardback edition of Lord of the Rings the family had somehow acquired. This was a profound lesson: I loved it first time through but could never re-capture that feeling on subsequent reads. A book, then, even though the words were the same, in another time and place could be a different thing. I remain haunted by the image, unrecoverable in the text, of two small people standing before the adamantine walls of the tower of Orthanc, at the top of which a wizard gazes into a palantír through which past, present and future are revealed.
In Napier we always stayed at Kennedy Park Camping Ground, which was vast and flat and green and busy, a city of tents and caravans, and sallied out from there to various places: West Shore, where we swam; Cape Kidnappers, once, to see the gannets; the Iron Pot, a silted up natural basin at the Port, where shore whalers once boiled down blubber to make oil. I played happily for hours at a time in the pot, completely absorbed by the evidences of marine life, and equally of human activity, left behind on tidal mudflats. There were holes in which crustaceans lived, holes through which shellfish breathed, hermit crabs dragging their shells and leaving intricate trails in the fine-grained sand; and weird rusted extrusions, some rather large, that could have been the remains of anything but, to my mind, if they were not bits of trypots, must certainly have been harpoons.
We walked to Cape Kidnappers; from the end of the road at Scotsmans Point near Clifton, along a grey beach running beneath delicately stratified brown and white cliffs, a few miles out to the Cape itself. The expedition began with a drama and almost ended in disaster. At the place where we started from one of my younger sisters, Stephanie, was stung by an ihumoana or blue bottle lying on the sand and became so distressed that my mother decided to take her and the other young one, Katherine, back to the tent at Kennedy Park; while my father, with us four older kids, set out for the Cape. We made our way there uneventfully but it was a shocking place: chaotic, precipitous, raucous and smelly. The gannets, so elegant in their black and white suits and burnt umber headdresses when you saw them patrolling out beyond the breaker line or making an arrow of themselves and diving into the ocean for fish, here transformed to squalling, shit-streaked, waddling fowl constantly contending with each other for space.
The colony was partly on a concave plateau near the tip of the promontory and partly upon an island like a sail just off it, separated from the mainland by a deep ravine with a surging blue sea below. There were hundreds, maybe thousands of birds nesting on the ground on both promontory and island, as well as upon isolate rocks, and the cacophony they made was deafening. There was guano everywhere, streaking the rocks and fouling the air; but it was actually the bareness of the place itself, the cliffs of fall, a sense of being at the very edge of the world where, perhaps, gravity fails, that alarmed me. A kind of vertigo I suppose. And yet, whenever one of the birds lumbered to the cliff edge and flopped off into the air, it instantly translated into a nonpareil of graceful flight.
I don’t know if it was because of the delay occasioned by the bluebottle sting or for some other reason but, when we began the walk back along the beach, it soon became apparent that we had mistimed things and were in real danger of being overtaken by the incoming tide. Nobody spoke. We were all thinking the same thing. There on our right were the grey-blue waters of Hawke Bay, rolling closer with the break of every wave; there on our left, the sheer brown cliffs with their white striations; and here we were, a small group of frightened children and one adult, tiny beings hurrying inexorably towards catastrophe. As kids do, I took my cue from my father and I could see that he was anxious. More worried, in fact, than I had ever known him to be. By mutual unspoken consent we began walking faster and yet, curiously, we did not run: perhaps because it was clear that, no matter how quickly we travelled, we could not outpace the tide.
Still nobody said anything. I looked up at the cliffs with their accumulated layers of sandstone, river gravel, pumice and silt, millions of years old; there was no way we could climb those sheer walls. There was no way back either. We would be engulfed long before we could make it to the path that led up to the peninsula. Ahead, the gently rising land behind Scotsmans Point looked as far away as forever. And the dim cities unreachably beyond. Perhaps we could find some rock to sit upon? It seemed unlikely. Heads down, grim and silent, most probably doomed, we trudged stoically on. Time, as it will, became at once massively elongated and in very short supply; both endless and running out faster than the tide was coming in. And then someone gave a cry and pointed back the way we had come.
There in the distance were two black shapes, insectivorous, beetle-like, approaching with a noise like the buzzing of wings. They were beach buggies, making their daily run along the sand to scoop up stragglers like us. They pulled abreast and we climbed aboard: a sudden excess of joy replaced our gloom as we raced the tide to safety. I can still feel the wind in my hair, the salt spray stinging my eyes; and the intoxication that follows upon rescue from a dire predicament. And yet an undertow remained: this was the first time I ever doubted my father’s judgement or perhaps I mean his competence. It was also the first time I saw past his seeming confidence and apprehended, with just a glint of light from the dark waters within, the deep well of his anxiety.