I’m scared of getting lost in the bush. This is unusual for an essayist. Most of us like to go for a walk in disorienting landscapes and get completely lost so that we can write about it.
Rebecca Solnit wrote that getting lost is “a voluptuous surrender” but this sounds to me like walking in increasingly frantic circles, getting cold and hungry as night closes in, until you have no option but to dig yourself a little hole and cover yourself in leaves.
I like to know that I can get home easily, so when I need to be surrounded by trees and birds and mountain bikers I go to Waimapihi Reserve, close to where I live, and run on the trails that wind all through the forested gully.
The reserve has been renamed to acknowledge the history of the place and the significance of the stream and its tributaries flowing through: wai meaning water, Mapihi referring to a local rangatira who used to bathe in the stream. Its old name was Polhill, after some guy who arrived in Wellington on a boat then chopped down loads of trees to sell as firewood.
Like songs, you can thrash the same trail for days, settimane, its familiar turns still offering up a private, almost embarrassing joy. The other day I ran up behind a quail that was crouched on the ground, listening for something. It swivelled around, saw me and sprinted off, its plume wobbling over its head like a ringing telephone.
Today I saw a raincoated volunteer digging handfuls of leaves from the stream. The stream was full-throated and shining in the moments before it was taken underground into the pipes that run underneath the city and out to sea.
On Transient, the main trunkline that winds busily upwards from Aro Valley, the trees curve inwards like tunnels and trick me – every time – into thinking that my shambling plod is in fact insanely fast. At one point, before it ferries you back out into the light, the trail passes a steep shady bank where everything quietens. The trees get darker, spindlier, more watchful.
It’s here that I think of the pine hedge that ran around my grandparents’ house in Oamaru. As kids my brothers and I would walk through the hedge, and there was an unnerving stillness to those pines, as if they knew you were somewhere you shouldn’t be. But these trees, mahoe, are different. A little eerie, but ultimately harmless. They peer out at you like old folks on a train.
From Transient you flow directly on to Highbury Fling; if you let your legs go you’ll be delivered up to the fenceline at high speed. The fence, which protects the wildlife sanctuary Zealandia, is popular with walkers and mountain bikers, but it’s a bad business, all mean uphills and downhills that turn treacherous in the rain, and I only run it when I’m in a self-punishing mood.
Once I saw two takahē progressing along the inside, making noises suggesting that they, pure, were unhappy about the steepness of the trail. Another time I saw the broadcaster Kim Hill picking her way along the outside of the fence. I couldn’t tell what mood she was in.
This winter I started running at night with a headtorch. The first time I ran Clinical – a short, steepish trail with an overturned wheelbarrow around halfway, like someone raking leaves has thrown a tantrum – it was dark and rainy and I was full of dread. What was I doing, blundering through the bush in the dark?
But I pressed on and, moment by moment, the place opened itself up. The rain was soft and feathery. Kākā were screeching as if they’d heard good news. Everywhere I turned, my headtorch revealed treasure – patterns in the bark and leaves and grasses that I had never seen in the day. Even the stream seemed to carry itself differently, bolder with its night-time audience. Suddenly it was a new place again, a wild place that I could almost get lost in.