Sometimes we can recall moments so perfect that to revisit them would be to risk losing them forever. For Craig Williamson it is a pilgrimage to Kaikoura, and a time that was truly carefree…
It was because of the birdsong that I knew it was almost dawn. It began with a few solitary chirps, then within minutes there was a chorus of songs, greetings and replies. The dark night gradually became less black, and the sky, which had been full of stars, was reduced to a sprinkling of only the brightest. There had been just a slither of a moon, and not a single light, nor any other sign of civilisation for miles around us.
I lay awake and listened to the push-in and suck-out of the surf causing the rock-covered beach to grind as the boulders rolled over and over each other with every tenth heartbeat. I pondered how it sounded like the deep, gushing breaths of an enormous sleeping creature, perhaps the snoring of the slumbering sea.
As the old and crooked pines surrounding us filled with the sounds of birds, the sky too became alive. It began with a dark red glow on the horizon, slowly spreading towards me, like a drop of dye into a vast, dark pool of water. The blue light came from the opposite direction at first – from the land, not the sea. It was a bluer shade of black, then an increasingly lighter blue, and in stark contrast to the crimson horizon.
I lay for some time, simply appreciating the sounds surrounding me and the beautiful sky above me, which I watched through the twisted branches of those old trees that I had slept under many times before. There were two old and weathered pines, ravaged by the wind and sea, but strong all the same. And our campsite was beneath their branches, on the soft bed of pine needles below. The small circle of boulders that we were laying either side of, no larger than a car tyre, had been there since we’d first discovered the spot a few years earlier…
I’d walked with Alan the bushman (or Bushy), Andy, and Squid (for his surfing style) along the beach to the rivermouth to collect boulders for a fire. Although the beach consisted of boulders and small stones, the rivermouth had the biggest and the best for our purposes. It had taken us three trips there and back, a 15-minute return journey, walking along the rocky uneven shore, each of us able to carry just one of the heavy boulders at a time.
“Will we need so many?” I’d protested after the second return, hot and tired, not wanting to go again for more. “Sure will,” Bushy had informed us, “because a few of these are bound to explode.” At the time I’d thought he was being over-dramatic but, not wanting to seem lazy, I went along with his plan.
As it happened, two of the boulders exploded and one split in two. The first explosion took all four of us by surprise. There was an enormous thump, and sparks and embers flew in all directions. So the rocks have never since moved from their new place of rest, and our fires, which we lit within them every time we stayed here, never spread beyond the circular barrier they made.
We had visited this place for several years and knew it well. We respected it, and never turned a leaf nor left behind more than our footprints. We’d spend weekends here, camped under the stars, a stone’s throw from the beating surf.
The tree, whose branches I was looking through on that wonderful dawn, inspired a wish that if I were a tree, or if a tree were a metaphor for my life, then I would like to be that particular tree. Aged and warped, never trimmed nor pruned or tamed, never to be cut down in its prime. This tree had never stood in a row or in a planted forest. It was liberated from the destiny of others, and happier than the other trees of the pine forest.
Squid shook me awake. “Come on man – you can’t sleep in on a day like this!”
“But I was awake,” I said sleepily. “I could have sworn that I was awake at dawn.”
Already, he was hopping about, one leg in and the other still out of his wetsuit. Our wetsuits, cold and sodden, stung our bodies as we climbed into them. We cried out as if in pain, and laughed at each other’s foolishness.
It was early November, and the sea was still cold. The water was freezing at first; my chest contracted, and it was hard to breathe. I lay on my board and paddled frantically. Then I heard the unmistakable sound of a larger wave breaking on the outer reef. I had no choice but to dive below the rapidly approaching wall of white-water. I closed my eyes, held my breath, and braced myself. Ice-cold water flushed right through my wetsuit. In a moment I was wide-awake, leaving sleep far behind.
I paddled hard, my heart beating fast, until I had reached a safe point. I was at last deep enough to not be caught by another rogue wave, but still close enough to the reef to be able to catch one should I wish to. The cold had left me. I sat on my board momentarily and rested. The sun was warm, shining on my face, my shoulders, and my exposed hands.
I looked towards the horizon, searching for Squid. It was difficult to see clearly, the sun’s reflection on the water forcing me to squint. Then I saw the outline of a perfect wave rolling towards the reef, and at the same time heard a familiar long and high-pitched whistle.
Shielding the glare with my arm I looked into the wave. I saw backwash sucking over the submerged reef causing the wave to rise up high. It had a hollow, smooth face, in the middle of which was the dark shape of Squid, gliding through the water. He was raised to the top of the wave, for an instant looking as though he would lose momentum in the wall, and then he was to his feet and sliding down the face, just ahead of the curl crashing behind him. He made the bottom and then turned sharply back into it. He crouched and positioned himself beneath the lip and disappeared into the cylindrical barrel.
I peered into the periscope, and could make out a dark shape deep inside. As quickly as he disappeared, he was propelled out of the tube, squid arms flaying, tearing towards me. Following him was a fusion of explosive water, air, and spray, as the wave finally collapsed behind him. He gazed at me, saying nothing. His eyes gave up the story for him.
“Nice wave,” I offered up. I couldn’t find any more words.
Our hearts raced, adrenaline pumping, and together we paddled towards the reef, anticipating more of the same. We weren’t disappointed. This first wave laid out the scene for the following few hours. It was as good as we could ever have hoped for and it wasn’t even ten o’clock. Contented and weary, we made our way towards the shore.
Subject to four sets of lungs, the fire’s hot ashes soon came to life, new flames licked the twigs I had laid in its hearth. The day was still and bright, but still possessed a chill. We dried and thawed our frozen bodies by the fire. As we did so, we spoke of the best and worst waves of the session, and compared this day with other days we had enjoyed numerous times before.
We ate breakfast – a single loaf of bread, and mussels we had picked off the rocks at dusk the night before. On other trips we had made better preparations, with coffee, milk, cereal, and fruit. But this journey had been spontaneous, one moment standing in the pub, talking of surfing, and the next, throwing surfboards, wetsuits and sleeping bags into Squid’s car. After a fish and chip stop, and a couple of hours driving, we were sitting around a campfire, the city left far behind.
This was to be how we saw the day out, surfing, cooking mussels and drying beside the fire, always on the edge of the sea, beneath the weathered pine trees. Later, when the sun sank low, almost upon the mountains in the western sky, we collected our belongings and made our way along the dusty track leading to the main road. Squid’s old wagon waited for us, its tattered roof rack and peeling blue paint showing its age. We tossed our gear into the boot, and fastened the boards on top.
Squid wound up the car. “That’s my girl” he said, as it burst into life. He swung the car out onto the main road, turned on the radio, and I kicked back into my seat. The car had been sat in the sun all day and had retained that warmth, and I felt comfortable – physically dead beat, but mentally energised. My mind was clear, my perspective healthy, my personal meditation had run its course.
The setting sun was sinking below the mountains behind us, and only the open road was in front, empty, save for our wagon.
A magnificent day had passed. Those wonderful days, those long, serene, carefree days have now passed us by as well. It was all too easy to move on, to move away, and to find new places, new friends, and new priorities. By the time I had reflected on the way things were, they’d passed beyond my reach.
Maybe I’ll return to Kaikoura one day, then again maybe not. I have preserved a perfect memory of the way it was on that day, and I wouldn’t want anything to alter that.