At the tippy-top of New Zealand is Cape Reinga: a dry, gritty, windswept place where people go to die. More accurately, it’s where those who have already died go to jump away, into the next world. It’s a place where journeys begin.
The place where New Zealand stops is a rocky, tempestuous point of land, with gusts of winds that can knock you over, where the oceans beat the shoreline with unrelenting fury. This is the meeting place of the Tasman and the Pacific. You can see the confluence where they join, a place of standing waves and treacherous whirlpools. You wouldn’t want to swim here. You wouldn’t want to sail anywhere near it.
But then again, this isn’t a place for the living. At the tip of Cape Reinga, there is an ancient Pohutukawa tree, a gnarled, twisted old specimen growing right out of the salt-washed rock. According to Maori tradition, it’s where their spirits go, when their bodies die. The Maori ghosts climb down the roots of the ancient tree, making atua peruperu, the snuffling sounds of the dead. From here, they begin their long journey toward Hawaiki, their ancient homeland. I talked to Emily, a local elder for the Ngatikuri iwi, and I asked her what Cape Reinga meant to her. “When Maori people pass away, that’s where we go,” she said simply. “And no one’s gonna tell us any different.”
The land doesn’t even look like New Zealand, up here. It’s dry and empty, with a broad pelagic wind off the Tasman. We pass brushfires, leaping through the sun-parched grass. We pass a forest of low, scorched trees. The light is hazy; the grit burns our throats. The dust creates a spirit-filled haze.
And the dead aren’t the only ones who come here. Each year, thousands of bar-tailed godwits use the fine white silica sand dunes around Cape Reinga as their launching pad. The birds take off in March, to begin a seven thousand-mile, trans-oceanic voyage to Alaska. No one knows how they navigate, or how they predict the weather: they seem to take off just as a low pressure system is building, propelling them thousands of miles toward their destination.
Many of the godwits complete the journey non-stop, flying for more than a week without food or rest. Why do they make it so hard on themselves? Why go direct, when the Pacific is full of fertile, tropical islands, where they could stop off for a few days, eat bugs, take a nap, drink a piña colada in the shade?
The answer, in short, is that no one knows. Scientists haven’t even monitored their altitude, and no one knows if they skim the waves or soar thousands of miles in the air. As we watched those tiny specks congregating on the sand dunes, we wondered if they were planning the journey ahead. Did they feel fear? Did they think about the sleepless nights, the storms, the surging, empty sea?
Every year, many of the birds don’t make it. But the ones that do: just think of the stories they have to tell.
Cape Reinga was a turning point for us as well. We drove our van until there was no more land to drive on, then we turned her around and headed south. For five months, we’ve travelled New Zealand by sea and by land. It’s time to stop. The signs are all around us: Silas, now running and saying words, increasingly anxious to meet new kids and make friends. My twitching, pregnant belly, and my aching backside in the van as our baby gets bigger and heavier. Our rapidly emptying bank account.
Even our ancient van, which has carried us across New Zealand though a fortuitous mix of dumb luck and Peter’s mechanical skill, started giving up the ghost. At Cape Reinga, it started screaming out loud, red-hot and unable to cool its engine. I was ready push the goddamned thing into the Pacific and let it find its own way to Hawaiki, but Peter fixed it with a party balloon, and drove us safely back to Whangarei.
And now: home again. We’ve rented a little house on a quiet street. We’ve collected our car out of storage, signed up Silas for nursery school, visited with our midwife. I’ll write a book about our travels, and hopefully I’ll make some people laugh. Peter is looking for work on the water. And in May, we’ll have a little baby girl.
As to Sereia, who brought us so far, and kept us so safe, she’s waiting for us in Lyttleton. Peter will deliver her to Whangarei, after we've delivered our daughter.
I don’t know why we did it. It wasn’t fun. It was a hell of a lot of hard work. And sometimes, we were afraid for our lives.
But we made it. And now, if I’m not mistaken, we have an excellent story to tell.