Sunday, February 28, 2010

Land's End

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.


  1. So happy to hear little Silas is thriving and keeping you all on your toes. The question isn't WHY did you do it, the question is WHY NOT? Why not savor life, see the world, spend time with your loved ones, and push the envelope, all while having a good laugh? Why not walk off to Hawaiki with stories to tell? Why not live this precious life we have? Can't wait to read the book...
    Best to you four!

  2. antonia, please meet our friends on sv momo. they are in townbasin, a sort of rasta color painted boat on the riverside side. michelle, too, is a writer. they are great folks from the usa, sailed for 7 years. have two girls. you'd like them.

    we wish you all the very best and send you best thoughts, gerda pat deneb

  3. I always love reading about your adventures and I look forward to the book. Looks like Silas is doing well. All the best with your delivery.

  4. Hey Antonia --
    Michelle here, on Momo, in Town Basin. Gerda has told me many times to find you, and now here you are! Come look us up sometime; we might have a lot to say to each other! :)

  5. Two things: 1) I'll be losing sleep thinking about the snuffling sounds of the dead now. Thank you for that one. 2) A bar-tailed godwit sounds like a flat-assed, pot bellied, cheap-besuited middle-aged dude with a bad combover and a predilection for neer beer. I'm having a hard time reconciling with the fact that it's just a bird with a long pointy beak.
    xoxo - c

  6. Thanks for taking us along for the ride. I've always wanted to visit New Zealand and your exploits make it only more enticing. Best wishes with the delivery and I look forward to your book.

  7. Beautiful. Thanks Antonia.

  8. Thanks for the photo and story on the tree.
    Does not look like you could approach the tree even if you desperately wanted to!

  9. Y'all are an inspiration to those of us with big cruising dreams. Thanks for sharing your story and adventures! We look forward to following your future through your website.

  10. Thanks for sharing your great story!

    Pelle Suringa

  11. It's really cute to keep track of your son's development. I hope he'll be as good as you when he grows up.

  12. Farewell to naked babies and fat-bottomed girls!

  13. Antonia -

    How about an update? I miss living vicariously.

  14. Thank you, but this blog has come to an end. It was only ever intended to be about our circumnavigation of New Zealand. I am now working on a book about the trip, and with any luck I'll get it published.

    I'm also now in the final days of this pregnancy, and I will soon be consumed with milk barf and mayhem.

    There may be another blog in the future, but it won't be about baby's first gurgle. We'll get the kids a little more independent, and then... Papua New Guinea? That should make for a hell of a tale.

    Thank you for reading my rants.

    Fair winds, Antonia

  15. I hope you'll keep us updated every now and then on Facebook. It was great reading about your adventure.

  16. What a great trip to NZ! Keep the posts coming. Your blog is great, would you like to come and party with us at the World Wide Travel Blog Party, don't forget to invite more of your blogger friends along. Definitely the more the merrier! See you there and Kudos to you! :)

  17. The meeting of the oceans sure was stunning!
    Congratulations with your coming baby,good luck with your book.
    Wonderful share!

  18. Just spent the last two days reading both your sites! I have laughed out loud more times than I can count!! You should have no problem publishing one book or 100 books.
    Give Silas a gentle pinch on his chub (face)cheeks for me.
    Another Sailing Dreamer

  19. So many places I need to visit, looks like I need to plan my holiday tours, so that I can take a year off and spend it traveling the world.