Mapping limbo: exploring Johnston Hill Reserve

Kawakawa leaves

Kawakawa leaves

Johnston Hill Reserve

Approximate area of Johnston Hill Reserve

Recently I’ve been exploring Johnston Hill Reserve.  At least, I think that’s what it’s called. It’s the area of public reserve land between Karori to the south and Otari-Wilton Bush to the north, sloping steeply from the skyline ridge down to the Kaiwharawhara stream.  It’s mostly covered in regenerating native bush, apart from at the very top of the ridge which is open grassland.  There are some narrow stands of large pine trees running along a couple of the ridges.  Numerous streams run down through narrow gullies to join the Kaiwharawhara stream.

Part of the reserve is on the land that was originally farmed by Justice H S Chapman, and I presume Johnston’s Hill is named after the Johnston family – I wrote about Chapman and the Johnston family recently in a post about Karori gardens.  But I’m not sure about the rest of the reserve. I’ve come across remnants of post and wire fencing in there, which presumably marked past land boundaries.

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There are several tracks through the reserve, but I’ve never seen a map that shows them all (although some of them are on the Tracks website).  Whenever I ventured in there, I seemed to get lost, or end up not entirely where I thought I would.  I would recognise certain spots, but not others, and walking along the narrow snaking paths through dense bush, I never had much sense of where I was. The council has been putting up signposts, but they are not very helpful, as there are more tracks than destinations.  And so, I decided I would draw my own map.

A while ago, my brother bought me a book originally published in 1958, called ‘Finding your way without map or compass’, by Harold Gatty, an Australian navigator who among other things, trained the US Army Air Corps in air navigation.  The book is fascinating, and I will probably write about it at greater length at some point.  Harold Gatty maintains that there is no such thing as an innate sense of direction, and that most people simply do not pay enough attention to where they are going. I’m easily disorientated, especially in Wellington where the hills take you to unexpected places.  I spend a lot of time looking about me when I am walking, but I don’t always think about the direction I’m walking in because I always have a map.  I love maps.  But I’m also very map-dependent.  I don’t like to set out without at least one (and often several), and without some idea at least of where I’m going.

IMG_9344Harold Gatty talks a lot about the methods of ‘primitive peoples’ for wayfaring, and claims that ‘the secret of primitive chart making is the habit of making mental maps’ – noticing things along the way that will help you find your way back.  My map was certainly going to be ‘primitive’ – I have no understanding of mapping technology. It was going to be a personal map, charting the mental markers I had made along the way.  Every time I ventured into the area, I would draw what seemed to me to be a map of my route, noting things like the weather conditions, the mood I was in, who I saw along the way and anything else I noticed.  Once I felt I could piece together the paths in my head, I would draw up a complete map.

Supplejack towers

Supplejack towers

Walking with the intention of drawing out my route at the end of my walk made me immediately more attentive to my surroundings.  I’ve been trying to learn about the native bush around Wellington and I noticed how the bush varied on different parts of my route.  I noticed new things even on routes I had walked along several times, like the amazing ‘towers’ of supplejack a short way up the track from Hauraki Street.  In fact, I became fascinated by the sculptural qualities of supplejack – to me it often looks like abandoned, crazily-eccentric basket-weaving projects.  There are several groves of kohekohe trees in the area, with shiny plum-sized fruits hanging from their trunks.  On the same Hauraki Street track, there is a place where the kohekohe trees are widely spaced and the ground in between them is carpeted with ferns. Only the very ends of the branches have leaves, but they form an unbroken canopy, and you feel as if you are walking in a spacious green tent.  There are beautiful ferns everywhere, especially along the streams.  I often heard birdsong – tui, fantails, rosellas and blackbirds in particular – and on most walks I would see or hear a kereru, the New Zealand native pigeon, clattering through branches up above me with its distinctive whirring wingbeat.

The 'MYH' tree was a useful mental signpost

The ‘MYH’ tree was a useful mental signpost



I did indeed make mental maps, noticing particular signposts, viewpoints through the bush, hairpin bends, and even individual trees and plants along the way.  I liked the ‘aha’ moment when I suddenly realised how a new path linked with paths I had walked before and surprised myself at how easily I pieced the network of paths together in my head when I put my mind to it.  Once I gave what I thought were pretty good directions to a woman who appeared to be lost – if she had followed them though, our paths should have crossed again, and I didn’t see her.  I also liked the sense of wandering, following a new path to see where it would take me, and remembering the paths I didn’t take so I could return and follow them another time.  The last time I walked there, having a good sense by now of all the paths, I wandered without a set plan, stopping to decide where to go at every junction. When I eventually emerged from the bush, blinking in the bright sunlight, I realised that I had been in there for over three hours without noticing the passing of time.

IMG_9915Looking back at my notes, I realised that it was windy nearly every time I walked in the reserve (it has been particularly windy this spring and through into summer), although in most places I was sheltered from the wind, with only the noise of it rushing over the trees above me.  Except for the ridges of pine.  There’s a track that runs down towards the cemetery where several pines  have fallen onto still-standing trees (probably in the storms of last winter), and you have to duck underneath them.  On a particularly windy day, I ended up unintentionally on this track. The fallen trees were rubbing against the living trees, shrieking mournfully as if the dead tree spirits were trying to escape, while the tops of the living trees were rhythmically knocking against each other.  I ended up running, pursued by fears they were going to fall, and by a deeper sense of unease.

IMG_9508There is something quite spooky about a lot of the paths in the reserve, although I wasn’t sure why at first.  I grew to dislike the pine trees.  There’s something monstrous about their hugeness and their deeply creviced trunks.  After the green of the bush, the thickly needled ground and tall bare trunks look orange and dead.  Some of the areas of native bush are very dense, and the trees are twisted into strange shapes, although that never particularly bothered me.  I’m not usually bothered by cemeteries either but the spookiest tracks seemed to me to be the ones near the cemetery.  Karori cemetery is a rather strange place, tucked away into the folds of the hills, with its untidy clusters of graves in unexpected places.

IMG_9569One of the tracks is called the ‘cemetery to skyline link’, which might suggest that the whole area could be a kind of limbo, where the souls of the dead work their way heavenwards.  Especially considering that if you head downwards from the cemetery, you end up at the site of the Devil’s Bridge (so-named well before the cemetery existed – I wrote about this here).

Another factor in the sense of general spookiness, is that many of these paths have been carefully built and look well-walked, yet I rarely saw anyone on them.  In fact, looking back, there were certain tracks (including the ridge of scary pines) where I never bumped into anyone at all. There’s a track that runs from the cemetery to Nottingham Street (a street that I associate with a very creepy house that we looked at when we were house-hunting) that has been carefully shored up with stones where it runs along the edge of a stream, and there are branches laid along the path to stop you going in the wrong direction, but I’ve never seen anyone walking along it, except for once when I was walking in almost-darkness.  It’s all a bit ‘blair witch’.

green signsFlicking through a copy of ‘Spoke’ magazine in a café, I came across an article about Grant Preston-Thomas, who I think probably built many of the tracks in this area, as well as other tracks around Karori and Brooklyn, along with a small group of like-minded retired local men.  Grant, who sadly died last September aged 81, liked to work in secret, starting in the middle of the track and only knocking out the ends when the path was virtually complete.  He was responsible for the green signs with white lettering that I’ve noticed on many paths both here and elsewhere, often with quirky directions.  The article said that the council wasn’t happy about his work, but never closed his tracks – however there are two tracks in the reserve (one marked one of the green signs) marked as closed by the council for no apparent reason. I’ve walked along them both and they are perfectly good tracks.  One in particular follows a stream along a steep gully, with tiny but perfectly-formed waterfalls.  I hope they continue to be walked.

IMG_9450So now I have walked all the paths (or at least I think I have – even on my last walk where I thought I knew them all, I discovered what seemed to be a newly-created path) and drawn up my map.  I wondered if creating a map would feel like an act of possession.  Or that the area might lose its mystery, once I had pinned it down, however roughly, on paper.  But I don’t think that is the case.  I have more of a sense of connection, of my own belonging there, for having explored it so thoroughly, than a sense of ownership.  I was excited about drawing up the map, but now it feels redundant.  I don’t need it for route-finding because I have a mental picture of the tracks.  As I continue to walk there, it will be my mental map that grows richer and more vivid, rather than my paper map .  It would only be of use if I were to give directions to someone else, like one of Harold Gatty’s ‘primitives’ encountering an early explorer.



Dawson J & Lucas R (2012) Field guide to New Zealand’s native trees

Gatty H (1999) Finding your way without map or compass

Kennett J (2013) ‘The Phantom Track Builder’, Spoke Magazine, December