A couple of weekends ago, I decided to walk the Southern Walkway, because I hadn’t walked it for a while and also because I hadn’t been out that way since the storm. The walkway winds through the town belt from Oriental Bay in the harbour through to Island Bay on the south coast, following a ridgeline that Māori called Te Ranga a Hiwi.
When you switch hemispheres, as I did over six years ago, you have to switch your mental compass. For me, growing up in the north of England, you would go south hoping for warmth and sun, and for sea that you could paddle in without getting shooting pains up your legs from the cold. When I walked the Southern Walkway in my first summer here, the tall pines and the smell of warm pine needles in the town belt reminded me of walking in Spain above the calm, sparkling waters of the Mediterranean. I’ve had to learn to face north for the sun, and that the wildest weather comes from the south. I was used to biting arctic winds from the north, particularly when I lived in East Anglia, but here, the air from the south has a particular quality of cold, clear dryness that felt new to me, as if my sinuses were being scoured.
Of course, in Wellington, there’s nothing particularly benign about the gales from the north either. Our sun-facing house regularly gets battered by the northerlies, and usually we barely notice southerlies apart from a slight cooling of the floorboards. But I’d never heard anything like the howling of the southerly gale on the night of 20th June when I ran home from the bus stop, dodging debris.
As I set off from Oriental Bay up a steep zigzag concrete path, the air feels cold and raw. I quickly rise above the noise of traffic. There are birds everywhere in the bush on either side of the undulating path – yellowhammers, silvereyes, tuis, blackbirds. As I reach the pine trees, the birdsong disappears. A couple of mountain bikers in full-face helmets cross the path in front of me and descend out of sight. There’s not been much sign of storm damage so far, but as I climb up from Charles Plimmer park, the path is strewn with a layer of broken branches and pine cones. Above me, a couple of pines are angled across the path, held up by trees on the other side
I take a detour up to Mount Victoria, passing the memorial to Admiral Richard E Byrd, the explorer. He looks due south, eyes fixed towards Antarctica. A group of rather shambolic-looking old men are taking photographs of each other in front of a Harley Davidson with its engine running. The owner of the bike offers to sell it to them, and they joke about his asking price of $4,500. The sky has cleared and the sun feels warm. At the lookout, joggers mingle with tourists, and locals point out the landmarks.
I continue along the ridgeline towards Mount Alfred. Somewhere beyond Mount Alfred, I start to get lost. I reach a confusing maze of mountainbike tracks that take me down onto Alexandra Park where a football game is going on. I squelch round three sides of the park to pick up the Southern Walkway again. I can hear shouting from other sports games being played on pitches below me. Back on the Southern Walkway, I seem to have become caught up in a running event. I’m gradually overtaken by rather gentle-paced runners, urged on by a man shouting about wimps and rambos. Past the Harriers club rooms which seems to be where all the action is, I find myself being overtaken again by the same group. They do a lot of shouting and hallooing as if they’re worried about losing each other in the maze of tracks. I feel invisible in their midst. In fact, I’m starting to doubt my own existence by the time they peel off down another path. I’m looking over Kilbirnie now, where more sports games are going on. I take wrong turns a couple more times and I’m starting to feel a little irritable with the Southern Walkway. It’s not a lack of signage, but the opposite: a multitude of confusing signs and arrows, many of which are too faded to read.
I cross a road and come out in Newtown behind the hospital. It feels quiet after all the activity around the town belt. I don’t see a single person until I’ve climbed back up to the town belt. There is more storm damage up here. I come across another group of runners, negotiating their way around an uprooted tree blocking the path.
I come out at the Truby King house and gardens, supposedly an alternative route, although I didn’t see where the main route went. Sir Truby King was a public health reformer who founded the Plunket Society in 1907 to combat infant mortality through promoting breastfeeding, domestic hygiene and rigid routines. At this site was his house, the Karitane hospital and a factory producing infant milk products. In his later life, he devoted his efforts to creating gardens for the mothers staying in the hospital, building an intricate and slightly bizarre network of winding narrow paths edged with brick walls, pillars and archways. Some of the brickwork looks rather decrepit. Sir Truby King is buried along with his wife in a mausoleum in the grounds. According to the information board, an Act of Parliament was passed to allow this.
On the way down the drive, I discuss the weather with a woman walking her dog. I talk to more dog walkers a little further on in Melrose Park, a young couple walking dogs for the SPCA. This part of the walkway borders the zoo and I stop to look through the wire fence at more dogs – African wild dogs who look back at me – and the Hamadryas baboons. According to the Southern Walkway leaflet, the baboons were sacred to the ancient Egyptians, and were often mummified and entombed, which makes me think of the Truby King mausoleum. As I continue on away from the zoo, taking a wrong turn yet again, the lions start roaring behind me.
On Mount Albert, the snowy peaks of the South Island’s Kaikoura ranges seem to float above the sea.
I descend to Houghton Bay and walk round to Island Bay. The sea is calm, moored boats bobbing in front of Tapu te Ranga Island. I walk along the beach to look at the collapsed sea wall. Further round, there are bite-shaped holes in the footpath, tarmac curving over nothing. A sand drift has taken over a flight of wooden steps, a wall of sand rising above the handrail. It looks strange, but also familiar and I realise it looks like drifted snow, as does the line of sand down the middle of the road. Groups of people are walking along the sea front, looking at the damage. In the fading light, the end of the Southern Walkway has the feel of the end of civilisation, the point at which the sea has started to reclaim the land. I turn back to the north, and head for home.