In my last post I wrote about my walk in search of silence in the Te Kopahau reserve, inspired by Sara Maitland’s ‘Book of Silence’. I didn’t really find silence on that walk, but I found some interesting sounds.
By accident rather than design, I did find a place of silence more recently, on the opposite side of the harbour and at the opposite time of year. On a perfectly clear and still day close to the winter solstice, I took the ferry across the harbour to Day’s Bay to walk round the coast as far as I felt like walking.
I followed the road through Eastbourne, out past the bus barn, and along the track towards Baring Head, accompanied by the sound of waves breaking on the rocky shoreline. The swell and crash intensified as I got closer to the harbour entrance, surf breaking violently over outcrops of dark fractured rock. Any other sound was drowned out, even the aircraft descending across the mouth of the harbour to the airport.
I passed the low-level Pencarrow lighthouse and followed the curve of the wide, dark sand beach scattered with remains of abandoned infrastructure – a concrete wharf and a massive wedge-shaped wooden frame, the light hazy with sea spray and low sun.
I turned inland, up over a gravel ridge and past an odd concrete structure with rusting pipes running through it. Just beyond was Lake Kohangapiripiri, reed-edged waters surrounded by low gorse-covered hills sharply reflected in the smooth surface of the lake. Two black swans drifted in the stillness. The noise of the surf had suddenly fallen away, even though I was only a few yards from the beach. A bird’s piping call, and then, silence.
But I wasn’t alone. Further along the track were a couple of trucks and hi-vis council workers. A little tractor chugged off up the hill, laden with fence posts. I took a path up towards a lookout, meeting a quad bike coming down the other way. The driver stopped to talk and I recognise him as the council ranger who led the guided walk around the Wainuiomata water collection area. By the time I reached the lookout over the lake, silence had fallen again, as if the sound of the vehicles had been abruptly swallowed by the hills. From here I could see the wild surf pounding the beach, while the lake waters lay calm and unruffled. It is rare to find freshwater lakes so close to the sea. Lake Kohangapiripiri and its neighbour, Lake Kohangatera are drowned valleys, separated from the sea by gravel ridges uplifted by successive earthquakes. But the lakes are still under the influence of the sea apparently, and sea water sometimes finds its way into them.
I ate my lunch and then went back down to the lake. The grass was heavy with dew even though it was early afternoon and my trainers were soon soaked through. This side of the lake felt as if it hadn’t seen the sun for weeks. The air was deeply chilled, sunk in pale, bleached shadow as if all the light and colour had drained away.
Down here by the lake, the silence was profound. It felt as if the air was more dense here, almost liquid, as if it had taken on the quality of the lake water, which itself, beneath its bright surface reflections, looked thicker and darker than water should.
Reflecting on some of the comments on my last post, I’ve started to think that the search for silence is actually a search for something else. Sara Maitland, in her ‘Book of Silence’ seems to be looking for solitude rather than silence – she decides they are the same thing. I used to crave solitude too, but in New Zealand it is easy to find and I perhaps value it less. But what I was responding to here in this place was stillness. In Wellington, where the wind gusts unpredictably, and sometimes violently, and rarely drops completely, still days feel surprising, as if there is something missing. But they also bring a sense of calm, which is what seekers of solitude seem to be looking for. The stillness here had a quality I have never found anywhere else in Wellington. Maybe if I returned on a bleak windy day it would feel completely different, but on this day, it felt immutable, as if it had been preserved for ever in the capsule of a golden winter afternoon.
I stopped to watch a group of scaup and even they were quiet, bobbing into the water with a discreet ploop, leaving only a few concentric ripples behind them, their occasional calls jittering back into silence.
I carried on round the lake, disturbing a group of yellowhammer in a stand of manuka trees. The background rumble of the surf only accentuated the stillness. Beside the sea, the noise is constant. Even between the waves, there is the sound of water rearranging itself, advancing and retreating, dragging the shingle with it. But from here, I could hear a distant deep boom and the crash of surf, but between the waves, the noise fell away. It made me think of the space and the stillness between the end of one breath and the beginning of the next that you focus on meditation. The distant sound and the nearby silence, reminded me too of indoor stillness, of sitting alone in a quiet room while the winds rage outside.
At the end of the lake, the path ran up the valley past toetoe grass, the sunlit feathery heads way above the height of my head. I followed a boardwalk over swamp, through toetoe and flax. The water around the vegetation was dark and unfathomable and I was reminded of Geoff Park writing about how early settlers would get lost in swamps, floundering around for hours, their hands slashed by the sharp edges of flax and swamps became places that were feared. Since European settlement, most wetlands have been drained, and the wetlands at the lakes here are among very few left in New Zealand.
On the other side of the board walk, I climbed uphill, looking down on the broad swathe of swamp extending up the narrow valley like a river of grass. As I climbed high onto the ridge I could see Lake Kohangatera down below. I didn’t have time to explore it today though and so I descended back to the shore and the crashing surf.
Maitland S (2008) A Book of Silence
Park G (1995) Ngā Uruora: the groves of life