This is an account of a walk I did some time ago, during our long and hot summer of 2013. It was inspired by ‘A Book of Silence’ by Sara Maitland, a British writer who decides to withdraw from an increasingly noise-filled world, experimenting with silence in different settings. Her accounts of the psychological effects of lengthy periods of solitude are fascinating, for example when she is convinced she can hear a choir singing in Latin in the bedroom of a remote cottage on the Isle of Skye during a raging gale. Sara Maitland relates silence to landscape: she discovers that people seeking out silence often go for austere and extreme landscapes – deserts, mountains, the polar icecaps and oceans. She spends time meditating in the desert, but decides her preference is for the open high moorland landscapes of northern England and Scotland, which she describes as the ‘Huge Nothing’, eventually building a home in a remote part of Scotland.
Sara Maitland struggles to find solitude or silence in the crowded British Isles, especially England. I used to fantasise about living somewhere remote myself when I lived in the UK and one of the things that most attracted me about living in New Zealand (and still does) is the comparative emptiness. But I’m less interested in complete solitude now than I used to be, maybe because it’s so much easier to be alone here.
All the same, inspired by the book, I decided I would seek out some silence by heading into the far reaches of the Te Kopahau reserve on Wellington’s south coast. The windswept landscape of the reserve with its steep hills and deep gullies, lack of shade and tough vegetation is perhaps the closest Wellington gets to a desert landscape.
It occurred to me as I headed through the outer reaches of Karori, that when you are looking for silence, you notice sounds. At first it was the sleepy suburban sounds of a hot, still day – a distant radio, children shouting, the thrum of a sparrow’s wings as it flew across my path, cars approaching and fading away, and the steady hum of a electricity sub-station. The cicadas were waking from their long underground sleep, and making their first tentative whirrs and chirps in the trees. Walking up Wright’s Hill, above the drone of insects, I heard wings flapping in foliage, blackbirds rustling among the leaves, a loose stone skittering down the path where I had dislodged it.
I also noticed how much noise I made myself – my feet on loose dry leaves, or swishing through dry grass, the rustle of my clothes, my lunchbox rattling in my daysac, my breathing on the uphill sections, and when I stopped, the blood thumping in my ears.
From the top of Wright’s Hill, I could see there was a thick fluffy layer of inverted cloud in the entrance to the harbour, extending all the way along the south coast, its tendrils reaching over the first houses along the shoreline. As I climbed towards the radome, I could see that it stretched all round the coast, at least as far as Makara and all the way across Cook Strait to the South Island.
At the radome, I saw the first people since leaving Karori – a man talking into his cellphone, joined shortly after by another man wearing headphones and looking grumpy.
I followed the track round to the Te Kopahou hill. It felt very hot now, the cicadas getting louder, joined by a chorus of other insects. I stopped to watch swallows circling into the breeze. The sound of motorbikes tore into the air. There were three of them, cresting the next ridge along, tiny shapes in the distance. The noise they made seemed out of all proportion, and then it was gone as they disappeared from sight.
I had planned to sit on the summit of Te Kopahou and contemplate the sea, like an island hermit, but I heard voices and saw a couple of people behind me on the track. In the spirit of solitude, but also because I’d never been beyond Te Kopahau before, I decided to carry on towards the bunkers at Sinclair Head. The path headed steeply down, then up over a ridge and back down towards the thick bank of clouds. The bunkers were presumably down there somewhere. I stopped for lunch to see if the cloud was going to lift.
I could hear a boat’s engine chugging loudly below the cloud. From the sound of it, I imagined it was a huge vessel and had visions of a ferry or a cruise ship lost along the shoreline. But when the cloud suddenly lifted, I saw that it was a tiny fishing boat. Then the ferry did appear, sounding its horn every few minutes as it headed towards the retreating bank of cloud. I’d barely noticed until now the constant boom of aircraft taking off and coming into land from the airport further along the coast.
Although the human-made sounds I could hear were relatively few, they were far louder than anything natural. Did the stillness and clarity of the air make them seem even louder than you would expect, I wondered, or was the sound echoing off the high cliffs along the coast? Or did the absence of the general background hum of noise you get in any city make them more noticeable?
The cloud lifted altogether, and there were the bunkers, further away than I had expected, but now I had seen them, I had to take a closer look. The path descended more steeply still, and I slithered my way down loose gravel. The first two concrete structures faced inland, which seemed strange, but the gun post, sunk into the ground, faced out across the harbour. Below me was the sea, deep turquoise channels through clumps of brown seaweed. The waves broke gently on rocks just off the headland. I thought I could hear faint voices but couldn’t tell where they were coming from, perhaps from a couple of boats quietly puttering out at sea.
The South Island looked as enchanted as ever, ranks of blue serrated hills separated by bands of mist. I sat for a while, looking straight across the water to the snow-flecked summit of Tapuae-o-Uenuku floating gently on blue mist and Tapuae-o-Uenuku looked straight back at me. But the sun was too ferocious to sit for long.
The climb back up to Te Kopahau seemed much longer than on the way down. I stopped paying attention to sounds and solitude and just thought about how hot it was, and how my head seemed to have swelled inside my hat and how my eyes were streaming with hayfever. I had been walking in full sun, in this dry exposed landscape for some time by now. A buzzard circled gently above in the cloudless sky as my feet slipped backwards on the gravel. I grabbed wildly at the vegetation, closing my hand on gorse.
I finally reached Te Kopahau and the track levelled out. Maybe it was the heat, but I was feeling sceptical about the whole concept of silence now. I was wondering whether you wouldn’t be in a constant state of fury every time someone intruded onto your field of vision or hearing, and why should you feel entitled to have a whole vast landscape to yourself, when I noticed a woman striding towards me. I was barely within earshot when she called out “stunning, eh?”, as if she couldn’t wait to share her exhilaration at the landscape and the beautiful summer evening.
Back at the Zealandia fenceline, I passed a stand of pines, cones cracking wildly in the early evening heat like the gunfight at OK corral. Kaka sat in the branches, unpeturbed. Gorse pods were popping, and cicadas were still chirping. A runner pounded past me, followed by a panting black labrador who sniffed at my hand and then was gone, bounding after his owner.
Maitland S (2008) A Book of Silence
I’ve recently come across a several blogs and websites recording and reflecting on sounds and places often in urban settings. Some of my favourites are the Australian Sounds Like Noise blog; the Sound Landscapes blog about Paris; and the London Sound Survey collection. I’ve not come across any New Zealand examples yet – does anyone out there know of any?