The calming effect of big country


It’s book-writing time, but this blog is tap-tap-tapping against the inside of my head. I’ll have to let the damn thing out so I can get on with it.

It’s about a landscape. One of those terrifying, big country, exploding-out-of-the-earth places that remind you that this planet will survive all the madness – it’s us who will end up fossils.


Bell Rock, some place special in the middle of nowhere

The executive-formerly-known-as-Sabbatical-Man and I were up there all alone last night as the sun went down on what turned out to be the coldest night of the year to date.

It was far too cold and late in the day to be hiking out the back of nowhere, but our boys were safe with grandparents in various parts of the country and we had a few hours up our sleeve after a delightful grown-ups-only weekend in Hawkes Bay (New Zealand’s answer to Provence without the villages and the French but with added extras of sheep and good coffee).


Hawkes Bay – Provence with sheep

We had dropped our friends at the airport in the early afternoon and, stomachs still heavy from home-made crumpet with poached pear and praline crumble and a side of haloumi made from the unpasteurised milk of locally-grown, hand-milked, grass-fed Canadian friesian cows, went in search of something to do in the six hours before our own flight home. Something that definitely did not involve wine or food.

We had planned to climb the fabulous Te Mata peak near Havelock North but having driven up there earlier the day and being almost blown off by a gale-force southerly, decided to give it a swerve.

That’s when the (possibly Austrian but let’s call him German for comedic effect) man working at the Napier tourism office pulled out a time-worn hiking book with a cover picture of the most extraordinary rock formation.

“You could do this,” he said. “It is a place called Bell Rock. A beautiful walk. You start in the bush and climb up into open land then make your way out to these bell-shaped rock formations with unbelievable views. But it is very exposed up there and in this wind…”

Then he looked at the clock.

Two hours and 32 minutes until sunset.

In Germany if a walk takes an hour, it takes an hour. In New Zealand if a walk takes an hour, we believe that we can do it in 30 minutes.

What a delight to see the corrupting effect New Zealand culture was having on this man’s wiring.  Exactitude and relaxtitude pushed and shoved each other inside his head as his eyes swivelled from the clock to our faces and back again.

The tension was killing us. Who would win?

By the book, see, the starting point for the three hour loop was a 90 minute drive into the forest north-west of Napier.

By the book, the sun would go down when we were only one hour into a three hour hike.

Add the jeopardy of isolation, probable lack of cell phone coverage, the density of the bush (dark, very dark) and already bitter temperatures that could turn snowy in that wind howling in from Antarctica …and by the book, it was a very bad idea.

Finally,  he said:  “Yah, I think it is possible.”

The “90 minute drive” could be done, he thought, in 45 minutes, 50 tops. The “three hour hike”? Two hours max. Less probably.

We smiled. He was talking like a New Zealander now.

And before you get all iffy about him sending us off to certain death, he did warn us about the dark and the cold and the distances; he knew that we had warm clothing and torches and judging by our distended stomachs, starvation wasn’t going to be a issue.


Exposed – you wouldn’t want to be up there in your undies

So off we rushed, stopping only to buy a large bottle of water (and, secretly on my part, two small chocolate bars which I planned to whip out with a flourish at midnight when we were lost and freezing to death in a leaky bivouac with a triumphant cry of: “Haha! I have saved the day, husband! How lucky are you to have a wife so resourceful?“).

Sadly for us, the “45 minute” drive took 75 minutes. Clearly the efficiency had washed clean out of the German.

Sixty-two minutes until sunset. 

As the clock ticked toward 4pm, it was not really the looming darkness and cold that were worrying me. The problem was that if we got ourselves lost we did not have much time to get ourselves found and still make the 8.15pm flight. A flight that was due to land at the same time as the one Small and Medium were taking as unaccompanied minors from my parents’ town on the other side of the island.

We had made contingency plans, and had followed the number one rule of bush-walking in New Zealand (tell someone where you are going). Still, I kept imagining two downcast boys standing in an airport arrivals hall with a person in a high-vis vest holding a clipboard and saying: “I’m sorry, children. Apparently your parents don’t love you. ”

There was only one thing for it: get a wriggle on.

We stepped off the road and the bush closed around us.

New Zealand bush is heavenly at dusk. The noisy cracking and chiming of tuis and bellbirds echo and bounce in the air. This hike is part of the Boundary Stream reserve, an area teeming with native birds including the endangered kiwi – a small, terrified, nondescript, flightless, nocturnal bird with a long beak and wheezy honk (so many reasons to choose it for our national symbol).

We climbed steadily past tree ferns and horopito, the native pepper plant, past totara and matai, the native podocarps and stands of beech. I was sure I heard a kiwi.

Every few steps a kereru would startle fatly out of its tree, careering through the bush and crash-landing onto the next spindly branch in a bird-brainedly vain underestimation of his own portliness.


Lord Kereru: fat, drunk and clumsy.  (Picture credit: Brendon Doron)

Kereru, or native wood pigeons, are the Lords in our avian Houses of Parliament: corpulent and frequently drunk on a diet of organic fermented berries but effortlessly elegant in comparison to common (feral) pigeons slumming it in the city.

“Ferals will eat puke; woodies won’t,” was the most succinct summary I could find, penned by a hunter, of the main difference between ordinary pigeons and wood pigeons (I added the semi-colon but it was implied).

It was a beautiful bush walk and, aside from the burning in my lungs and pounding in my heart from the relentless climb, it felt almost too soon when we had emerged into the former pasture land half an hour later, the hill tops rising on our left.

“Bell Rock, one hour”, the signpost said.

Thirty-two minutes to sunset

We did our calculations again – final check-in 7.45pm, which meant we would have to start driving by 6.30pm, which meant we had a maximum of 45 minutes before we would have to turn back.

We stepped on it, hoping without wanting to jinx it, that we might hit Bell Rock right on sunset. My legs and lungs were complaining but not my mouth because I wouldn’t dream of giving The Executive reason to imagine himself fitter than me.


Not far out of the bush, the wall-like rock is the first glimpse of what is to come

We climbed a little more, headed down a gully and up the other side and finally were out on the cliffs with our first view of Bell Rock.


First glimpse of Bell Rock from above

Fifteen minutes to sunset.

The views stretched to Hawkes Bay and Mahia Peninsula to the east and north and the snowy tops of the Kaimanawa and Kaiweka ranges to the west and south.

Where was the wind? Not a breath.

The birds had gone quiet.

Just us and that ferocious landscape, cutthroat cliffs, undulating hills, the cold white on the distant ranges, the clouds threatening trouble and the sun stealing its warmth away behind the horizon.

It is the sort of big that slows you down and shuts up that ole monkey mind.

The sun was gone and the light turned softer and more radiant with every minute.

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We walked back through silver tussock, watching the sky change. The light was almost gone by the time we reentered the bush.

We strode on for 15 minutes or so, straining to make out what we could of the path.

Eventually we turned on the torches. It was easy going and peaceful. There was plenty of time.

Then the telephone rang. It was Nana. A minor problem involving Large and a missed rendezvous.

The magic slammed hands on hips, rolled eyes and prepared to stalk off, but the call was over in the nick of time.

Exactly two hours after leaving the car, we stepped out of the bush and back into our lives again. Tired and happy.

Large was found and fine. Small and Medium were fine. We were all fine.

And now that I’m back at home I just cannot stop looking at the photos. I could just dive right in.

“I didn’t know you went to the Grand Canyon!” Medium said. “You told us you went to Napier!”

Well yes we did.  But it felt further. And it was same feeling I have had in so many mountainous places here and abroad – something about being able to breathe easier, feel my feet on the ground, know that little things are little things.

I think I have been spending too much time in the city.


12 thoughts on “The calming effect of big country

  1. Brilliant Karen
    I am sure one day big little and small will look back on all these adventures with a joyful pride.
    To have such adeventerious parents can only be described as outstanding.

  2. I agree with medium I thought you had rushed off to the Grand Canyon and not told us! How stunning are those photos welcome back catinmythroat I so missed your posts I lived vicariously through your life X Marg

  3. Wow! That’s all I can say. I wish I’d been there. And The Executive man is wearing SHORTS!!!! It was so cold that night!

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