General Non-Fiction posted May 31, 2019


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A back-country experience in New Zealand.

Land of Glowing Skies

by LisaMay

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I flipped my letter box open and there it lay, pristine with potential: the letter that would invite me to set foot on a stepping stone to a successful art career. The letter that would confirm my ability as an artist and reward me with a Residency in the inspiring location I had ticked on the application form. The government department logo on the envelope smiled indulgently at me. 

I wanted it, I’d worked hard for it, I deserved it and dammit – I could taste it. Savouring the syrup of success, I lingered over the envelope, delaying gratification. I knew what it was going to say anyway. It was going to make my day. I might as well go inside, make a cup of tea, sit down and enjoy my little moment. Aaah, such a feeling of accomplishment and contentment.

Settled at my kitchen table, I languidly ran my fingernail under the flap and lifted out the single sheet of crisp, letter-headed paper. A mere formality. A foregone conclusion. But what’s this??? My smug smile froze in a rictus of horror. “We regret to inform you…

Nooooooo! The kitchen suddenly filled with a flock of squawking, pecking chickens. I had counted them too soon. Now there was egg on my face.

•  •  • 

The kick in the teeth and the blow to my ego left me hurting for a few days. The shattered dream lay underfoot. But I’m not the kind of person to take misfortune lying down… I couldn’t anyway, the dream-shards on the floor were too sharp. 

I would have to come up with a way to utilise all that time and effort expended – all those late nights in preparing my project proposal. 

But first I needed a vacation. I needed to slink off somewhere to soothe my injured pride. Get away to regroup, rethink, revitalise. I couldn’t keep replaying the past, so I would recharge my energy for the future.

Time spent in nature is such a healing balm for me. And doing something as a volunteer is a great way to get over one’s own troubles. Put them both together and I came up with a plan. I would offer my services to the Department of Conservation (DoC) as a Park Ranger or Hut Warden for a few weeks. I could be useful while surrounded by beautiful New Zealand scenery and wildlife. 

New Zealand has an extensive network of hiking trails in its numerous National Parks, with accommodation for hikers placed strategically along the routes. Depending on the size of the hut and the number of hikers being supervised, a hut warden is usually in attendance during summer. I could be that person. I was willing to go anywhere in New Zealand – North, South or West (I’d get wet feet if I went East).

Refocusing my positivity, I phoned the local DoC office here in my home city of Dunedin. My call was passed around their office to a couple of non-committal people and my contact details were taken. They would be in touch if any openings became available. But I’m ready now! Take me now! Where do you want me? I’m free! I’ll go anywhere! Yes, anywhere! 

Yet again, my enthusiasm for what I now wanted to do was carrying me along to another possible disappointment.

I was unemployed at the time, apart from my all-consuming art interest, and had pinned my hopes on the art residency. And now, even though I had offered myself as a free helper for the environment, that too was looking like a damp squib of rejection. I was beginning to doubt my ability to find a ‘fit’ with the activities I loved most.

However, two days later I received a phone call from the Invercargill branch of the Department of Conservation, asking if I would be prepared to go down to Stewart Island/Rakiura and stay for several weeks as a hut warden over late summer, to cover the Easter break.

Would I WHAT!! Fantastic!!

When I asked at which of the many back-country huts on the island my posting would be, when the man said “Mason Bay” I started doing mental cartwheels of ecstasy. 

Continuing the conversation, I asked if I would be living at the hiker’s hut itself. The reply was, “No, you’ll be required to stay at the Island Hill Historic Homestead and walk down the track to the hut each day.” 

Oh my God!! There IS a God!! Thank you God!! 

This flabbergasting news was overwhelming in its level of serendipity! The synchronicity of hopes and happenstance was almost unbelievable.

Now you’ll be thinking to yourself, what’s she going on about? Why such an exuberant exhilaration of excitement? She’s just been told she has to cross a seasick-making Strait, go to an out-of-the-way island to stay in some run-down dump of a decrepit old shack, out in the lonely backwoods somewhere in often terrible weather. Woo hoo, big deal, ho hum.

In fact, when the man on the phone from DoC told me the location they’d like to send me to I started shrieking with laughter at the strange delight of his news. He must’ve thought I’d gone demented at the prospect of having to spend time in such purgatory, and tried to soothe me with reassuring words.

Well, to me it was A VERY BIG DEAL. Perfect in its timing and location.

The wheels of the Universe had spun full circle then paused. I, too, took pause to assess the moment. Fate had dashed the celebratory cup of opportunity from my eager lips, and then replaced it with another sweet nectar, albeit after a little nudge from me.

Now, here is the meeting point of ‘wished for’ and ‘obtained’ –  the art residency I’d set my heart on and the hut warden’s job were at the same location! Yes: Stewart Island/Rakiura, Mason Bay, Island Hill Homestead, summer time. The main difference being that I would have had a financial package for the residency, while as a volunteer for the Department of Conservation I would just get free lodging and food. 

Already I could sense that there was a message here, somehow. I look for messages. I see messages. I take notice of them. All would be revealed eventually.

So here I had arrived at this point in my life – about to embark on my role as a hut warden rather than as an artist developing a project for an exhibition. The huge excitement of it was that I could be both at the same time! I wouldn’t have my art equipment with me because I would be doing tasks for DoC, but my creative energy could still be humming along. Someone who is a ‘maker’, be they artist, writer, musician, or any field of personal expression, never stops that activity. 

I had thought I was knocked down, that the initial setback of not gaining the residency had taken the wind out of my sails. Yet here I was, about to go south, down to the ‘Roaring Forties’ to have an even better experience. My galleon of gratitude had the wind at its back.

•  •  • 

Many of you will not know that New Zealand is made up of THREE islands: the North and South Islands, and at the bottom, gained by a one-hour ferry crossing or a 20-minute flight from the mainland, is Stewart Island/Rakiura. The latter word is its Maori name, which means Land of Glowing Skies, because of its gorgeous sunsets and possibility of seeing the Aurora Australis, the Southern Lights that are a phenomenon of southern latitudes (the island is situated at 46 degrees south).

I have been to the island several times and I love it – the remoteness, its untouched beauty of forest and coastal landscapes, its varied and rare wildlife and its sparse population of only 400 people. Eighty-five percent of the island is a national park, covering 1,400 square kilometres (540 square miles). But I had never been to Mason Bay.

That is enough detail to give you some context. I could write extensively about this as it was a pivotal experience, but for brevity’s sake I will keep to the basics. What follows is part of my experience while on my hut warden posting – the ‘lemonade’ I gained when my ‘lemon’ of rejection was redirected, with the addition of some fizz to my life.

The first fizz was the helicopter trip! Because I was now with DoC, that was how I was transported west, to be deposited at the Island Hill homestead which was to be my unpretentious abode for the next several weeks. Transported is the right word: I was carried away with the delight of seeing the beautiful tree canopies and waterways as I whirled through the sky, right across to the other side of the island.

The usual way for mere mortals to get to Mason Bay requires a 45-minute tide-dependent water taxi trip across a bay then up a winding, ever-narrowing river to a landing-place, followed by a 4-hour boot-slog through often muddy conditions – especially in the notorious Chocolate Swamp – carrying all your food and equipment necessary for several days in case of delays. The weather can change from sublime to life-threatening very quickly. 

But the rewards of the challenging journey are worth it. The delights of Mason Bay are multiple: the huge sweep of beach contains one of the most extensive inland dune systems in the Southern Hemisphere; it is noted for its biodiversity; it is common to see the usually nocturnal kiwi birds during the day; the 'glowing skies' sunsets from the west-facing beach are memorable; walks in a variety of landscape are possible, and one can see evidence of past history, by white settler and Maori.

•  •  •

So they were some of the things I was able to enjoy visually. But a richer reward lay in what my time spent at Mason Bay brought personally, how my life direction was changed. I had expected to be tucked away, licking my wounded pride in splendid isolation. As one who enjoys solitude, that was fine by me. I hadn’t realised that my role with DoC would expose me to such a variety of people – and lots of them!

Mason Bay is the junction of two main track systems on Stewart Island/Rakiura: the Northwest Circuit and the Southern Circuit – both nationally and internationally important for their remote nature and true wilderness aspects. As such, they attract quite a few hikers during the summer season. The beach is also used (when the tide is right), as a landing strip for small aeroplanes bringing in hunters, day-trippers, and tour groups for kiwi-spotting. 

There are always visitors coming and going, as well as DoC workers doing planting, track maintenance, wildlife monitoring, and weed and pest control. It is a busy ‘hub’ and as I was the DoC representative I had a great deal to do: liaising with everyone; checking hut tickets and park passes; collecting firewood, digging a pit for ashes; cleaning the toilet; collecting rubbish; catching a rat, and burying a feral cat that had been trapped (I love cats and it was a beauty). At other times I was called on for first aid advice; I cooked scones and pikelets to take to the hiker’s hut as treats, and I even donated a pair of my socks to a lad who burnt his only pair while drying them too close to the fire. By being efficient, I did find time for myself too, and had rich experiences while taking photographs and thinking about my art.

My time at Mason Bay showed me I was good at explaining things to people; to share a love of nature, history, and photography; to be a tour guide. It helped me to be more outgoing than previously – I mixed well with many different nationalities and was diplomatic when dealing with grumpy people, for instance on a wet night when there were 29 people staying in a hut designed for 20. I learned to be stoic in a storm and to not mind hiking through shin-deep mud. It showed me I had a natural affinity with children (although not a mother myself) and an imagination to entertain them; and I even engaged with deer hunters and gained a better understanding of how a killer can also be a conservationist. But I still abhor blood sports.

Best of all though, was the lesson that “you might not always get what you want, but sometimes you get what you need". 

Upon my return to ‘civilisation’ I gained employment as a tour guide in a Dunedin historic home, overcoming my fear of public speaking. I furthered my art career by having a succession of solo exhibitions and eventually became President, for 3 years, of the regional Art Society with a membership of 500. I also undertook training to be a volunteer tutor of English as a Second Language and began teaching a Turkish immigrant family. 

And it all happened because I didn’t initially get what I wanted. I’d have to say I was rather pleased with what I did get instead. That’s quite a lot of lemonade! My life’s been bubbling along ever since. I celebrated my 58th birthday while at Mason Bay, and that was a lesson too: You’re never too old for anything!



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© Copyright 2019. LisaMay All rights reserved.
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