Walks on the Whau
Produced for Whau Arts Festival Book
2020 (Published 2021)
in a puddle of oil.
I’m not really sure what I was expecting. A sky mirrored in the river stretch, manu soaring overhead in odd-numbered V’s? Water clear enough to spot stable stepping stones underfoot? Kōura, dragonflies, īnanga? The silvers and blues of off-to-the-side streams pouring in?
When I heard that Te Whau had a walkway through it’s mangroves, this imagined utopia sprung to mind. Eagerly, I couldn’t wait to see it for myself. When I was little and living in Panmure, my Sheanair used to take me to Te Waipuna a Rangiātea where we would walk the lagoon path, feed the ducks with bread ends, and get rainbow ice creams from the neighbouring dairy. My expectations of dragonflies, ducks, and maybe even water lily pads, stem from these memories. The excitement of nostalgia and adventure was impassable. I wanted to see ducks, I wanted to see eels, and I wanted to buy a sweet treat to feel those childhood feelings again.
More recently, I have been working alongside te takoto o te whenua o Hauraki, including my awa Te Waitangi-o-Hinemuri and Waihou. Ohinemuri is a favourite of mine to photograph. The river is long and winding, stopping and starting through and around rock deposits from the Karangahake Gorge. It’s a hot spot over the summer. Shirtless holidayers jump off boulders and bridges, while the more timid swimmers stick to the slower and shallower streams. I once took a photo of the water further down from the popular areas. In this photo, the algae floats beneath the surface to the rhythm of the current; it’s as clear as glass; and the blue of the sky is the only tell that we are looking at water from above. Waihou isn’t nearly as conventionally pretty with all its mud and murk and muck. But what it lacks in beauty, it makes up for in its monumentality. The heart that pumps life into our Hauraki, Waihou is the kete kai for many Māori in the region. To get to my nana’s house, we took the bridge over the river and, as a kid, it wasn’t so spectacular. Who wants to look at mud and mangroves anyway? But now, I can appreciate it for its massiveness and kaitiakitanga. Perhaps these presumptions and idealistic imaginings of what a river should look like clouded my expectations of Te Whau. What was that saying? Comparison is the thief of joy?
And so it is. Half a supermarket trolley juts out from the mud at the centre of Te Whau. Oil puddles in the soft clay closest to the carparks. Bottles, wooden posts from political party signs, and forgotten socks can be found tangled in the mangrove trees. This was far from utopic. And I don’t mean to say that Te Whau is not beautiful. It is. I’m just disappointed in my reaction and lack of empathy towards its current state. Even now, I am reflecting on how I felt, and why. Was I fetishising rivers because, as a Māori, I expect myself to have an immediate connection to wai? Was I angry at my inaction at the time, my reluctance to pick out the bottles and cans and other trash? Or was I frustrated at my own ignorance, expecting serenity and solace in the centre of Tāmaki suburbia, untouched by human influence?
Looking at the polaroids I took of Te Whau, I wonder if this is the new nirvana, the new beautiful. If we treat our awa like this, perhaps this is what we want. Much like decorating our homes with trinkets, picture frames, and memorabilia, Te Whau is adorned with glass bottle baubles in mangrove trees, oily rainbow slicks to add sparkle to mud and silt, and a lone trolley as the centerpiece - contemporary sculpture? The allusion of a greater entity below? A witty, ironic symbol of consumerism? And the lost socks and undies along the boardwalk pertain to our ongoing interaction with our whenua, political party signage g-litter and lead the way towards conservation and environmentally friendly policy, the manu keep silent out of respect for our hīkoi (how nice!).
Elude us sanctuary.