Along the waterfront in Wellington the council have put a pink line about 5 centimetres wide on the footpath. If you follow it you will come to little information boxes that point out different features of Whanganui-a-Tara. Sometimes it explains a sculpture, and sometimes a landmark. At one point it gives the the story of Ngake and Whātaitai and how they formed Wellington Harbour. There is one that shows where the waka used to land, and another that explains how the area was once full of kaimoana and tuna.
Because most of us don’t understand the land we walk in anymore it comes with captions. We can look at the view, and then look down and find out what it means. What it meant. On this concrete strip there was a shore of sucking mud, and a silvery flat filigree of rivulets coming from the tall, thick reeds behind, and then the steep banks covered in bush.
I came to the boat shed by Freyberg Pool. The pool sticks out from the shoreline, and there are tall windows down each side of the building. Inside the windows there are a row of running machines where people come and run, and check their fitbits, and run, and check their music, and run, and then go and change, and maybe grab a coffee and head to work. Just under them, under the running machines, outside the building and below the windows, is a path so that people can walk around the outside of the pool, and lying there are two people sleeping. Their bare, dirty feet stick out from under their dirty, cheap children’s blankets.
They’re brown feet of course.
It reminds me of standing in Te Aro park and looking at the hoardings on the Opera House advertising Madiba. The picture shows the silhouette of a man – Mandela – with his fist raised: power, resistance, solidarity. And underneath the hoarding, in front of the glass doors into the foyer, a man and a woman with all their things in a shopping trolley. Sitting on cardboard. Waiting out the day. You know what colour their skin was.
We went sailing. A group of students and some sailors and me. After we had learned to tie some ropes, and had some lunch, and pulled on our overalls, and jackets and lifejackets we got on the sailboats and went out into the great harbour of Tara. The students are from a class especially constructed. They are intelligent, funny, talented students who need some love. We all need love, of course, but most people can pretend they don’t. Here the love is more open. The drama too.
I put on sunscreen and the students laughed at me.
“What are you doing, mister?”
“You need a bit of colour.”
I ignored them and tried to look dignified rubbing SPF 50+ into my bald spot.
On a sail boat in the middle of the harbour everything looks different. Being there makes the land you grew up on strange again. I can see how Ngauranga looks like a gash, the kind a mighty tail might make as it thrashed and propelled a taniwha through the water and towards the harbour entrance. How Mākaro Island is bigger than it looks from the shore, and has a good beach and bush along its steep cliffs. How vital Tāwhirimātea is to the life of Whanganui-a-Tara. If you have the rope in your hand for the mainsail you can feel Tāwhirimātea’s pull, and how the boat seems always to be wrestling against your hand, and him, and the pitch of the wave.
Sail boats are counter-intuitive to me: it’s better if they’re tipping; you shift the rudder handle in the direction opposite the way you want to go. I understand. I steer the boat, for perhaps an hour, but it never feels right. It is a constant act of concentration to adjust the rudder in the correct direction, and sometimes my mind flips back and I am wrong-headed again. I once went in a very little sail boat with Cathy in the Marlborough Sounds. The combination of the wind hitting the sail, and my ignorance of the rudder capsized us. I remember hitting the water and then surfacing. I could see my glasses floating on the surface when I reemerged and I plucked them out of the sea and slapped them on my face. I could see and breath again. How quickly I had been dumped out of both.
Back in the meeting room where we learned to tie the ropes, and after the sailing, I studied the information boards on the walls. Pictures of boats and people going back a hundred years. Not further. Wellington Harbour. Somes. Ward. A picture showed a group of people at the 1999 Port Nicholson Regatta. It looked like a fancy dress party. Everyone smiling. Holding a drink. The large, portly man in the middle of the photo was wearing a grass skirt and had painted his whole face and body black.
There’s the show, and the running machines, and the regatta, and there’s the sleeping rough, and the shopping trolley. There’s Somes and Ward and Wellington Harbour, and there’s Matiu, and Mākaro and Whanganui-a-Tara. There’s being in command of the wind and the waves and the rudder, and there’s being dumped in the sea. No sight, no breath. A history paved over, with a caption in the master’s tongue telling you what is gone.
And it’s not even gone.