By Grace Bridges
I stand where the road meets its end. The mudflat at my feet extends to a deceptively distant wall of trees over on the northern shoreline of the estuary. The horizontal canopies of manuka hover over their waving trunks, mixed with taller, straighter breeds stepping down the almost-vertical incline, fringed with mangroves at the creek’s edge. Opposite, other suburbs also nose into the sea: Birkdale to the south with a few private jetties, Hobsonville’s fancy new ferry wharf and sailing boats to the west beyond the northern arm of the Waitemata Harbour, and here, Bayview, on the east side deep inside the creek mouth, where I have descended on foot from farther inland. Only the Greenhithe side is pristine nature, as its village hub is in the valley on the other side of the ridge. I hope that forest is protected – that high swathe of green among the settlements – but it’s probably privately owned and merely too steep to build on. The other (slightly flatter) Oruamo shores are all built up and well settled, random rooftops peeking through the trees.
Its other name is Hellyer’s Creek after its first non-native owner, who bought land from the locals and started a logging business and a somewhat notorious brewery in 1840, the same year New Zealand became an official colony of Britain and celebrated its statehood. However, only a year later Thomas Hellyer was murdered for his boots and found barefoot in his rowboat. I can’t feel too sorry for him, as it’s said he was a disrespectful sort of bloke. No charges were ever laid even though his alehouse was known to be sought out by ship-jumpers and convicts who would paddle across the harbour from the central port, a journey of several miles. The city of Auckland itself was only just properly founded and likely consisted of little more than one or two buildings and a number of tents; now its million souls have pushed city limits out far beyond even this point.
At high tide there’s enough water to swim in, sort of, waist-deep, and it comes right up to the edge of the road. Boat-laden trailers and kayakers come and go all year round. There’s a grooved concrete boat ramp extending from the road to the sandy bottom at a gentle incline, a great place to launch and return if you time your arrival to avoid the ebb – because if you meet that it’s a long way on foot, if you can manage it at all. I tried walking out to meet the water once, but bogged down knee-deep in the grey-greenish muck less than fifty steps from shore, the edges of unseen shells poking at my toes. It’s not far to that lovely wild forest, but far enough. So I sit on the weather-smoothed wooden bench, on the right-hand end of the second one nearest the ramp, and absorb the sight of it.
A narrow stream cuts through the mud about halfway across. It meanders this way and that, invisible in places, flowing upstream when the tide comes in and vanishing altogether when the estuary fills with water. Its lapping is interspersed with the gentle pop of air bubbles from the life inside the mud as it awaits the return of the tide: the shellfish, pipi and tuatua, maybe some mussels, little crabs. A subtle but definite scent of seaweed pervades. In the cove, mangroves flourish with their trunks in the salt sand and their aerial roots protruding a handsbreadth above the mud, drawing in the gases they cannot obtain inside their waterlogged sediment. An old, ruined dinghy lies amidst it all, faded to a perfect match for its surrounds.
On the other bench, the one whose concrete bases jut several inches above the eroded earth so that grown adults can swing their feet like toddlers, sits a man throwing sticks for his brown and white dog. Presently a black sedan pulls up in the turning circle; a woman brandishes papers out the window, yelling “I got it! I’m so happy!” The man and dog get in the car. “Excellent,” he says. The woman demands kisses, and she whoops as they drive away. Such are the little stories of life. I’m still glad to have this spot all to myself again.
Pohutukawa trees cling to the red sandstone cliffs, branches tumbling down to extend out over the swamp just above high tide level. Another hangs over the entire width of the road. In December they will be covered in red blooms consisting only of stamens. On the other side a wooden staircase ascends, unadorned but sturdily built. This leads to the playground. A solitary flax bush marks the top of the boat ramp just beyond the yellow lines at the very end of the road.
Another time, a Sunday afternoon, I approach the bench to find it occupied by a large, dead fish and an opened can of bourbon cola. A fishing rod is wedged between the slats of the backrest, its line extending far into the tide. I take a seat at a careful distance and peer at the fish – its yellow fins marking it as a kahawai. Presently its owner appears, a tousle-headed young father in a paint-stained beanie. His little boy points at the kahawai. “Big fishy nibble!” Not half bad, for an estuary that has no water in it a good deal of the time.
“Good job,” I say to the dad. He sticks out his lower lip and shakes his head, flabbergasted at his own good luck. “Bloody six-dollar rod. Bugger nearly broke it. I only ever caught sprats here before.” He checks his hook – empty – refills it and casts again from the stone breakwater that juts into the bay. Later, I told the story to a friend: “I sat on a bench at the beach and there was this dead fish on the other end.” Her reply: “He was having a bad day, eh?”
The young man tucks his rod and fish under one arm and takes his son’s hand. They wander up into the residential street, presumably homewards to cook the kahawai in some worthy manner. The trees are full of birds, most unseen. There’s the unmistakable triple trill of the grey warbler, a tiny shy songbird I’ve only ever seen once and yet his voice is the ubiquitous soundtrack of the outdoors, and the other birds: a tui whooshing about in the treetops, a blackbird trailing a long piece of grass in his beak, a sparrow perching on a bouncing branch of mangrove, a seagull diving for shellfish, a straight-backed kingfisher on the lookout, a pied cormorant dipping into the creek, and an elegant blue heron wading the shallows.
Rain threatens, but does not come, the heavy clouds merely dimming the daylight to bright grey. Rosellas chitter and swoop in the unreachable forest, too far away to see their bright colours, their carillon-like jumble of calls echoing across the expanse. Behind me, there’s enthusiastic barking from the big white fluffy dog that lives in the first house above the beach. Next to his gate the coastal path starts towards Kaipatiki Road. That’s an hour’s strenuous up and down along the low cliffs of the inlet, through rampant greenery behind the houses of the well-to-do, across little bridges deep in shaded gullies, and past the bottoms of steep cul-de-sacs that lead back to civilisation. All along the water’s edge is the dichotomy of urban and natural life: fences and walls on the left side, mud and water to the right, the bush overhead and all around, pulsing with birds and insects.
Life in the estuary starts with plankton smaller than the naked eye can see, moving up to highly camouflaged mudworms, then shellfish and mudsnails, juvenile eels and fish, some of whom spend part of their lives in the creek before heading out to sea. The adults may then return to feed; after that, the birds and finally the humans. Freshwater mingles with salt; that is the magic of the mudflat.
The aspects of nature work together, a seamless tapestry – ocean, leaves, living creatures. Sometimes not so seamless when forced to join with the signs of urban life, yet it is the trees that engulf the houses, it is the tide that dictates the landing of boats and the casting of lines, it is the weather that so often batters our stalwart roofs. Nature is the winner in the end. She lets us live here too.
It’s windy and my eyes water, tears dry to spackle on my face. But I’ll stay a little longer because wind and water and briny sand make me feel alive. Buried in suburbia as it is, all the way at the farthest end of Manuka Road, it’s altogether too easy to overlook this hidden treasure of a beach. This is a place to return time and again; I can’t keep away for long.
Grace Bridges is a dreamer whose muse blows best when it’s fresh from the sea. A graduate of the University of Auckland, she translates German for a living and writes from her hilltop in New Zealand. Her work appears in various international anthologies and she is currently working on a series of novels. Her hair started going silver about a year ago. Visit her online at www.gracebridges.kiwi.