The river bank rises steeply from a dusty green fragrant fringe of tchi-tchi bush.
Two figures, a boy of about ten, and a tall, stooped man clamber upwards, to afford themselves a view of a long curved reach of the Umzimkhulu, in a mid-afternoon slow patch in an already slow day’s fishing.
“We’ll take a rest,” says my father. “Maybe we’ll see something moving from up here.” But we don’t see anything – no fish moving.
So we just sit. Or rather he just sits, in his patient way. I, ever impatient, opt to change flies - from the non-performing Alexander & Yellow (until then a favourite for obvious reasons), to my new hope, a Walker’s Red Nymph. Of course my philosophical father stays with his ever-reliable Invicta.
We settle with backs against a yard-high vertical bank at the top of the slope. Here we can sit in the clear winter sunlight, yet out of the crisp southerly breeze. With a soft groan of pleasure, my father takes out his pipe, tamps down the bowl with a broad thumb, lights – with difficulty – and puffs, his lips making the smallest popping noises. We are surrounded by the blue haze of Dinglers No. 5 tobacco, which swirls gently in the eddy of the earthen bank behind our heads.
We watch cat’s-paws dance away from us, up against the flow of the river, towards the distant blue wall of Ukahlamba, the Drakensberg mountains. We hear the remaining poplar leaves shiver in that same wind. Their soft rattle is a kind of music. We see the leaves shatter the sharp light reflected off the river’s surface. We breathe the eccentric scent of munyamunyane, a tall plant with tiers of orange flowers. We know with an unspoken clarity, the profound beauty of it all.
To our right, the vertical lip at the top of the bank deepens into rocky scarp. We’d call it a kranz in these parts. It would be a home to dassies – rock rabbits – and snakes. Between it and us, a stand of thatch grass, back lit by the westering sun, glows, haloed, a yellowless yellow. The river is its own numinous river colours – a blue bluer than blue, a dark darker than dark, a silver no painter could ever describe.
The afternoon enters one of those moments of never – an arrested something, a holding of breath, even the breeze pauses for a time. One of those moments of expectation that are never fulfilled.
A laughing dove is flying across the V of the river valley, its stiff wing beats seemingly slow-motioned, the whip-whip sound of its wing tips near subliminal. We both watch it dreamily. It makes it halfway across.
What happens next, happens in an instant, perhaps a third of a second; but in that compressed time, all is utter clarity, all is seen and inscribed in memory forever.
We hear a fast-approaching muted roar, too fast for us to react. A female lanner, the biggest and fastest of the falcons, stoops onto the dove. Its feathers are thrumming in the extreme wind speed of its descent. Its wings are hooked back like daggers. The raptor clears the lip above our heads by inches, has hit the dove, has pulled up, arced round to the right, and is turning, gliding down to the rock where the lifeless dove will land with a soft thump – all this within a second. Faster than you can write it, read it, imagine it. Our only reaction can be the instantaneous reaction of our eyes. And we feel it. I feel it even now. Perhaps that is why it all remains so clear in my mind.
As if to provide temporal memory of the event, the puff of soft lilac feathers that exploded from the dove at the moment of impact are now floating down, speckling the river and the rock, where the falcon makes its meal. Some feathers drift further, taken by the wind. The dove becomes part of the wind.
The fabric of the afternoon begins to re-knit itself. The breeze resumes. Another dove flies by. A soft wave of sound from the rapids downstream reaches us, borne by the wind. We hear some animal rattling the dry khakibos weeds in the fallow field across the river.
My father has by now taken the pipe from his mouth, but in his habit, not moved it very far, so as to minimise the effort in replacing it. His lips barely have space to move.
But they do: “Hmmpfh!” he says, with the inflection of being impressed in that vowel-less all-purpose word.
“It’s how the cookie crumbles, I suppose…”
There’s a short silence.
And then he comes up with something from a different perspective: “Must be the steepest hill in the sky,” he says.
And he replaces the pipe without further explanation.
Decades later, learning to speak (or at least glimmer some meaning from-) Te Reo Māori, we understand that to introduce yourself properly, you begin by mentioning, in this order, your mountain, your river, your waka. This last is the vessel you most associate with – that which has carried you on your most significant journey. For most Māori people, the waka that is referred to is one of a legendary fleet of voyaging canoes that first made landfall in Aotearoa, and from which the major iwi (or tribal groupings) of contemporary Māori are descended.
This initial list should be followed with a mention of your marae (your communal place of meeting), your papakaianga (the place you are settled, the place you would defend now), and your mana whenua.
Whenua is an interesting word, meaning both placenta and land. Mana is an almost indefinable sense of status, of importance, of moral strength. In this context, mana whenua means the land of your issue, the land that means everything to you.
For urbanised westerners, this can be a bit challenging, a bit disorienting. If you have grown up in the suburbs, what can you call your mountain, your river, or your mana whenua?
Glenfield, the hill above the industrial zone of Wairau road, and the littered, concrete-sided culvert leading a sad trickle to the sea – can you call these your mountain, your river, and still feel good about it?
For me though, there is never doubt. Despite the distances I have travelled, my river is Umzimkhulu, the big river, the river remembered above.
My mountain is inSangwane, meaning ‘the little gate’, a prominent hill with a notch at the top that the Umzimkhulu winds around. And not far from where we were sitting on the riverbank that day.
And I usually raise a laugh, introducing myself in the proper Māori way in my new papakaianga, by saying my waka is a Boeing 747.