I wake before dawn and sit on the terrace watching color leach back into the world. I finish yesterday’s posting as the sun flares from behind one of the islands. Dan will bring us breakfast at eight o’clock, so I shower in order to be presentable. Just before he’s due, an email arrives announcing that yesterday’s reservation had been cancelled. What? I had double booked somehow, leaving us with no place to rest our heads tonight. I call the place at nine o’clock (Joss’ phone has a super duper international internet plan for navigation and communication purposes) and explain our predicament to a patient and good-natured woman. “I booked online months ago and I have big stubby fingers, apparently.” “Oh, you’re alright,” she says, “You booked two nights.” Double-double booked. Phew.
During breakfast of fruit, toast, and coffee, I complain bitterly to Joss about the big honking Holden. “But we’ll be going through Auckland again, won’t we?” says she. “Take it back to the airport. Maybe you can exchange it.” Brilliant. The wheels are now in motion to shitcan the wheels. An internet search reveals nothing but inoperative Hertz phone numbers, however, the slipcover of the rental agreement indicates a Hertz location at the Kerikeri airport, maybe a dozen kilometers north. We can do this today.
With plan in hand, we head to the Waitangi Treaty Grounds, New Zealand’s most historic place. In 1840 the Maori signed an agreement with the British recognizing that nation’s sovereignty over the North and South Islands, while guaranteeing the Maori unalienable rights to their land and its treasure as well as full British citizenship. For almost a hundred years the treaty was ignored, but slowly during the 20th century, Maori resistance grew. They held up the Treaty to power, much the same way the barons held King John accountable. The subsequent changes in New Zealand society have been immense.
The grounds consist of a broad grassy plateau that slopes down to the bay. The world’s largest war canoe, 115 feet long, rests under a long shed. Every year on Waitangi Day, February 6th, the canoe slips into the water manned by one hundred rowers. It must be magnificent.
At the crest of the great lawn sits the modest house of James Busby, the British Resident, chief magistrate for the Crown and one of the designers of the Treaty of Waitangi. Chiefs of many Maori tribes attended what was a convention to create a document establishing peace and order. A brand-new museum dramatizes the centuries of conflict and accommodation between the British and Maori before and after the Waitangi Treaty. It is a stirring drama. We leave humbled, as only people who learned an important lesson can be humbled.
The Kerikeri airport is Quonset hut small. That it has the capacity to furnish autos to tourists is remarkable. It seems the rent-a-car counter had just opened for business and it’s 1:30. Two kindly women listen to our story and offer a choice of two alternates to Holden, the Roadhog. We pick the red Ford Focus. Suddenly, the road seems hospitable. I have wiggle room.
Tane Mahuta, the Lord of the Forest, is an enormous Kauri tree, the largest of its kind, a species logged almost to extinction in the early 20th century. I want to see it, the One Tree. Few stands of these giants remain and the Big One looks like it’s a straight shot from the Kerikeri airport. Then all of a sudden, the country road we’ve been traversing dissolves into gravel. And stays that way forever. We motor for at least two hours without seeing another fucking vehicle or even a person. Enigmatic signs alert us to ‘Dust and Children’. The variety of countryside could be mesmerizing to a less skillful driver. Grand vistas of grass-covered hill after hill dotted with cattle and/or sheep pass before us. We duck from pasture into forest primeval, only to turn a sharp corner and confront devastating clear cut. There appears to be a lot going on, yet nothing happening. Maybe because it’s Sunday.
Joss and I maintain a genial, if sporadic, animation for the balance of the journey until, at last, we find our way blocked by a locked gate that prevents us from fording a stream. Stunning reality. Oh yeah, we’re fucking lost. To fully absorb and acknowledge that fact, I get out of the car to photograph the warning sign attached to the gate. As we assess our predicament, what to our wondering eyes should appear but another car. They’re unlocking the gate. They pull up to us. “Are you lost?” “Yeah, we’re looking for this really big tree.” “GPS doesn’t work down here. It can’t get a fix on anything. Go back to State Highway 12, turn left, and maybe fifteen kilometers of squiggles later you’ll see signs.” We are too giddy to be mortified.
Well, hello, Big Guy. You’re a big anticlimatic tree, all right. It took us five hours to get here but, yeah, you fucking rock. Its trunk is a majestic, branchless cylinder, 50 feet around and rising 180 feet.
Back in the car, Joss offers me the ultimate compliment – “You’re a much better driver now.”