Waikaremoana: a place apart.
Glynn Cardy takes time out.
Slowing down in the back of beyond
It was two and a half hours of winding road leading deeper and deeper into the dark green. The road, little more a one-lane muddy track, was surrounded by beautiful bush. Around one corner would be a waterfall, around another a rock fall, around another would be wandering livestock: cows, horses or even pigs. The animals were feeding on the kerbside grass – there was little other.
At one point we slowed and waited for a grader to finish removing rubble. The signs told us the roadworks were now behind us and that we could again travel at 100km per hour. A smile formed. The average travelling speed on this track was about 40km.
Two and half hours is about the time I need to begin slowing down. That’s why every year I leave the road to Murupara behind, head for Ruatahuna, and then eventually arrive at Lake Waikaremoana. It is impossible to travel fast in Tuhoe country.
There is a bridge being repaired this year. The road is closed between 9am and 3pm. There are no alternative routes or bypasses. It would take you more than 6 hours to drive around. Instead you have to sit and wait. We were lucky, however, planks of wood enabled us to get on the bridge and pure luck enabled us to avoid the jutting spikes of steel. The Ureweras are never boring.
I come here to walk for four days around the lake, and to pray. It is my ‘retreat’. There is no power here, and no computers. For three of the four nights there is no cellphone coverage either. My usual tools of work can’t operate here. Neither am I accessible here. Everything has to wait. Waiting and praying are intimately connected.
‘Retreat’ is a religious term describing a time of withdrawal from normal life in order to listen and pray. Most retreats are communal affairs at pleasant locations with catered meals and a retreat conductor to guide the participants through structured days of reflection. I’ve been on a few and they’re enjoyable.
However, I get bored with the conductors’ little talks and conservative liturgies, spend time thinking about work or doing it, read quite a lot, and inevitably find some like-minded souls to share a whisky bottle with into the wee hours. As I said they’re enjoyable, but not really about listening and praying. Probably the most important thing about praying is knowing yourself, particularly your avoidance behaviours.
I know that I need to be physically active to take my mind off myself. Prayer needs to be more than in the head. I know that I need a little conversation each day. Extroverts shouldn’t force themselves into being hermits. I know that reading books doesn’t help me have immediacy with God. Books can distract from listening. I know that the Jungian Myers Briggs E’s and T’s stuff tells me that growth comes in my ‘shadow’. Or, put more simply, the unfamiliar God might meet me when I put aside some of my comforts. Retreat prayer is about making oneself vulnerable.
It was quite a discomfort to submit myself to dehydrated food for four days. At least the packet said it was ‘food’. The real hardship of course was instant coffee. Joking aside, part of retreat prayer is practising gratitude. Each morning, each meal, and each moment I expressed and felt grateful for all the blessings of life and God. The simple is sufficient.
This year it rained. Well, actually, nearly every second day every year it rains in the Ureweras. The track becomes a stream, bridges submerge, and mud overflows. You have to be slightly mad to enjoy it. This year as I waded through a stream I saw a beautiful big trout giving me the once over. A couple of years back I had a similar experience with a deer.
Daily the rich damp smell of Tawa, Kahikatea, Matai, and Miro embraced my senses. The Ureweras offer my soul reconnection between Tane’s brood and the downtown concrete of my normal life. In the connection is sustenance and strength.
The relationship with time is indicative of a relationship with all life. The god Maui lassoed the sun in order to have more time for work. Joshua asked his god to do the same so that he would have more time to kill. Of course, neither was successful, thank God. The sun offers a rhythm to life and part of a healthy spirituality is matching one’s heart with its tempo.
In April the Waikaremoana dawn breaks at 6.30 and the dusk envelops at 5.30. Most trampers are asleep by 7, and 11 hours later get up. It is a strange feeling to let your body have whatever rest it wants rather than using your usual 7 hours sleep as a refuelling exercise. Even being woken in the night by undulating snores is not an anxiety-producing occurrence but an opportunity to be still and grateful for the peculiarities of our existence.
The bridge is open on the way out. The road is slow. As we move from the mud back onto the tar seal the car, like our lives, speeds up. The text messages start coming, as do the comforts of real coffee and food. Yet the silence and sustenance of the retreat continues to work its magic long past the place and days of Waikaremoana.
Glynn Cardy is Vicar of St Matthew’s in the City, Auckland.
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