Without a camera, you have to rely on memory. The white arc of the waterfall, the clamour of kids on the rocks below, a massive tree trunk – flung to the earth during a raging storm – now a bridge for slippery bodies to climb on and rest. Every so often, a rope swing flies out from the bush with a squeal and lets loose a human canon.
This is Maraetōtara, the kind of place only locals know about. The kind of place that five star resorts in exotic locations are based on. Maraetōtara laughs at five star resorts. She eats them for breakfast.
All around us the birds sing and cicadas buzz. Little wings thrumming fuckmefuckmefuckme. Ahhh, the quintessential sound of summer. Can’t capture that with a photo.
A few miles away the beautiful Tukituki is ill, choked with toxic algae and crying for a reprieve from the surrounding farm waste. Warning signs all over this region caution the over-eager: “Kia tūpato! This water is contaminated. Avoid contact with water!”
But Maraetōtara, for now, is spared. I lean over and look into her deep green pools. It makes me think of poor Tūtāmure, who, upon seeing his own reflection at the water’s edge, realised with all the force of a punch to the gut that he was, for want of a better word, fugly. Ka aroha, Tūtāmure. He knew that his younger half-brother, Tamatai-pūnoa, all ripped and handsome, would get the girl. That’s Kahungunu history: Māori story-telling at its best.
On a slick rock I find my balance, get low, wait my turn. A boy, more like a seal, really, hands me the rope. I shake my head. “You go.”
“But it’s your turn.”
“Awww come on! Don’t be a chicken!”
I grab the rope, feel its wetness. “How do you know when to let go?”
The boy shrugged. “You just do. If you don’t, you slam into the rock.”
10 year old logic. You can’t fault it.
I count to three in my head, close my eyes, take a deep breath… and hand back the rope. “I’m sorry,” I say. “I’m not good at letting go,”
“Whatever,” the boy says, and disappears below me hollering like Tarzan.
I wend my way back through the wet bodies, the juvenile version of the walk of shame. From a much lower, much safer vantage point, I fling myself into the water. The cold slams into me like a block of concrete, sucks the air from my lungs. But it’s good. I know I am alive.
Later, hobbling through the shallows by the dark undergrowth, a man lifts his eye-brows at me and says “ better watch out, there’s eels in there,” then roars with laughter as I rush, bent over, stabbing my feet on jagged stones.
And I think: bet they don’t have eels in five-star resorts.