The examined life

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The unexamind life is not worth living,” wrote Socrates. I’ve always taken this to
mean: slow down and look around you, scan the skies, turn over rocks, “live deep and suck out all the marrow of life” (Thoreau).

New Zealand Geographic tries to examine the things that make this country what it is. Our mirror of pictures and words reflects the ingredients that make up our national identity. It affirms who we are and strengthens a collec­tive memory that can bring some solidity in the midst of turbulent social change.

In this issue, several threads of the national fabric are held up for examination: among them, our wilderness heritage, our rough and ready bach culture and our fascination with ex­treme physical challenge.

As a child, I equated “wilder­ness” with barren, waterless wastes—locusts-and-wild-honey territory. Not the dripping ferns, dancing streams and glimpse-of­grandeur mountain peaks of a place like Fiordland. Now the meaning is changing. Wilderness can be the silty reaches of a mangrove swamp or the micro-community of the forest floor. A walking track like the Route-burn, though it bears the marks of human modification, is still wilderness par excellence, and overseas visitors beat a path to it.

Inevitably, as pressure of numbers builds up on our premier tracks, the quality of the experience can suffer. How can we have access without excess? In addressing the question of wilderness manage­ment, as Derek Grzelewski does in his consideration of the Routeburn Track, we should remind ourselves of the benison that wilderness is to the human soul. “There is some­thing purifying about walking through a wilderness,” wrote Paul Theroux after experiencing the Routeburn. “To see a land in the state in which it has existed since it rose from the waters and let slip its ice, a land untouched, unchanged, its only alteration a footpath so narrow  your elbows are forever brushing against ferns and old boughs, is greatly reassuring to the spirit.”

Nigel Cox’s musings on the Kiwi contribution to world architecture will send pangs of recognition and post-summer longing into the hearts of readers who have experi­enced the rustic charms of sagging Pinex ceilings and unpainted fibrolite, long drops and rusty water tanks, crockery discards and the smell of borer bomb. Not

Where the magazine goes, there go I . . .

everyone regards the annual abandonment of city comforts as a thing to look forward to; perhaps only those of us who imagine we’re closet Crusoes—castaways ma­rooned on an urban island. But baching is something distinctly New Zealand, and to allow this part of our culture to be simply tar-sealed, microwaved and otherwise modernised into oblivion would be a small tragedy.

This year, with several hundred others, I lined up on Kumara beach in the salty West Coast freshness of a February dawn—half bemused to be there at all, half excited at the challenge that lay ahead—and waited for the start of the 13th Coast to Coast endurance race. There are easier ways to increase the endorphin flow to the brain, but few where you get such admiring looks from colleagues when you casually mention what you did last summer.

Such an intense event leaves strong memories. One of the clearest is riding the first cycle leg from Kumara. A big group of us-50 or more, I suppose (you can’t tell, because you never look behind you)—were riding in a tight bunch. Tight like mol­ecules locked in a lattice, and where concentration, exertion and fear mingle in a heady cocktail. We would hit a small rise and half of us would be off our seats, pumping to maintain position, manoeuvring to keep our capsule of safe space intact. Down the other side, voices would shout “Keep pedalling! Keep pedalling! Don’t touch the brakes! Don’t touch the brakes!” The speed would increase, gears would click and graunch up a cog, the molecu­lar packing would seem impossibly tight.

Then, somewhere to my left, a shout of panic and a sicken­ing rending of metal. You can’t stop, you’re packed too close, but behind you you know that a tangle of bodies and bikes are lying on the road.

Friends of mine who’d come to Kumara to lend support picked up the pieces and told me later that of the six who had gone down, all got back on their bikes and continued. One female competitor was so bruised and sore that helpers had to slide her bike between her legs while she lay on her side, then lift her and the bike upright and push her off. They ran beside her for a while to make sure she was all right.

Mad to continue? Mad to begin? I don’t think so. Just part of the mystique and magic (okay, and a pinch of masochism) of this event, and part of the New Zealand essence.

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