The dramatic landscape of New Zealand forms the backdrop to a writer’s quest to uncover the story of her family.
This story was selected as a finalist in the Reunions travel writing competition.
There’s a road, asphalt so black it looks like it’s just been raining, and the sun glares through the subtropical scrub of the cutting and makes us squint against the windshield as we crest the hill to finally see the sea. We’ve driven for generations, sometimes under a dirty midnight sky bearing down on an alpine desert road and simmering mountains, two degrees above freezing, ten minutes out of the truck stop and five hundred miles south of here, and sometimes we drive in the sun. An orange dawn crept over the Waikato countryside as our last day on the road began, and we descended through the night from the volcanic plateau, two-thousand feet down, a straight line cutting towards the tip of a long, thin map. We reach the coast at nine in the morning. When they affixed the solar panels to the lighthouse at the cape and tilted them up, they pointed them due north.
This country is windswept, even when it’s hot, even in the height of summer in the caves under the waterfall at Te Reinga where Hinekorako the taniwha exiled herself to watch over her descendants; the wind reminds us that we’re out here alone with nothing to break its course. When it stops, the crunch of snow underfoot or silent seep of melting January pavement is disquieting: an entire country holding its breath, waiting for the wind to return. It’s blown people to these shores for over five hundred years. Shetland Islanders sailed straight for the far south where the wind is as terrible as that they left in Lerwick, and at the very bottom, a jagged dandelion of yellow road signs indicates the distance of the tremendous journey back. An identical sign sits at the very top of the islands, under the lighthouse at the cape. Eighteen thousand kilometers to London, it says, but London isn’t always where Pākehā journeys started. There are migrations that began six degrees below the Arctic Circle.
I met my uncle for the first time seven hundred miles ago in between the vines and plains of Marlborough and asked him, where are we from? This is the migrant new world preoccupation. Who are we? Their surname is Jones, and with only that as a barometer, I had sided with Wales over Ireland in rugby games since the Five Nations became the Six. My uncle, lifelong a rugby man, is amused.
“We’ve tried,” he said. “Searched everything we could find. We hit dead ends every time. He just appeared in the South Island and bought the pub in Central Otago in the early twentieth century. Your grandfather was born a few years later. There’s nothing before that. He was thin air.”
There’s a glint in his eye, as there is in my father’s and in my son’s and, someone will tell me, in mine. I’m not going to be surprised now. I get it. I understand the preoccupation: for some of us, the knowledge of who came before us makes sense of who we are now. How we’re raised doesn’t evolve in isolation, and we appeared out of the sea on the west coast with nothing but a name. Who are you?
“We think he came from Tasmania,” my uncle said. “He was most likely a convict.”
I look up convict stories from Tasmania: the brutal, freezing horror inflicted on Britons who’d been banished for anything from stealing shoes to murder. I read about the people who escaped, how they died at each other’s hands or, regularly, at the whims and blind dispassion of the Southern Ocean, the Pacific, or, if they got a little further, the Tasman Sea. I consider the dandelions of road signs at each end of my country and wonder if convict Tasmania was even more windswept than anything here. I decide to drive from Cape Reinga to Bluff in reverse.
My mother: “That was never his real name, not in a thousand years.”
He made landfall somewhere on an abandoned coast after a treacherous journey across the Tasman and called himself David Jones. His son called my father David, too.
I learned to swim before I turned three, and the shock of salt in my nose and seaweed between my toes on the first plunge into Onetangi Bay at Christmas washes away yellow Berkshire July heatwaves, autumn storms, filthy and reckless holiday drinks on the streets of London, and twenty-four hours in the care of Air New Zealand. We left my uncle and crossed the Strait on the ferry to Wellington, hitting squall on the exit from the Queen Charlotte Sound, and I was laughing, and for the first time in my life I wasn’t seasick.
My father, his childhood family broken and scattered by the strife and confusion of a migrant first generation, grew up in the mountains and later in Te Reinga with the taniwha under her waterfall. In a fit of futility, his mother banished the Jones surname and moved him as far away from the coast as she could, halfway up the volcano we passed at midnight, but no deed poll could wash the taste of brine from our mouths or comb the whipped wind from our hair. I left as fast as I could on the hunt for whatever else was out there, a 747 to Tokyo, but it was never an actual conviction. It was never an exile.
You can’t drive all the way from the bottom of a country to the top without feeling like the journey is at an end, but the cape offers no opinion on where I go next. Where the sea breaks and merges off the rocks at the head and the unflinching emptiness of the Pacific begins, they’ll tell you you’re still sitting at the bottom of the world, but history was written by those who fancy themselves to be at the top. Māori believe the cliffs on the coast and the islands beyond are where souls go before they leave for the afterlife, but after all these miles, it seems a shame not to stay.