Saturday, February 24, 2007

Paraparaumu Beach

One plausible guide to the current distribution of ethnic groups in NZ is the distribution of Maori place names in the country. This is a pretty rough guide, since those names were assigned quite some time ago, when populations may have been quite different from what they are now; and a large Maori or Pacific population does not always constitutute a powerful population, the kind of population that has the clout to decide the official names of town and cities. But general knowledge tells me that people of color are less well-represented in the South than in the North. And when I look down the map of the South Island I see names like Endeavour Inlet, Portage, Mt. Pleasant and Grovetown, with a smattering of names like Taumarina and Hapuku. When I look up the North Island I see names like Te Horo, Paekakariki, Paraparaumu, Waikanae, Waikawa Beach, full of warm vowels and heritage, with a smattering of names like Plimmerton and Gladstone.

Paraparaumo, where I stayed for two nights and a day, certainly has the warm vowels. I do not know about its heritage, but I do know about its beach, which is beautiful, popular and long. The lenght means that, despite the popularity, it is possible to enjoy the beach almost uninterrupted by the sounds of barbequeues and dogs and small children: on a recent sunny Sunday in February I stood on the beach and saw eight or nine seagulls in the vicinity, and they outnumbered the people. The beach has the feel of being hugged by two long arms of land. To the South, there are the hills around Wellington. To the North, there is Kapiti Island, an arm that is severed from the body of land just behind me, but which gives an impression of hugging nonetheless. Kapiti is long and hilly and covered in dark trees, like an enormous upturned canoe that has been left to rot and gather moss. During the day it is green and majestic; during the night it is black and mysterious.

I arrive on Paraparaumu beach on a perfect evening. There are enough clouds over the horizon to kindle the sun into a pink and orange fire; few enough to show the vast tarpaulin of the sky, with its graded, untextured purity and its gaseuous intermingling of blue and yellow, the latter rising up off the horizon in a golden steam. On the horizon there is a long, shallow cloud that looks like a distant mass of land, another New Zealand, and as the light goes it changes from the colour of sand, to wet sand, to charcoal, to black.

I have an evening swim in the Tasman sea. Perhaps because the beach is in the lee of Kapiti Island, or for some other reason, the waves do not rise up and pound into the sand: they move into the beach in layered sheets, and fold into themselves when they run out of steam. The look is that of a wide body in a perpetual state of dressing and undressing: the larger waves froth about like white tutus, the lesser ones have frilly hems and foamy lacework, and a film of translucent underwear slips out from under the skirts at the end of every dressing, preceded by a narrow but pretty hemline; and when this watery undergarment slips back down the beach the undressing has begun, with the skirts and pleats and jostling ribbons drawn back and tucked away, then ironed out and cleaned so they are ready to be donned and tossed about all over again. The underwear (the one with the narrow but pretty hem) leaves behind streaks of dampness in the sand, and along these streaks the sand is reflective, metallic-looking, like wet skin. When you step on these areas of wetness the disturbance spreads out in a disc of bruised sand, which collapses into a footprint when you lift your leg. The movement of water of the sand pushes the sand into corrugations, in much the same way, I suspect, that the wind in the Sahara drives the sand into long wrinkles. In some places the disturbed sand is less like a corrogation and more like a network of plaids, layered and criss-crossed and inter-threaded. When a film of sea comes over these plaided areas of sand, it looks as if the water is seething with eels.

I do not see any driftwood coming in on the waves, but I must have come at the wrong time, because the beach has piles of the stuff. It is smooth as paper and almost as white, and it makes good fires. It gathers at the top of the beach in a long band, white and bony like a ship-wrecked Noah’s Ark and the remains of its cargo.

I drink some bear and say one or two things to one or two people. Talking is not a high priority here, however. It is socially acceptable to stop mid-sentence and look out to the sea and the island and the sky, and those elements are of a kind and quality that usually causes people to fall silent.