Naked in Nuhaka 8: The Cutoff Falls
This is Naked in Nuhaka, a weekly column exploring issues of identity, culture and place in NZ in the 21st Century. Dear readers, I’ve been suffering a bit of a writer’s block, so in the style of such bright young writing luminaries as Steve Braunias I provide this week a short story. Something I wrote back in San Francisco, thinking about where those elusive spiritual portals might be here in Aotearoa. Enjoy.
The Cutoff Falls
by Leo Koziol
It had been a long drive across the fertile green plains and over the Kaiwai Ranges before I began the smooth descent down towards the seaside town of The Mount. The Mount. That's what the locals called it, not wanting to mangle the words of the native tongue that gave the town its full name, Mount Maungaroa, translating literally to Mount-Mount Above the Sea.
I'd long been curious about seeing the Cutoff Falls. My father, who had worked for many years on the trains (until he was laid off by the cutbacks), had told me once that the longest rail tunnel in these islands penetrated through the ranges nearby these falls. We had visited the tunnel's portal, a long time age when I was a boy.
The Cutoff Falls had once been grand. They had a native name, too, now mostly forgotten, like the lost grandeur of this cascade. The falls now, to all sense and purposes, were gone. The river had been diverted through a long tunnel, ending in a powerhouse and turbine, which -- to add insult to injury -- were located right below them.
It was a gray but steamy summer's day, one of those day's you remember mostly for its ordinariness. Commonplace, imperfect. The windows to my car were open wide, the warm, humid breeze blowing steadily through. I knew that the turnoff to the falls was coming up. I remembered missing it on a couple of other occasions; once with my sister, her husband and their youngest son; the traffic too busy to turn back, we had places to go, things to do.
This time, I was alone.
I recognized the hill, a rise coming up to an outcropping of trees where I recalled the turnoff would be. I approached it slowly, the cars behind me impatient, and signaled to turn. Then turned safely. A paved road, but a twisted road that dropped steeply down toward where the falls would be. A canopy of ferns draped over the car as I descended down, a mottled doily pattern of sunlight drifting across the gray road.
As I neared the falls, cars began to pile up on the side of the road. It was a busy summer's day, that odd yet jovial time between Christmas and New Year's. A sizeable crowd was there, out for the day, to see this strange sight, to frolic in the water.
Arriving, I found myself all a sudden driving a road atop an oddly waterless dam. A barrage, against heavy water flow, one could only guess, as there was no large water body behind it. Only a queer massive pile of water smoothed rocks, a trickle of a river, tiny rock pools, a waterless waterfall.
I reversed out, and found a spot to park close to the pathway down. I got out to take a closer look.
Such a site. An amphitheatre before me.
You could tell that there had once been a substantial flow of water over this spot, now reduced to a braided set of thin streams. A once rough and dangerous flow now consisting of small, tepid pools, tearful trails trickling between then. The rock were nobbled, tarnished from age, green from moss. The rocks outsized in scale to everything else; to the mass of the water, to the people clambering over them like ants.
To the right, the higher rocks benched upward like a ruined jumble of theater stalls. Drier looking rocks, rough hewn. People were seated on the rocks and in the many pools of water collecting between them, like an audience waiting for a show.
The stage was the dam itself, its curtain wall with its back to the audience. The orchestra pit below, a pool of water at the bottom of the fall, dark and black and tepid. Young teenage boys were climbing precipitously close to the edge of this pit, the rocks slimy and black; it seemed certain someone would slip. To the top, the river branched outwards as it moved upstream, an island between with a small clump of trees.
I imagined the falls in flow, the water once again splashing and misting these now unobscured rocks. There were signs posted warning of this, the times of high water when the spillway further up was opened, the river sometimes breathing once more.
I clambered down the side of the hill on to the rocks. The path was somewhat muddy, not from any rain but from the dripping wet visitors leaving the falls. At the foot of the hill, I gazed once more out at the scene before me, now a solo member of this audience.
I spotted a pool of water amidst the rocks, and dropped myself into it to cool off. It barely covered my legs, but it was enough to make the difference. I splashed some on my face, my shirt got wet, the water soaking through to the dark green pendant, the taonga, around my neck.
People walked around me oblivious to my joy. Children, adults, most happy and at gentle play at this place. This intriguing place. Something ethereal had seemed to overcome them. I got up and walked toward the island. A dry grass covered the ground, dry and straggly although it was surrounded with so much water. Something not quite right. A well worn pathway led into the trees, and I wandered in.
Reaching the top of the island, some hundred yards or so upstream, the riverbed looked different, less odd. Wide and broad, but with two distinct flows branching out of the remnants of the river further up. A group of kids were playing on the rocks here. Leaping from rock to rock like I recalled doing as a child. Some form of tag or another, I wasn't quite sure, couldn't quite make it out.
I clambered once again over the rocks, this time downstream. Back to the falls, which from this angle seemed even more an amphitheater. The drama of nature unturned.
Back up at the car, I stepped over to the railing and looked down over the edge of the dam wall. There, below, the water was not black; it was green. Bubbling up following its passage through the turbines, there was a river now there. Downstream, it looked quite normal, like a real river; but, as with the Cutoff Falls themselves, something was just not quite right.
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