You stand there, three hours from home, high up on the pass over the ranges, a gravel rest-a-while overlooking big vistas of hills and the far away blues of sea and sky. A slow wind passes almost imperceptibly through the surrounding forest, moving through the dark trunks of trees like an unseen hand trailing softly across the undercanopy of ferns, gently caressing as it passes. This is not a wind moving through a forest but the forest itself sighing. It is living, breathing, whispering and every part of it is eloquent with the softest chittering of leaves, the rustling fronds of ferns and the obsequies of tiny nodding flowers. You huddle in your thin coat, climb back into your car and amble down the switchbacks and steep turns of the mountain road towards familiar things, now into the village of Miranda, a cluster of cottages where rough and lonely farmhands shuffle cards at kitchen tables and dream of the Saturday night dance.
A small group of us, members of the Auckland Sri Chinmoy Centre, were away on an adventurous sojourn, a sunny weekend in a tiny village on the east coast of the Coromandel Peninsula. Here lots of small unpopulated golden beaches, clear, cool turquoise seas, spectacular limestone arches and sea caves inviting exploration. Once you've forced yourself, grimacing and yelping, into the cold ocean – a few tourists stare in disbelief – you can swim around headlands of green sea and wade ashore into cool dark grottos tunneled by an eternity of waves. Inside, the absolute silence of a yogi's cave, eerily silent. You could meditation here through a cycle of tides if the weather behaved – but it might not, and that would be the end of you, your mahasamadhi.
Just the drive over here is a joy. You meander across rich brown furrowed fields and market gardens of the Bombay Hills, the food basket of Auckland, then south into green pasturelands. Cows, knee deep in yellow buttercups and spring verdure, graze and dream, eyes dopey with contentment – everywhere meadows bursting upwards, the jubilation of spring. The local council has scattered the seeds of wildflowers all along the highway, exploding from the spring loam as a sea of nodding heads and multi-colored fragrant blooms, peonies, poppies, violets, marigolds, salvation jane, gratuitously splendid. Other flowers too, faded garlands draped on occasional white crosses marking sad places where motorists have erred and died.
Crossing now the flat dairy farmlands of the Hauraki Plains – far away the clear, strange Lord of the Rings silhouettes of the Coromandel Ranges loom with their volcanic spires and high truncated tablelands. We cross the Thames River, a single carriageway across six hundred metres of brown water, mangroves either side. Captain James Cook, dauntless adventurer, first sailed up here in 1769, inching under half-sail up a wide blue uncharted river, the bowsman calling the depth. Then it was a wilderness of virgin forest bubbling with daylong birdsong, mystery – and occasional encounters with the Maori people who lived on the river. These staring in disbelief at the great white sails, only later comprehending that the old world of Europe and a new age of land wars, white colonization and exploitation had finally reached this secluded last outpost. Everything was about to change.
The Maori people often welcomed visitors with a haka, a fierce martial challenge – the intention of visitors was gauged by their response. Unaware of these protocols, early white arrivals often misunderstood the haka as an act of aggression and blazed away with their muskets and ship's cannon. So the enmity began.
Across to Coromandel now – Budhsamudra has put on an Elgar piece, a dramatic cello concerto. Lounging contentedly in the passenger seat while mountains slide by, climbing now up and up through narrow cuttings of red rock, hairpin bends, mist sitting over the hills, scarred landscapes recovering from the wholesale massacre of the once regal rainforests. Then down the other side of the range to the eastern Coromandel, a first glimpse of sparkling sea.
In the lowland valleys huge pillars of limestone rear up out of the earth, columns of weathered grey rock like defiant fists – or perhaps more a farewell valediction since so much of beauty has been lost here. On distant mountain escarpments great blocks have broken free, disintegrating as they tumbled down and forming slopes of giant shattered talus.
Alone in a meadow three towering columns of granite, all leaning east as though in flight, catch your eye – they resemble fleeing invaders lurching back to the sea after some mythological battle, now frozen mute and turned to stone by some fatal curse. I name them 'the three warriors' and my companions nod in silent assent. Elgar adds atmosphere – stranded for all eternity in an open plain, the proud forsaken warriors tower over the landscapes, cast arcane shadows of chill. Around them wind and light play in the long empty fields of tall silken grasses, a beautiful liquid flowing, sparkle and glisten in the moving waters of the Tairua River. It's a gorgeous place, your heart sings and you look and look and feast on all the beauty.
At a local gas station I make friends with Reg, short for Reginald, who serves petrol and pick-me-ups to travel jaded motorists. He's just married for the third time – "third time lucky, eh?" he winks – and tells me about a whirlwind romance "I told her straight up I'd bad teeth, hair frightened of the comb it was coming out so fast, behind on the mortgage and short on charm – but she just looks at me quietly and says, 'you'll do Reginald' – what a woman, eh?" and nudges me conspiratorially.
We arrive mid-morning and talk turns to food. I prepare my traditional, even notorious, oatmeal gruel – a madly healthy concoction whose secret ingredients are shrouded in the mystery of a fraudulent Scottish ancestry. The butt of incessant jokes, half a bowl of the gruel is left over and someone jokes about using it for building mortar. I pounce and tickle in retribution. Gruel-powered we run or walk for an hour up into the nearby mountains, a leafy forested trail that takes us at last to a two tiered waterfall, river plummeting down seventy-five metres into a deep, super-cold pool – into which of course we goad each other, plunging, shrieking the banshee wail of madmen into the rocky depths.
More post-lunch games, then an evening of singing and a long, long meditation, so easy in the newness of a new place and the rural silence. I wake at 3am, summoned by an owl calling – Ruru the message bringer; stars blaze, the seas cadences are clear sibilant hisses of water on sandy shores. Sitting on a porch deckchair, watching the night unfolding, you feel closer to something eternal, perhaps a tiny intimation of the sat-chit-ananda of the old scriptures. Alone in a universe of stars, cradled by a blatant eternity, your human 'I', the cloaks and personas, are falling away in this in-between world, the Self unmasked, selves dissolving, the thin veil that separates life from eternal Life, being from Being parting – might I please have even a tiny glimpse of the existence-consciousness-bliss spoken of by the sages?
Returning next day, we pass the three warriors – from this side a white cross can be seen, painted by a zealot on the middle granite column. Yes, the symbolism is appropriate, the three crosses of Calgary, a further dimension to tug the mind. Crucifixion too of landscapes betrayed by greed, the remnant rainforests driven back into gullies and unmerchantable steep hillsides, understorey chewed out by cattle and doomed; and the cancerous man-forests, pines, creeping down to the road edge – birdless, sterile and a scene of utter devastation once logged, testimony to the white man's utter insensitivity towards Earth or the living spirit of landscape.
Aloof in their altitude and inviolable grandeur the ramparts of the distant mountains blaze gold in the evening sun – the three warriors also catch the sun and glow with the same light. Were they stranded there by daylight, a raiding party from some barbaric underworld lost in a sudden dawn, or defectors from the mountain fortresses seeking refuge on the coast? They seem linked by sunlight to the faraway mountains but we cannot decide and the granite features will not soften or speak as we pass.
Local things of the human world catch your eye – roadside signs offer honey; fresh farm eggs, very cheap; firewood from storm sundered macrocarpas; pottery; and jewelry crafted by the rough brown hands of local artisans, malacite and jade hewn from the local hills and creeks.
The sun falls and the sky turns to apricot – evening lends itself to contemplation. I am remembering someone's comments about 'divine amnesia' – forgetful we are of our true selves. And Sri Chinmoy saying 'unconscious realisation of God you already have – now you have to realise God consciously'. Are moments such as these, sinking back into a car seat on an unhurried journey somewhere, thoughts dissolving into a mellow evening sky, are such moments close to this understanding that we are forgetful God's, our true selves and divine nature smothered in the assumption of an all-absorbing humanness. I have seen this rediscovery, an epiphany, in the dying of people I know, something extraordinary left after the humanness has gone, in my father's withdrawal into a last and utterly surprising nobility, the death mask a Bodhisattva's face, in my mother's strange dying smile, and others known and lost, consciousness draining out of the eyes but something left, the last impression of a Self after the selves have gone, a final imprint or signature of the soul's splendor.
Wondering to myself, is this all just a dreaming, nothing really out there that is not a play of consciousness, an imagining – that pale quarter moon over the graying hills, is it really there without me? Am I witnessing only the play of my mind, as real and as unreal as a movie – will it end like that, a flack-flacker of transparent film? I don't know – best to leave such conundrums to God.
Back into the convoy of cars at last, the motorway into Auckland clogged with weekenders returning to urban lives and the quotidian stream. A child, nose flattened against a window, makes a gargoyle's face from a passing car – I poke out my tongue, waggle my ears, eyes bulge. The mother sees me and laughs – another bored child materialises and now two excited faces are peering, pointing, creating masks of putty flesh as they pass. I make a face at Budhsamudra and we all laugh – we will be back in our usual beds by midnight.