The wind swings half a compass and lifts.
Now, from over my right shoulder it tapers along the spur, stuttering across wooded flanks to the valley below, almost a mile down as the wind blows, to a brackish, sagging land where dark bush edges spindly-grassed paddocks and a mist lurks low over the flats.
Through the middle a river runs its course, fat and swift, peaty waters chased by the wind westwards to the coast, a day and a half away if the weather holds. Each gust cools my skin, the trees that enclose me hushing to its rhythm.
This is anonymous country, faceless. No need for a name, a history or even a reason for being. Thoughts of my life absorb into the earth like a light rain falling through the forest as it did before dawn, the wildness allowing just enough sense to keep moving. To exist.
This is the ancient forest of the West Coast. Step metres from a faint trail here and all sense of direction is easily lost, sounds swallowed by the denseness of the trees and the cloying undergrowth. A rugged country, one that reminds you time and again of your limits.
I love the toughness of the Coast. The way civilisation has only chiselled a few narrow paths into and through the landscape, and how the elements — the wind, the rain and the ocean — are always trying to claim that land back.
There are few roads here, corridors between settlements and places of recognised beauty.
The Great Coast Road, which leads travellers from Westport south to Greymouth, has been described as one of the top ten coastal drives in the world. And for good reason.
To drive this road at sunset is to watch the day’s last, rasping breath against an ocean that knows only its own energy. Do not be surprised if you have to stop at one of the many viewpoints to take in the dusk, unable to continue your journey until all sense of light has left the horizon.
I have seen sunsets at Santorini in the Greek Islands, sailing the open ocean and from high on mountains in the world’s greatest ranges. And, in my opinion, sunsets on the West Coast trump them all. Maybe it's because this is home, my country, the land an essential part of my body, and the rivers and ocean my lifeblood. Seeing these sights and feeling this way because of it . . . I feel proud to be able to call myself a Kiwi.
And this is also a place where you may see our national bird or at least hear it, screeching in the dark as it goes about its nightly chores. The thick bush here is the Kiwi’s haven, its sanctuary. Long may the land stay that way.
No surprise, then, that most of the activities you can do here are related to the environment. To revel in its brashness and beauty, take any trail you can find. Follow the banks of another river inland towards its source. Walk the coast in either direction, scrambling around the next headland at low tide, and discover for yourself . . .