Sophia Chamberlain (2010)

[Photograph: Jack Ross]

Bloody Sky

This is my story,
A unique travel story.
A story I will never forget,
A story that changed my life forever.
A story of courage,
Will power, a fight for survival.
A story of love, hope,
Family and friends.
A story of life.
The circle of life.
A journey of emotions.
This is my story.

It is the Easter school holidays. If I had my own way I would happily spend the holidays tucked away on a desert island until the kids go back to school, yet my ten-year old son Conor has other ideas.

Conor is quite predictable come the long awaited (for him anyway) school holidays. By week two it is a constant drone of “I’m bored, I’m bored”. As much as I love him he is beginning to sound like a stuck record.

“What oh what would his majesty like to do then?”, I am now beginning to lose my patience after the hundredth time of “I’m bored”.

“What about ...” he murmurs for a few seconds, “... well ...”

“Well what?” I snap.

“Forget it! I was only going to ask if we could go over to Rangi just like you promise every school holidays”, he slams the door as he walks out.

He was right. I always make these promises only to make up some excuse.

Since arriving in New Zealand eight years ago I have promised a trip over to Rangitoto Island at least once every year. Yet each year comes and goes. Rangitoto, which means “bloody sky” in Te Reo Māori, towers above the entrance way into Auckland's Waitematā Harbour like a sleeping giant.

Rangitoto, one of New Zealand's volcanoes and an iconic Auckland landmark, can be seen by most places along Auckland’s eastern shore lines. All that separates the land and volcano is the small patch of wishy-washy sea. Rangitoto is a spectacular view from afar, a picture painted perfect. In the summer it glistens under the sun like a treasure cove ready to be explored. In the winter the clouds hang low blocking the summit of the volcano from view of distant onlookers. So it is no wonder that almost every café and restaurant on the shore has its own style of “Rangi” artwork on display.

“Fancy a trip to Rangi?” Conor’s eyes rolled back and he raised his eyebrows. He did not seem too convinced that I was serious this time.

“I’ll show him” I muttered to myself. I pulled out my wallet and brushed away the cob webs. Cha-ching. Before I knew it I had booked one adult and one child return, on-line, travelling on Fullers ferries.

“Woo-ooh” I shouted, for I had managed to score some super-saver seats at eighteen bucks an adult and only nine fifty a child. I would have done cartwheels if I was younger for I love a bargain. I winked at Conor who now gleamed from ear to ear. For once I was going to be super mum and make my son proud.

The next day had come far too quickly. The sun was just beginning to peep through the broken blanket of cloud. The sky was a musky pink and orange and only part of the sea in the distance could be made out from the road we drove along.

Arriving at Albany's bus station was a mission impossible. There was very little parking. Sprinting across the deserted side streets Conor ran ahead to flag down the bus for there was only so much running I could do. Breathlessly I asked the driver if he was going into town.

“Town?” He looked us both up and down with our backpacks on. His face gave the ultimate impression that presumes “damn tourists”. Taking us by utter surprise this kind, soft and gentle voice offered us information on the “explorer day ticket for fourteen dollars, which gives exclusive use on all Ritches buses throughout the Auckland district”.

He smiled and I handed over my twenty dollar note, “Thanks anyway but we just need one adult and one child return”, only to get two dollars seventy change. What a rip off! With prices like that and lack of parking facilities there was no wonder every kiwi-man and his dog complains about New Zealand’s public transport service.

Throughout the journey people came and went with their business attires and top notch mechanical devices. Four petite Asian girls, similarly dressed and no older than about sixteen or seventeen, seemed oblivious to everyone else on the bus muttered away about how this girl “last night was sooooo irritating”; with that they simultaneously popped in their ear phones and started listening to their high-tech I-pods. One Caucasian man sat on the row of seats opposite us clutched at his bus ticket, as though he was holding on for dear life as we approached Auckland's harbour bridge, looking anxiously at the world outside.

With only twenty minutes to spare, we arrived at Auckland’s downtown Britomart. Making yet another dash across, this time, an extremely busy side road side stepping groups of pedestrians, dodging buses and cars we headed down towards the wharf to collect our ferry tickets. “Booking number 224308, Chamberlain” I told the lady behind the glass ticket booth

“Right away”.

We took our seats aboard the ferry and waited for departure. Behind us a French couple nattered away to one another while groups of school children hastily fought over who is sitting where. Briefly stopping at Devonport, we watched further passengers embarking on the ferry. Emergency protocols were then given by the captain, “children’s life jackets are kept in the cabin underneath the TV”.

We had amazing views from the top deck. We watched as Auckland's sky tower, city and dock yard became a minute imagine on the horizon behind us. Small kiwi baches dotted along Rangitoto's sea shore were becoming progressively more and more visible to the naked eye. They looked so cute and cosy, a more historical setting than I had first envisaged.

Conor pointed out several flip flops that hung, like leaves, from a tree. Several dinghies were propped up outside the batch that read: Little Coogee. The kiwi sense of humour, very subtle but very clever, made me smile as it always does. As we approached the wharf people were beginning to get anxious for the days trip ahead.

We disembarked from the ferry and headed towards the summit. It felt like a rat race for who could get to the top the fastest. People were stepping on one another trying to make their way across the wharf’s board-walk with their points of interest maps flickering against the cool breeze.

“This way” Conor asserted, and I trod on behind him. A few hundred metres ahead we stumbled across our first signpost: Rangitoto Summit straight on or Kidney Fern Glen left.

“Come on” he said “this way”. We eagerly followed the pathway to the left. The narrow pathways hedged with unusual hybrids led us to ... well to ... to nowhere. We stopped and turned around to see a sign on the back of a tree:

Hidden traps below.
DO NOT approach this site. WATCH CHILDREN at all times”.

We both looked at each other, screeched like two little school girls, and ran all the way back to the main pathway. From here on in we stuck to the main pathway like glue.

The hike was amazing. From a distance Rangitoto looked like a lush haven of vegetation yet the only greenery to the summit were the bushes and native plants that divulged out of the rocky landscape. The black lava rocks gave the feeling of pre-historical times and the climate felt at least a few degrees hotter than the mainland.

Along the way, small walkways led to information points describing the formation of volcanoes and their reason for existence on Earth. Other walkways led to breathtaking views across the harbour, across to Rangitoto's neighbouring island Motutapu, and beyond. The turquoise colour sea looked inviting as though it was merely a stone’s throw away, yet it felt like an eternity.

The walk was intense. It was clearly obvious why a good pair of walking shoes was needed, and a good sense of humour too! A little further on from where we walked two boys jumped out of the bushes, roaring with laughter, scaring their sisters. The girls seemed less than impressed, hands on hips insisting “I am not a sissy” and “piss on poo”.

A couple staggered along like they had already had a few too many. Yet when we looked closer, the elderly woman seemed to be struggling for her breath, yet she bravely continued with the climb. We were only half way there and had already stopped for numerous drink breaks.

At this point we had the option of visiting the lava caves or continuing on to the summit. “Lava caves first” Conor was adamant, he wanted to re-spark the adventure into our trip. Unfortunately for us someone had forgotten to pack the torches. (I knew I should have been born blonde).

Without a torch it made it difficult to see where to place one’s foot, though I successfully made it half way without a torch. Conor managed to be cheeky and followed in close behind some American kids who had remembered their torch.

“Did you see any Wetas?” their mother asked. For someone who has a serious phobia of spiders and crawling insects this was not a question you really want to be asking me, well, unless you are willing to except a hysterical answer of course!

Towards the summit people were becoming tired and restless in the autumn day's heat. Children still ran rampage across the island like they had energy to burn. I wish they had given me just an ounce of that energy to rekindle some of the dying passion I had encountered. Yet, my passion was not the only thing dying on this island. A few metres from the summit groups of people had come to a halt on their intrepid journey. A whole lot of commotion was going on up ahead yet my brain did not react quickly enough until it was too late.

There she was. The elderly lady we had passed further down the pathway who was gasping for breath, unknown to us would later be gasping for her own life. The groups of people who had come to a stop were witnessing the unexpected. As we continued to walk I averted my eyes in her direction to see a pair of lifeless legs to one side of the pathway.

Another lady knelt over to give mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to the elderly women, eager to save her life. On the oter side of the summit, a distant helicopter could be heard. The excited yet worried and confused children stumbled up to the summit behind us to give the Westpac helicopter room to manoeuvre.

“Golly gosh” I heard the weta lady say to her family. They sat down to eat their lunch. Groups of Asians talking very quickly among one another made an instant grab for their cameras, whilst hundreds of bee's hummed around us in protection of their territory.

The propellers of the aircraft made it difficult to see anything at first. Sweeping up dust from the ground, and whirling up small parts of trees and bushes in its pathway, the helicopter became a circling tornado swooping across Rangitoto's summit.

The groups of school children were spellbound. I have never seen so many children standing so memsmerised and silent as they stood and watched the live action unfold before their very eyes. The paramedics were spectacular to watch, bum-shuffling off the edge of the helicopter and abseiling down to the ground in the hopes of saving the elderly woman's life.

Rangitoto had taken us all hostage in anticipation. After a long half an hour down on ground, and not a peep of what was going on, the helicopter was back in full view. There was nothing more that the paramedics could do. It was too late. Is this what heaven looks like?

“Well, life is worth fighting for eh”, Conor seemed touched by the whole scenario.

“Sure is mate, sure is”. I took Conor into my arms and hugged him like I have never hugged him before.

All of a sudden my own life passed me by and I realised what a wonderful world this is. Not only was I at the summit of Rangitoto Island, with the most breathtaking views across Auckland, but I was on top of the world. I felt like I had won the lottery. Not only did I have my health on my side, but my family here in New Zealand with me, as well as meeting some of the most wonderful people of all time right here.

Most importantly I had my best friend, my son, right beside me every step that I had taken. I was the richest person alive. Conor was the strength of my own inner journey, the power of my willingness to fight on and he will continue to be so throughout those steps still yet to be explored.

“Maybe there was a reason we hadn't come to Rangi before” I turn to Conor, “maybe we wasn't ready to see the true meaning of life until now”. With that we hugged one last time.

“Oh mum, do you mind? Cuddling is sooooo uncool” Conor laughed as I tickled him before heading back to the wharf, homeward bound.

My journey to Rangitoto Island, bloody sky, had not only been a new place of interest to visit, a local travel trip, but also a new journey of self-discovery and the true meaning of life. Life is so precious. We cannot give up hope simply because it is such a struggle to get to the top.

Bloody sky what have you done?

You took an innocent life

Yet turned two hearts into one

Blood has been shed

Our lives been fed

Bloody sky what have you done?

© Sophia Chamberlain

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