A restless person’s guide to a walking meditation

 I practice yoga, I’ve meditated. But no matter, a vicarious enjoyment of other people’s travels and lives, laced with envy and a touch of masochism, works its way under my skin. I am constantly distracted from the ‘here and now’ by the temptation of other places. As I write, there are landscapes, both natural and urban, that demand me to be in them. I should be squatting – buttocks skimming the dirt of the Mongolian savanna – savouring a mutton dumpling, eaten outside a yurt. Or catching a drip of cream cheese off my chin from the bagel and lox bought from the Jewish bakery, just round the corner from my Brooklyn brownstone. Okay, so you get the idea. I live in my head. A lot. Some people might call me a fantasist.

Paekākāriki is a beautiful place. Everyone says so. But sometimes a strip of biscuity sand, a glimpse of the blue/grey folds of the South Island on a good day, and the deep green geometry of Kāpiti island, isn’t enough. It feels like window-dressing. Or a warm bath that is seductive to lie in, but all the more invigorating to step out of. Life is being lived more dramatically, more meaningfully, somewhere else.

My recommendation to get rid of such half-glass feelings (presuming there are others who might occasionally feel this way) is to get walking; try a walking meditation even *. Honestly, it works every time. Well, almost. The beauty of it is, you can multi-task. Day-dream if you want. Or plan a ten-page outline for your next novel, re-work your CV. Anything. It doesn’t matter because, before long, the honk of a pheasant, the trilling of tuis, the heavy honeyed scent of lupins and the steady drumming of cicadas, will pull you back. And you’ll be okay with that, because actually, it’s pretty damn good.

There are a number of different routes to take, but one of my favourites is the Inland-track, which begins at the southern end of Queen Elizabeth Park and takes you to Mackay’s Crossing. If you live in Paekākāriki, as I do, you can start by simply walking out your front door. If visiting from other places, or you can’t be bothered walking the length of Paekākāriki, drive directly into the Park via Wellington Road. There is a clearing, just after you’ve driven over the blue and white bridge with art nouveau lettering welcoming your arrival – the shaggy tips of toe toe, ponga tree ferns and tī kouka just visible from the banks of the stream below – where you can park your car. Picnic tables sit under shady trees and if you’re lucky the pohutakawa will be in blossom. Phoenix palms line the lane to your right, that takes you past the toilet block to a turning bay.

To get to the beginning of the track follow the sealed road northwards, walk up a gentle incline (watch out for cars coming towards you on the one-way road). An avenue of mature trees leads you onwards; once, the branches of these trees leaned across the road to gently touch one another, but now they have been judiciously pruned. Somewhat of a tunnel remains, but not like it was. I know there are good, safety-minded reasons for this, but I can’t help feeling a little bit of magic has been lost.

I digress. Keep walking up the hill, until a teal sign on your right (teal being the colour of choice, it seems, for all the park signs) inviting walkers, cyclists and dogs to take the Inland Track to Mackay’s crossing at an estimated 30 minutes. It’s unlikely to take this long, unless of course, you pause a while in one of the several strategically placed seats, found along the route.

Once you’re on the Inland Track proper, you wind along a broad ridge that to the west, looks toward the Tasman Sea and Kapiti Island. Look to the south and you’ll see the elegant, trailing fingers of Te Wai Pounamu. If you’re lucky, the snow-tipped bulk of the Southern Alps will show itself; the landscape tapering off to the dots and dashes of the Marlborough Sounds. In between you and the sea are rolling sand dunes, covered in harakeke, ferns and manuka. You will also glimpse the Coastal Track that periodically has to be re-routed as high tides and storms gouge out chunks of the landscape. To the east are remnants of farmland, gorse and wilding pines. Look past the grazing cows and towards the old highway north and you’ll see a lego-land of matchbox cars and toy trains. Southeast reveals the ugly gouge of Transmission Gully; heavy machinery at work, seemingly day and night.

My preference, not surprisingly, is to look north and west. Or to not even bother with views. I like trees, you see. Certain shrubs too. I think it’s genetic. My father was obsessed with trees. Mainly natives. On family holidays he would swerve our car onto a dusty verge, bringing us to a violent halt. He exited the driver’s seat after leaning over my mother to grab binoculars and the mini guide to New Zealand trees, kept in the glove-box for just such occasions. In the back seat my siblings and I squabbled in the heat and nagged Mum to give us a barley sugar to suck on, while we waited glumly for Dad to identify the tree.

My own liking for trees is less taxonomical. More companionable. I like to find out the names of trees, don’t get me wrong. But I’m not fussed on the Latin names; common or garden names are fine, indigenous preferable. And in the interests of full disclosure, my knowledge of trees or plants is that of an enthusiastic amateur, at best. There are many beautiful trees in Queen Elizabeth Park that remain a mystery to me, I have no knowledge of their particular properties, or whether they are of this place, or introduced.

I know the trees I like to hang out with though. Manuka always raise my spirits, and don’t seem to mind if you crush a few of their leaves between your fingers so that you can periodically inhale their heavenly scent, as you walk. Eucalypts are another favourite; they too offer sensory delight with their cleansing minty tang. Did you know this smell is caused by VOCs (volatile organic compounds), to ward off insects and warn other trees of danger? I also love the way eucalypts shake and shimmy with every passing breeze. Introduced I know, but we can forgive them that; they are certainly far more appealing than stiff, unyielding pines. Especially the wilding pines, which squat like bats on the landscape, casting shadows under their wings.

There is something heroic in the line of Norfolk Island pines at the southern end of the Park. They remind you that you’re nearly home and seem to offer up, should you need it, some kind of protection. A barrier to intruders perhaps, much like the palisade of a pa. A little local knowledge will tell you that there were several pa in the area, not so long ago.

Local knowledge will also tell you that as you turn your head to look north again, from your high vantage point, you’re looking at what was once a network of inland waterways, that disappeared after as massive earthquake in 1855. Maori used to travel along these waterways by waka to get from one seasonal settlement to the next. Local iwi may have paused occasionally to cast a wary eye over at Kāpiti Island to check if there were any signs of a taua, making its way across to the mainland. Te Rauparaha claimed the island as his military and trading base, once he’d moved south from Kawhia. Later still, Europeans claimed the beach as a route for their horse-drawn coaches to make their way from Paekākāriki to Foxton. It can’t have been very comfortable and accidents were all too common.

Your own journey across this landscape will take you gently, up and down the spine of the dunes, the only likely collision being one with a mountain bike rider. And even this is extremely unlikely as you will have spotted their bright lycra-clad forms from a distance, and they’re generally pretty skilled at avoiding walkers.

Barely 20 minutes (30 at the outside) since you began, you will arrive at Mackay’s Crossing where you will pause to consider your options. Carry on via one of the other tracks to Raumati South where cafes offer beer, coffee and other life-sustaining substances… make your way down to the beach and return to Paekākāriki that way…take the Coastal Track for your return journey… or even go back the way you came so that you can scowl at the wilding pines and gorse, hang out with the manuka and eucalypts, and, of course, day-dream.

One last thing, if you really would like to try this walking meditation thing, here’s a quick ‘how-to’, courtesy of ‘The Beginner’s Guide to Walking Meditation’ by Matt Valentine. My favourite is Step 6: Become the tree!

Walking in Nature

  1. Discover the path. To practice the walk of life walking meditation, find a nice quiet place to walk, preferably in nature.
  2. Connect with the Earth. It’s also preferable that you take your shoes off and walk barefoot so that you can feel the Earth beneath your feet.
  3. Walk the path. Simply begin breathing mindfully. Once you’ve taken a few breaths, begin walking. Walk relatively slowly.
  4. Walk mindfully. Continue to walk and breathe naturally, don’t force a certain pace. Your focus during this meditation is the raising, swinging, and placing down of each individual foot. Be mindful as your left foot raises, swings, and lowers. Then, once your left foot has been placed down on the ground, be mindful of your right foot being lifted, swung, and lowered as well.
  5. Breathe the walking. Walk the breathing. Try to match your steps with your breath to create a sense of unity within your entire being.
  6. Become the tree. Take a moment from time to time to stop and imagine your feet extending down into the Earth, like the roots of a great and immovable tree.