The first time I became aware of Taupō Swamp was when the Queen came to visit. A platform was erected atop a small grassy knoll beside State Highway One. From here the Queen could stand, her back to the traffic, to admire the sea of flax, and perhaps wave royally across its expanse at commuters on the Kāpiti train line. My parents felt a bit sorry for her – but they were also amused.
A child at the time, I shared their dismissal of the swamp. Wet and inaccessible, wedged between the road and the rails, it seemed like wasteland to me. I thought it would be a matter of time before the road got bigger and it was squeezed into some more useful shape.
When a newer, bigger road was built, part of the old one was integrated into Ara Harakeke, the walking and cycling path that travels alongside the swamp. My partner began to visit it. He’s a gardener, and his job at that time involved planting out thousands of native seedlings along the path, each with its own small circular woollen weed mat. Despite the weed mat he still spent hours ‘hand releasing’ these seedlings, a term we’d chuckle about.
He brought home apples from a rogue tree along the path. He also killed scores of willows, drilling holes into their trunks and pouring in the poison. Not a task he enjoyed, but some pride felt in not having seen one sprout there since. The path is also the viewpoint for arguably his most romantic gesture, which was to plant my initial on a hill face opposite with shrubs whose foliage contrasted with those surrounding. Unfortunately a few of the shrubs died, leaving something more like a backward question mark than an ‘S’. The swamp slowly became a different place to me. The Queen’s viewing platform seemed more imagination than memory.
These days it is truly a shared path. There are the buggy pushers, dog walkers, fellow cyclists and sweaty joggers – all with a friendly nod or smile. But there are also squadrons of goldfinches, blackbirds, and sparrows to escort you. My great grandfather has a good view from Whenua Tapu cemetery and I usually give him a mental wave. The trees my husband planted have grown taller than our children, and they help to buffer the sight if not the sound of the nearby traffic. There is still blackberry, but warm berries are delicious. There is still gorse, but the spiders favour it for nurseries, and its flowers smell so good.
Recently I stopped at a wooden seat along the path. As I dug out my drink bottle my eyes grazed across the nearby information panel and there she was. The Queen! Beside her, the MP Margaret Shields, with a fluffy blonde hairstyle and a shiny pink suit – like some Princess Di impersonator. Behind them, the fabled viewing platform, resembling a backyard deck. She appeared to be facing away from the wetland.
I took a moment to look out at the swamp. It reminded me of a silent green city. Thousands of flax flower spikes, like telephone poles complete with seedpod insulators. I thought about its unseen citizens. The shy birds, the native fish. I gave an experimental royal wave to its subjects. I hoped the Queen got to turn around during her visit and enjoy the view.