Into the Underworld


My recent visit to the Ngā Ariki Kaipūtahi pā site and Mangatū River with other Rune Soup premium members

Part 1 – The Gatekeepers

It feels significant that we started our experience in the Pacific Ocean. I only just realised that my hotel for the first couple of nights overlooked the mouth of the Waimata/Taruheru Rivers. Water is the theme of this experience, from source to river to ocean, blood and tears; Water is Life.

The stingrays at Dive Tatapouri have to be some of the most alien creatures I’ve ever encountered. Their shapes, appearance, movement, colour—everything about them is what the unthinking part of my mind considers ‘other’. They carry the endless inscrutable depth and expanse of the entire Pacific Ocean.

They also have names like “Tara”, “Pancake” and “Waffle”.

Interacting with them was like being accosted by curious, slippery and over-enthusiastic couch cushions. I was equal parts nervous, weirded out and enchanted. From their bizarrely adorable little smiley mouths to the instinctive and cultural feelings of avoidance their tail barbs engendered, they are fascinating, strange and beautiful creatures. Feeding them was like having a piece of fish vacuumed out of your fingers while the aforementioned couch cushion tried its best to climb your legs. That close to the surface, they make snuffly cow-like noises when they breathe. That was my biggest shock. How such a familiar, relatable sound could be made by these mysteriously majestic alien creatures. Needless to say, enchantment won out and I could have spent hours standing out in the water in those unflattering green waders until the stingrays got bored and left or pushed me over to try and find any food I was carrying.

Those stingrays were the gateway guardians to a watery underworld I wasn’t prepared for.

Part 2 – The Descent

Ironically accomplished by driving up into the hills—crammed comfortably in a car, enfolded in the scent of fresh herbs, with people I’d just met who turned out to be some of the most beautiful human beings ever. And that description applied to everyone on the retreat—amazingly beautiful human beings; so happy to have met them, so sad I had to leave.

I was not prepared for the singing requirement of the pōwhiri. Singing in front of anyone else is not something I do, let alone in a completely unfamiliar language. I have a just good enough sense of pitch to be able to hear how bad I actually am. But the earnest enthusiasm of our driver/choirmaster quickly had us all singing along, practicing—for which I was very grateful when we arrived.

The pōwhiri itself didn’t match anything that I expected from my pre-arrival preparatory google. Surprise. It was us moving here and there, with the formality of a chess game, in response to the movements of our hosts, accompanied by long speeches in the beautiful Maori language. I didn’t understand either movement or words at the time but I felt like I was a puzzle piece filling the correct shape and place and time. Hovering in the air throughout the entire site is a feeling of something deeper and older and yet-to-be, waiting to be filled in by physical objects.

After passing through the gates and challenges and greeting each other in language and song, we sat down at one of the biggest tables ever to eat. There we introduced ourselves by speaking our names and our ancestry, our blood, and the lands in which that blood now flowed. Now that we were in ceremony, even such a simple thing held meaning enough to catch heart and tears.

I was not at all prepared for such depth of feeling.

Part 3 – The Underworld

Marcus compared the path down to the pā site to entering the Underworld. The site sits on the slope of the hill below the marae and has its own spiritual energy that is utterly disconnected from modern Western concepts of linear time. That sense of underworld energy, of timelessness and of being within cyclical time permeated the entire weekend.

The retreat itself was one big long ceremony that contained smaller ceremonies within it and smaller ceremonies within those as individuals or smaller groups performed their own rituals or actions of meaning. Time became largely meaningless (which I’m sure annoyed Gordon and the other organisers at times), but from where I walked, everything was perfectly arranged and landed in exactly the most impactful way.

I can’t go into everything that we did there. I don’t have the words to do it justice. And I’d probably misquote Gordon’s amazing talks enough to get a justifiably exasperated tweet. But I can tell you that we spent hours poring over what ended up being an absolutely stunning despacho, filled with many prayers and wishes and the greatest of all intentions—right relation.

We went on a short hikoi up the Mangatū River. I should have worn thongs because walking barefoot over those river rocks was incredibly painful. Learning that those beautiful braided river beds should have been deep flowing streams instead of choked with silt made me feel like I was sharing the pain of the river itself.

We visited an old pā site of Marcus’ family that had been flooded and silted up so often from the erosion caused by European farming practices that it had to be abandoned. In less than 30 years, the ground level had risen to the roof eaves of the old broken building. The first thing Marcus did on our arrival was thank us (many of us white people of European descent) for coming to that place—an action of such grace and regal dignity that my heart broke and I descended into a blubbering mess for the rest of that visit. While Marcus spoke of healing, joy and family there, I mourned quietly for what my ancestors had done. In the end we were all healed.

We did intentions and lunar mansion mantras for the flourishing of the pā site, for wealth and for the healing of people and the river.

We received the gift of the children of the Mangatū River—white quartz stones—and blessed them with many sacred waters so that we could seed that magic across the world.

I received a romi romi healing session from Ariana that dragged me down out of my head and poured me back into my body and the earth below my feet. It was an incredibly deep and confronting healing experience.

We sat on the grass under the wide night sky and discussed conspiracy theories, the construction of the moon and ancient stories of the stars.

We made music and sang and told scary stories around a sacred fire, tapping into an ancient space, time, place and practice that was also new and yet-to-be.

We conspired in the latest and darkest hours of the night to make the world a better place.

We slept in the painstakingly constructed traditional buildings of the pā site, in the uttermost peaceful, dream-filled depths of the Underworld.

By the end, walking barefoot and sitting in the dirt on the land was normal. Tears were normal. Conversations of magic and astrology and visions, spirits and dreams were normal. Feeling the hopeful and beautiful future shape of the world was normal.

This retreat was transformative for the soul.

Part 4 – The Return

Before I left home, knowing Marcus’ work with the rivers in New Zealand and at Standing Rock, I walked to the head of a tributary of my local river. I’d seen this tributary soggy but never flowing, because it’s a seasonal stream and I think a lot of the water flow happens in the earth. Also the surrounding suburbs channel a lot of the water runoff away to other places. I was allowed to select a stone to take with me as a gift to the Mangatū River, as long as I brought back the blessings of the waters I received over there.

I found a small piece of white quartz.

I gave this stone to Marcus and Ariana before I left.

When I returned home with the blessings of many waters, I found this:

The same place where I found the stone, which a week before had been dry and dusty, was now flowing with clear water. I’m not taking credit for the ridiculous amount of much-needed rain that the entire east coast of Australia received while I was away, but this is one of those ‘coincidences’ that let you know that magic is happening and that you’re in right relation with the land and more-than-land.

Another sign that I got (which is probably only going to make sense to those of us who heard Gordon’s talk at the retreat that mentioned bees) is when I returned to work and re-noticed the canvas I’d hung up behind my desk 6 months ago of photos I’d taken on holiday the year before:

Do bees work? I don’t anymore, although I still have a job.

I have a job that helps 5 million people … in an office that overlooks a river … that received the blessing of many waters … from a gift I gave to a man … who walked the rivers of an island … after starting to rebuild the pā site of his ancestors … who journeyed there an age ago … from across the Pacific Ocean.


Disclaimer: I’m a white Australian with English, Irish and German ancestry. My knowledge of and contact with Maori history, culture and language is limited to non-existent. I’ve tried my best to be respectful and not screw anything up, and I’m documenting the experience from an outsider’s perspective in a way that should, I hope, convey my respect and wonder. Please let me know in the comments if I stuffed anything up.

Spirit dreams

I drive down a long dirt road through a magical forest of dark twisted trees and sunshine. Butterflies and bees flutter and buzz through the late golden and green light. When I wonder if the road will end, it does and there is a squat castle of stone and glass.

The castle is full of sweet blue smoke. I listen to the wind beating at the walls. It’s night and a lone ship on the ocean shines a bright light into the castle. The smoke becomes a shadowy robed figure who offers me a crystal cup. I drink. It tastes like a mouthful of soy sauce.

I lie on a soft bed and the smoke figure begins to pace and sing. I wonder what I’m doing there and if I’m supposed to do something. The song continues and I feel it in my body. Notes thrill up my legs. Pure excitement and joy builds in my belly, my solar plexus, my heart. It’s like being a kid on Christmas morning but more and better.

I start to shiver and twitch uncontrollably. I’m laughing. I didn’t know the human body was capable of feeling like this. It’s overwhelming and explosive and too much and sublimely perfect. My body rises up off the bed, drawn by the star newborn in my solar plexus.

Every sensation is overwhelming and joyful and perfect. Each one is another distraction, tumbling my awareness on and on. This must be what it’s like for a spirit incarnated into a body for the first time, I think. And that thought is perfection. And so is that one. I spiral in and out, folding and widening over and over again until I am almost at the centre of the universe. I reach for the nature of being but it is so, so intensely joyful that I laugh and the laughter tumbles me back through the sensations, beginning the cycle again.

Just as I am about to joyfully shatter into the endlessness of spirit, the smoke figure appears. She stoops over me. From her lantern spills a rain of sparkling starlight. Each soft silver drop that falls on me lightly presses me back into the bed, quenching the fiery star in my solar plexus, easing the pressure of purest bliss. A brilliant woman of bright white light and lightning tendrils withdraws. I had not seen her there before.

The smoke figure offers me another drink from the same crystal cup. I am nervous and reluctant. It tastes ever so slightly different. I lie on the bed again but now it is hard and scratchy and uncomfortable. The smoke figure sings again but it is grating and annoying. The noise jangles and clangs and I shudder again and again. It feels like my body is trying to get away, piece by piece, organ by organ, bone by bone.

I roll over and over, trying to get comfortable. It is the same bed but not. The ship’s light now glares in the darkness with bright white hate. I am afraid of it and keep to the shadows so it can’t see me.

The smoke figure is making me choke and gasp for air. Its sweetness is gone. A woman made of long, hard spiky green leaves steps forwards. Her thorny tendrils encircle me, cutting me off from everything. I mourn for the loss of bliss. This must be what it’s like for a spirit incarnated into a body for the first time, I think.

Somewhere outside someone is crying. I feel pity for them but irrational hatred for the sound. I wonder why the smoke figure does not help them. But she is standing over me, a red nurse in a red surgical mask, attending the green woman of spikes and thorns.

The red nurse stabs me with her silver scalpel, hundreds of tiny pricks and jabs.

I wake.

This must be what it’s like for a spirit incarnated into a body for the first time, I think.

Balcony gardening and breaking stories

Somewhere along the line I picked up the idea that I couldn’t grow things, that I was the opposite of a green thumb. I repeated it and joked about it and told people stories of the pot plants I’d somehow managed to kill. I forgot about the gardening I did for my parents as a kid—but that was their garden, so the responsibility wasn’t mine. I also forgot about the small section of the side garden that I convinced my parents to let me have. I filled it with succulents and cacti and ferns and pebbles, all laid out in a very careful design. I was so into it for about 3 days before I lost interest. But some of those plants remained there for years until mum redid the landscaping.

When I moved into an apartment by myself I decided to brighten up the bare, glaringly hot balcony with some pot plants. I bought a bunch, put them in big plastic pots and cared for them with dedication and love. But no matter what I did, they wilted and died. I didn’t work out why until I uprooted the dead stems to find soaking wet soil.

Turned out I’d loved them a bit too much.

That was the turning point, though. I pulled out the ones that were still mostly alive, dried out their roots a little and cut off the rotten parts. I invested in better quality terracotta pots and replanted everything. And I monitored carefully just how much I was watering. (So hard to stop because watering is love!)

Three golden cane palms and one Yesterday Today Tomorrow survived. I’m pretty proud of that. I stopped telling myself the story of how I couldn’t grow things. That wasn’t true anymore, if it ever had been.

Last year Gordon White piqued my interest around permaculture and growing your own food. I decided to give growing food a go and see what I could manage in the limited space I had. I went all out. Nothing was off limits and most of what I tried was from seed. I planted tomatoes, carrots, potatoes, lavender, rosemary, sage, mint, lettuce, rocket and even corn.

It wasn’t a perfect success. I got aphids and white mold. Things didn’t get enough water. Some got too much. I underestimated the amount of plant food I’d need to add to the relatively closed systems of the pots and stunted growth. It got too hot as summer came on and a few plants got burned. But I adjusted. I learned a bit more about listening to plants and actually hearing what they needed. I put up shade cloth on the balcony railing (great decision). I bought mini greenhouses which I then had to cover with netting because they got too hot. I bought chicken-wire in the middle of the city and put it up to keep out the possums.

One of the most effective things I did was a regular recitation of the Orphic hymn to Ceres, goddess of agriculture, crops and fertility. Apparently she approved of my little garden because my plants took off, blossoming and fruiting as soon as I started that.

In the end I managed to grow a salad lunch.

After that harvest, the weather and my north-facing balcony got way too hot and humid so most things died. I could have tried harder to save them but I decided it wasn’t a good investment, especially considering that I don’t currently need to grow my own food. The goal of the experiment was to see if I could—to break the false story I’d told about myself—and that was a success.

I actually managed to grow corn on a balcony in the middle of a city.