Whanganui River 2nd May


I have fallen in love with the great Whanganui river…

I felt so completely held by nature: on a natural watercourse surrounded by dramatic, steep gorge covered in original bush, in a national park: physically and psychically very, very remote from the modern world. At the waters edge, stunning rock formations, and intricate patterns of fallen logs…

Suddenly, after being on the water for half a day, both Rachel and I noticed for the first time, the perfect reflections at the waters edge creating dramatic symmetrical designs out of the natural forms of rock and log…it was like paddling through an infinite gallery of exquisite creation…

It felt so fitting to the environment and the human experience to be travelling through the landscape/waterscape in the modern version of an ancient vessel, and even if the paddle is plastic, paddling is an ancient skill…. sluggish cells seem to wake from a deep hibernation and slowly, slowly remember/learn a rhythm and muscular action that is harmonious and effective. There was such simple joy in this for a mind/body that has never fully adapted to the ways of modern life….
I have never paddled rapids before, another learning curve required to read depth, obscured hazards, and learning the ways of water movement before during and just after a rapid: the need for strong forward momentum (Paddling like the clappers!!) to maintain stability, moving from an abstract rule told us during our “briefing” to something understood in the body.
Huge gratitude to Rachel for coming to share the adventure with me, her warm company, courage, humour and wise reflections were all so valuable during our journey.

And then there remained the long walk down the Whanganui river road: a fascinating and touching encounter with a local kaumatua at Pipiriki, the strong Maori presence generally along the river, passing a Tangi at Rarana, stopping at the marae at Koriniti, with its fantastic carvings and painted designs….
Still zero cell phone reception, held within the gorge that creates its own secluded world, not an eftpos machine to be found anywhere and where about 10 cars an hour pass and at least one out of the ten offer you a lift even when you show no sign of hitching!
There is something wonderful about the “unexpected” place names: Jerusalem (Hiruharama), where I treated myself to a bed and first hot shower for nearly a week in the old convent (now set up as accommodation, but retaining the atmosphere, decor and layout of a convent) after walking for hours in heavy rain. The convent was originally founded by the inimitable French nun Suzanne Aubert, who had a mission for Maoridom and learnt from Maori as much as she missioned, becoming knowledgeable in the local Rongoa, dispensing native plant medicines throughout New Zealand…. And of course there is also London (Rarana)!!
Each view down the road somehow breathes back the two cultures: the dramatic backdrop of bushclad steep slopes in the gorge and everywhere the buttercup yellow of poplar trees in autumn. And the bush increasingly giving way to farmland on the journey southwards…
My wildfoods have changed from the blackberries of early autumn to the walnuts and mushrooms of late autumn. And variety of diet has started to feel more important after how many meals of dahl and rice/ rice vermicelli soup/ dried tomato sauce on rice vermicelli?
And just when I start to feel sorry for myself, grace descends and rekindles this great devotion to life that chases away my petty self-concerns and revitalizes my heart to this miracle of being alive to witness the quiet autumn drama of golden leaves in a slow swirling dance to Papatuanuku when a breeze stirs the branches, and the sad/sweet plaintive honking of paradise ducks.

I was very enthusiastically and generously hosted in Whanganui town by Balance Whanganui, a peer managed and staffed support service.
We began with a beautiful welcome and karakia from Kori Hemi, the local Like Minds Like Mine coordinator.
About 15 service users and staff from a few services joined for our walk carrying both the Hikoi and the “Removing Barriers” banners along a section of river into town, with a photographer from the local paper taking our photo at the outset.

Frank Bristol, manager of Balance Whanganui showed me round Te Awhina (the acute ward), recently completely re-built and with great new facilities, including a sensory modulation room; and also we had an impromptu meeting with staff and service users of Stanford House (the forensic unit).
Back at “Balance HQ” we had a showing of “Daytime Tiger”, the film/doco about NZ author Michael Morrissey. I was disappointed by the portrayal in the film of what seemed only two possibilities: a person and their loved ones either living with the effects of full-blown mania or strong medication.

Tuesday began with a Karakia from Kori at Te Oranganui Iwi Health Authority, where most of the staff gather for a Karakia every morning. Such a wonderful way to orientate at the beginning of the day…
Frank took me to visit the one respite house in Whanganui, run by Pathways, in a peaceful rural setting, and we then had a brief visit to the M.I.S.T. (Mental Illness Survivors Trust) drop-in/activity centre.
By amazing synchronicity, a psychologist Emma Skellern was also passing through Whanganui at the same time as me, and joined us for the wonderful lunch prepared by Balance staff. Having lost her brother to bipolar suicide, she has a powerful vision for a centre/sanctuary based on truly holistic, hope-engendering, life-re-building methods of care/treatment.
I gave two presentations after lunch: one in the afternoon and one in the evening, both well-attended by a range of people: service users; relatives and supporters; and also staff from the DHB. I was impressed by the interest and support of the DHB staff who attended for non-medical methods/ treatments.

I have been hugely impressed by the power of a vibrant peer support community. It has also been eye-opening to me to realize how much of the toxicity and despair lies in stigma (both outer and inner, obvious and subtle); and the unequal power dynamics of the medical model of treatment: now that I have seen how well people can do when they have hope and respect, engaged mutual learning, and self-belief – even with medication…and of course these are the only true foundation stones from which to safely reduce medication anyway.

The other eye opener both in Whanganui and Te Kuiti, was just HOW powerful is the influence of just one passionate person on a whole system. I honour you Frank for the fabulous work you are doing, which is not to downplay the solid contributions of the other Balance Whanganui staff: Linda, David and Brook. And also give grateful thanks to all of you for your generous hosting.

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