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One to treasure

Rivers: New Zealand’s Shared Legacy by David Young (Random House, $59.99)
Reviewed by Jim Robinson

rivers“Our connection as a nation to the river is deep, complex and fundamental,” writes David Young at the opening of this truly excellent book. “It is about both sheen and layers, identity and belonging, mystery and utility, constancy and volatility; it can be sensual, fun and romantic, but also brutal and dark.”

After reading the next 300 or so pages, you’d be hard pushed to deny it. Young roams 11 of New Zealand’s great rivers, from the Rakaia to the Rangitikei, Whanganui to Waikato, Manawatu to Motu. Along the way, he explores the people and places, the kaitiakitanga (guardianship) and the science, the history and the opportunities. Eels, whio (blue ducks), rafting, bridging, damming, irrigation, erosion, dairying, and way more is delved into. So many issues. So many layers of connection.

The book’s an update of Young’s 1986 Faces of the River, which I haven’t seen so can’t compare, but the two eras are nicely blended to reinforce both the constancy and the volatility. Throughout, the words are well supported by strong photography, including some by his daughter, Aliscia Young. Several double-page photos are superb, though as someone who ventures out just to see my local rivers (the Waioeka and Whakatane) in flood, I’d have loved to see a couple more shots of full force.

Most of all, what I’ll take from this book is simply how Young captures the music, or perhaps the wairua (spirit), of each river. Every one is different in character, and he understands. With the presence of any big river, it’d be easy to over-write these descriptions, but Young chooses his words calmly, with just the right degree of froth on the top. Knowing several of the rivers pretty well, there are descriptions I’ve stopped and re-read, just to enjoy, and thought: yep, that nails it.

For instance, of the Taramakau, which dives to the South Island’s West Coast, Young writes: “the valley mist lifts off, revealing the river naked in its bed, the mountains still snug behind it”. Of the mighty Clutha, New Zealand’s largest river by volume, he writes: “Though decorative bush along its banks may be lacking, this is more than atoned for by the ranging beauty of light patterns that fall upon this green ribbon of power as it uncoils through the harsh landscape”.

The pause and flow is super. The Buller downriver of Murchison “is suddenly swollen by the addition of the four rivers and the scenery becomes even more breathtaking as the river incises deeply into its rocky bed and gorges, running deep, swift and clear”. And moving up to North Island’s Rangitikei: “Below Pukeokahu, the urgent current lashing against soft rock produces some mean undercurrents that to the inexperienced canoeist can be more troublesome than the rapids”.

In my own Eastern Bay of Plenty backyard, there’s the Motu. “At times it may seem a puny, bony stream — yet like many steep rivers, it reserves the right to rise again, suddenly and dangerously, even in high summer.” Which is, on both counts, so true.

It’s all lovely stuff really. The only thing I don’t click with is the cover, showing the Matukituki River, which feeds into Lake Wanaka, and the Clutha. It’s a perfectly good shot, but taken from high, it somehow lacks connection, and makes this look too much like a reference book when, in fact, it’s one to treasure.