Every car passing is an event in our quiet cul-de-sac and even at the family dinner table, all our heads automatically turn to look at the rattle of a bike or the sound of a passing voice. We’re slightly elevated on our section and, being orientated the opposite way from most of our neighbours, have a clear view back down the rest of the street. From our kitchen we can see who’s concreting their carport, who waters their garden obsessively and who has friends over on Monday mornings for a ladies’ boot camp session on the lawn.
The people we meet are warm, and friendly, and curious. We offer our family connection and the fact we’re here for a whole year as mitigation of the tourist stereotype, but the finite timeframe inevitably marks us out as dilettantes. We ask eager, naive questions about the best spots for camping, biking and river rapid surfing, sandfly and rabbit behaviour, firewood sourcing, where to buy meat and fruit and veg, the possibilities for gardening and composting (the locals scoff; nothing grows or rots here), the pros and cons of different skifields and season passes.
Talk spreads quickly about who we are and where we’re from. On our first introduction our immediate neighbour confesses to having Googled me and checked out my website on the basis of our wi-fi network name.
My first ‘where you from?’ conversation was with the motelier in Picton and I tried out my non-committal ‘up north’ response. Of course, I was pressed for detail then and every time since, so I’ve given up and now just confess to being a Jafa straight up. Firstborn is seriously offended that such an acronym should exist, and coins his own version, ‘Just Another Fantastic Aucklander’, which we gently advise him to keep to himself.
People laugh good-naturedly at my apologetic eyerolls and offer their versions of the ‘some of my best friends are Aucklanders’ or ‘I met one once and he was a good bloke’ stories.
We learn to say ‘Central’ for Central Otago, ‘Alex’ for Alexandra and ‘town’ for Wanaka. With immigrant zeal, we attend all the community events we can find. The annual Waitangi Day Hawea Town vs Country Challenge involved point-scoring events ranging from Texas Hold’em Poker to bowls and netball, plus a Top Town Tournament that included a grudge-match Tug of War, the Spud Gun Challenge, where grown men trample over small boys to catch rubber balls fired 50m into the air from a cannon, and an event that requires kids to ferry egg cups full of water over an obstacle course while being squirted by the volunteer fire brigade.
We trekked to the Central Otago A&P Show in a tiny town called Omakau, 20km out of Alex, just short of Drybread; we opted to go down the Crippletown side of Lake Dunstan this trip, and back past Muttontown. Disappointingly, we arrived too late for the wood chopping and sheep shearing, but were compensated by the three-competitor ride-on lawnmower race, the show jumping and the Jack Russell event, where over-excited terriers chase and eventually tear limb from limb a dead rabbit dragged on the end of a rope by a galloping horse.
Everywhere we look there are people doing crazy energetic outdoor things: kite surfing, river rapids body boarding, kayaking, mountain biking, rock climbing. I consider breaching the terms of my shoulder rehab and getting my wetsuit on for some late-summer lake action. If I miss this seasonal window, my next opportunity will be October. (Apart from the annual community mid-winter dip, which locals tell me is compulsory for all able-bodied adults, but which I suspect is a trick they play on innocent newcomers.)
They tell me the lake temperature actually fluctuates very little year-round, but no one’s going to convince me that it’s just as easy getting in the lake in October as it is in February. Gotta rinse off your wetsuit, though, especially if you’re switching waterways, because didymo’s a problem, and watch out for duck itch.
“How’re you finding it here,” people say, but they know the answer. It’s amazing, and they know it. They’re full of anecdotes about people who came for a visit and never left: talk to Alan and Beth Jury, they say, they thought they were only here for a year. “You wait,” they say. “This place gets under your skin.”