Otago gold: poplars, caramel and baby poo


The calendar signals a change of season, and right on cue the first smudges of autumn orange appear on the poplars on the road into Wanaka. A few saplings on Hawea Flat are already bright gold; the straw-gold of summer wheatfields and grasslands will soon be upstaged by the citrus brights of autumn. The brilliant blue of skies and lakes remain a constant, though: those Otago rugby colours make perfect sense to me now.

We’ll be sad to lose these long, hot, glorious evenings, but the approaching end of daylight saving will be welcome too. These days it’s completely dark at 7am, with the sun not clearing the Grand View range behind us until almost 7.45. Our maunga here is Mount Maude, the bare, hulking, scrubby mass that dominates the view from our living spaces. As we eat our breakfast the first rich golden sunlight touches the top of Maude, oozing down the upper slopes like caramel on a self-saucing pudding.

The boys have been in a different time zone since we’ve been here; with the sun so high so late it’s been impossible to get them to bed at a sensible time. Then they sleep in and for the first time in their lives have to be hustled out of bed in the morning. I had put this down to the later sunrise, but I’ve come to realise it’s also because of the eerie absence of birds. With no dawn chorus to signal the start of the day to the surfacing consciousness, 7am feels pretty much like 5am.

The creep towards winter is supposed to have a ratchet effect in this part of the world: unlike Auckland’s temperatures, which will bounce around from summer to winter and back for a couple of months yet, our temperatures are expected to drop steadily soon, with little chance of an Indian summer.

For now, I sit at my tiny foraged desk in the corner of my six-year-old’s bedroom with the windows open, the good smell of sun-warmed cut poplar drifting in on the breeze. Today I can hear no birds at all, but somewhere there’s a single cicada valiantly doing the job of a hundred of its Auckland cousins. Some days it’s a lone sparrow or tui or magpie that provides the pastoral soundtrack.

It’s not completely silent, though. Sound travels for miles across the stillness of Hawea Flat: the slap of a nail gun from one of the growing residential enclaves up and down the hill; a distant light plane from Wanaka Airfield practising its barrel rolls and loops; an occasional farm ute changing down to toil up the hill marking the end of the Flat.

I finally start to write properly and after the chastening first few weeks begin to hit something that might be my stride. The writing itself is mostly terrible, ­but this feels like a necessary part of the process. I need to get this first nasty, tarry bit out of my system, like meconium, before the real stuff can get flowing.

The main thing I wanted from this year on the writing front was momentum, and for now the words squirt out; there are stories to tell, even if the means of telling them will need some serious refinement. There are many more crises of self-doubt to come, but for now there’s a small rush of optimism, a little lift of satisfaction and possibility.

Some days I don’t even make it to my desk, and that’s fine too. Whole mornings are wiped out by school events, babysitting my nappy-wearing toddler cousin, taking myself or my nana to appointments, doing the shopping. I force myself to exercise: unsatisfactory internet-based Pilates workouts in the lounge, running around the lakefront, an onerous hour a day of prescribed physio exercises.

After school I often take the boys to the lake; sometimes we put our dinner in the chilly bin and eat it on the lakefront, sitting on the hot stones and gazing across the water at the mountains. The boys aren’t doing any organised sport or activities ­– partly due to rural logistics, partly due to cost – so we go on bike rides, to the BMX bike track, the school pool, the skate park, and try and break the habit of watching the clock.

The days slide by, and as much as anything, that’s what this year is about. Afternoon torpor, weekend adventures, the lazy drift of the days and weeks: it’s good for all of us.

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