To the sea and back


The first week of the school holidays, and a confession: I really don’t feel like writing this. Partly this is writer’s fatigue; on Monday, egged on by some mild successes in a couple of short story competitions, I finally dispatched 120 pages of double-spaced manuscript to Auckland Uni’s Master of Creative Writing course.

On Tuesday, of course, I became suddenly, incontrovertibly aware of the profound and fatal flaws in my proposal, and abandoned all expectations of ever getting in to the course (always a long shot, anyway: just 12 places available). But between midnight and 2am on Wednesday I began to develop a radically different, and far superior, proposal to submit when I reapply in 2015.

So today I’m underslept, and all written out, and at the same time all tweaky and energised about this other crazy new idea, so sitting down to write a dutiful diary post on a flatlining blog seems so boring. But this is what preternatural levels of self-discipline get you. (Though I did spend the morning baking, in a procrastinating kind of way.)

The last few weeks have mostly been about writing – a lot – but the last week of term we finagled the boys out of school for a sneaky road trip. The timing – not ideal from my application deadline point of view – was dictated by Hapless’s summons to Dunedin Hospital to get his face cancerectomy site checked out. (The appointment was initially scheduled for June, but had to be cancelled due to the sort of severe-weather-avoid-all-non-essential-travel warnings that people who live in cities don’t even notice but actually prevent rural folk from attending things like important health appointments, due to real and present blizzard/ gale/ flooding/ landslip risk. The hospital, of course, simply put Hapless back to the bottom of the waiting list.)

So instead of dispatching Hapless for the seven-hour Dunners round trip on his own, we decided to all go and make a lark of it. And it was very nice indeed to be out exploring new territory again, after months of being held hostage by the ski season. The boys have become so accustomed to the Cardrona drive that they have suddenly become quite civilised car passengers, armed with their Bear Grylls novels (Firstborn) and Where’s Wally-style hunt-the-object books (Number Two Son), and bribed with jet planes into regular 10-minute silences.

All of which leaves their parents mostly free to gaze meditatively at the vast, empty expanses of Otago rolling past; such a very beautiful, very empty place. Spring is a fine time to be roaming this part of the world, with flushes of green on the otherwise year-round brown hills, nubbly newborn lambs everywhere you look and every hamlet and townlet flaunting massed plantings of daffodils (not to mention thousands of acres of yellow gorse and broom flower all along the Otago coast).

We headed off into Mackenzie country, just beyond the Lindis Pass we were forced to pull over all the way to the fenceline and suck in our breath as two huge whole houses rolled past on trucks, clearing us by a whisker (probably being sold off from Twizel, those mass-built temporary houses from the late 60s; people round here really do ‘move house’). Our route was a meandering loop via Oamaru (odd; steampunky; more desolate than expected) and then Moeraki (fabulous delayed-birthday seafood treat dinner at Fleur’s Place). It was exciting to frolic by the sea again – the first time I’ve laid eyes on it since Haast in January. In Dunedin we celebrated by braving a 40-minute trudge along the beach in driving rain to ogle lazy sandbathing sealions and perky yellow-eyed penguins.

It seems to be a feature of age, to start experiencing every place we visit in terms of previously visited places: so the forlorn blackened-stone Victorian buildings of rainswept Oamaru felt irresistibly like the depressed industrial towns of the north of England; the stone walls, gentle green pastureland and luminous rainy seascapes of the Otago Peninsula felt like the Channel Islands; the peculiar sandstone rock formations, fossils and prehistoric cave drawings of Waitaki – random ancient stuff in damp, deserted green-grey landscapes – reminded me, incongruously, of the henges and barrows of Wiltshire and Wales.

It wasn’t until the wide, wide skies of the Maniototo that we started to feel we were back at the frontier of a recognisably New Zealand wilderness, passing through the sort of grim, utilitarian farming towns – Ranfurly, I’m looking at you – that sustain tractor-part dealerships but no bakeries, and on to the corrugated iron shanties and prim stone civic buildings of the movie-set-perfect gold rush towns: Naseby, St Bathans, Ophir.

And then back to the familiar landscape of Central, glacier-carved valleys and chocolatey hills, our home away from home. Omakau, Alex, Clyde, Cromwell, Luggate, the familiar litany of place names that we tell off, counting us back down to Hawea. Back to a neglected blog, mountains of laundry, filling the freezer and biscuit tins, preparing for the next few contingents of North Island visitors, trying to stop the boys from running completely wild. Working out my project priorities for this last precious quarter of our adventure, the one about to begin.

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