Shipping out

Ship of the desert

Poor old Aratere. Stuck in dock with her broken propeller shaft, no dry dock in Godzone big enough to accommodate her for the required delicate rummaging among her ladyparts. No further Interislander vehicle crossing bookings are being accepted while they work out what to do, leaving us fervently grateful that we’re already booked on Arahura. Otherwise, come January, Hapless would have been stuck on the Mainland side of the Strait indefinitely, along with our car and all our essentialest possessions. Literally no. Other. Way. Across.

Ah, dear New Zild, with its li’l old infrastructure. There’s so little of it down here, and what there is feels closer to the surface, the community that much more susceptible to its failings: arterial road closures (landslides, floods, snow), powercuts, DOC facilities closed indefinitely, awaiting the arrival of some gallant, underpaid, overworked ranger. No emergency hospital facilities within hours, search and rescue helicopters a regular sight.

The mournful wail of the siren that summons the volunteer fire brigade never fails to make my scalp crawl, signalling as it does the advent of nearby disaster, fire or accident. (Unless it’s 7.30pm on a Monday, in which case it’s a drill.) There have been at least half a dozen local deaths this year – fishing­ and mountaineering and road carnage – and in a small community you’re always coming across someone directly affected by the tragedy.

Other random noises resound across the Flat: stump blasting (which gets you in the guts, like the IRA Bishopsgate bomb I was far too close to in 1993) and the felling of pine trees, which hit the ground with a solid, bone-shaking boom.

We’re witness, this year, to a landscape in transition. We’ve seen new subdivisions spring up, empty sections sold and built on, sheep pasture converted to more lucrative dairy, fields cleared and blasted to make way for a million-dollar invasion of vast new boom irrigators. The woodsmoke that sat in milky drifts over the houses in the hollows of the hills on still winter afternoons gives way to the smoke of burnoffs, which smoulder in the same spots for weeks on end.

I think glumly of the sparkling Hawea and Clutha Rivers and wonder what state they’ll be in five years from now; it does seem like a giant leap in the wrong direction. When we return, tourists bent on a little proprietary nostalgia, there will be things we barely recognise: this small suburb, now still semi-wild, curbed and channelled, cleared of wildings and infilled with brash new houses; our booming little school with three new classrooms; Cardrona ski field possibly opened up on the Queenstown side, with a whole new access road.

In the meantime, I drink it all in as it is. I try to spend an extra minute or two every day gazing at the mountains, the lake, the ever-changing, ever-stunning Hawea Flat, soaking it in, storing it in my hump for the long journey away.

Late spring has brought an unexpected riot of colour to the front garden: rose bushes glorious in yellow, apricot, crimson and bridal white, bright lavender bushes humming with clouds of bees. The steep lawn, already parched to crispness when we arrived in January, becomes a wild meadow of dandelion. Hapless ignores it for weeks, expecting it to die off any minute, but is finally forced to mow it as the rains continue to come.

Great patches of the landscape are genuinely green, the ditches grassy, the avenues of the Flat reclaiming their green from the floral excesses of the hawthorne. The broom, which for weeks had saturated fields and hillsides in brilliant buttercup yellow, abruptly loses its petals in a spring gale, revealing new green growth below, though the wild lupins, shading from dirty cream to yellow to purple, linger on.

(We miss the pohutukawas, just as we missed the feijoas and the freesias. The local kids sing ‘Pohutukawa tree, pohutukawa tree, New Zealand’s Christmas tree’, and I wonder how many of them have ever actually seen one. A generation of South Island kids replacing robin redbreasts and snowmen with Christmas symbolism almost, to them, as arcane. Likewise Fatcat & Fishface’s ‘Selfish Shellfish’: these inland kids know all the actions, but have they ever seen a pipi or a tuatua or a kina?)

So spring has been pretty enough, but I can’t help looking forward to a return of the haunting gold and blue landscape of summer: the one my heart fixated on way back in January, when our adventure was still brand new.

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