Place can hold memory in a manner that is almost overwhelming.
I grew up in a small rural settlement just north of Dunedin called Waitati. I don’t get back there often. So when I do, the landscape’s familiarity is strangely visceral. I know it by heart. But that strength of knowing belongs to a former self.
It’s a bit like turning a corner and finding another you – much younger – coming the other way. Several of them, in fact, as the memories unpeel layer over layer, each unlocking its own kaleidoscope of sights, smells, events and emotions.
Here’s the 11-year-old dropped into Waitati’s two-classroom school like some exotic alien. All the way from the UK and unable to say ‘fat’ without causing hilarity because her accent (didn’t know I had one till then) inadvertently inserted a stray “r”. I quickly lost the accent.
Sadly it wasn’t long before I also lost interest in learning anything academic there.
Not only did the level of work lack challenge but the headmaster’s erratic efforts at discipline were totally alienating. It became war – one that our gang of six (all girls) had the energy, if not the power, to win.
Sure we got punished – but we knew that the leather strap he used for the purpose was getting less and less effective – because we regularly stole it to slice pieces off the end. Sometimes great chunks of classroom time were spent hiding up in a gorse bivvy, talking, eating or pretending we knew how to smoke cigarettes.
It seemed a just war at the time. He used his power so arbitrarily – often we didn’t know what we were being punished for – that he totally forfeited our respect. And we showed it.
Looking back I am aware he must have had mental health problems that we probably helped exacerbate. I can feel sad for him. And for us. The learning we didn’t get.
Here, also, is the horse-mad teen, straight off the school bus from Dunedin, using her hated uniform tie to catch “Star”. He was my first horse. Already about 20 years old, he’d obviously had some bad experiences, hated the bridle and was hard to catch if he thought you had one. The tie, surreptitiously slipped over his head, worked well.
My friend Lou and I kept our horses in the same paddock and often exercised them there in the evening. I can still see the frosty crispness of the tussocks, the divots of mud flying up from horses’ hooves as we belted bareback down the paddock, Lou’s Corgi, short legs no hindrance, flying beside.
I smell the horse sweat, remember the joy of burying my nose in smooth neck hair. Horse perfume! I wanted to bottle it.
Later came cars, boyfriends, preparing for marriage. By then I was 19. It was such a long time ago. It is as bright in my mind as yesterday.
This time, I’m approaching Waitati from the North and Blueskin Bay comes into view as snail trundles down Kilmog hill. When the tide is out, it’s a mudflat – one we once galloped over with a sucking plop of hooves, carefully avoiding softer mud that could cause the horses to stumble – to Warrington.
When we visit the white sand beach, it seems wider than ever. Its rock pools now entertaining a whole new generation of kids excitedly trying to catch a “big black fish”. Just a few metres away, a fur seal is sunning itself at the water’s edge. It’s a hot day and for nostalgia’s sake I have to go for a swim. It’s freezing.
This is where we always used to swim – or lie on the beach frying ourselves in coconut oil. It’s also where we dug pipis to cook on corrugated iron over an open fire, played table tennis or practiced Scottish Country Dancing at the local hall. Later it was where I experienced my first “real” kiss and where a friend and I practiced doing Mini spins (hand-brake up, wheel hard round) on the back beach.
It’s too much –this layering of past over present. And there’s more.
From Waitati we turn to Doctor’s Point. This is where our family home was. My parents transformed one and three quarter acres of gorse into a landscaped mix of shrubs, fruit trees and natives that skirted the bay. I can still see the small jetty at the bottom of the garden. It used to carry a heavy old rowboat that I’d take out into the bay when I was supposedly studying for school cert – drifting in dreaming circles with abandoned Latin notes lying beside me.
The house isn’t visible but I know it’s been rebuilt since then. Past it, a now-sealed road wends past the orchard garden where my second (and last) horse, a chestnut ex-racing mare called Jeannie Fair, gave birth to her beautiful gangly foal on a wild, windy night.
The beach where the road ends hasn’t changed. It even seems bigger. Stretching a sandy welcome. I want to run.
This was where I think I first experienced that sense of awed oneness with the world that can never visit me often enough. I was walking through a sunset, wrapped in orange glow as bright sky reflected back from wet sand. It felt like eternity might.
With the tide out, it’s easy to walk through – and even around – the arched holes carved into the cliff at the beach’s end. As in any tidal inlet, the shape of the beach changes and with it the height of the cave that often seemed to function as magical entrance to a stretch of coastline extending as far as Goat Island.
Actually a peninsula, this used to be a favourite destination. When the tide was high, our access was by the rail line running high up around the cliff. It’s where the train emerges from a tunnel. It’s probably not that long – but it felt like a very long tunnel the times we walked through it.
Now it seems mad. Then it was a challenge. Half-way through, the sound of waves crashing on the shore below sounded horribly like an approaching train. Torn between running, with the risk of tripping, and proceeding steadily, with the risk that it really was a train, I’d wonder how to survive if ….
Lying low, hugging close to the tunnel’s side which in the middle was wider than at either end, could you avoid being sucked into the train’s vortex?
Luckily I never had to find out.
Through Waitati to Dunedin, it’s hard to shut the lid on this Pandora’s Box of memories. We call briefly into what once was Orokonui Home. This is where my family lived first in New Zealand. I like to say I was brought up in a loony bin. It explains a lot. Very un-PC.
In reality, Orokonui was mainly a psycho-geriatric facility with several villas housing those who ranged in mental dysfunction from the mildly bewildered to the ragingly psychotic. My father was medical superintendent there – and, as I am prone to put it, the sanest psychiatrist I’ve ever met. But maybe I’m prejudiced.
He certainly brought to mental health work all the practical human know-how gained through two generations of rural general practice in Wales – along with the thoughtful, respectful curiosity that characterised his whole approach to people.
Dad helped kickstart the rehabilitative process of de-institutionalisation which later morphed into a more fiscally driven gallop that saw the whole Cherry Farm mental hospital complex closed down. Orokonui was one of the first bits to go and the beautiful little valley in which it nestles is now owned by a family trust, members of which live in the old buildings, running the place as a communal enterprise.
Now “Orokonui” functions as a different sort of asylum. With the help of a $2 million, 8.7 km long pest-proof fence, it provides a haven for endangered native New Zealand birds. Above the inlet where I remember white herons wading, you can see the “Ecosanctuary” fenceline bisecting the hill. It’s a whole other story I intend to explore.
My Dad had long retired before all this happened. But his own history in this place is very much with me. As I travel, I’ve been listening to some of the tapes he made at my request when his own Pandora’s Box of memories was in hyper-drive. By then, he was in his ‘80s and the horrors of the war years had become a demanding presence in his everyday life.
Memory is like that. It holds you in tenuous balance between past and present – tipping toward one or the other with almost wilful abandon. Already I’m aware how aging can blur any order you might want to impose on this overstuffed filing cabinet of actions past or emotions forgotten.
The slightest prompt – a smell of horses, sound of gulls, sight of a particular landscape – and they spill haphazardly into sharp focus. Being in the present takes more concentration as the past comes knocking.
And I haven’t even reached Dunedin yet.
What strikes me now about this area is how beautiful it is and how much independence we had as youngsters to explore it – on horseback, on bike and on foot, tramping up through the Silver Peaks to stay at one of several huts – Green, Jubilee, or Silver. The rain, muddy boots, hot soup, wooden bunks, the scrabble of possum claws on the roof.
It was a great place to grow up. I probably didn’t appreciate it then. But I do now.