Lady of the Lak-eee

I’ve never had a great sense of direction. One of the reasons I loathe shopping malls is the not-completely-unfounded fear that I’ll fail to find the exit and be doomed to consume until eternity.

That’s not to say I don’t have a rough idea both of where I am and where I’m going. Over the past few months, I’ve managed to navigate “snail” (my Isuzu motorhome/mobile office) more than 8000kms to a lengthening series of largely planned destinations. But the means of getting there can often be somewhat less than direct.

Now that’s all changed, thanks to my new friend – NavLady.

She is unremittingly precise. Not only does she know just where we are, she can tell me the shortest, fastest, easiest, and most economical ways to get to the next destination. This being New Zealand where topography and population density allow little choice, these, sadly for her, don’t differ much.

The reality is that after an initial flurry of instructions about turning left, right, and taking the second exit at the roundabout, she gets to the bit where there’s nothing more to say. “Drive 234kms….” Silence.

I worry she’s getting bored. Perhaps she’s dropped into a permanent coma? Nope. It turns out she patiently marks off each 20kms worth of progress. It’s kinda comforting to know a bunch of distant satellites are coordinating their efforts to keep track.

I wasn’t a great fan of GPS navigation until I had to drive my daughter’s car back home from the Sydney hospital in which she’d narrowly avoided an emergency Caesarean. In a strange city, at night, after what had been a long and traumatic day, the steady stream of computer-generated instructions were not just helpful but heart warming.

So I was open to the possibility of investing in one just as my credit card use hit a high enough reward-points tally to redeem a GPS system for “free”. Although I lacked the patience to sit through her tutorial, NavLady and I got off to a good start. She took me unerringly to a friend’s address in Christchurch when time was short and I had a plane to catch.

Over subsequent weeks and kilometres, our relationship has become more complex. There are times when I rebel against her precision, ignore her suggestions and gleefully tot up the number of times I can force her to say: “When possible, perform a U-turn.”

Perform! I picture “snail” pirouetting gracefully across the gravel, wing mirrors held wide, wheels spinning.

But even when I disturb her equilibrium by programming in one destination then heading for another, NavLady can come up trumps. Patiently checking other options, she often finds a shortcut that steers me back on the original course. For a while, her voice sounds just a bit smug.

NavLady, however, has one weakness – sometimes irritating, often hilarious. I like to think it reveals her inner klutz. She is pronunciation challenged.

When she first told me to turn on to the TeCAPo-Twizzle highway, I wondered if we were in the same country. Even apparently simple stuff can come out totally mangled “Drive 400 metres to LaKEEview Terrace.”

I guess if you have no concept of “lake”, you don’t get that it’s “lake view”. Words are no more than a random collection of syllables strung together using the most prevalent pronunciation of each.

It could be catching.

Just as regular txting has an un42n8 impact on normal spelling, I fear NavLady will gradually re-name our geographic reference points.

Twizzle could definitely stick.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Daily magic

Today I watched the orange half orb of sun emerging from the ocean’s edge – bringing warmth, colour, life. Doing its daily magic. So remarkable, largely unremarked.

We are mostly too busy to gaze at the rising light or to stand in awe under a vault of sky so vast you could spend 100 lifetimes tracking and counting its layers of tiny lights, pulsing in the cold night’s quietness.

I think we have lost the sense of wonder at our existence – that we lack not just the the time but the humility.

Instead we  keep cycling through a bunch of ego-based propositions to justify our place in the universe.

“I think therefore I am.” Descartes’ famous base for a philosophical system that underpins much of modern life has a whole family of counterparts. Whether it’s capitalism’s “I accumulate therefore …” or its market corollary “I consume therefore..”; from the simplest “I survive therefore…” through the “me” generation’s “I self express therefore …” to today’s social media version “I tweet therefore I am” – the whole proposition is back to front.

When I give myself the time to stop and wonder, when I watch that orange half orb creep over the dark horizon like a blessing, I know that I exist because of the unique and anomalous accident of a planet that is able to sustain my life.

It sustains me therefore I am …it is such a simple concept.

Maybe if we could regain the sense of awe, humility and wonder that we exist only because of the extraordinary benevolence of our environment, then we might avoid destroying it.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

By lone sea breakers

Driving to DOC’s Purakanui campsite in the Catlins proves a bit of a mission. It’s late and the unsealed road winds over hills and up isolated valleys, getting narrower and rougher.

There’s no sign of habitation, no other vehicles on the road and no cellphone reception. And when I finally arrive as darkness is falling, I pull snail off the road and into – a bog!

As I step out, my sandals sink into mud. But the van is level, the bay looks beautiful and it turns out I am not alone.  A couple of vans and two small tents are already here. So maybe I’ll be staying longer than intended….

After cooking up a stir fry flavoured with Laksa Soup and pondering how I might get inventive with tow ropes and nearby trees in the morning, I drift effortlessly into sleep.

Dawn makes the journey more than worthwhile.

A sliver of moon still hovers as red starts streaking the sky. It’s the start of a light display that just keeps growing in intensity.

Bright drifts of cloud find echoes in the wet sand.

I walk into this vastness of light to the sounds of sea break and oyster catcher call.

It is pure magic. And in this part of the New Zealand, magic is in plentiful supply.

There’s a timelessness about the Catlins.

Further South, in Curio Bay you can walk through forest remains that are 170 million years old.  Petrified for posterity by volcanic activity, trunks of trees alive when dinosaurs roamed the earth are clearly visible, their growth rings stuck in time.

The sea’s restless pounding has worn away the soft stuff. Only the obdurate endures.

This area boasts some of New Zealand’s oldest sedimentary rocks – laid down when it was still part of Gondwanaland. Since then, the earth’s relentless forces have tilted and folded the rocks, creating fault lines visible at places like Cathedral Caves.

Here, vast chasms run deep into the headland forming two sets of connected caves that can only be reached at low tide. Kelp abandoned by the sea spreads its long tresses over the sand at their entrance. Streams from the forest above cascade over bright green weed or drop like mini waterfalls over natural terraces that skirt the steep cliffs.

It’s an amazing stretch of coastline that’s rich in wildlife.

At Waipapa lighthouse, care is needed to avoid tripping over rare Hooker’s Sealions as they lounge in the sand dunes. Many are young bulls who’ve been kicked out of breeding colonies in the Auckland Islands. They have no fear of humans and can lollop towards you at speeds of up to 20kph. Unlike fur seals, their strong rear flippers are not fused together so they’re both faster and more agile on land.

At Waipapa, young bull sealions play out the endless game of dominance needed to form their own harem

Others just bury themselves in the sand

Colonies of rare Hoiho or Yellow-Eyed Penguins also live along the coast below Nugget Point or at Curio Bay – where the one below was performing for a bunch of spectators from the nearby campground.

Sure I can fly!

There’s a lot still to see – if I can extract myself from the mud. By 10am, the dew has dried and it’s threatening rain. I climb into snail, cross my fingers, put her into reverse, gently gun the motor and bounce backwards out of the mudhole.

Snails rule!  And the towrope can stay in its bag until another day.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Mountain air

There’s fresh snow on the mountains and the air carries a champagne tingle.

After a couple of weeks in Sydney’s suburbs, the night sky over Geraldine seems enormous. The whole landscape stretches out like freedom – towards the Southern Alps.

I’m heading through Fairlie, Tekapo and Cromwell to join up with my three tramping buddies for what’s become an annual tramp fest. So far we’ve done the Routeburn and Heaphy tracks – travelling at a pace that has more to do with enjoying the journey than accomplishing a task. Our aim is to do as many of New Zealand’s great walks as we can before hips, knees, backs – or collective wills – give out on us.

This time there is no specific agenda and, as it turns out, this has left all of us a bit unprepared – lacking gear, first aid kit, fitness….

I’ve come from three weeks in central Sydney that included a gastric flu and hardly any walking. Humid weather offered little motivation. That plus a strained back makes me doubt I can carry a pack much further than the length of an airport.

The sight of the mountains and sparkling alpine air changes all that.

Excitement takes over.

It helps that my snail trail passes Lakes Tekapo and Pukaki at their shining best. The snow covered peaks of Aoraki and Sefton lift angular bulks into the clear blue skies. A light covering of snow on the Ben Ohau Range accentuates soft curves, sharp edges.

Lake Pukaki

Down by Lake Pukaki, amongst the pines, someone has deliberately landscaped an area in a way that provides photographic framing for lake shots. There are strategically placed stones, plants, objects – as well as a carefully constructed box on a nearby picnic table that oddly, but somehow not unexpectedly, contains an old lens.


So I’m already snap happy before I reach Queenstown to overnight with friends on Lake Hayes Estate. The next day doesn’t change that. It is beautiful.

Our initial destination is the top end of Lake Wakatipu and an overnight trek up the Caples Valley. While Jill collects Ann and Barb from the airport, I trundle on through Queenstown and up the side of Lake Wakatipu stopping to capture what seem to be ever more amazing vistas of mountain and lake.

That’s where we all meet up. I’ve stopped again at the lake edge to brew a cuppa and the others turn up. We picnic together on the great chunks of schist that shine like precious things along the water’s edge.

Lunching beside Lake Wakatipu

The others are booked into Kinloch Lodge – a picturesque heritage hotel with bar/café/restaurant as well as more modest backpacker accommodation and self-catering kitchen. It’s a great mix. Wine appetisers and DIY dinners.

Snail gets the best waterfront pozzie – parked at the DOC camp in front of the Lodge.

That’s where I wake to a spectacular dawn the following day.

Morning, Kinloch DOC Camp

Mist rising from the lake is caught between streaks of pink cloud above and reflections below. Willows are already taking on their golden Autumn glow and the sun starts to catch the tips of steep sided mountains rising behind the lodge.

It is going to be another beautiful day.

Packs geared up for only one night’s stay seem ridiculously full but the weight sits comfortably and the track up to Mid-Caples is a fairly gentle stroll. A short initial climb takes us into a wide pastured valley complete with sheep. Our trail follows the river through patches of beech forest.

Despite my best intentions, I get diverted by robins…again and again.

Yet another friendly South Island Robin

One is so close, I can capture it in full view through the wide-angle lens. Carrying the telephoto proves pointless on this trek as the views are so big, it doesn’t get a single outing.

Dumping packs at Mid-Caples, we walk on up the valley towards the Upper Caples hut  in blazing sunshine – but run out of energy and time to actually make it there and back. I definitely need to be fitter.

Apart from two Alaskans, who wander around in light Ts as we pull on thermals to face the night chill, we have the hut to ourselves and head for bunks not long after night falls.

Next day, it looks like we might be running out of luck with the weather. Forecast drizzle turns up as we start back. But before that, DOC warden Brian gives us a guided tour of the spectacular chasm below the hut.

Water rushes through a narrow gap between steep rocks to pause in deep green pools so clear we can see a trout lazily cruising upstream below us. Deep moss lines the banks, bright lichen streaks the boulders. It’s a photographer’s wet dream.

And by late afternoon, we’re back in the pub – feeling slightly guilty about enjoying a bottle of red wine. Tramping should never be so easy. Next year we’re talking about the Kepler. That will take more serious planning and better fitness.

Meanwhile there are heaps of stunning short walks – up to Lake Sylvan, along Diamond Creek, around the Mt Chrichton Loop and through Sawpit Gully near Arrowtown. That’s where we find 2000 seriously fit folk competing in a massive one-day event that brought runners and bikers through fords and steep gullies all the way from Wanaka.

It’s too much – we repair to the local pub for a beer. Even that tastes better in the mountain air.



Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Snail tales – on a losing streak

You’d think losing things would be almost impossible when you’re carrying most of your worldly possessions with you. Ha! Wrong! Twelve weeks of intensive research have proved specs can vanish in very small spaces.

And this trick is accomplished with even greater frequency when “Snail” (the Isuzu Fargo that’s become my home for a year) is housing more than one person. It’s all to do with routine – something nomads are no more capable of shunning than committed stay-at-homes.

Whether you’re stream side in a mountain valley or slumming it on a friend’s city-side tennis court, your toothbrush can still be found in the same cupboard.

Habit has its place.

You quickly find that stowing stuff away must become standard procedure if you’re to avoid experiencing a bunch of distracting bangs from the back as you navigate an unfamiliar roundabout. When your pantry has just rolled out to spill its entire contents over the floor for the third time (knew I should have pegged the rice packet), you institute a checking schedule as rigidly habitual as any pre-flight preparation.

So you’ve started establishing some fairly consistent habits when….company arrives.

And company, while entirely welcome, can be distracting.

One of the joys of travelling with friends in a space only a  little larger than your average packing crate, is discovering how to be to be both polite and inventive about normal routines. Cooking can turn into a series of carefully timed pas de deux, bedtime into a contortionist’s challenge and ablutions….? That’s about when campgrounds exert a special appeal.

Snail is self contained. I have a certificate to prove it. But  there’s often a glaring gap between capability and desirability.

Certainly you can squeeze yourself backside first into a small closet and, with the slight risk of ramming kneecaps into eye sockets, close the door for at least a little visual privacy. But all my guests have so far avoided this option. A mix of modesty, thoughtfulness and possibly claustrophobia – fear of small closets – has helped inspire more preferable options.

And no. I haven’t joined the brigands of the motorhome world who treat scenic stopovers as their personal toilets. That’s what gives freedom campers a foul reputation and there’s actually no excuse for it. Public loos are plentiful, timing is all, a plastic bucket offers light relief – and the chemical loo does provide a comfort stop of last resort.

Ablution options are only a small part of the snail proximity endurance test. It’s fair to say that there are things you find out about friends that those holidaying in six-bathroom baches don’t get a chance to discover. You can’t be coy about anything when you’re both using floor space that the pullout bed has reduced to one square foot.

So far, it’s been great. I haven’t lost any friends. But I have come up with a checklist of attributes my ideal campervan companion should possess.

Below average height. Six footers will be unable to either stand or lie straight. Sadly this cuts out about half my family.

Highly flexible. This is vital not only for the aforementioned ablution contortions but for snail’s cab-over bed which could be called double if the would-be inhabitants were matchstick thin with unaturally small noses. The ceiling is very close. This cuts out anyone  not serious about their yoga practice.

Meticulously tidy. People who can fit all their possessions – preferably even their persons – in one small suitcase without disporting any wet, dirty or discarded objects about the cab are totally welcome. Sadly, this cuts out me.

Snore free sleeper. Ideal but a tad hypocritical given my own noisy night time habits.

Mechanically able. Well you may as well go for skillsets that are normally absent.

Sense of humour. An absolute must because the things you can’t fix, you just have to laugh about.

There are other nice-to-have attributes. For instance, the latest visitor to join my snail trail odyssey around New Zealand could light fires with wet wood. That’s a skill with very useful application in the damp, sandfly ridden reaches of the South Island’s Lewis Pass. It makes sitting outside a less slap-happy experience as sandflies stay away from smokey fires.

Which is why we found ourselves still hunched over the foldout camping table one night playing smoke-enhanced headlight Scrabble. As daylight faded and the Milky Way gradually revealed its dense store of stars piled on stars in the great amphitheatre of sky that rules remote campsites, the bright LED bulbs even compensated for my dark glasses.

I wouldn’t have been wearing them BUT … all my ordinary reading glasses had gone AWOL.

So much for routine.


Vicki Jayne is a journalist, photographer and grandmother currently travelling NZ in a camper van. See


Published NZ Herald My Generation March supplement



Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Snail tales

Published in NZ Herald’s  “My Generation” February edition

Weight. Most of us have too much of it. But I hadn’t realised it was a help hazard until one of my campervan tyres exploded south of Christchurch.

After swerving to a standstill, collecting a chaotic trail of rubber from the road, finding my as yet unused jack – and then finding it wouldn’t actually lift the van, I rang AA. That was when I discovered my membership involved a vehicle weight limit.

OK – important piece of information. Since starting my year-long trek around New Zealand two months ago, there’s been a few of those I somehow missed. As it turned out, tyre pressure was another. Who knew there could be so much conflicting advice on the subject?

It’s best, apparently, to refer to the manufacturers’ specs written on the drivers’ door sill. Pity they’re in Japanese. So – pick a number somewhere between 40 and 60. I evidently erred on the high side.

The good news is where it happened. On SH1, before the long, narrow Rakaia River bridge, within easy range of the nearest garage – and, best of all, with phone reception. So far, my 5000km journey from Waiheke Island has taken me to plenty of places where cellphone is reduced to little more than a snap-open paper weight – with games options.

Snail on road to Port Jackson, Coromandel

It started in the Coromandel. That’s where I first discovered the negative correlation between winding, unsealed, single-lane roads and cellphone reception. If you have one, then you probably don’t have the other.

What you do have, however, is access to some of New Zealand’s most wildly beautiful landscapes. That trade-off first became evident at Port Jackson where the access road crawls precariously around steep-sided hills above the wind-swept sea.

It’s single lane. You’re on the outside. You haven’t ever backed a van on mirrors and reversing cameras any further than 20 metres. So the last thing you expect or want to see is a large articulated stock truck coming the other way. The pull-off just ahead couldn’t have been better placed.

Oddly it didn’t put me off challenging roads – largely because I’ve discovered the rewards of navigating them are so much greater than the risks. They’ve taken me to curving sandy beaches, remote lighthouses, seal-strewn rocks, peaceful green river valleys and places like Central Otago’s Moke Lake whose still surface extends the steep-sided triangles of surrounding hills into perfect mirrored diamonds

Along the way, I’ve made several discoveries.

Being forced into life’s slow lane is no bad thing. You stop often and see more. And realistically my snail home – its 2380cc diesel gamely hauling a nearly three ton body – just ain’t built for speed. She has trouble passing farm machinery.

But, by the time we’d circumnavigated first the Coromandel and then East Cape, “Snail” and I had irrevocably bonded. Having taken to tootling along in the 50kph speed bracket, even 80kph felt like a panic attack.

There have been other, practical discoveries.

The glorious flexibility of certified self-containment is offset by the need to get up close and personal with dump stations. Having put this off as long as possible with judicious use of public loos, I finally unleashed the mental block at Picton. Like any laxative, it proved very freeing.  SO easy.

Getting to grips with the arcane world of Snail’s electronics has been a tougher task. In trying to reduce the spaghetti tangle that once connected Satlink receiver to a TV tinier than most digital photo frames, I inadvertently disconnected a few other things. Result: reassembled spaghetti that mostly serves no purpose as I had opted to ditch both receiver and the rather large satellite dish occupying much of my storage space before I set out. Who needs TV when there is nature to watch?

But I DO now know much more about Snail’s basic power generation systems. The big question it raises is: why are we not ALL carrying solar panels – on houses, car rooves, large sunhats…. It’s the casual generosity of the sun that allows me to run laptop, charge phone, even run fridge (mildly cold) without risk of draining the house battery. SO useful.

As to my help hazard. It turned out that Snail snuck under the weight limit. All this running around, I expect.

So the grand knights of AA galloped to the rescue. A week or so later, all four tyres have been replaced (none of the Japanese original sizes are available here) and pressures – it is written here so there is NO doubt – are 50psi, back and front.

So far, this has truly been a journey of discoveries.


Vicki Jayne is a journalist, photographer and grandmother currently travelling NZ in a camper van. See

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Life’s a beech

Beech forest, Lewis Pass

New Zealand’s beech forests have a smell all their own – a damp earthy aroma that is like inhaling the very essence of life.

Soft and spongy underfoot, the forest floor adds a spring to steps that fall almost soundlessly on leaf litter and muffling moss.



You can walk swiftly, quietly, treading over tree roots through the play of light and shade;


past streams trickling their music over stone and stump; around trunks like sculptures swathed in veils of rich green;

and rocks softened by dense falls of verdant growth.

Sound, like light, is muted into an expectant stillness. In it, you can hear the trees breathing, follow motes of sunlight dancing their bright rays across a thousand shades of green.


Stop, and the detail leaps into engaging focus.

The white steps of fungi jutting from tree trunks, drifting ribbons of lichen, water pooling in a pink-edged mushroom plate;  bulbous heads of brown, grey or purple sprouting like magic from the shaded earth.



And when you stop, the robins come.

Inquisitive, apparently fearless, heads cocked, sharp eyes watching – they flit between nearby trees, hopping closer, darting away, fluttering in to peck at a shoelace, even landing briefly on shoulder or leg.

Received wisdom is that they’re primarily after the insect life that humans disturb – but it feels like friendly curiosity. I’ve watched as they tap swiftly against a water bottle, investigate a walking stick, pick at someone’s shoe.

I’ve also seen them peck persistently at ground recently trampled to haul out a wriggling worm so long that eating it looks like an impossible feat. But picked, pecked, sliced into smaller pieces, it all goes down.

You’d think all this closeness would make them easy to photograph – but they’re often inside the parameters of focus my telephoto can manage and move so quickly that they outpace the shutter fall.

I love watching their cheeky antics.

They are a sweet engaging counterpoint to the eternal stillness. Like laughter in a cathedral. Chubby-chested fairies in a fey land.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Where the wild things are

The large bull sealion surfacing just metres away in Hoopers Inlet is an awe-inspiring sight.

Although Allan’s Beach on the south-eastern side of Otago Harbour did sport signs carrying information about Hookers Sea lions, I hadn’t really expected to see any. They are one of the rarest species of sea lion in the world, with the main colonies found only on New Zealand’s remote offshore islands.

But we’d barely arrived on the beach after walking down the track past Pyramid Rocks when we nearly tripped over a female stretched out on the sand. With their creamy brown colouring, they blend in well. Further along was another – stirring to have a scratch.





But the bull was something else. More than twice the size of the delicate females, he was magnificent – and scary. As I’d just been taking a wide-angle shot of the bay I didn’t have time to change lenses. He was so close I didn’t really need to. We realised afterwards that the indentations in the sand next to us probably marked where he had been snoozing earlier.

With us there, he opted for a lazy swim to the edge of the sand spit. Hauling his massive bulk from water to sand, he rolled, sat, then shook sand off his mane in a bright halo. We crept a little closer – but not much. Warnings that these are wild animals and should not be approached were superfluous. I’d no more have attempted that than try to pat a sleeping lion.

Since then I’ve learned that sea lions are wandering into campgrounds down in the Caitlins. Bad news for campers but good for conservationists.

Fur seal populations also seem to have gained ground since I lived in this part of the world some 40 years ago. Existing colonies have grown and almost every rocky shoreline sports a few individuals slumbering in the sun.

They are not the only rare wildlife to be found around the Peninsula’s deeply indented shoreline. Taiaroa Heads boasts the only mainland colony of albatrosses and yellow-eyed penguins nest in several places – one of which has been developed into a facility that enables close encounter viewing.

But my favourite place there was and is Sandfly Bay. Here, dunes sweep up from the beach in majestic, sculptured shapes. Just below the park, kids are swooping down them on polystyrene surf boards. Getting to sea level is a floundering version of running down scree slopes

At the far end, my map shows a path up to SandyMount. This appears to head across an area that looks like a vertical Sahara – vast swathes of sand wind sculpted into sharp ridges and soft , inviting gullies. It is so pristine that I’m reluctant to make tracks. That proves difficult anyway as some of the markers have gone missing.

We soon discovered that treading in the footsteps of a couple we’d spotted earlier just meant there were more of us finding that we were actually on the wrong ridge. We have to lose hard gained height. Only one way to go.

I’m running wildly down the steep-sided gully when, out of the corner of my eye, I see Rob overtaking me – somersaulting. Not entirely intended but pretty impressive.

It’s worth the scramble just to experience the expansive landscape with its swirls of yellow, orange and brown. And by the time, we make it to the “top” – and then the next top – it didn’t seem much further to go to check out “Lovers’ Leap” and “The Chasm”.

Here, on what feels like the edge of the world, the cliffs drop with dramatic steepness down to the sea. Waves and wind have helped carve deep clefts, spanned by narrow grass bridges. Sheep are grazing nonchalantly near – unphased by the vertigo that makes both my stomach and toes clench as I stand at the edge of a strategically placed viewing platform.

By the time we trek back along the beach to where ‘snail’ is parked on Seal Point Road, small groups of people are making their way in the opposite direction to watch as hoiho make their nightly trek from surf to nest. We’re too knackered – and too aware of the cold beer waiting in Snail’s fridge – to join them.

But just below the park, before we start the last dune climb, I spot movement on the beach and a young couple gazing with silent reverence. Yep, the hoiho are at this end as well.

The two watchers had just been checking out a fur seal when the yellow-eyed penguin surfed in beside them and they beat a hasty retreat so as not to disturb its passage. It’s heart-warming to see the respectful care accorded these rare birds. They certainly need it – and the increasing availability of information and education about them surely helps.

This is where the wild things belong.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Walking backwards into now

Doctors’ Point Beach, Waitati

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.

Round the rock pools ,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.

Fur seal, Warrington beach.

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.

Cave at Doctors Point, Waitati

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 at our Drs Point house

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.

Orokonui inlet

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.

Terns nesting at Drs Point

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments


Lake Moke, NZ

It’s early morning at Moke Lake.

In the still waters, the triangles of steep-sided hills extend into diamonds – a continuation of mountain and sky so seamless that it casts doubt on normal perspective.

What is up or down when the mirror image is so perfectly presented?

Walking around the lake, with camera compulsively clicking, I can already hear my mother’s voice when she sees this evidence of reflection obsession. “You ARE your father’s daughter.”

Yep. It’s true. I certainly have the same massive and rapidly growing library of reflection shots and of sunsets – endless  variations of the changing play of colour over sea, islands, lake, mountains.….

Sunset, Lake Pukaki

A cliché maybe. But for me these rampantly extravagant light shows still evoke a sense of excitement, awe and, from somewhere, a huge inner contentment that seems to help justify human existence. Here, at the reflective end of evolution’s abundant experimentation, we can at least bear witness to the wonder of it all.

It makes all this snapping away seem something more than an exercise in aesthetics – the creation of a satisfying shot. It feels like capturing a little essence of wonder that can be pulled out again and again, when needed. A sort of reassurance.

I don’t remember ever talking to Dad about the nature of his own obsession with the capture of light – though there were times when we found ourselves happily clicking away at a sunset, side by side. But I don’t doubt a lifetime of exposure – so to speak – rubbed off.

It could easily have happened during the many slideshows he stage managed for our immediate family, for visitors and, later, for his grandkids and even great grandkids.

These shows were a family tradition. A ritual.

His old single slide projector would be hauled from its box and put on a fold-out table. With fan loudly whirring and white screen pulled up, right-sized books were found to centre the bright white light to best effect while whichever kids were present inevitably experimented with crooked fingers, making rabbit ears or yapping dogs to chase across the screen until dad got the focus sorted. Then the signal to whoever was stationed by the switch – lights out.

The room would fill with images. Family. My sister aged about 10  and apparently (well, according to my father) testing thought transference forehead to forehead with a gentle, bell-hung Swiss cow; me balancing on a log crossing a rushing alpine stream;  both of us dressed in matching duffel coats and knitted hats standing proudly by a lumpy snowman; my mum, bright against a snowy slope or carefully placed in a shot of mountains caught in a still lake.

Scenery. There were always mountains, lakes and, yes, reflections. Lots of them. Not to mention sunsets, sunrises….

Lake Pukaki at dusk

I was doomed, really.

Not only was there the magic of slide evenings but the equally exciting and ritualistic magic of the darkroom. I remember how Dad could turn the bathroom of our Talgarth home into his photo processing lab. The addition of a few planks of wood across the bath provided space for developing trays. The bath itself held water for the final wash.

I loved being allowed to watch quietly in the dim red light as images miraculously appeared on blank paper. Later when I found a flat in Auckland that actually had its own darkroom, I shared similar sessions with my son. I don’t know if he is still hooked on the smell of photographic chemicals. I am – though there’s no longer much excuse for a darkroom.

I suspect my Dad would have loved Photoshop if he could have brought himself to engage in the computer age. Despite the lack of time left after tending to a busy rural practice, big garden and young family, he managed to experiment a bit with photographic printing and he certainly had the patience to play.

Before the advent of colour print film, he used to print in black and white and then hand colour his portraits of family members – eyes bluer, lips redder than reality. All done with the same painstaking care he applied to the detailed marquetry pictures he made.

Lake Alexandrina

Here, in the South Island, I am very much aware of following in his footsteps. I’ve photographed reflections at some of his favourite haunts – Lakes Alexandrina, Ruataniwha, Pukaki and Moke. I’ve watched the sun sink over mountain ranges whose names he knew by heart.

I can still hear his voice over the projector’s whirr identifying specific peaks as they slid across the screen – a rollcall of respect for the places that gave him such pleasure. I still envy his amazing memory – something I failed to inherit.

And just recently, I walked the gentle track up through Mt Peel Forest to the “Big Tree”.

Me at the Big Tree

It was one of my parents’ well-worn rambles.

Just a few months before he died, aged 92, I’d got a letter from Dad. He and mum had made it to the Big Tree and there was a photo of mum posed against its massive trunk to prove it. She’s warmly dressed in a camouflage coloured jacket and matching hat gazing straight into the camera, hand firmly on her stick. It’s one of my favourite photos.

As I walked, I could picture them. Mum leaning forward slightly, stick pushing her determinedly up the gravel path – and as usual a few steps ahead of Dad. His progress slower but steady. Sometimes stopping to catch breath. What was once barely an incline to my two fit, alpine tramping parents had become a challenge of gravity for the aging bodies that contain their willing minds.

For Dad, the uphill bits had become a real hurdle. Mum’s uncertain balance made downhills tougher. But they did it. I could see Dad sitting on the bench near the tree, reaching in his jacket pocket for something to celebrate the achievement – a muesli bar, an apple. He always had something to share.

He was so proud that they made it.

I was thinking of him again the other evening as I sat on “snail’s” steps, clicking away at the Southern sun’s long twilight tumble through every shade of yellow, orange and red toward the purple hills above Lake Pukaki. Sometimes I think he is helping stage manage the show.

I am so grateful for his heritage, so grateful to be here, to see this. I hope to never cease wondering at the magic cast by the changing play of light.

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments