January 11 2008 was brother John’s 58th birthday. January 11 2008 was also the Nelson Harness Racing Club’s summer meeting. And I wanted to spend a day or two with mother, before, in a few weeks, I head off back to Europe. Mother just happens to live directly opposite Richmond racecourse.
So what more logic than for us to spend Johnny’s birthday together, and of course take in a bit of summery harness racing.
Just to make this trip all the more logical, Nicho from Germany (and Barraba Station) has been staying with us, and has as yet seen of New Zealand only Sefton, horse racing and Mount Cook. So what more suitable than for him to ride with me the 400 kilometres from Gerolstein to Richmond and, from there, bus, hitch and walk his way back to Christchurch in time to catch his plane for Stuttgart at the end of the month.
And so, on January 10, the little red car (which, these days, isn’t used to doing much more than a short sprint to the shops or the racetrack) was rolled out of its bed at 7am, and off we set in a mild grey Canterbury drizzle.
What I didn’t realise was that it would turn out, for me, to be much more than a simple car trip.
Only once in the past five years have I driven over what used to be the familiar road between Canterbury and Nelson. The road that, in the 1990s, Ian and I scooted regularly up and down, from our cottage in St Arnaud, happily following our horses round the Canterbury racetracks or fulfilling various lecturing and book-related dates. What memories there were, round every corner of the road.
Happily, as we approached the Lewis Pass, the point in the mountainous’ backbone’ of New Zealand’s South Island where you cross out of the Canterbury plains, the clouds vanished and the sun came out, so for the second half of our trip we saw the Buller and Nelson provinces at their best. I’d somehow forgotten (how could I?) just how beautiful New Zealand’s countryside is.
We stopped at the impressive Maruia Falls for soda water and a choc-bar. More memories. A visit there with Ian ten years ago. And much further back, as children, Johnny and I with our parents. It hasn’t changed. Except at last they’ve put signs up so you don’t miss it. And a toilet and picnic table and a proper track to the riverside! But in true New Zealand Dept of Conservation manner: no rubbish bin. (Well, someone would have to empty it. Official answer!).
I’ve never wanted to go back to Lake Rotoiti and the village of St Arnaud, where I spent so many weekends of my childhood climbing and skiing, and where Ian and I had a small holiday farm for something like a decade. But Nicho needed to see it, so I bit the bullet and detoured. The lake first. It must be over half a century since I first paddled in its waters.
It too is, of course, the same. Its deep blue waters, its pebbled ‘beach’, and the friendly mountains, naked of snow at this time of year. I must be getting old and kindly. I ever felt warmth towards toward the happy families picnicking messily (no DOC wastebin) on the strand, until one little girl decided it would be fun to frighten the ducks (the same ones, I’m sure, from 50 years ago). She now knows that frightening ducks is not funny. Especially in a National Park.
I got Nicho to take a picture of me in the same place where I had one taken in my childhood, and I intended to put the Then and the Now up here together. But I can’t find the Then, and I take a lousy photo Now, so here’s Nicho instead.
From the lake we drove out through St Arnaud village. Much of it is the same, but the new village hall has at last been built (it looks more like an aircraft factory) and some grotty ‘developer’ has shoved a dozen or so tatty chalets onto what used to be one paddock on the edge of the (tiny) burg. A ghastly eyesore. And then, a couple of kilometres down the road, Fernenland. Our sometime wee house and 62 acres. I didn’t mean not to look, and anyway the buildings and gardens are hidden behind the National Trust mini-forest (my donation) that lines the road. I just clocked the fact that the trees had grown hugely since our time, and plunged onwards. Too many memories can be too many.
Through the vast Golden Down forests, on the road we used to take each week to buy supplies in Wakefield (a wonderful butcher) and Richmond. Alas, the butcher has sold up and his little shop is now a garish block of commerces. My friendly garagiste, too, has gone into retirement, but his successor has spruced the place up nicely. We press on.
At the bottom of the main street of Richmond, Nicho piled out with his backpack and headed for the busstop. And I turned in the other direction, to Villa 40, Oakwoods Village, and a whole lot more memories.