Off Island for Christmas
Waihekians refer to being away from Waiheke as ‘Off Island’ as if you are somehow ‘off-line’ or have become disconnected with the centre of the universe. It’s not that the Islanders don’t take an interest in Auckland, New Zealand or the rest of the world – Island newspaper columns do talk about world and national events – it’s just that all things Waiheke are more important. This attitude has no arrogance or one-upmanship towards the rest of humanity. We are perfectly happy to welcome visitors, allow the vistas, the wine and the food to speak for themselves then charge the people for their experience. Many here rely on the tourist trade for their lively-hoods and it’s growing, or getting worse, depending on your point of view. Driving through Oneroa at the weekend seems more crowded that Queen Street in downtown Auckland. Corporations choose the Island as the venue for Pre-Christmas parties packing the evening ferries with loud drunken people so that sober Islanders opt to wait for 30 minutes for the new alternative service which is quiet and so far un-crowded. Now that the holiday is in full swing extra vessels are being employed on some sailings and the new competing company has got a brand new boat, unimaginatively called D6, to replace the small slow one which was always late or cancelled due to bad weather.
So its five days before Christmas and I’m off to ‘Off Island’ aka home to Hawke’s Bay where I grew up. I’m booked on the 7.30 car ferry to Half Moon Bay and, obeying the instructions to arrive thirty minutes early, I find I’m in time to catch the 7.00 am sailing, on a faster boat. It’s the first time in a while that Fab Blue Car (now renamed Faulty Blue Car on account of it’s minor oil leak and worn transition) has reached 100 k/h as there are no opportunities to go over 60 k/h on the Island roads. It takes a while to get used to the different sounds at this speed. I do a coffee break at Tirau then a stop at Taupo to train in the AC baths followed by lunch, then a snooze further on at a beautiful lookout spot which I think might be away from traffic noise. There’s a steady stream of tourists driving into the part to look at the waterfall, but I manage to sleep through it.
I’m staying with a cousin in Havelock North, but can’t remember how to get there and Google Maps is not playing on my phone so I have to call for instructions. My cousin trains her two dogs in agility and they win prizes. Dot, the Jack Russell, was last year the star of a Russian theatre company’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Wellington festival. She had to learn Russian for the role but we thinks she has forgotten it now. It’s Sunday and after a local walk to exercise the dogs, we go to the Farmer’s Market at the Hastings Show-grounds. This is one of the best farmer’s markets I’ve seen for ages – all food, none of your decorative arts or house cluttering bric-a-brac which you might want, but don’t need. I bought asparagus to take on for Christmas plus cheese and of course no visit to a farmer’s market is complete without a great cup of coffee. We have time to drive up Te Mata Peak for fabulous views of Hawke Bay and the vast and fertile Heretaunga plain where so much fruit is grown. Apples are the main deal here, many of them going to South East Asia where they have to be delicious, attractive and blemish free, maybe Sainsburys buy the seconds. Jill and Phil have brought the ashes of their last dog to scatter in the redwood grove where he liked to run. The living dogs, unaware of the purpose of the visit, are chasing pine cones, though Dot has to have an especially small one on account of her jaw size.
Being a master swimmer throws up the challenge of finding somewhere to train. The website for the indoor 25m pool in Waipukurau reports it is closed for retiling, fantastic timing for the holiday season – not. The outdoor pool at nearby Waipawa is open for business from 11 every morning. I’m early so time for a great coffee at the now famous Misty River Café in the High Street. It’s on Trip Advisor and service is prompt for coffee and any food on the counter but can be slow getting things out of the kitchen. I’m sitting by the windlw watching my old home town go bye. Having coffee in the High Street would have been unheard of when I was a kid, now there are at least three places. I scan faces for anyone I might recognise, but everyone seems new, even those who might be around my age are not familiar. It’s pleasing to see that the old town is doing well. There are no empty shops on the High Street and everyone seems to be in town.
The town swimming pool is looking fantastic in the sunshine and I’m one of the first in this morning. I recall the massive queen carnival the town held over 50 years ago to raise money for its construction and my family was heavily involved. I joined a coaching session here when some parents employed a Japanese swimming instructor and we quickly formed a kids swimming club, hosting meets and travelling to Havelock North and Woodville to compete. I used to come down to train in the early mornings with a girl from my class. We had a key to the side gate and would do 30 minutes before school – enough to win the High School senior championship.
My brother farms beef and sheep in a district called Wakarara, underneath the Ruahine ranges. Central Hawke’s Bay is now marketed as Lamb Country but you would be hard pushed to find many lambs on the flat Ruataniwha Planes. The highly successful dairy industry here has inexorably spread over the land, irrigating fields of grass to intensify production, requiring high levels of fertilisers with consequential nitrogen pollution running into rivers. You now have to go to higher ground; rolling and hill country to find the lambs which are now in short supply and consequently the most expensive meat you can buy. For the moment the Wakarara valley is peaceful and beautiful. Cousins set up their tents and camp on the terraces above the Makaroro River. It’s a beautiful place with re-emerging forest, thanks to the virtual elimination of Opossums, who since their introduction from Australia, have systematically chomped their way through the native vegetation, targeting young seedlings especially. Trapping and various methods of control have gone on for decades but only a concerted programme using a controversial poison has worked. It’s a no brainer – either we want fluffy Australian Opossums or our native bush. You can’t blame the Opossums; they’ve just stumbled upon a benign environment and taken Darwinian advantage.
Every year we say this will be the last time camping here as this is the site of the proposed and controversial Ruataniwha Dam which plans to irrigate the planes. Delays have been caused by objections to the scheme and the latest ruling is that although control of nitrogen run-off into the waterways has been mentioned in the plans, there are no details of what the levels will be set at or how they will be monitored. Added to this, farmers are unlikely to sign up to buying water until they know what these levels are. All this uncertainty makes it difficult to plan stock levels. My brother needs to know how many ewe lambs to keep for breeding and how many heifer calves to raise for his flock as a significant area of his land will be flooded. The on-off nature of the project is just frustrating and we’ll all be relieved once a decision is made one way or the other. He doesn’t need to irrigate as high levels of intensification are not possible with his sort of farming and anyway the source of the irrigation scheme will be some kilometres downstream.
It’s a big family Christmas with nieces and nephew with their partners and children. I get to glaze the ham, there’s roast lamb, new potatoes and loads of salads. We eat and drink too much and generally laze about looking at the beautiful green hills and my sister-in-law’s lovely garden. Hooray for the Waipawa Swimming pool – I drive in every second day for my 2k swim and take the opportunity to visit old friends in the district. I even remember to visit the graves of ancestors in the town cemetery; people who died before I was born, who for some reason my mother also visited at this time of year with flowers. I don’t have any equipment to scrub of the lichen from the almost unreadable headstones, but the yellow lilies look nice. It’s a scorching hot day, so I don’t expect they will last long. One of my visits is to local artist and horse-woman Sally Eade. http://www.sallyeadeart.co.nz/gallery
She works with acrylics and creates textures with plaster and special effects with thinned paint and a blow dryer to name only a few of her techniques. She says she draws her inspiration from nature, and her work is modern and abstract. She got started after looking at a highly priced picture which seemed to be un-finished and thought ‘I could do better than that’. While most of us say this kind of thing, Sally actually went on to do it.
So Waiheke is not the only place for art, but I’m anxious to get back and check on my pot plants, vegetables in containers and the rest of the garden. After speeding up the North Island, there’s a sign as you drive off the ferry and begin to accelerate up the hill. ‘Slow Down – you’ve Arrived.’