In my last year of primary school I sat at the back of the class, right next to the nature table. I was not happy there; nothing on that table held my interest. Nature study in 1961 was dull projects dreamed up by an earnest teacher. And I was frightened of the table, largely because of the live centipede in a jar which Denise Mackway-Jones had found on a banana bought from the local grocer.
Back then, my only tangible contact with nature and all its wonder came when I dug up our prized lawn for an underground hut, where I announced I would be sleeping until I left home to join the circus… or maybe it was to play cricket for New Zealand, though some would argue in recent times these two have become one and the same.
Neither did I stare out the car window with eyes-wide appreciation when being driven into the beauty of Central Otago. I was well into my teens by then, and at that age, the reputed rural beauty came a distant third behind girls and The Beatles. Or, to be more accurate—because girls were just not working out well at all—The Rolling Stones and The Beatles.
I was nearly 40 years old when I finally went to Central Otago for the right reasons. We had been offered a one-third share in an old mud-brick hotel in the Ida Valley, the Railway Hotel, which sat almost neighbourless off the main road between Oturehua and Omakau. The flat and characterless paddocks that yawned off down the valley weren’t, I thought, a postcard patch on Queenstown or Wanaka. But I liked the air, loved the skies, and marvelled at the overwhelming quiet which was interrupted only occasionally by a baying farm animal.
Not long after buying into the hotel we experienced our first hoar frost. We had been driving in sunshine and cloud-less sky and suddenly, as if entering an unsignposted tunnel, we were in a grey-blackmist, everything frozen and still. We got out of the car, cameras whirring. It was minus seven degrees. But we didn’t want to go back into the warm. You don’t when you see the surreal.
The next morning we awoke to what seemed like a thousand tiny hailstones tattering on a tin roof. The hoar frost was no more and the sun was melting the frozen flora all over the valley. These hoar frosts are rare now, and the Idaburn Dam rarely freezes over for the legendary curling Bonspiel.
Fear and breathtaking beauty will forever fight for my attention up there. Rodents, hand-sized spiders, possums and feral cats seem almost endemic to Central Otago, but far from familiar to me. We ferreted out a rustle under our bed one night and found, yes, a ferret. When I learned what a ferret can do to a chicken, I realised how close I had come to a miserable death.
One summer night, lying on the grass in front of the hotel staring at the amazing night sky, I was taken by an incessant noise. There seemed to be animals and insects all around me, all watching, all poised to strike. I mentioned The Noise Of The Night to our friend Barney the next day. He scratched his head and looked at me incredulously. Central Otago farmers clearly do not lie on the grass in the middle of the night staring at the sky, that’s just a city thing.
The farmers there like to fish when they have time. I enjoy a good dam, but not fishing. That’s dentist-waiting-room stuff. And I don’t hunt or climb. When the greater Alexandra area has its annual rabbit shoot, I sit inside and listen to the gunfire, I don’t ask to have a go. I just like to walk. I have discovered electric fences, disguised swamps and glowering bulls, and I have been dive-bombed in spring by magpies wanting my eyes because I walked too close to their young.
But I am learning to love the nature around me. I was walking with our daughter and grandson in March and saw one of those quintessential Maniototo wildflowers, the kind that grow stubborn and strong in a brutal climate. I picked one.
“Keep this for the boy,” I said to my daughter. “He may want to take it to school for the nature table.”