I’m gonna free fall
Out into nothing...
- Tom Petty, Free Fallin’
The sky is big: really big. You have no idea just how mind-bendingly, eye-poppingly huge the sky is. You might think the Sydney Harbour Bridge is big; or that Donald Trump"s ego is big. However they are nothing compared to the bigness of the sky. Looking up from the ground the sky seems to go on forever.
But no matter how you try to imagine it, you don’t appreciate just how vast the sky really is until you are falling through a piece of it.
To many people, sky-diving seems like utter madness. Why jump out of a perfectly good airplane when you can safely stay inside it and enjoy the view? Or, better still, enjoy the view from an outside table at a café with a glass of, say, sauvignon blanc. However, those options don’t provide the sheer adrenaline head-rush of free-fall parachuting. And on this fine June morning at Fox Glacier, on New Zealand’s South Island I am experiencing the madness first-hand.
Sixteen thousand feet above South Westland, the air is so cold I can see my breath. Sitting in the back of a converted Fletcher top-dressing plane, the view from the perspex window is stunning. The ice-fields of Mount Cook/Aoraki and Mount Tasman gleam in the morning sun. The entire sweep or the Southern Alps stretches to the horizons in both directions. I can see over the Main Divide to Lake Tekapo and, beyond range upon range of snow-covered hills, the Canterbury Plains which swim in a haze of morning mist.
Behind me, my tandem jump-master Mark, owner of Sky-dive Fox Glacier, is going through a verbal checklist of connections and cross-checks as we approach our jump altitude. Aerial camera-man Paul is running a similar checking procedure for his glove-mounted video camera and helmet-mounted still camera. A sticker on the back of his helmet reads: “Sky-diving?...f*#k yeah!!” Beside me, Taiwanese visitor Jean Tsai sits strapped to her jump-master Ollie. We are both remarkably calm considering what we are about to do.
A green light winks on. We are at our ceiling altitude. Paul slides the door open and climbs out onto a railing mounted on the fuselage. Ollie and Jean slide over to the door-way, pause momentarily then disappear along with Paul. Mark gives me the thumbs up. We bum-shuffle to the doorway. The slipstream claws at my yellow and black jumpsuit. The air rushes by with a locomotive roar. I am dimly aware of the Earth, huge and green, far below my dangling feet. I give a hang-ten sign to the wing camera. Then we fall out into nothing.
Gravity is the weakest forces in the universe. It takes the gravitational force of the entire planet to hold your latte down. But you were easily able to overcome its attractive force when you picked it up just now. Nevertheless, once gravity gets hold of you, it will pull you towards the Earth at a surprising rate.
A falling object accelerates at a rate of 19.8 metres per second squared (or 32 feet per second squared: skydivers and pilots work in imperial units, hence our jump height of sixteen thousand feet) until it reaches what is known as its terminal velocity. At this point the effects of drag mean that it cannot fall any faster. A pair of tandem sky-divers, falling belly down, will reach a terminal velocity of 200 kilometres per hour.
As we fall away from the aircraft, the first thing that hits me is the noise. The sound of the air pummels my ears with a heavy, tactile force. It feels like I’m being beaten around the head with a pillow containing a brick of West Coast gold. With each gasping intake of breath, the frigid air rushes into my lungs with a liquid nitrogen burn. I can feel the flesh on my face being pressed flat onto my cheekbones and my lips flapping open into the expression sky-divers call “horse-face.”
My brain is momentarily overload with sensory input. It is all too much to take in. No wonder first-time sky-divers often have a memory blank for days afterwards. But then I have a moment of clarity. I tune out the noise of the rushing air; my breathing slows. I feel Mark tap me on the shoulder to indicate that I can put my arms out as we fly. The adrenaline hits in a rush and I am suddenly whooping and shouting with exhilaration.
If the sky had seemed big before, it is now the Earth which fills my vision. It is huge and round and it is rushing towards me very, very fast. I stare at it as though I’m trying to psych it out; to dare it to come at me and do its worst. It happily obliges. My vision wobbles like footage from a hand-held camera in an action movie.
We have been in free fall for sixty seconds. In that short time we have fallen about 10,000 feet and the universe’s weakest force has proven unequivocally that it’s not just good for holding coffee cups down. I hear a sudden whooshing noise as Mark deploys our parachute. The harness around my legs, across my chest and under my arms draws tight and we decelerate rapidly as the parachute fills with air.
Almost at once, we are in a different environment. The air is warm and silent. The sun shimmers in the azure dome of the sky. I flip my goggles up onto my forehead and take in the view which is now stable and bucolic. Lake Matheson shimmers in its frame of rainforest; Hereford cattle dot the patchwork of farmland along the forest margins; a tiny white car moves along the grey scratch of road leading to Gillespies Beach. The Tasman Sea shines like a National guitar and the coastline of Westland stretches south towards Jackson Bay and distant Fiordland.
We descend towards the landing zone at a sedate sixteen kilometres per hour. Mark hands me a pair of straps so I can fly the parachute this way and that. I execute a slow, adagio clockwise turn and the Earth spins beneath us. We line up the landing zone and I can see Jean and Ollie watching us approach.
The ground comes up to gather us and we slide to a halt on the soft grass. Gravity congratulates itself on a job well done and wanders off to make sure everything else in the universe is firmly held together. As Mark and I shake hands, I look up into the sky through which we have just fallen. It doesn’t seem quite so big now.
After my first tandem parachute jump ten or more years ago, I had suffered the same memory blank often experienced by first timers. Afterwards, I had sworn I would never do it again. But this time, I remember everything. The view from sixteen thousand feet, the mind-pummeling adrenaline rush of free fall, and the tingly feeling of being utterly alive which always accompanies a successful adventure.
The sky is big: really big. I understand now just how big it is because I have just been there. So would I do it again? Hell no! Well, at least, not until next time...
Home is the sailor, home from the sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.
- Robert Louis Stevenson, Requiem
Dawn in Pleasant Gully. The Te Moana River chatters in its bed of stones. A bellbird drops limpid notes from the cover of a broadleaf tree. Wisps of fog hang in the bushy ravines and tussocky basins beneath the summit of Fiery Peak, which stands like a sentinel overlooking the valley. The rising sun paints its bluffs and screes crimson and gold.
I sit on the step of the Pleasant Gully Hut drinking coffee and watching the day arrive. I can see the steep track I will be climbing today. It zig-zags up a long spur and disappears over a pass notched into the ridgeline of the Four Peaks Range. The sky is deep blue; this November day promises to be hot. I finish my coffee, close the hut door and set off uphill.
Four Peaks Station occupies the southern end of the Four Peaks Range, which dominates the western skyline of South Canterbury behind the town of Geraldine. The station encompasses the twin summits of Devils Peak and Fiery Peak which fall away into vast faces of snow tussock. Streams of pure snow-melt cascade down from the tops, spilling over hidden waterfalls and joining to form the Te Moana River.
Four Peaks is a working sheep station, and wiry half-bred sheep, along with cattle and wild deer, run on the hills. But as well as traditional farming, the owners of Four Peaks have developed a three-night walk which introduces visitors to the pleasures of staying in historic shepherd’s huts along the way.
The previous day I had set off from the Four Peaks Station homestead on the far side of the range. Following farm 4WD tracks I had ascended a low saddle then sidled around the southern end of the range and down into Pleasant Gully. As I walked I hummed the old Dance Exponents song Why Does Love Do This To Me? The line “Jackie came, she went away; deep in the valley I kissed her that day” was supposedly written about Pleasant Gully.
Built in 1900, the Pleasant Gully Hut was once the furthest outposts of the historic Orari Gorge Station. My great uncle, Arthur Blakiston, worked on Orari Gorge as a shepherd during the 1880s, and was station manager from 1910 until 1935. In his memoir My Yesteryears he describes life at Pleasant Gully.
“We lived on meat, bread, scones and potatoes,” he writes. “After chops and tea for breakfast at 1:30am we would climb out to our beats on the hill.” My evening meal was a little more salubrious: porterhouse steak topped with Mount Peel blue cheese followed by a can of boysenberries and a plunger of coffee. No shepherd ever dined so well.
By midday, after a long hot slog up the track, I am standing on the summit of the range. To the east, the Canterbury Plains stretch out in a hazy patchwork to the edge of the ocean. To the west lies the Two Thumb Range and, beyond, the Southern Alps. The track descends a sunny face scored with deep gullies of running shingle, then winds along the edge of the Mobray Stream to Sutherland’s Hut.
Constructed in 1866, Sutherland’s is the oldest hut on the walk and possibly the oldest surviving back-country hut still in use in New Zealand. It’s stone walls and steep corrugated iron roof have weathered countless snowstorms and gales, yet the hut is still as sound as the day it was built.
In the 1980s I spent several summers working as a shepherd on Four Peaks. During the autumn muster we would spend a week camped at Sutherlands Hut. We bathed in the creek and lived on fried chops and boiled spuds. We were young and fit. It was a great life.
The life of the shepherd is a solitary one, and in the mountain world of the high country, my constant companions in those days were my sheepdogs: Bess, Jill, Mick, Bounce, Spook and Quarter. Now, thirty years later, as I wander alone in these same hills, I find that every ridge and valley is imprinted in my memory. I remember great runs my dogs did as we mustered the country, and drunken nights in Sutherland’s Hut, drinking beer and whiskey and telling tall stories.
During the night, a nor’ west wind gets up. The hut creaks and rattles; heavy raindrops crackle on the roof. Yet when I walk outside to check the weather, the sky is clear and encrusted with stars: the rain was just a spectre, like a ghost of storms past.
I dawdle around the hut next morning. I sit beside the Mobray Stream reading, and watching merino wethers mooching about on Blue Mountain Station over on the other side of the stream. At midday I set off up the steep track which zig zags across the face of Mt. Mobray to the Jumpover Saddle. From the saddle, I climb to the top of the range
It is early evening by the time I reach the summit of Devil’s Peak. The eastern plains lie beneath a fluffy counterpane of white cloud pressed right up against the range. Westward, the Two Thumb Range crouches in a steely blue nor’ west haze. I have five bars of phone coverage. I update my social media; I talk to my brother and my wife.
Row upon row of mountains, each range a slightly lighter shade of pale blue, stretch away into the setting sun. The high basins still hold the last of the winter snows. Out on the Ashwick Flat, the waters of Lake Opuha shine like a sheet of pewter on a beige background of dryland farms.
Alone in this vast space of mountains and sky I am surrounded by nature. A nanny thar flees at my approach, vaulting sure-footedly into the Jumpover Bluffs with a clatter of falling stones; a pair of chucker partridge take flight from under my feet; somewhere overhead a skylark twitters.
I descend the scree-slopes and tussock faces back to the Jumpover Saddle. It is nearly dark by the time I reach Devil’s Creek Hut.
It’s amazing how a hot shower can re-invigorate a tired body. All of the huts on the Four Peaks walk are equipped with gas showers (along with log burners and solar-powered lighting) but the one at Devil’s Creek is especially good. I cook tea then sit outside with a coffee listening to the creek chattering in its bed of stones beside the hut.
Tomorrow, I will have to return home from the hill. But tonight, I can rest here alone in my high country home and remember the long-ago days when I was a shepherd in these hills. A sheep bleats from up on the side of Devil’s Peak; a magpie gargles in the branches of the big macrocarpa tree across the creek. The western sky fades from purple and mauve to black. One by one the stars come out.
Caught up in another dream,
drifting on a blue ocean…
- Gerry Rafferty, The Right Moment
At dawn I am standing on a new land. It is low tide, and in the small dark hours before the arrival of the new day, the sea has withdrawn from Wainui Inlet and created the sandy islet upon which I stand. A tiny, gentle squall of warm rain blows across Golden Bay. Cat’s paw ripples mark its progress across the water and I feel it buffet me as it strikes my island. The offing is empty save for a few tawdry gulls pecking at a half-submerged sand-bar further offshore. Out on the horizon, the sea and the sky are welded together in a seamless joint of blue and grey.
A landscape of golden sand-flats stretch away behind me, curving around a low point upon which stands a single kanuka tree. The ocean has sculpted the sand with stripes and hollows, rills and fissures, hummocks and crenulations. With each tide the moving water brings subtle changes to the inlet and the shallow, muddy estuary behind it. It is a place of constant movement and change. Even now, the tide has turned and my tiny sand country is growing smaller. I turn my back on the ocean and wade back towards terra firma.
The Wainui Inlet cuts a deep notch into the hills on the eastern edge of Golden Bay.
The ocean wraps itself around a rocky headland which guards the outer edge of the inlet, and slides up onto a long strip of low dunes covered with sedges and gorse. Thick, coastal rainforest cloaks the spurs and valleys running down to the water’s edge from the skyline ridge which rises steeply from the eastern shore of the inlet.
Our home for the week is a small, rented cottage overlooking the mouth of the inlet. It is a simple place: a few rooms with a kitchen, a living room opening onto a concrete patio and a lawn running down towards the ocean. There are kayaks plied up behind a shed out back and a lemon tree hung to breaking with bright yellow fruit. It is a bach in the true New Zealand sense: nothing fancy but perfect for bare feet, sandy towels and eating outdoors.
When you arrange your day by the tides it is all about timing. You have to wait for the right moment. By midday, the ocean has once again seeped into the inlet, filling its nooks and crannies; swirling into its secret places; hiding its islets and sandbars beneath a shallow skin of water. I launch a kayak and paddle out past the rocky pinnacles on the western side of the inlet.
The boulders and outcrops which have so recently been part of a sandy beach are now jagged islets and black, submerged reefs. I paddle west, hugging the land like an explorer charting an hitherto unexplored coastline. In some of the coves, the ocean has piled up stacks of sun-bleached driftwood. The tangled heaps are the skeletons of forests, washed down from hidden mountain ranges and cast up on this distant shore. I think of a line from James Reeves’ poem The Sea:
“And ‘Bones, bones, bones, bones!’
The giant sea-dog moans,
Licking his greasy paws.”
At dawn the next day I am paddling on an ocean of liquid glass. Beneath my kayak, the waters of Golden Bay lie in a flat plane stretched out to the horizon. The gentlest of swells raises and lowers me as if some giant slumbering sea creature is breathing in the depths. The vast dome of the sky glows pink and mauve as the rising sun clears the hazy, jumbled skyline of Abel Tasman National Park. The noise of cicadas, echoing across the water from the shore, sounds like steam escaping from the boiler of a long-gone coastal freighter.
I switch on my phone. A couple of text messages come through. I update my Facebook page with a photo of my feet in the yellow plastic bow of the kayak and the empty ocean surrounding me. I title the photo “My Wednesday Morning” then switch the phone off. I don’t need to hear from anyone. I am on holiday. I turn the kayak and paddle back towards shore.
Backed by the rugged Paparua Ranges, in the top north-western corner of the South Island, Golden Bay stretches in a long arc west from Totaranui, near Takaka, around to Farewell Spit. The spit curves round like the beak of a kiwi and shelters much of Golden Bay from the prevailing westerly weather. The waters of the bay are relatively shallow and are warmed by the summer sun to the temperature of a perfect blue bath.
The coastline of Golden Bay is notched with dozens of tiny inlets and bays, each one sheltering a cottage or two, an occasional camping ground or the hidden retreats of artisans and dreamers. Sluggish rivers, their waters brown with tannins leached from the inland rainforests, meander down from the ranges and fall asleep in the bay.
There are four of us at the cottage this week. For Linda and our girls Lydia and Emma, the holiday is all about sleeping in, sun-bathing, reading and just doing nothing much. For me, it is all about exploring. Whenever it is low tide I can wander along the beach where there are caves and outcrops and raggedy coves of weathered rock to explore. Tiny creeks drip from bush-filled gullies and flow out across the sand in patterns which resemble veins beneath the skin of an ancient hand.
Occasionally I come across evidence of other beachcombers: footprints, driftwood huts, indistinct paths leading up into the hinterland beyond the beach. But for the most part it is just me, the edge of the land, the shifting patterns of light and shade, and the ceaselessly moving ocean.
On our last day at Wainui I paddle inland with the high tide. The sun is incandescent in the blue dome of the sky and although a westerly wind is whipping the ocean outside into a chaotic chop, the waters of the inlet are calm. Crowds of oystercatchers rest on the sandbars, awaiting another low tide when the mud-flats, with their infinite supply of cockles and worms, will once again be revealed. Cormorants roost on the crooked limbs of dead trees protruding from the water.
At the head of the inlet I stop paddling and just drift. Soon the tide will turn again and I will be able to let its gentle weight pull me back out towards the blue ocean. All I have to do is wait for the right moment.
I know the joy of fishes in the river through my own joy,
as I go walking along the same river.
- Zhuanzi (Chinese philosopher 369-286BC)
The Taieri River rises amid the stone and gold landscape of the Lammerlaw Range, on the southern edge of the Maniototo Plain high in Central Otago. From its small beginnings in tussocky snowfields, the fledgling river gathers the waters of rocky creeks and icy springs as it descends from the hills and flows eastward across the Maniototo.
Cattle graze its willow-lined banks as the river meanders through swampy paddocks, and fishermen cast their lines into deep pools where some of Otago’s best trout live. An eel trap set in any of the rivers sluggish backwaters will always yield a rich harvest of the slithery creatures which early Maori gathered on their expeditions across the great plain. The name they bestowed on the river means “River of Light.”
The sky is big up here. Light falls from the sky like powdered gold and the landscape seems to glow as if lit from within. Every surface, every tree, every stone, every blade of grass seems to absorb the sun’s light, bend it into gentle new spectrums, then radiate it back into the air. Long straight roads lead the eye towards the surrounding ranges from which fortunes in gold were extracted during the region’s gold rush days. These days, though, the real treasure lies in the Taieri’s burnished gleam as it reflects the sun setting on another day in this land of stone and gold.
The Taieri turns slowly around the north end of Rock and Pillar Range, past the hamlets of Waipiata, Kokonga and Hyde. The railway brought wealth to these isolated places, which alternately freeze in winter then bake through the long summers. But the railways are gone and with it the prosperity that wool and beef brought in the early days. Abandoned farm houses stare sightlessly out across the hills and pencil-thin Lombardy poplars claw the sky. But the longevity of family life up here is evident in the names on farm mailboxes which match those of the roads and those on graveyard headstones dating back to the earliest settlers.
At Middlemarch the river enters the Taieri Gorge. This barrier to trade was bridged during the gold rush by the construction of the Taieri Gorge Railway. The chugging steam engines of those days have been replaced by diesel locomotives which pull carriage-loads of tourists through the gorge where the track spans vertiginous creeks on box girder bridges and the yellow smudge of gorse hugs the hillsides.
Freed from the confines of the ranges, the river flows south across the rich dairy country of the Strath-Taieri district to enter the sea on the east coast of Otago, thirty kilometres south of Dunedin. In its two hundred kilometre journey, the river has describes an almost complete circle. The distance, in a direct line from its source to the ocean, is only a little over sixty kilometres. The riverbanks are faced with golden sands ground from the hills and its final wander to the sea is through a wilderness of flax, swamps and Manuka forest.
Where the river falls idly into the ocean, ramshackle holiday bachs line the shore. Seabirds patrol the river’s margins in search of titbits and fishing boats ride the swells offshore. The river which began its journey as a trickle of silver amid the stone and gold heights of the Lammerlaw has run its course. The river’s song is sung and down on the line where fresh and salt combine all its history is released. But nothing is ever truly finished in the endless cycle of wind and water. Soon of the river’s water, evaporated from the ocean and blown inland in the clouds of southerly storms, will fall on the hills of the Maniototo, gather together and begin the journey again.
We are all travellers in the wilderness of this world…
- Robert Louis Stevenson
The falcon comes straight at me. I can see its big eyes fixed on me as it approaches on a dead level and silent flightpath, like a feathered attack drone. Its mate screeches from the jagged top of a broken pine tree: a shrill kree-kree-kree of strike co-ordinates.
I am standing on an eroded clay outcrop halfway up Conical Hill, which overlooks the spa town of Hanmer Springs. The winter air is so cold it hurts to breathe. Frost clings to every branch. Wreaths of wood-smoke hang in the valley bottoms. I have climbed the hill to photograph the town from above on this frosty June morning. But in doing so I unwittingly strayed into the falcons’ airspace.
At the last second the bird flares its wings and tail. I glimpse wickedly sharp talons and a cruel hooked beak. I feel the terror a small mammal must experience during the same crowded moment. As I beat a hasty, undignified retreat, I slip and fall down a bluff into a jumble of branches. I scramble out of the icy wilderness and limp downhill to the comfort of a latte and some Wi-Fi.
Hanmer Springs (known locally as plain Hanmer or, by the annoying mispronunciation “Ham-na”) nestles under the lee of the Southern Alps in North Canterbury, on the East Coast of the South Island. Encircled by a skyline of jagged mountains, and surrounded by deep green pine forests, Hanmer owes its existence to a series of hot springs which emerge from a fissure in the Alpine Fault which runs down the spine of the South Island.
Well-known to early Maori, the springs were “discovered” in 1859 by Thomas Hanmer, a local run-holder. The therapeutic properties of the hot, mineral-rich springs were quickly recognized and from 1879 onwards, tourists began visiting Hanmer to “take the waters.”
Today, Hanmer is a busy spa town. There are all sorts of adventure activities - bungy-jumping, heli-skiing, mountain-biking and an assortment of other hyphenated action sports – and some great cafes. There are dozens of holiday cottages for rent during winter, and a selection of boutique hotels. But to me, the real joy of Hanmer is the ease with which you can leave the bustle of town and escape into the wild.
Northwest of Hanmer, Jack’s Pass Road climbs a steep, heavily-timbered ridge to a scrubby saddle then descends into the valley of the Acheron River. In just a few minutes (my takeaway latte from the Powerhouse Café is still untouched) I have swapped the bustle of Amuri Street for this vast, empty space.
A battalion of pylons, slung with a tracery of silver cables, marches through the valley, carrying electricity from the turbines of the southern lakes to the heat pumps and appliances of the northern cities. The lines fizz and crackle as the energy within them leaks into the frigid air. The surrounding peaks stand aloof in their white glaze of snow.
A skein of freezing mist hangs over the water. The edges of the river are rimed with ice and clad with swards of snow tussock rigid with hoar frost. Sleek Hereford cows exhale clouds of vapour as they mooch the river flats. On the far bank, a 4WD laden with black and tan huntaways climbs a zig-zag track into a valley locked in permanent winter shadow .
The old Acheron Homestead stands on a promontory overlooking the confluence of the Acheron and Clarence Rivers. Built in 1862, the homestead was used until 1932 as a boarding-house for travellers on the inland route between Nelson and Christchurch. The thick cob walls are rounded and organic. Inside, it is quiet and cold; the dusty timber floors creak underfoot.
I wander the empty rooms imagining the lives of the people who lived here through baking summers and freezing, snow-encrusted winters. The coal range in the scullery is rusting into oblivion; the walls are papered with pages from a magazine published in 1895.
Below the homestead, the opaline waters of the Acheron meet the equally clear and blue Clarence River. Overhead, the azure sky is dotted with lenticular clouds, the outriders of stormy weather in the High Country. I return to Hanmer over the rough Jollie’s Pass Road, through basins of running shingle and narrow gullies thick with olive beech forest.
Next day, the foretold change in the weather arrives. The incoming front is heralded wisps of cloud pouring like dry ice over the passes. The air in the valley is so clear the mountains seem magnified. The bare limbs of the poplars and birches begin to stir as a cold South wind sweeps down from the tops.
By mid-morning, it is snowing: big, wet flakes falling from a leaden sky. The snow clings to the trees and tumbles in blackened lumps from passing cars. I sit in a warm café and watch the snow soften and round the landscape. Later, muffled in waterproof gear, I hike alone through a forest of pine trees where the only sound is the creaking of snow-laden branches and the soft tap of dripping meltwater.
The storm passes as quickly as it arrived. By late afternoon chips of pale blue sky are showing through the cloud. A warmth-less sun shimmers momentarily, then dips behind the rim of the hills. The air is so cold it seems to shatter as I walk through it.
In the evening, I retire to the sybaritic warmth of the hot pools. The 40° water fell as rain on the Hanmer Plain a century and a half ago. Heated in subterranean chambers, it percolated through the rocks until it re-emerged, smelling of hydrogen sulphide, to be filtered and sterilized and presented in a blue pool for me to relax in.
I lie back in the water gazing at the stars. The Southern Cross gleams overhead. A ghost moon bathes the mountains in monochrome light. Up on Conical Hill, the falcons will be maintaining a vigil over their frigid domain. Steam rises from the pools and makes its way upwards into the frosty air: back into the water cycle, back into the wild.
I dig my toes into the sand;
Dawn on Tahunanui Back Beach. At this hour, the beach is empty: a strand of grey sand adorned with a tide-wrack of driftwood. Off to the west, the heaped blue hills of Able Tasman National Park crouch in a purple and mauve haze. The ocean is mirror calm, and slides up onto the sand with a low, sibilant hiss. Offshore, a sailboat, hull down on the horizon, makes its way north on the tremulous breeze; a container ship, like a floating, angular city, makes its approach to the Port of Nelson.
I walk east along the beach towards the rising sun. The sand is cool beneath my bare feet. The receding tide has left an archipelago of tiny, wet-sand islands. Terns and gulls take momentary possession of these new lands then flee, crying, at my approach. The upper limb of the sun clears the horizon and golden light floods across Tasman Bay.
Nelson is a city of light. Situated at the top end of the South Island, the city receives two thousand four hundred hours of sunshine annually, making it one of New Zealand’s sunniest places. “The Naples of the Southern Hemisphere” proclaimed one early chronicler, in reference to its sunny location. Established in 1841, Nelson is the country’s second oldest city. Its founder, Arthur Wakefield, named it after Horatio Nelson, the famed naval commander who won the Battle of Trafalgar during the Napoleonic War. Many of the city’s streets and public places commemorate people and actions from Trafalgar.
At the end of the beach I cross State Highway 6 and climb the two hundred and sixty-nine steps to Queen’s Road Reserve. From the park’s observation platform I have an uninterrupted view of the vast, pale expanse of the bay. The long narrow isthmus known as the Boulder Bank, its end hooked like a shepherd’s crook, shelters the waters of Nelson Haven, the city’s long, deep harbour. An exclamation-point lighthouse guards the entrance; a flight of steel cranes stand waiting up at the port.
It is mid-January, high summer in Nelson. My family and I are staying in a rented house a few minutes’ walk from the beach. Arriving the previous day – a hot, windy Friday – we had unloaded our stuff and headed straight for the sea. The water of Tasman Bay is shallow, and warms to the temperature of a bath. We swam in the gently toppling waves then lay on the sand to dry out. Later, we’d walked across the road to Sands Fish and Chips for a post-swim snack, ably assisted by some of the local gulls.
Every Saturday morning, the Nelson Farmers Market cranks into life in Montgomery Square, right in the centre of town. The market is the usual collection of meretricious jewellery, organic produce, gimcrack souvenirs and dubious works of local art, mixed with coffee, food stalls and a few buskers. At the end of one row of stalls, AJ Hickling is playing an upright piano he salvaged from a rubbish dump. Dressed in a chunky hand-knitted poncho, dreadlocks hanging down over his tanned, tattooed shoulders, he is a virtuoso player and I watch, captivated, for an hour. Money cascades into his tin; tourists, including myself, upload videos and pictures to social media in real-time.
Tiring of the crowds, I walk up Trafalgar Street and climb the flight of wide marble steps, inlaid into a low hill, to Nelson Cathedral. Inside, the sound of the city fades to a murmur. An organist was plays Bach on the organ in the chancel. The organ’s two thousand, five hundred pipes fill the interior with their rich, melodious tones. In the east transept, beneath a rose window of red and azure stained glass, concentric rings of candles burn in a circular candelabra. Sprigs of laurel and roses adorn the pews. Tourists wave selfie sticks, like latter-day censers, around in the nave. Later, back down on Trafalgar Street, I sit at a pavement café table watching the world go by over the rim of my latte glass.
On a hill near the eastern edge of Nelson lies the Geographical Centre of New Zealand. Well, almost. These things are never a certainty. The actual geographical centre is located in “a patch of unremarkable, dense scrub” in the Spooners Range, thirty-two kilometres south-west of town. Nevertheless, the notion of being in the centre of the country is appealing, so I climb Botanical Hill, as it is known, early one morning.
The trail leads from a grassy park, where a man is flying a remote-controlled helicopter, up through groves of rhododendron and native trees. A stainless steel monument atop the hill commemorates the point from which the first geodetic survey of New Zealand was begun in the 1870s. From this three hundred and sixty-degree viewpoint, the “zero-zero” points in neighbouring survey districts (including the just-visible North Island) could be triangulated.
Early on Sunday morning, I sit in YAZA! Café watching thunderous rain fall from a murderous sky. The wind thrusts random patterns of ripples across the pools of rainwater lying on the black asphalt of the empty car-park outside; a few desultory tourists drag their wheeled suitcases through the tempest. The café door creaks in the wind like a schooner under sail.
I leave the shelter of the café and walk down to the marina. The storm has thrashed the waters of The Haven into a grey mess. Moored yachts, which yesterday lay on a flat silver mirror, ride out the heavy weather, battened down. The wind sings in the rigging; halliards and down-hauls tap rhythmically against the swaying forest of masts. The rain runs in torrents from the scuppers.
By mid-afternoon, the storm has abated. Rents appear in the cloud-base, and in the high teal sky, a ghost moon, its bottom shorn off, floats hesitantly, as if blown out of the night and into the day. On Trafalgar Street, the storm has left a tide-wrack of coloured petals, shaken from the baskets of pansies and geraniums swaying on the verandahs.
The Maitai River emerges from a narrow rent in the hills on the eastern edge of the city. On a weekday morning, armed with a latte from the Pomeroy’s Coffee trailer, which opens early beneath a giant fig tree at the top end of Trafalgar Street, I drive into the valley as the sun is just touching the ridgetops. Beyond the picnic sites, campgrounds and scattered clusters of houses, the valley narrows to a deep, wooded canyon. The river curls in a serpentine torrent beneath cliffs festooned with dripping native bush. Above the river, pine forests, planted in deft, symmetrical rows and draped with skeins of mist, rise vertiginously to the skyline. In places, waterfalls tumble from the green heights, shatter on the grey rock next to the road, then roar through culverts to spill into the river.
Each turn of the road, now hemmed between the racing river and the valley walls, reveals a new vista of shadow and shade. It seems as if the road might go on forever. But a text message tells me breakfast is soon to be served out on the deck so I turn around on a tiny hem of grass and return to the beach.
On our last evening in Nelson I walk down to Tahunanui Beach at dusk. A pathway of hardwood beams leads through a forest of kanuka and broadleaf growing on the dunes. Flights of sparrows flit among the tall grasses, feeding on the bounty of their seeds. Across the bay, the ranges are draped with livid, bruised storm-clouds, lit from within by flash-gun flares of wildfire.
Another storm is forecast and even now, a few heavy raindrops are being blown out of the west. The incoming tide roars on the shoals and over-falls of the inlet. Gulls hover expertly on the gusting wind. A few tourists, their phone screens framing the sunset, line the water’s edge. The ocherous gleam of the setting sun paints the sky crimson and orange, as night comes down on another day in the city of light.