Shut One Eye – Cycling the Otago Rail Trail

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Shut One Eye

This is the advice given to us from a stranger. We were seated at an outdoor café in Alexandra.  It was the first day of our cycling the Otago Rail Trail. Already, in our lodgings at Clyde, we had encountered the warmth of southern hospitality. Then, at the start of the trail, as we entered the first stretch of gravel and dirt, a couple about our age, coming the other way, (locals biking from Alexandra to Clyde), ambushed us with hellos and endless chit-chat about the trail.  I was itching to be on my bike but fascinated too with the friendliness.

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Shut One Eye.  By this stage, we had cycled the short distance from Clyde to Alexandra and we were enjoying a coffee in the sunshine. First one, then another, local, stopped to chat about our e-bikes, our cycling and where did we come from.  The man who told us to shut one eye before we entered the Poolburn Gorge tunnels on our bikes, was full of advice about recharging electric bikes and cars. He regaled us with his mileage on both his bike and in his car and where to plug in.

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And this was how I ended up cycling with one eye shut for half a kilometre prior to the tunnels. Precarious, but persevering, as I am a stickler for following advice. Whereas John, less worried than me about night blindness, shut his eye about half a minute before. We both sailed through the tunnels yelling and laughing and it was around the middle of the longest tunnel that I suddenly found myself slightly panicked with no idea of left, right, backwards or forwards – and then a light emerged at the end and John’s voice beckoned.

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It was afterwards, we read the sign advising us to walk and not cycle through the tunnels. Chatting with other cyclists that evening, we realised we’d been a bit foolhardy, as perhaps a cyclist coming the other way (who maybe hadn’t shut their one eye for a whole kilometre) would be cycling blind towards us.

It was stinking hot on this, the most scenic part of the trail. We left Omakau early, had coffee in Lauder which was 32 degrees in the shade and then found ourselves hurtling as fast as we could to create a breeze in the stifling, scorching, windless Central Otago. We passed young families, not on e-bikes, not all that well prepared, standing practically hugging an almost hedge, pretending it was shade. One of the kids was crying, the mother looked distressed and Dad with another toddler, was all decked out like a veteran cyclist.

We also noted a hierarchy and a bit of snobbery around e-bikes. You get the feeling from people who are not on e-bikes, that somehow you might be cheating.  We had a wee chuckle when heard that the Otago Rail Trail committee had a meeting to decide if they would allow e-bikes on the trail!  Er, yes, well, as imagine the baby boomer business they might have missed out on.

Apart from the cycling and the spectacular scenery, the revelation was the southern hospitality. From our first night’s accommodation in Clyde when a wine was foisted upon us, to the several locals in Alexandra who stopped to chat proffering advice and the wonderful fact, that everywhere we stayed, the homes remained unlocked.  In Omakau we had a large lodge with several rooms all to ourselves – the note on the table when we arrived, said pick a room.  When our host arrived to chat to us, I asked her for a key and she replied.

There is no key – this house has never had a key – when I bought it from the old couple who used to own it, there wasn’t a key.

 

Then in Oturehua, we stayed at ‘The Mill’.  A beautiful, historic and utterly charming, quarried stone building. Our host was yet another Aucklander in retreat.  We met so many people who’d left Auckland to come to live in Central Otago. Driving us down to the local pub, our host pointed out houses along the way. One house was owned by the woman who bought firewood to our host as a welcoming gift when she first moved there and another house belonged to the people who own a trailer that is out the back and able to be borrowed at any time.

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At the Oturehua store, I bought a signed copy of Brian Turner’s Elemental and just love the earthy, wise and unpretentious poems. He lives somewhere nearby evidently.

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And finally, we met Basil Fawlty.  I guess it had to happen.   It was after the most generous and welcoming stay at the Waipiata Country Pub. We were the only people staying there.  This was so at all our accommodation. It seems we picked a week between seasons (end of Christmas summer holidays and just before the back to school crowd). The owner let us park our bikes in a spare bedroom to recharge. He let us use the washing machine for no extra cost and within half an hour on the old rotary clothesline, everything was bone dry.

So, it was, we rose early the next morning for the last part of the trail. 52 kilometres on a gentle downhill slope all the way to Middlemarch. We were told there were no cafes on this stretch and the pub owner made us a giant salad sandwich, bacon and egg pie and a muffin each.  John was certain there must be a café en route.  We reached Hyde.  A small country pub with a pop-up café. The pop-up café had hot water, coffee bags and various refreshments with an honesty box.  Alas, John’s bike hadn’t recharged the night before. It seemed it hadn’t been properly connected. John, ever pro-active, wheeled his cycle into the pop-up café, and plugged it in.

Well… within a few minutes, a man whom John has affectionately nicknamed Wal from Footrot Flats, appeared

You’re taking the piss.  

Pardon.

I said, you’re taking the piss.

He was outraged that John had brought his bike into the small pop-up café to plug it in.

John politely explained he was recharging and the conversation went back and forth about why couldn’t John take the battery off the bike (which he couldn’t as his adaptor was in his suitcase en route to Middlemarch)… Wal, was livid.   I was outside drinking my coffee and rushed in with my five dollars to pay for the coffee in case Wal thought not only were we stealing power, we were not going to pay for our coffee.  I couldn’t locate the honesty box, so I asked him where it was.

I’m not going to tell you – find it!

In a fluster, as he watched, I rushed around the room hunting for the honesty box which turned out to be a Cadbury Roses chocolate tin.

Then Wal decided he wanted a photo of John recharging the bike and insisted John stand beside the bike while he took a photo.  John, ever determined to keep the bike charging, agreed.  Alas, Wal couldn’t work his phone camera and seem to be appealing to us for help…. needless to say, no photo ensued. It was evidently stuck on panorama.

We enquired if the pop-up café was temporary and was there to be a new café?  And no, he wasn’t about to open another café, as in spite of all the glowing comments over the past several years about the wonderful food and coffee at the Hyde Café, he’d seen the books, and none of the owners made any profit whatsoever.  And, then he added, for good measure…

Anyway, we’re not latte types.

John kept Wal chatting and said that eventually he’d have to accept that e-bikes were here for good and they’d need to be charged.  And what about electric cars, wouldn’t he have to have charging stations for electric cars at his hotel?

Well, that was the last straw for Wal who said that out here in this part of the world no one was going to be driving an electric car.  Basil Fawlty himself would have agreed we are certain.

But don’t be put off – the Hyde Country Pub looks a darling place to stay and I do think this chap is probably a genuinely lovely southern man who just hasn’t quite got the hang of pushy city folks who wish to charge their e-bikes.

We rounded off our holiday with two days at Little River to be with old friends, and home along the amazing new Kaikoura road. Such pride and joy to see the extraordinary work done on the road and yet to be done. Passing young men and women in hard hats, waving to us, proudly controlling the flow of traffic. Gobsmacking to see the uplifted seabed, the tons of earth that tumbled across the rail lines, the incredible engineering that has seen the Irongate bridge installed, the stunning depth of colour that is the Kaikoura coastline.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The author photo

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The author photo

 

Front on, full faced and smiling

at my age, is inadvisable,

I tried it this morning on my phone

alas without an airbrush and

undaunted, I tried again

 

something more serious, more

fitting of a writer perhaps, I

turned sideways, hoping my profile

would be interesting or mysterious

alas the phone has no filter

 

I was certain though, this could be

managed somehow with careful

placement of my head at the right

angle adjacent to books of course

looking authorly my glasses on

 

alas I blame my phone the camera

it’s tricky to get the perfect light

if I wait awhile it might come right

but wrong again, with every click

I’m forced to face the truth of it

 

That look, that sidelong interrogation

the mysterious faraway insightful side-on

almost smile but not so blatant with

chiselled chin and cheekbones eludes

both the phone, and my ambition

 

I’ll have to settle for the loving

Smile at me darling, you look lovely

From my beloved photographer

who doesn’t see my necklines

ignores my crooked mouth

 

and doesn’t understand when

I’m disappointed with the photo

he takes, me thinking there must be

a better version surely, and that

I could look authorly eventually

 

 

 

 

Our very own Jurassic Park

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We’ve been talking about the Catlins now for many years.  It’s become that mythical place down south, that others have visited. They have regaled us with their journeys, marvelled, and mentioned the rogue waves at Cathedral Caves. How the water rose suddenly, possibly waist height or perhaps they or I have exaggerated this. But still, the Catlins sounded wild, other, and we kept promising ourselves to go there.

Back in 2005, we got close. We flew to Invercargill and grouped at Tuatapere to set off on the Humpridge Track. A luxury walk, with a helicopter carrying our luggage aloft, dangling from the craft in a large net-like basket. A celebrity accompanied each group and our celebrity was so low level that none of us had heard of him before, and I still can’t recall his name.

But, this Easter after our usual mulled wine and home-made hot cross bun festivities on Good Friday…

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… we finally flew south to Dunedin enroute to the Catlins.

I caught up with an old school friend whom I hadn’t seen since Form II (the sixties and now we are both in our sixties). John indulged this re-connection made possible through Facebook initially.  My friend has become a talented artist and somewhat of a recluse.

Dunedin was cold and chilly but the railway station was a revelation. Such splendour and beauty and we’ve promised ourselves to return and take the Taieri Gorge train trip someday.

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We set off in our sweetly named Tivoli hire car. John who’s had a love affair with cars over many years, conceded that this compact, toy-like vehicle was actually a great machine with all the digital accoutrements that our cliched Subaru Outback lacks. We listened to podcasts as we headed to the Coast.

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At first, approaching Nugget Point, I was underwhelmed, comparing it to Kaikoura and Cape Foulwind, claiming they were more spectacular… but then we climbed up to the Lighthouse and looked out at the expanse of sea and coastline in all its glory.  I scanned the water prayerfully, hoping to see a whale, held my breath, wishing it into existence. No whales, but the water mesmerised. I have this weird issue that I suffer silently whenever I’m on high cliffs or looking into any kind of chasm or abyss… my brain tells me to jump and it’s not a death wish, it’s a weird and strange thing I’ve endured all my life. I know that I won’t jump but still this little battle ensues in my head and sometimes I have to just step back, close my eyes and gather my breath, alter my thought patterns.

John oblivious with his camera is always teetering at the edge, taking risks to capture the best photo, so I’ve learned to stop watching him.

We stayed at Owaka the first night and what hospitality. Our motel was mainstream budget with a room next to the laundry so we could hear the hum and throb of the other occupants washing. We had a goat tethered outside our front sliding glass door, eating the shrubs and sheep grazing out another window. We walked that night to the Lumberjack café. There was a warm fire to greet us, friendly staff and one of the nicest meals ever – John had steak and I had a lamb rump – maybe it was the proximity to the grown food, or just the expertise of the chef, but the food was mouth-wateringly good.

We walked home to the smell of coal fires and a clear sky, reminding me of my 50’s childhood. Under the canopy of the Milky Way we watched for falling stars and texted a friend in Niue to find to our surprise that it was the day before over there.

I took a quick snap of the teapot museum as we were leaving Owaka and we hit the trail for Cathedral Caves. Ever the dramatist I had concerns about us being trapped by the tide. Instead we had the most beautiful sunlit morning and easy access both in and out of the caves. A small posse of tourists got caught just after we left, as a rogue wave stranded them on rocks, but they loved that. The great beauty of these caves is their natural un-enhanced beauty, unlike the neon-lit caves we visited at Halong Bay a few years ago in Vietnam.

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Then it was onwards to Curio Bay. I have memories from a marching trip in the sixties, being on the train, heading to Invercargill and we looked out the window at what we were told was the ‘Petrified Forest’, so I had images of upright trees, etched into my brain, ghostly, devoid of foliage, but standing.  Everyone I tell this story to shakes their head in disbelief and tells me I got it wrong. And they are right. The Petrified Forest at Curio Bay is our very own Jurassic Park but very different from this memory etched image in my brain and indeed, the train did not run anywhere near this piece of Coast (or so they tell me). The forest was washed by the tide over 180 million years ago. It’s impossible to take in or truly imagine. John was once again lost in his photo lens stooping to capture the petrified markings on the trees.

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I think of Ancient Messini in Kalamata and how we marvelled at the uncoverings, but these petrified trees are unimaginably older. I still can’t believe that tourists have free access to wander at will, and too, there are the nesting yellow-eyed penguins (we didn’t see any wildlife, and we’ve been told that late April is too late in the season). So, we may need to return.

After Curio Bay, we at lunch at Niagara Falls Café, housed in an old school building in a charming bucolic setting. The café is run by a family whose daughter is a medal winning Para Olympian and her medals are there on show, casually amid the food cabinets and bric-a-brac – no high security required for such precious memorabilia.

We spend the night in an overly spacious (expensive, but all that was available), four bedroomed house right on the peaceful harbour at a place called Waikava Harbour View, and yet the settlement is called Wakawa, the discrepancy we couldn’t quite fathom.

The promised Wi-Fi didn’t eventuate and here are two brilliant comments from guests which caught my fancy!  You gotta love the Visitors’ book.

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In the morning, after a very comfortable stay, we packed up, put our suitcases in the car and then returned to sit and enjoy the view and sunshine, only to be disturbed by a local coming, we think, to clean the house… she stood at the door, tapping her watch saying, ‘What’s the story – you’re supposed to be gone by 10.’

Like naughty school children we scuttled to the car and fell about laughing in the car at having been scolded so old-school style.

Wearing a Poem

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Tui 4

I don’t normally rush to publish a poem in progress, but these photographs by John Rainey-Smith are so beautiful that I’ve decided to take a risk – publish the photos and the poem that the tuis inspired, yesterday. I reserve the right to rewrite the poem, extend it or end it. But it does capture the first day of creativity for me in quite a while.

Wearing a Poem

Into this windless blue
cubes of sunlight land askew
on painted indoor walls
accompanied by hammering

as builders repeat their
renovating heartbeat of
another suburban almost
summer in our street

fat and sonsy tuis
gobble kohwai, their
throats awash with song
amid golden profusion

fatter even than last
year, more flowers to
feed upon, thanks
to the endless rain

my silver beet stalks
shine phosphorous red
trapped on the deck
with the mint and thyme

I was reaching for
a grief to nurture
to feed on like
the sonsy tuis

hoping to wear a poem
a somewhat dated outfit
but instead, a poem
wore me.

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We sat together on our deck in the late afternoon sun, sharing a beer, waiting patiently for the birds to return to sip the kohwai nectar. They rewarded us for our silent vigil. I like my poem but I’m even prouder still of John’s beautiful photographs.