Southerly by David Haywood


Life at the Edge of the Southern Ocean

Our rented crib is only a stone's throw from Foveaux Strait. On a calm day, we are soothed by the gurgle of waves and the clatter of pebbles. On a windy day, the sea roars like an angry bull-seal, and spray falls rattling onto our roof.

The weather governs our lives. The merest hint of sunshine will send us scrambling to hang out the washing -- with desperate prayers offered up to the rain-gods. A southerly storm plunges us into gloom; we huddle around the fire, as wind whistles through the gaps in the window frames, and sleety rain blotches the panes.

Since our arrival in February we've experienced the full range of climate. On our first day it was so hot that I was forced to peel down to my shorts. For the next three days we had a torrential downpour. In the subsequent months we've had sleet, hail, and three sprinklings of snow. We've recently purchased sufficient clothes-racks to dry a full load of laundry beside the fire.

Most mornings begin early for us. It's not unusual for Bob-the-baby to cry "Door! Door!" (the signal that he's ready for his morning walk) at 5.00 am. We pretend not to hear -- and sometimes he gets up and amuses himself by emptying our bedside drawers onto the floor. If we're lucky, this distracts him for another ten blissful minutes of slumber.

We have breakfast, which Bob enjoys; followed by a bath, which he barely tolerates. If it's too early we wait until dawn before setting out on our walk. Sunrise over Foveaux Strait is a chocolate-box artist's dream, but as Jennifer observes: "I've never seen any sunrise so pretty that it makes me glad to be awake this early".

Once outside, the cold is bracing. At dawn the air temperature often dips below zero -- with a half-dozen degrees of wind-chill subtracted for good measure. We wave goodbye to Jennifer, and Bob tucks his face into my armpit to keep warm.

Above: Sunrise over Foveaux Strait.

Our morning walk is protracted and meandering, but always includes a visit to Howell's Point. We let the moon decide our route. At high tide we follow a footpath cut into the low bluffs above the beach; Bob enjoys the sight of waves surging just beneath us. On some occasions, the sea becomes too lively for my tastes, sloshing up onto the path and over the top of my boots.

At low tide, we pick our way through rock pools and meadows of kelp. The Southland coast seems wildly exotic to my Cantabrian eyes. Oyster-catchers scuttle along the tide line, and vast flocks of sea-birds drift above the strait like wreaths of black smoke. I have yet to identify their species. Once, on a rare occasion when we encountered another walker -- a suitably salty-looking chap -- I asked him what they were. "Those," he replied, with the air of a man giving an explanation to an imbecile, "are a type of bird."

The sea has no shortage of surprises. Until a few days ago, our morning walk often involved the traverse of a large pool -- necessitating some awkward hopping about the rocks. Yesterday we discovered that the pool had been filled with pebbles, and the sea had conveniently thrown a raised path along our intended route. It seemed spookily convenient.

A few weeks back we experienced an exceptionally low tide. The bay emptied out like a drained bath, and Bob and I were able to walk straight across the sea-floor to Howells' Point. I felt like a deep-sea diver -- striding along the tops of the reefs, and peering into chasms where dark things slithered. We reached a patch of slurry, and I sank to my shins with each step. The tide came flooding in with unpleasant speed, faster than I've ever before seen; we clambered onward to the other side of the bay with the water licking at my heels.

At Howell's point there is a good view across to Stewart Island. If anything, our third-largest island looks colder and more windswept than Riverton. Rain clouds are usually scudding across Foveaux Strait and streaming nastily off the summit of Mount Anglem. The whole place looks as if it should be plugged into a central heating system.

Above: Bob dozes for a few minutes after a long walk.

By the time we arrive home, Bob is due for another nappy change. This is a two-person job: one parent distracts him with a book, while the other deals with the business end. In the absence of reading material, Bob will thrash his little arms and legs, and scream as if he's being murdered. The end result is rather like changing the nappy on an eel -- accompanied by the sound-track of a pig being clubbed to death.

There are tea rooms only a few hundred metres from our doorstep. For our big weekly excursion we pay the 'Thyme Out Tea House' a lunchtime visit. I've developed an addiction to cheese rolls (a mysterious Southland delicacy that's similar to Welsh rarebit); Jennifer favours the pumpkin soup. The proprietress, Nola, has put herself in our good books by declaring that Bob is not the worst baby she's ever seen. In my experience, shop-owners seldom say that.

Our afternoon walk often includes a side-trip to the playground at Taramea Bay. This was once a popular holiday destination, and the seafront has an open-air theatrette where 1950s artistes entertained the summer crowds. The crumbling structure appears to perform gymnastics as Bob and I take rides on the swings.

Above: The 'Thyme Out Tea House'.

Bob likes to exercise his growing vocabulary. "Dog!" is an oft-uttered word on our walks. Sometimes he turns this exclamation into a question mark: "Dog?" [pointing to a Shetland pony]; "Dog?" [in the direction of a goat]; and even "Dog?" [waving excitedly at the postman]. The problem with dogs -- as I fully agree -- is the great variety of different shapes and sizes. Who am I to say there isn't a Slovenian Mail-delivering Wolfhound that resembles our postman?

We try to synchronize our return home with the arrival of Bob's dinner on the table. Bob likes to hurl food about the room while he dines. In a feeble attempt to promote calmness, I play a couple of songs on my guitar or Jennifer strums her autoharp.

If all goes well, Bob is asleep by eight o'clock. Jennifer and I hunch over our laptops. The wind hums over the power lines and rattles the windows; the fire sends shadows across the ceiling. A trip to the lavatory is like a short visit to Antarctica.

Jennifer goes to bed at midnight. But I continue to type -- occasionally stoking the fire to warm my wife and son as they slumber on towards morning.

Above: A new morning over Foveaux Strait.

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