Southerly by David Haywood


South by North

Long hours of darkness during winter are one of the few disadvantages of Southland. We set out from the crib at quarter-to-eight in the morning -- the sky was as black as the inside of a coffin.

Overnight, a storm had transformed Foveaux Strait into a jumble of spray and foam. Inky waves were washing onto the road outside our local dairy. The wind picked up a sheet of water, and hurled it across our windscreen. I felt as though we'd been submersed in a giant cup of espresso.

Jennifer phoned the airline to ask if they were still flying. Unbelievably, they were.

On the open road after Riverton the gusts grew even stronger. It felt dangerous to drive at more than two-thirds of the speed limit. The car twitched sideways whenever we came to a gap in the hedges. Jennifer called the airline to inform them that we might be a little late. She asked them -- hopefully -- if the flight had been cancelled. It hadn't.

At the airport it took considerable effort to open the car doors against the wind. I recalled my mother's words from our telephone conversation the previous evening: "Promise me that you won't fly if it's still stormy." She had embarked on a long story about the day that Buddy Holly died, and then enlightened me on details from the autopsy of Kathleen Kennedy. As an encore, she performed a telephonic re-enactment of the final scene from 'The Glenn Miller Story'.

"We fly in this sort of weather all the time," the pilot told us. The plane shuddered and rocked as we waited for clearance to roll onto the runway.

It was unquestionably the most alarming flight of my life. Raindrops hurtled into the windshield like bullets. The plane swerved and see-sawed; the world vanished as we careened through dense cloud. We were tossed violently around in our seats. Sometimes the plane yawed almost at right-angles to our direction of travel. Below us, Foveaux Strait looked like an uninviting place to crash-land.

Stewart Island wobbled over the horizon; plump little hills dressed in green baize. We swayed above Rimu trees and matchbox houses. I caught sight of the airstrip -- heaving like the deck of a ship. "Kathleen Kennedy's eyeballs actually exploded when her plane hit the ground," my mother had told me.

The landing was straight from a textbook -- not even the slightest bump. We rolled gently to a halt on the runway. If we'd been anyone but New Zealanders, we'd have all rushed forward to kiss the pilot. As it was, one of the passengers merely murmured: "Nice work". The rest of us grunted our agreement.

At our rented cottage, a kaka cawed loudly in the front garden. From the top of Observation Rock we could look across Paterson Inlet to Ulva Island. It was ludicrously pretty. The island might have been designed by a jeweller; the inlet by a mirror-maker. I felt as if we'd been kidnapped by photo-retouchers, and imprisoned in one of their brochures.

In the information centre at Oban, we asked about suitable activities for parents lumbered with a bad baby. "One thing I can absolutely recommend is the local bus," said the clerk. "You'll go all over Oban, and the driver will tell you everything about the history of the island. It's a really wonderful experience -- you'll love it."

My Scottish ancestry jumped for joy at the possibility of a cheap outing on a local bus. Three minutes later, and $70 poorer, we boarded the coach -- with my Scottish ancestry in medical shock. The clerk from the information centre climbed aboard, and sat in the driver's seat.

We were the sole passengers, but the clerk insisted on the full-service treatment. Despite sitting less than a metre in front of us, she delivered her monologue via the coach's loud-speaker system. "As many of you will be aware," she began, "We are in New Zealand's third-largest island..."

Early the next morning we briefly departed from our nation's third-largest bit of map; a water-taxi carried us to Ulva. It was pleasant to have an island to oneself.

The only buildings on Ulva are a couple of elderly cribs. The forest floor is surprisingly navigable -- with a thin undergrowth of knee-high ferns. Exotic-looking birds drifted through the canopy: native parakeets and Stewart Island robins. Jennifer, whose diet has been restricted since the birth of Bob-the-baby, wondered if they would taste as delicious as they looked. We ate apples in a grove of totara trees.

Our departure from Stewart Island was like the Prozac version of our arrival. The plane seemed to be hardly moving. We floated above Foveaux Strait as if suspended from balloons. Riverton could be seen in the hazy distance -- a homely lagoon and a cluster of fishing-boats.

Five days later we awoke to a sorrowful dawn. I loaded our possessions into the car, locked the crib for the last time, and slipped the keys under the door. "Goodbye crib," said Jennifer. "Goodbye lovely Riverton." And then later: "Goodbye Invercargill -- we liked you!"

The Catlins were our final leave-taking from Southland. Imagine a child's drawing of a landscape: hills humped in cosy catenaries; meadows dotted with sheep; green copses of lollipop trees; the occasional smoke-puffing farmhouse.

I pressed my foot onto the accelerator, and we began our journey northwards.

* * *

On Lambton Quay the verandahs were crowded with pedestrians avoiding the rain. Bob-the-baby squirmed nervously in my arms -- hiding his face in the collar of my jacket. We splashed our way across the intersection at Stout Street. The railway station was packed with commuters.

In Riverton we'd have been arriving home from our afternoon walk. The leading lights would be showing across the river mouth; fishing boats would be returning to the lagoon. I'd be stacking the night's firewood, and taking a last look across Foveaux Strait in the twilight.

It's a long way from here to there.

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