Spring in New Zealand is a tale of two seasons: winter tries its hardest to maintain its grip as summer struggles to assert its authority. Nowhere is this more evident than in Central Otago, a place that regularly records both the highest and lowest temperatures in the country. The sun feels hot through a window but step out into the wind and you’d better have your thermal layers on, removing them when you are sheltered from the breeze, pulling them back on again in the shade of a tree. In a Kiwi spring I feel like I’m playing hokey-cokey with my clothes: you put the warm layer on; you take the warm layer off. On/off. On/off…
At the end of September I spent a week in the Ida Valley in Central Otago, taking a hiatus from moving house (seriously, it feels like I’ve been doing it for months) to go on a writers’ retreat. Sounds a bit intense, and I had a bad case of imposter syndrome, especially as the people organising and running the retreat are all published writers and some of the best literary brains in New Zealand, including a past poet laureate. What the hell was I, with my inconsequential scribblings, doing in such exalted company? Of course, the exalted company are as human as I am, very friendly and helpful, and not one bit of grandeur in any of them. They made great efforts to ensure that we all felt welcome and loved.
I woke the first morning to the glow of the sun rising behind Rough Ridge, the Hawkduns at the north end of the wide valley white-topped and gleaming. The sun stayed for the week, clear skies meaning beautiful days when the snow on the ranges melted, remnants of it flowing down deep crevices in their flanks. Clear skies also meant icy nights and freezing mornings, low mists hanging over the frost-dusted valley bottom and streaking across low hills until the sun burned it away. We were returning home one night when a wintry squall splashed into the car and frigid rain blasted our faces as we scurried between car and house. The next morning the hills were again white, a white that shrank as the sun warmed and revealed their natural golden-brown.
I struggle to sit indoors when the sun shines; my feet itch to be striding out in hiking boots or pushing the pedals of a bike. I had neither with me but still I spent far too much time gazing out of the window and wishing I was on the other side of it. Sheep grazed in the field beside the house, tiny lambs huddling close to their mothers until the day was warm enough for them to wander off and explore, their high-pitched bleats alternating with the ewes’ deeper calls. One afternoon the cries were particularly sharp, piercing my fragile concentration – two lambs had adventured through the fence and were panicking at being separated from their mother. I can’t speak sheep but I’m sure her reply was: it’s your own fault and if you got through one way you can get back again. They did.
I travelled with my friend, Diane, who teaches creative non-fiction and is also a published writer (I highly recommend her book: The Braided River https://www.otago.ac.nz/press/books/otago708937.html) We stayed with another friend, Paula, a brilliant editor and one of the retreat organisers, and her husband, Steve, who gets special mention for taking excellent domestic care of us, preparing lunches and cooking dinner, whilst we were beavering away with words and jaunting off to workshops and talks.
A couple of times we broke our self-imposed solitude and re-joined the real world in search of caffeine. I’ve got to hand it to the entrepreneurial soul who decided plonking a coffee cart at the bottom of a farm drive was a solid idea. The Wee Red Coffee Shed, a small red blob slap in the middle of nowhere, was bustling, a group of locals gathered around, farm utes and trucks parked nearby, the local postie van. Sort of build it and they will come. And they do, driving for miles to get their caffeine fix and make the hardest decision of the day: cinnamon scroll or sausage roll?
I sipped my coffee, gazing at green fields scattered with rounds of hay, trees already bursting into leaf. Clouds skimmed the rounded tops of hills and the snow-sprinkled St Bathans range stretched into the distance. A gentle wind lifted the edges of my hair and the sun was warm on my face; birdsong interspersed the low murmur of human chatter. A vague thought that I should be writing played around in my head, chased by the thought that soon I would be back in the city and, spring being spring, rain would arrive. Plenty of opportunity to write then. When I eventually finish moving house.