(A lame title, I know, but I’m hopeless at naming things and my usually helpful assistant clearly has inspiration issues.)
I realise this is my third post in a row about weather, but it’s a fascinating subject and I am English, therefore predisposed to talk about it. I’m also now a Kiwi, and Kiwis like to talk about the weather almost as much as the English do, although I have to admit that they don’t complain about it in the same way, merely getting on with life within whatever the weather gods throw at them. I try not to moan, but I confess to casting under-breath curses towards those gods when they send rain on my nearly-dry washing or, when I’m off out somewhere in my glad rags, send strong winds to cause any remote attempt at a hairdo to end up looking like a bird’s nest perched above my face. In fairness to honesty I might also be heard to mutter oaths when I’m visiting somewhere for one time only and rain and/or cloud and mist are blocking what is reported to be a spectacular view. One reason I procrastinate about booking a multi-day walk, or the canoe trip down the Whanganui River that I’d love to do, is because I know I’ll be fully pissed off if the weather carks it and I end up soggy and cold and seeing nothing but a wall of rain that I could just have easily seen through the window of my warm lounge.
Within the first few days of our arrival here nearly twenty years ago we learned how the appearance of the sun and the direction of the wind can make a vast difference to the temperature of any day. As I type this the sun glares on anything shiny and, even at the end of winter, its heat is enough that I can walk outside in a t-shirt and not be cold – unless I step into the shade, when it’s akin to walking into a freezer and I’ll need a merino layer or two. If a breeze strikes up I want at least one of those layers even in full sun. In the shade a wind from the south will try and rip the flesh from my bones unless I pull on a windproof jacket. Those of us who have a narrow comfort range when it comes to temperature spend far too much of our time playing hokey-cokey with our clothes and, even in the height of summer, rarely leave home without some form of warm or windproof layer. Just in case.
The weather in New Zealand is currently causing issues for some of our citizens. I’m not talking first-world problems like getting soaked dashing between car and house, or having your newly coiffed hair ruined by a frisky breeze. I’m talking homes moving down sliding slopes and leaving people nowhere to live, or ex-hillsides blocking roads and preventing people from getting to their homes. Sitting in Wellington airport last week I felt a pang of anguish for those affected by the tannoy message: All flights to Nelson are now fully booked for the next forty-eight hours. Those affected had been on a plane that had flown from Wellington to Nelson a couple of hours earlier and couldn’t land, so had to reverse its journey, depositing a few dozen Nelsonians back where they’d started and where, presumably, they didn’t want to be. Whilst they were stuck in Wellington nearly a metre of rain was falling on their city, causing such damage as that mentioned above and trying its hardest to drown it.
New Zealand is a land of extremes in many respects and especially the weather. In the far north the temperatures rarely drop below 15C even in winter and palm trees flap lazily in breezes that can become cyclone tail-ends that threaten their roots. In the south it is rarely warmer than this in the height of summer, and a palm tree would shiver in cold arctic blasts and give up. Anywhere in between can have a howling freezing gale one day and a beautiful calm sunny day the next. Drought is common in many areas in summer when the land dries and cracks, grass refuses to grow and any rain that falls runs straight into a river and to the sea, often taking a few inches of topsoil with it – brown streams and rivers are common after heavy rain. In winter torrential downpours mean the same grass sits at the bottom of shallow lakes in what should be fields. I never envy those that work on the land.
Slips are a common occurrence. I can’t type that without thinking of the scene in The Railway Children where small trees slide gracefully down a slope to gather, still standing, with a few rocks and some earth on the railway line below. There’s nothing graceful about half a hillside or tree landing on a road and crushing parked cars or a house, sometimes leaving another house or path hovering in mid-air above it. My parents visited in early 2004, the wettest February in nearly forty years, and I can still hear Mum’s anguished cry: Oh those poor people! as we drove past a house half buried by the steep hill that had been behind it a few hours earlier. In recent weeks Wellington alone has recorded over 600 slips. Thankfully not all are so destructive and are cleared pretty quickly leaving nothing more than a brown scar in the green of a hillside.
We can blame wild weather but humans have to accept some responsibility. Most of New Zealand was covered in dense bush until 200 or so years ago when Europeans arrived and, by felling larger trees and burning what was left, cleared the land for farming. The result is a lot of unstable earth that is easily eroded and washed away, turning rivers the colour of a good coffee and silting up harbours and estuaries. That’s before we even consider the effects of climate change, which has made our extremes even worse in recent years. I can’t see any of us ceasing our weather conversations any time soon.