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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 12, Issue 4 (July 1, 1937)

The Stone in the Centre — Looking Down From Nelson

page 41

The Stone in the Centre
Looking Down From Nelson

(Rly. Publicity photo.) The Cathedral, Nelson, New Zealand.

(Rly. Publicity photo.)
The Cathedral, Nelson, New Zealand.

The place was called Still-water Junction. Outside the little station stretched long morasses, large enough for the plying of miniature gondolas, and on these leapt up and down the largest raindrops I have yet seen; raindrops like rafts of frogs' eggs, like large white bouncing bubbles of tapioca. Little birch trees came crowding down the hillside to stare with all their round sovereign-coloured leaves, at the long pink planks of hewn timber, streaming rain. And beyond that there was nothing, except a hospitable little girl with pink cheeks (who helped me lug suitcases over to the side of the station where the service car would come in), and a ham sandwich.

Yes, the wet West Coast. I know it doesn't always act up to its cloudburst of a reputation, but on this occasion it evidently felt called upon to do nothing but drip, stream and steam. And in Reefton (the ghost-town about which somebody should have written the great New Zealand novel, but hasn't) there were uncountable pubs, all quite happy and prosperous, and little groups of seasoned West Coasters standing about outside each, dripping like beavers. Also good venison for dinner: after that, deciding that there was only one way to become acclimatized, I went into the bar and drank port, port and port.

But the morning's run through to Nelson was glorious. The service car had a driver who took fatherly pride in his Coast and its unparalleled scenery. All the way up the Buller Gorge, he knew where to point out the best trees and frothiest glimpses of silt-heavy tossing river. Where the Gorge was at its most majestic and stormy, we had a little visiting card from the gods of the mountain-tops. Down on the road before us rolled, in a series of giant bounces and skips, a boulder of no mean bulk. We pulled up with a snort, quivering from stem to stern. There were only three passengers—the other two men—and they leapt out as one, and started to heave at the boulder, which took their united efforts to roll it over into the river beneath. When they came back to the car, mopping their brows, we were all pleased and excited, because the boulder was a sizeable Might-Have-Been … you know, one of those cost-free, pain-free, adventure - withouttears incidents of which you can talk with pride. “If we hadn't pulled up in ten seconds,” said one passenger, a goldminer from the Howard River, “that one would have been through the roof of the ‘bus.” “Ah! And us down in the river.” “Not a chance in the wide world. Would have smashed us to matchwood.” “Bad slip country, this. Look at the raw soil up there.” We all looked affectionately up at the red raw landslips, and down at the Buller, now the stouter and frothier for our boulder.

We drove into sunshine, which is, I think, one of the most heartening things that can happen to a damp, disconsolate traveller. (Nevertheless, one day I'm going back to the wet, wild West Coast, to see the Blowhole, and try to pick up traces of the Greenstone People who lived there less than eighty years ago, quarrying and polishing greenstone weapons and ornaments for all New Zealand, under the protection of Poutini, the Fish God.) Nelson from afar was grape-blue and champagne-colour, pale shades stretched out in that extra-special sunshine. As the Buller Gorge bush has been taken over by the Government and preserved, so in this more northern locality the Forestry Department has been sensible, and nuggety little plantations of pines go marching on, shedding their brown and green pollen on the air. Coastline then, a lighthouse, a curve of foam, extremely pink geraniums, looking as if they had been dipped in aniline dye; and following these, what is, weight for age, the very prettiest little city in New Zealand.

On the following morning I saw it from New Zealand's geographical centre—the flat stone, sheltered by grass and wild flowers, which was set by survey to mark the exact middle of the two islands. You get a crystal edge of snow-peaks on the far horizon; under these the hills, golden-brown, blue and clean-limbed, hills of grass and young pines, but of little native bush; and directly beneath you, curled around its small green river, sleeps Nelson in a comfortable summer doze. You know that in one direction lie the Applelands, miles and miles of decorous country arranged with stout-hearted little orchards, a glory of blossom come springtime, and a great business of Pippins, Jonathans and Delicious in the season of heavy boughs. But nearer town the world still wears a pretty face. The bowl in which Nelson's rich plain country is held has mostly given itself up to agricultural farming, and that's an attractive sight to see. Oats were light green in some fields, in others already sallowed to pale gold. The big strawberry gardens were doing traffic, and the rule was, “Come in and pick your own for sixpence, we're too busy.” Up long strings and stakes swarmed the young hops, delicate green, getting ready to make the vine-canopies which would provide hoppickers with a living later in the year. page 42 Hop-kilns, oddly shaped little buildings with pointed roofs like eccentric churches, kept company with the vines, and old gabled houses fitted in with the decorous charm of the landscape. Christchurch is supposed to be the English city of the Dominion, but surely something of old England's brown and green farming face appears again in Nelson. Even the grass blowing round this steep path that wound up to the central stone of New Zealand wasn't like our usual yellow grass, straight-haired and shining, but dappled with pink and blue wild flowers. A tui gave his little elegy in G as I came downhill; otherwise, the place wasn't Maoriland.

That Nelson's river could misbehave itself seems incredible at sight. It takes its course with a bubble of amusement, but quietly enough, in between deep grass banks planted and arched over with trees. Yet one lady.
(Photo, Thelma R. Kent.) effections in the upper reaches of the Rees River, South Island, New Zealand.

(Photo, Thelma R. Kent.)
effections in the upper reaches of the Rees River, South Island, New Zealand.

dwelling on the brink, had the best part of her garden washed away when the river was in that sort of mood, and has had to resort to iris pools and other watery devices. Nelson's Botanical Gardens lie near the river, beaming with roses; and a little art gallery, beautifully built, stands among the trees and flower-beds, and when you've admired it you are passed on to the Cathedral, which is exceptionally handsome, but unfinished yet. They like what they have of it—the great blocks of creamy and grey New Zealand stone, the panels of stained glass—and a sort of mixture of optimism and wistfulness about what is absent still. “It mightn't be finished for another hundred years,” an old gentleman who showed me over the Cathedral said sadly, “There are several who could build another section, or help put the roof on, without feeling it. Ah, well!” Even in its half-completed state, it's a fine-looking face of stone at which you glance back, going down the Cathedral steps.

Nelson hospitality is worthy of anyone's honourable mention. Take this, for instance; the way was long, the wind was decidedly hot and dusty, and our driver remembered a glad night when he had halted at a cider manufacturing place, and subsequently returned to his lodgings singing several completely new and inspired verses of “Mademoiselle From Armentieres.” We pulled up; yes, the cider was there, by the splendid bottled gallon, but couldn't be sold unless one took a case of it. At this we were dismayed. A case of cider is an elegant and inspiring thing, but if we drank it all in one night, would it create a bad impression among the townspeople? And if we didn't, would we have the heart to abandon it? We were flying on to Wellington next day, and by air one travels light. The old cider-brewer, hearing our difficulties, shook his head and stroked his white moustache. He couldn't break the law, but it went to his heart to turn away strangers without a taste of Nelson's bottled sunshine. Finally, he seized two bottles, and thrust them into my arms. “Take them as a present,” said he, “They'll be a good advertisement.” And so they were. I have religiously recommended Nelson cider ever since, not only because of our benefactor's generosity, but because it really does have a ripe, smooth and glowing flavour which combines remarkably well with the fat little strawberries you pick from the growers' gardens.

Besides strawberries and cider in Nelson—orange-blossom. The mock variety grows freely enough elsewhere in New Zealand; but there was a queer, highly-flavoured sweetness on the air, our first Nelson night, a persistence of perfume which insisted one should get up, shuffle into slippers and dressing-gown, and explore the garden. The orange-blossom trees made great caves of green leafage, white petals, in the moonshine, and the scent was a whipped-up sundae of mythical honeymoons and old Spain. Try it some time, when in disillusioned mood….

Flying across Cook Strait is one of the little treats this age can give you, to make up for the loss of Cobbs' coaches and the maypole on the village green. And even if the idea of putting cotton-wool in your ears, chewing-gum (to combat nausea) between your jaws, and your faith in the pilot, at first makes you wobble a little, you should try it. For one thing, the world is so queerly and quaintly pretty from the skyways; and Nelson, with its patterned agricultural terrain, must be almost the ideal country to smile down at (if you can still smile) when you're flying over.

I am going to be truthful about this. I flew in company with a lady of sixty, who had stepped out of the Wellington-to-Nelson aeroplane without a hair out of place, and couldn't understand why any knee should quiver at such a simple little trip. And the pilot and his confreres at the ‘drome accepted everything with beautiful nonchalance. And the scales were situated, with great tact, so that only the recording angel behind the desk could see each passenger's weight, and no companion could rudely remark, “There, dear, I told you you'd been putting on a lot of condition lately.” But in spite of all these advantages, I felt that my hour had come.

You scale a little ladder, which is then removed, leaving you sitting at a slant inside the silver-shining hornet. And though there are leather straps to hold you in position, you know (as if by revelation) that somehow, somewhere, you will fall, and wonder if the first ten thousand feet will be the worst. The pilot saunters across from the ‘drome, shows no consciousness of your acute misery, waves his hand, and waggles a lever. You are moving. All further argument is out of the question. There is air beneath you, and nothing else but ….

But then the pretty little world; the ploughed fields are exactly like grey corduroy, softly, smoothly ridged. A toy horse draws along his toy plough, against the patterned hedges. The haystacks are such quaint cottage loaves page 43 that you think of the most deserving child you know, and wish you could gather up these delightful trifles for his nursery. The cows, for instance, would be such an improvement on the ones in toyshop Noah's Arks….

You are sitting at an upward slant, feeling kindlier towards the machine because it runs smooth instead of joggling, but still putting no trust in anyone, and wondering if, when your time comes, you will die nobly or throw your arms around the neck of the fat passenger in front. Your sixty - year - old travelling companion grins happily and chews gum. These modern parents! … Then, with a sensation of relief, you observe that you are over the blue shirred silk of the sea, and that Cook Strait waves are so little. Their white crests are like that narrow lace we used for edging petticoats, in the long ago. I don't know why, but flying over sea is less trying to the complete novice (this novice, anyhow) than flying over land. In your inmost heart you know that falling into the sea (if fall you must) would probably prove just as discomfortable as landing on a rock. But the sea looks so billowy, blue and soft. Against all the evidence of reason, you put your trust in it…

And you can see great rafts of rosered seaweed tossing by; and a ship like a cigar, and clear in the waves, something that is either a shark or a dolphin.

Then the machine tilts sharply, and you think, “My hour has come.” Wellington hills look all teeth—rocky, sinister and unfed teeth. You have always admired the hills, but now (as the ‘plane joggles) you think angrily, “Why couldn't somebody have ironed those things out?” And the pilot heads for a ridiculously small patch of green, into which, obviously, he can never fit an aeroplane. The wing tilts more sharply. You gaze at your travelling companion, between reluctant admiration and distaste, for she is still grinning and chewing gum…

Just a little bump, and it's all over: a perfect trip, a beautiful landing.

That's for the first time. You feel so relieved that, standing in the ‘drome shed, you want to be nearly honest with somebody. You say to unhearing
(Thelma R. kent, photo.) The junction of the Almer and Franz Josef Glaciers, South Island, New Zealand.

(Thelma R. kent, photo.)
The junction of the Almer and Franz Josef Glaciers, South Island, New Zealand.

ears, “Do you know, I was a bit scared, just when we were coming down. Of course, not when we were over the sea—the sea looks so soft to fall on.” Nobody takes the slightest notice; unless, perhaps, your travelling companion says brightly, “Scared? What is there to be scared about?” and parks her gum where later it is bound to cause social complications.

You look back at the silvery hornet, up-ended there on the grass, so placid and innocent. “One day I'll come back and get the better of you,” you think, “One day I'll pay you out for this. Wonder if Jean Batten turned a hair, first time up?”

In “smart” circles in London now dainty little cigarettes are often served with afternoon tea and between the courses at dinner. Thus what would have been regarded as an exhibition of depraved taste in Victorian days is now considered quite the thing! But other times other manners. In days long past and gone no man with any pretensions to style would have dreamt of smoking in the street. It wasn't done. To-day, to quote the old music hall song, “Everybody's Doing It.” Here in Maoriland pipes are more often than not filled with fragrant” toasted,” smokers having long since discovered that this beautiful tobacco is not only unrivalled for flavour and aroma but—thanks to toasting—is perfectly safe. There's no “bite” in toasted. You can puff Cut Plug No. 10 (Bullshead), Navy Cut No. 3 (Bulldog), Cavendish, River-head Gold and Desert Gold till the cows come home. They can't harm you. Of course, there are imitations. Ever know anything really good that wasn't imitated? Buy any of the brands named and you'll be right.

page 44