We cackle together in cahoots at our joke. My sister and I have known each other for sixty-one years, and we can say the sort of stuff to each other that we can’t say to anyone else, and expect them to get it. I’m in Westport on the West Coast of the South Island, population 4,200, staying with sis for the Easter break. Westport is one of those places where an alien abduction is the most likely explanation for the pair of shoes discovered on the footpath the morning after Saturday night.
Back in 2010, I stopped in Westport for six months on my way from Auckland to Christchurch. I lived with my sister in her building, which she is converting into a home and B&B, largely on her own. We’re polar opposites, her and I, but we hold similar philosophies on life, and are good friends, regardless. In one way, I was drawn to the freedom of small town living, where the ‘rules’ of city life don’t quite reach. Where everyone has to live together cheek by jowl, no matter their differences. Where the wildness of the land and sea that surround it stirred something up inside me.
I couldn’t stay, though. It was only ever going to be a temporary stop – I needed more than Westport could offer me. But, it was one of the most memorable times of my life.
Sis and I lived in penury, bizarre creativity, and extraordinary un-ordinariness on a daily basis. However, penury was the killer for me. We just didn’t get along, so I moved on sooner than I initially intended to. Of course, if I’d known that I was heading into the most devastating earthquake New Zealand had had in eighty years a couple of months after my departure, and eight hard years of looking after my elderly parents, I probably couldn’t have been prised out of Westport with a crowbar.
In the almost-decade since I drove out, I get drawn back every so often to visit sis, and to be in that other world for a while. That small town mixture of mellowness and madness. That place where I don’t belong, but which I belonged to, for a while.
Plus, the four hour drive heading west across the Canterbury Plains, though the Lewis Pass in the Southern Alps, and into the untamed West Coast on the other side, is nothing short of sensational. I love it every time. I don’t take pics, because I can’t do justice to it, and they always end up looking banal. I’ve misjudged the Good Friday traffic, though, and this time it takes me five and a quarter hours.
I have a trip routine now, that sees me pulling into at a roadside rest stop, not far past the turn-off to the alpine village of Hanmer Springs, for a drink and a bite to eat, which I have usually brought along with me. I chat with a couple who have also stopped there today, and then we both go on our separate ways. I pull in again at Springs junction (there are a few Springs on this trip) for a ‘comfort’ stop – both for the toilet, and to un-creak my legs again. From there, I continue on through the Lewis Pass, and an hour and a half later I reach Westport. Right on G&T time. Perfect timing, actually, after the traffic delays.
The next day, sis and I take a road trip. We go to Blackball, population 370, normally about an hour and a half’s drive south of Westport, and a bit inland. However, with a couple of deviations on the way, of course, this trip takes us a little longer. If there is ever a town that’s probably not on most people’s list of places to visit, it’s Blackball. However, it does have a few attractions, and has coalmining history. It was where the first workers’ union in New Zealand was formed, and as a result, the miners got bathhouses, where they could scrub off the grime from their job, instead of having to do it at home. Blackball’s boozer, known as Formerly The Blackball Hilton is worth a look, too.
Blackball also had its inaugural Readers and Writers Festival in October last year, which was apparently a great success, so sis and I have decided to scope the place out in advance of this year’s one, which I’m hoping to attend. Of course, it’s raining when we go. This is the West Coast, and it rains. It doesn’t enhance the drive into the town, which can only be described as not pretty. This is no ‘chocolate box’ town; the Welcome to Blackball sign is its best entry feature. This town will never grace the front cover of a travel agent’s brochure. Sis and I grin at each other. We secretly admire it’s rebellious and uncaring nature. Escaping the strictures of conformity is what lures people to live here.
I reckon that the craft shop will be the place that has the goss on all the creative ventures in the town, so we stop there to enquire. The shopkeeper has no idea about the Readers and Writers Festival, and didn’t know there had been one. However, the sole other customer, sitting on a small crocheted covered couch in the corner of the shop, having a cuppa and cake on a small crocheted covered table – this shop also sells food – knows about it, and we all proceed to have a long discussion. The shopkeeper ends up ringing the person she considers most likely to be in charge of the festival to ask him about it, but gets no answer. She gets me to write down my email address, and promises to pass it onto him, so he can update me as to when and where this year’s upcoming one will be advertised. We drive out of Blackball, and it looks no better than it did on the way in. The Readers and Writers Festival here is so on my list.
Sunday is brilliant. The rain buggers off, and the sun shines and shines. Sis and I do very little. We sit in her garden in outdoor lounge chairs, and eat Magnum dairy-free ice-creams, and fresh figs from her tree. This is the first time I’ve tried the new(ish) dairy-free Magnum, and I know I’m in trouble. They are feckin delicious! I haven’t had a Magnum in the fifteen years I’ve been vegan, and now the bastards have produced one that I would climb over rocks to get at.
I spot a few dandelion plants around sis’s place, and make my dandelion pesto for us to have with pasta for lunch the next day. Sis admits that she doesn’t really love it like I do, and invites me to take the rest of it home with me. That evening we stand outside in her garden with our glasses of wine, watching the sunset fire up the sky. Spectacular as the sunset is, I also can’t help noticing for the first time in the history of the entire universe. I drink a smidgen more wine than sis, and finish it sooner. I’m finding it difficult to decide which is more worthy of taking up the most space in my head.
On Tuesday, I head off back to Christchurch, and this time I get it right. Not only is it another stunner of a day, I avoid all the returning home Easter traffic. Patrick, my cat, greets me with plaintive meows when I get home, even though my brother the ‘cat whisperer’ has checked in on him while I’ve been gone. Eventually, he shows that he forgives me enough by resuming his regular attacks on my ankles. I shout at him, and he scarpers. All is well.