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view from Kees Road, Waikaka Valley 

About forty-seven years ago now – but who’s counting – my friend and I set off from Gore, Southland for Dunedin. We were heading for Dunedin Teacher’s College, as it was known back then. The YWCA was where we would be staying, sharing a double room.

Waikaka school

Waikaka School, Southland

My memory is of us both boarding the Invercargill – Dunedin steam train at Gore railway station, one Saturday, mid-morning; our mothers waving us off. (Memory however can be a fickle thing, so one day I shall have to verify with my friend that this is also how she remembers the actual ‘take-off’ day). 

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rainbow-coloured fence outside Waikaka School, Southland

The following years have unfolded to reveal a teaching career straight and true for my friend – she has taught in the same school now for over forty years. My teaching career, on the other hand, took a rather more complicated and disrupted flight path. 

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Waikaka Hotel

Last week it was my pleasure and privilege to visit my friend in her classroom and for the first time ever, seeing her in action as a teacher. In some ways it was like flicking back the pages of a hefty novel in order to return to the beginning of the story.

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view from Kee Road, Waikaka, Southland

Seeing my friend in her role as teacher was a thrill for me. After stepping into her lively classroom, the happy faces said it all. The children were bubbling over with things to tell their teacher on this Monday morning, the first day back after the weekend, and the room overflowed with smiles and laughter. My friend’s teaching style is engaging, relaxed, fun and positive. It’s evident how many hours she pours into her teaching, and has done for many years: she’s a real treasure; taonga

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horse in paddock opposite Waikaka School

In that classroom I introduced the kids to Patches the horse – a piebald horse my father made bedtime stories about for us kids. As it happens, this was a horse which us kids would see on our trips over to Waikaka from where we lived, in Otama Valley.

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looking towards Otama Valley from Kee Road

I also read them (and the next classroom I visited as well) my poem, ‘Feeding the Dogs’. The children immediately connected with the experience described in this poem, and it seemed to trigger some stories about their own experiences of feeding animals.

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Otama Valley

The interests the children mentioned, brought home to me the different world country kids experience, especially when compared to city or town kids. The interests reflect a rural background, with activities such as hunting, motor bikes, feeding animals, horses and building huts.

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my faithful white charger Shiro outside Waikaka School fencehillocky road.JPG

side road off Kee Road, Waikaka

When I heard some of the children read out what they had written at an after-lunch assembly, it was heartening to hear that they had been inspired by our time together, short though it was. All good things come to an end however, and it was time for me to say good-bye to Waikaka school.

I thought that surely such an inspiring morning couldn’t be topped. But as I set off to explore a road I remembered travelling on with my father and siblings, decades ago now; a road we took whenever we left Otama Valley and drove ‘over the hill’ to attend Mass in the Waikaka Catholic church …

catholic church

… another layer of enchantment was added.

 

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fence, hills, mountains

This road – Kee Road –  winds over emerald, Russian-doll hills tucked and nestled in together, then drops down into the valley on the other side; my valley, Otama Valley, the place where I lived in my middle childhood years.  

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The winter-smoothed gravel road was more windy, narrow and longer than I remembered, and with a breathtaking vista from the top that was lovelier than I remembered; a view over hills and plains, looking over towards Northern Southland and snow-covered mountains. 

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After taking a few photos at the corner where I used to wait for the inevitable; the oft-terrifying; trundling, growling arrival of the old, cream-and-red high school bus, it was time to leave. (I describe this stressful, nerve-wracking bus-ride in my poem, ‘Teased Hair and Perfect Eyesight’).

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the corner where I nervously waited for the high school bus (1967 – 1968)

As the valley disappeared behind me; the car’s rear vision mirror swallowing up this place once very familiar; it felt magical, strange, wondrous and weird.

 

Once more I was experiencing the truth of how it is both possible, and at the same time impossible, to capture – or recapture – the sense of a place that one has left behind for good. With the phrase, ‘The more things change, the more things remain the same’, prancing about in my brain, I headed for home.  

NOTE: I’d like to acknowledge and thank NZ Book Council’s Writers in School programme for making this visit to Waikaka school possible. 

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