Perched On A Very High Bar Stool

This is the view of Orepuki from my cousin’s home. Sea and mountains – Te Ara a Kiwa (Path of the Whale) Foveaux Strait and the Princess Mountains.

Looking towards the town.

And back the other way, looking towards where I was raised in a small white house with a red corrugated-iron roof. The house is long gone, but most of the road to it has survived. It is the road I walked to school along, although in those days there was a more well-defined footpath.

The school was a hundred yards to the right of where I took this photo and our house was around a corner to the right of the white vehicle you can see in the distance.

As a kid I thought it was rather a long trudge to school, but I see now that really it was just a hop-skip-and-a-jump. No wonder it was possible to run home for a home-cooked lunch every day.

fruit-growing Cromwell’s trademark giant fruit

But I have jumped ahead of myself. I need to back up the truck (or the little turquoise Suzuki) and begin at the beginning of last week’s road trip south with my sister.

Before we reached our cousin’s place in Orepuki, we caught up with our brother in Millers Flat, then drove on to spend that night in Cromwell. And, umm, that person in the darkness, skulking like a burglar around the perimeters of the wrong house; its unknowing residents safely inside behind closed curtains; that person using her phone’s torch to try and locate the key box to our accommodation for the night, may, or may not, have been yours truly.

view from the Bathhouse Cafe, Queenstown

After a pleasant evening in Cromwell (after eventually finding our way to the right address and not being arrested for unlawful trespass) we travelled on, making a quick stopover for lunch in Queenstown, at the Bathhouse cafe …

… before travelling to stay at another brother’s in Riversdale, Murihiku Southland. He had cooked us a roast – shorthand for roast lamb with roasted vegetables (carrots, parsnips and yams from his garden) and peas and potatoes. Followed by rhubarb pie. Five stars!

A conversation about childhood memories of digging for toheroa at Bluecliffs Beach (Rarakau), made me long for toheroa soup. My brother and sister remember the toheroa patties; which certainly are tasty; but for me, toheroa soup will always be the favourite.

Our great-great-grandfather’s name on the Otautau cemetery’s register

Otautau is a place that holds a lot of mixed emotions for our family. I know of at least one member who has stated that they do not want to ever visit the town again. For our family, and through no fault of its own, Otautau will always be the town where our Dad died from a sudden heart attack while attending Mass as a visitor, on holiday, Labour Weekend, 1968.

Funny to think that about sixty years before our father’s death in the town, a great-great grandfather on our mother’s side, also died here and is buried in the cemetery. It appears that Otautau is destined to be a town our family has links to, whether we like it or not.

Palmerston Street, Riverton
locally caught fish for lunch
Aparima Riverton harbour

Aparima Riverton was our next stop, before heading for Orepuki.

Te Puka o Takitimu Monkey Island. Always first point of call on visits to our tūrangawaewae.

We were staying that night at our cousin’s, whose ability to spin hilarious yarns about local identities past and present, always guarantees wall-to-wall amusement. Under a sky ragged with clouds and stars, we walked down to the local tavern, stopping to greet a couple of horses, their long noses and soft, rubbery lips begging for some of that greener grass on the other side of the wire fence. Horses and Orepuki, they kind of go together. Like titi and mashed spuds.

For me, coming back to the old home town, where dropping into the local is considered more or less compulsory, means feeling immediately part of the place while at the same time feeling like a complete stranger.

The fact that the original pub burnt down, only adds to this feeling of dislodgement. The original hotel was a two-storied, brick building familiar to my parents and their parents and great-grandparents. And to me. Not all of us were familiar with the inside, but for me at least, the outside of the old hotel marked the corner where one turned to get to McNay’s Grocery store stocked with items and produce, both exotic and homely – coconuts, mutton pies, bananas, freshly-baked bread, biscuits in packets, sacks of sugar and bags of flour.

Whenever I visit Orepuki, I have more affinity with past memories than with any present reality. For me the old hotel’s replacement – the plain, standard tavern advertising DB and whitebait patties – is almost devoid of memories.

Inside the Orepuki Tavern that night, the wood burner blasted out furnace-temperature heat and the solid, wooden bar and high tables provided an ample, honey-coloured space for the locals to gather around for more than a few beers and some good old banter and debate, setting our country to rights, with those sensibilities particular to the deep, Deep South, providing ballast.

But what is discussed in Orepuki Tavern, stays in Orepuki Tavern and so, my lips are sealed.

We take yet another look at the very large black and white 1952 (?) Jubilee photo on the wall – so many faces of whanau and the locals I remember so well. Look. Aunty Fanny in her round, wire glasses. Grandpa McKenzie with snow-white beard and the three-piece suit he wore constantly in his later years.

“Watch out for the floor in the Ladies, it’s got a real slope to it,” my cousin warns me.

In the morning there were some woozy and sore heads (specifically mine) but hey. Our cousin cooked us whitebait patties for breakfast. Who could ask for anything more? We left with full stomachs and grateful hearts. Touching base with whanau, the shared memories, the reminiscing, the nearness of those who have left us; all priceless. After reminiscing about childhood memories of going to the pictures in Orepuki Hall, we even found ourselves watching a clip from a Ma and Pa Kettle film. The places memory takes you to, eh.

Oraka Colac Bay

In Oraka Colac Bay, Sis and I were glad to see that despite Covid, Isobel hadn’t sold her loom and was still there along with her handmade scarves, hats and shawls. Still weaving. A rainbow coloured, woollen rug when we were there.

I bought a cheery, cherry-red hat. My sister bought a midnight-blue shawl sprinkled with fine sparkly threads.

From there it was on to Waihōpai Invercargill where we went on a marae hunt.

And found three! Two very small and the main one – Waihopai Marae – next door to the foundations for the brand new marae, Murihiku Marae, presently under construction. We could see them both, old and new, standing together, surrounded by a Murihiku landscape of kākāriki green. (LATER: It’s occurring to me that us looking at the Marae from afar; as we had to after having our nearer viewpoint blocked by construction; is somewhat symbolic?)

It’s weird sometimes how much I can feel like an orphan in the rain, looking for brown cousins once, twice, thrice removed. Cousins lost through distance and historical family rifts. Am I not content with my already full quiver of cousins both Māori and Pākehā? You may well ask. Maybe it’s all about searching for a sense of belonging. Maybe it’s about our tīpuna, our ancestors, leaving it up to us, their descendants, to gradually bring both us and those who got lost along the way, back home.

It’s a homecoming process that I, along with some of my whanau, are finding ourselves being drawn into more and more. I am grateful for those of the younger generation in our whanau who are also putting their shoulders to the task. Learning and using te reo, for example. But the very nature of a process, any process, means it cannot be rushed.

Ina kei te mohio koe, ko wai koe, I anga mai koe i hea, kei te mohio koe, kei te anga atu ki hea

If you know who you are and where you come from, you will know where you are going.

After our marae hunt we were hungry for some lunch. We chose the Black Shag cafe where Rueben’s Recipe proved a filling and tasty treat – rye bread, corned beef and jalapenos. Recipe below. On the wall were some small portraits by a local artist. My sister bought one titled Awhi, portraying the profile of a thoughtful, green-eyed wahine.

After Invers it was time to turn my sister’s Suzuki’s nose towards home. I was suffering from some inner ear woozy-ness, brought on I suggested, tongue-in-cheek, by drinking a bottle of beer too fast while perched on a very high bar stool. I hoped that by sitting still and keeping my eyes looking straight ahead, the dizziness would calm down.

And it did. Eventually. It only took two days of being back home in sensible, stony Dunedin.