After hours of driving, we knew we were almost there when we could see a blue hole in the clouds. The hole was over Alexandra, one of the coldest places in New Zealand in winter and one of the hottest in summer. About as far inland as you can get in New Zealand, protected from the cool sea breezes that blow all year round, this was our summer holiday destination. An “escape from the easterly” as my mother used to put it.
We camped in the same grounds every year. The camp was large, terraced above a river, and there were plenty of willow trees as shelter under the fierce heat of the January sun. From our camping spot we could look up to the stark, rocky hills that protected Alex (as it was known) from the south.
We passed our days simply. Children would play outdoors all day, with badminton or softball sets that we got for Christmas, or “French cricket” with tennis rackets and balls. If there was a real cricket match on anywhere in New Zealand, you could hear the commentary all over the camp, from portable radios next to men sitting in deck chairs, with a beer in hand. My mother would sunbathe, and my dad would meet up with the “neighbours” and chat. As the heat rose, we would read under the shade or nap.
Every second morning or so, we would go into town for supplies and have a holiday treat in a milk bar (largely gone from the NZ landscape now). A milkshake (my mother’s favourite) or an ice-cream. Even at 10 or 11 am, the sun would be pumping out its heat, and an icy treat was always welcome.
We would go swimming in the afternoons, at the large pool in the town. It was surrounded with grass, and so families, like ours, would picnic there under the trees for hours. Even my father would swim, although he always said the temperature had to be over 80 to go in the water. We would laugh, because this showed how old school he was, working in Fahrenheit. To this day, 32F, 100F and 80F are the only Fahrenheit numbers which make any sense to me.
My dad would sometimes take off, perhaps all that family togetherness hour after hour too much of a shock after a year of isolation on the farm. He would cross the river and climb the rocky hills, sometimes to the clock at the summit, where he had a magnificent view of the plains, the Clutha River (New Zealand’s largest) and the suspension bridge, the orchards which surrounded the town, and the tailings of the gold rush in the 1800s.
The cooler evenings were spent walking, then later playing cards, monopoly or scrabble in the long, light southern nights.
Meals were simple – fresh summer salad sandwiches for lunch, and something easy and quick in the evenings, cooked over the sole gas element. I remember our excitement that we would get Honey Puffs as our breakfast cereal. Laden with sugar, and expensive, it was banned for the rest of the year. Perhaps that’s why, at my latest Christmas holiday just a few weeks ago, I indulged in the guilty pleasure of Honey Puffs for breakfast.
As we got older, a few days before we were due to return home, my parents introduced pick-your-own fruit activities at a local stone fruit farm. We would pick boxes and boxes of peaches, apricots and plums, take them home, and my mother would make them into jam or preserves, a welcome taste of summer in the depths of winter.
We would take excursions; if my parents were feeling adventurous we’d drive to Queenstown, New Zealand’s tourist hub, but more often to Clyde, the former gold-mining centre of Central Otago just up the road, or to Cromwell, another gold-mining and orchard centre, where we would wander the old streets with the stone buildings. We were obviously tourists here, pale in our summer shorts and tops, my father’s legs gleaming white, against the browned locals accustomed to the sun. I loved going to Cromwell, both for the gold rush history, and for the dramatic nature of the winding Cromwell gorge where the Clutha River narrowed between steep rocky hills, the pale icy blue of its waters contrasting so sharply with the rich brown of the soil and rocks. Across the gorge we could see the apricot orchards, and the old huts used by gold miners over 100 years ago. Both the historic centre of Cromwell and the gorge have now been flooded with the construction of the Clyde Hydro Dam, and whilst I appreciate that hydro power energy is as clean as you can get, I feel regret that I’ll never feel the thrill of that journey again in quite the same way.
But then, it is always hard to recapture the magic of those endless hot summer days of childhood, isn’t it?
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