It was the most perfect of times, but also the spookiest.
Summertime, inland mid-Canterbury on 150 hectares of sheep farm where the grass is forever fighting for survival against river stones, thistles, the shimmering heat and the big dry.
The grass needed a hand, so it was my job to crank up the old Bedford truck and head to the top of the farm to do the irrigating. Throw a timber frame across a race, bed a canvas sheet against it, watch the water dam up and spill into the parched pastures.
You could almost hear the earth whisper “thank you” as it drank its fill. An hour later, you would repeat the process. Easy.
In the meantime, you soaked up the sun and the isolation. You surfed the surging turquoise mountain waters of the main irrigation canal that fed our races. Huge fun. You dried off while scoffing door-step lamb and mint jelly sandwiches, pickled onions and Louise cake, you read steamy books of the time, and you had those two fags you nicked from the farmers tobacco proud.
Blissful stuff. Boy pretending to be man.
The farmer always had a cigarette stub rooted to the corner of his mouth. He could talk, eat, whistle, and sleep with it there, I am sure. Then to light the stub, he would cock his head at a bizarre angle to avoid starting a wildfire of beard, nasal hair and eyebrows. There was always another couple of puffs in that stub.
And while his neck was bent he would gaze up, see the nor’west arches in the sky and rue the arrival of the foehn winds that bring heavy rain to the mountains on the West Coast of the South Island and then blow ferociously hot, dry and gustily across the Canterbury plains for four to five days. It’s spooky, bends the pine groves, silences the birds, cicadas, sheep and people, and blows clouds of dust and detritus from the roads and bare paddocks. It’s eerie.
Ngai Tahu called the nor’westers Te Hau Kai Tangata - the wind that devours humankind. That absolutely captures it. Because the hot, strong, dry winds have the reputation of driving people slightly crazy. Spooky stuff.