Last week I stayed with an old friend in Waitati just north of Dunedin. My oldest mate as it goes, in duration rather than his age.
During the day I stayed at his home and wrote whilst he went to work in the city. His house overlooks Blueskin Bay and I watched the tide flow in and then out again from just above this estuarine inlet. In the evening we reconvened and drank wine and shot the breeze. An odd couple indeed, but it worked well for the eight nights I was there. I usually try and follow the old rule, the one where guests like fish go off after three days.
Back in the sixties the community was seen as the hippie centre of the south. A 1989 article in NZ Geographic entitled “Waitati – still crazy after all these years?” sums up life back then – it’s worth a read.
I wrote more during the week than I think I’ve ever written before in that short a time. I walked on the beach, visited the local library, took trips to the city of Dunedin, and the communities of Aramoana and Karitane. I caught up and played tennis with an old friend from our local tennis club in Eastbourne. I lunched at European St Clair, had afternoon tea with my god daughter Gracie a student at the university. I even met a neighbour from home too at the buoyant city Farmers Market, proving again the point that you can’t get away with anything in New Zealand.
We hung out with the locals on several of the evenings, it was film society the first night I arrived and a French movie, The Man from Rio, was showing. We took a bottle of wine and chatted with the locals. There were plenty of socks and sandals and an ageing balding man bun or two, grey dreadlocks, a hint of fading tie-die. Half time seemed to involve a smoke break for most of the audience. The film itself was a hilarious black and white predecessor of a cross between Harrison Ford in the Raiders franchise and Romancing the Stone. On another night we drove into the city to go to a well-attended public lecture at the central library.
There was wine and food at the local gallery on the Friday night. There was laughter and even some intelligent conversation before the alcohol raised the volumes of several different European accents along with the New Zealand ones. There were poets and artists there as well as a predictable smatter of university academics and administrators. Ex-students too, that arrived 30 plus years ago and couldn’t quite tear themselves away. Others who worked locally, a builder, a plumber and a somewhat intense but entertaining arborist. It was an eclectic mix.
I visited the surprisingly well stocked local library, drank coffee at the garden centre coffee shop, played tennis on the community courts before again visiting the nicely set up art gallery. There were election boards up, more green and red than blue. Winston had sprouted a predictable German mustache. Even the new houses seem to have stayed relatively small, the Waiheke and Mt Mauganui mansions that nationally plague some seaside resorts have stayed away, though I did see one in Karitane.
On the Monday I wangled an invite to the table tennis club and their club champs. There were a dozen of us in the competition playing ping-pong to loud reggae and then hip-hop. The competition was drawn up and then as for the film night half the guys disappeared outside to share a smoke before bats were raised, not in anger, but in competition. We were in after the Zumba class and played between 8.30 until nearly midnight at the village hall, then put the tables away behind the curtain on the stage, swept up and put our bottles outside. I managed to come second.
For the Friday gallery evening we’d sensibly walked down but were driven home by a neighbour in a new Japanese electric car. Given the earlier NZ Geo article, we were not abducted, clearly Waitati is not quite so crazy.
So, what’s my point on this one? Well in this funny little community I felt at home within a surprisingly short period of time. I’m sure there are neighbourhood issues and bad stuff that happens there but I saw a remarkably coherent cohesive community who seemed to be very inclusive, firstly and more importantly to my old friend who hasn’t been there long but has already made some good strong friendships. But also to me, though it might have helped that I currently sport a beard!