< previous | next >Letters Home: Betsy Kepes in New ZealandContents | NCPR Home

Messages for Betsy
Scargill Valley and Christchurch 2/22-3/20/06

February 22-28, 2006 Scargill Valley

Sue and Nev's front porch.

Twenty-five years ago Sue and Neville Sinclair built a stone house on the edge of a dry paddock near the end of the Scargill Valley, a day and a half bike ride northwest of Christchurch (about 70 miles). Today the house is surrounded by gardens and fruit trees, a leafy green spot among dry pastures and hills. Two windmills pump water when the wind blows, supplying plenty of cold water for drinking and irrigation. Solar panels on the roof provide electricity for lights and music. And Neville and Sue welcome visitors with big smiles and unbounded generosity. (I first meet the Sinclairs when I was a Willing Worker on Organic Farms, a WOOFer, fourteen years ago).

Windmill at Sue and Nev's

The first morning in Scargill Valley I woke when the roosters crowed, just after dawn. The Sinclair's live on a dead-end dirt road, with the only regular motor sound that of freight trains chugging by on the railroad tracks. I enjoyed the morning birdsong until I realized those busy songbirds were pecking holes in many of Sue and Neville's apples and pears.

We spent our first day at the Sinclair's helping Neville cut and split and move firewood. The wood was willow, taken from trees along the stream behind the house. Willow is not a New Zealand native but has made itself at home here, lining the banks of many streams and rivers and it splits even more easily than eucalyptus. Sue and Neville heat their house with a stone fireplace and use a wood cookstove for most of their cooking.

The "simple living" that the Sinclair's practice means they grow most of their own vegetables and meat and their cash flow is low. They do work a couple of days a week in a nearby vineyard and Sue is a private tutor for dyslexic children in local schools. The hours at home are busy with chores and inventions; Neville designed a methane tank outhouse that is a marvelous feat of engineering but hasn't generated enough gas to fuel a generator, as he had hoped it would. The problem seems to be a leak in the concrete tank and not enough waste added to the system. Too bad the cows can't be toilet trained. Neville also experiments with new varieties of apples and potatoes. Sue is often busy canning or drying food and making vinegar or soap.

The second day I helped Sue in the gardens, weeding and mulching. And eating-fresh basil, cucumbers, tomatoes and carrots. What a treat to have just-picked vegetables in February. Jay loved being on the farm. He was in charge of finding eggs hidden in secret nooks by the chooks (chickens). And in the evenings Jay walked with Neville to the upper paddock to get the cows back closer to the house before Neville did the milking in the morning. Add in two cats and a trampoline and the place was just about perfect for Jay.

On our third day in the Scargill Valley, Saturday, Sue and Neville took us to a remote beach called Nape Nape, where round gray stones made up the beach. We ate a picnic, walked through a wild bit of native bush and collected a trailer-full of seaweed to add to the compost piles.

Art show of Neville Sinclair's

Neville is an artist and we were lucky to visit during his annual art show at a gallery in Hamner Springs, a resort town about an hour drive away. On Sunday, Neville needed to open up the gallery for visitors and we were invited along. It was a pleasure to view Neville's artistic work from the past year, a group of paintings all reflecting the idea that geometry exists independently of our human interpretation of it. Triangles hovered in front of fluffy white clouds and leapt out of a huge wooden protractor. Neville joked that some visitors to the gallery backed out after a few seconds but I enjoyed the chance to talk to him about the ideas behind his art.

Hiking with Sue on Mt. Isabelle

Jay Hiking Near Mt. Isabelle.

While Neville monitored the gallery the rest of us climbed Mt. Isabelle, a moderate-sized mountain rising up behind the village. Much of the climb was above tree-line, through scrubby bush and then along a rocky ridge. We had a great view from the top of mountains to the west and the wide valley around Hamner Springs.

Back in the village we helped Neville close up the gallery, found a dairy that sold enormous "single scoop" ice cream cones (it was possible to get two flavors in the "single" scoop) and drove off toward the Scargill Valley. Along the way we stopped to order fish and chips from a small restaurant that was doing a brisk business. We opened up the greasy newspaper wrappings in a wooded campground and sat on the ground around the pile of food with the doors open on the car and the music of a New Zealand folk singer pouring out. When a particularly lively Irish fiddle tune began we all stood up and danced. It was the perfect ending to a wonderful Sunday.

The next day Sue and Neville had work at the vineyards so Tom and Jay and I had a quiet day of reading, schoolwork and a bit of gardening. We also walked up to the upper paddock and cut down Scotch broom with handsaws and clippers.

Jay and Nev Heading for the cows.

Jay meets Spot.

It would be a Herculean job to get rid of all of this feathery shrub, and no one in New Zealand has managed to control broom, but the town of Scargill insists that the Sinclair's get it away from the edges of the roads. I couldn't help but wonder if by clearing the shrubs we were creating sunny habitat for a lush new generation of the noxious weed.

Our last day with Sue and Neville was my "un-birthday", February 28th. (Hint: I am now 11 and a half birthdays old). I began my celebration in the morning by walking up to the top of one of the hills above the Scargill Valley. I had to open gates or climb over fences at least ten times and found farm tracks to walk on. Sue had warned me there wouldn't be any great view but I wanted to see for myself ( "The bear went over the mountain, the bear went over the mountain…"). She was right-I saw more hills-but it was a great walk. And when I stood up on top I could look back down onto the railroad tracks and the little creek, mostly dry at the end of the summer, and the windmills and the lush green of the gardens and orchards. Also, to the west, the higher hills and mountains rose in layer upon layer. Even after being in New Zealand for almost two months I was still amazed by the beauty of the land.

Orion from Nev and Sue's

Tom left with Sue to volunteer for a day in the vineyard and Neville had a mysterious ailment, perhaps a migraine, and slept for most of the day. Jay and I kept quiet and enjoyed a day together doing schoolwork and reading and more broom cutting. I had asked to be the evening cook as I wanted the rare birthday pleasure of cooking a huge stir-fry from vegetables I'd just picked.

By the time Sue and Tom returned from the vineyard, where they reported mending nets and cutting laterals from the vines, Neville was feeling better. I sawed up wood for the cookstove, put on the rice and cut up mounds of vegetables-onions, garlic, green beans, zuccini (called courgette here), silver beet (swiss chard), carrots, green and red peppers-all fresh from the garden. I even cooked up some dry beans from last year's bean crop so the whole meal, except the rice and chocolate banana cake (made by Sue), was homegrown. And the presents were home-made also--cards, a poem, and a joyful cartoon by Neville showing us all dancing around the empty fish and chips newspaper wrapping.

March 1st and 2nd, 2006 Scargill Valley to Rangiora to Christchurch

Our friend and enemy, the wind, roared against us for the last ten kilometers out of the Scargill Valley but when we joined the main road and changed direction we flew down Weka Pass. Tom recorded over 30 mph on his odometer and nothing could be finer than flying through the countryside on a downhill with the wind at your back. We walked our bikes for the short section of dirt road where I'd gotten a flat tire on our journey to the Scargill Valley and sped through most of the rest of the trip until we had the wind in our faces for the last hour into Rangiora.

Chris and Maria Aulman welcomed us again into their home for an evening of good food and good conversation. We peeled and cored a big bowl of apples from their backyard tree and had fresh applesauce in the morning with our muesli.

From Rangiora we had a few miles of quiet road, but not many. As we neared Christchurch the traffic increased and even choosing the least busy roads meant trucks and industry-scrap metal dealers, building supply places and, panel beaters (collision repair).

Jay and friends on the way back to Christchurch.

To get off the road to eat our lunch, we pedaled into a driveway with a big hand-painted sign proclaiming "Historic orchard". We parked our bikes and bought a punt of blueberries from a farmer who told us the brick building we stood in had been built in the 1880's by his great-grandfather as the latest in cold storage for apples. It had double brick walls and maintained a steady, cool temperature year-round. I found it interesting that the building had its original corrugated tin roof, still a staple for New Zealand construction. When I asked if the farm grew apples now, I received a tirade about how all the big, new farms that grew apples for export had flooded the local market with cheap apples so that it was impossible to make a living off a small farm any more. Pick-your-own raspberries and blueberries were good business though as the farm was so close to the city of Christchurch.

Back on the road, we took a circuitous route through the city, pedaling through residential areas along the Avon River, past schools, cemeteries, and city parks. No tourists along that route, especially at the end when we rode through the middle of an industrial area as the shortest way to get to Horotane Valley, on the far side of the city and home of our good friends Chris McGill and Mark Scambury.

We hadn't seen Chris and Mark since early January when we'd gone tramping (backpacking) together. In that interval Chris had gotten a job teaching biology at a large Christchurch college (high school). When she arrived home she was exhausted from a day of teaching but still wanted to make tea (supper) her way. We were forced to sit at the table with cups of tea and tell her about our adventures, and to listen to hers. Mark disappeared for a nap, as he had just returned from a business trip to the States and hadn't recovered from jet lag.

March 3rd to March 7th Christchurch

Christchurch is the biggest city in the South Island but it is small by international standards. It sprawls over a flat floodplain and has very few tall buildings. With its mild climate and flat streets it is an excellent city for bicycling and many streets have marked bike lanes.

As usual, Jay needed another book to read, so we explored the cluster of used bookstores near the center of the city. On bookstore #3, Jay hit a rich pocket of almost-new fantasy books by one of his favorite British children's authors and I found several novels to send to friends as thank you gifts. On another trip into the city we explored the Botanical Gardens.(Question from Jay: Why are rose gardens always planted in a circle? Answer from me: I don't know. Tradition?) We felt like city bicyclists after awhile, though we didn't ride in the middle of traffic the way some daring riders did.

On Saturday we helped Chris with work in the gardens, cleaning the weeds out of a long drainage ditch and piling the debris into an enormous bonfire pile. Sunday began with a howling storm-wind and cold rain-but by the afternoon it had cleared enough for a walk with our friends Sharee and Alan. They took us to a walkway along the shore at Taylor's Mistake, south of Christchurch. I was fascinated by the old "bachs" (summer camps) built into the cliffs. The city of Christchurch had wanted to remove these ramshackle old shacks, as their "owners" were actually squatting on city land but the city had to back down when many believed the structures were an important and colorful part of local history. One particularly subterranean-looking building dated from 1888.

After a couple of kilometers of ridge walking we scrambled down to the shore and explored the edge of the sea. Along with barnacles and shiny black mussels was the snakeskin chiton, a small oblong creature with an armadillo-like shell stuck to the rocks by a scaly ring that looked remarkably like a rattlesnake skin.

We almost missed seeing the penguin. We had climbed up a steep set of stairs and were heading back to the walking track when Sharee pointed out to sea, "Is that a penguin?" We watched an acrobatic shape whiz around in the edge of the ocean, leaving a light wake of ripples behind it. The afternoon daylight lit the sea so that the water was almost transparent and we could see the penguin rapidly flapping its wings as it cruised through the water. It was amazing to see how agile a penguin is in the water, a graceful, streamlined and athletic bird, not the waddling jokester we think of on land. Later, we talked with a man who had lived in Taylor's Mistake for years and had never seen a penguin during the day. The parent birds usually leave land at dawn and don't return until dusk.

So much of our journey in New Zealand has had this special glow to it, this feeling of seeing things that are often hidden. It's been more than just the novelty of having summer during the winter, and has come from the generosity of friends and the beauty of the land. And by traveling slowly and somewhat randomly, we've been able to be open for the unexpected, to almost expect it.

March 8th Christchurch to Wellington

Chris told us flying to Wellington would be cheaper than the 5 hour train trip followed by the 4 hour ferry crossing to the North Island. We didn't believe her, but, of course, she was right. The land/water route to Wellington cost almost twice as much as the one-hour airplane trip--$130NZ vs. $69NZ.

But we have a soft spot in our hearts for train travel and the once-a-day passenger train would go right past Sue and Neville's house in the Scargill Valley. We decided to take the slow all-day train and ferry journey on the way to Wellington and fly back to Christchurch a week later.

Jay and Betsy on the open air train car north of Christchurch.

Of course the train, besides being expensive, left at the inconveniently early hour of 7am. Chris and Mark should get gold medals for offering to drive us to the train station, which meant leaving the house shortly after 6am. Eager passengers were already sitting in their seats when we arrived at 6:40am. Most seemed to be foreign tourists though three very excited young kiwi children sat behind us with their father.

The best part of the train was the open-air car where passengers could stand in the wind and watch and smell and feel the world go by. We waved when we passed Sue and Neville's place, but they were probably already at work. After being on bicycles for so long, traveling by train seemed outrageously fast.

Picton Ferry to Wellington

The train journey ended in Picton, a port village tucked into a long bay. The ferry arrived and disgorged its passengers and vehicles then we were allowed on. It was an enormous ship, with room for many trucks and cars. Two cars full of young cattle got a special place above decks while most of the other vehicles were driven into lower, enclosed levels.

A few days before our ferry journey the newspapers ran an account of a particularly nasty ferry crossing during a storm when vehicles inside bounced around and several people were injured. The trip took 8 hours instead of 4. Our luck held and we had a very calm journey, barely any swells as we sailed into the Cook Strait. We sat on the deck and watched islands go by and "marine farms" where we supposed oysters or fish are grown.

In Wellington we disembarked and looked around for a bus stop. When we didn't see one we started walking. The road was busy but there was a wide sidewalk and it wasn't far to downtown. Wellington is built in a curved bay with steep hills rising up all around it. It is a beautiful, if not practical, site for a city. Our friends Esther and Martin lived on Washington Ave. in Brooklyn. Of course we made lots of jokes about this, especially when we walked through Central Park. The last mile was uphill and Jay wondered when we would ever get there.

Martin, Anya and Betsy in Wellington.

We were warmly welcomed by Esther and her daughter, six-year-old Anya, a lively talkative girl with curly red hair. Jessie, age 11, was out back with Martin putting the finishing touches on a new doghouse. Jessie was "babysitting" a cute little Jack Russell Terrier named Pippi.

For the next few days we became part of the Bukholt-Payne family, helping with meals, playing and talking together and joining in where we could. While the girls were at school, Jay did his assignments then we walked down to the city center and went to museums and other attractions. Wellington is the capital of New Zealand and the national museum, Te Papa, is free and has an impressive array of exhibits. I especially enjoyed the Maori floor with its intricately-carved nineteenth-century marae, or meeting house.

Betsy reading with Anya in Brooklyn, Wellington.

On the weekend we joined the girls at their Saturday morning music school, funded by the city. For very low fees, children can take instrumental lessons and music theory. Many of the teachers were college-aged music students and enthusiasm was high. While Jay joined Jessie in a music theory class, next door a boy had a cello lesson and through the wall I could hear the notes of a classical guitar. Jessie is taking harp lessons and I loved hearing her practice.

The Burkholt-Paynes are Quakers but we skipped Sunday morning Meeting in favor of a good session at the rock climbing wall down at the harbor. Jessie had been climbing for awhile and was amazingly agile on the wall. It was Jay's first time rock climbing and twice he made it high enough up to touch the ceiling. I was the belay person for Anya who was as fast as a monkey. Tom and Martin and I got tired before the kids did as our job as safety monitors meant we always had our heads tilted up and our necks got sore from the strain.

Esther was near the end of a virulent flu bug but she still managed to cook delicious meals before she crept back to bed to rest again. I weeded the vegetable garden and Anya helped me dig potatoes. She pretended she was a dog and scattered dirt all over the other crops as she pawed through the ground. She was very proud when she found the biggest potato of all.

Throughout our stay, we met other family and friends and enjoyed learning about the Wellington Quaker community. Tom helped Martin repair a kitchen for an elderly couple and we had supper with a friend who had just returned from an international peace conference north of Wellington.

Our last morning in Wellington we rose early and tiptoed out of the house before the others woke up. We wanted to walk to the airport and though the distance wasn't far, we needed plenty of time, just in case. What a lovely walk-from the heights of Brooklyn we watched the sunrise then took curving roads down to lower suburbs, through main streets just opening up for the day. We passed stores that sold meat pies and newspapers, stores that sold fruit and milk. Near the airport we actually walked through a pedestrian access that went under the runways. We made it to the terminal in an hour and a half, with plenty of time to spare.

March 15th- 20th Christchurch

The air trip to Christchurch was a mere 45 minutes and as Tom said it sure shrunk down the size of New Zealand for us. With our extra time we visited the Christchurch museum's Antarctic exhibit and marveled at the gear the early explorers wore and the boat made of twigs that a marooned crew of men used to row for help.

Back in Christchurch Cathedral Square, Jay's chess game.

On our way through the city we stopped in at Cathedral Square where Jay made a beeline to the giant chessboard. This is open to the public and all during the day the board is in use with a crowd of people stand around watching. When we arrived a young Asian man was deep in a game against an older pakeha (white) man. After the young man won, Jay helped put the three-foot high pieces back on the board. "Would you like to play, mate?" The man asked.

"Sure." Said Jay. Tom and I gulped. We wouldn't be brave enough to play against an expert with the whole world watching.

Jay kept his eyes on the board, ignoring the crowd and the tourists walking by. The game started quickly and the young man helped Jay avoid making a couple of big mistakes. I expected Jay to last about five minutes but the game went on and on. When both colors were down to their last few pieces Jay managed a checkmate. The young man shook Jay's hand and smiled at his friends in the audience. "Beaten by a kid!"

Jay was a bit in shock, as were we. We told the young man he was a good teacher and walked away through the crowd. What a great experience for Jay.

With only a few days to go until we left New Zealand we had to start thinking ahead. We needed to replace some of our clothes as they were faded and ragged after weeks in the sun on our bike trip. We found some replacements in a huge second-hand clothing store where the clothes were arranged on long racks by color, not size. And Tom and I both splurged on Made-in-New-Zealand merino wool tops, useful as a shirts or long underwear.

One night we had tea (supper) with our friends Sharee and Al and went with them to a lecture by the world's leading authority on moa, a large, extinct flightless bird. (Think ostrich and then bulk up the legs to almost elephant size). I was amazed to learn about the advances in dating and analyzing old bone. It isn't just Carbon 14 anymore. New tests make it possible to know what the birds ate, how big their ranges were and how long they lived.

And in our last trip to a grocery store we bought a few items for nostalgia's sake-a jar of Marmite, two packages of dried peas, 500grams of whole milk powder and a box of our favorite muesli bars. We've been here long enough now to be completely comfortable and it is difficult to remember just how far away we are from our home in the northern hemisphere. It may be years before we visit again but I'd rather remember all the connections we've made and the laughter we've shared.

< previous | next >Letters Home: Betsy Kepes in New ZealandContents | NCPR Home
2006 North Country Public Radio, St. Lawrence University, Canton, New York 13617-1475