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On the slopes of Black’s Hill, near Ophir.
On the slopes of Black’s Hill, near Ophir.

BooksFebruary 15, 2016

The Monday extract: Brian Turner on the splendours and stupidities of life in Central Otago

On the slopes of Black’s Hill, near Ophir.
On the slopes of Black’s Hill, near Ophir.

An extract from Boundaries, a collection of essays and verse by the holy philosopher king of Central Otago, Brian Turner.

What locals call Black’s Hill is a steep climb on the main road which takes you up from Ophir in the Manuherikia Valley and down into Poolburn in the Ida Valley. It’s about four kilometres to the top, a lowish point on the hill country between the Crawford Hills and the Raggedies to the south and Blackstone Hill in the north. No one seems to have been sure whether Black’s Hill was named after the Black family as a whole, who were among the earliest European settlers in the district, or one in particular, Dr Thomas Black of Melbourne, who was an early owner of the then vast — about 45,000 acre — property known as Lauder Station. Does it matter now? As I see it, no.

From Ophir, the road goes up in three steps, the bottom two being steep, so steep that cyclists see it as a bit of a ‘brute of a climb’. Several years ago, during a cycling race, when I was riding with Gary Anderson, Daryl Spence and others, a gale-force nor’wester was gusting, the tenacious short tussock grass by the roadside rocking, flogging. The descent into the Ida was a bit scary. Gary told me that at one point his computer showed we’d touched 90 km/h. It was one of those ‘you bastards are mad’ moments that cyclists experience. Exhilarating.

I often pull over and stop at one or other of the three points where you can leave the seal, park and get out to survey the country. North, south, east and west are panoramic views that, for me, are unparalleled anywhere on the main routes inland between Dunedin and Cromwell. The views north and west are particularly impressive, encompassing hills and mountains from the Kakanuis to the north-east and then anti-clockwise to the north, west and south through the best part of 360 degrees.

There’s a litany to the names of familiar features that thrills me, and most times I tick them off — Rough Ridge, Mt Ida, the Hawkduns, Blackstone Hill, Mt St Bathans and the Dunstans, whose southernmost bulk ends with Leaning Rock above the Cromwell Gorge, down which, prior to the advent of the Clyde Dam, the great and glorious Clutha River used to seethe and writhe. In its place we have a reservoir steadily being filled with gunge courtesy of the Shotover River and clagging weed and algae from the Hawea and Upper Clutha rivers.

Farther off and further westwards, in the far blue yonder, are the jagged peaks of the Hector Mountains and the Remarkables, which are an arresting mix of blue and black and white for all but a few weeks annually. The Hectors act as a buffer between the remote Nevis Valley, Lake Wakatipu and Queenstown.

A little to the north and over the Crown Range is Wanaka, the other major resort town on the shores of the lake of the same name. When compared to Queenstown some see it as less frenetic, more seemly, not as crass — a town that’s perhaps a bit more ‘arty’, culturally sophisticated and environmentally conscious; a place whose residents seem slightly more willing to accept that there are limits to growth and that the time to plan accordingly has arrived.

Wanaka’s not as gross, witnesses less gross behaviour — so I’ve been told. I’ve even heard it said the residents are bit more demure there. When I reported that to a couple of Queenstowners I was told, ‘Not demure, uptight.’ Another said, ‘There’s a few more greenies over there, so it’s said.’

A lot of my generation scoff at ‘greenies’, calling them ‘unrealistic’ and ‘anti-progress’. Others as good as infer, ‘We won’t take you seriously unless you go the whole hog; back to the soil.’

Returning to the view of Leaning Rock from Black’s Hill, south-west from there one glimpses a section of the low-slung Old Woman Range; and then, closer, and prominent above Alexandra and Earnscleugh, the imperious Old Man Range muscles south above Fruitlands, then the Clutha Valley, in which lie the towns of Roxburgh, Ettrick and Millers Flat. Still further left and southwards are the fissured and bulky, rolling, tor-studded lands that include the Knobby, Lammerlaw and Lammermoor ranges, in which several natural and artificial lakes and tarns are found. Here and there one sights country retaining remnants of formerly extensive tussock grasslands. These lands include the Manorburn, Poolburn and Onslow reservoirs, networks of public roads and farm tracks and, to the south-east, the Old Dunstan Trail, an exposed high-country route miners and early pastoralists in particular followed from Outram on the Taieri Plain to Central Otago, the ‘interior’, in the mid-nineteenth century.

In 2006 Meridian Energy advised that it intended to apply for consent to build Project Hayes, a huge 176-turbine wind farm on the Lammermoors. Each turbine was to be 160 metres high. At the time this would have made it, so the word was, the second- or third-largest wind farm in the southern hemisphere. In its entirety the whole farm would have spread over 92 square kilometres of the spectacular uplands, and extend south towards another, then recently consented wind farm being built by a rival energy company. Initially the application was heard by a panel including members of the Central Otago District Council, which gave its consent in 2007.

Opponents appealed against the decision, and then began the tiring, protracted and costly process of Environment Court (EC) hearings in Cromwell, later Queenstown. After that it went to the High Court in Dunedin, which referred it back to the EC for further consideration. In 2011 the EC confirmed its original decision to turn down the application. Subsequently Meridian’s new CEO and the board of directors reviewed the proposal, determined it no longer necessary, nor financially viable, and that was that. But the company stopped short of sending opponents a thank-you note, or offering to recompense the opposition for the time and money they spent.

On the slopes of Black’s Hill, near Ophir.
On the slopes of Black’s Hill, near Ophir.

Not long ago , on a vibrant sunny late-December day, I stopped by the roadside near the top of Black’s Hill and looked down on Ophir, Omakau and the still — to me — Arcadian glories of the Manuherikia Valley; traced the willow-lined Manuherikia River and its tributary streams and creeks; noted the well-run farms, their cattle and sheep and a few deer, the farmhouses, yards, ponds, barns and so on.

I gaze at and ticked off the names of hills and valleys and mountain ranges near and far: the St Bathans Downs, Mt St Bathans itself, Dunstan Peak, the Dunstans themselves and the gorge from which Lauder Creek emerges; the start of Thomson’s Gorge, the Tiger Hills, Leaning Rock at the southern end of the Dunstans, the Old Man Range and, on the far horizon, with a few flecks of winter’s snows remaining, the blue and black peaks of the Hector Range.

The nor’wester was fluffing my hair, bending viper’s bugloss and shaking briar bushes that still displayed a few of their pink and white blooms. Yellow Sedum acre — better known as stonecrop — sprawled on bare-ish ground. Thyme is abundant here, always strongly aromatic. I could hear and see a few bumble bees dithering, but no honey bees, alas. Other insects were active, some of them noisy. Here and there were wilding pines.

I grabbed a discarded old fertiliser bag out of the luggage compartment of my car and started to gather up litter and other stuff thrown away by some of the more inconsiderate members of the citizenry. Everywhere along our roadsides, especially where there’s room to pull off and stop, one finds all manner of rubbish. Only a week earlier I’d spent a few minutes collecting bottles from the grassy verge at the crossroads five kilometres north of Oturehua. In an area no more than 15 metres long and five wide I nearly filled another fertiliser bag. Ask locals who tosses them and other stuff away and the usual answer is ‘hoons’ or ‘ferals’, normally but not exclusively youngish males. In my experience most of the litter is found five to ten minutes out of towns and villages, especially the drink containers.

On Black’s I filled the bag in less than 10 minutes. Soft drink, spirit and beer cans and bottles; take-away food containers; plastic bags; old rags and paper bags; and so on. One can had contained an Inferno and promised a MOTHER OF AN ENERGY KICK which, we’re assured, ‘makes you feel like a super hero, without undies on the outside of course’.

I tossed the bag in the back of my Toyota and headed for Oturehua. A few broken white cumulus clouds were drifting across the Ida Valley and its increasing number of pivot irrigators. It was so warm I left the passenger’s side window open. Four spur-winged plovers stood, almost indistinguishable on a dry, pale yellow, sparsely grassed slope, and a pair of oystercatchers idled beside a small pond in which a family of paradise ducks puddled. Ahead of me a hawk was tearing at the carcass of a hare lying broken and bloodied on the road. I slowed and stopped, got out, snatched it up, tossed it over the fence and into a paddock. Such acts extend the lives of hawks.

When I got to Oturehua I dumped the stuff I’d collected in the brimming recycling bins round the back of the store and went home, washed my hands, made myself a cheese and tomato sandwich and a cup of coffee. Then I went and sat in my porch where, in a freshening easterly that had arrived off the Pacific about 100 kilometres away, my thermometer told me that where I sat, in the shade, it was a pleasant 27 degrees.

And I thought, once more, considering the rubbish and all the effort that goes into making it, then chucking it away, that some of what we do seems futile, some not, and these days it’s hard to know which is which. I tend to think recycling’s little more than a gesture, really; but it makes us feel good, virtuous mean-wells, if only for a moment or two . . . and so it goes.

E v e n i n g  W a l k , Ot u r e h u a


In the hope of silencing confusion’s

cacophony you go for a stroll

in the twilight seeking peace and quiet.


There’s a stony-coloured moon

and a pink flush on the Hawkduns

and clouds layered like schist


ablaze with gold in the western sky.

And you’re thinking radiance

is what overarches us and maybe


Prince Andrei, wounded on the battlefield

of Austerlitz, and who lay there

struck by the sere blue sky above,


would have thought so too, he who

cared only for the pleasures,

the wonderment of an unimpeded view.


Text copyright © Brian Turner, 2015. Photographs copyright © Steve Calveley, 2015.

Boundaries by Brian Turner (Godwit, $45) is available at Unity Books.

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