In a new book, Love Letters to the Landscape, more than 50 notable Kiwis open up about the places close to their hearts. In these two extracts, writes about growing up in Kokanga and Jodi Brown reveals the only place she'll spend her summer holidays.

Jeremy Corbett

Comedian and TV personality

Kokonga

As the self-confessed chairman of the shallow club, I'm as surprised as you are that there is a place close to my heart. Though great places are easy, locating my heart can prove difficult.

But the place is there. Has been for years, sitting tucked under my right ventricle. The publisher of this book stirred it from its rest and brought its memories pumping back through my arteries.

A magical place from my childhood, probably at the peak of its powers for me when I was 11 or 12, back in the 20th century.

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Kokonga. Central Otago. Circa 1970-mumble.

It was where my mum grew up, where Grandma still lived, but most importantly it was Uncle David's farm.

Although I remember experiencing the brilliant stillness of the hoar frost, the fascination at standing on a frozen pond and ice skating/face-planting at nearby Naseby, normally our family would visit during the summer school holidays. It was a long trip and perhaps part of Kokonga's magic to me was the other-worldliness of the place, given the tortuous journey to get there.

We lived in Palmerston North, which I guess may also have contributed to the wonderment at anywhere else. Our family of six would squeeze into a Morris 1800 and spend days making the drive/ferry/drive/drive/drive via Christchurch and, crazily now that I look at a map, Dunedin to finally arrive at the best place on Earth: Uncle David's farm.

Jeremy Corbett's heart belongs to Kokonga, Central Otago.
Jeremy Corbett's heart belongs to Kokonga, Central Otago.

My perception of time and distance was not well developed back then, but I knew when we left Dunedin it would be mere hours before we got there. Slowly the landscape would change and as the hills browned and rounded off I would stir from my travel slumber. The last few corners I knew, and like a dog sniffing home after a long drive I would have my head out the window: alert, excited and animated.

Familiar landmarks, Uncle Ian's postbox, the haystack! Grandma's house, then the driveway, tall trees, rat-a-tat over the cow stop, curving upward past the lip we used for motorbike jumps then turning and pulling to a stop outside the farmhouse, the engine noise replaced by a chorus of cicadas.

My brothers and I would attempt to spring from the car but would instead stumble out in the way a body does after being cramped in a cocoon for two hours. Then we'd dutifully conduct the hellos and pleasantries before racing out to explore our favourite haunts: the outside room, the lead-lined coloured glass on the outside toilet (I knowww), the tractor shed, the chooks and that other building that had fallen into disrepair. All touchstones that we were truly there.

Over the glorious, sun-filled days that followed, we would tick off all the major attractions and rides: the 125cc Honda motorbike, smoko, rounding up the sheep, smoko and the real favourite: feeding out the hay from the flatbed truck before smoko. We'd take turns "driving", as uncle David stood on the back throwing the bales to the sheep wobbling and jogging up behind.

I asked him one day what he did when we were not there to steer for him. To my horror he told me that he let the truck drive itself while he dispensed the food. The potential disastrous outcomes for my uncle caused me undue worry for months.

He was a favoured uncle, not only because of his carefree, swashfarming ways, but also because he extended the same loose boundaries to us kids, always with a sense of humour. Oh the fits of suppressed giggles as he allowed our older brother, Greg, a puff on a cigarette. Unbeknownst to my brother, we had replaced all of the nicotine with hay. I'm not sure what reaction we were expecting, but not being overly familiar with real cigarettes, Greg merely accepted that this was how they must taste.

We all laughed. An adult condoning the forbidden! Such naughtiness.

The haystack! Always a highlight: It was a lengthy run through a large paddock to get to it, but we'd spend hours in that massive open shed with our cousins; running, laughing, climbing, building forts from bales, endlessly talking nonsense and never, in spite of accepted wisdom, having it end in tears.

Of course it is people that make any place special, and that was true of Kokonga, but when the people weren't around, it still had some sort of hold on me. Out in a paddock alone, leaning on a fence among the brilliantly sunny stillness, gazing at those golden hills bubbling out of the plains in the distance. I'm not equipped to explain it, but all of my senses were engaged and there was a real feeling of connecting. That's a pathetic attempt.

The paintings of Grahame Sydney come closest to capturing it for me. An isolation, but a nourishing one. Whatever it's called, I found it special. I tried to hold onto that feeling by taking a photo. The lens caught just enough to trigger the feeling in someone who had also stood there. I showed it to my mother months later and I could tell that she was transported back. Felt the emotion. She had been chopping onions, so I concede my photo may not have been wholly responsible.

I have not since experienced a sadness over departing like I did when we left that place. The days we spent there evaporated in that hot Central Otago summer. It was definitely my fondness for my Uncle, but also a fondness for the place and a heart-breaking knowledge that it would take so much travel and be so long before I would return.

I cried when we drove away. The melancholy so deep that it would last way beyond the first ice cream.

A week after we had visited I wrote my Uncle a letter in which I said I wished I was there to steer the truck and pleaded for him to be safe and not fall off the back.

This brought much good natured laughter from my parents and I'm sure my uncle.

But God, I meant it.

Jodi Brown

Former Silver Fern

Twizel (MacKenzie Country)

We are blessed with access to wonderful places and scenery around the Mackenzie Country. Picture / katyia75@xtra.co.nz
We are blessed with access to wonderful places and scenery around the Mackenzie Country. Picture / katyia75@xtra.co.nz

Life as a semi-professional netballer has taken me all around New Zealand, and I have been lucky enough to experience many parts of our beautiful country. Apart from Wanganui, where I grew up and lived until I was 16 and moved away to play netball, Dunedin is where I have spent the longest.

Lake Ruataniwha Camping ground in Twizel has been my husband's and my summer camping holiday destination for the past 10 years and automatically became my favourite spot in New Zealand. Planning our camping trip, packing up the cars, boats, trailers and caravans and the anticipation of the road trip is so exciting that we start planning next year's trip the moment we leave.

Most people in this part of the world migrate towards Wanaka and Queenstown for their holidays, leaving only a few of us to enjoy this beautiful spot.

Even the three-hour journey from Dunedin is magical, as we leave the city and head into the country. There's the annual stop in Kurow for an ice cream and a play at the park (since we had kids). The view of lake after lake and the mountain ranges is simply spectacular.

On the long straight from Omarama to Twizel the excitement builds as we pass paddock after paddock of grass, often with irrigation systems at work, before reaching the salmon farm.

Netballer Jodi Brown loves the majesty of the Mackenzie Country. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Netballer Jodi Brown loves the majesty of the Mackenzie Country. Photo / Brett Phibbs

From that point we are officially in our "happy place" for the next three or four weeks. For our first few years here we camped in a small group which was mostly family. This has expanded into a great group of about seven families who we camp with.

We are blessed with access to wonderful places and scenery around the Mackenzie Country. We can choose between three lakes to swim and do water sports in and walk or bike around. On our doorstep we have Lake Ruataniwha, the smallest of the lakes and probably the busiest, being used for all sorts of activities - not just rowing competitions and racing but also a lot of water sports with boats and jet skis. There is also a calm lagoon where people can swim, kayak and play freely without competition from big powerboats.

I love how the lakes look so inviting each day and am often mesmerised by their colour - bright, bright, blue. It's mostly calm, although some days the wind arrives to muck up our plans. Being on the border of Central Otago we often experience high temperatures that send everyone into the water to cool off.

Just down the road, going south you have Lake Ohau with Lake Benmore to the east - both bigger than Lake Ruataniwha. Lake Ohau is the coldest and Lake Benmore the warmest. But both are very popular for boating activities and often you need to use a boat to find a quiet private spot to enjoy yourself.

Of course, if you want a change from the lakes there are scenic walks and on a clear sunny day there is nothing more spectacular than seeing Mt Cook rising high above everything else with its snow glowing in the distance. There are wonderful and various mountain tracks suitable for all levels, small ponds for fishing, a river which is often sheltered from the wind and safe for children to swim in and a beautiful township.

When telling people about our summer destination I really can't do it justice. The mix of the bright natural colours; the clean fresh air that makes you feel alive; the cold nights and foggy mornings that turn into scorching hot days; the freedom our kids get to experience in the outdoors, new friends and happy places and the memories that we all make - it's hard to contain them in two pages of a book.

I fell in love with this part of New Zealand from the moment I experienced it for the first time and since then have never considered being anywhere else for our summer holidays.

Love Letters to the Landscape, by Paul Little Books, is available now. RRP $54.99