Nothing like the cold, wet and wind to make you appreciate the good things in life, writes Yvonne van Dongen
So I went to Riverton. Aka Aparima. Thirty kilometres from Invercargill, just south of the 46th parallel. I won't lie. It was rugged. Pretty much everything was in extremis - the rain, the hail, the wind, oh my stars, the wind whipping those whirligig wooden birds embedded in planters along the main street into hyperactive mania. Underpinning the attendant misery was the relentless blistering, eye-watering, nose-running cold.
Well, honestly, what did I expect? It was the beginning of winter, which really means depths anywhere else. My fault.
But I did have a vague ulterior motive. Two actually. First, I'd missed Riverton on my Southland tour at the end of last year, much to the amazement of everyone else who hadn't. Second, during that tour, I'd visited the He Waka Tuia Art + Museum in Invercargill and been stunned to see the girl who had sat in front of me in fifth-form English, now featured in a video on artists of the region. What's more, a large exhibition of her work was planned at about the time I was due to fly down.
"Well fancy that," I said to the gallery assistant draped in layers of black. "That Janet de Wagt. She was a rascal when I knew her." What I remembered about de Wagt was her occasionally turning around to scribble on my book (naughty cartoons mostly).
"She looks mischievous," grinned the assistant.
"I was not," said de Wagt when we met at a restaurant in Riverton. "I was just different. Hanging out with the naughty girls gave me a kind of cover, took the focus off me. I was quite shy really."
As for those cartoons - "shows a sense of humour".
The assistant told me that one of the children she worked with at the gallery called the artist Janet de Wag, which I thought was a brilliant mispronunciation. De Wagt regularly works with children in schools and galleries, being a community artist. She says they often don't always know what to make of her, with her funky grey hairstyle and no-nonsense manner.
If she hadn't been scheduled to run workshops in local schools during my stay, I might have seen her painting outdoors, never mind the weather. That's the other thing Janet is known for - painting on location. Not employing anything as prissy as an easel. An ironing board is her shtick, far more stable in a Southland tempest. That and a truck. De Wagt has both.
Not that she actually lives in Southland. Her home is Dunedin but she loves painting the Southland coast. Also the people. She loves them too and believes the weather makes the people open and strong.
Those qualities have to be the abiding takeout from a visit to the Te Hīkoi Museum in Riverton - mostly especially the story of Jacky Price and his wife Hineawhitia dumped on Solander Island in 1828 for some misdemeanour. Solander is basically a big pointy rock in the southern ocean. Five months later the couple sailed back to the mainland, 22 nautical miles away, in a boat they'd made themselves of sealskin and driftwood. Crikey.
The story must have made a bigger impact on me than I realised, because that afternoon I decided to embark on the two-hour loop track at More's Reserve. Alone. On the coldest day in eight years. Rain and hail notwithstanding. A loony idea but once I started the enterprise had an unstoppable momentum. On and on I stumbled down the marked track through the silent tangled forest. No birds. Not even a possum even though Riverton is where possums were first released in this country. On and on and on until I came to the edge of the forest and a stile leading to uneven steep paddocks. Also a sign that said follow the markers. What markers? Where? Wishing I had a map, wishing I had cellphone reception, wishing I was back at the lovely La Rivieria lodge by the fire indulging in some mindless breathing.
I made it, obviously, steaming with anxiety and the effort of the whole mad exercise. When I fell through the door of La Rivieria just before dark, the proprietor looked at me like I'd lost my mind. I probably had. No use complaining to her though. "Whenever anyone moans about the weather I always say 'Well look at it this way. You're here relaxing and I'm running around after you. Who would you rather be?'"
I barely moved the next day. Mindless breathing by the fire. Hours of it. Wonderful. Broken only by a visit to The Crib cafe across the road. Followed by a visit to an unnamed shop selling bric-a-brac and steampunk accoutrements. Long trays of dully gleaming bronze doodads, top hats festooned with round metal glasses, plastic bird skeletons, the whole faux fantasy story. "Dress-ups for old people," observed the woman drily behind the counter.
What else did I do? Well I had a great catchup with Janet de Wagt, ate large servings of blue cod and went on exploratory drives around the region. First to Taramea/Howells Point, where I was informed the swish new houses hugging the coastline cost "a mill", the swishest of the lot, four mill. Also that the wider region has hundreds of empty homes owned by Queenstown and Wānaka locals. Then, in the other direction, to Colac Bay and the optimistically named Cosy Nook. The paddocks were a vivid billiard green but the sea was the colour of wet concrete. In between outings, I sat by the fire and indulged in yet more mindless breathing. I was becoming an expert.
By the time the last day rolled around, I was pretty darned relaxed. But I made sure to leave time to pop into Invercargill to see de Wagt's show. It's terrific. A love letter to lousy weather. Kidding. To the rugged beauty of the Southland coastline.
GETTING THEREAir New Zealand flies direct from Auckland to Invercargill. Riverton is a 30-minute drive from the airport. airnz.co.nz
Coastal Murihiku by Janet de Wagt is at He Waka Tuia, 42 Kelvin St, now until July 16.