Dot writes: we haven’t been cramming in the activities in quite the way we might have done pre-Hugh, but we’ve still managed to do a fair amount since last posting. A particular highlight for me was visiting Waikataruru Arboretum and Sculpture Park, near Morrinsville in the Waikato. We went there because it is owned and run by friends of Ken’s mum and she wanted to show off her grandson, but it would have been an excellent afternoon even without the free tea and cake and the impromptu guided tour they gave us. They bought a quarry and have turned it into a lush garden full of native and exotic trees, ponds, ferns and flowers, with a sculpture exhibition scattered through. We were asked to vote for our favourite sculptures. Ken voted for Aspiring. I really liked the way this piece seemed to belong where it was, as though the little clearing had been made for it rather than vice versa; its ordinary but pleasing materials, stone, brick and wood, echoing the earth and tree colours around it; its suggestiveness and the material it gave the imagination, echoing as it did a tepee or some sort of little kiln, but also the huts built by the three little pigs. It was one of my favourites, but not wanting to copy Ken I voted for a different piece, called Wired. I didn’t really like this one at first because the plastic contrasted so sharply with the plants, but it stuck in my head and I ended up delighted by its colourful and playful qualities. Bower-birds might have built some of these if they’d had electrical wiring to work with rather than creepers. We had a extremely pleasant afternoon; and one of the best things about it was that Hugh had a whale of a time too, toddling about the paths and poking into corners. He got scabby knees from falling over but I think scabby knees are an essential part of a healthy childhood.
Less fun for Hugh but highly memorable, and again arranged by Ken’s mum, was a trip to Tauranga to take a boat trip into the Bay of Plenty. This was advertised as a chance to swim with dolphins. We got to see dolphins, but there weren’t enough of them to swim with. Ken’s mum was quite disappointed. Still, it was a beautiful sunny day and the boat skipper treated us extensively and entertainingly to his immoderate opinions about New Zealand, environmentalism and the youth of today (who are useless, it seems). I felt pretty seasick and poor Hugh had to be constantly frustrated in his attempts to pitch off the side, but being so close to the dolphins was actually very moving and it’s an experience I’m glad to have had.
From Tauranga we drove along the coast to Opotiki to see an old friend of Ken’s who is now living with his wife on a tiny organic farm and teaching part time in the local college. They don’t have much money, I think, but it’s really the good life. They keep hens and grow and sell their own fruit and vegetables; he spends part of his time writing; and their two children, a daughter of five years and a son aged sixteen months, play happily in their big house and garden. Hugh loved it. He ate well, slept marvellously well, played with all the toys and enjoyed the company of other children; and we were able to relax and let him do his thing, because there were no dangers and nothing much to break and everything was just right for little people.
I remember when we came to New Zealand last time, in 2004, I was surprised by how very foreign it seemed. The vegetation and the houses and the shops all looked really different to the UK. In some ways it seems less alien this time, if only because Dublin is so full of cabbage trees. But I am struck by how lush this place is, and not just because we’ve come from winter to summer. Where the bush has been allowed to grow every inch of space is full of greenery; there hardly seems to be any ground. The hills seem pointier and younger, though often scarred with bare patches from landslips. The houses are pretty, mostly single-story and built of wood with painted corrugated iron roofs and big gardens. I can see why people emigrate here. But it doesn’t feel remotely like Christmas.