In the beginning
– Amanda Stephens 2005 ©
“We’ll be landing as soon as the sheep have been cleared from the runway,”
I peered out of the plane's small porthole and sure enough, on a paddock far below miniature sheep were being persuaded towards some trees at the far end of the “runway”.
“Fancy that,” Mum muttered.
I didn't, as it happened. I wondered what we were letting ourselves in for.
The Bristol Freighter lumbered to a halt outside a tin shed.
“No, that’s the airport building.” I was indignantly informed. As they would say today "Yeah, right."
We watched as the Freighter opened it’s jowls and people busied themselves unloading suitcases, freight, and our cat and dog still sleeping in their dual cage. Someone had a crate of wide-awake chickens. It was all loaded into the back of a dirty orange ex-army truck.
“That’s the Orange Puddle-jumper,” a large man with a tooth missing and wearing a black cap cheerfully explained to my father.
“Isn’t this an adventure and a half?” Mum insisted bravely
“Well….,” I couldn't quite entirely disagree but, watching the Bristol Freighter, reloaded now and rumbling back down the grass runway like a fat ungainly bird attempting flight, this was not yet my idea of an adventure for an eight year old.
“OK, everyone on that’s going! That you, mate?” a jolly beanbag of a man helped Dad into the back of the orange truck. Around the inside edges of the truck’s deck were hard wooden slats as seats. Dad turned to help Mum but she had already been seezed and loaded. My two brothers were hauled aboard and then me, clutching my life-size doll that my grandparent’s had "careful, brought me from Egypt" . I squashed up close to mum, feeling equally out of place in my new red coat and shiny black patent leather shoes.
We drove past the sheep, which had returned to graze, through the gate, past some trees which I would later discover had ancient carvings etched onto their surfaces, and into a lagoon. My Aunt’s words came back to me, “Don’t go there…it looks all water!”
Apparently there was no road to Waitangi, the main town on the Chatham Islands, and we were going to drive down the middle of the Island through this lagoon to the town Waitangi which was to be our home for the next 5 years.
“The Yellow Sub broke down out here, that’s why we’re in this truck,” Pointing as we passed the yellow truck, the beanbag man eased himself into place and, reaching into his pocket hauled out a bottle. “Bacardi, mate?” he wheezed, offering the bottle to the man seated next to him. I nudged my older brother with a "watch this" kind of nod. I didn't need to, he was already expertly pretending not to notice anything.
In the middle of the truck our cat and dog were beginning to come round from their Vet-induced sleep, much to the dismay of the chickens.
My brother and I were watching closely with our best 'not watching at all' stance, heads slightly down eyes ever so slightly narrowed ready to pretend to be asleep at the drop of a hat. We had never seen adult-pass-the-bottle and now it was moving closer to our dad.
Over the grumbling engine we could hear snatches of conversation.
“Nah, mate…wouldn’t live there for quids!” “Did you see television?” “What are those New Zealanders up to now, then?”
“What are you here for?” this last question was directed at Dad.
“Graham Stephens,” he introduced himself, “I’m the new County Clerk.”
“Here y’are then,” the Bacardi bottle was thrust into Dad’s extended right hand.
We waited. This was breathtakingly great. Would Dad have a drink of “grog”?
“Hey, look – you can see fish through here, flounder’s I think,” Mum was peering through a rip in the truck’s canvas.
“Let me see – I see one!” “There’s another one. Look!” in our excitement my brother and I jostled for position and were both rewarded with seeing fish skittering away from the truck tyres through the muddy water along the bottom of the lagoon.
I stole a look at Dad, but the Bacardi bottle had moved on while Dad, smiling secretively for the rest of the trip, was also peering through a rip in the canvas.
I knew then that this was indeed going to be an adventure, even though at this point I had yet to discover the joy of hunting for (and finding) shark's teeth in the lagoon, finding old Maori canoes, thumping over dirt roads in a Land Rover, of having picnics on windswept beaches, of basalt rock columns, of finding a sailor's old chest filled with treasure buried in the sand dunes…..that, as they say, is another story.