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New Year in Westport arrived complete with advice to leave. But Liz Breslin found plenty of reasons to hang about.
There is dancing in the street. Feet whirr on the pavement outside Westport's Municipal Chambers. According to Heritage New Zealand, this building is a 1930s interpretation of International Style. According to me it's more accurately described as an incredible mash-up of the clocktower in Back to the Future and someone's Floridian-Moroccan tangerine dream.
It feels like it might, at any moment, rain. Seconds after midnight, the strains of the Westport RSA pipe band's rendition of Auld Lang Syne still echoing, a group of young guys bound in for a New Year hug. One of them regards one of our young men at arm's length. "You play rugby? I could've been an All Black. But I stayed here. For a girl. Do yourself a favour. Get the f*** out of this s***hole. I should know.'' Another hug and he's gone. Everyone's dispersing around the St John ambulance people and we drive back to the camping ground past little knots of people heading out or home.
The Top 10 Holiday Park is out at Carters Beach, a five-minute drive from Westport proper. (There's another one actually in town which has mini-golf but not a beach.) The RSA band came by earlier in the evening, while we were jostling for oven space with gourmet fly fishers from Lichtenstein and kumara-chip cookers who wanted to borrow both oil and salt.
We're there mostly for the wind, which, it turns out, is not in plentiful supply, even though the jut of land we're staying on bears the title "Cape Foulwind''. A rebrand might be in order. Cape Not So Foul At All Wind. Especially Not In Summer. And Look, No Sandflies. Really. An unbitey haven on the coast.
The kitesurfers only manage one down-winder all week, swooping their kites and carving up waves along the length of Nine Mile Beach. So we have to find other waterways. Thank goodness for Tauranga Bay, with the waves that keep on giving and the friendly surf rental guy. Us learners spend hours playing in the whitewash on big foamy boards while the good'uns carve it up out the back like so many standing seals.
We don't see very many seals, standing, lolling or otherwise, when we walk the Cape Foulwind track past their resting place. There's a viewing platform out over the rocks but we mostly only go that way after dark, when the most impressive thing is sounds, not sights; the nocturnal gurn gurn gurning of penguins.
To drive from the campground to the beach, we pass by the unmistakable profile of the now defunct Holcim cement factory. After 58 years, it was closed in June 2016, dealing yet another unemployment blow to the people of Westport. Someone should perhaps tell the people in the iSite museum to update their information boards. In at least three places they tell of how, since the downturns in mining, Holcim cement works have been the saviours of the town. I'm paraphrasing. I'll also paraphrase the bit where it was written that it was discovered that women too can work machines. There are some brilliant videos, though, and I'm still struck by the testimony of the woman who told about the clean pyjamas they all kept separate and ready in a bottom drawer in case it was their man who came home dead.
The walk follows the now-grassy track of what was the main railway line into Westport, the line that shifted all that coal. You can walk through a real old railway tunnel which looks ripe for glowworms at night. The old railway bridge is closed for maintenance and the clamber down the bank is rusty, sandfly-filled and precarious. It's much easier to swim in the Mokihinui almost at the mouth, accessed from the campground as we did, or somehow by a swathe of vans on the other side.
Town, when we stop there, is quiet and friendly. We get great coffee at Whanake Gallery and Espresso and at PR's, and we marvel at the lack of lines in the supermarket. At Kathrin's they do Euro-cafe and the owner tells a friend how he started up the business after leaving the cement works. He'd been there five years, come to Westport after Christchuch, after earthquakes and "Westport said hello with sunshine and 23 degrees''.
He's philosophical about the challenges of running a cafe in a town where traffic only comes in on the one road and tourism is lifeblood. "You have to restart everywhere, so it might as well be here.''
- Liz Breslin is a Hawea Flat writer.