In step with the march of winter

The Dunedin winter sky. Photo by Stephen Jaquiery.
The Dunedin winter sky. Photo by Stephen Jaquiery.
Commuters on their way to work early yesterday. Photo by Gerard O'Brien.
Commuters on their way to work early yesterday. Photo by Gerard O'Brien.

It was winter in Dunedin this week. It was cold. It rained. David Loughrey took the opportunity to walk the streets as the mercury dropped to 4degC, and ponder the effect on a city young and old.

There is a peculiar gait affected by a Dunedin person on a winter's day.

It is brought about by the changed angles of the skeletal form as it darts from car to shop; arms that usually swing free are thrust hard into jacket pockets, and heads are bowed into the sting of July.

On a 4degC morning it is the gait of the city.

Tall, thin men stand out on such a day, an apex of elbows and knees sloping along like capsizing triangles.

Large middle-aged women in puffer jackets heave anchor from the dry dock of malls to set sail - buffeted by cross winds - down city footpaths.

A thin layer of snow ices over in hard crevices that cut into bare hills.

A bank of threatening grey cloud pushes in from the south.

It's winter - and bloody cold.

On frozen mornings in the city, George St empties, with most too sensible to venture outdoors.

But the character of Dunedin is forged not in the torment of fire, but of ice.

The word ''bitter'' appeared in weather reports that this week (early on, at least) promised no day would see temperatures in double figures.

They trotted out the adjectives ''sleety'' and ''southwesterly''.

On the hills, macrocarpa trees survive bent double against winds that whip the coastline.

In the city, that wind eddies through cold streets, across chilled puddles, before benumbing the elderly.

But Dunedin's elderly have long before developed an unflappable stoicism as a response, and a slightly alarming ruddy good health, despite the ravages of time.

And that was on display at a mall car park this week, where a slow-motion ritual was taking place.

As temperatures drop, an elderly couple whose lives have ground to a crawl are painfully but stoically exiting their little red car.

The man, white-haired and grizzled, spends a good minute removing his cane from the back seat as the wind forces his jacket hard against his bent back.

The woman, meanwhile, spends longer negotiating the passenger door and closing it, before both face the bleak conditions and march slowly away.

Nearby, at a cafe, table-loads of white-haired elderly people congregate in the sort of warm spot cherished by the over 70s.

Under knitted woollen hats they chat among themselves about the cold, their collective heads low over their cups of tea.

None would look out of place clinging tightly to a frozen Scottish hillside in the rain, refusing to yield to the brutality of the Highland clearances.

''Oooooh, it was cold this morning,'' one says.

But none complain.

Outside it rains.

Frozen rain whips against the windows of the university union building, where small huddles of students collect in the chill.

For the young, the reality of months of penetrating cold helps develop an outlook of self-reliance, and an ability to stare adversity square in the face.

It can also intensify that bitter depression that challenges those recently forced to leave home and look after themselves.

It nags at their sense of worth and dulls the radical tendencies of youth; the grey cloud instils a torpor from which they struggle to escape.

But life will out.

Students return to warmer climes subtly and irrevocably changed, but intact.

At the University of Otago, in a cold bedroom inside the front window of a cold flat, a student sits in a cheap office chair staring blankly and angrily at his computer screen.

But he takes a deep breath, and persists with his study.

Three young Asian women, their black hair ruffled by gust and shower walk bowed against the wind on a diagonal path across the museum reserve.

''Last night was really cold, really freezing,'' one says.

They giggle.

In the Exchange, the wind blows from City Rise.

Cold workmen in fluoro vests fix traffic lights.

Colder office workers stand in line waiting for coffee at a street vendor's caravan.

It is so cold the penguin statues look furtive and ill at ease.

The wind blows back up Rattray St, where small groups of red-blazered teenage school boys cluster shoulder to shoulder, lumbering up hill from street to classroom.

They yell and laugh.

They don't need coats or hats - they are young and feel nothing.

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