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Foreign correspondent: a report from Taumata Island

ian's new home Taumata Valley [1]
Gretel Lagoon – Our bottom paddocks on the left

by Ian Apperley
A month after moving from Strathmore to Taumata Island, outside Carterton, population 80, I’ve finally come up for air. Lindsay Shelton is calling me his “foreign correspondent”, and in some ways he’s right. Despite only being an hour from Wellington city and still part of the region, it feels a lot further away.

The move under Level 3 was a lot of hard work. You forget how much stuff you accumulate, and it took the movers three days to pack up and move us here. We were meant to have arrived several weeks ago, but our settlement date fell on the first day of Level 4.

We bought eight acres at the end of Waihakeke Road, ten kilometres from either Greytown or Carterton depending on which way you turn when you hit State Highway 2. It’s a large horseshoe-shaped block with flat paddocks, a three-bedroom house, outbuildings, and came with a tractor, which, dear readers, you will be pleased to know I have not managed to drive through a fence yet though I have come close.

Neighbours run an organic dairy farm across the road, cattle on another side, and we have a gunsmith of some renown quite close to us. The bottom paddock to the south border the Gretel Lagoons, a massive reserve of 12 hectares including a classic oxbow lagoon.

It includes 200+ mature indigenous kahikatea and 100+ mature totara – numerous indigenous mature tawa, matai, mairie, kowhai and titoki, together with the innumerable bush birds including the abundance of waterfowl. As a result, the birdlife is prolific here with almost every native you can think of including some rarities such as the New Zealand Falcon and the Bellbird.

We’ve learned quickly that firewood is a must, with the farmhouse having no other heating source. The woolshed has been half-filled, with more ordered. The kitchen has an original Waterford Wood Stove, originally from Ireland. This is a tricky implement to figure out, and my first attempts at cooking were an unmitigated disaster, but after some attempts, getting better. It also sports a wetback that cuts down on the hot water power bill.

Both my partner and I grew up rural, spending time on farms outside of Sydney in her case and Puketitiri in mine along with back blocks Gisborne, or Tairawhiti. We have worked hard to get back to the land while balancing that need to continue earning money, which, thankfully, we can do remotely for the most part.

The Wairarapa seems to have weathered the Covid storm better than the cities and has been showing all the signs of bouncing back fast since Level 2 came into effect. Shops are busy, trade has restarted, and the traffic jams along SH2 in the townships are back. I see that Wellington remains quiet in the CBD, with many choosing not to return to commuting and office buildings.

While Wellington has been arguing about oversized children’s electric scooters and giving out the keys of the city to a cat and postponing a decision on the Library, Carterton has a preoccupation with its town clock, and some significant issues around water supply to the area as climate change radically alters the environment.

Most of the local politics here are documented in the local paper rather than online. There is little social media activity, unlike Wellington city, which mandates a subscription to the paper which is delivered each morning. I am sure in time that I will start writing about the local Council and general election situation; after all, politics is an addiction and not one that I know how to overcome.

Four weeks in and all the priorities change. Stock must be sourced with sheep to be bought, horses to be found, and paddocks topped off to ensure no issues.

Water must be carefully managed, and while we have access to a bore, each time that water is taken, it is being removed from the environment and can impact not only Gretel Reserve but also surrounding farms.

Due to the proximity of the organic dairy farm, no harsh chemicals or fertilisers can be used, necessitating new ways of thinking about how to keep a farm well supplied. Also, waterways must be kept clear and clean to ensure that flooding risk is reduced.

All quite different from the city life of commuting into the city, sitting in an office, and returning home at the end of the day in that capricious traffic. However, not unfamiliar, it is rather like putting on a well-worn pair of comfortable boots, after some twenty years.

The dog has taken up patrols of the property and, as an English Staffordshire, has adopted his genetic heart, that of a “nanny” literally. Cats are prevented from fighting with the chickens, or each other, and the chickens (that free-range) are not allowed on the house deck or into the house.

The cats have proved their worth, starting to clean out the local pests with great abandon. Mice and rats are being removed, and yesterday they caught a rabbit, out here a creature that will dig holes in your paddocks creating a safety risk for stock and humans, not to mention getting into the vegetable patch.

This is the beginning of an adventure for the both us. We passionately believe that sustainably utilising the land is of the utmost importance. Something that we are planning for.

I am unsure where my writing will head. Politics is in its future, that much is guaranteed, and I think that a view of rural New Zealand is essential. There has been a split created, by politicians, most likely deliberately, between town and country. As someone with a foot in both camps, this makes for interesting subject matter.

So, as your foreign correspondent, as I find time to write in balance with the work that managing a farm entails, you will hear more.

This article by Ian Apperley, a valued contributor to Wellington.Scoop, first appeared on his website Inside Wellington.