Sitting out the pandemic in paradise

Holed up in self-sufficient but semi-surreal isolation, the new normal still looks pretty normal, writes Allan Ramsay.

I’ve always been fascinated by the story of Alexander Pearce, the Tasmanian convict escapee who ate his way through five of his companions while on the run after their breakout. One by one they went until Pearce was one of the last two left sitting around the campfire, each trying not to fall asleep and be eaten. Imagine that. My two fellow virus isolationists on the shores of The Pelorus Sound would be good eating. Joe at 24 has a torso which is a mountain face of juicy protein. His Mum, Barb, (north of 50) would be more at the gnarly and seasoned but spicy end of the menu. Think biltong.

It’s unnerving where your thoughts can lead you in these strange virus times. You wake up in the morning thinking about giving the garden its morning watering and by lunchtime you’re wondering what the flesh of your fellow humans would taste like on a plate. Vegetarian to omnivore in a few short hours. Like finding yourself in future reality show, one by one all our normalities are disappearing.

Mine were long gone even before the virus piled into our collective subconscious. Just returned to Aoteoroa after three decades in Britain, the last few years of which were spent watching the pinball rise of Boris Johnson, my grasp on normal was already tenuous. I’m more than thankful to be living back in a land where politicians act like leaders and decision takers, and there is a strong sense of “we’re all in this together” in the air.

To come home, I tapped a 40-year-old friendship for a temporary room in her piece of paradise to decompress after my extended OE. Such was the original “normal” plan… now, Barb, her son and I are in the middle of one of the strangest experiences of our lives. Times to remember till our dying day.

Little de facto households like this one will be popping up all over. The three of us are lucky where fate found us as the virus descended, holed up in an already healthy local network. For rural communities, the rhythms of day-to-day existence will not be too different. We three are going at this isolation business as hard as we can, but still, we’re privileged and lucky compared to those managing the next four weeks with large families and small budgets, or people already living on their own.

We hear too, on a grapevine parallel to the main news, whispers about locals whose tourist businesses are going under, and from others whose livelihoods in turn depend on them. Trading works so well here because it’s the sort of place where your neighbours either grow it, shoot it or trap it and have always done so. Unwanted or surplus is swapped for what’s needed. Homemade bread, homemade kombucha (delivered by the Kombucha Slags cartel), homemade whatever you need.

The vehicle of choice is a ute, best with pieces of steel welded to it at weird angles for purposes I’m too scared to ask about. The bush-covered hill directly opposite us across the sound has plenty of deer and pig on it, according to a local who often loads dogs and rifle in his boat and brings some home to the pot and freezer. It’s bloody, but the land still gives around here.

We’re lucky, too, because our hideaway is sited in a ridiculously beautiful spot. And serene, spectacular nature adds to the real-time unreality of the everyday we’re living through. It’s hard to believe there’s some invisible cloud of infection killing tens of thousands of people out there over the hill. It’s like the daily calm, clear voice of Jacinda Ardern, speaking so reassuringly out of the radio and sounding so frighteningly normal as she asks us to do the so frighteningly abnormal.

How can there be a global tragedy unfolding out there while here there is this sunshine, this dripping green garden still growing and this paradise still on tap?

But despite all the scenery, tui and bellbird song and fantails, we’re still just a little bubble of common human anxieties, perched in the tangled carpet of green bush and garden that lead down to the water’s edge. Of course, the other way of looking at it is that our parents, grand and great and great great grandparents were asked to go to war. We’re being asked to stay home.

At 2pm, downtown Havelock on Highway 6 is basking in the sunshine, looking closed. So, no change there then, an unkind soul might say. There are a few campervans scurrying about, looking even more futile than they usually do. Not one, but two policemen are sitting in the shade outside the information centre eating ice creams. Now that is unusual. But it doesn’t look like the end of the world.

Allan Ramsay will be reporting occasionally from the top of the South Island.

* Made with the support of NZ on Air *

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