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KE-BLAM!

This is the sound that a 12-gage shotgun makes when it's fired ten feet away from me.  The hills around the farm catch the sound and echo it back and forth, stirring up more birds to be shot at.

KE-BLAMmmmrrrrrrrrrrringingringingringingringingringing….

This is the sound that a 12-gage shotgun makes when I fire it, because the noise of the shot next to my ear makes me go temporarily deaf.  Oh, you read right – I fired a shotgun.  Twice.  Bulls-eyes.  Those glass bottles never knew what hit them.  It took me a while to get used to having this long, wood and metal device sitting next to me in the ute every day, and longer to stop jumping every time George would take a shot.  Once I got over all that, though, I agreed to let George show me how to use it.  It's kind of frightening, actually.  I felt nervous cocking, pointing and actually firing the gun, but as I handed it gingerly back to George, I actually felt like I'd accomplished something, that I'd gained some intangible sense of power.  I felt more like a proper, hardcore farmer.

This was right after I made my last post, a week ago, and the fun kept coming from there.  Kim and Fenton Powell (neighbors) and their three kids, Small George (11), Morgan (9), and Molly (7) came over for waterskiing and swimming at the 'lake,' a shallow, man-made body of water on the Richmond's property.  It's nestled down within the hills of one of their far paddocks.  On the grassy bank they've set up a picnic table under a shade covering, a bbq, a couch and chairs, and flag pole from which Charlie (one of the Richmond boys) has hung up the US Confederate flag.  Ha!  It's a sweet spot, totally private and isolated.  Derek was in charge of the jetboat, and after a 'blatt' (a high-speed spin around the lake) to get the engine warm, took me, George and a few others slalom skiing and wakeboarding while the kids swam and the rest of the adults lounged in the shade.  It was fantastic to be out behind a boat on a ski again, nevermind that we were just going in figure eights.  When the beer was gone and the skiiers were tired, and the sun had begun to fall behind the hills, cooling the air, the party moved down the road to Kim and Fenton's farm.  They have pet emus: giant, fluffy, prehistoric-looking birds.  Not native to New Zealand, but apparently a popular sort of farm pet.  Out on the back deck of the farmhouse, we watched a gigantic full moon rise weightily over the horizon, and continued the eating and drinking and companionable discussion while the girls, Morgan and Molly, entertained us with their new karaoke machine.  The Powells and the Richmonds are marvelous people: laid back, full of life and spirit, down to earth, and deliciously (and almost crudely) witty.  Sue in particular has a wonderfully ebullient sense of humor, which she uses mercilessly to wind people up and 'have them on.'

Sunday was Ngaruroro (Nah-roo-row-row) River day.  Jetboating-on-the-river-day, to be specific.  Holy crap.  So much fun.  Jetboats are called this because they use a jet engine rather than a propeller.  This means that they can operate in less than a foot of water.  However, it also means that they don't have rudders.  Steering can only be accomplished while the boat is actively accelerating.  Invented by a Kiwi, jetboats were designed specifically for their speed and maneuverability in the shallow, tricky river waters of NZ.  George drove the ute with the trailer down to the river and unloaded the boat as well as Derek, Fenton, Grady (Derek's brother, visiting from Australia) and me.  The Ngaruroro looks less like a river and more like a giant tidal pool.  Small gray rocks lay piled in heaps, almost like small beaches or sandbars, and the deceptively calm water slides quietly around them.  The shape and depth of these channels is constantly changing, depending on the water level, the weather, and the interplay of the rocks and the current.  It keeps would-be boaters on their toes, alert.  I sat in the front, next to Derek, and tried to help him navigate by scouting out the deepest channels and protruding rocks or trees, but I'm afraid I didn't do very well.  I was too exhilarated and caught up in taking pictures and simply enjoying the feel of speeding up a river around sandbars and rocks and cliffs at about 40 mph.  The boat makes absolutely stunning turns; it glides over the water and splashes back and forth with the barest touch of the steering wheel.  Derek hardly needed my navigational skills – he could make split second decisions about which channels to take and simply power right through.  His eyes deceived him only a few times, when he drove into an area that was too shallow, but even then we did little more that skid across the stones and back into the main current.  Huge white papa (a type of clay) cliffs make up the riverbanks, until about thirty km into the trip, when abruptly the cliffs sides become harder, darker, and covered with small green vegetation.  More like mountains than cliffs.  Slight technical difficulties on the drive back.  Apparently the ignition wire had become caught up under the back seat of the boat, and under the weight of Fenton and Grady, kept cutting out, until we lost power completely, and were left to drift our way to shallow ground while the men fiddled and futzed a temporary fix.  Once that was 'sorted' (fixed), all four of us had to brave the cold water to push the jetboat back into the current.  Still, spirits were high, mostly because all blame was placed on George (who had been the last once to perform maintenance on the boat), and the men cursed him gaily for the rest of the trip downriver.  Sue, George, and the rest of the Powells joined us where we'd put the boat in, and for the rest of the day we did nothing but sit on the side of the river with a picnic spread and a 'chilly bin' (cooler) full of beer, taking dips in the water when we got too hot in the sun.  Wonderfully relaxing.  At the end of the day, Derek treated all of us to an excellent dinner at the Chook and Filly Pub (chook = chicken), and George attempted to explain the rules of cricket to me so that I could understand the game that was being broadcast on the pub's tv screen.

George, Sue and I finished up the trimming, lateral-pulling and other canopy management early in the week, and as veraisin was begin to progress rapidly, the race was on to get the nets hung and tied before the birds could do too much damage to the grapes.  George and Derek would hang a huge, rolled net on the tractor, then Derek would drive up and down the rows while George and I stood on either side and pulled the nets off the roll and draped them across the vines.  Very, very tiring, as we were walking up and down the hill, using our arm muscles to stretch and untangle the many, many knots and holes in the nets.  Great exercise, though.  I earned my meals those days.  A gang of ten contract workers, Chinese and Malaysian, were hired to pin the nets around the vines, and at different times Sue and I would do the same, almost sewing the nets together using small plastic clips like the ones that hold bread bags shut.  We had one day of nasty, cold rain, so I ran errands in town with George instead of working, and rode up to the top of the property with him to try and fix an air-locked watering trough.  Another day he gave me a tour of Trinity Hill, the vineyard and winery that buys his family's grapes.  Sue and George's brother Charlie both work at TH, which is about quadruple the size of the Richmond's operation.  They're famous for their Gimblet Stones chardonnay.  Their chard grapes are grown on what used to be a river bed, and has since dried to a unique stony flat.  The stones provide excellent drainage for the plants, though they must be irrigated almost constantly to be kept healthy.  The stones also work like an oven, soaking up the heat from the sun and warming and ripening the grapes from below in addition to what the sun does from above.  I got a small tour of the winemaking process as well.  Goal: to get a job actually helping to make wine while I'm here.

A rather thought-provoking encounter: Pauline, Sue's sister stopped by for a visit.  She'd just returned from a visit to California, and was full of things to say about the USA.  Sue apologized to me later, “Excuse my crazy sister.  She's either stoned or pissed – she's usually one of the two.”  Ahh.  A crucial thing to be aware of, as she was accusing Americans of not providing health care, welfare, government housing or soup kitchens for our poor population, and using the money instead to fund huge parades and firework displays.  She was also quite furious at the practice of sales tax, forgetting that in NZ, everything has a 12% general tax, from luxury items to life's necessities.  In fact, George told me later, NZ is the most taxed country in the world.  Pauline tried to explain the system to me and the rest of the family as we sat in stunned and polite silence – the tax money levied on items in Cali goes directly to Arnold Schwarzenegger and “the other district governors” for their own personal use.  At first I tried to listen, because I'm always curious to hear the impressions that Kiwis have of the US, then I tried to engage her in discussion, to correct her concept of sales tax, and then simply tried to figure out if I was being deliberately accused of these things, being the only American present, or if she had failed to notice my accent and had no idea.  It became obvious quite quickly that this was a tirade, not a debate, so I kept my mouth shut and felt gratified to hear Derek and Sue try to point out her misconceptions and steer her onto different topics.  It wasn't offensive, exactly; we all had a laugh about it later.  It was more worth a smile and a nod than an argument, but the ignorance of it caught me off guard.

One night the whole family got together to celebrate Joan's (Derek's mom's) seventieth (?) birthday at a local Thai restaurant.  I got to meet some family friends, not to mention Joan herself, who was in top form, George said.  I thought she was great.  Joan is one of those women who relishes the status and privilege of age.  She's direct, observant and smart, and lorded over her end of the table with demands that her guests drink more wine and explain the menu to her, and why didn't George get off his ass and go finish university, eh?  Her eyes, however, held a twinkle and a joy that did more than enough to soften any comment too blunt.  Another night Kim and Fenton came over with pizza and joined George, Sue, Derek and I in a game of trivial pursuit (which I won – hahaha!).  And last night Derek, George, Sue and I took the boat out for another round of waterskiing to celebrate finishing the nets.  After dinner, we opened a bottle of Trinty Hill High Country Pinot Noir, from 2003 – made with fruit from the very grapevines that I'd been sweating over for two weeks.  What a taste – soft and fruity with hints of oak (I couldn't taste the oak, but George assured me that it was in there).  It was quite a lovely wine, and quite a lovely way to end my tenure here on Oban Station.  Today I'm moving on.  Heading north and east to Waikaremoana and the East Cape – and praying that the northeasterly storm that's predicted won't interfere with my plans for hiking.

It's been three months…life is good.

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