If we are contemplating missiles and such, perhaps we can start this recollection with Skylab. Standing in cool air in the dark on the top of ‘the bank’ staring into a sparkling black sky waiting for movement. Then we hold our breath in wonder as a bright diamond rapidly slides across the deep dark of the night sky. And it was dark. No light pollution to ruin the view. Somehow that bright light connected me with the rest of the world in same way aircraft heading to Dunedin did. Passenger aircraft. Freighters including a regular Argosy run. Those orange tailed C-130s the US flew down to the Antarctic in summer. Flying from Christchurch mostly, arcing past a town of 800 people that was home to a twelve year old who escaped into a whole other world out there, imagining points of departure and places of arrival. Not that I was really looking to leave. I was happy there, content for the moment to be rooted in rural Otago, resident in a town no astronaut or pilot ever imagined existed.
Palmerston is 36 miles north of Dunedin. That imperial measurement is seared into my mind. It was a measure of long road trips, and far places. It was my baseline for trips as a kid. A long trip was 36 miles. Anything further could only be an extraordinary trek, a concept which is humourous to me now, given a ten, twelve or even 16 hour drive is considered unexceptional. An extraordinary trek might be the annual five hour holiday trip to Akaroa.
Palmerston is a non-descript place. Modest. One of those places people who have passed through it struggle to recall. No buildings of historic merit. No geography that might draw visitors. None of the South Island’s renown lakes, peaks or quaint historic. Not even any Maori history of note. Lost between two larger towns of Oamaru and Dunedin, it sits on the junction of the highway that runs from the top to the bottom of the country (Hwy 1) and Highway 85 which is at right angles (east to west) and leads the traveller into Central Otago. But 85 is one of many routes into the centre and not the main route from any major city. You could take Highway 85 to Queenstown (before the airport went in) but why would you? Not when more direct and more scenic routes from Christchurch and Dunedin are on offer. So the ski fields were accessed by other roads though there were any number of ski mounted cars that rolled past our house in winter. And the occasional hunter on a motorbike with his rifle slung over his shoulder.
In any event Highway 85 took us inland to places which feature powerfully in my Palmerston childhood. It follows the Shag River up the Shag Valley (‘the Valley’) and on up to Ranfurly alongside the Horse Range. Further inland the locals always referred to the highway as ‘the Pigroot’ which was explained by many as referring to the state of the road in pioneering days. That made sense to us though there are numerous other explanations for its etymology. It still makes sense given only a few short years ago I found myself unexpectedly chasing pigs through the tussock up there.
So what is there to explain the existence of Palmerston? It’s a rural hub supporting the farming community and home to a secondary school which served the stretch of coast north towards Oamaru, and south towards Dunedin, although many farming families sent their children to private boarding schools in one or other of those towns. The usual Post Office, petrol station, stock and station agents, police station, a couple of pubs, a town hall and community centre. A hospital, three churches, a couple of doctors and the showgrounds and accompanying yards and hall. The train station and a couple of schools. Houses are dragged up either side of those highways, though a grid of streets straddling 75 was laid out and named after the islands of either the Orkneys or Inner Hebrides. Somehow an English influence made its way into the weight of Scottish names and we lived on Tiverton Street (which is also the beginning of 85), named after a town in Devon. Houses could range from the old and decrepit, through the average and homey, to the new and fashionable, the latter often the dwellings of the retired. My recollection of many homes was that of a place of warmth and a sense of welcome and homeliness. We were in and out of many of them, especially the farm houses up and down the Valley.
In another time Palmerston was a minor industrial hub with enough mining and fishing and other activity to justify a local railway station (the only one in New Zealand with a curved platform, a piece of trivia that links me back there any time I pass through a curved platform in Sydney’s metro, of which there are many). Steam locomotives still drew passenger and freight trains through town and Palmerston was one of the refreshment (cup of tea and a bun or pie) stops but all that stopped in the early 1970s when the steam was retired and the Southerner train service was introduced. It had no reason to stop at Palmerston and the station suddenly went quiet. I felt aggrieved for our town. Surely we were important enough to have very train stop. It made no sense to me at all. Every now and then a train might stop for someone but mostly we had to catch a bus to Oamaru or Palmerston to connect with a train. Bus?! How droll.
A separate rail line ran inland from Palmerston up ‘the Valley’ and its bed and cuttings and bridges, or bridge abutments can still be seen in places. The line which ran all the way inland to Ranfurly had long closed by the time I arrived there but there was a section of line that still functioned in support of the Burnside Cement works, carting its raw material from a limestone quarry behind Dunback, buried in the foothills of the Horse Range, a ridge of junior mountains which anchor one end towards the coast near Palmerston and stretch inland to form the Kakanui Range. The scar of the limestone quarry could be glimpsed from Highway 85. A school excursion took us up there once but the place is sadly mostly memorable for the death of Rodney White in a truck accident. In a small town these incidents jolt everybody. Everyone is connected in some way. Even in my youth the fact that I shared a meal table with Rodney’s parents and his family and even with Rodney himself meant that accident still looms large. Rodney was what, 15 years or more older than me? An adult. I was a boy. Three or four times a week in the morning the limestone ore would come from that quarry hidden in the hills in a lone train of squealing rolling stock, the spur line separating the primary school and the highschool (it was common to have to wait for it to pass before walking on to school) then curving across Highway 1 to join the main rail track south to Dunedin where the cement works were located. As it pulled through that curve it would so in a long shriek of steel on steel with a subtext of rumbling locomotive and clanging wagons. In primary school it could be a pleasant distraction as I gazed out the window and watched it go past. In later years it could delay your arrival in class as you waited for wagon after wagon to grumble by, leaving you quietly pleased at the delay.
Steam engines and diesel locomotives are a long way from the Skylab, though both pointed out of town. But for the moment I was very happy with where I was. Palmerston was the backdrop to a childhood that was as free and as rural as a boy could wish for. It might be modest, and non descript with no tourist appeal. But it was home and the scene of lots of adventures. Which means I really should now start at the beginning of that chapter.
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