From the Bluff

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Memoir  |  House: Footsteps, yarns and little fibs
Waiting for the chopper to arrive.

Submitted: November 13, 2016

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Submitted: November 13, 2016

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The phone rang just after 3:00am because Rod, the helicopter pilot wanted a weather report before he flew down to start the aerial spraying job. This was normal procedure, so I went outside to peer through the dark at the tall Lombardy poplar that bent with the slightest puff of wind. It was calm and starry, not so dark because there had been a quarter moon which had dipped below the horizon but a little pale light remained. I returned to the phone and told him that conditions were ideal and I would meet him up the hill just after daylight. He wasn’t supposed to fly in the dark.

It was my job to monitor aerial spraying operations because they were expensive and I was responsible for the chemical, to record the actual flying time of the machine and to monitor the weather conditions. There had been a kerfuffle on another forest when that dangerous chemical, paraquat was being used. A nearby stand of pine trees has gone ginger, yet the chopper had been nowhere near them. I was co-opted on the investigation panel and it turned out there had been an inversion layer which caused the spray to hang up in the air! Eventually the water evaporated and the neat droplets of paraquat just hung there until some air movement caused the chemical to land on the trees. That’s why recording events became mandatory.

It was still a couple of hours before first light but I enjoyed my early morning brew and ate a good breakfast because if conditions are right, there is no stopping until the job is complete or the wind comes up. And anyway, breakfast should be a leisurely affair! My truck and trailer were loaded with the chemical drums and my weather recording gizmos, so with a Thermos of coffee, I headed up to the dew-pond and set things up ready for the helicopter. The loader driver and his gear usually arrived before the chopper and because the dew-pond was situated high on the hill, I could see plainly to the main road and beyond as well as the road I had travelled on. There was no sign of him nor sound of the approaching chopper.

The Beehive Bluff is about five minutes’ walk from the dew-pond, so I decided to wander over and sit with my legs dangling over the bluff to watch the sunrise. I was looking to the east, the distant horizon, the Pacific Ocean, to my left Cape Wanbrow and to my right Moeraki and barely visible the heads of Dunedin harbour. The spot I picked was uncomfortable on my backside, and thinking it was a rock, I thought I might toss it as far as I could because the bluff is sixty or seventy metres high – that’s the sort of thing young fellas do. It wasn’t a rock, it was a WWI shrapnel shell/projectile. I wasn’t surprised to find it because Mick and I had found several while we were clearing the area for the road. I had asked around and the yellow bluff was the practice target for the territorial artillery guys who were stationed on the coast. The projectiles were around a foot long with a copper band that must have fitted into the rifling of the Howitzer or whatever shot it. These ones were rusty and had timers on them, some hadn’t exploded while others had partially and there were others that must have scattered their lead-antimony balls in all directions. What a hell of a way to kill people! These things were packed with forty one or two balls the size of marbles, and the blast was timed to go off in the air. When it went off the balls scattered at over one hundred and fifty feet per second with a spread of one hundred yards! Advancing in the face of those gave anyone little chance, despite a tin hat. Horrible bloody things!

Still grey pre-dawn it was quite light so I could pick out the bush gully to my right, even the species were definable, tree fuchsia, whitey wood and kanuka. Years ago the Robertson boys had gone in there to rest in the shade hoping to find water after a hot morning’s wandering the hills. They carried no water, nobody bothered in those days. Whenever they strayed off a ridge or a sheeptrack they had to force their way through waist high bracken fern, raising clouds of choking brownish dust. As they sat talking about the quickest way out of the area, the older boy was checking his rifle when suddenly it went off, hitting the younger boy who slumped to the ground! Panic-stricken the older boy shot himself! Both boys were found by searchers the next morning, the younger of the two was still alive, unconscious, but still alive and he did survive. A tragic event in an innocuous small bush gulley.

The sea looked flat as far as the horizon where there was a thin layer of cloud that slowly turned from grey to yellow, gradually becoming brighter and casting its golden glow onto the tussock covered hills around me. The sky became a light, teal blue – azure. The golden-yellow gradually became orange, which tainted the hills and even my legs! I was sitting in this orange glow. There was complete stillness and silence. The dawn chorus had started while everything was still grey, but it seemed that even the birds paused to watch the fantastic display. Among the water colour paints in my drawer, the paints I use for drafting maps, there is one colour I seldom used. Vermillion! A Vermillion disc rose slowly out of the sea, casting a reflection that grew in length towards me as the sun rose. I was spellbound by the sharpness of the vermillion and did not notice the colours around me. As the sun climbed into the sky, vermillion turned to orange to gold to yellow and the azure sky deepened to blue. The display had finished as quickly as it began. Sitting there I reflected on young lives lost and the resulting grief that came with those losses. But grief can’t be dwelled upon and I counted myself fortunate to have witnessed such a rare and spectacular dawn!

The distinctive sound of the Hughes 300, its three blades flapping brought me back to reality and the line of dust below me heralded the approach of the loader driver.


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