Go anywhere nice for your holidays? I spent mine contemplating the ocean floor off Purakanui, with a brief interlude in Wanaka. “Isn’t it lovely?” asked my sister-in-law as we bobbed in the lake. At least I think that’s what she said. I couldn’t actually hear her over the noise of jet boats and jet skis. In Wanaka you get good at lip reading: there’s so much traffic and everyone’s silently mouthing house prices − when their pedigree cats aren’t dispatching rabbits in a style that makes Watership Down look like a feel-good romp. As they say in Waverly-with-mountains, “Take that, Gareth Morgan.”
Back in Dunedin, upside down and backwards underwater, collecting more bruises on my knees than a half-price hooker and being menaced by seals (“just like big chocolate Labs,” said the economist but he’s a liar), it was a bit of a worry to make it to land (passing a group of Japanese tourists paddling in the rip) only to hear of yet another drowning. Canoeing on lakes, swimming in the ocean, gathering shellfish on rocks, crossing rivers: not even a month into the new year and 17 people have drowned, 7 more than at the same time last year, summer 2016 seeing a sudden epidemic of what was once called, ‘the New Zealand disease.’
Unlike the early settlers, I can swim; having grown up in the era of school lessons and government funding for community pools. But even my fabulous lop-sided crawl couldn’t save me from my own foolishness were I to venture into conditions beyond my abilities. 14 of those who died were men. I checked with some men and they admitted to a suicidal stupidity when it came to showing off in front of their mates. “It’s called ‘giving it a nudge,’” explained the economist. Also, not that it necessarily has anything to do with recklessness, but more than 90% of people who die recreational boating are men. I’m pretty sure this is because men like boats while women think they are loud and boring, like Americans in a bar.
Some beaches aren’t the safest. Piha, for example, is an idiot’s idea of a proper beach and St Clair has eroded to an impossible prospect for swimmers and surfers alike, unless Jeff Patton is standing by with a rope to pull you out and I’m sure he has better things to do. Worse, a worryingly high proportion of New Zealanders cannot swim at all (“Not to save my life” said one friend proudly, which is like admitting you can’t read and don’t see the point of it), nothing short of insane when you live on an island and your favourite pastime is going to the beach. And it’s the laconic, ‘no worries,’ alcohol and jeans-as-togs way we go about it that is the reason so many of us die. Believing we have our own pet tiger in the beautiful and ferocious corrugated-coated waters chomping our coast − you don’t need to be Siegfried and Roy to know what happens when you turn your back on a tiger.
The reason why I haven’t drowned while learning to surf the very short paddleboard that my boyfriend bought me for Christmas is fear. Terror keeps me alert. Uneasy at what’s beneath my feet, I imagine a grey triangle breaking the surface, start at my own shadow, freak myself out. And when I finally do catch a wave, hurtling towards shore thinking, ‘Well, this is awesome,’ then comes a new fear… ‘Um … how am I going to stop!?’
Repeatedly clonked and smashed and flattened, I’ve not just been thrill-seeking but living by the tolling of a new clock, a final countdown worthy of hair-rockers Europe, a ticking more urgent than biological-baby-making. Try it yourself. Simply subtract your current age from your life expectancy (around 89 on average for a woman) x 365 days x 16 hours daily awake = the number of hours you have left to live. Scary, yet in the same breath, strangely liberating. With only 251,120 hours left, there are naturally some things I do not have any more time for:
· boring, pointless meetings
· drama − unless directed by Patrick Davies for the Fortune Theatre
· senselessness around water
For God’s sake learn to swim, people, and grow some respect for the country’s rivers, lakes and beaches. They’re not resort pools sans sun loungers, or placid bodies of water that owe you a good time. Be afraid and live, because it’s better than being stupid and dead.