Night in Ohakune

Ohakune is the town where I was born and grew up. It’s a small mountain village. Elevation 2000 feet, under a volcano. I go back there every chance I get. This time I came up from the south with my two sons, Jesse aged 7, Liamh aged 4. We arrived about 3.30 on a clear July afternoon and drove straight up Ruapehu. It had snowed on the weekend, the air was brisk and cold, the mountain a dazzled white jewel against the blue sky. We threw snowballs at each other and made a snow dwarf, with no arms and one eye, on a small hill where the drifts were knee-deep; then got back in the car with red chafed hands and sodden feet.

That night, after Liamh had gone to sleep, Jesse asked if we could go for a walk. We stepped out the door and heard music coming from the Waimarino Brass Band hall opposite the Mountain View Motel – a little old white wooden weatherboard building with a red peaked roof and frosted windows which have lettering and notes of music in the glass. I had never heard music coming from there before. This was free-form, unclassifiable, but brass – certainly brass.

As soon as we started walking towards the hall, the music stopped. When we reached the window, very quietly, I lifted Jesse - in his pyjamas, dressing gown and slippers - up so we could look inside. In the centre of the hall, surrounded by a clutter of chairs and music stands, three people sat close together facing one another. Two men and a woman, young middle-aged, wearing non-descript winter clothes. The men held a trumpet and a trombone, respectively; the woman a French horn. They were leaning forward, deep in thought, as if communicating telepathically. I put Jesse down and we tiptoed away.

We went the other way and, on the corner of Burns Street and the Tohunga Road, in a small grassy gully I’d never noticed before, Jesse pointed out a standing stone. This looked like it had been placed there a long time ago, like the kind of stone that might have a spiral carved onto it, like a mauri stone. We looked at it shining in the rainy night under the light of five tall streetlamps. We could hear the Mangawhero beyond, and the other river behind us. (Ohakune stands at the confluence of the Mangawhero and Mangateitei streams.)

We went back to check that Liamh was alright and then out again, this time to cross the road and hang over the white rail on the banks of the Mangateitei, running below us through a stand of remnant beech forest, black water shifting beneath black trees. While we were there the music started up again. It was indescribably beautiful, an improvisation around a theme, structured like a raga, full of invention, but, in its feeling, shy, wild, and yet somehow intimate as well.

They played for about twenty minutes without stopping; we listened outside until we got too cold, then went back to the motel and listened from there. Jesse, who often has trouble getting to sleep, dropped off while they were still playing. It was about half past nine on a Tuesday night. Slight rain drifted past the streetlamps. A big semi trailer with the word LILBURN on its side passed on the road, going north. Then another that said COMMERCIAL. For the moment, I was home again.

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