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Whanganui National Park Wellington

26th December 2011

A Day at the Races, and a Walk Along the Black Sands

One Down at the First Bend
    Roger was up bright and early this morning. I joined him and Dave in an earnest conversation about motorbikes. They were both fanatics when younger, and still are now. I, on the other hand, wouldn't know a Suzuki from a sewing machine, so I left them relating stories of yore.
    Fay was off to do retail therapy today. She joked away, and told me about the time she did a spot of retail therapy while Roger was off doing his own thing, and she had filled up their motorhome with so much stuff that they had to go home. Crumbs, no wonder Roger still does part time work in his seventies.
    I walked into town to watch the 2011 Boxing Day Whanganui Cemetery Circuit Road Races. These had been going for 60 years now, were a national tradition, and were televised. I haven't a clue about motorbikes, but hey, if it's a big festive occasion, and everybody and their mother goes, then perhaps I ought to attend too just for the hell of it.
Novel Viewing Platform
Start of a Sidecar Race
    The circuit was well cordoned off, and of course entry was by ticket only. The circuit did indeed run along a road which went right through the cemetery. That cemetery must have seen more people today than in the whole rest of the year.
    It was a scorching hot day, and the track temperature was 55� towards the end of the races. For my initial viewing point, I chose to stand about 80m down from the start at the first right angled bend. This had the advantage of being a tiered platform. A large gang of teenage and twenty somethings also chose this viewing point. They must have been drinking since dawn, and were surrounded by bottomless ice-boxes full of beers. They heckled and jeered and took no prisoners. When a guy slid into a barrier, they laughed and jeered. Then one guy hit the barrier very hard, and was out cold. He came to when the medics arrived, and was carted off in an ambulance, much to the amusement of these young hecklers. They were only here for the blood, and by close of play, would all be legless no doubt. The old chap standing next to me quietly cursed them. He was now 74, and had attended almost all the races through the years, apart from two when he had suffered ill health. He pointed out to me in the program blokes his age who were still riding, and husband/wife and father/daughter sidecar pairings. The chap on my other side had five young women with him, all related. They had come to watch brothers and cousins racing, and they didn't half cheer as their heroes raced past. One racer I spotted must have damaged his hand or arm, since it was always in his lap. How he drove around that circuit at speed one-handed I'll never know, but he managed, and rode in several different races.
The Cemetery Has Never Been so Popular
    Almost all the racers were from New Zealand, with a fair share from Whanganui itself. The latter were idolised by the crowds. The bikes were of umpteen classes from as many suppliers too; that is as specific as I can be.
    Despite the conditions being ideal, I soon gathered there were more red flags today than there normally was. The red flags weren't sendings off, just telling the racers to stop, which none of them did, they just slowed down and returned to the pits for a restart. The stoppages were due to no end of accidents: bikes summersaulting, sidecars turning turtle or losing the passenger, crashes, and at one point a crash caused straw bales to catch on fire. The ambulances were a common sight.
    It was a day out for everybody, and it was slow progress trying to work my way around the course, but I managed it. I even bumped into the guy I was chatting with yesterday with his two boys. He absolutely loved bike racing, and he had a couple of bikes of his own. He was also introducing his sons to the sport via small bikes on fields.
    The cemetery was a cool place to be, in a temperature sense that is, lots of shady trees. The place I was most interested in was where a lot of the bikes were being tended to. There weren't any pits in the conventional sense, just a large car park with tents and marquees where bikes were on stands, with heated pads wrapped around their tyres, and mechanics giving the gleaming machines some TLC. Here the riders could be seen in close-up too, all ages, shapes and sizes. I was amazed that the public were allowed around this enclosure.
Bikes Galore
Royal Whanganui Opera House
    The commentator reminded me of Syd Waddell, a former darts commentator in Britain. This commentator on the circuit had a similar brand of one-liners: "The after race reception tonight is at the Racecourse. When I wake up after those, I feel as if I have a mouth full of badger shit," or, "No 37 is a bricklayer by trade. Lately he has had more work than a brickie in Baghdad," or, "No 22 gobbled up Jim Jackson on that corner faster than cheeses at a party." This guy was none stop with this dribble.
    It was all in good fun, and everybody was enjoying themselves. I enjoyed it too, and the little conversations I had with fellow onlookers around the course added an extra interest. All in all, a good day was had at the races.
    As an antidote to all the noise, smells and razzmatazz of the races, I drove out to Whanganui River Mouth, and carefully picked my way along a breakwater, of large chunks of building rubble, where fishermen were hoping for a tasty supper. I sat within earshot of a couple of them. "Where's Jason tonight?" one asked the other. "The boss," replied his mate, which I guessed meant the wife. "He is missing out. With these weather patterns, the state of the moon and tides, it is a good time to be out here," replied the other. I marvelled how he could deduce that, but I suppose fishermen have been passing the knowledge down over the centuries.
Black Sand, Driftwood and Pumice at Whanganui River Mouth
    I gazed across the sea at the distant headland, filling my lungs with the salt air, and tasting it on my tongue. The setting sun was washing the shore and headland in a warm glow. I walked through the forest of driftwood, trees and pumice washed up on the shore, and walked for ages along the black sands, sands that would burn the skin off your feet if you walked barefoot across them during a hot summer's day. I was content to be alone, just trying to get a fix on "this is New Zealand" into my head. The sound and smell of the sea helped, just as the smell of sweet decay and the varied hues and textures in the rainforests helped when inland.
    It was a perfect rounding off to the day. Tomorrow, New Zealand would be bedlam as thousands of the Kiwis head off on holiday. This time of year must hit them hard financially, they will have spent a fortune on Christmas, and now they are going to spend a fortune on a holiday, all at the same time of year.
    I climbed in my car to return back to camp, and as I did so, I heard loud music approaching. I thought it must be one of those cars that likes to take on the role of a mobile disco. No, it wasn't, my eyes stood out like stalks. Hurtling along at speed behind me was a motorised sofa. It was travelling sideways, so the kids sitting on it were all facing the sea as it travelled parallel to the sea. The music was emanating from this travelling sofa. Then, when the road turned away from the sea, the sofa was somehow steered around the corner, I have no idea how. It was so funny to watch, I just had to laugh out loud. They are a grand bunch these Kiwis.

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Whanganui National Park Wellington

Uploaded from Te Papa Museum Carpark, Wellington on 27th December at 21:20

Last updated 27.12.2011