27 November 2009

place o flight

Omarama, New Zealand. 14 November 2009

The first thing you see when entering the township of Omarama is a wooden sign that reads, "OMARAMA: PLACE OF LIGHT."  This morning, from a rusty weed-tickled bleacher stand, I counted nearly 50 sailplane trailers lining a field south of the town's airstrip.  It is the South Island Regional Gliding Championships, and pilots here are rewarded for cloud-hunting.  From my spot on the edge of town, I noticed more than a few lenticulars squirming above the mountains.

Omarama, as far as I can tell, spans an area slightly smaller than Sewanee's central campus.  It's a handful of establishments dribbled around a T-junction of highways.  A couple petrol pumps, a police station, general store, and two of the most active gliding clubs in this hemisphere. 

As the day wore on, I watched 28 gliders evaporate from the airstrip and materialize on Nursery Ridge.  They had some help: a couple '70-something Piper Pawnees and a Supercub from the previous decade.  The Pawnees were painted red and white, and looked like clowns that someone clapped in the head with a pair of cymbals.  Their task for the day involved caressing the neck of Mt. Aspiring, among others in the area.  All of this flying makes me think that they got the spacing wrong in their welcome sign.  Just bump the F forward, and you've got a proper welcome to Omarama...

07 November 2009

the lonely sea and the sky

near Taieri, New Zealand.

What is it about the sea and the sky that exudes such loneliness, and why despite the hollowness of that theater do we long to fling ourselves into it?

English poet laureate John Masefield captures it well in twelve lines.  His poem "Sea Fever" begins:

I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,
And the wheel's kick and the wind's song and the white sails shaking,
And a grey mist on the sea's face and a gray dawn breaking.

I must down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.

While broad tundras and dense forests and empty steppe offer parallel remoteness in some parts of the world, the sea and the sky bend solitude into an untenably alluring arena.  Open.  Free.  Unpeopled.  Directionless.

I am reading the autobiography of Francis Chichester, an early aviator and sailor, and I'm aching to fly again.  When I first arrived, I stopped by a one-room airport in Oamaru and took a 172 up over the gravelly braids of the Waitaki River in northern Otago.  I haven't been up since, although yesterday I received a package from home that contained a balsa wood airplane.  Almost as good.  Southwesterly winds were blowing a constant 30 knots and gusting to god-knows-what.  The balsa wings stayed in their  hangar. 

Next week, Omarama is hosting the South Island regional gliding championships. I'm headed that way with the only pair of wings I've got.

01 November 2009


across the Tasman, my mind is aswirl with the possibilities of a new place.  Aotearoa. Land of the Long White Cloud.  Yesterday, the sky was raked with altocumulus before it bubbled over with shreds of wooly stratus from the south.  In the evening, lenticular clouds levitated above the hilltops like stacks of red blood cells.  Weather bolts across this place like a jet shadow over the ground.  I'm gathering pieces.  Today, I cross the Southern Alps to collect bits of the west coast from the Cascade Plateau.

Above, a piece of sky from Byron Bay, New South Wales.
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