Okay, I’m not actually from Timaru. My parents are not even from here (though my mother is fairly sure she was conceived in the iconic Hydro Grand which once dominated the hill above Caroline Bay). I arrived when I was 14 and left when I was 17.
Before then, I shifted around a lot of South Island towns – Culverden, Kumara, Twizel and Waimate are the ones I remember. Then, when I was 14, my father, who could not stay in one place for long, moved us all to Timaru and died three weeks later. My mother, my two brothers and I were stuck in Timaru and so, in a way, was my father. So far, so bleak.
But I was born at Timaru Hospital. My parents ran the Lake Tekapo camping ground at the time and that’s where I was taken after my first, brief stint in Timaru. My mother and my stepfather live in Timaru, I still have friends there. And a person needs to say they are from somewhere.
Also, in my defence, the South Canterbury countryside that rolls green and lush into the snowy Southern Alps is far more beautiful than anywhere in the North Island. No offence.
Though I’m not claiming Timaru is without its problems. Legend has it there are three gangs in the city – white power, black power and, scariest of all, grey power. The Timaru mayor decided ‘Welcome to Timaru’ shouldn’t extend to the gangs. He had a gang headquarters bought and bowled. It’s true that Timaru has a higher ratio of older people than the New Zealand average. My mother is over 80, so gets to park free in council car parks. Grey power rules. As for white power – I’ve seen a bloke with a swastika tattoo on his face at the Caroline Bay Carnival. I’d like to think he was from out of town.
The carnival does attract all sorts, from all over the place. There’s an old-school vibe about it and during the two weeks a year that it runs, the camping ground and hotels are packed out. Every year the same man pushes his refrigerated cart along the powdery sand yelling ‘Icecreams, Iceblocks’ while the Ferris wheel makes stately turns, punters scream on the Octopus and stagger off the Chair-o-planes. A beautiful, ornate carousel has spun generations of kids, there are two concerts a day in the sound shell and I always spend way too much time at the bingo.
At dusk, kororā – little blue penguins – slide out of the sea and waddle up the beach to their nests among boulders. For kids, the new playground at the bay is very cool. A swim in Caroline Bay is also very cool – and sometimes it’s freezing.
When I’ve lost all my money or won too much chocolate at the bingo, I head to the south end of town for a break from the crowds: to the tall trees and the Robbie Burns statue in the Botanic Gardens and South Beach with big, dumping waves that land with a thump on the stones.
Many years ago, Timaru made headlines when an English journalist called it ‘The World Centre of the Early Night’. He probably passed through on a Monday evening, found he could walk down the middle of Stafford Street and not get run over because nobody was about, got bored and went to bed in a huff. Anyway, there’s nothing wrong with an early night.
I’m pretty sure it’s boring for teenagers though. I’m guessing many of them are doing for fun on Saturday nights what we did back in the day – head out to the riverbank and drink.
I’m most likely to be in Timaru living my best life at Christmas when Stafford Street is lit up with trumpet-blowing angels; on New Year’s Eve for the concert at the Soundshell; and in March for the wildly popular Rock & Hop. In July I head off to Timaru for my mother’s birthday and some proper Canterbury chill.
I may go back there to live – what’s not to love about free parking.
Chris Cessford is RNZ's deputy night editor.