Childhood smells

Don’t you think smell is one of the least appreciated senses? If we’re lucky enough to have sight, we process so much information with our eyes and we forget how things smell. And yet I find smell to be the key to so much nostalgia, a sudden strong odour drifting on the breeze and I am transported back in time.

Some of my favourite smells are probably pretty universal, fresh-cut grass, baking bread, a heavily perfumed rose, lavender, vanilla, the salt water smell when you first run onto a beach, tarmac after heavy rain, my cat’s fur, baby talcum powder, a lemon cake drenched in syrup..

The other day I was walking along a path and I could smell long grass heated by the sun. This is a particular summer smell. It takes me back to my childhood. Long grass and pumice. We had a house on Lake Tarawera and we went there every holiday. The whole experience lives in my mind as a collection of memories, much like the pages of a photograph album.

As we neared our destination we had a competition. Who could see the lake first? My highly competitive brother usually managed it around Hamilton, but for the rest of us it was a certain bend in the road and there it was and the magnificent, brooding mountain. Writers often describe a mountain as ‘brooding’, but in this case it is apt. It is a large flat top volcano that erupted June 10th 1886 with the loss of 153 lives. It is always a deep purple colour and it sits there like a giant bird with folded wings. It has always been ‘my mountain.’

The first thing you heard when you spilled out of the car was the waterfall. A 40 foot waterfall at the back of the lawn and a stream that flowed down to the lake. For the first 24 hours the water roared down the waterfall and then you never heard it unless you ventured down to the moss-covered rocks beside it. I was told that the green eyes in the wet bush were monsters so I didn’t do that often, they were, of course, possums.

So what do I remember? Cold mornings, sitting on the beach watching my father and brothers fly fishing in the stream or launching the dingy. I used to patrol the line at the top of the beach where the sand met the grass and retrieve fishing flies that had become ensnared on a back cast. I made sand castles and I pottered in the shallows and retrieved coloured stones. These were brightly shinning precious jewels in the water but when they dried they became dull and uninteresting.

My brother and I climbed the hills with a silver metal bath tub and caught tiny trout  fingerlings above the waterfall on bent pins, loaded with balls of bread dough. Then we carefully carried the tub back down to the lake and released them. I used to eat the dough balls when he wasn’t looking.

And there was fairy grass beside the old fence. It was some kind of green moss but I remember there was fairy treasure buried underneath it and I was forever digging it up.

Breakfast smells were frying trout, frying Christmas ham and sometimes fried Christmas pudding (don’t knock it till you’ve tried it) and winter smells were wet woolen socks drying on the fire guard  in front of a roaring fire.

We had an old black rotary phone and it was a party line so you had to wait for your particular ring before you picked it up. Lord knows how many phone conversations were overheard! And the beds in that room, the sunroom, my bedroom, were grey divans with hard mattresses. My brothers slept in the ‘heads room’, so called because the room was full of my Grandfather’s hunting and fishing trophies, large trout, deer, water buffalo and a little Springbok head I used to carry around as a toy.  

We swam and lay on the beach, fished and learned to row a boat, I got up on waterskiis   once (eventually) and we used to row round to other bays and picnic. We took silver buckets and collected blackberries on the fence that boarded unused farm land, huge, plump, delicious warm berries. Mum made jam and pies. We smoked trout in a tin smoker in the back yard and hung them up in an outdoor safe with a wire mesh door.

Such were the days of my childhood and the thing that makes me shake my head with remorse at the stupidity of youth is that there were times when we actually COMPLAINED about having to go there every holiday. It’s true what they say, youth is wasted on the young.

An old picture of my mountain from our beach


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