A Sad Story

By David

Flying airplanes has long been a passion of mine. On a clear day, flying in New Zealand is a privilege. It is true: there is nowhere else on earth quite like it. New Zealand does not have the domestic order of England’s southern counties or the endless expanse of the Australian outback or even the manufactured theme park quality of Florida’s south east coast. There is a youthful fresh variety about this place. Human toil has tempered but not tamed the enthusiasm of nature here.

In an hour and twenty minutes after leaving Auckland’s airport I’ll have flown over the populated rush of the nation’s largest city, out over impossibly green dairy fields and passed New Zealand’s longest river’s troubled exit into the Tasman Sea. There, brown river silt stains the white tipped blue of the southern ocean. Further south the triple cones of the central North Island’s mountains still hold on to small pockets of winter snow. Even here, in this most barren central plateau, the scene is awash with color. Light brown tussock, grey rock, a dark emerald canopy of native bush and smudged into the hillsides are purples, whites and reds of thriving imported heather. Approaching the Ohura beacon, the scene changes again to the gorges and ridges of the Parapara Ranges; a place of harshness and angles; an undisciplined jumble of busy streams, steep hills and narrow valleys. As far as I can tell there is not a flat paddock anywhere. This is the last place on earth you’d want to try a forced landing.

“Auckland Radar, this is Echo Kilo Romeo, overhead Ohura Beacon, 8500 feet; transferring to Ohakea radar 130 decimal 6.”

“Roger, Echo Kilo Romeo. Have a good day.”

“Ohakea Radar this is Echo Kilo Romeo overhead Ohura Beacon 8500 feet. Flight plan to Wellington and Christchurch, one POB”

“Roger, Echo Kilo Romeo”, says a lovely soft Scottish accent.” We have you on Radar at 8500 feet.”

Straight on to Paraparaumu and then the decent across Wellington Harbor to the airport. It is a most diverse view. Around the harbor, steep hills disguise the sea’s exit to the ocean. Away from the city, the hills are the uniform green of their bush and scrub cover. Nearer the city, the green refracts into a multitude of blues, reds and browns of suburban houses before the colors refocus again, this time into the grey of the city’s glass and steel office blocks.

Canet en Roussillon has long been a favorite town of mine. Toni Jeffs and I spent three weeks there preparing for the Barcelona Olympic Games. I’ve been back three times since with swimmers competing in the Canet leg of the Mare Nostrum series. It is one of this world’s truly lovely places. It is a small Mediterranean coastal village, close to Perpignan and the Spanish border. Little restaurants sell fantastic French food along a wide sandy beach. It’s just so incredibly French. Old men play boules and smoke pipes and talk about how bad things are in Paris. Young women swim with far too little on for sensitive eyes. Best of all it’s not on the foreign tourist trail. It’s more a place where the French go to holiday.

The pool is 50 meters, open air and has all the facilities – good lane lines, flags, a well equipped gym, electronic timing, good blocks at both ends, eight lanes and massage. It’s all there. A first class, air conditioned hotel is right across the road. But if you don’t like modern, one hundred and fifty meters away is a lovely old, small French castle called the Clos des Pins. Their restaurant has a huge brick, wood fired oven that produces food that is to die for. Order anything on their menu and you are in for a wonderful dining experience. If I was ever organizing a training camp before a major Games in Europe, I’d go back to Canet. But, I hear you say, “What say it’s a long way from the meet?” Who cares?

The town of Canet and New Zealand aviation were sadly brought together this week. An Air New Zealand Airbus 320 had just completed maintenance and repainting work at Perpignon Airport. Prior to returning to New Zealand two German pilots, four New Zealand engineers and a New Zealand pilot took the plane up for an hour long check flight. Five kilometers off the Canet beach, on their approach back to Perpingon, the Airbus plunged into the sea. There were no survivors.

This summer Skuba, Andrew and I will be back in Canet for their International Swim Meet. For this New Zealander the visit will be that bit more important; remembering five of my countrymen who died, flying aeroplanes in this lovely part of the world.