As I may have mentioned before, I love a good road trip, so even if this was only a mini one, last weekend my friend Jo and I took off through the gorge to Alexandra. The purpose of our visit was two-fold. We wanted to see our friend, Alice, perform in Oliver! and we thought we would check out the Alexandra Blossom Festival. I have never been to this annual event before, but I have heard many things about it.
It’s been going for over 50 years and is a real community event as the town celebrates the arrival of spring. Alexandra (like much of Central Otago) owes its existence to the stone fruit and wool industries. Obviously the blossom denotes the start of the stone fruit, and there is a fashion and design competition where designers compete in a variety of categories to showcase the versatility of wool. Just as Arrowtown has an autumn festival when the leaves change colour (you make your own entertainment in the country) so Alexandra puts out the flags (and the floats) when the blossom first appears.
Because I had done a 5km race in the morning, we got there after the grand procession of floats, but we were in time for Saturday in the Park. Jo and I paid our $15 entrance fee and went for a stroll around the stalls inside. Our first stop, naturally, was at a food and wine tent. Various stalls promised ‘yummy food’ and ‘delicious whitebait fritters’ but we headed for Locharburn Wines where we matched a pinot noir with a venison spring roll. Later we heard rumours of rabbit pies, but I didn’t see any.
We sat on the grass in front of the stage and watched the ‘entertainment’ which included Shay Horay escaping from a straitjacket while leaping about on a pogo stick, and the coronation of the senior blossom queen.
As we walked around the park we realised what a family affair this was. You could try on hats, buy garden plants, enter raffles for nights at hotels, or pet a pig – should you feel so inclined.
We viewed the wood-chopping where men with big muscles and bellies sawed through chunks of wood and stood on blocks of the stuff which they hacked at with axes. The little seats that they made were snapped up by members of the public. Lucky folk could also challenge the local lumberjacks to shows of strength – some weird Southern rite of passage or mating ritual in which they demonstrated their attributes to the onlooking ladies. Apparently anyone can chance their arm as long as they don’t appear to be intoxicated – this is health and safety Kiwi-style.
Children clambered up and slid down an inflatable Titanic, which seemed slightly odd. When does it stop being a maritime disaster and become a fun-park amusement?
Ferris wheels and spinning contraptions could also make you nauseous and giddy. Jo wanted a go, but I get travel-sick on a train, so I’m not exactly a top thrill-seeking companion.
The alley of things to throw and shoot to win cuddly toys was as timeless as ever – do people still delight in being presented with a giant blue teddy-bear?
We continued to eat our way around the paddock. There was a huge variety of sweet treats on offer, from fudge and sherbet to toffee apples and plum puddings. I had a slice of liquorice cake which was like lolly cake, but all the sweets inside were liquorice all-sorts. It was very tasty. Jo had a truffle which she said was almost (but not quite) unbearably rich.
Enervated by our sugar fix, we admired the floats which had earlier paraded up and down the town. Winnie the Pooh didn’t look out of place with his crepe paper honey pot for the Lions club float, and the Plunket Monsters Inc float was very blue – it won the prize for the ‘most floral float’ which was vaguely puzzling as it doesn’t actually feature any flowers. The folded crepe paper decorations are handcrafted, and everyone who mentions them talks about the hours of work that goes into making them.
An old-fashioned fire engine was drawing a crowd of fathers with their children anxious to play with the hose and ring the bell. The kids were fairly interested too.
The coffee cart was catering more to the mothers in need of caffeine. Awards were presented and more blossom princesses were crowned. I believe they have to do tasks throughout the preceding week to showcase their regal virtues. I’m not sure what these are: wearing a sash and matching shoes? Sleeping on a pile of mattresses on top of a pea? Kissing frogs? Who knows, but they were all blushing smiles, fetching dimples and elaborate hair-dos as they trooped across the stage.
People parted like the Red Sea as the pipe bands came marching through to the stage. All decked out in tartan and full clannish regalia they drummed and piped through a couple of songs before dispersing. There was a pipe band competition earlier but we missed it so we don’t know who won. Some of them seemed to be taking it all very seriously indeed.
Jo was slightly disappointed they didn’t play more tunes en masse and although we decided they probably didn’t share enough musical commonality, we felt sure they should all have known Flower of Scotland if not the Skye Boat Song.
With an hour to kill before the Wellington International ukulele orchestra, we went to the local art exhibition hosted by the Central Otago Art Society. We saw a lot of local landscapes, some of which were beautiful, others were bland. The artwork had already been ‘judged’ but members of the public could vote for their own favourite.
I liked the texture of an oil painting depicting a stone wall, although I didn’t get the name of the artist, and the blurred effect of Nigel Wilson’s Clutha Morning (which won third place among the judges). Sue Wademan’s textile designs stood out as being something different and the breadth of dramatic light in Debbie Malcolm’s canvases was also intriguing (She actually won the people’s choice award with her painting Storm Over Leaning Rock).
However, I went for a stunningly deep ‘stylistic’ landscape painting by Rachel Hirabayashi. Five years ago I bought some of her feline wire sculptures at an art auction in Arrowtown, and it’s encouraging to realise that I appreciate her work in different media.
So it was back to the park where we sat down with a glass of Three Miners pinot noir to face the music. The chap selling the wine was operating a sort of honesty box system. He was milling about chatting to punters and serving folk when he saw them standing at his stall, but he seemed just as relaxed for them to pour a glass themselves and leave the money in a gold pan overflowing with notes.
The orchestra played a variety of numbers ranging from Haere Mai to All Through the Night. Usually ukuleles combined with country music (Jolene; Ruby Don’t Take Your Love to Town) would send me running screaming for the exit, but this was tempered with the most unlikely of covers (New England; Sweet Child o’ Mine) to add interest.
Smiling and bantering throughout, the band were clearly of the opinion that if you’re having fun, the audience will too. We all did. The crowd went wild. I’m not sure I could sit thorough a full-length concert, or buy an album, but this outdoor 45-minute segment was entertaining and frankly quite charming.
Somehow we were hungry by now, so Jo took us to the Red Brick Cafe for dinner. She already knew of its existence, which was a good thing as it is tucked down a side street in a car park. She obviously wasn’t the only one with fore-knowledge as it was packed despite its inauspicious setting. The service was friendly if a little haphazard and the meals were good and wholesome with standard dishes including lamb rump, chicken breast, salmon fillet, beef steak and pork belly – not a lot for vegetarians, which fortunately we aren’t.
When we emerged from the restaurant, it was as though a parallel universe had descended. Gone were the family-friendly groups with little children covered in chocolate ice-cream; instead the streets were full of ridiculous low-slung vehicles crammed full of spotty teenagers leaning out of the windows, waving bottles and hurling abuse. I know I’m not their target market – even 20 years ago – but seriously, has anyone ever been impressed with this conduct?
Eighty people were arrested for breaching the liquor ban, and offensive and disorderly behaviour. The senior sergeant in charge said that most offenders were from out of town and that the ‘drunkenness among teenagers was concerning’. None of these arrests were made at the parade or the day in the park. Which makes me wonder – if you were a moronic adolescent intent on causing a nuisance, what would appeal to you? Cars – yes; booze – undoubtedly; sex – if only; blossom? I don’t see it myself.
After the production of Oliver! (of which more later, but suffice to say that our friend Alice was a star) I pulled into a petrol station to fill up before heading home. Jo advised me to find the one with the least bogans – we picked one flanked by a police cars with flashing lights. The young lad behind the counter came rushing out to help, probably relieved to spot a car containing two women over the age of 18 and therefore unlikely to be any trouble. Actually, he probably thought we were lost. He said they had been very busy but things were quietening down now as the pestilence departed – doubtless crawling back beneath the rocks from whence they came.
The Blossom Festival is a weird experience. It’s a fun family day out until the sun goes down, and then the imbeciles emerge like an influx of zombies. I had a really enjoyable time, but if I go again, I’m leaving before nightfall.