The Listener: ‘The Shed’

The Listener, Roy Colbert. Sydney’s 1975 painting of the Wedderburn railway goods shed, “July on the Maniototo” really put the tiny village on the map. Other tiny Central Otago villages, such as St Bathans, population five, were once huge, with 13 hotels and thousands of residents, but Wedderburn has always been tiny. Local fanner Stu Duncan lives in the delightfully named White Sow Valley. I ask him the population of Wedderburn. He carefully counts the adults out loud, in twos, like a man who knows every member of every house. He stops at 34.

All the more reason, then, to treasure the Sydney painting and all that it stands for. Like the shed it is of, which the locals tendered for when the railway line was pulled up and missed out on by $100. This year they raised $20,000 to haul it back from Idaburn, where it had been used to store coal. The journey on the 16-wheeler alone took nearly $6000 of it, and much of the rest will go on restoration and lining its walls with historical pieces…

Sydney agrees. He plays down the extent to which the painting has made the village famous, and is happier for the shed to be back in place simply for what it is, a reminder of a kind of life that is disappearing, of a rural railway that is no more.

“The wonderful image I have of that shed is when the train from Dunedin would stop on a Friday night and the school boarders going home for the week-end would race out and hurtle through the open door of the shed, which was further along the tracks, and try to get back into the train before it set off again.”

The shed, now 200m from its original spot and, temporarily, a little worse for wear, will eventually be a quintessential Central Otago moment for the tourist buses now increasingly choosing the Maniototo route. I seek out long-established Wedderburn resident Stu Duncan. “This is the way rural New Zealand used to be,” he says, his dark features breaking slowly into an inimitable wide grin.

“You know, you can take all your fancy gadgets, your technology things, your Sky television. Forget them. You can come down here, fish, swim, have a round of golf and a drink. This is what life really is.”