The Kindness of Strangers, Part 1
Updated: Jan 20, 2021
by Elaine Weeks
New Zealand, 1986
The SERVAS Experience (Pre-Internet Travel)
One of the biggest issues facing budget travellers when touring a First World country like New Zealand is the cost of travel and accommodation; another hassle is trying to meet the locals.
Wouldn’t it be great to land in a city then contact someone who would not only be willing to let you stay with them, enjoying food and drink together but also provide insights into the local sights, historical, political, and economic scene?
This was the concept behind SERVAS (Spanish for "We Serve"), an international cultural exchange program founded in Sweden after WW II as a catalyst for travellers to stay with hosts at no expense, all over the world.
We joined the organization in Vancouver, and had been provided with national directories of SERVAS hosts in the countries we’d be touring. These books featured names, addresses, phone numbers, and background information on SERVAS hosts, including languages spoken, countries visited, occupation, age, hobbies and interests and more. These descriptions were a great help; it was usually easy for us to find hosts with similar interests.
Contacting hosts ahead of time, in those days by post, or by phone (no e-mail or fax back then). Some SERVAS hosts would even say in their profile: “Just drop in," which meant they were always open to hosting. SERVAS rules dictated a stay of at least two days (in order to get to know your hosts and they you, and to prevent travellers from using their homes as pit-stops), to behave graciously, ie., cleaning up after oneself, sharing the cooking, and the willingness to communicate.
All that was expected in return was for the SERVAS participant to write a descriptive report to the national or local coordinator upon returning home and, opening one’s home to other travellers. The latter was entirely optional but most SERVAS guests eventually do want to become hosts, especially since their SERVAS experiences are so rewarding. The goal of SERVAS was to provide an understanding of a culture as seen through the eyes of locals, and to promote international co-operation and world peace.
We decided to try out SERVAS in New Zealand, which would allow us to stay longer. We expected a trip markedly different from our Fijian adventure, where we slept either in our dome tent or, a third-rate hotel. New Zealand also proved to be a distinct change for us due to the weather.
We landed in the capital of Auckland, at the end of September, (the start of spring in the southern hemisphere) and finding it chilly, immediately dug out our woolies; in reality, it wasn’t that cold. Auckland has temperate weather but our bodies were tropically acclimated; we found it a considerable challenge adjusting to the cooler weather.
According to our guide book The South Pacific Handbook (we were slightly more prepared than in Fiji), New Zealand or, ‘Aotearoa, Land of the Long White Cloud:'
“a ‘world in miniature’, for its incredible mix of scenery, cultures, and adventure…there are active and dormant volcanoes, geysers, glaciers, fiords, drowned craters, submerged river valleys, glacial and crater lakes, caves, swift rivers, high mountains, and lonely coastlines, all eminently accessible.”
Our goal was to explore the two islands during our six week stay, hoping our SERVAS hosts could provide sights unseen by most visitors. Our first SERVAS hosts were Linda, Ian and their eight month old son, Sam. They lived in a charming though cramped older bungalow in an inner Auckland suburb.
As they had also completed a round the world tour (before Sam arrived), staying with SERVAS hosts for most of their trip, they were quite willing to open their home to others. And, it was a way for them to relive some of their own travelling experiences.
This first visit proved auspicious; Linda and Ian were very hospitable, even allowing us to take over their living room as they were without guest accommodations. They cooked us some marvellous meals and also gave us a tour of some local sights.
Gawking In Auckland
Two musts for all visitors, they insisted, were Mt. Eden and One Tree Hill. Both were located right in Auckland and Ian and Linda ensured we visited them. Mt. Eden is a volcanic hill inhabited by Maoris many years before the islands were invaded by the Europeans. It was conveniently located behind their residence, so we climbed it on our first night in town.
Even though we were in the city proper, we were amused to find sheep grazing on the ancient crater. At the top of Mt. Eden, Auckland spread out before us. The skyline was fairly modern; out in its bay, another dormant volcano, its small cone surprisingly distinct in the fading light; we had emerged into the Ring of Fire.
Sailboats bobbed like bathtub toys, as Ian explained, Auckland was the “sailboat capital of the world.”
“There’s statistically about one sailboat for every two houses in Auckland,” he revealed, squinting into the distance. “We don’t have one yet but fortunately, have a few friends that do so we go out whenever possible.”
Later in our stay, Chris and I walked down by the harbour, impressed with the number of sailboats around the massive Auckland harbour. Sailing fever had gripped the island nation, as the America’s Cup Yacht races were being contested in Perth, Australia, during our stay in Kiwiland.
The city sprawl was out of proportion to its small population (around 830,000); Ian explained this was due to the “Auckland lot:“ In its early days, houses were built on quarter-acre lots. Even today, locals want their houses to be built on an ‘Auckland lot’ so the city is really large in terms of total real estate." It made sense; if one had to live in a city, it was highly civilized to have room to breathe.
Ian and Linda, originally from Australia, had reversed the current trend and migrated to New Zealand. “Most Kiwis tend to move to Australia,” Linda disclosed. “Any citizen of New Zealand can live in Australia, and vice versa. You don’t need a visa to stay as long as you like and you can get even unemployment insurance payments without having actually worked.”
“Many Kiwi males, as soon as they are able, take a trip to Oz, seeking employment.” added Ian. “But the Aussie government claims they’re living on the dole, and as a result, a lot of Australians are not terribly fond of the Kiwis.”
We were never able to confirm this stereotype, though later heard many Australians also enjoyed living in New Zealand. And, we did learn Aussies and Kiwis have a fierce rivalry, especially regarding sport.
One Tree Hill, a beacon throughout the city, did indeed possess the famous lone tree on its summit. Once the home of the largest Maori settlement in the the area, it was originally called Te Totara-i-ahua after the solitary totara tree planted on its peak in 1640. Sadly, the tree was destroyed by vandals, a pine tree planted in its place.
One evening, we embarked on a trip to thermal hot pools in nearby Waiera. Even though I was feeling decidedly carsick by the time we arrived, due to Ian’s speedy driving over the hills and dales (just a taste of what was to come), I did enjoy a delightful soak in the heat (and, I was finally starting to warm up.) The natural hot waters were pumped in from a nearby source, and pools had temperature signs above them ranging from 101 to over 120 degrees.
We delayed our departure from Auckland by a few days due to take care of visa business, but our hosts did not hesitate when we explained our predicament. They were more than happy to have us stay on even though they were actually going to gone part of the time, as they received an invite to go sailing.
We decided to try our hand (or thumb) at hitchhiking to our next destination, other forms of transport seemed excessive for our tight budget. While New Zealand has an extensive bus and train system, we talked to backpackers who easily hitched through the islands, so thought we’d give it a try.
As a rule, we did not have much difficulty getting lifts, but there were times when we’d be stranded for hours. We eventually learned sewing a Canadian flag on our packs labeled us as “safe” to pick up. Not only do New Zealanders love Canadians, there was apparently a hitchhiker-killer on the loose during our stay, whose victims were the unsuspecting drivers who gave him a lift. While we didn’t look much like murderers, (so we thought) we understood why some drivers might hesitate to stop.
Many Canadian travellers believe if they wear their flag on their packs, they’ll be guaranteed better treatment in the countries they visit. But we viewed Canadian travellers who sported their Maple Leafs on their packs (known as “Maple Leafers” by the backpack set) as paranoics who might be mistaken for Americans (heaven forbid!). In certain countries, Americans are not overly welcome. In fact, we even met some Yanks who confessed to sewing Canadian Maple Leafs on to their gear to avoid the label of ugly Americans.
Flying Canadian flags is not prevalent in Canada, whereas in the States, Old Glory flaps in the breeze everywhere. On the dusty trail however, we didn’t see one American flag emblazoned on a pack. Rather, the Americans played it more low-key, even in Thailand where they are well-loved.
Our next destination was Wangerei north of Auckland. Our plan was to catch a bus to Albany just outside of the city to hitch, as we'd been advised it would be easier than in Auckland. While I was buying the tickets at the station, Chris chatted with some American girls headed to Waiwei. They'd been working in Australia for three months, recommended as a great place to make some money.
When the girls saw me approaching their expressions changed from hopeful excitement to visible disappointment.I think I must have dashed their hopes at hooking up with a handsome Canadian. I had to refrain from laughing at this interrupted courting display; when I told Chris about it later, he said he hadn’t even noticed. Sorry girls!
By 10 a.m., after another hair raising ride, we were in Albany. After a brief time-out to collect ourselves, we spotted a likely looking curb and stuck out our thumbs. Thirty minutes later, we hadn’t moved an inch. A fellow who had been watching approached and kindly suggested we move down the hill as we’d have better luck in front of the pub.
Taking his advice, we descended the hill to discover two other hitchers were already there. Employing hitchhiker’s etiquette, we let one of the hitchers try first while we chatted with the second. This proved to be a very friendly Maori who immediately invited us to share the large joint he was rolling.
Turns out he knew Freddy, whom Chris had met on a bus trip from London to Athens a couple of years earlier. We had planned to look him up while we were in New Zealand but hadn’t received a message at American Express as expected. Benny, our new friend, said to visit him anyway as Freddy was probably expecting us to just show up.
Eventually, the first hitchhiker, who was having bad luck, gave up and walked over to where we were standing. He looked rather unkempt so perhaps drivers were getting flashes of the hitchhiking-killer when they drove by.
Chris and I gave it another try and were immediately rewarded when a white van stopped and the driver told us to hop in. He didn’t have room for the other guys as his van was pretty crowded already with junk and a Dalmation puppy, so saying goodbye and good luck to our hitching acquaintances, we climbed aboard.
Lucky me got to share the back seat of the van with the dog who insisted on sitting on my lap so he could stick his head into the front to check out the action. Eventually, I let him have the seat all to himself as I was getting tired of pushing him off. And I was getting covered in doghair.
There was just about enough room on the floor for me to almost stretch out as long as I padded the tricycle which ended up under my head with my jean jacket. For once I didn’t mind the breakneck speed we traveled as it meant we'd be in Wangerei in two hours.
Our hosts, contacted by phone from Auckland, offered to pick us up once we arrived in town so our first task was to find a pay phone so we could let them know we’d arrived. After a lengthy search (at one point, we gave up and stopped to eat our packed lunches) we found a phone at the bus station. Good thing we weren’t having an emergency!
Locating a pay phone in New Zealand proved to be monumental undertaking for us; either the telephone company didn’t think Kiwis needed this convenience or the locals felt the scarcity of pay phones was normal. Coming from North America where phones could be found on every third street corner, we found this rather perplexing.
While waiting for Sandy to come fetch us, Chris and I amused ourselves by imagining what sort of vehicle she would be driving. Our new hosts were both archaeologists; we were pretty certain she wouldn’t be driving a Mercedes.
When Sandy eventually pulled up in a beat up yellow pickup truck (she breathlessly explained she had gone to the train station instead), we weren’t in the least surprised. And, when we arrived at their small bungalow, we weren’t disappointed for it was painted a brilliant orange. Sandy’s husband Steven was waiting outside, a stereotypical archaeologist: scruffy beard, wild hair, messy shorts, sporting the gleam of a zealot in his eye.
At dinner, we had a lively discussion about our assorted travels. Steven and Sandy were very interested to hear Chris’s tales of his visit to Turkey, for they had toured it around the same time. After much deliberation and pouring over maps and photos that our hosts produced, we determined it was possible that they had all been in the same town at the same time.
At last it was time to close the photo albums and turn in. Chris and I were again assigned the living room as our quarters; Chris on the makeshift couch and me on the floor on a mattress where I slept like a baby dreaming of our trip to the coast planned for the next day.
After a breakfast of toast, tea and oranges fresh from the yard (New Zealand’s north island is temperate enough to support citrus fruits and palm trees), Sandy and her son Miles (Steven decided to sleep in) drove us to a nearby bay. Hiking across the sheep strewn hills and pastures towards the coast, we encountered a trio of deep-sea fishermen returning with their catch. Sporting identical plaid jackets, huge fishing poles against their shoulders, they solemnly plodded past in their big rubber wadders.
Down at the beach we discovered a gruesome scene: a decapitated sheep. We didn’t notice the poor thing at first as it matched the colour of the sand but then I spotted blood. As we went over to look, the owner appeared, having been notified by some people who had witnessed the killing.
Apparently some dogs had gotten loose on the beach and had chased it down from the hill. They then proceeded to terrorize it on the beach, eventually killing it and tearing its head from its body. The farmer did not seem all that upset as apparently, it wasn’t a common occurrence; (I thought, “plenty more where that came from.”)
Despite this disturbing incident, we managed to have a delightful time exploring a series of tide pools bursting with exotic sea life. The fun continued when we cruised to another beach bordered by an immense sand dune. We had a ball skittering down the slippery sand onto the beach. Exhilarated, I proceeded to turn a few cartwheels.
We inched our way up another enormous sand dune interrupting a pair of young lovebirds at the top who had mistakenly thought they had discovered a secluded love nest. They waited quietly while we shot our photos of the ocean then began our descent before picking up where they’d left off. Fortunately, we’d surprised them while they still had their clothes on.
As we drove to another lovely spot, the old truck suddenly conked out while attempting a steep hill. All was not lost however for once it was restarted, we hunted for cockles, which made a delightful addition to spaghetti and salad we prepared for our hosts that evening. If it hadn’t been for their son Miles, who had a nasty cold, coughing incessantly throughout dinner without covering his mouth, our stay would have been very pleasant indeed.
The next morning we departed for our next destination fervently hopeful no cold germs had came along for the ride. We were headed further north just past the small town of Kaeo expecting to stay with folks who owned a huge sheep and cattle ranch. Sandy drove us to the north edge where we planned to begin hitchhiking. Thus began the wildest day of our trip thus far…
Our first ride: a young fellow in a Rothman’s cigarettes van stopped. He said he could drive us up to Kaeo even though he wasn’t quite going that way. We couldn’t believe our luck; once again, an easy hitch...or so we thought.
Chris sat in the passenger seat while I was behind Chris. The van was filled with cartons of cigarette cartons; I idly calculated how much money would shortly be going up in smoke. Chris asked how he felt about driving so much considering all the crazy drivers.
“I know what you mean,” he admitted, “I’ve seen some really crazy things on the road. I keep a camera in the glove box in case somebody hits me and tries to claim it was my fault.”
“Why do you suppose everyone drives so fast here?” I asked. “After all, what’s the rush?”
“You know, that’s a good one.” he said frowning. “It just seems to be the way of the road here. I for one love driving and as a matter-of-fact, race off-road rally cars in my time off. I really enjoy it and it helps to keep me sharp.” Naturally, he was driving well over the speed limit but I didn’t feel all that nervous for a change since he appeared to have a good command of his vehicle.
We sped around a bend; ahead a car about to cross the intersection about a hundred metres a head, pulling out in front of us. We certainly were going to crash into it in mere seconds. Then a skillful bit of manoeuvring on our driver’s part saved us from certain disaster. Somehow, he managed to veer left around the car, ran over a small sign, but kept two wheels on the shoulder of the road, even as the other two dangled over the precipice of a culvert. Then, before we knew it, all four wheels were back on the road whereupon, our wonderful driver screeched to a halt causing the van to spin completely around so we were facing the scene of our near disaster.
“Holy shit!” gasped Chris, “That was close!”
“Is everyone O.K.?” asked our driver turning around to check how I was doing.
“Yeah!” I replied shaken, “but I’ve never been more scared in my life!”
“That was some serious driving man!” exclaimed Chris. “You were great!”
“Thanks,” he acknowledged. “Now let’s go back there and find out just who in the hell nearly killed us!”
The car had finished its turn and was parking at the gas station we'd flown passed.
We pulled up as an old white-haired man slowly unfolded himself from the driver’s seat.
“See here!” exclaimed our driver. “Didn’t you see us? You almost killed us and yourself back there!”
“Oh!” the old man replied somewhat dazedly, “I thought you were further away! Well, I didn’t hit you, did I?”
“No, you didn’t!” our driver exploded, “But you would have if I hadn’t seen you in time and gone around you!”
“Well, I did have my turn indicator on so you should have known I was coming!” the old man insisted.
“You’re supposed to wait until traffic is past before you start – ”
The old man began to tremble and shuffle his feet.
“Oh, never mind.” Our driver gave up realizing the futility of trying to explain to the old guy what had nearly happened.
We just couldn’t our ears. I was still flashing on how I had been gripping the railing which ran along the back of the front seat as if I were rounding a particularly terrifying section of roller coaster track, my eyes fixated on the old man’s gaping mouth, clearly visible as we veered perilously close to his car.
The owner of the gas station explained the old codger occasionally drove over to pick up bread and cheese, as it was too far to walk (he used a cane); he had no one to help him. On one hand, we felt sorry for him as he had to eat, but on the other we felt angry as it was apparent that he was a road hazard.
There was no chance this old man should be driving. It wouldn’t be long, we were certain, before someone was killed due to his dangerous manner behind the wheel. We waited with our driver for the transportation officer to arrive and observe the scene of the accident. The old guy was trying to leave as he still felt he had done nothing wrong, but we managed to convince him he had to stay.
After about forty minutes, when we were able to marvel at tire tracks at the edge of the culvert, a officer arrived. Our driver realized his van, which appeared relatively unscathed, needed to return to Wangerei for a checkover as the undercarriage might have been damaged running over the sign. This meant Chris and I were on our own once more so we stuck out our thumbs after thanking our driver (we never did learn his name) for his trouble.
Two minutes later, we were thankful to land another ride. We were still freaking out over that close call, wondering how we found the nerve to climb into another car so quickly. We were fixated on getting to our next destination however and, to quote an old cliche, one has to climb back on after falling from a horse. After only a short lift, we were let off at a junction about 40 km from Kaeo.
Over an hour later, someone finally stopped, a potter in his little pickup crammed with terra cotta pots out for delivery. There was no room in the bed of the truck for our packs so we perched them on our laps, an almost impossible task as they were very fat.
(Pro tip: bring a small pack or bag; the bigger the bag the more you can stuffit, making it crazy heavy to carry.)
I could see the driver only if I craned my neck. He could only drive us 6 km as he was turning but we didn’t mind really as we were so uncomfortable. Our new hitching spot turned out to be a total dud; we waited in vain for two hours before walking to the next junction, several miles down the road; we fervently hoped this would provide a better hitching spot.
After trudging for an hour, becoming frustrated as traffic whizzed past, a nice man from Auckland picked us up. He worked in a retirement bungalow in the northland, was supposed to meet someone in Kaeo, which meant we at last had a ride to our destination. We were able to relax somewhat in his spacious car although his speedy driving kept us partially on edge.
The scenery was stunning: the home of the Chinese gooseberry, known the world over as the Kiwi fruit. A group of farmers had made a fortune off the Kiwi craze; the New Zealanders were the first to market the fruit but currently farmers today were late to the party. Too many farms given over to the fruit even as other markets – South America in particular- saw the Kiwi as a way to make money.
After we all we had been through to arrive in Kaeo, we were a frazzled pair when I phoned our intended hosts. To add insult to injury, we were informed we were no longer welcome, as they had received unexpected guests: a real no-no on their part as we had given them 48 hours notice as requested by SERVAS and they had indicated there would be no problem.
“You can stay in the youth hostel,” Mrs. Dahl said, “it’s only about 5 km up the road.”
Five kms in the middle of nowhere...the last straw I thought mournfully.
Then Chris had the brilliant idea of asking her whether the other Dahl’s listed in the SERVAS guide were relatives.
“Oh yes,” she replied promptly, “they’re our in-laws. They’re right next door.”
Now why she hadn’t thought of asking them to put us up was beyond me. I then asked her if we could stay with them.
“They might not mind,” Mrs. Dahl thought, “why don’t you call them?”
I should have asked her to call since, by rights, it was her problem, but for some reason, (perhaps the events of the day had taken their toll), I thanked her and hung up. Chris offered to make the call as I was distraught. The elder Mr. Dahl invited us to stay but did not offer to pick us even though Chris indicated we were hitchhiking and it might be a while before we showed up.
“Now what?” I asked Chris despondently after he hung up the phone, “They’re 10 km away!”
“Well, let’s eat,” he suggested, “when the going gets tough, the tough chow down!” There was an inviting looking teahouse near where we had been dropped off. We dragged ourselves back, rewarded with delicious egg sandwiches and superb scones with thick fresh cream. Feeling much better we were ready to tackle the road again.
But we couldn’t catch a ride. Would this day ever end?
After almost an hour, I returned to the tea house which also doubled as an information booth to inquire about accommodation in town. Our hopes of getting to the Dahl’s before dark were growing thin.
Nothing was available in town and the hostel was actually 8 km away; we were becoming more discouraged by the minute. The fellow running the restaurant said he could give us a lift to the hostel in about half an hour if we hadn’t gotten a ride yet.
Almost an hour later, we still hadn’t snagged a ride and the teahouse manager still hadn’t closed up yet. Chris called the Dahl’s again to let them know we were still in town and would likely stay at the hostel as we were sure of a ride there. It was now past five (we’d started the 60 km journey at ten that morning).
“The menfolk are all out for the time being,” Mrs. Dahl senior reported, “so we can’t come for you. Once you get to the hostel, you’ll almost be at our house.” She proceeded to offer directions.
“Perhaps you could send out a search party if we don’t make it before dark.” Chris suggested.
As if to rub in the kind of day we were having, another hitchhiker was dropped off just up the road from us, then picked up after a short wait by a women driving a large roomy station wagon who'd flown past us without a look.
Then, when the restauranteur was just about ready to leave, lo and behold, a car stopped! It was a tight squeeze as the driver had a load of wood poking through the back of his wagon out the passenger window but at least he got us to the hostel road.
Following directions from Mrs. Dahl, we walked up the road for about five minutes when an approaching car stopped; a man asked if we were headed to the hostel.
“No,” Chris replied, “We’re headed for the Dahl’s.”
“Well, you’re headed in the wrong direction.” the driver announced. “Good thing you weren’t planning to go to the hostel. We just closed it for the season.”
“How much would one night cost if it were open?” Chris asked.
When we were informed it would have been ten dollars each; we were still stuck on Fiji prices where twenty dollars fetched a deluxe room or fully equipped cabin.
We hadn’t walked more than a few metres when a truck appeared, the driver insisting we hop in even though we told him we were only going a mile until we reached the dirt road which led away from the next town. Where was he when we were stuck in Kaeo?
When he dropped us off, we still weren’t sure we were going in the right directions as the land marks did not match Mrs. Dahl’s description. We were feeling the events of the day; in other words we were frazzled.
We flagged down a slowly moving van full of blood-spattered men who explained they'd been butchering sheep. After deliberating, they determined we were indeed heading in the right direction but needed to make a turn at the fork. Off we trudged more confused than ever. The hostel owner said to turn right when we had climbed two hills. We were at the bottom of the first hill (a big one of course) and there was a sort of fork so we turned right.
It turned out to be a bum steer so back we went.
Near the top of the next hill, we stopped to ask some beekeepers if they knew where the Dahl’s lived. They insisted they had no clue, then resumed their work.
“Perhaps those aren’t actually human beings under those bee hats.” I suggested to Chris who almost cracked a smile. "We better ask at the next house." This required walking down a short lane bounded on both sides by large trees. The occupant of the house assured us we were indeed headed in the right direction.
Encouraged, we started back down the lane. A car heading away from the direction we were going sailed by as we approached the road. The old man at the wheel did not glance in our direction; by the time we reached the road, he was out of sight Since this was such an isolated road in the middle of nowhere, we were certain it was Mr. Dahl senior come looking for us.
“Perhaps he’ll turn around before we’ve gone too much further,” I suggested hopefully.
“I doubt it.” replied Chris gloomily. “The way this day’s been going, he’ll probably go back another way.”
We continued plodding up yet another hill our damn packs heavier with every step. The sole of Chris’ left sneaker had ripped after Auckland. If we hadn’t been so tired and upset we likely would have found this funny. Now, all we could think of was that it was a fitting addition to the trials of our day.
Before departing on our around the world odyssey, we read in one of the many travel books we consulted that the word travel originated from the french travail or work. This was becoming crystal clear to us as we spotted what we assumed was the Dahl farmhouse.
But instead of shouting for joy, we were depressed, expecting the worst, imagining the Dahl’s unhappy having to put us up, that we were intruders.
It was close to seven o’clock and completely dark; I was at my wit’s end. Chris was somewhat calmer, figuring that since we had our tent, if rejected by the Dahl’s, we could always camp out. We took five minutes to boost our sagging spirits, then, somewhat more collected, found our way to their front door.
The Dahl’s had just sat down to dinner when as appeared. Much to our relief, they hurriedly ushered us in and asked us if we liked some tea. While we would have much preferred to have shared the delicious looking dishes of food arranged on their table, we did not want to appear ungracious.
We sat down at their table whereupon they urged us to fill our plates. Momentarily confused, I gratefully attacked my food with gusto. Chris and I made short work of roast mutton with gravy, baked potatoes, carrots, salad and fresh bread.
Mr. Dahl revealed he was indeed the driver of the car that had passed us as we headed down that lane.
“I probably might have looked down the lane except my attention was caught by some beekeepers just up the road.” More sinister evidence, I thought, as to the dubious occupants of the beehats.
Mr. Dahl (“Call me Norm”), also admitted, as suspected, he had returned to his farm by another road, thinking perhaps we might have taken it as originally recommended.
Over dessert of fresh fruit, I asked our hosts, why they had asked us when we first arrived, if we wanted to have some tea.
“Because you looked hungry of course!” replied Mrs. Dahl with a perplexed smile.
“But I thought you meant a cup of tea!” I confessed with a laugh.
This caused our hosts to dissolve into fits of laughter.
As we had explained most of our dreadful day over dinner, Mrs. Dahl, catching a breath between chuckles, exclaimed, “You poor dears! Didn’t you know that tea meant the evening meal? I bet you thought we were going to make you sleep out in the barn with the horses too!”
Little did she know how close to the truth that was!
Down On The Farm
The next morning, the Dahl’s were up early to town town, encouraging us to help ourselves to anything we’d like for breakfast. Their 1,000 acre sheep and cattle farm provided much of their food. We feasted on fresh eggs from their chickens, milk from their cows, toast from home-made bread, and freshly squeezed juice from oranges and grapefruits plucked from trees behind their house.
We were feeling considerably better.
After breakfast, their daughter-in-law Meryl appeared to drop off mail. She and the Dahl’s son Warren lived in the old farmhouse across the road which, she explained, was the original family house, built by Norm’s father. Norm built a newer house fifty years ago before marrying Kitty. We couldn’t figure out why he hadn’t installed screens on the windows or doors; every night we had found an impressive assortment of flies, moths and bugs.
Meryl seemed pleasant enough; we were almost ready to forgive her for her gaff of the day before. Her husband was ill that day due to, as she put it, “the sprays." We asked her to explain; she revealed that he hadn’t been feeling well for quite some time from the sprays used on their crops.
“Doesn’t he use a mask?” I asked incredulously.
“No, no one does.” she replied matter-of-factly.
We discovered the Kiwis liberally applied DDT and 245T, banned in most countries linked to cancer and nerve damage. 245T, also known as Agent Orange, was employed in Viet Nam to defoliate the jungle to uncover their enemy. During the Vietnam (1962 and 1971), the United States military sprayed 77,000,000 litres (20,000,000 US gal) in South Vietnam as part of a defoliant program.
Numerous soldiers showed signs of nerve damage,eventually linked to poison exposure. The Kiwis liberally applied it to the gorse, a type of prickly hedge imported from England. It took hold like wildfire in the mild climate, literally, a thorn in the side of farmers, who hated its capacity to overtake their land. We heard a rumour: in order to annoy the white folks, Maoris allowed the gorse overrun their land, encouraging it to invade neighbouring white farmers properties. Goats can be employed to control its spread, but farmers preferred ‘the sprays’ as they are much more efficient- and deadly.
Warren, like his father Norm, had breathed in these poisons. The Dahl’s didn’t much like to talk about this much. To our amazement, it appeared they were resigned to the affects of ‘the sprays,' regarding the effects as part of farm life.
The following day, we joined Norm after breakfast for a ride on the tractor up the back forty to watch him handle the cattle. Chris took responsibility for opening the numerous gates. Quite a number of calves had just been born so Norm and his son Perry rounded them up along with their mothers to herd them in to separate pastures away from the others. One calf had only been born a couple of hours previous.
I helped Norm scream at the cows to prevent them from running down the side of the hill into the scrub. This was most enjoyable; I thought, what a great way to relieve tension!
Suddenly, a cow broke away from the herd and bolted downhill. Norm swung into action. Grabbing a big stick, he raced after it, brandished his weapon menacingly while hollering at the top of his lungs. The terrified runaway immediately scampered back up the hill.
“That’ll teach ‘im!” Norm declared with a satisfied grin. “These beasts know better than to mess with ol’ Norm!”
Back at the ranch, we sat down to a hearty lunch (a big part of Kiwi farm life we discovered is food; the wife is expected to provide meals like clockwork). Afterwards, Norm indicated he wanted to show us something if we accompanied him into town. Intrigued, we helped him shop for some groceries, then enjoyed superb ice cream, managing to trick Norm into letting us pay (these SERVAS hosts are too much!).
Any remnant of reluctance on the Dahl’s part at our staying with them (if indeed, they had had any) apparently, had long vanished.
Norm drove us to a forestry reserve near Keri Keri to have a look at colossal Kauri trees, comparable in age and size to California sequoias, more than 1,000 years old, fifty-five metres high with trunks sixteen metres around! They’re easily recognized by their tall columnar trunk, massive, heavily branched crown, and thick, leathery leaves.
Maoris carved these trees into huge war and travel canoes, accommodating up to eighty paddlers. European settlers soon discovered them for home construction, while entire trees were employed as masts for schooners due to their tendency to grow straight as an arrow.
In the early 1800’s, the kauri dominated forest vegetation, covering over three million hectares on the north island. By the end of that century, less than a quarter of the kauri forests remained.
Walking amongst these giants was a spiritual experience; these trees had been alive before the earth was proven to be round. Yet a chain saw could wipe out their story in minutes.
We never would have found them without our hosts.
All too soon, it was time to hit get truckin’ once more; but first, it was imperative to enjoy a final rib-sticking breakfast. Coupled with a reluctance to resume hitchhiking once more, Chris and I were also loathe to leave behind farm fresh goodies. As we were headed to another farm in Ohaiwe, only about 30 k south, we were hopeful the menu would be duplicated.
Our departure was considerably smoother than our arrival. Kitty kindly arranged a ride with the bookmobile librarian who had arrived after breakfast for his weekly visit. As she walked us out to the van, I took the opportunity to attempt to explain how much we appreciated their hospitality.
“Kitty, we can’t thank you enough for making our stay so pleasant and for accommodating us at the last minute.”
“We were so glad to have you,” she replied warmly, “it’s a pity you have to leave so soon. It seems as if you just got here!”
“I think this whole experience has taught us a good lesson.” Chris asserted. “Sometimes the best places are the hardest to get to. We’ll have to keep that in mind for the rest of the trip!”
Perched on the floor of the ‘library’, our eyes flitted greedily over nearby book titles while we chatted with our amiable driver. He didn’t fit our ideal of a librarian, more like a high school football player. He revealed he’d been providing reading material for out-in-the-boonies local residents for a couple of years, a service he quite enjoyed.
After being deposited by the bookmobile at a bridge near the highway, we landed another ride immediately, let off near the same spot where we were stuck not three days ago. We watched wordlessly as a young couple were dropped off on the other side of the road, then began hitching towards Saise; they landed a ride in ten minutes. Then, our luck changed, we were picked up by a housewife driving a new Mitsibushi who dropped us off at a store in Ohaiwe, where the Bedggoods, our next hosts indicated we could find directions to their house.
The store’s proprietress appeared confused by Chris’ accent, even as he clearly repeated his request for directions, she seemed distracted. We quickly discovered that her directions were erroneous. She instructed us to turn left just past the store and walk 800 metres down a dirt road where we would find the Bedgood’s house on the left. We walked about a thousand metres thinking perhaps she had underestimated but seeing no house, decided to turn back and try the other way.
Not far along the road in the other direction, a car stopped and a white haired old man cheerily called through the window, “Where are you aiming for?”
We informed him of our intent to find the Bedgoods whereupon he replied, “There are a lot of Bedgoods in these parts. In fact, they first settled here 120 years ago. Not sure where Joy and Ernie live though.” he concluded with a slight frown.
We thanked him anyway for his interest and continued on our way. Not a couple of metres later, he suddenly turned the car around and came back. “I know where they live!” he announced triumphantly. “Come with me and I’ll take you there.”
The memory of our near brush with death due to the erratic driving of another senior was still fresh but the old guy looked so earnest and excited we didn’t want to disappoint him, especially as he had taken the trouble to turn around.
We folded ourselves into his spiffy little car which he explained he had just purchased having traded in a much larger model. As he chattered happily about the excellent gas mileage he was getting and about local facts of interest, we soon realized he was taking us in a direction opposite to where we felt we should be heading. We kept quiet however since our driver appeared to be quite enjoying himself.
“I’m half French you know,” he revealed earnestly, “so I can show my feelings. Father couldn’t and died regretting the fact he couldn’t tell his children how much he loved them.”
Discovering we were Canadian, he hooted and told us how he almost went to Canada to serve in the RCMP. “I knew I couldn’t live without the girl who I met on the train in England. So, I decided to marry her and emigrate to New Zealand instead of serving five years with the RCMP in Canada. Couldn’t bear the thought that all I would see would be dogs and snow while my sweetheart was down under.” he said with a chuckle. “Well, I’ve been here over fifty years. I’m eighty-four now and the doctor said he can’t find a thing wrong with me except my knees.”
We noticed he wore a hearing aid but aside from that, he did appear spry and considerably younger than his years. We were almost sorry when, after following fresh directions from a woman collecting eggs, we spotted the Bedggood name on a mail box; it was time to part company from our charming companion.
The Bedggoods seemed surprised to see us so soon but welcomed us to join them for some lunch. Joy had to rush off to visit a sick friend so after getting settled in, Ernie took us on a tour of his property. Their modern house was situated on a well landscaped lot and rolling green hills provided a lovely backdrop. Our first stop on the tour was at the paddock near the house where Ernie kept his steer.
“This is Manfred,” he said fondly stroking a huge, chocolate coloured bull. “After Mr. Black died, I found this fella. I had Mr. Black for over five years until I had to be send him to the factory when he got sick.” Ernie’s hand momentarily paused on Manfred’s neck.
“When I bought Manfred, I soon realized he was quite tame so was happy to find I had a new pet.”
Ernie encouraged us to stroke Manfred insisting he wouldn’t hurt us. We gave him a few gingerly pats before stepping back to get a shot of Ernie lovingly carressing his huge pal. We left Manfred with his friends then strolled though Ernie’s spectacular ornamental flower garden. Inspecting the inground pool, we suddenly heard D, Ernie’s dog began barking frantically.
“Looks like he’s found himself a possum.” Ernie declared when we went to investigate.
Sure enough, way up in a tree, we could just discern the fuzzy shape of a very frightened critter. Ernie quickly retrieved his trusty shotgun and with a well aimed blast, blew the poor little bugger’s head clean off.
“Now D can have some nice warm possum for his tea!” Ernie proclaimed proudly.
Our ‘tea’ consisted of mutton, the New Zealand dinner staple. It appeared we wouldn’t be savouring fresh eggs or butter here as the Bedggood’s raised steer, but we were more than satisfied with the fare. We still found it incredible we were receiving free food and accommodation. We attempted to repay our hosts by doing the dishes, helping with meal preparation and assisting them with household tasks but still felt our efforts were woefully inadequate.
After the initial “getting to know you” period, our hosts decided we were a likeable couple then proceeded to overwhelm us with hospitality. Perhaps, when we revealed we were on our honeymoon, they wanted to make our stays special.
The Bedggoods were no different. Despite perceived reluctance on Joy’s part when Chris had called to arrange our visit, any reservations vanished upon our arrival.
The next day, she drove us to the nearby Naptha Springs so we could enjoy a soak. Discovered by the Maori centuries ago, these natural, bubbling thermal pools were open to the public to enjoy and/or benefit from. Rich in minerals (especially sulphur which permeates the air for miles around), the small rectangular pools are categorized by temperature and benefit.
People with skin disease, rheumatism, arthritis or broken bones come from far and wide to soak in the opaque green pools in hopes of finding some relief. I’m quite sure the heat must have been beneficial to one’s aches and pains (the hottest pool registered 41º C) but I’m not sure about the claim to treat skin disease.
The old woman running the pools volunteered that she usually took a soak two or three times a day yet her face was beet red and looked rough as sand paper. She had virtually no eyebrows or eyelashes and when one stared her straight in the eye, one had the disconcerting sensation of looking at someone wearing a very life-like mask.
Chris enjoyed his dips but I declined as the rain and the cool temperatures made me reluctant to change into my bathing suit. Afterwards, Chris smelled like an old fart – even his clothes reeked although he insisted he couldn’t smell a thing. Eventually, his fumes drove us to the brink and Joy tactfully convinced him to take a shower and change his clothes.
Next Stop: New Zealand, Part 2