The Kindness of Strangers, Part 2
Updated: Jan 20, 2021
New Zealand, 1986
by Elaine Weeks
If you’ve got a dead caravan or trailer, For its chassis and wheels I will pay yer, Can be in derelict nick, So buzz me real quick Keri 78-152. What say yer? And I’m desirous of buying or pinchin, A genuine antique old boat engine, For a 14′ clink, Before she do sink, If you’ve got one a deal we’ll be clinchin. Classified Ad from the Northern News, Oct. 9, 1986
One of the many charming things we noticed about the Kiwis was their way with words. Like the Aussies, they employ unusual or, amusing terms for everyday items. Instead of a beer cooler, they say “chilly bin”, city is “big smoke”, “crook” for ill and “fair dinkum” means “honestly, it’s true”. “Putting on the billy” means “put the kettle on”, a gravel road is known as “metal” while a paved road is called “sealed”. If you’ve had a car or bike accident, then you’ve had a “prang”.
Combined with their accent, we occasionally had to do some quick decoding to figure out what the heck they were talking about. For example, “Yiss, so Oi sayid to the bastard, ‘She’ll be roight thinn!’ and thinn Oi bludged a ciggie.” Translation: “Yes, so I said to the guy, ‘Everything will be O.K.’ and then I asked for a cigarette.”
Early on in the campaign, as previously described, we were stumped by the Kiwi’s use of the word “tea” which does also refer to a cup of tea or, as they put it, “a cuppa”. And, then there was the mysterious "metal road". Since we hitchhiked between the SERVAS homes we had pre-arranged to stay in, we often found ourselves trudging along the highway after being dropped off by a ride, looking for the road or lane our next host had instructed us to turn down. One time we were told to look for a "metal road", and that created a real quandry for us.
"Where the hell is it?" Chris groaned.
"I don't see any kind of road that looks metal," I sighed. "Who knows?"
"All I want to do is get to our next place and not be stuck on the side of the highway looking for a non-existent metal road," he added.
"I hear ya," I said. "But all that's here is a gravel road. Should we try it?"
"I guess we have no other choice," he said. "Let's just hope we aren't going down the path less travelled."
Well, were we ever relieved when we discovered our host's home along that non-existent metal road. We just had to laugh and shake our heads when we discovered that for some reason, that's what the Kiwis call gravel roads.
Eventually, we got used to the Kiwi jargon and were soon adding it to our own repertoire.
Bay Island Dreaming
Servas Travellers. Welcome. Make yourself at home. I’ll be home Monday. Stay Monday night if you wish. Florence M.
By the time our two-day visit with the Bedggood’s was over, we were certain they were ready to adopt us. The day of our departure, they insisted on taking us to lunch and driving us to our next host in the famous Bay of Islands. Chris and I were overwhelmed by their generostiy and tried to resist their efforts, but they were determined.
“Ernie and I want to see you get to at least one place without getting stranded for hours.” Joy explained. “Besides, we don’t mind and we’ll enjoy the outing.”
How could we refuse!
When that lovely couple dropped us off at Florence Morrison’s house in the Bay of Islands, we repeated our thanks promising to send them lots of photos.
There was no sign of anyone at the house, even though the front and patio doors were wide open, and the stereo was blaring. We waited awhile thinking perhaps her son, whom she had said would likely be around, might have gone out for a bit and was soon to return. After about fifteen minutes, we wondered whether we were at the right place, but upon discovering the key under the designated flower pot by the front door, we decided to venture inside.
A welcoming note from Florence awaited us on the kitchen table; this was definitely the place. Nothing like arriving at a complete stranger’s home who wasn’t going to be there for two days and being urged to make oneself at home.
It was a nice change to have some time to ourselves so Chris and I putzed around getting settled and then I decided to make some peanut butter cookies, a treat I had been craving for months. As if on some kind of radar, Don, Florence’s son arrived with his little flaxen haired, bespectacled son in tow. A nice warm “bickie," fresh from the oven, almost made up for the absence of Nana.
We were quite enchanted with our new surroundings: Florence’s house overlooked the bay and a splendid view of harbour, boats, islands and mountains. Chris and I spent a day investigating the quaint town of Russell, formerly known as Kororaeka, located on one of islands in the bay. Russell’s claim to fame as the first liquor licence issued in New Zealand at The Duke of Marlborough Hotel. It also boasts a church built in 1835, the oldest still standing in the entire country.
Quite a change from rolling green hills, cattle and ever present sheep. New Zealand is home to over 70 million of them (23 times the number of people!); we'd become inured to seeing sheep almost everywhere. They were even grazing on the tarmac when we'd landed at Auckland! Kiwis never seemed to tire of mutton (some farmers ate it at every meal), but we were beginning to pine for something a little more exciting.
When Florence appeared two days later, we were pleased to have some company again and also happy to see fish she'd caught up north. After a delicious of dinner of snapper which Florence deep-fried in a tasty beer batter, she took us to see the glow worms living in banks of earth about a block from her home. The bright moon made it difficult to see many worms (actually, gnat larvae), but the night was magical and it felt great to be alive.
Back at Florence’s, son Don entertained us with outrageous tales of “gully jumping," a death defying sport where crazy Kiwis leap down steep sandy cliffs and dunes. An avid jumper himself, he produced some photos as proof. We were amazed at the height of the cliffs.
“Yeah, we go off some pretty high ones,” Don admitted. “I think I’ve jumped down some that have been around five hundred feet. Some people have broken their legs or arms, but it’s all part of the game,” he insisted.
Some game, I thought. I think I’ll stick to volleyball.
The next morning, we bid adieu to Florence and headed off to Leigh, a small town further south. Our first ride of the day was with a pair of young Maori girls and a small baby. They picked us up after a fifteen- or twenty-minute wait on the highway having been passed by the usual assortment of housewives, farmers, fellow travellers, truckies and salesmen.
Their car was in pretty rough shape and I was quite alarmed by the speed we travelled, especially as the baby was not encased in a car seat, but sat beside her mother with her head tucked into her mum’s armpit. Consequently, the baby’s mother drove with her left elbow sticking out (the Kiwis drive on the other side of the road) which made negotiating the curves (and there were many!) tricky.
After a quiet though harrowing ride, (I’m sure they were as curious about us as we were about them, but conversation was kept to a minimum, as I didn’t want to distract the driver!), the girls let us off on the main highway. Another hitchhiker was there too, so we politely let him attempt to get a lift first. After fifteen long minutes, he was still there. He was a rather unsavoury looking character with long hair and dirty jeans and jacket so we figured he never would get a ride with a killer hitchhiker on the loose. (Maybe it was him!)
We were starting to get restless, especially since it was starting to rain, so abandoned etiquette and stuck out our thumbs. A friendly truck driver stopped and we climbed on board half thankful there was no room for the other hitcher. It was a good thing we weren’t in a hurry as road work held us up for another forty-five minutes.
We joked with our driver about the “hardly working” men who leaned on their shovels while watching the only active guy we could see operate a giant steam roller.
“Wow, they’re busy!” remarked Chris with a laugh. “I think this scene can be found in every western country in the world.”
“They’re probably getting paid by the hour!” I smirked.
After stopping in Warkworth for lunch on the banks of a small clear river, we were picked up by a tap dance teacher who drove us right to our new hosts’ door. Betty greeted us as we climbed the driveway to the house.
“Hellooo! Welcome! How was your journey? Are you hungry? How long can you stay? Would you like something to drink? What do you think of New Zealand?” she chattered.
We hadn’t even gotten into the house yet and I was beginning to feel a bit overwhelmed.
Husband Norris was sitting in the kitchen. He rose and extended his hand as we were introduced, and then settled back into his chair. Betty continued to talk while Norris sat in silence.
“Please, give me your jackets and sit down. You’re our first SERVAS guests in quite a while. The last ones we had were from Sweden, isn’t that right Norris?” Norris nodded his head.
“Well, I suppose I should let you see where you will be staying.”
We followed her down a hallway and she pointed out the bathroom and then opened the door to our room.
“Norris just built this house himself,” she explained proudly. “We used to live in a small farm house, but I said I always wanted a big new house so now I’ve got one.”
Norris had certainly done a fine job; the house was gorgeous. The rooms were spacious with tall ceilings and huge windows. Tongue and groove kauri, mahagony and pine panelling lined both the wide staircase to the second floor and the ceiling in the living room. Norris had owned a saw mill, which he had just sold having recently retired.
In the basement, a beautiful rec room sported an immense snooker table. After dinner that night, Chris enjoyed a couple of quiet games with Norris who proved to be a veritable shark. Meanwhile, I visited with Betty and daughter Jackie, the last of their children at home. Between the two of them, I practically didn’t have to utter a word.
The next day, Betty took Chris and I on a tour of their property. She had mentioned a waterfall the previous night and now was hankering to see it, as she hadn’t been in almost a year. She excitedly pulled bright red gum boots up to her plump knees and a shapeless yellow sweater over her flowered house dress.
“Come on then!” she urged. “Let’s get a move on!”
Along the way, she allowed us to briefly admire some adorable newborn black lambs. I cuddled a particularly cute one which obligingly nuzzled my neck. We then began following a small stream just beyond the paddock. Much to Betty’s delight, one of her cats had trailed us and picked his way carefully through the wet rocks that lined the stream bank.
Betty pointed out some wood pigeons which cooed in the branches directly over our heads. Perhaps I was hungry for I immediately envisioned their plump bodies sizzling on a barbecue. Likely, our daily diet of mutton was really getting to me.
Before I could begin fantasizing about munching on a pigeon drumstick, we arrived at the falls. I had been expecting a rather small display but was quite impressed by their size and grandeur. Shimmering rivulets of water cascaded down a cliff over forty feet high. A small deep pool glimmered invitingly at its base. If it had been warmer, Chris and I would certainly have taken a swim. Betty’s cat appeared disconcerted by all the noise and water and leaped into her arms where he clung trembling to her bosom.
We found it hard to believe such a beautiful spectacle was to be found on private property. Even Betty seemed surprised; for once she was speechless and stared at it in silence. The spell was broken when suddenly the cat leaped from Betty’s arms, having spied something of interest on the streambank. We took this was a cue and decided it best to head back, as it was growing dark.
“Here puss!” cried Betty as we started back down the stream. “Here puss, puss, puss!” But puss was intent on his quarry on the bank and would have nothing to do with us.
“Oh well,” sighed Betty, “I’m quite sure he’ll find his way back.” We continued on our way. As we approached the house, who should we see contentedly licking his paw?
Looking at us as if to say, “What took you?” sat puss. “How did he do that?” Chris exclaimed. “Oh, that’s not him.” replied Betty laughing, “That’s his sister – they’re twins.” And with that, the cat got up to saunter away, clearly displaying a healthy set of gonads.
“Well, I never!” shrieked Betty and we all burst into laughter.
The next day, Jackie drove us to a beach about four miles away. The previous evening, she had described how it was possible to hike from the marine research centre all the way back to Leigh along the coast. After spending a brief time admiring the beach, we began tramping, our cameras clicking constantly as we moved along.
High cliffs overlooked the ocean and at one point, we were able to carefully descend, via a narrow trail to flat outcroppings halfway down. The ocean boiled menacingly at their base and I was possessed by the sensation I feel when standing on a high balcony – unless I held myself back, I would fling myself over. I, for one, was glad when we were back on high ground.
Much to our consternation, we encountered a "No Trespassing/Private Property" sign halfway through our walk. Hoping to find a route which would lead us around the property without having to backtrack, we ended up trudging fruitlessly for over two hours, hopping fences and climbing up and down countless gullies.
At one point, we found ourselves atop a high hill, the town beckoning to us in the near distance. It appeared all we had to do now was aim for the harbour, but first it was necessary to plow through a thick bush straight down the hill. Emerging from the woods with several thorn scratches apiece, we discovered we were indeed near the harbour, but now had to follow a long road to get into town.
“My goodness!” cried Betty when we wearily stumbled into the house a while later. “I was nearly going to send out a search party! What happened? Let me put the jug on for some tea and tell me all about it!”
We soon felt better telling our kindly host our sorry tale over cups of steaming tea and before long, we were all laughing over our predicament. That evening, after hot baths and dinner, I composed a limerick about our adventure for Betty’s guest book. An avid limerick collector, Betty also accumulated stamps and shells, plus had pen pals all over the world.
There once came a young couple to Leigh, To see what they could see of the sea, So they went for a stroll ‘Till they nearly grew old Though they made it back safely for tea.
The next day, we bid adieu to a sad Betty and were driven in record time to the main highway by Norris. Along the way, I had noticed Chris white knuckling it with each curve that was negotiated at dangerous speeds and during risky passes of slower (a relative term in New Zealand) cars.
Would we ever get accustomed to these Kiwi drivers?
Relieved to make it to our hitching spot safe and sound, we gratefully shook Norris’s hand good-bye. I think he was also sad to see us go as we had given him a break from Betty!
We were headed back to Auckland for a couple of more days before crossing over to the South Island. Our new hosts were an older couple whom we had written while in Fiji as a backup in case staying with Linda and Ian didn’t work out. Before leaving for our tour of the north, we called them to let them know we had stayed elsewhere; they insisted we stay with them on our trip back through Auckland.
The Buchanan’s key was in the mailbox as instructed and a note awaited us on the kitchen table:
Chris & Elaine, We won’t be home till about 6:45 p.m. I have organised the evening meal, but it won’t be till about 7:45 p.m. So have a snack out of the frig. (cheese, eggs, etc. etc. – cold sausages!) Bread on bench.
Till then, Norah & Murray
Home made beer in fridg! Also homemade lemon squash in the bottom of door of frig. (cordial – add water) P.S. Our friend Dover from up north may arrive today as well!
Once again, we marvelled at the generosity of these SERVAS hosts.
Their house was big and modern – two floors, four bedrooms, a bathroom on each floor. We deduced that our quarters was downstairs and realized it would almost be like having our own flat. We made ourselves comfortable until Norah and Murray came home. They were quite bedraggled having played in a croquet tournament all day.
“You wouldn’t believe how mental croquet is!” Norah exclaimed. Pushing back a damp strand of gray hair she continued, “Today, it was even more of a test because it kept raining off and on. Murray, could you fix dinner? I’ve just got to have a bath.”
Helping Murray with food preparations, we were amused to hear Norah trill from the bathroom, “Murray! Could you please bring me my garlic and beer in here!” Seeing our looks of surprise, Murray explained sheepishly, “We always swallow a clove of garlic a day. We’ve been doing it for years and we’re positive it keeps us healthy.”
Whatever turns you on, I thought.
Since the Bucanan’s kept winning their croquet matches, we barely saw them during the three days we stayed. We had hit it off right away the first night, chatting at the table like long lost friends. Murray made sure our beer glasses were not empty for long.
We were so shocked when, on the morning we were to leave, Norah proceeded to lecture us at breakfast. “As SERVAS travellers, I think you should know a few things. It’s for your own good. First of all, I didn’t appreciate you using the washing machine without permission. It’s a very temperamental machine and often breaks down, but I’m used to and can work it without any problems. Secondly, you should have not cooked that pork steak the night we ate at our friends.”
Chris and I couldn’t believe our ears. As usual, while staying with the Bucanan’s, we had attempted to be courteous, thoughtful guests, washing dishes, setting tables, helping with dinner, and making sure we cleaned up after ourselves. We sat dumbstruck until finally I piped up and attempted to defend our actions.
“We’re very sorry Norah, if we did anything wrong. We didn’t think there would be any problem with us using your washer, as other hosts hadn’t minded at all. Since you didn’t come home until several hours after we arrived the first day, and as it looked like rain, I thought I’d better go ahead and wash especially since I knew I’d have to hang things up outside as you don’t have a dryer. Maybe you should have a sign by your washer warning people not to use it.”
“I don’t have a sign up because I don’t think it’s necessary!” retorted Norah.
“Well, nothing happened to the washer, did it?” I asked.
“Well, no,” she replied, “but that’s not to say something couldn’t have gone wrong.”
I didn’t even bother to explain about the meat since we had obviously received mixed messages. Norah had invited us to look in the freezer for something to cook for dinner the night they were away. When we explained we wanted to buy some fish, she told us how to get a nearby fish store. We were disappointed to discover the store only sold expensive frozen fish, nothing fresh at all, but decided to blow the wad on a small piece of orange roughy.
When we got back, we realized the fish wouldn’t be enough so thought of checking out the freezer. Spotting some pork steaks, we picked out the cheaper one ($1.68), certain the Bucanan’s wouldn’t mind if we ate it.
I think Norah felt like she had done us some kind of service by attempting to ‘correct’ our behaviour. All she succeeded in doing however, was make us feel much like children being unjustly scolded by their parents.
Chris and I couldn’t wait to leave.
On the way to our next stop, a sheep station near the Waitamo caves, we tried to analyze what went awry in Auckland. Perhaps we really had done something wrong. But, no, we had behaved exactly as we had in other host’s homes. Maybe, if the Bucanan’s had been home more, they would have felt a little less like we were taking them and their home for granted. We decided it was best to forget this unpleasant episode – we were bound to have a bad SERVAS experience at some point after all.
We'd broken down and purchased a small Canadian flag to sew on my backpack. We had resisted using the flag as a security blanket up till now, but were tired of difficult hitching. During our travels through the north island, the degree to which the Kiwis loved Canadians had been made abundantly clear so we figured we might as well capitalize on it. In addition, we knew drivers would no longer fear we were hitchhiking killers if they saw we were actually harmless Canadian travellers.
The flag worked like a charm! We hadn’t even stuck out our thumbs when we were picked up immediately by a fellow who explained he had seen the flag and decided to give we Canadians a hand. His sister lived in Canada (in a town not 100 miles from us it turned out) so he had become a bit of a Canuck fan. He took us as far as the caves where we were shortly picked up a woman who was on her way to pick up a load of boy scouts.
“I never pick up htichhikers,” she confessed, “but when I saw your flag, I just knew you were all right!” We felt like kicking ourselves for not having bought one sooner.
The Frederickson’s lived on top of a high cliff. We could see their house from the road below but weren’t quite sure how to get up to it. Eventually, the driveway presented itself and our kind driver let us off. The key was in the front door (why bother to lock it? we wondered), but no one was home.
We decided to wait outside as we couldn’t see any notes in the kitchen and, as we were still smarting from our breakfast lecture, were loathe to take any liberties.
We enjoyed our wait ... we caught up in our journals while enjoying the impressive vista and finally, catching some warm rays. At the end of an hour, the Frederickson’s appeared with two daughters, one grandson and a Canadian farm trainee in tow. Over cups of tea, Chris and I could tell the Frederickson’s were good people who would pull no punches; the nasty events of the morning were thankfully, fading into distant memory.
We were delighted to learn that our quarters for the next two days was a caravan (trailer) parked by the garage. Even though we had to sleep on single beds separated by an immobile table, we were happy to have our own space again.
Our two days with the Frederickson’s passed quickly; we were on the go almost the whole time there. We decided to splurge and visit the Waitomo caves where we hoped we would finally get a good look at the mysterious glow worms.
Discovered centuries ago by the Maori, these limestone caves had become quite a tourist attraction in New Zealand. Still owned and operated by the Maori, the three caves each held their own special attraction; the Glow Worm Cave being described on their pamplets as “the eighth wonder of the world”.
Unfortunately, we arrived at tourist rush hour. We found ourselves part of a huge party of the blue rinse crowd, leisure-suited/sweat-panted Americans who climbed out of their tour bus and tottered over to the cave.
“Must be a good day for Americans!” our Maori guide announced as he collected our tickets.
“Must be, but we’re Canadian.” returned Chris.
“Oh, Americans, Canadians, same thing.” our guide laughed.
“Yeah,” retorted Chris, knowing how much the New Zealanders hate being mistaken as Australian, “Kiwis, Aussies, same thing!”
“Good one!” said the Maori and he continued collecting tickets chuckling to himself.
Even though we felt a bit like sheep meekly following our group along, Chris and I had to admit that the tour was worth every penny. A boat ride through the Glow Worm cave was the finale of the tour and was undertaken in absolute darkness. The worms glowed magically all around us, rather like looking at a clear starry night – Chris swore he could see the big dipper.
The spell was rudely broken when we disembarked. Several tourists bleated to our guide who was quietly paddling the boat back into the cave. “Turn around! Look at me!” so they could get a shot of a real-life Maori for their photo albums. Much to their disappointment, he did not oblige and quickly disappeared out of sight.
Chris and I felt embarrassed to be associated with a group of insensitive yahoos and fled as soon as we could.
Back at the house, we enjoyed tea and cream buns (a real treat: light as air pastry stuffed with thick, sweet cream), then accompanied John and Stan, the Canadian trainee, to the wool shed. They had been ‘dagging’ sheep all day.
“What’s ‘dagging’?” I asked innocently.
"Well,” replied a somewhat red-faced John, “it’s how we get the sheep ready for shearing. We cut off the turd clumps that stick to the sheeps’ behinds.”
“Sounds delightful.” I replied.
“There are a few other things I’d rather be doing,” admitted Stan with a sigh, “but at least, it only has to be done twice a year. Besides, pigs smell a lot worse!”
John got hold of a sheep and guided it in through the door of the wool shed by holding it’s head between his legs and half walking, half riding it. Once in the dim shed, John immediately began expertly shaving the animal using electric shears, which dangled from the ceiling on a long cord.
I watched in fascination, partly horrified at the sight of the poor sheep, which lay twisted between John’s legs, submitting to the indignity of being stripped naked. I could clearly see cuts in some of the harder to shave areas like the neck and underneath parts. I couldn’t help but feel like I was watching a rape. Freed from his ordeal at last, the terrified sheep was probably amazed it was still alive.
John grabbed another sheep which apparently hadn’t been dagged earlier and began cutting through the clumps of fur and dag. Suddenly, bright red blood shot three feet into the air, narrowly missing Chris who was just setting up for a photo.
John had cut the poor critter’s tail off! Normally, rubber rings are placed at the base of tail when the sheep are still lambs. This cuts off the blood circulation and, eventually, the tails drop off. Apparently, the wool stays cleaner if the tail is removed. This sheep had unfortunately been missed.
John snipped a few more tails while we stayed well out of range. Then, he slipped a ring around the balls of a ram, explaining how this made the meat taste better. This was almost enough to turn me into a vegetarian.
At dinner that night, mutton wasn’t on the menu thankfully, but we suffered through a meal of over cooked veggies and ‘minced beef with onion’ an insipid, crumbly meat loaf concoction.
Happily, dessert was delicious hot apple crumble served with ice cream. I was still so hungry, I could probably could have wolfed down three helpings but, our recent scolding still having a hold on me, politely declined even seconds.
Chris and I often moaned to each other how unimaginative the cooking in New Zealand was. Usually, the only high point of the meals we had eaten were desserts; Kiwis love their sweets and, the sweeter the better.
The second night we had stayed with the Beddgood’s, Joy had prepared not one, but three different desserts, each one better than the last. We feasted on fruit salad, spanish cream (custard with meringue topping) and best of all, sponge cakes cut into squares, dipped in warm liquid chocolate and then rolled in shredded coconut. In good form, I easily gobbled down fruit salad, custard and two squares in record time. All after a huge meal!
If only the Kiwis could work on the rest of the menu! So many British had emigrated to New Zealand, importing the unspectacular British cuisine with them, that it was rare to find even restaurants that served exciting food. The ones that did such as an Indonesian one Linda and Ian had taken us to in Auckland, were usually expensive and had toned down the spices somewhat to please the Kiwi’s timid palate.
Picking up a bag of spaghetti in a grocery store one day, Chris and I noted with amusement the serving suggestion, “Makes a Nice Change from Potatoes!” And anytime we bought a takeout sandwich or burger it was soggy with purple beets. How Kiwis love their beetroot!
Is There a Doctor in the House?
It would be a while before we would enjoy the kind of meals we loved: hot, spicy and bursting with seafood. In the meantime, we had a brief hiatus from the monotony of mutton and spuds when we arrived at the good doctor Ben’s house near Teranaki (or Mt. Edgemont as the non-Maori’s insist on calling it).
The doctor, just over 30, lived on the site of an old dairy, which had been converted a number of years previous, into an office, library, artist’s studio and photographer’s dark room. Ben lived in the original farm house while we stayed in an antique-filled cabin nestled in a lovely glen nearby.
Ben was thrilled to have us as we were his only SERVAS guests in the year he’d been involved in the association. He was even more pleased when we indicated we liked to cook in order to show our appreciation to our hosts.
“Stay as long as you want!” he offered with a smile, “I could use the company, I’ve been alone for too long.” Ben’s girlfriend, a photographer, was currently on her own extended trip in Europe.
That night, Chris cooked a delicious meal of home-grown turkey wings in a wine and cream sauce, served on a bed of brown rice. I tossed a crisp salad of vegetables plucked from Ben’s abundant garden.
Chris and I had the distinct impression we were going to like it here. Half complaining to Ben how we had grown weary of the constant diet of mutton and potatoes he countered, “When I travelled through the States a few years ago, staying with family and friends, all I ever seemed to be served for tea was steak and corn on the cob. Nothing to sneeze at really and the first couple of meals, I thought I’d died and gone to heaven, but it did get a bit boring by about the seventh time!”
Ben had chosen an alternative lifestyle, rejecting the traditional trappings of an established doctor such as the fancy car, big house and expensive toys. Instead, he lived simply, growing his own vegetables, raising turkeys and chickens which provided him with eggs and meat, baking his own bread, and driving a beat up old van.
Perhaps one luxury was the exotic peacocks which strolled about his property, adding their distinctive crows to the repertoire of farm animals.
Ben tried not to waste anything, feeding his chickens kitchen scraps, recycling his bottles and buying only what he couldn’t raise or barter for. A chicken would get him several pounds of cheese, a turkey, home-made beer or wine. His lawnmower was a goat, which we first encountered in the glen, contentedly munching a neat circle around the stake he was tethered to.
Staying with Ben was an enlightening experience. In addition to cooking and eating many of the foods we had been craving since our trip started in Fiji, and catching up on the three r’s: reading, ‘riting, and resting, we also absorbed a side of life hinted at when we stayed with Linda and Ian.
In addition to his simple, back-to-the-earth, living style, Ben was also involved with a local environment group. One night after dinner, he received a phone call from a reporter asking for his opinion of a government plan to install a second outflow into the ocean near town.
“What!” shouted Ben, “We only just got them to concede to major changes on the first one!”
Telling the reporter he’d have to get more information before making a statement, Ben hung up, a look of distress on his face.
“What’s an outflow?” I asked.
“It’s basically, a pipe which pumps waste out into the ocean.” Ben explained angrily. “The existing one is for an oil refinery which is located not far from town. It was threatening a mussel bed, not to mention the rest of the eco-system, and it took a long time for us to convince the powers that be, the need for treating the water before pumping it out.”
Ben paused, visibily struggling to control himself. “Now, they want to install a longer pipe figuring they can then pump untreated water further out since it won’t affect the shoreline. These idiots seem to think, that since our area won’t be affected by the sewage, then it’s perfectly all right to go ahead and pollute someone else’s space! Jesus!”
Chris and I found this a typical state of affairs. Even though we came from a heavily polluted environment, controls over dumping untreated waste into the Detroit River had largely been in place for at least thirty years. We had already recognized one serious concern in New Zealand, the use of the defoliant 245T to attack gorse. Hadn’t this government learned from the outside world the folly of heedlessly disposing wastes and contaminating soil and people with poisons?
But no, the old “drift away mentality” seemed firmly in place. As long as they couldn’t see any affects of letting their waste drift far out into the ocean, or see people dying from using the ‘sprays’, than why spend money on expensive or, slower alternatives?
It was Ben and his group’s difficult task to convince the government that this attitude would eventually come back to haunt them. We hoped Ben would persevere; from what we had seen of New Zealand so far, it would be a pity if yet another country was spoiled by a cavalier attitude towards the environment.
Our spirits rose when the next day, Ben took us to Sceats Berry Farm which sold frozen berries, berry juice and fruit wine. “I hope his Feijoan wine is ready,” said Ben. “He hasn’t had any in quite a while and I’m really craving some. It’s quite delicious.” Feijoas were a type of fruit imported from South America and now grown in the north island. We hadn’t seen any yet but had heard many times how wonderful they were.
Max, the owner of the farm appeared when we honked the horn, as the sign outside the shop requested.
“Ah, Ben!” he cried, “You must be after that wine. Well, it’s ready but the labels haven’t arrived yet. Come on inside and let’s have a taste.” Max quickly uncorked a bottle with a satisfying ‘pop’ and poured healthy samples all around.
“Mmm!” approved Chris. “Dry yet wet, with a fine bouquet. Reminiscent of a ’37 Rothschild.”
“Very funny!” said Max with a laugh.
“Really,” continued Chris, “this stuff is delicious. You’d hardly know it wasn’t made from grapes.”
“I was hoping you’d say that!” admitted Max and to our delight, graciously poured us all another round.
“That was so delicious,” declared Ben after we proceeded to empty the bottle, “I think I’ll buy four bottles. Also, give me four of the kiwi wine and I’ll take a gallon of boysenberry juice and a kilo of frozen raspberries.”
Whether free samples were a cunning sales tactic of Max’s or not, the expense had certainly been worth it. Even Chris and I, who had turned into veritable skinflints due to our measly travel budget, bought a bottle of the feijoan and wished we could somehow ship some back home. Unfortunately, Max didn’t have it distributed in North America yet.
During the first four days we had spent at Ben’s, the weather had been cloudy so we hadn’t had a peak at the volcano. On the fifth morning, we were awoken early by Ben excitedly shouting through the front door, “The mountain’s out!”
Chris wasn’t feeling too great so remained in bed while I threw on some clothes, grabbed the cameras and raced outside; I was not disappointed. There, framed against a brilliant blue sky, was a perfectly conical, snow capped volcano.
It was hard to believe it had been there all along.
Immediately after breakfast, the three of us drove towards it for a closer look. We then followed a trail upwards for over an hour in an effort to get some really good shots.
“Did you hear about the Japanese tourist in Taiwan?” Ben asked as we stopped to set up the tripod. “He was trying to get a picture of his friends near a gorge and kept stepping back to get a better angle.”
“Don’t tell me,” interjected Chris, “he fell off.”
“Yeah, it just happened last month.”
“I wonder if his film was developed.” I said mischievously. “Do you suppose it would have shown his friends reaching out to him with looks of horror on their faces?”
Unfortunately, the weather didn’t hold. A mist began to envelope the summit before we were able to get any decent exposures.
But all was not lost; Ben suggested we wet our whistles at the Egmont Steam Flour Mill. Located in nearby North Palmerston, the mill was built in 1868, and had been recently converted into a bar and eatery. Nothing like enjoying a fine New Zealand beer while steeped in local history we all agreed.
Chris had started to feel worse after our outing; swollen glands, light head and no energy. That evening, he managed to summon up the strength to prepare a lovely meal of pasta carbonarra but couldn’t eat as he was feeling so lousy. This was a sure sign that Chris wasn’t well. as I never saw him refuse a meal.
During the night, I woke up to cursing and wet sheets. Poor Chris was thrashing in agony and his burning body had soaked the sheets with sweat. I doled out some aspirin and water and Chris managed to get back to a fitful sleep.
Morning finally dawned though Chris did not feel much better. Ben advised him not to eat unless he was really hungry since eating nauseated him (gee Doc, why didn’t we think of that?) and to drink lots of fluids. He didn’t advise rest however, and Chris over did it helping out in the garden, managing to add a pinched nerve to his ailments.
Another sweaty night for the newlyweds (too bad this was only due to Chris’ fever). In the morning, Chris awoke to sore gums. Ben took a look, discovered some small ulcers and was able to at last diagnose Chris’ problem as a gum infection brought on by a new overly-stiff toothbrush. Antibiotics were prescribed by Ben and these reduced the swelling in Chris’ thyroid gland in his neck but he was still unable to eat. He watched mournfully over his mug of hot lemon and honey as Ben and I attacked our delicious lunch of fresh salad and grilled chicken. The only bright spot for Chris was he was bound to lose a few pounds accumulated during the trip thus far.
After a few days of rest and recuperation, Chris began to feel better and was feeling the urge to press on. We still had a few SERVAS stops before leaving the country and were starting to feel anxious to go somewhere more exotic.
‘Civilization’ definitely had its advantages: potable water, hot showers and high-speed travel, but it can get almost dull after awhile — too much like home.
Because of its climate, topography and culture, New Zealand, we decided, was like Canada, in miniature, circa 1960. Being an island cut off from the rest of the world, New Zealand was slow to change and some of the older denizens wanted it to stay a British colony.
They were suspicious of outsiders and even their own natives who many saw as meddlesome trouble makers who didn’t deserve the land they claimed was rightfully theirs. One Kiwi who had emigrated from England in 1964, put it like this:
“Captain Cook made one mistake when he discovered New Zealand. He shouldn’t have treated Maoris as equals. Should have knocked them all on the head. I’m not prejudiced mind you, [of course not] but the Maoris killed all the ones before them and if the Maoris had all been killed off, then we wouldn’t have the problems we have today.”
Stiff In Rotorua
We left Doctor Ben after nine days. Chris wasn’t completely cured but he no longer had fever and chills and the doctor declared him well enough to travel. Our next stop was the home of a funeral director (hopefully, this wasn’t an omen), his wife and infant daughter in Whanganui a town on the other coast across the island from Ben’s place.
Our new hosts had a beautiful home called “Burnablea”, which they had bought in a state of disrepair several years earlier and were steadily renovating.
Chris and I were their first guests even though they had belonged to SERVAS for quite some time. They confessed that people might have been put off at the thought of staying with a funeral director; we, however, had no qualms. Those squeamish travellers didn’t know what they were missing; our hosts made us feel very welcome and Murray proved to be a very amusing fellow despite his lugubrious occupation.
“How would you like a tour of the shop?” he asked the day after we arrived. The ‘shop’ was located right next door to their home, which meant Murray could pop in for lunch. How he managed to eat after embalming a corpse was a real mystery; obviously, like anything, one got used to it. We took Murray up on his offer, curious to see the other side of a funeral parlour, a spectacle most people wouldn’t be privy to while still alive.
In an macabre kind of way, (somewhat like visiting a haunted house, I thought), we found the tour quite fascinating. The embalming room was last and fortunately, empty. Chris and I listened in polite silence while Murray described the set-up. Above the metal embalming table was a come-along which allowed Murray to lift the bodies (or, as he called them, “the deceased”) without assistance. My eyes flickered over the blood-stained smocks hanging on the wall while Murray assured us how much he enjoyed his work.
“There’s nothing as rewarding as achieving a presentable looking corpse especially if one has been in a bad car accident. I know how much it means to the families to be able to see their loved ones as they remembered them.”
Definitely a noble occupation, I thought, but I wouldn’t be caught ‘dead’ doing it!
Murray was on call all weekend so he and Janet were unable to plan any outings for us. On Sunday, Murray was called to Rotorua to pick up a body and asked us if we’d like to come along. I was a bit reluctant at first though not because of the thought of a dead body accompanying us on the way back. Rather, I was concerned that the long drive (seven hours there and back) would be a bit excessive since Chris and I were planning to hit the road again the following day.
Then, realizing it would be a good opportunity to see some of the countryside, including a nearby range of mountains and volcanoes, agreed with Chris, that it would be a worthwhile adventure.
Once again, the day dawned dull and overcast. We left immediately after breakfast in a grey station wagon, which had been converted into a ‘meat wagon’. The three of us sat in the front seat; the rear seat had been folded down and a dark curtain hung to hide the cargo. Like every other Kiwi driver we had encountered so far, Murray proved to be a speed demon on the road. Consequently, we made good time to Rotorua after a couple of stops to admire the spectacular scenery.
We smelled Rotorua before we saw it. Home of world-famous thermal hot springs and “boiling” mud, Rotorua reeks of rotten eggs. Because of the poor weather, we paused only long enough to collect Mrs. Adams from her rest home. Despite the sulphur stink, I thought I detected another odour when Murray slid her into the back of the car. Chris said I was imagining things, but since his sense of smell is usually impeded by allergies, I kept the vent open the whole way home just to be on the safe side.
Mrs. Adams proved to be a very quiet passenger and we hardly knew she was with us for the three hour trip back. I had never driven with a dead person before, in fact, had not really seen one other than a quick peek during the few funerals I had attended. It was easy to forget there was another human being lying inside a body bag just behind our heads; Murray might have picked up a load of lumber for all we knew.
After Chris and I had disappeared into the house, Murray quietly slipped Mrs. Adams onto a gurney and rolled her into the funeral parlour. He planned to attend to her in the morning when he was refreshed.
“Nothing like bringing your work home with you!” I said to Chris in our room later night.
Leaving Whagerei the next day, we went on to Wellington for a brief stop and then journeyed to Christchurch in the south island to stay with an elderly couple in Christchurch. This was to be our last SERVAS stop in New Zealand and proved to be as auspicious an ending to our visit as the beginning.
Tom and Mary were very active in SERVAS and welcomed as many guests as would come. Some years, they told us proudly, they had over ninety travellers stay with them! To accommodate their guests, they had constructed a small apartment behind their house which despite lacking privy or kitchen, was extremely comfortable. I solved my nocturnal calls of nature by peeing in their garden figuring what they didn’t know wouldn’t hurt them.
We flew from Christchurch (we never did learn the fate of the killer hitchhiker although we did later find out that he was Canadian!!) to Australia where we had a brief visit with friends from university days. We probably should have vetoed this expensive stop and headed straight for Bali, especially as one of our friends was considerably less hospitable then our SERVAS hosts had been!
We were tiring of the western way of life and longed to dive back into exotic lands of mystery and enchantment. Consequently, we were bursting with anticipation and excitement when our jet touched down on the hot black tarmac of Bali airport.
At last! The real adventure was about to begin!
Next Stop: Beautiful Bali