2/21/14 – 3/3/14: Cape Reinga / Kaitaia, New Zealand
Seashells crunched below our tour bus as it barreled down Ninety Mile Beach toward Cape Reinga, the northern tip of New Zealand. Katie and I were on a day-tour that consisted of sand dune sledding and lunch at Tapotupotu Bay, but it was the beach cruising that had lured us in. There something about speeding headlong down a sandy beach in a gigantic bus that felt…unique. Our juggernaut got us to Cape Reinga in record time.
The picturesque lighthouse at the apex of New Zealand greeted us on a perfectly sunny day. The panoramic viewpoint overlooked glowing shades of blue and green intermingling as the Tasman Sea melded with the Pacific. It’s no wonder the Maori consider this a sacred place. Their ancestors believed this was where the souls of the dead crossed the sea and journeyed onward to their motherland. This was a beautiful place to reach for eternity, no question. The landscape was certainly beckoning our spirits. “Explore my hills!” it called. “Run along my shores!” If only. But, alas, we had a bus to board. Oh, the time constraints of a tourist.
Not only did we have a bus awaiting us, but we also had hosts anticipating our arrival in the nearby town of Kaitaia. My former boss, James, who happens to be a Kiwi, insisted we visit his parents and enjoy some authentic New Zealand hospitality. We were happy to oblige, so we stopped in to say a “howdy-do” to his folks.
Graeme and Brenda were incredibly welcoming people considering two strangers were entering their home. They’d heard good reviews from their son, thankfully, so they weren’t worried about dirty vagabonds sleeping in their guest room. And we were thrilled to meet them and hear all about our favorite country in the world – New Zealand.
As it turns out, Graeme and Brenda used to run a successful fishing operation in Kaitaia and were avid fishermen themselves. I, knowing absolutely nothing about fishing, enjoyed hearing their tales of fishing competitions along Ninety Mile Beach and the large hauls they’d catch with their infamous “torpedo.” When they offered the opportunity to witness their fishing torpedo in action, we jumped at the chance.
Next thing we knew we were driving Graeme’s SUV onto Ninety Mile Beach, popping open the back, and throwing that torpedo straight into the ocean. It wasn’t to sink any submarines, mind you, but to catch a few tasty fish. The “torpedo” is a battery-powered projectile that floats on the surface of the water. Once turned on, it heads out to sea for 1.5 kilometers dragging a long line with 25 hooks hanging straight down. We baited those hooks with squid as the line unfurled, hoping to entice some nibbles for supper.
After one hour we pulled the torpedo back in and turned up a whole bunch of nothing. Not exactly the results we were looking for, so we cast out a second time. Another hour passed, but this time those 25 hooks yielded a whopping one red snapper! Yes, just one fish out of 50 baited hooks. After all that time and (minimal) effort, you may think it wasn’t worth it, but you’d be wrong. Oh-BOY you’d be wrong!
Graeme taught us a thing or two about preparing red snapper that day. First, he told us you need to chill the fish first to let the meat set; you shouldn’t start cooking it right away. Second, he showed us the fastest way to fillet the fish.
After the fish setting and cleaning, he proceeded to cook the most delicious, delectable, and insanely-wonderful fish and chips we’ve ever had in our lives! (And trust me, we’ve had a lot.) We were so full we had to turn down a second helping of dessert (which was, obviously, for the best). It was hard to leave such wonderful accommodations the next day, but we were committed to WWOOFing for our food for the next week.
You may be wondering what WWOOFing is. Well, when you travel in backpacking circles you learn that WWOOFing is the holy grail for any budget traveler willing to get their hands dirty. WWOOF stands for “World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms” and is an organization that allows people to volunteer their time and energy toward improving organic farms while receiving room and board in return. Not all countries offer WWOOFing, but those that do usually have their own websites and rules. New Zealand is one such country. A few months ago we paid for an annual membership and received access to their website. We clicked through hundreds of postings for jobs, ranging from personal homes with backyard gardens to vast orchards and sheep farms.
I quickly realized that without knowing where you want to WWOOF or what type of work you’re looking for you could spend an entire week sifting through options like a prospector hunting for gold. Our priorities were quickly whittled down to somewhere in the Northland, private lodging, and working with produce that interested us. When I found Mangatete Organics, home to an olive grove and garlic farm, I felt confident it would be a good fit. Katie’s Italian half enthusiastically agreed.
We reached out to the owner, Jen, who was welcoming and communicative. She made it clear she was looking for five hours of work per day in return for food, which we’d prepare ourselves, and lodging in a cottage that used to be a milking shed. It sounded perfect to us, so we set a date and two months later here we were driving up the long gravel road to her estate.
The property was beautiful and secluded, with rolling hills covered in the kind of vibrant green that makes flowers bloom and birds sing. We passed our milk-shed-turned-cottage on the way up to Jen’s home where we found her mother, Jo, who greeted us warmly at the door. Jo was a small, sweet elderly woman with a wonderfully soft South African accent. She gave us food for the evening and we settled into our new home before Jen came round and invited us up for olive oil with bread and ginger tea. Her fresh-pressed olive oil from her grove was simply divine, and we had a wonderful talk about travel and life in New Zealand. We learned that she was a teacher, had owned her property for ten years, and was a firm believer in organics. When we discussed our next day’s duties it was determined we’d start with weeding her garlic patch. Excellent!
Now, the word “patch” makes you think of a small square of dirt, but the garlic patch was a sizable plot of land that was roughly 100’ x 75’ and filled end-to-end with waist-high weeds. That next morning we pulled down our long sleeves and dove in. At first, I wasn’t sure what were weeds and what was garlic. I didn’t know what garlic stems looked like, and certainly didn’t want to hurt any plants that were meant to stay. When I asked Jen which was which she simply said, “It’s all weeds.”
With that sorted out, we went to town on the offensive vegetation. We were waging a war and all were our enemies! Luckily, Jen supplied us with the heavy-duty tools needed to rip up the thick roots gripping the ground like stubborn children. These weren’t your everyday little weeds peaking up from the dirt, oh no, these were full-blown bushes! I questioned our ability to eradicate our rivals, but quickly learned we had secret allies on the battlefield…the chickens.
At the corner of the garlic patch was a large chicken coup with roughly 50 chickens who loved roaming the area and scratching up those pesky little weedlings looking for food. Jen kept chickens for this very purpose, but they obviously hadn’t done a very good job thus far. Still though, they were good company and a source of entertainment while we toiled away.
On that first day the chickens were wary of our presence and kept to their corner. It only took one day for them to no longer see us as oddities but instead as giant chickens. At least, that’s my theory. When you stop to think about it, what do mother hens do? They scratch at the ground trying to find food for their chicks. When they saw us hacking at the soil they viewed us as giant mommies ringing the dinner bell. Soon, we had broods of chicks running through the thick weeds looking for goodies every time dirt flew. They grew bold, standing right in the danger zone as we swung our tools. We had to shoo them away to keep from accidentally bashing in their little birdbrains!
That was the beginning of my obsession with the chickens. I loved the chickens. I loved feeding them, talking to them, picking up the little ones whenever they let me Well, “let” may not be the right word. They weren’t fond of it. The only one that allowed me to handle them was Precious, whom Jen had previously named and who was, indeed, very precious. Precious was a friendly adolescent chicken who’d sit on my knee while I fed her and let me carry her around. When we weren’t working, I’d venture down to the coup just to visit Precious and the others. Halfway through our week I even discovered a new brood of chicks by sight alone. That’s how well I knew them.
It was a new crew born outside of the chicken coup. They came out with their mother in search of food and I quickly accommodated them. The chicks were covered in soft down and were so young they didn’t know how to eat. They just stood there confused and chirping. They had no fear of me, allowing me to pet them and cradle their tiny forms in my hands. It was heaven.
Our days on the farm were filled with sunshine, sweat, and the satisfaction of a job well done. We were killing it – literally. Piles of weeds were being carted away day after day. The sheep living on the property would sort through those weeds eating the most delectable ones. One of the common weeds we pulled was mint, so there was some good stuff in there, for sure. The sheep were so eager we even let them into the garden one day to help with the weeding. But, of course, they were interested in eating the one thing they couldn’t, the guava tree, so I had to corral them out. Our plan had failed. However, this incident did lead to me carrying a white lamb out of the enclosure. That makes the plan a rousing success in my book!
After work we’d shower and stroll the grounds, walk in the hills, watch the cows and sheep graze, and bask in the beauty of the land. The air was so fresh and sweet it made you want to erect a home out of pinecones and make a bed in the grass. Unfortunately, that freshness didn’t follow us home to our cottage after sunset.
Our accommodations were good; simple and totally acceptable. Everything we’d anticipated. But there were some difficulties. Namely, the drop toilet. It wasn’t ideal. But we were campers and hikers. We could live without modern convenience. It was perfectly fine and we were happy with it…
...until night fell.
During the day the cottage was a quaint little home, with windows swung open and ambrosial breezes flowing in from all sides. But at sunset we’d close all the windows. Shut all the doors. And somehow, someway, the scent of the drop toilet would sneak through the cracks, creep through the walls and permeate our dwelling. It was, as you can imagine, not pleasant. Whenever we had to use the bathroom we’d inhale a large breath and sprint through the door. We’d heave lung-fulls of air only after we’d barred the door behind us. We tried to combat the smell with bundles of fragrant mint we’d pulled from the garden, but it made no difference. Man’s filth is a pungent adversary.
In addition to grappling with acrid air, the night would bring about little black invaders. Crickets. Or perhaps they were cockroaches? I don’t know what they were, but they gave me the heebie-jeebies. There we’d be, relaxing on our makeshift couch, watching The X-Files on VHS, when they’d pounce – flying through the air and landing at our fluffy-socked feet. I’d shriek in fear whenever they came swooping in. The eerie 90s television show wasn’t helping.
And then there was the visitor…
Scratch, scratch, scratch.
“What was that?”
“I don’t know.”
Scratch, scratch, scratch.
“Do you hear it?”
“Yes, but I don’t want to.”
Scratch, scratch, scratch.
“I think it’s coming from over there.”
We crept toward the door listening intently for the haunting scraping sound, like someone running their nails along a tiny chalkboard. What was it? Where was it coming from? Was it a WWOOFer’s ghost trying to warn us about the next day’s chores?!
A possum flung itself onto the front door window, both hands up like a criminal. It scratched furiously, like a giant rat trying to reach the cheese. The mystery was solved. Our visitor had made itself known and there was no way we were welcoming it in. Instead, we latched all the doors and quickly adjourned to bed. I mentally shook the heebie jeebies away and eagerly fell asleep. I knew that I’d awaken to another day of magic, which seemed to bloom with every sunrise.
At mid-week we took a break from gardening and drove Jen’s mother, Jo, into town to run some errands and get her hair done. She treated us to lunch and offered to buy us more food at the grocery store than we could ever hope to eat. We kept saying no, of course, which would raise her ire. She wanted us to eat more, apparently, and said that if we weren’t careful she’d adopt us. I told her I’d be happy to have her as a grandma. When we got back to the house to help her unpack I saw her wedding photo on the wall. She looked young and very beautiful. When I told her so she replied, “Stop flattering me,” with a smile and slap on my arm.
After seven days on the farm Katie and I were ready to hang up our tools and shed our final coat of grime. We were disappointed that we hadn’t been able to clear the entire garlic patch. There was still one row of weeds left, but we’d gotten very close with just the two of us plowing away for a week. Jen couldn’t believe our progress and said we’d raised the bar for other WWOOFers. We felt proud of ourselves and enjoyed all our time spent working on the farm. It felt incredibly satisfying and natural. Like this was how people were supposed to live: waking up early in the morning, working in the dirt, feeding the chickens, cleaning up, and cooking a fresh dinner made from the fruit of the earth. And then to sit back and look at that beautiful land in the dimming of the day - what bliss it was! It was a week filled with peace and joy. Yes, even with the drop toilet.
It was hard to say goodbye on that final morning, but destiny waited just over the horizon. The dork-side was calling to us…