Woody glade, Moeraki, May ‘13
This is me, name given by my friend Molly. I named her The Big Issue. Apt names for ourselves, or so we did think. Anyway, mine stuck, so here I am. I live in Moeraki, a little fishing village on the East coast of New Zealand's South Island. It's quiet, it's peaceful and it's beautiful. I muse on life, I take photographs and I cook. Only vegan food. There it is, plain and simple, just like Moeraki. This is my life, as it is right now, from here to wherever you may be. Enjoy. Over and out.
I wanna go to the seaside, Moeraki, May ‘13
Lone tree, Moeraki headland, May ‘13
You live your life like a page from the book of my fantasy.
Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.
The Moeraki Boulders, May ‘13
Moeraki life is different: simple, and yet challenging; peaceful, and yet lonely. I guess it is just as any rural life is: beautifully quiet and serene, yet with an equal dose of hardship. However life may be for those living here, Moeraki is truely beautiful. In my first days here I’ve picked wild mushrooms from under trees heavy with the scent of autumn; wandered along rocky shorelines cloaked in huge drifts of giant kelp, with big fur seals lolling lazily around; scrambled over muddy cliffs sides to be rewarded with the sight of colonies of sea birds on rocky outcrops; walked golden sand beaches fringed by lush green grasses on one side and glittering sapphire ocean on the other; trudged steep, winding paths to be greeted by majestic little yellow-eyed penguins, hanging out under grassy tussock or on top of open hills. It’s quite staggering how wildlife seems to flourish here. Tourist New Zealand doesn’t seem to have touched Moeraki. Nothing is particularly sign-posted, with the exception of the famous Moeraki Boulders, and even if the tourist buses wanted to bring their hoards here I think the windey, pot-holed, up-and-down roads would prevent them from doing so. Even as I drove the interesting sounding Lighthouse Road to explore what was at the end (there’s something about the end of the road that just entices me; I think it’s the mysteriousness of it all, the child in me always wanting to know where that little path leads) my heart gave a small leap when it saw the sign ‘No Buses’. No buses means no camera-weilding, sun veiser-wearing toursists all leering in the same direction at some not-so-marvelous marvel.
Indeed, life seems to go on here quite as it has (or so I imagine) for the last century or two. Fishermen still work the little dock, with seagulls squalking at their backs; couples still wander romantically deserted beaches at sunset; locals still greet each other of a morning as they walk their dogs along the shaggy cliffside. A definite change, however, is the decade-old addition of Fleur’s Place, an internationally renounded seafood restaurant, and now my new workplace. New it may be, but so very old it does seem. In fact, as I drove along the knobbly village roads in search of the place on the evening of my arrival, the only thing that told me this must be the famous hideout were the lights inside, for nowhere else in Moeraki at six o’clock in the evening seemed to have such a glow to it. And a glow Fleur’s place truely has. It has that rare, extremely special feeling upon entrance of coming home, or coming at least back to a familiar place from one’s childhood, something on the edge of memory but still held close to the heart. It has warmth, charm and spirit, reflecting the love and tenderness has evidently gone into its whole design- indeed its whole being- from start to finish. And this was all given so eagerly, so gladly, so enthusiastically to the place by the landlady herself, the lovely Fleur.
Now I don’t know Fleur too well yet (I may do more so after a few weeks of getting under her feet behind the bar) but she just exudes eccentricity and soul; she has a real life to her that’s still going more fully than ever, even after the last seventy four years. To read her life story is fascinating, as I did so on the first weekend after I arrived. Propping up the bar for a few days, drinking coffee, observing the restaurant and chatting to the odd local, I read Fleur’s story from start to finish in her autobiography. It details her childhood up the coast in Oamaru, the early days of her marriage on the wild West coast, her move to Alexandra and the eventual beginnings of Olivers, her beloved restaurant in Clyde, slap bang in the middle of Central Otago. Everyone has heard of Olivers. Everyone, seemingly, except me. Well, I have now. But, even though I am now officially a Kiwi, I think I can be let off the hook considering I’ve only been here for just shy of eighteen months. Fleur set up Olivers in the sixties with a partner from down in Queenstown, where I made the move from when I came to Moeraki. My aunt & uncle lived down that way in the seventies, and upon my asking ‘Do you know Fleur Sullivan, by any chance?’ the reply came ‘Of course! Great lady. She must be my age now, me thinks?’ Not quite Dinks; Fleur is nearly ten years older than you! But you wouldn’t know it, except perhaps by her eyes. The eyes always give people away, and Fleur’s have a depth to them: those eyes have seen some things. And so it would seem, from the stories you read about Olivers back in the day! But I won’t talk too much about what I know little of. Visit Moeraki, meet the woman herself and you will begin to understand what I mean. Oh, and when you’re there, make sure to say hello to the resident sea lion; he hangs out by the old jetty, hoping for some fish scraps to be thrown to him by one of the chefs who stands there for most of the day filleting the fish for that night’s service. Lovely.
Except for the flying fish guts, Moeraki life is simple and honest, just like the food at Fleur’s. The first thing I see every morning when I open my old curtains is the sea. The last thing I hear at night is its roar, except if the rats in the roof decide to get up and have a wander about. The first night in the Waterhole House I opened up my sliding doors to see what was going on outside: nothing to be seen, just the gentle purr of the ocean below my cottage. It’s peaceful to live in a village with less than a hundred residents (except when it’s stormy and the wind comes whilstling down the flu to greet my freezing toes) but it can be lonely, especially for someone who is used to living in a house under or on top of many bodies, constantly jostling for bed space or a spot on the sofa. And I miss my man, whom I left in Queenstown to earn a crust to fix his rusty van, our home for the last three months. I hope when he finally arrives he likes this place as much as I do, and decides to stay. I think I would enjoy it all the more with a bit of company, other than the rats, that is. Oh, and the many rabbits that live on the lawn outside my front door. And the gulls, the shags and the coromorants; the sea lion, the fur seals and their pups; the little penguins; and the many woodlice and other creepy crawlies living around my house. Yes, even after I account for all the wonderful wildlife in Moeraki, and Fleur and her lovely staff at her Place, I would still like some company here. For what is beauty if it can’t be shared? Wild beauty and a simple life; it’s what we all yearn for really, I believe. And Moeraki has it all. Hurry up, French toes, so I can share it with you.
Lone shroom, Moeraki, May ‘13
Dust, Moeraki, May ‘13
Goodbye summer in the North; hello winter in the South.
Onwards to the valley
Collecting together my belongings and packing them into the little red car takes most of the morning. A prolonged cuddle with Dinks, an affectionate whisper of ‘we love you, you know’ and I’m on my way. State Highway 1 and the Great Desert Road stretch out before me into the distance. The latter, which winds its way from the Tongariro National Park in the North through to the country town of Taihape in the South, as closely resembles a desert as is possible in a country as brilliantly green as this one. Miles and miles of scorched grasses, purple heather and long swaying reeds blanket the weather-beaten landscape, stretching out from the roadside as far as the eye can see. Just visible in the distance are the fringes of the Ruahine Ranges, whose cloud-topped mountains, dense with native bush, cover a vast area of the central North Island.
By the time I reach Taihape, gone are the mountain-edged grasslands; here, the land is altogether lusher. Like a more geographically extreme version of the English countryside, this area is all rolling green hills, sheer white cliffs of Papa (my learned fact of the day) and wooden fenced farmland. My eventual destination is the Kawhatau Valley and the home of Bunny and Kris Gorringe, distant relatives from my grandmother’s side of the family and, so I am told, of a very hospitable farming type. As I follow the little yellow signage and head down a snaking country road, a deep gorge becomes suddenly visible. Cut out of sheer rock by the turquoise river below, the gorge winds its way through the Kawhatau Valley from North to South, the road following several hundred feet above. Sheep amble around as Lola & I creep up the gravel driveway, which is surrounded by luscious paddocks and fringed with great trees. I wander around the outside of the house to the sound of a hoover: I’m early. The clock in my car is bust.
‘Manston’ is idyllic rural Kiwi living. The old white wooden house, which has been in the family for years, is covered with roses and edged with pastel-coloured flower-filled borders. Trellises, a vine-covered veranda and trimmed lawns make the garden a picture; there’s even an extensive veggie and herb garden. Inside, the decor oozes old money, a mixture of what I imagine my paternal grandparents’ houses were like and what I remember my maternal grandfather’s old house to be. Kris & I drink plenty of tea and talk of family before Bunny comes in from the farm. He isn’t at all what I expect, but he seems familiar after a short time. That’s family, or so I’ve found.
Daughter Alex’s attractive horsey house- our next tea stop- has the most stunning views over the valley above which it sits. Her charming girls- Connie & Hettie, together with Goddaughter Matilda- head off to ride. Do they need to be accompanied, I wonder out loud? “We generally wander over after tea..” Right then. After a while we go to see what the young girls are up to. We watch them ride and play out in the paddock; they’re having lots of fun competing with each other to see who can navigate a row of old oil drums fastest on horseback. Alex’s horse Romper comes to greet us and the smell of his smooth, thick hair reminds me of times gone by. My sister and I used to feed horses in the fields behind our adoptive grandmother’s place when we were both small children. Pushing carrots through the fence to the greedy great things was our favourite part of the walk we regularly took around the woods, and the smell of Alex’s beloved old boy takes me straight back to that place. The power of smell to unearth nostalgia is just remarkable.
Alex’s husband Allan has the most wonderful workshop out behind the paddocks; my father would be very envious. An avid car enthusiast, he and another fanatic are together building a racing car; the various parts lie higgledy-piggledy around the place. Lovely old Lancias from many a bygone era sit side-by-side in the mechanical haven, all waiting to be given a bit of TLC and restored back to their former glory to once more grace the open road. Land out back is strewn with more cars of all shapes and sizes, from clapped out old bangers to muddy but still very tidy looking Land Rovers; we must be in farm territory here.
Alex herself is a warm, fun-spirited woman: a real Kiwi. Her parents are of old farming stock: a warm, traditional pair with clipped accents that sound far more English than of New Zealand origin. I see a thread of similarity running through my grandmother’s side of my family. Younger son Ritchie is ‘a hoot’. I love that word: it’s a real favourite of my grandmother’s. He loves to shoot; it’s an interesting, controversial subject, and one we linger on for a fair while.
We enjoy a supper of meat and three veg, followed by fruit, ice cream and a flick through of some of the old family photograph albums, which Kris has dug out of a dusty corner. I find it fascinating. I’m becoming so interested in all this family history malarkey- I must be starting to get on a bit. I’m shown a book written by yet another distant relative, which talks of the Stapps, the Todds and the Tukes. Now I finally know where all these family names I’ve been hearing mentioned for so long come from! I pore over the book for an hour or so and fill in more of Dad’s sketchy family tree, which I’m slowly editing and adding to to create a rather fuller picture of the New Zealand side of my family. Dad pencilled this rough diagram for me a mere day or so before I left the country, thinking that it was probably about time he filled me in on the more ‘interesting’ snippets of his family history. I’m glad he did; this trip may have been rather embarrassing had I not known whom wasn’t talking to whom and which parts of the family hadn’t had contact with others since way back when.
After a night under many layers of blankets (Kiwis don’t simply do one thick duvet), I’m woken up with a ‘good morning’ and a hot cup of tea from Kris. Breakfast follows after a short doze: homemade museli (I nabbed the recipe!), thick, creamy yogurt, crispy streaky bacon and vogel’s; bliss. Soon after, Kris takes me on the back of the quad up to Ritchie’s place- a farmhouse which pioneers country chic, surrounded by fields and old broken down farm machinery. We take his truck- a battered old Suzuki ute- up and down the twisting roads which hug the cliffs on one side of the gorge and head towards his farm, which lies on land bordering the Ruahine Ranges. Through gate after gate, up over farmland, through rock-strewn mountain streams, up steep, barely-there tracks peppered with thistles, right to the top of the farm and to three hundred and sixty degree views over the surrounding countryside. Two and a half thousand feet above sea level and out comes my trusty Canon. Ritchie grabs his binos and scans the mountain-sides eagerly for deer. A very keen hunter, he has stories a-plenty to tell of treks up into the bush- a wild, inhospitable place for all but the seasoned bushman. Plenty of hunting expeditions, he says, have been brought to a swift end due to the treacherously unpredictable weather which prevails up in the Ranges. Even as we survey the dense forest for signs of movement, clouds begin to roll over their peaks, obscuring the high summits from our view. The wind bites up here, and I find myself buttoning my Barbour right up to the collar and stuffing my hands deep into its pockets; about time to head back, I think.
The journey down is just as eventful- and bumpy- as the ride up, especially as I spend the latter part of it being thrown around in the open back of the ute with the dogs: my choice entirely. I enjoy stunning views of the ranges behind us as we fly round the narrow roads back to Bunny and Kris’s place. A quick lunch and it’s off on the back of the quad for a jaunt up to the highest reaches of their farm and its spectacular views over the land below. The scene stretches for miles out over the surrounding farmland to the Ranges in the East and the Tongariro National Park in the North. I can even see the snow-topped peak of Mount Ruapehu from up here; again, we’re pretty damn high. A steep, twisting descent down to the lower farmland precedes plenty of warming tea back at the house, before preparation for another country feast begins again. If my time in the tranquilly-beautiful Kawhatau Valley is anything to go by, to be a farmer seems to be living the life.
Wilderness, Sandy Bay, Coromandel Peninsula, Summer ‘12
Through fog and thicket
After frothy coffee and a prolonged goodbye to my grandmother, I leave Auckland enveloped in torrential downpour; pale grey clouds hang heavily over the city, blanketing everything in a layer of drizzly misery. My destination is the Coromandel Peninsula, a jut of land one hundred ks in length, dotted with quiet towns and studded with tranquil beaches on its Eastern coast. The heavy, stormy atmosphere keeps true as I weave up its rugged Western side, the zig-zagging, coast-hugging roads looking as if they will disappear into nothing but thick haze as they wind stealthily out of sight behind the cliff faces.
The road from Coromandel Town up to Port Charles- a hair-raising 34ks- is an interesting drive to say the least. Warning signs pepper the road sides before I hit the (usually) dusty gravel road: do I have enough petrol? Am I happy to drive the steep, weaving, unsealed roads? Why, yes I am; I’ve thus far managed to safely navigate through a pretty healthy dose of New Zealand’s famously unpredictable weather without much more than a quick pit stop for supplies. I speed off North, only to soon be reminded by a stomach-lurching skid that my hap-hazard driving style doesn’t befit this country’s rougher roads. What the attention-stealing signs don’t warn you is just how far 34k feels when you have to pay almost constant attention to the road ahead in order to prevent your car from veering off into the oncoming fog. I’m sure the views are exceptional; I saw nothing but ashen white my entire journey.
I weave hither and thither for a good hour and a half- skirting valley edges and creeping up mountain sides- before the rain eventually begins to ease. Passing Point Charles, I head along some (finally) tarmacked road towards the originally-named Sandy Bay, arriving just on the cusp of dusk. Remembering something about a track and a sign warning me that this is a ‘Kiwi Zone - No Dogs’, I head off down a dirt road which trails off through a battered metal gate. Parking Lola up and deciding to do the rest on foot, I come out onto a farm strewn with ramshackle outbuildings, rusting tractors and heavily pregnant grazing heffas. I pick my way through the cow shit, cross the trickling stream over one of the numerous planked bridges and carry on up the lane. This place already intrigues me: I can tell it’s far-out hippy-ville. Past the glass house (I was imagining a modern monstrosity, not a huge old-school greenhouse) and then a glimpse of a host of wonderfully shabby buildings, all peeling paint, faded wooden cladding and weather-beaten corrugated iron. I try the house beyond the gate, but to no avail; eventually I find Chris’s place nestled amongst workshops, sheds, and even a pottery. Wild bush and overhanging trees threaten to engulf the little two-storey dwelling, so much so that it appears to be growing from the very earth on which it stands.
As a virgin CouchSurfer, my first ever solo jaunt into the intriguing world of the intuitive traveller is looking promising. The man himself is all banter and easy Kiwi charm, singing and joking from the first moments after my arrival. Neither of us holds anything back, and a sharp rapport is soon established. We sit on the shaky bench outside the back door, surrounded by grape vine heavy with ripe perfumed fruit; I am accompanied by my old friend Sauvignon Blanc, and Chris by a tankard of his own yeasty home brew and a fairly steady stream of cigars (another product of my recent pit stop for supplies). Brenna, Chris’s boisterous but good-natured puppy, plays in the untamed grass as the two of us exchange stories and snippets from our lives, both drinking in the smell of the surrounding bush, fresh and earthy from the recent storms. High mountains guarding the sleepy valley are thick with forest and lost at their summits in soft, low-lying white cloud. The colours are wonderfully vivid. The whole landscape is awash with a palette of brilliant greens and the deep blue sky is peppered with stars. We wander down to the sheltered bay passing a local on our way; he sits at a bench on the tufty grass side with his nearly empty bottle of red wine and flushed rosy cheeks. We find a dead penguin on the beach and Chris pulls its wings off- apparently they are beautiful when dried? He stinks of rotten flesh for the coming hours.
Supper preparation begins in Chris’s shabby but well-stocked kitchen. Bottles, packets, jars, tubs and plates are piled high on the dusty windowsills; I love this kitchen’s grubby charm. I slice and dice and carry on with the wine, making pretty damn good squid rings, if I don’t say so myself, which I serve with hot dipping sauce. Chris declares them “probably the best I’ve ever tasted”; his second course is just as tasty. We have road kill: wild rabbit freshly run over and home butchered, slowly cooked in pig fat with sweet garlic and onions; just how food should be. We sit down to eat in our fingers, grease running down our chins, just on the right side of pissed. After supper I’m treated to flamenco guitar and many, many wonderful stories. I especially enjoy hearing some of those from the nine years Chris spent travelling around the world, living an almost nomadic way of life. I recall are the boat bought with friends that set on fire; the gibbons and his lover in the rainforest; the stint as a stow-away chef on a boat bound for America; the air strip he run before being sacked when found ‘stoned as hell with a needle hanging out of my arm’. It all sounds like a lot of fun. We talk of our families, our lovers and our pasts as the night wears on. We could go on forever, it seems.
The following day begins with tea, toast and freshly ground coffee in the morning sun. Talk strays to our mutual love of photography, and I’m given some great advice on the imminent purchase of my first film camera; I end up staying the whole day. I leave enlightened by Chris’s wonderful stories and contagious enthusiasm. We part with ‘Well, that was fun’ and a big, long hug.
I head off at the latter end of seven o’clock, completely underestimating how long it will take me to get to my next couch; it’s nearing ten when I eventually roll up in Matarangi. It’s good to be back in civilisation, but I sure loved the Northern reaches of the Coromandel. With its eccentric characters, hidden settlements and rough-around-the-edges beauty, it’s New Zealand at its most fascinating, and certainly a collection of journeys I won’t forget in a hurry.