Category Archives: Australia and NZ ’09

The hitch-hikers’ guide to whitebaiting and thermal pools

A chance encounter with a hitch-hiker leads to a true dose of Kiwiana… [go to for version with pictures]

The hitch-hiker’s jaunty thumb loomed out of the gathering gloom and drizzle of a spring evening as I drove into the small west coast New Zealand town of Haast.

I took a snap decision. I had been driving for four hours. A bit of company couldn’t hurt. There’s only so much stunningly distracting scenery one man can take driving on his own.

“Pop your bag in the boot,” I said trying my best to appear nonchalant and an experienced picker-upper of hitch-hikers, and blocking out the images of knife-wielding Hollywood psychos swirling around in my head.

My only previous experience of hitch-hiking had been from the other side of the kerb in 1992 – on a charity hitch-hike from St Andrews to Paris. I had managed to persuade a pretty blonde to accompany me. I vividly remember her rugby-playing boyfriend sitting in my room the night before we left, fixing me with a piercing stare while toying with a dangerous looking metal cosh. He asked me, somewhat menacingly, whether I wanted to take it. I declined, but took the hint and returned said blonde in tacta – after we had won the race. (I like to think the victory was all down to my brilliantly devised strategy. It probably had more to do with the pretty blonde.)

With a distinct absence of pretty blondes hitching on the West Coast of New Zealand, I had to make do with Tim (pronounced “Tum”), a bearded and bandana-ed 22-year-old Kiwi.

As we gingerly edged our way towards a friendship, my paranoia faded away. I asked where he was heading; Tim told me that he was on his way to the family hut further up the coast to help his cousin with some whitebaiting.

My ears pricked up. Whitebaiting? I had been told by more than one person that this strange, lonesome form of fishing was a quintessential part of West coast New Zealand life. As I was travelling without a plan, it felt like another of those no-brainer opportunities for me to chance my arm.

“Errr… I tell you what. I’ll drive you there if there’s a spare bed in your hut?”

Within moments, the deal was sealed, both parties convinced they had the better rub of the green. We headed north…

Petrol? Or Petrol?

… only to head south again moments later. Oops. In all the excitement, I had forgotten to check the fuel gauge. Return to Haast without passing Go.

It didn’t take long to discover that Haast is one of those villages where the locals delight in obstinacy, doing their level best to make any visitor feel very unwelcome. The local garage owner commenced proceedings, taking great delight in telling me to go forth and procrastinate (despite the prominent “24 hour garage” sign).

Next stop the local pub, one of those dingy open plan establishments clearly dedicated to hardened drinking where the bar staff seem, miraculously, to be pulling more pints per minute than there are people in the pub.

“Any chance of some petrol?” I asked tentatively at the bar. A likely lad sidled over. “How much d’ya need?“ I told him I needed about ten litres. He looked puzzled. “Aw, mate, I don’t have REAL petrol, I thought you meant weed…”

This wasn’t going too well.

Despite his insistence that we’d be better off forgoing the petrol and sharing some “petrol” with him in the local hotel, we resumed the search, eventually procuring enough to see us up the road from a petrol station down the road that any one of our interlocutors could have told us about in the first place.

We headed north once more.

A ba(t)ch, a spot of whitebaiting, and some hot pools

A few hours of night-driving along roads of diminishing size and quality, and we arrived in deepest darkest west coast New Zealand, near the wonderfully named Hari Hari (though not before witnessing a typically stunning sunset).

I collapsed into bed, still unsure what the following day would bring.

As I dragged myself from the halls of slumber the next morning, I found myself in a small two room hut.

One of the cousins was making tea in the tiny kitchen. “Welcome to our Bach!“ he said as I accepted his offer of Fisherman-strength Tea.

The “Bach”, (pronounced “Batch”) is an institution in New Zealand. Originally short for “Bachelor pad”, baches are small holiday homes (most often basic huts) and normally in a remote corner of the country, presumably to encourage suitably bach-like activities.

Which in New Zealand includes whitebaiting.

It works like this – juvenile whitebait, having been conceived in the river, are then born out in the ocean, before heading back up the rivers to start the cycle of mating once again. They aren’t the smartest fish in the river, so catching them involves positioning a net in the right part of the stream, and watching them swim in. Prized for their delicate taste, New Zealand whitebait fetch as much as NZ$120 (about 50 quid) per kilo.

As a result, a fierce tradition of whitebait fishing during a short (Southern Hemisphere) spring season has developed here, with ramshackle “stands” (jetties) on the best stretches at the mouth of some rivers.

A quick introduction to the three cousins – Ryan, Jazz and Jeff – and we were off to the river to indulge in this wonderfully passive form of fishing. The cousins were helping out on “Ivan’s Stand”, a highly sought-after spot on the river owned by 70-year-old Ivan Orlowski.

I had lucked out again. Ivan was a living goldmine of New Zealand culture. After 40 years in the whitebaiting game, he happily watched as the cousins and I pulled in over 5 kilograms of whitebait during the day, an average daily haul for the season. Over more strong tea, Ivan delighted in having an ear to chew off with his stories. Once he had established that I wasn’t with the Inland Revenue (cash sales), he opened up with tales of the rough timber-milling past, the challenges of the holiday-home fuelled present, and pondering on the future of these remote west coast communities. There is such a strong sense of tradition here that it is hard to see it changing that much.

It had been a great day – but the best was yet to come.

A well-earned therma-rest

As we returned to the bach, the cousins gleefully packed shovels, a frying pan, some beer and some sausages into the car, and we headed further up the Whanganui river, tramping across fields to reach our next destination.

Small pools gave off tell-tale whisps of steam at the side of the glacial stream, evidence of untouched thermal springs.

Suddenly it was clear what the shovels were for. Half an hour’s digging in the hot sand and we had our pools.  We slipped into the wonderful warm water as the drizzle fell around us, jumping into the freezing stream (with the aptly bone-chilling name of “Amethyst”) at one point before returning to the thermal haven.

There have been so many other wonderful experiences in New Zealand – catching up with friends from India in Dunedin, watching dolphins off the Catlin coast, seeing rare bird and marine life up close on the Milford Track, spending time on a Maori dairy farm in the North Island.

But sitting in a natural hot spring in the midnight rain beats them all. It was truly one of the most memorable moments of 12 months of travelling.

So go on. Next time you see a hitch-hiker, pick him (or her) up. You never know where you might end up.

Toodle pip!


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(Not quite) on the other side of the third rock from the sun

Most Australians were horrified to hear that I would only be giving their country a fortnight, and utterly flabbergasted when they heard of my plans to spend more time in neighbouring New Zealand than in the fair land Down Under.

Needs must, however, and I made plans to skim across the surface of the Eastern Australian seaboard, using unsuspecting friends in the major cities as reference points and refuge stops.

Blossoming Brisbane, Sassy Sydney, Mellow Melbourne

It was my Melbourne host, Howard who summed up the Australian dilemma most succinctly, responding to my inquisitive probing with a straightforward explanation as we sat in one of the city‘s many trendy coffee bars.

“Mate. You have to understand – the real economy here is based on a couple of things. One, we dig some bloody big holes which make us money by keeping our Asian cousins happy, and Two, we’ve realised that actual building work – labouring – is about the only thing that can’t get outsourced to China…”

It was a typically laconic Australian analysis, and backed up some of what I had been seeing over the past fortnight as I worked my way down the coast.

First stop, Brisbane. Unwittingly, I timed my arrival with the blossoming of the beautiful lavender blue jacaranda trees along the tree-lined cul-de-sacs of this emerging city. Over a wonderful family dinner in the city’s Highgate Hill area, I started to understand that Brisbane is a city (and Australia is a country) still very much in formation as power shifts East. Brisbane itself is attracting migrants from within and without Australia by the bucket-load, an estimated 1800 a week, as the city adjusts to the opportunities that the Chinese economic juggernaut presents. I suspect that, hand-in-hand with this economic gold (coal) mine there will also be political challenges over the next couple of decades as cultures rub up against each other, but all that can wait. Today, the money is flowing.

It is one of the beauties of travelling that brief encounters on the road can lead to life-long friendships. In Sydney, I spent three days catching up with someone I met 15 years ago in Northern Pakistan. Despite four children in the interim, we slipped into easy conversation as if we were still sipping chai by the river in Gilgit.

I arrived late, and took a bus up to the Northern beaches, an area known as the “Insular Peninsula”. This meant that I had the privilege to approach Sydney proper in the best possible manner – by boat, on the ferry from Manly. As we rounded the headland into the magnificent natural harbour, the Opera-house and the Bridge swung into view. Sydney it is a city with a swagger – a see-and-be-seen city still basking in the reflected glory of the 2000 Olympics. Despite the never-ending traffic problems, it wasn’t hard to see why this is a city consistently in the lists of those with the highest standards of living. The relaxed atmosphere of the Northern beaches so close to the city give it a unique feel.

And so to Melbourne. With the heritage of free settlers and the Victorian Gold Rush in the 19th century, Melbourne feels more international than either Brisbane or Sydney. 20th century migrants from Europe – Greeks and Italians in particular – have retained many elements of their national identities, lending a cosmopolitan feel to the streets. Add to this a proliferation of achingly cool hipsters hanging out in cafés and you have a mellow, earthy city glorying in its distinction from Sassy Sydney.

2 weeks was never going to be enough time for the Australian continent. But it was fascinating to get a glimpse of what’s going on here. I’ll be back.

“You poor bastard…”

A flight across the Tasman sea, and I was in Christchurch New Zealand.

I arrived after midnight, so it wasn’t until breakfast at the Globe Café on the following morning that I managed a coherent conversation with a Kiwi for the first time. I told the café owner proudly that this was my first meal in New Zealand, and that I was here for three weeks.

“You poor bastard”, the café owner responded.

You have to have a fair amount of confidence in your country to be that self-deprecating.

Within a few hours, I was driving through fresh snow and slate-grey skies on my way into the mountains. A few more hours and I was sitting in a hot spring watching the clouds roll in for the evening over the mountains. Within another day I had been running up a 1000m peak and kayaking on a placid, incredibly beautiful Lake Tekapo. The view from my kayak will remain with me a long time. It’s like Scotland on steroids here.

I’m now in Dunedin on the (not quite diametrically) opposite side of the planet from its namesake, my birthplace. With my hosts here, the intergalactically named Mars and Clouds who I met in India, I’ve been busy aggravating sea-lions on the Otago peninsula, visiting Farmers’ markets in town, and watching dolphins off New Zealand’s John O’Groats (Slope Point). With George Street, Princes Street, Dundas Street, Hanover Street and even Royal Terrace, I could be on the (not quite) other side of the world. My slow transition out of Asia and back into Western life continues.

I head back into the mountains tonight and will do the world-famous Milford Track hut-to-hut for four days, before travelling up the West Coast and on to the North Island in my NZ $1-a-day hire car (20 days for the equivalent of 8 quid). What’s not to love about the Global Financial Crisis?

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Filed under 'mind the gap' journey 08-09, All posts, Australia and NZ '09