A chance encounter with a hitch-hiker leads to a true dose of Kiwiana… [go to http://luddo.com 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.