This is the third of a three-part series on visiting New Zealand.
Before visiting New Zealand, I knew only one Kiwi. But she has lived in Canada for over 20 years, so Beryl may not count. She has a brother who, in the 1980s, played for the All Blacks, New Zealand’s beloved national rugby team.
We are also acquainted with two Canucks, Dick and Marilyn, who live in New Zealand a couple of months a year and — for reasons not entirely comprehensible — own an olive plantation there.
After six weeks meandering the byways Down Under, we now know a few more people — and a lot more about this magical place.
We were sitting in a small pub in Wellington with a group of well-fed locals watching a rugby match on TV. The tavern was a welcome break from the cramped quarters of our hostel.
Wellington is known as “the coolest little capital in the world.” It’s the place where ferries from the South Island deposit tourists — and their cars — onto the more populous but less spectacular North Island.
Wellington is certainly cool — and also windy. Bent vegetation attests to the prevailing westerlies that relentlessly bombard the capital. I dubbed the stunted vegetation “comb-over” trees.
After a few pub pints, I got chummy with the lads. New Zealanders enjoy Canadians. Like them, we are (mostly) polite, matter-of-fact and occasionally talk about things other than ourselves. Kiwis can, however, be a trifle xenophobic (understandable since the country is overrun with tourists).
When the game was over, carried away by the convivial atmosphere, I started on a story about the brother of our dear, dear Canadian Kiwi friend.
How he had played for the All Blacks — perhaps even helping to hoist a World Cup on behalf of New Zealand — and how, at the end of a gloried career cauliflowering the ears of others, he had returned to farm the family’s vast sheep station south of Lake Taupo.
A massive-thighed Maori fellow looked at me. (Kiwi men have a disconcerting habit of wearing short shorts, like some sort of retro 1970s fashion statement.) This gent had plainly spent most of his life in a scrum.
He asked: “What’s ’iz nime?”
The bar went silent.
His name? I hadn’t a clue as to Beryl’s maiden name. In the absence of this crucial bit of information, my very interesting story became . . . well, really not interesting.
Have you ever told a joke but messed up the punch line? The blank stare from the audience is not endearing. I tapped Florence on the shoulder, cleared the tab and out we skulked into the capital’s dark streets, back to our shoddy digs.
In the morning, we left Wellington, bound for the forests of the North, where massive 3,000-year-old Kauri trees tower over glow-worm dells. Steam-spewing thermal vents dotted the landscape en route. The wonders of New Zealand are endless.
A chorus of cicadas cheered us along. These insects remain underground for years before emerging en masse for a short adult life, where they make a deafening noise throughout the country for a few days, mate, then promptly drop dead.
Despite the occasional self-inflicted case of foot-in-mouth disease, viz my Wellington pub debacle, one of travel’s great pleasures is meeting people. These brief amities often provide an instant connection, a hearty chuckle and, after the ships have passed in the night, immediate nostalgia.
We met Vito and Linda Nicks at Hawkdun Rise, a cozy B&B vineyard near Alexandra on the South Island. Vito (from Chicago) had the visage of an amiable hit man. At breakfast, Suzanne, our accommodating hostess, served us “flat white” coffee and whitebait — an omelette made with worm-like fish that Kiwis (inconceivably) consider a delicacy.
She asked what we would like for dinner that night: “Would you prefer beef tenderloin or some lovely venison?”
We’d passed many pastures full of farmed red deer and I was craving venison.
“My wife don’t eat game,” announced Vito. Thus, in five succinct words, Vito nixed the venison — or, in other words, Mr. Nicks vetoed the venison. Either way, it was beef that night.
After a sumptuous meal (my yearning for deer meat temporarily abated), Suzanne served New Zealand’s delectable national dessert: pavlova.
Then I brought out the ukulele. We had a rousing singsong made memorable by Hawkdun Rise estate-bottled pinot noir and Vito’s quite passable baritone. John, Suzanne’s ruddy-faced husband, sat sipping his handcrafted sauvignon blanc, tickled pink at his guest’s camaraderie.
New Zealand has a problem with feral invaders. Isolated from the world’s other landmasses for millions of years, many unique species evolved, free of predation. This changed quickly and permanently with the arrival of man. Polynesians (the Maori people) sailed in about 800 years ago. They, and the Europeans who followed in the 18th century, brought mammalian predators that devastated the endemic population.
Of the 39 species of flightless birds that roamed New Zealand pre-man, only eight remain — many of them endangered.
New Zealand’s eponymous kiwi is in big trouble. Their eggs are a tasty delicacy to invasive possums and stoats. You don’t generally see the nasty nocturnal intruders but there are millions of them roaming New Zealand’s vast beech forests; and their furry carcasses litter New Zealand’s twisting roads.
Our six-week journey Down Under ended with a visit to an off-grid olive farm in Kerikeri, Bay of Islands — in the north of the North Island. The climate here is sub-tropical but moderate — not too hot — perfect weather for a Canuck escaping boreal winter.
So how did a couple of Canadians end up owning an olive grove in New Zealand?
Well, first you are invited by friends to holiday in Kerikeri. After a few visits, you fall in love with this remarkable land, its green rolling hills, ocean views — and wonderful people. You decide to buy a little vacation home — something modest; perhaps offering a glimpse of the Bay of Islands.
You notice a faded “For Sale” sign stuck on an old fence bordering an abandoned 50-acre pasture situated on a hillside overlooking the sea. On a whim you make an offer and are shocked when it is accepted.
But in order to own agricultural land in New Zealand you must actually farm it. A detailed agronomic plan has to be filed, outlining your intended operation.
Dick is a city boy who knew a little about diamonds and gold but nothing about farming. Raising animals was out — a couple of months each year in New Zealand is not compatible with milking, shearing and slaughtering sheep. And forget cattle. Ditto seed crops.
What was a gentleman to do?
Plant olive trees, of course. They are hardy, requiring neither irrigation nor fertilizer. They grow fast and quickly produce fruit. After a few seasons, the branches are drooping with olives.
Just put a big cloth under the trees, shake with a stick, pile the olives in a truck and deliver to the local co-operative press.
Presto! Extra virgin olive oil the envy of a Greek.
And that, in a nutshell, is how New Zealand’s subtle allure can change an innocuous visit into a permanent endeavour.
Fortunately, we arrived — just barely — before harvest. (I too am a city boy and would probably have lost an arm in the thing-a-ma-jig used to shake the olives trees.) All we could do was relax and enjoy Dick and Marilyn’s Kiwi-inspired hospitality: fishing, sea-kayaking, Dick’s contagious guffaw and the gorgeous ocean views from the “shed.”
Dick is a lovely host — although, sans electricity, he has a nasty habit of firing up the generator at sunrise every morning, which shakes the guest quarters like a 500-hp alarm clock. This set-up is a great tool for ridding the olive farm of guests who enjoy sleeping in or … have worn out their welcome.
As a frequent traveller, I’m often asked, “What is your favourite destination?”
The world is full of remarkable countries, people and adventure. Until now I’ve been reluctant to play favourites. At the risk of ossifying into cliché, I must say New Zealand is simply The Best.
But the world is a big place and there’s still a lot of road to travel.
Or we could just keep returning to the place where sun-drenched olive trees droop over flightless birds.
Gerry Feehan, QC, is a retired lawyer, avid traveller and photographer. He lives in Red Deer. For more of Gerry’s travel adventures, please visit www.gnfeehan.blogspot.com.