Whitebait country

Whitebait Country - West Coast

The roar of the sea is a quiet constant at Okarito campground. Closer is the scrabbling sound of dinner – trying to escape.

On tonight’s menu is whitebait fritters. They couldn’t be fresher. Caught this morning, they are alarmingly alive, wriggling up the sides of the container in which they were delivered from the tent next door.

That’s where Paul lives during the whitebait season – heading out early every morning with net, boots and overalls. He’s one of several regulars who come for a season that runs from September through to mid-November. They live in tents, campers, old caravans or permanent cribs perched on the edge of remote inlets waiting for ‘the run’.

Whitebait can be caught up and down New Zealand coasts but South Westland is whitebaiter heartland. You can’t travel this bit of coast and not eat the delicacy that, right now, is all eyes and whipping tail. Several have made it to the top of the yoghurt container – I give it a shake, pop a paper towel over the top and start planning an early dinner.

These vigorous wrigglers are the young of native trout- mainly Inanga but also Koaro and banded Kokupu – which spend part of their life-cycle in the sea and part in fresh water.

Mature fish lay their eggs in grasses that are covered in water during high Spring tides and there they stay until the next high tides wash them out to sea where they grow over the winter before migrating back up through estuaries and streams in late Winter and Spring.

That’s where the nets are waiting. The road down to Jackson Bay crosses several rivers where permanent piers jut into out into the slow-flowing waters and whitebaiters cluster in the evening light. It might look like a formidable set of hurdles for the young trout but whitebaiting rules do allow free home runs outside set hours for fishing or in certain protected estuaries.

This year’s catch has been good on parts of the coast. At Waita River mouth (just North of Haast) some of the regulars were heading home early because rewardingly vigorous runs had already filled freezers with excess helping pay for the fishing trip.

Waita is where Tony and Moana operate Curly Tree Whitebait Company dispatching the delicacy to restaurants, retailers and enthusiastic foodies around the country. On what was once an old airstrip, they also run a fresh foodstall serving the best whitebait fritters you can buy anywhere on the coast.

These are pure whitebait, held together with a bit of egg – though Moana now favours her mother’s even more basic recipe – no egg at all. Just whitebait chucked straight onto the hotplate with a sprinkling of garlic salt. She’s right. That’s the best way to eat them.

But – back at the Okarito camp, I hadn’t yet met Moana – and along with his freshly caught whitebait, Paul had given us a free-range egg. So, as instructed, I mixed the egg with no more than a spoonful of flour, tipped in the still wriggling bait, ignored the staring eyes and lashing tails, and plopped them into a heated pan.

My first home-made whitebait fritters were bloody fantastic.

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Okarito – in many moods

Storm over Okarito

Wild, white-capped seas froth onto the pebbled shore under a menacing sky, hailstones whipped by a strong sou-westerly pelt bare legs as I beat a hasty retreat from beach to campervan.

West Coast magic!

I’d been looking forward to getting back to the South Island for months –a year-long trek having been cut short by a challenged bank balance.  My ‘snail’ home was abandoned in Nelson for a few months while I took on a couple of writing contracts in Auckland. The first, ironically, was researching and writing about New Zealand’s wealthiest for the NBR Rich List. Not quite evidence for a ‘trickle-down’ theory of economics – but the nine-week injection of funds was welcome.

Snail’s dollar-a-day storage at Tahuna Motor Camp was reasonable and, as it turned out, the area’s notoriously high sun hours meant her battery (drip-fed by solar panel) was never in danger of going flat. Meanwhile, there were four issues of two magazines (D-Photo and Tone) to complete before I could get back on the road.

Finally, by early November, snail was re-stocked, re-started and heading down the West Coast – into a whole series of squally Spring-time fronts.

Wild West Coast surf

Majestic alpine scenery stayed hidden from view. Plans to kayak Okarito lagoon looked less and less promising. Ploughing into yet another downpour, I even considered early escape over Arthur’s Pass to kinder eastern climes.

But over the Main Divide, dark clouds drifted downward. In the friendly warmth of Kumara Junction café, there was a warning that snow had already started falling up at the Pass. It looked clearer toward the coast.

By the time snail reached Okarito campground, the sun was shining. But not for long.

A foreshore walk is continually interrupted by a series of furious hailstorms. It’s cold, wild and totally wonderful.

In a wind-rocked snail, sleep comes quickly and deeply and by morning, the sky is washed clear. And there, in startling white silhouette, rising over a still lagoon, the snowy peaks of the Southern Alps. A brisk walk up to the Trig Point above Okarito reveals the sharp white slice of Aoraki, the dramatic bulk of Tasman.

Now you see them....

This is where surveyors like Haast once stood to chart the bright peaks that stretch far to both North and South. Their sudden appearance is like a conjuring trick. Now you see them …..

By afternoon they’d retreated under cloud again. But the rain held off for a walk over the ‘pack track’ to Three Mile Lagoon and back along a beach littered with driftwood,  the odd resting seal and an arresting wealth of stones, sea smoothed and streaked with hard white quartz or glittering mica.

Rock waves

Further back, on a windswept foreshore, banded dotterels have only camouflage to protect the eggs laid near driftwood or pingao clumps and fluffy sand-shaded chicks that are born knowing the skill of stillness.

Banded dotterel with chick

In this West Coast outpost, the 70 or so bird species regularly found here now outnumber the 35-strong permanent population – but it wasn’t always that way. In the late 1800s Okarito’s population swelled to a gold fever pitch. For a while the small town hosted 1500 diggers and boasted a main street lined with supply shops and grog vendors.

Donovan’s store is still there – the oldest wooden building on the coast and now venue for musicians like New Zealand’s Don McGlashan.

The West Coast's oldest wooden building

The old schoolhouse has also been preserved and, overlooking the estuary, the wharf shed offers a picturesque reminder of what was once was a thriving port.

The old wharf shed

Those drawn to Okarito today are attracted by riches more enduring than gold. Out on the 3240ha expanse of unmodified lagoon, birdlife thrives – including the graceful Kotuku (white heron) which breed in nearby Waitangiroto and stalk the shallow flats to feed.

It’s a fantastic place to kayak. Okarito Nature Tours rents out craft on an hourly or daily basis as well as offering overnight stays or guided tours. Just a few strokes of the paddle take you into another world.

At water level the lagoon stretches forever. It’s easy to become lost in the vastness of water and sky – captivated by the sight of herons dancing that bright line between air and liquid.

Heron dance

Strategically placed sticks mark the channels and river systems that take you under arches of tall kahikatea where shags preen and scaup nestle on dead logs in the still waterways. Gliding silently past, you stop feeling like an intruder and are gently drawn into a quietness of being that has no end.


More precious than any metal, Okarito’s natural magic will draw this visitor back again .. and again. Whatever its mood.

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Portal to the past

Tucked in a remote valley accessed only by sheep track, the hand-built stone cottage looks like a portal to the past – to a time when miners crowded the Moke Valley behind Queenstown in search of gold.

Mountains rise steeply around it – beautiful, bleak, and unforgiving. Old wagons lie tilted on the grass; there’s no power lines, no car. Only a couple of solar panels propped against the side of the house hint at the 21st century.

It could be a film set. In fact, it was.

Back in the 1980s when New Zealand’s feature film industry was just finding its feet and some illustrious careers were in their infancy, McConnocchie Retreat featured in A Woman of Good Character. Directed by David Blyth, starring Bruno Lawrence and Sarah Peirse, the film was designed and produced by Grahame McLean – the man who bought, restored and now lives in the cottage fulltime.

He first found the site in1972 when exploring the area on horseback

“At the time I had a lot of horses because I’d bought 28 when working as property master for Hunters Gold. Afterwards I kept them and regularly rode up in the mountains with a friend, exploring areas where miners had lived.”

He has photos of what it looked like back then – little more than a chimney and some remnants of stone walls. What was interesting about it, says Grahame, is that the original owner hadn’t just leased a plot as most miners did, he’d freeholded 54 acres.

“It’s likely the area was cropped – providing produce to what used to be Moke township. At one time there were up to 3000 people living there, just over the hill, mostly under canvas. There was also a schoolhouse that had a roll of 28.”

The remains of that school can still be seen along with a couple of restored wooden buildings that author Barry Crump lived in for a while. But the ruins are now known as Seefertown after the Seefer family who lived in the area until the 1950s, Grahame explains.

Four years after finding the land, he bought it – and when a location for filming was needed, he set about restoring the cottage. Based on existing foundations, modelled on dwellings of the time and constructed with mortar made from local clay, the re-build was as authentic as possible. Even the beams were hand-adzed from a couple of nearby pine trees.

What’s amazing is that it was all done – including an access track – in just three weeks. “We had 16 of us here with two shifts of eight working 12 hours each, seven days a week, because it had to be ready for filming.”

It probably helped that Grahame’s various careers included building. “You couldn’t generate enough income from film back then, so between film projects, I restored old buildings – including a lot in downtown Queenstown.”

Film was in fact career number three.

Before coming to Queenstown from Wellington in the late 1960s, Grahame worked in publishing and was one of the original founders of National Business Review. His first foray into film came after he’d successfully put on a James K Baxter play festival in the early ‘70s and was asked if he wanted to produce a New Zealand TV series based around the 1973 Commonwealth Games.

The Games Affair proved a success and subsequent titles he’s worked on read like a rollcall of Kiwi Classics: Hunters Gold, Sleeping Dogs, Beyond Reasonable Doubt, Worzel Gummidge Down Under, the Ray Bradbury Theatre, Sons for the Return Home, Flying Fox in a Freedom Tree…..

His roles ranged from props master to director and producer and while generally short on finance his projects were long on No8 wire mentality. “Back then we could make a feature film for under a million dollars with a crew of 14. These days crew lists run to more than a 100…”

Along the way, he helped kickstart a few careers. Fran Walsh’s first scriptwriting job was adapting A Woman of Good Character to a tele-length feature, Peter Jackson worked on Worzel Gummidge. Meanwhile, Grahame’s own fortunes took a dive in the late 1980s crash when DFC went belly up.

“They’d had this idea someone should build a film studio in Wellington so loaned me a million dollars to do it but in the process took a hook over everything I owned. Then they folded and took me down with them. “I had a net asset value of around $3.5 million in the morning and at the end of the day walked away with $6800. That was 35 years of work down the dunny.”

Now 72, he no longer has any hands-on involvement with the world of film – reckons he’s “past use-by date” for that kind of full-on work.  Eight years ago he chose to shift to the cottage permanently. Despite a heart condition and accidents that left him with a head injury and damaged shoulder, he enjoys the isolation.

Visiting WOOFers (Workers on Organic Farms), who come from all around the globe, help out with property maintenance and often bring supplies in. Tourists sometimes arrive by helicopter. But Grahame enjoys his own company – staying in touch with the world via internet.

Solar power to drive his computer is about the only concession to modern living. In many ways, he lives as simply as did the early gold miners. Cooking is done by gas burner, on the fire or in the clay oven he’s built in the frontyard; food is kept in a safe.

The place keeps him busy, says Grahame. “If I lived in town, I’d probably end up propping up a bar. Here I’m never bored.”

He doesn’t think he’ll ever leave. “I’d prefer to die up here. I certainly don’t want to be in some granny flat somewhere. I have no desire to be anywhere else. My nearest neighbour is a hundred thousand acres away and that’s the way I like it.”

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things that go clunk…

West Coast roads have a lot of ups, downs, sharp bends and long gaps between any human habitation. That’s the attraction But it’s the last place you want to hear ominous clunking noises coming from just underneath the cab of your camper van.

Three sharp bends and a couple of loud clunks later, the road is finally wide enough to pull over. I get out, peer underneath for obvious damage. There’s nothing hanging loose and grabbing various important-looking bits and shaking them doesn’t reveal anything on its way to terminal looseness.

But what do I know?

Back in the late 1970s when girls could do anything and women were trying to be wimmin, I thought gaining greater knowledge about internal combustion engines and their associated moving parts would be a “good thing”. That I was a solo mother with little visible means of support and a cantankerous Bedford van to keep on the road may have had something to do with this.

The wisdom I’d like to share now is: never attempt to become a mechanic by practicing on a Bedford van.

Accessing its vital internal bits requires some kind of freaky anatomy. Just opening the engine cover was a mission. Many grazed knuckles later, I wasn’t much the wiser about engines but my vocabulary had gone seriously downmarket.

The whole notion that “girls can…” went AWOL about then. Why embrace self sufficiency when there are experts around to do the dirty work?

After a few days on the West Coast, I’m ready to revert.

This is DIY land. It has to be. And for the same reason that all New Zealand once had to be. Specialist expertise is in short supply. People are in short supply. Place names are often little more than way points on the map. They don’t necessarily relate to population.

Communications are .. well, largely silent. Mountains loom. Trees overhang. You realise that the Telco’s’ optimistic coverage claims refer to percentages of population not of landscape. So – it’s good in Auckland, but absent in Haast.

When I needed to use my cell phone in the Catlins, I was told I might get reception near a certain tree in a distant village. Easy to spot, apparently, by the tradesfolk and socially disconnected youngsters hanging out under it.

It all seemed too complicated.

There’s nobody to be seen hanging out anywhere on this bit of socially disconnected highway.

OK. This is what hazard lights are for. I proceed slowly. Two more loud clunks, then silence. It seems like a long way to the next town and while Charleston is rich in natural beauty, it doesn’t have much else. No shop, no garage.

What it does have is a pounamu (greenstone) gallery. Nobody is in it. I start admiring pounamu. There’s a lot of it. Chunks of rock. Plus jewellery. It’s beautiful.

Then the chap who makes it emerges. Turns out he’s a third generation pounamu collector and knows more about the stuff than you could probably find out anywhere. He also looks like a mechanic. That’s because he’s been replacing his truck’s shock absorber. Sadly the part is faulty so he’s spent all day getting covered in oil for nothing.

Right now, he’s on the internet, trying to get information from the supplier. My nearest option for a garage is in Westport  – but, if I don’t mind hanging around for a bit, he’ll be happy to check out the camper.

So, we go for a test drive, swerving through the carpark of the town’s hotel – closed and for sale. Complete silence on the clunking front.

He crawls underneath and in a much more informed check than mine discovers that the muffler bracket has come loose. He puts in a bolt. I buy pounamu. All is good.

It’s all part of the West Coast magic.



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Route 35 – the slow travel movement

If you go around East Cape, you have to stop at least three times, a friend informs me. He’s wrong. My count has far exceeded that and I’ve only reached Tokomaru.

Route 35 – the Pacific Coast Highway – is a travel version of the slow food movement. It has to be savoured rather than gobbled.

Clusters of 25km bends don’t allow speed; the stunning scenery dictates against it; and the pace of life here sits at the sane end of the rat-race spectrum. Besides, there’s a whole bunch of “blink-and-you-might-miss-it” treasures that hasty travellers are in danger of missing.

My trek starts just North of Opotoki at Ohiwa.

A loop off the main drag, it hugs the tidal harbour that offers rich pickings for shellfish fanciers. Those not wanting to get their feet muddy can test out the local seafood at Ohiwa Oyster Farm whose roadside shop (between Ohope and Ohiwa Harbour turn-off) looks out over the farm itself – hard to get food much fresher.

A well-equipped campsite at Ohiwa is a great base for exploring the surrounding area – a huge sweep of beach, a wetland dotted with godwits, herons and oyster catchers – all dominated by Moutohora (Whale Island). Nine kms off the coast, the 143-hectare wildlife refuge looks and is a remnant volcanic cone that now acts as a haven for rare birds.

A hint of on-shore birdlife is the yellow road sign unusually warning of “bitterns” crossing. It marks a restoration project that’s currently up for the Keep NZ Beautiful community initiative award. Nukuhou is the largest remaining saltmarsh in the harbour and local enthusiasts have undertaken extensive plantings and interpretation work. It’s worth a stop to check for fernbird calls – and enjoy the pottery bird plaques.

I’d have missed it if I hadn’t been directed there by the plaque makers – Stuart and Margaret Slade of nearby Cheddar Valley Pottery.

It’s been 25 years since the couple bought what was once the local butter factory – to “make more room for my hobby,” says Margaret. Hobby is now a thriving business with pots largely thrown by Margaret and painted by Stuart. Unsurprisingly, local birds feature strongly on plates, cups and funky garden ornaments.

Beyond Ohiwa, where the road runs along a long stretch of sandy shore, two imposing red totems mark Waiotahi Beach. Te ara Ki Te Tairawhiti (the pathway to the sunrise) depict Maori arrival here, how Opotiki was named (after two fish), and celebrate Maori/Pakeha togetherness. They’re the work of local master carver Heke Collier who is also responsible for the centrepiece on Opotoki’s roundabout – as well as the Teko Teko (guardians) in Hukutaia Domain.

The 4.5ha Domain is another diversion off Route 35, a few kms out of Opotoki township. It was set aside as a reserve in 1918 mainly to protect  the 2000-year-old Puriri which once served as a sacred burial tree. Taketakerau is now surrounded by one of New Zealand’s most extensive collections of native plants – some 1500 species, many collected from offshore islands. On a hot Saturday afternoon, it’s a haven of peaceful green – with fantails flitting through curving Nikau fronds.Beyond Opotoki, the highway winds gently in and out of a series of ever more scenic bays. I stop at Opape which boasts the area’s first coastal walkway; at Maraenui hill lookout; at Motu River – which offers both rafting and jetboating experiences; at Whitianga; and finally pause for the night at Hoana Waititi Reserve in Omaia. Here locals offer freedom campers use of an expansive mown paddock on a knoll overlooking the bay.

First stop next day is Te Kaha – another gorgeous bay boasting a range of accommodation – from backpackers to modern beach resort. And then it gets hard to stop stopping. There’s beautiful Whanarua Bay where you can eat the world’s most delicious macadamia icecream (mine was the double choc version) while gazing at one of the world’s most attractive views, courtesy Pacific Coast Macadamias.

Nearby a completely unheralded, un-marked track goes through private land to a hidden but surpisingly impressive waterfall. Then there’s Maraehoko – which has to be one of the world’s best camping spots. And I’m not even halfway!

Two “must-stops” along Route 35 are churches. The first is easy to spot – a white wooden building standing on a promontory at Raukokore;

the second, St Mary’s Church, some 90kms more down the road at Tikitiki is easier to miss. That would be a shame as it is truly a work of art.Designed to show Maori craftmanship at its best, St Mary’s features decorative tukutuku panels on walls and ceiling, beautifully patterned stained glass, carved pews and a highly decorated pulpit that was a gift from the people of Te Arawa.

Between these stops, and off the main highway, on a windy and isolated stretch of unsealed road, is what feels like the apex of Route 35: the East Cape Lighthouse.

After overnighting at a now derelict campsite along the access road, I arrive too late to see the first dawn light as it hits New Zealand. Clouds rather spoilt the effect anyway. Even the enthusiasts who’d dossed down on the hill where the lighthouse was shifted in the 1920s (from its original base on Whangaokena Island) missed out. As one German tourist, heading back down with tripod slung over his shoulder noted: “There was light – somewhere….I couldn’t see.”It was still well worth the 750-step climb. And it was my only overcast day on the Pacific Coast Highway. By Tokomaru, both sky and sea are again bright blue, dotterels scurry on the driftwood encrusted shore and I finally get phone reception. With a South Island ferry to catch, I have to up my pace a bit.  Like the first light, other treasures along Route 35 may remain hidden – until the next trip.

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Bonding over a falcon

Visiting Okarito has been on my wish list for a long time. I’m not quite sure why. It’s the environment that informs Keri Hulme’s luminous prose; a place where white herons stride the still lagoon, where waves pound a driftwood-strewn beach; there are bush tracks to walk, and kayaking ….it seemed to have a lot going for it. But I’ve never managed to make it there. Until recently.

It was a bit spontaneous. And, on a mission to be someplace else in two days time, I didn’t have long to explore. As it turned out, my timing was lousy. Kayaking was not a goer. The tides weren’t good for poking into the shallower estuaries herons call home, there weren’t many around anyway (wrong time of year), and guides were in short supply (past peak tourist season). So – no heron photographs.

It didn’t really matter. Because right outside the kayak hire place (Okarito Nature Tours), a whole different bird drama was unfolding. Edwina (tour operator) saw the egret first and got excited because it was the first in a while so we wandered out to watch.It seemed to be behaving oddly.

That was when we spotted what is now a pretty rare sight – the New Zealand falcon, in hunting mode. Soaring over the egret, it turned, dived; the egret folded its wings tumbling through the air like a broken kite.

It was like watching fighter pilots, chasing, dodging, spiralling down. The egret finally leveled out and went to ground behind a nearby house.

The falcon flew back to perch on a bush just in front of us – watching intently. I’d never seen a falcon that close. Neither of us had ever seen one engage in such dramatic airplay. Apparently the falcons do hang out around Okarito but Edwina hadn’t seen one for months. This one seems inclined to stay – so far. I gallop across to snail to get my camera, certain it would be gone by the time I returned. Edwina meanwhile stops a couple of cyclists heading our way, alerting them to the falcon’s presence.

It stays just long enough for  a couple of close shots before soaring away. We are left feeling awed, excited. Strangers bonding over a falcon. In November, when the herons come back to nest, I’ll be back in Okarito too. And next time I’ll be kayaking.

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Tomorrow as it used to be

Penguins and penny farthings; seals and “steampunk”. Oamaru is a place where eccentricity and eco-tourism flourish with equal vigour against an architectural backdrop that seems to have emerged unscathed from the 19thcentury.

The past is not just preserved but celebrated in new and unexpected ways.

A recent example is a huge replica steam engine rearing from the ground on twisted rails driven by a demonic-looking character created from scrap metal and given to programmed outbursts of loud whistles and writhing steam.

Centrepiece for a well crafted and highly popular exhibition held late last year, it’s one of several “steampunk” sculptures that could be found lining the grassy central strip of Oamaru’s wide main street.

So just what is steampunk? And why is Oamaru its self-proclaimed NZ capital?

A full explanation can be found at www.steampunknz.co.nz – courtesy of the town’s Victorian League of Imagineers. But, in brief, it’s a rebellion against our disposable plastic society expressed through a whole range of alternative imagined futures that could have sprung from the technological bedrock of Victorian times.

Or possibly a damn fine excuse to put a lot of local talent – and eccentricity – on show.

The exhibition byline – “tomorrow as it used to be” – is certainly a damn fine description of Oamaru.

While much of the world is rediscovering the lost arts of gardening, baking, and bottling, Oamaruvians never quite got around to giving them up. The town boasts a fabric shop in its main street, a “Smash Palace” spare bits mecca for home mechanics and a building company that can turn its hand to mock steam engines as well as pre-assembled bathrooms.

All evidence the Kiwi DIY gene didn’t get a chance to die here.

The ability to build on its past is most evident in Oamaru’s wealth of heritage buildings. A sort of serendipitous neglect – or absence of dollar-centred developers – left whole areas of the town historically intact. Far-sighted citizens saw this as ‘key to future’ rather than ‘remnant of past’.

These days, the “old” town’s whitestone buildings house an eclectic bunch of craftspeople whose skills range from bread baking and whitestone carving to restoring Victoriana. This could be the only place in the world where you can try – and buy – a Penny Farthing bike.

While I have my own special places to re-visit – Oamaru’s public gardens have to be amongst the best in New Zealand – it’s a town worth seeing through fresh eyes.

On my latest trip, I arrived with a young German hitch-hiker who enthused over so many historic buildings. And what they contained. “There is an Opera House here! Really?”

Yes, indeedy. It’s right in the main street of town, hosts a whole variety of visiting artists, puts on great shows – and also serves very decent coffee. My travelling friend was even more impressed when he found it was an easy walk from opera house to the wild, seal-strewn beaches that a growing number of endangered penguins call home.

It’s this close mix of civilisation’s advantages and nature’s wonders that has seen an increasing number of tourists (and North Islanders) heading to an area that even seems to enjoy its own micro-climate – the nastiest local weather often passes right on by.

Though small enough to be friendly – shopping is seldom just a financial transaction – Oamaru is big enough to support a theatre and art gallery, its own hospital, a frothing café culture and some seriously good restaurants. Riverstone, just north of the town, recently topped Cuisine magazine’s national poll of provincial restaurants – and with the eponymous founder of “Fleurs” (which made nearby Moeraki a foodie’s mecca) now setting up in town, things can only get better.

There are other changes. These days, Oamaru is wrapped about by lifestyle properties, as well as more conventional farming. It has a thriving community garden, plentiful organic produce, a highly successful cheese factory and some great wine being made just up the Waitaki Valley.

Meanwhile, the surrounding natural environment hasn’t changed. However, the kelp-laden coastline with its crashing waves and abundant marine life has become a whole lot more visible. Once a town that seemed to have its face fairly firmly turned away from the sea (you could drive right through on SH1 never knowing Oamaru boasted a beautiful harbour), it’s been busily building eco-tourist appeal on the back of its penguin population.

Little blues are a focal point. These can either be viewed to order at the specially designed facility alongside the harbour or practically tripped over at several points along the surrounding coastline as they return to their nests from a day’s fishing.

If you don’t like your wildlife served up in a controlled environment, a short walk will take you to rocky bays strewn with paua shells, driftwood, piles of kelp – and fur seals.

Young shags hang around preening

themselves on rocky cliffs and at dusk it is becoming increasingly possible to spot the endangered hoiho or yellow-eyed penguin surfing in at dusk.

Perhaps because the world now boasts far too many creatures poised on the precarious edge of extinction, the sight of these hunched little characters crossing the stretch of shore between sea and nest evokes a kind of reverence. Their strident calls echo around the cliffs like ancient music.

It’s a sound I never tire of. It’s part of the area’s past that, with help, is gaining a stronger foothold in the present. And it’s part of the magic that will keep me returning to an area that is tomorrow as you want it to be.

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At Bluff – with the Baltic Bikers

Over one month and 3300 kilometres your legs go up and down a helluva lot of times on a bike.

Former maths teacher Bill Kinghorn came up with the actual number one day – somewhere between Cape Reinga and Bluff.  There’s time for such pondering as you push pedals across New Zealand’s challenging topography at a rate of 100kms a day.

But totalling up travel efforts for some members of the Baltic Cycle group who recently blew into Bluff on a wet, blustery afternoon would be demanding.

Take Lithuanian physicist Sigitas Kucas.

He’s lost count of the countries through which he’s cycled since his homeland became the first Baltic State to reclaim independence from Russia in 1991. A quietly determined man, he celebrated his new found ability to travel outside the Soviet Bloc by spearheading a peace ride that crossed 45 countries.

“We wanted to invite from every country one or two cyclists and get sponsorship but when it became clear that wouldn’t happen we decided – let’s go who can and make it cheap. In some countries we got very big support, in others there was none and we just had to survive.

“We left from Seattle on Hiroshima Day 1998 and came to Japan in time for the new millennium – January 1, 2000.”

What the group lacked in formal support, it more than made up for in courage and commitment – even biking through a heavily militarised Myanmar on route from Seattle to Hiroshima.

“Soldiers were all the time with us – with guns. But they gave us food. So we travelled through there for about a month.”

The chance to speak to local people – or at least share a smile – is what it’s all about for Sigitas. Proud of his country’s stubbornly peaceful pursuit of democratic freedom he tells the story of how, in 1989, ordinary people formed a human chain stretching 600km  from Tallinn and Riga to Vilnius. Its aim: to highlight how the fate of Baltic States had been sealed by high level “secret protocols” 50 years earlier.

Dubbed “The Baltic Way”, the spirit of this protest was reflected three years later in civilian response to a Russian military attempt to quash Lithuania’s fledgling independence. Sigitas was there when troops fired on the unarmed crowd in central Vilnius killing 14 and injuring 700 – but people just kept pouring in from the villages to defend their new parliament, he says.

“They were prepared to die for independence.”

A similar stubborn persistence – and belief in the power of ordinary people – characterises his own journeys to promote peace, tolerance, and environmental protection. One of only four bikers to complete the entire 23,500km Peace Ride, he’s continued to organise cycle trips that cross multiple borders – Norway to Greece, Greece to Beijing, Brussels to Istanbul…

Biking with his group on at least two of these trips were Waiheke Islanders Alison and Brian Walker. A keen amateur athlete, Alison talked her not-so-sporty husband into a bike tour of France when the couple were in their late 40s. But it was Brian who five years later organised their personal trek from Cape Reinga  to Bluff.

“To begin with, every time we got to a hill he’d get off the bike and push it – he kept saying that’s why it’s called a pushbike,” Alison recalls. “But by the time we got to Waipoua Forest in about three days, he’d gained his fitness. He amazes everyone because when he’s not touring, he doesn’t use his bike. I think he got his strong legs from growing up in Southland riding his bike into head winds…”

After that trip, Brian caught the bike bug, started researching tour options on the internet and discovered Baltic Cycle. The couple’s first ride with them from Brussels to Istanbul took 10 weeks.

“It’s a long way but you just do it day by day,” says Alison. “We’d camp together each night, have a map meeting first thing which shows the route and places of interest along it and each of us does it at our own pace.

“In Europe, you’re mostly on cycle ways. In a couple of countries we got police escorts into cities – in Prague they stopped the traffic for us.”

There were police escorts of another kind in Turkmenistan where the group were told they couldn’t enter without paying for a guide. After Sigitas spent a day arguing their case with authorities, the bikers were allowed in only with police guarding their every move.

“Over three weeks our escorts became less diligent but they didn’t want us communicating with locals – so there was some tension,” says Alison

After travelling some 13,000kms with the Baltic Cycle “family”, the Walkers decided it was time to show off their own country – and, at the same time, promote the work being done by the Stellar Trust to combat “P” use.

Two support campervans provided by Backpacker are emblazoned with the Stellar Trust logo and walk organisers have been distributing Trust literature in all the centres they pass through. That plus organising luggage transport, accommodation and route planning has been a big ask – but the Walkers have still managed a bit of riding.

Altogether, 40 cyclists ranging in age from 17 to 72 started from Cape Reinga – including a few locals like Waiheke Islander Bill Kinghorn who at 66 was not entirely sure he’d go the distance. But, by Bluff, he’d become hooked on the simple daily rhythm of bike travel.

You see so much more than when in a car and somewhere along the way, he notes, the destination becomes less important, the journey more absorbing.

For Sigitas, this was a country different to many he’s travelled through.

“Not so many people – and never in my life have I seen so many sheep and cows.

What I can tell is every day shows you a multitude of natural beauty.”

Next year, there will be another Baltic Cycle tour to more countries – there are still some he hasn’t visited. As  to whether he has counted all the miles he’s travelled?

“Not yet. This year I turn 60, maybe for my birthday, I will count.”

Published NZ Herald My Generation, May issue.

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In praise of small things

One of the things I love about digital photography is its ability to provide a pathway into tiny worlds – a bee’s eye view into the sexy beauty of flowers, a rainbow spectrum caught in salty foam, the world captured in a dewdrop.

To the naked eye these tiny bits of magic flash at the edge of vision, a bright colour, a glassy splinter of light. Close up, they overwhelm with their complex balanced beauty, their sheer perfection of being.

For me, they are what lie behind our everyday existence – the rich, exuberant patterns from which all things evolve. If I believed in a God then this is the stuff of its being – “the force that through the green fuse drives the flower”.

I was thinking about this after a conversation with a friend whose recent experience of a meditation retreat involved a similar focus on the world’s minutiae. Attendees were encouraged to look at their surroundings through a portable field microscope – to get to know the world in its intimate detail.

There is a lot on which to meditate.

It’s why I lose endless minutes on a beach at dawn – pulling focus on a dewy flash to reveal the world in microcosm, hanging upside down in a bubble of ephemeral light.

It’s why I sit in front of photoshop, enlarging my way deeper into a flower. It’s an exciting, strangely intimate journey. There is nothing in it to jar the eye. Outward beauty leads to inner symmetry.

What impresses is the exquisite harmony of it all. The expression of millions of years down nature’s evolving journey to perfection.

It’s so easy just to overlook.

Exploring it provides such intense pleasure.

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A vintage retirement

Night may have fallen but the bright glow of a welding torch still arcs cheerfully from the entrance of what looks like a serious man cave. Obscure chunks of machinery are stacked everywhere, odd clatters and bursts of song emerge from the interior.

Rob Ross is absorbed in yet another “retirement” project. It will take him upwards of 2000 hours’ intensive labour but the result is a metallic metamorphosis. From old wrecks and a bunch of spare bits come gleaming vintage treasures.

A horseless carriage that first took to the roads in 1902 is restored to pristine working order; a ’29 Dodge that had been languishing under a tree in a Canterbury farm proved its post-restoration roadworthiness by carrying Rob and wife Diane 4700 kms across Australia.

“The reward is that at the end of the day when you take it out for a run, it’s a helluva thrill,” says Rob. “When you’ve picked it up from a junk yard or from under a tree and then it’s away motoring…”

They’ve toured South Africa, attended vintage car rallies around New Zealand and regularly treat local senior citizens to sedate outings in the cars of their youth.

All this some two decades after “retiring” from their Methven farm.

That was where the restoration habit started – initially out of necessity. Limited income and a young family encouraged thrift. The Scots blood probably helped, notes Rob.

When farm machinery needed fixing, they all piled into the car and toured local dumps for spare bits. Soon they were bringing old tractors home – then cars.

“Nearly all the big farms had their own dumps and we’d be out there scavenging in the weekends. Our kids practically grew up in dumps,” Diane laughs.

“The first one Rob fully restored was the 1929 Dodge. That was in 1973 – and in February, 10 days after our youngest son was born it went out on its first rally. Rob brought the entry form  into the maternity home. I was wrapped.”

No silent partner in the restoration passion, Diane acquired her own 1930s Chrysler some 20 years ago and has been actively involved in New Zealand’s Vintage Car Association since the 1970s.

“It’s been great. We’ve had opportunities we’d never otherwise have had to go places and meet people. You’re never lonely with an old car. Take them out and people flock around. Open the bonnet and they’re bees to a honeypot – everyone wants a look in.”

She’s also become used to being a shed widow. Without her there to prompt him, Rob tends to miss meals and work into the wee small hours. Even his young grand-daughter reckons he lives in his shed.

“The bigger the challenge the more focused he gets,” notes Diane.

And there have been some big challenges. The couple once bought home a 1915 Dodge Tourer that was no more than boxes of bits.

“Somebody had taken it apart and meticulously wrapped every bit in newspaper. There was no body at all. Just these boxes. But Rob put it all together and made a car out of it. I doubt anyone else would have tackled that restoration.”

You can get complete life-size plans for most of the old cars from the US, says Rob.

“But we didn’t bother with that. We did take some photos of another one we knew about in Christchurch because you’ve got to be authentic. Though in some areas we improve on the original – particularly safety stuff, like making the brakes better.”

His skills are self taught, partly because money was in short supply.

“I got a price for a guy to do some panel work on one and that cost frightened me so I thought to hell with it – I’ll learn to do it myself. So now I do the lot – apart from upholstery. Diane and I were doing it ourselves for a while but that led to a few domestics so we gave that away.”

“Well he wrecked my good sewing machine,” she explains.

She reckons tinkering is in the genes. Rob’s grandfather was a tinkerer. So is their son who’s now doing his own restoration projects. It was a  tendency that showed up early, says Rob.

“I was only a young thing when I got into a bit of bother with my mother. She’d left her watch lying around and I thought I could take this thing to bits. So I did. Never got the opportunity to put it back together. Got locked in the wash-house for a while for that.”

It didn’t deter him. Now his problem-solving skills are in demand. Around restoration projects, he fits in machinery repair work and gets a regular stream of visitors after repair or reconstruction work. Although he’s now 71, Rob doesn’t see that stopping any time soon.

“I need to have a project. I’m ruddy hopeless just sitting around. I get absolutely bored out of my brain. I’ve got to be doing something, building something. It goes back to farming days. In winter, if you’re not working on a vehicle, you’d be building sheepyards or working on a new hay barn.

“It’s hard to stop having a project. We certainly don’t need another bloody car – but I need a project..”

Published NZ Herald, My Generation, March issue.

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