I’m reluctant to go in and pull my hoody tighter around me. I’ve always been brave with cold water and hope my hardiness has not dissolved in the warm waters of Tonga. The kids yelp with excitement and delight as they leap the white foam of the clean cold waves. The beach is wide and empty, the hills behind are the dull colours of home. The soft grey sand rolls across the beach like mist magically covering our footprints. The air is cool and refreshing with a bite we’ve not felt for a while. This is still the pacific but so different from the sea we’ve grown accustomed to.
We’ve landed in New Zealand and after a few buzzing days in Auckland, getting over being amongst crowds, having a vast choice of food, and a selection of cafés with good coffee, we’ve flown down to Dunedin (‘little Edinburgh’) in the South Island. Picked up by John, our HelpEx host we head out to his home base in Waitati where we stay now. It’s an old mental institution – there are a few of these slightly eerie hospital buildings around here – that John is gradually converting into separate flats. Luckily he has one empty at the moment for us to stay in. It’s light and spacious and has the welcome novelty of hot running water.
The kids are being amazingly self contained and good at getting on with ‘school work’ in the mornings – basic journal writing and maths work sheets – whilst we work for John. We are both working on some house trucks that John is building. Kian is so happy to be getting stuck into satisfying work again and is really enjoying the project, I’m happy being the apprentice and am loving the chance to work with Kian, learn a few new practical skills and how to use some basic tools. From where we work we look out across to hills, estuary, and the tall trees of the Orokonui sanctuary. Amongst them stands the tallest tree in New Zealand which we happily hug one stormy day.
The muted browns and greens are so gentle after the brashness of Tongas bright colours. When the sun shines here it’s intensely hot, with burning rays, when it doesn’t it’s surprisingly cold with a harsh wind. John says the area is renowned for its extremes and changes, switching between 4 seasons in a day. The cold comes as a shock but we are soon sorted with a few forays into the Waitati free shop, a cool little shack with a remarkable varying selection of free stuff to rummage through. Such a cool idea, and a hit with the kids.
When the kids have finished school stuff they are free to play and explore. It’s such a great area for this with bike trails through the woods, tracks down to the creek or to open golden fields of long grass. Maisie has scored a small bike from the free shop and made friends with some neighbouring kids, and Marlon has explored the sleepy river and caught a flat fish that tasted disappointingly siltish.
When we finish work we often head out to explore the area. We’ve bought a 1979 Mercedes off John, and are relishing our freedom to go where and when we choose. The scenery rolls out before us to be explored, and the beach is just 5 mins away.
Dunedin city has slowly revealed it’s charms; at first I felt depressed by its 1950’s air, but on more visits it becomes more appealing. It has wide hilly streets (including the bizarrely proud steepest street in NZ) and domineering stone buildings but is friendly and packed with fantastic huge 2nd hand shops, two wonderful museums, and some great street art.
Already we are impressed with NZ, the environment and the people, and are aware we’ve only seen a tiny odd little corner so far. On the beach we are constantly surprised by nature. We visit the last remaining blue eyed penguins, huddled in their rocky holes, sitting on eggs. Their population has sadly been decimated recently by ferrets and stoats and the locals are trying hard to protect the last ones with traps in the dunes all around. On a later visit we see the fluffiness of a penguin chick under the feet of one protective parent.
On another visit we spot a seal swimming and, wading out to see it more closely, we get a scare as it powerfully swims around Maisie’s legs. A strong slick dog like creature, she stops to rise up and bark us away, black eyed and whiskered.
On venturing further across the peninsular one day we run down huge voluptuous sand dunes to find bold sea lions surfing the waves. We crouch and watch fascinated for a while. They barrel onto the beach in the foam then, having had their fun, waddle off into the sea for more or flop languorously onto rocks to sleep. At another blustery point we watch huge albatross circling overhead, sharing our admiration with many other camera clicking tourists.
One day John says the tides are just right to go collecting cockles, and this area is well known for good ones. We wade out together across the mud flats of the estuary strewn with clam shells. We can afford to be fussy with the size here, discarding all small ones that would be considered a good size in Britain. Delving our hands down in the mud brings ups treasure of large juicy cockles. We collect until we’ve filled a bucket each. John tells us there is a limit in place as to how many individuals are allowed to collect- a bucket per person – a good idea but utterly contradictory now the council has given out a license recently to a commercial dredging operation.
Back home that night we cook up a feast of ‘spaghetti vongole’. New Zealand white wine, home grown garlic, chilli, and parsley with hand picked cockles make this pasta dish absolutely delicious and memorable.
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