Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Off to the Nut Farm

I woke up early at the Top Floor backpackers to catch a bus to Helensville, near where my first farm stay would be. Of course no one else was awake, so I crept to a shower and then dragged all my things in the hallway to pack up. It was raining so I slipped the waterproof sleeve over my bag for the first time. The fact that I had this and got to use it made me feel like I was well prepared and knew what I was doing. Rain? No problem, let me just slip the rain-proof sleeve over my enormous bag. The walk to the Britomart, the main transportation station in downtown Auckland, took a little longer than I thought and I showed up around 7:30 not knowing exactly where the bus leaves from. An attendant at the info desk told me the bus left at 7:25 and I’d have to take the nine o’clock. Damn. Catching a bus should be easy. I called my host from a pay phone and told her I would be on the later one, that was fine. I decided to waste some time at the cafe in the station and got a long black. There was a slightly used paper sitting around so I picked it up and took a look. They had a huge puzzle section and I very easily slew the very easy sudoku problems then wrote in my journal. I kept my eye on the big station clock so I didn’t miss a second bus, and took off with about 15 minutes to make the walk. It didn’t take that long and I was glad, because what was that I saw out the window of the bus as I waited?
A...a moa? Moa! A moa. Yes. A legendary now extinct creature that I hoped to see while I was down here. Moas were 12 foot tall wingless birds that were hunted to extinction hundreds of years ago. Some cryptozoologists (very few crackpots) maintain there could still be a few left hiding deep in the bush...but this was downtown Auckland and it was just a statue.

After that bit of entertainment, the bus took off with me on it and I was headed for Helensville. It was a short ride, only about 40 minutes. Somewhere along the way I realized there was not just one Helensville stop, but many along the way, and I had no idea which one I was supposed to get off at. Cheryl, my host, said something about a gas station? I talked to the bus driver and told him I was doing a farm stay. “Do you know where people usually dropped off for farm stays?” He mumbled a something about farms, but had no idea. Great. So I rode along not knowing what was going to happen. Not yet to Helensville, we made a stop at a shopping center. As we pulled up a woman was looking expectantly in the windows. Who was she looking for? Me? I walked up to the front as the door opened. “Cheryl?” “Trevor?” Wow, this was my host! I got my things (wrestled unwieldy backpack through narrow bus aisle) and got out to say hi and shake hands with Henk and Cheryl.

While I loaded my stuff in the back of their 4x4, they explained that this is not where I was supposed to get off, but they had instead intercepted me because they had some errands to run and it was on the way. Good thing that worked out, they had no way to contact me! They told me about themselves, expanding on my small knowledge of them based on the description of their online posting. They were an older South African couple who ran a macadamia orchard for the last eight years or so. They had a new small business this year selling their nuts gourmet style (instead of wholesale to distributors). Before all this started, they had been sailing around the world for 10 years! That was exciting. And before that they ran a banana and macadamia farm in South Africa. I had less exciting things to tell them about myself, but nevertheless they were interested in hearing about whether I had siblings and why I had come to New Zealand. I told them it was a variety of things, but mostly I was not satisfied with my job, sick of some things in the U.S., looking for an adventure, spending some time figuring out what it was I wanted to do with my life, and New Zealand is supposed to be a beautiful, fun, and nice place, so why not? They were satisfied with that and said they had helpers before with somewhat similar situations.

Our first stop was at another macadamia farm, except this one was different in that it had more processing capability and processed my hosts’ nuts, so we did a pick-up. Henk tried some nuts they had there (not his own) as we looked at a new sorting conveyor system they had. He mentioned they could be a little drier and have more crispness to them. He and the man there got into a discussion about drying and other nut-handling procedures. When we left in the car Henk told me those people’s nuts weren’t as good as his. I believed him and he seemed to know what he was talking about. Henk isn’t a nut snob, he just knows how to make better nuts. After all, he was a horticulturalist by profession. The next stop was at a honey processing place, where we picked up two 30 kilo buckets of honey. Henk and Cheryl sold a very unique product called macadamia honey. They explained to me that they often have people ask how they make honey out of macadamias. This was ridiculous of course, and only bees make honey. When they hire someone to bring in bees to pollinate their trees, all of honey from those hives is processed and voila, we have macadamia honey. The popular honey from the region is from the manuka tree ( or tea tree...as in tea tree oil) and macadamia honey wasn’t necessarily better, just different. In this facility they had huge vats of warm honey being poured, filtered, homogenized, etc. and it smelled amazing. We got to try honey straight from a warm stream and it was excellent. I didn’t see any milk, but I understood why the Children of Israel are waiting for their golden streams of milk and honey. I wanted to work there, but instead I left with my hosts that ran the nut farm.

On the way back we stopped for lunch at the Pukeko Cafe, pukeko being a common bird found in the area. I attempted to pay for my own meal, but was denied by Henk. “But I haven’t done anything yet.” It didn’t matter, I was under their wing. The quiche was good and so far in my experience they made excellent coffee in New Zealand. We talked more as we rode closer to their home and they told me about their “Princess.” Princess, or Princy as she was sometimes called was the borrowed pig from one of their daughters and was staying with them for the summer. They said she was such a sweet little thing and I envisioned one of those vietnamese potbelly pigs that aren’t very big. We pulled up to the house, which they built in a New Zealand colonial style, and unloaded the car, walking around to the garage door. To their horror, the garage door was busted open! A burglar had ransacked the place...and ate half of the dry pellet pig food. There was the guilty party, laying bloated on the cool concrete floor. And so I met Princy:

She was not a tiny, cute potbelly pig. Princess did have the potbelly, but weighed about 200 kilos, and was a large Maori breed of pig. We kicked her out and cleaned up the garage. By that time of the day it was too late to start any work, so they showed me my quarters. There was an apartment separate from the house and fully outfitted with two twin beds, bathroom, tv, and kitchenette. Apparently this was where they lived while building the main house. It was much more than I was expecting and the only downside was that the wireless internet didn’t reach out there. So far this place seemed great and on top of the beautiful house, impressive servant quarters, and general warmness of Henk and Cheryl, there was a nice view from the backyard where I could see the macadamia trees blending into the rolling hills of other property and finally disappearing into the faint blue water of Kaipara Harbour.

The next morning I had cereal and instant coffee in my kitchenette while watching the Channel 1 Breakfast show. I think I was amused by their authentic, unapologetic kiwi accents more than anything else. The biggest thing I noticed is that they say almost all their E’s different: “ten” sounded like a mix between “teen” and “tin.” I couldn’t help but think that they were pronouncing so many words utterly wrong, and they didn’t even know it. After breakfast it was time to start the first day of work on the macadamia farm. It wasn’t picking season, so instead there were lots of other miscellaneous things to be done. Top of the list was clearing the recent tree cuttings. These cuttings were not from the macadamia trees, but from the shelter belt, which is what they call a line of tall trees that divide property lines and protect whatever it is you are growing on that property from strong winds (especially important in kiwi growing). The cutting was not finished yet since the leviathan machine used to do it broke a wheel during the first go. Because of this I was lucky enough to see the cutting in action and meet the fine gentleman who did the deed. The large apparatus consisting of three massive spinning circular blades mounted on a crane, mounted on a tractor body was handled by a stout kiwi man that looked like he did nothing but cut trees and drive tractors. He was tan from long days in the sun, rough shaven, and wore tiny shorts that I think were actually swimming trunks and a faded blue tank top that read “FBI” with the subtitle “Female Body Inspector” as if to indicate his other line of work. He also was completely barefoot and smoking the entire time I saw him operating the machine, walking on gravel and stepping on cut tree limb debris. Needless to say (but I will say it anyway), I really regret not taking a picture of this man. Perhaps this was a legendary blokey bloke I was told about...although they were supposed to be wearing beaters from Speight’s, a New Zealand beer brand, not these alternative law enforcement uniforms.

But before all this second round of cutting even began, we were still clearing from the first and I got to witness Henk’s inventive use of his old blue Ford tractor. It made the clearing a lot easier when he drove it backwards, scraping the rear platform on the ground to push the branches the way we wanted. Thinking back, I really should have gotten some tractor lessons from this obvious master while I had the chance. For the pieces that were too large, almost trees by themselves, I was tasked with cutting them up. Now, holding true to my personal vow at trying left-handedness while I was here, chain-sawing went better than expected. No lost appendages. Actually it was pretty easy and Henk even asked me if I was left handed, since he noticed I started the chainsaw that way. I felled a couple of trees and we added those to the now massive burn pile by the pond. I hoped I could see this burn pile in action, which is serious enough to require permit from the local fire department. I joked that we could have a real barbie on this, to which Henk gave me a good reply. Sometimes one of the sheep in their small flock will get sick and die, and when this happens he just tosses them on the burn pile! Chops, anyone? But they don’t eat it, since you shouldn’t eat sick dead animals and also there is nothing left from this glorious summer pyre. Almost nothing. Days later I found a crispy sheep skull near the burn pile at the other end of the property.

The first day of work was physically difficult (hauling logs and branches in the summer sun is sweaty stuff), but at the same time rewarding. We had a nice family dinner together that night, mostly getting to know each other more. Cheryl told me she likes cooking, but would rather not clean up. This made me think about the unusual position I was in: some kind of mix between house guest and servant. They served dinner to me and yet I cleaned up for them. I move their tree limbs and they give me a bed and shower. I like this. After that the days flowed into each other, as they should during the summer, and I did different tasks for a few hours during the day and relaxed in the evening. They liked to get any hard outside work done early while it’s cool, so I was usually done in the early afternoon which left me free to nap or read or Skype to far off places from the porch. There was an enjoyable rhythm to our activities but at the same time there was something new every day.

I met the inhabitants of the farm. Besides Princy, there were the chooks, a colloquial term which generally refers to all genders and ages of chicken. The chooks thought they owned the place, and would walk right in the house if the door was open to eat the cat’s food. One time there was a chook in the dishwasher! Then they also had the guinea fowl, the same kind I remember from Texas. All these birds produced a large number of eggs, certainly more than Henk and Cheryl ate alone. I tried to help out in this department, but could only do so much since I didn’t have a stove top in my kitchenette to make myself an omelette for breakfast. They gave excess to their two grown daughters that live in the area. Farm fresh eggs with their deep orange yolk are much better than store bought, which come from imprisoned egg-laying robochickens. But I wondered, what about fertilization? They have a cock around, on duty 24-7, so am I going to break open an egg and have a disgusting slimy baby chicken fetus fall out? I was an ignorant city boy, so I inquired about this. You can tell if an egg is fertilized by a barely noticeable white streak coming off the yolk. However a baby chicken will not start growing unless mother nature’s built-in timer is kicked off by the precision warmth of a hen’s bum. Fresh eggs can actually be kept around for up to a whopping 3 months (!) if they are rotated every once and a while, unlike store bought eggs which are dead on arrival and will go bad very soon if left out, and don’t even last that long refrigerated.

I also met the sheep. They are quite skittish, but easily lured in by the prospect of fresh macadamias. Yes, macadamias keep the whole place running: they are fed to the sheep, the chooks, Princess, and occasionally the hired help. Despite their timid nature, we (me and the sheep that is) met again in a different way later, when we had sausage for dinner. “Henk, this is good sausage. Is it made locally?” “Why yes, that’s sheep sausage from some of ours.” This was followed another night by grilled lamb chops...all part of the great circle of life. That’s right Simba, some day all you see will one day be yours...actually they did have a nice balance on the farm and it seemed very sustainable. The water came from a bore (deep groundwater well) and was kept in a wisteria covered tank after it went through the treatment system. All the wastewater from the house went through an exit treatment system and then watered the gardens. So that’s what makes the flax grow so big...

My other main task was taming the gardens, an annual event at the macadamia farm. The New Zealand flax is different from the flax you’re thinking of; no flax seeds for Omega-3’s and not the blue flower used for dye. These are pleasant little pointy plants when young, but soon turn into huge creatures that require discipline from a bush knife (machete)...left handed, of course. I spent many hours hacking limbs off the flax and decapitating agapanthus, but it wasn’t too horrible since I usually got a tea break midmorning. Being a spinoff of British society, the Kiwis drink a lot of tea and so I followed suit. It’s no real replacement for coffee, but a nice change of pace. Occasionally we had cake with the morning tea, as if I wasn’t well-fed enough. At most every meal we had I was expected to get seconds, since I was a growing boy, and this resulted in me eating upwards of five meals a day. And if this wasn’t enough, there were snacks of macadamias whenever we worked with them. I helped with the packaging of the nuts, which they sell at weekend markets like Matakana.

Saturday morning we got out the door at about 6 a.m. to get to the Matakana farmer’s market. Like most places, the landscape looked interesting that early in the morning. The orange sunlight was absorbed by fog looming over the land we passed as we drove. I helped unload and set up their stand, but wasn’t really expected to do more. I wandered around town, but it really thinned out into farm land down the main drag within a kilometer or so on each side, so there wasn’t much to see. The farmers market had everything from local garlic to local wine, and I sampled what I could as I wandered, entertained by the all-male retiree jazz trio playing. For lunch I grabbed a whitebait fritter based on Henk’s suggestion. Whitebait is a term for baby fish of several species that are (should be) clear when raw and white when cooked. They are eaten whole like sardines or anchovies, but don’t have a strong fishy flavor. My fritter was cooked in front of me by an Asian woman and when it was handed to me on a slice of white bread, I poured chili garlic sauce on the hundred little eyes looking up at me. I regret not taking a picture of it, because I like to take pictures of my food when I’m traveling. It helps when remembering things. You can look back and say, “Ooh, that was really good!” or, “I remember getting sick after that.” But I felt slightly foolish taking a picture out in the open of my fritter staring back at me. I think in the future I should pretend I am a culinary photographer...well with no picture I still remember it being a tasty lunchtime snack. As Henk and Cheryl gave out samples and answered how honey is made from nuts, I read in the shade by the stream. They worried that I was bored, but it was really a good leisurely day. Hey, at least I wasn’t chopping at flax. They had a good sales day and when we were all packed up, we went for a picnic at a nearby beach. Besides the view of blue water, I noticed the beach was littered with immaculately unbroken shells for the shell collector. These could make a nice bathroom collage for someone, but I had neither the time nor the interest for that. The other unusual thing about this park was that next to the beach a fenced-in area began. I asked Henk about this and he told me they dropped poison in the area to kill all foreign creatures like rats and possums, fenced it in, and repopulated it with native creatures, including kiwi. Sounded like they were only keeping the Aryans, but I guess the rats shouldn’t be there. Vineyards swooshed past in the warm sun on the ride back, a good view as Cheryl and myself took naps.
Sunday we tried a new market in Titirangi for selling nuts. Similar setup procedure, but this one was at some kind of community center and Henk and Cheryl were not happy about being stuck inside the gymnasium between the lamp lady and the all-natural baby sling lady. They would have done better outside between the hot sauce lady and the biogarden family. I took the recommendation to walk down the beach and I set off not knowing exactly where I was going. Titirangi is set in the south of the Waitakere Ranges, a large natural bush park west of Auckland. There are over 250 kilometers of walking tracks in Waitakere and getting lost is not uncommon. I found an entrance to a path that was not only marked by signs for the beach, but also some kind of memorial for a lost hiker. Undeterred, I entered the path hoping I would find the beach. I didn’t see how you could get lost, the path was clear. It was quiet besides a slight hum of background insect life and the koo-koos or kee-kees of birds often heard and seldom seen. I only passed one or two other hikers on my journey. The secluded sub-tropical forest is a good place to let the mind wander: you follow your thoughts in the same way that you follow the path before you. What could lie around the next turn? One never knows, but we must be prepared for the unexpected in life. The path indeed came out to a beach, but it was not like the one the day before. First there was a community center hall that was full of middle-aged people doing Tai-Chi or some other meditative martial art, but to Caribbean sounding music. I didn’t feel like joining in at the time so I headed towards the water. This was not a sandy beach for laying down towels. It clearly had a large tide and now was low tide. There was a long stretch of mud, rock, and ugly broken mussel shells with no one around to enjoy it. Despite the unappetizing beach scene, I walked out towards the water to explore. The edges of the mudscape away from the water were more interesting, covered by rocks worn smooth over centuries, which were in turn being made un-smooth by small shelled inhabitants. I walked back feeling slightly disappointed that the beach was not white sand covered in bronzed blondes needing a fresh coat of SPF 2 from someone, surfer dudes giving free lessons on their extra boards, and spontaneous volley ball games with its participants entreating me to join in as captain. I still enjoyed my jungley walk back.

At the market, Henk are Cheryl had disappointing sales to report and asked where I went. I told them about my trip and they said, “Oh, that’s where that hiker was just mysteriously killed not two weeks ago.” It turns out the memorial I saw was not for a lost hiker, but rather one that was murdered. Nice to know after I walk through there. With this news, I grabbed a little lunch. I tried a local favorite, the sausage roll, which is exactly what it sounds like: ground sausage rolled up in a flaky crust. From what I understand it serves a similar roll to the hot dog in American society...or the pylsa in Icelandic society. In the warm weather I read about the major New Zealand ski resorts as I ate, hunting for the one I wanted to work at this upcoming winter. The market ended early afternoon and we packed up most of the nuts we brought. Henk declared it the second worst sales day in the several month existence of their business. I decided I could no longer work and play in the sun without sunglasses or some kind of hat. I hadn’t seen any sunglasses around, but earlier I had seen a man selling all varieties of hats at the market. I discussed my requirements with him and the hat man recommended an Australian style oil skin hat that could safely be smashed up in a bag. I bought it at a fair price and felt like Indiana Jones wearing it, so the day was not a total loss.

Monday was back to business on the nut farm. I was helping renovate a room in my apartment into the nut storage facility. Previously the nuts for their business were packed away into linen closets and any spare storage they had in the house. The direct quote from Cheryl was, “I feel like I’ve got nuts coming out my ears!” I wired up some florescent lights, painted, and helped refurbish some cabinets to finally make what we unofficially called “The Nuthouse” into a working space. While I enjoyed the work there and it felt like home away from home, I knew I needed to move on and see more of New Zealand. I had contacted some other hosts through a few of my networks, but with no success. I particularly wanted to go to Waiheke Island. Situated next to Rangitoto, this little paradise was full of vineyards and people wishing to be near Auckland, but still removed. There was no work to be had there at the time and I decided I should get away from Auckland, but still no luck on landing work elsewhere. I got a surprise email from a host I hadn’t contacted and that started with the salutation “Dude,” continuing something like “got some easy work if ya keen.” This could be promising!

A guy named Rob was looking for some help, but didn’t really say what kind and it unfortunately wasn’t away from Auckland. In fact it was significantly closer to Auckland than the nut farm. Through a series of emails I found out little else about the place other than they are doing some improvements and need help. At least it’s a change of pace. I decided to take off the following weekend instead of going to market again. Now, I had this original idea before I came down that it would be really cool to walk everywhere. Everywhere. While possibly (definitely) difficult, I figured it would be worth it because I would really get to soak up more of the country and hey, I wasn’t in a rush. I could take it slow, I have at least a whole year. It will make me more physically fit and carbon free! So at the end of a pleasant week of gardening and watching the Australia Open finals with Henk and Cheryl, I was headed off for my second farm stay. For my last night with them, Henk and Cheryl took me to Murwai Beach for some sight-seeing and then we ate dinner at their daughter Justine's house. The beach had truly awesome views of cliffs fighting off the Tasman Sea and was great for surfing and swimming. I was impressed with Justine and her husband Joe’s house, a hundred year old villa that they had bought from somewhere in the city, cut in half, and moved to the country. Before dinner we were all easily entertained by Lily, their chubby little nearly one year old that had spent some time with us at the nut farm. The dinner of lamb chops, chicken wings, South African sausage, New Zealand wine, and all the supporting characters of pesto stuffed mushrooms, salad, etc. were an excellent send off for my journey the next day. After all, I needed to stock up on calories since I would be walking for about two days straight! Possibly.

More photos of this adventure here.

1 comment:

moire oasis said...

I think I loved this one best, as it brought me right along on your adventure. I told you about the shoe site and will let you know how it goes. Love, mom