Family Time

We left Tahiti heading for Auckland. It is a five hour flight that takes 27 hours because we cross the International Date Line. Thus, Thursday passed in a flash and we have no memory of it. Have we been robbed of a day of our lives? Perhaps we have been abducted by aliens who have tapped into our intelligence and studied my golf swing with interest before returning us to earth having erased our memories of the experience. If my intellectual copyright has been violated, I need a lawyer of the caliber who could get Stevie Wonder a driving license.

Anyway, the doctors would approve of 24 hours spent without taking a sip of alcohol — something that Debbie’s family in New Zealand is not going to allow happen over the next two weeks.  In fact our first port of call is Whangarei (pronounced fongeray) where certain members of the clan who are more reprobate than the others are gathering for a weekend of games and drunkenness at the home of Sue and Trombie. As I do not approve of such activity, I had great trepidation about attending and I wonder whether if I had hijacked the airplane (using our deadly dangerous bottle of Bombay Sapphire) and forced it to cross the International Date Line another four times we could miss the weekend altogether.

But there was no getting out of it without appearing gutless or rude (or both) and we arrived loaded with alcohol that I hoped everyone else would consume. All the games are played with your partner and despite some best efforts of others, who will remain nameless, we all managed to keep our appropriate spouses. The first activity was darts, a pastime at which Debbie excels, and, noting that some of the others were incapable of hitting the board, we were quietly confident that we could hold our own. Several hours later, we emerged the winners and retired to bed leaving our opposition to play some non-scoring card game that involved shouting and drinking until four in the morning.

new-zealand-Suenson-Taylor-004Starting without a hangover, we breezed Boules with an easy win before facing the blindfold quad-bike driving. The idea is that the driver is blindfolded while the rear passenger tells the driver where to steer around an obstacle course. It’s not only a challenge to the senses but a test of the marital relationship that brings much merriment to the spectators who provide unhelpful advice and abuse in equal measure. Our opposition had been doing this activity for years so we came last by some margin, mostly because of my inept driving since, with the engine revving loudly, I could swear we were moving when, in fact, we were stationery.

new-zealand-Suenson-Taylor-007We also came last at golf. It was the additional handicap of having to play right handed with rubbish equipment that did for us but, as neither Debbie nor I play golf, it was not unexpected. We again came last in another stupid activity involving spinning around on the spot ten times before attempting to walk between two sticks. new-zealand-Suenson-Taylor-008But we sprang back by introducing ‘throw the wellie’, a highly skilled sport that combines agility, strength and endurance that is peculiarly English and provided us with a simple win.

What happened after that is not entirely clear. I think the opposition employed underhand tactics and gamesmanship unfamiliar to the English officer class such that our plucky efforts continuously fell foul of the local rules official (our hostess Sue) who was desperate to win at all costs. A familiar story for the British athlete abroad.

As we finished, the news came through about the earthquake in Chile. A massive 8.6 centred close to Concepcion, about 500km south of Santiago. Our immediate concern was for Lauren who we knew was in Santiago when the earthquake erupted. Fortunately, she was OK. Having got back to her digs after a night out, she had been watching TV in the middle of the night when the tremors struck and her building shook violently but remained intact although the entire contents were hurled everywhere, smashing crockery and electrical goods. Chile is used to earthquakes (as regular readers will know) and most of the buildings have been constructed to withstand them when they happen. This forward planning has saved the country from a catastrophe and it is a miracle that more people did not die. I have to say that I feel very guilty about commenting in various blogs that an earthquake is overdue as if I was tempting fate. Little did I know that some 8 days after leaving the country one of the biggest quakes ever recorded would hit the region.

new-zealand-Suenson-Taylor-038We escaped the weekend in relatively good shape physically and headed north to Opua in the beautiful Bay of Islands to be greeted by the whirlwind that is Lisa and Holly, Debbie’s young nieces. Their parents, Brian and Ali, had recently acquired a hairy cat called Clifford to whom poor Debbie is violently allergic but, try as I might, I could not persuade it to play in the road or go for a swim.

new-zealand-Suenson-Taylor-010As we could not get rid of the cat, we headed north to Whatuwhiwhi (pronounced fatafifi after a good local Maori girl) on the Karikari Peninsula, just below Cape Reinga with Ali and the girls to stay at a batch perfectly positioned between three beaches that enabled us to pick the most protected waters at any given time. It was a lovely place with great views out the back that swept across fields down to the sea. Unfortunately, three kittens had taken up residence underneath the batch so poor Debbie had to endure even more time with allergies.

We took a fun trip up to the lighthouse at Cape Reinga with a bus driver who enjoyed making wisecracks and telling jokes: a chap has a carrot stuck in his left ear, a cucumber stuck in his right ear and a banana stuffed up his nose. He knows this isn’t normal so he goes to the doctor and says:

‘Doc, I’ve got a carrot stuck in my left ear, a cucumber stuck in my right ear and a banana stuffed up my nose. What’s wrong with me?’

The doctor takes one look at him and says

‘You’re not eating properly!’

The driver managed to keep this up most of the day laughing uncontrollably at his own ribaldry.

new-zealand-Suenson-Taylor-029The lighthouse at Cape Reinga is not the most northerly point of New Zealand (that accolade goes to North Cape, a few kilometers to the east) but it is where the Tasman Sea meets the Pacific Ocean in a line of white water that stretches way out to sea. It is also a sacred place for Maori who believe it is the place where the souls of the dead pass to Hawaiki, a mythical place where all Maoris hope to spend eternity. The spirits of the dead are believed to climb down the twisted tree roots of the Pohutukawa tree high on the cliff edge to reach the ocean before swimming north to the ancestral homeland.

First, the spirits have to pass two springs in the hillside below the cape. One is known as ‘Te Waiora a Tane’ (waters of life) and represents the cleansing of the dead person’s spirit (water used in funeral ceremonies throughout NZ is called ‘Te Waiora a Tane’). The other spring is called ‘Te Wai Whero o Rata’. If the spirit drinks the spring water they will carry on to the spiritual world, if they do not they will return to the land of the living.

The meeting of the oceans and turbulent waters are where the male sea ‘Te Moana ta Pukapuka o Tawhaki’ meets the female sea ‘Te Tai o Whitirela’. The whirlpools where the currents clash are like those that dance in the wake of the ‘waka’ (Maori canoe) and they represent the coming together of male and female in the creation of life.

new-zealand-Suenson-Taylor-015Full of myth, history and natural wonders, we then visited some giant sand dunes where we got out sleds and sped down the dunes at great speed and with little or no control.  The main purpose of the exercise seemed to be to fill my tradesmen’s entrance with sand – not an experience I would recommend.

new-zealand-Suenson-Taylor-023Returning to the bus with a slightly unusual gait, we drove onto the shore of Ninety Mile Beach where the old diesel engine struggled to push the mighty weight of the bus over soft, wet sand as the waves broke in a boiling white militaristic formation six or seven rows deep. The wet air was driven by fierce winds across the flat, golden sand that at low tide revealed a strip of beach that was 200 metres wide. We passed several vehicles that had perished on the shore having been trapped in soft sand and caught by the incoming tide leaving just the rusting roof or the bronzed front grille to mark the spot of their demise. Although Ninety Mile Beach is a testimony to Kiwi exaggeration (being a mere 67 miles long) it is a magnificent stretch of golden sand, far enough from civilization to be deserted most of the time and when not used as a racetrack by tourist buses or a launching spot for fishermen, it is one of the most lonely, unspoilt, free-spirited but windswept stretches of beach anywhere.

new-zealand-Suenson-Taylor-021We finished our northern sojourn with a spot of paddle-boarding on Whatuwhiwhi beach on a hot sunny morning when the sea was, thankfully, warmer than usual. It involved standing on a surfboard and shoving ourselves along using a one bladed paddle. Not particularly difficult in itself but very challenging in waves and a chop. The girls loved it. I think they fell off their boards on purpose to see who could execute the most graceful entry into the water. For myself, I stayed dry until Debbie joined me on my board sitting on the front with her legs draped over the side for extra stability. Not built for such weight, the board struggled to stay afloat but I struck out manfully with the long wooden paddle to move us into the wind and against the incoming tide. It all went surprisingly well until a large wave struck and gave Debbie the type of deep colonic irrigation for which A-list celebrities pay good money to rid themselves of anger and achieve inner peace. Perhaps because it was free, it had the opposite effect on my wife and, with the front of my board now completely out of control, we both took an early bath. When she came up for air, she was laughing. How odd girls can be!

Returning south to comparative civilization, we had a couple of goes at sea fishing. It involves heading out in a 20-foot boat, chucking a bait over the side and hoping that a snapper of sufficiently low intelligence hooks itself on the end of our line. Much shouting and jumping about then ensues while we try to keep the fish on the line long enough to get it into the boat where it is judged either big enough to be legal and kept for dinner or too small even for a kids menu and thrown back. For some reason, it is always the girls who land the biggest and best fish while the boys return empty handed. This is the truth of the saying ‘teach a man to dig a well and he will never be thirsty, teach a man to fish and he will sit in a boat all day drinking beer.’

My own sea-fishing safaris bear this out, having been spectacularly unsuccessful in catching fish while gently nurturing my skills at drinking beer and talking bollocks. It’s amazing how it is possible to have so much fun without anything to show for it, particularly dinner. The menu was hastily changed from fresh line caught snapper baked in a reduction of organic lemon jus and garlic to take-away pizza.

After eight years of trying, my snapper catching duck was finally broken when I pulled out a young inexperienced fish. After being covered in oil and stretched out on a rack, it just about made the legal minimum of 30cm in length. Being too small to feed four of us it was whisked away by our hosts, Craig and Lynn, to be consumed for a fish and chip supper on a Friday evening in front of a girlie DVD such as Legally Blond 23.

We finished our New Zealand experience with a visit to Alison and Mick Mather who had generously lent us their cherished 12 year old diesel people carrier for our time in their wonderful country. It was in pristine condition without a scratch and shining like a new pin (presumably having been cleaned by Alison) and I rather wished that I had been lent a beaten up ex-stock-car racer. We returned their kindness and their vehicle with a cracked windscreen but at least I could testify that it did 160 kmph downhill and downwind and would go 70 in reverse.

We had a great couple of evenings in Huntly being shown the local sights, devouring Alison’s wonderful cooking. Debbie spent time taking notes while being told all the secrets that their children would rather never be made public and I learnt the secrets of Kiwi rugby from Mick. There was a Super 14 rugby match on at nearby Hamilton involving half the All Blacks team and I promised Mick that I would not tell everyone that he refused to take me to the game because he gave me $10 for my silence.

So ended our time in New Zealand. We had a wonderful break from our travels, a chance to wash clothes and recharge the batteries for desperate times ahead. As always we were made to feel very welcome and entirely relaxed and at home and everyone went out of their way to ensure we were entertained. Nothing was too much trouble and the generosity of everyone was embarrassing. But if they think they are going to send their kids to stay with us in Europe during their gap years, they have another thing coming!

Family Time
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