It is the summer holidays in NZ, it is January, which is a strange concept for northern hemispherers. Don and few of their friends have hired a couple of cottages on the Coromandel. On the way round to the large peninsula, there is no quick direct car ferry; we happen across an incredibly verdant steep valley that we have a full perspective down for about as far as the eye can see. I’m in the Enema with Don, and the compulsion to stop and behold the untold beauty is too much. I pull into a carpark at the head of the valley, “This is incredible, Don.””You ain’t seen nothing yet, mate.”He replies just as the wife has the same urge in the other car. Lauren is more measured, “Yep, this is New Zealand for yer.”Don tries to explain we will see far more and different bounteous beauty in the weeks ahead, we are excited that this is only just a taster.
We arrive in Whiratoa, a sleepy village; its population has just swelled by 13% with our entourage. A lovely freshwater river bisects the beach and we all body-board down it to the sea, Lauren calls it boggie-boarding.
It is here after an impromptu game of football in the tiny garden, that my right lower leg swells half in size again – I know what it is; it’s a varicose vein that has been getting progressively worse, reminding me that I’m getting old; and once upon a time I used to hurtle, well, amble around a football pitch in my youth, now my slowed vascular system is paying me back for my reduced lack of exercise! I know it’s a varicose vein, I’ve inherited it from my father; it’s his legacy (sorry) to me. His worse one, miraculously seemed to right itself after being bitten by an insect! I kid you not, the specialist said it can happen, “The silver-backed flea from the island of Pellucidar can sometimes travel by the light of a full moon to heal the inflicted. “Okay, he didn’t say that, but it did appear to heal him, there would be no such benevolent flea around for me. I would later, back England, have my surface and now superfluous vein yanked through a small incision in my groin with a pair of pliers! There are less medieval remedies available now, but these are never proffered to me at the time of pre-primitive yanking! This would not be the only operation I would need on my arrival back into The National Health Service, but more of that later in another country.
One of the party is a nurse and makes me rest with my foot up while drinking cold white wine. The next day the swelling has reduced slightly, I’m les concerned than the others; I refuse to let a small ailment halt me. I tell people it is gout from drinking too much port with a poet laureate.
Only one native Kiwi makes the journey up the coast to the Hot Water Bay of Whangamata, the rest have visited too many times to make the trip unless they have to. New Zealand is small place and everyone appears to know everyone, on the way up the one native knocks on two doors to borrow spades to dig us into the hot sands – his dad and his dad’s mate. The thermal part of the beach is quite busy, by NZ standards, and we have to wait a while to get dug in, but being immersed in warm sediment is not something you should avoid if you have the chance. It is late by the time we set off back, less than an hour’s return journey, but NZ in The Sticks, shuts early, and there are no petrol stations open, this is something to be mindful of if you intend to travel at night, or very early in the morning.
After a few pleasant days we leave most behind and head off with Don’s family and ours. We are en-route to visit Lauren’s parents outside Whakatane, pronounced: Fa-ka-tah-ni. Our kids think this is hilarious, and take every opportunity to say ‘FUCK-IT-tani!’, they never tire of it.’ We stop on the seafront in Tauranga/Mount Maunganui and buy delicious ice creams – NZ does amazing ice creams and coffee. We go and have a look at the open-air swimming lido and then sit watching the surfers on the artificial reef. All the girls collect shells on the beach, we are all happy and healthy, and any more is just greed. I’m with one of my best mates, that normally lives on the other side of the planet from me, I tell him it is great, all of it. This is why he left gritty South London, so his children could grow up in this environment.
We eventually arrive at Lauren’s parents’ place; it looks out across a very quiet road, a wide mowed lawn to the sea. It is the type of property if it was in California would cost about $30 million. We know Lauren’s parents well; we have holidayed with them in Cornwall and seen them in London on another occasion. Lauren’s dad, Alan (real name) is an amazing interesting humble understated man. He is one of those elderly men that can regale you with anecdotes of life that draw you in. We have had a few sneaky beers in the past, but he is not well, he is dying of cancer, a few months at most, he will leave a gaping hole in many lives. We are alone just the two of us in the living room, I ask him straight. “ How are you doing, Alan?”He’s a glass always at least half full/no worries, type of guy – he reminds me of my own Granddad. I’m a little shocked when he replies, “Not good, I’ve not got long left now.”I cast my mind back and try and think of a time I have ever heard him say anything negative, I draw a blank. We stir at each other, both lost for words; eventually he breaks us out of our reveries. “I need to sell the piano before I go.” “Listen to me, Alan, leave the bloody piano for someone else to sort out. You concentrate on keeping as well as you can.” I’m sharp with him, a little too sharp, still in shock. “Yip, your right.”It is the words he needs to hear, I think, not that any great cognition has gone into my retort.
We have a free reign of an elderly female friend of the family’s house to stay in while they are there. On the fridge is a magnet that states: ‘Life is too short to drink cheap wine.’ I always remember it when I’m umming and erring about buying wine. It is not the only motto to live your life by, but it is added to the pantheon of aphorisms and makes buying fermented grape juice easier. The pea-factory-three are reunited and we exchange stories of when we were all younger, and much, much dafter.
The boy is keen to learn to surf, so we book him into a surf school while we have a base a for a few days. The surf leader is called: The Beaver, which the boy tells us all with a straight face and we all fall about laughing. “What’s his real name?” I enquire, “The Beaver!” the boy retorts in all honesty, making us all laugh again, he is uncertain why it is so hilarious, so the next day I make a point at the end of the surf lesson of introducing myself. “Hi, I’m Ian.” “Beaver,” replies The Beaver with a straight face and irony imprisoned somewhere on a far-off island oubliette. “Pleased to meet you Mr Beaver,” like he is a character from Wind in the Willows with no sense of humour. The Beaver continues to make us laugh the next night helped by the warm glow of medium priced wine.
A few weeks later when we are on the road, I get a text to say Alan has passed away. We cannot make the funeral as we are at the bottom of the South Island, he is the only white person to be buried in The Maori graveyard with full honours, he was a man that only ever saw the best in people, regardless of what, or who they were.
Just a working class hero, not famous, a father, an uncle, a brother, just like the ones, if we are lucky, that we have in our own families. That led by example, and pass down morals, whatever shite life throws at us, or the mist of existential angst that we have to wade through, a moral compass that always pointed true and home – great people passing leave gaping holes, that even time finds hard to fill in.
Next time: Maori, and Ivory
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