March 1, 2012
James and I were dripping with sweat on a brutally sunny day. We had just finished a week-long trek in the New Zealand backcountry, where we camped by rivers and enjoyed spectacular views of the Southern Alps. Now, our backpacks strewn aside, we stood with our thumbs up by the roadside, desperate for an air-conditioned car. After spending a night in Queenstown to recuperate from our hike, we were off to get a taste of dairy farming down south.
I was just about ready to dump some water on my head when a man approached us. He looked to be in his 60’s, standing slouched with his hands on his hips, his grey hair and bushy beard frazzled in the heat.
“I’ve lost my nugget,” he said, looking puzzled. “I must have dropped it across the road somewhere. My auntie lives here,” he says, guesturing at the house who’s driveway we have been occupying for the last half-hour. “Have you seen my nugget?”
We walked around the pavement and street with him, scanning the ground, but we didn’t see it. After one last hopeful search in the bushes around the street, he smiled at us and says, “Oh well, It’ll pop up later.” He was holding a little terrier he introduced to us as Tom, and then told us his name is Mark.
“I can never resist hitchhikers,” he tells us with glee. “I’ll go get my car.”
James and I looked at each other apprehensively, but Mark had struck us both as a genuine guy, if a bit eccentric. He was going out of his way to take us to our next destination. When he brought his muddy jeep around James sat up front and I cuddled in the back with Tom.
Mark loves to talk, a common condition of most people who pick up hitchhikers. He told us about his livelihood, panel beating (making the metal panels for cars) and his hobbies, goldmining and collecting ambergris, whalebones, and strange rocks along the beach by his house. Our first stop was a gas station where we bought popsicles. James and I couldn’t decide between the ginger beer or the kiwifruit flavor so we got both to share. Back on the road again, Mark offered to show us a few places on our way where he went camping as a kid.
He pulled off the main highway onto a rocky unsealed road, and took us to a lovely, calm river with a wide space perfect for a swim. Mark asked us if we mind if he hopped in – of course not, we want to get in too, it’s bloody hot!
Mark stripped down naked and waded into the freezing glacier water. Tom got his feet wet and then waited in the car. James and I followed in our bathers. The water was intensely cold but after a few minutes I was ready to get out and dry in the sun.
Back in the car, we drove for another hour but it was starting to get dark.
“Hey I think my friend Norman lives around here. I bet we can stay with him.” At this point, why not?
Mark didn’t know where exactly his friend lived but he seemed unconcerned. He went into the only bar in Balfour, a middle-of-nowhere kind of town, and asked them where Norman lives. They knew Norman, but told Mark that he lives in the next town over.
So after a few more kilometers Mark went into the bar at Riversdale, where he got directions from someone that said Norman lived in “the house with the longest grass.”
James spots Norman’s place as we drive down the only residential street in town. It’s a single-story, rusty house with an untidy lawn stretching out a bit further than the other houses. We pulled in and parked.
Norman comes out to greet us as if he had been expecting us. “I was going to go to Gore with some friends today, but I had this feeling that I needed to be here. Good to see you, Mark.” Norman’s skin in pink and shiny from too much sun. He has an unusually hairy neck. He’s bald, pot-bellied but strong-looking, and wearing a stained red shirt with holes in the armpits. We later find out he shears sheep for a living.
“Norman, this is Amber and James, some hitchhikers I picked up a few hours ago.” Mark introduced us proudly.
We exchanged pleasantries and Norman lead us into his home, and told us he’s decided to give us a full Maori greeting. It turns out even though Norman is as white as can be, he is a ‘paheka’- a white guy obsessed with all things Maori. He knows their language fluently, can make a traditional hangi meal (roasting a pig underground with hot rocks in a pit oven), and is absolutely obsessed with basket weaving. His house is one of the dirtiest I’ve ever seen – his living room is strewn with stray flax strands and half-finished projects, newspapers and trash are stacked in every corner, the kitchen looks as though it hasn’t been cleaned in at least a year.
Norman started the welcome ceremony by singing us a song in Maori, and then asked us to sing a song or say something to introduce ourselves to the group. Then he gave a long speech in Maori and translated it for us – you are all welcome here, thanks for coming, etc etc – and then we finished with the hungi, each touching foreheads and noses. I held my breath when I touched my forehead to Norman’s sweaty bald head, and when it was over he said, “Well you’re meant to breathe in a little bit of each other’s air, or life force, but that’s alright.”
He offered us the living room to sleep in and even started to move some of the piles of trash so we could lay out our sleeping bags, but I politely declined. He left the bathtub running a few days ago and the carpet is soaking wet. We decided instead to set up our tent on his front lawn. Mark slept in his car.
The next day all four of us headed to Piano Flat, a lovely camping spot where Mark used to go as a kid, and we spent the day lounging by the river. Mark did some gold mining and we all went swimming.
At the end of the day, Mark finally dropped us off in Edendale, another small town where we were headed to start work on a dairy farm. He invited us to stay with him at his home in Cozy Nook, where he claimed you can cast a fishing pole into the ocean from his front porch. I didn’t quite believe him then, but we found out that he wasn’t lying the next weekend when we went to visit him!