Easter Break - Part 1: Collingwood

Emma Lodes University of Otago, New Zealand


April 27, 2015

At the northwest tip of New Zealand’s south island, a long, skinny peninsula of golden sand sweeps up and curls over in a delicate C, sheltering waters between the north and south island called Golden Bay. It’s an oasis of stiller water and better weather between the Tasman sea and the dangerous and unpredictable Cook Strait, and harbors a scattering of small communities known for rural hippy vibes and artists.

The north and west parts of Golden Bay are almost completely unpopulated, the land set aside for national parks which house two Great Walks: the coastal, nearly tropical Abel Tasman where the Abel Tasman Great Walk is, and the mountainous Kahurangi, which encompasses the Heaphy Great Walk. Along the bay are two small, rural towns, Collingwood and Takaka. Collingwood is made up of a couple hundred farm houses splayed out amongst a landscape of cow-covered green rolling fields and hills leading up to the distant, forested mountains of Kahurangi National Park. It’s a small, tight community with a teeny town center on the beach– one pub, one little grocery store, one little bank.

Anna, Bri’s kiwi host two doors down on Castle Street, is from Collingwood. A couple weeks ago, Otago’s week-long Easter Break (their equivalent of Spring Break) was coming up and Riz and I were debating whether to shoot for hiking the Abel Tasman or Heaphy Great Walks. When Anna mentioned she lived 20 minutes away from the start of the Heaphy and was having people over at her house for break, we jumped on that idea and claimed a couple spots in a car for the long (12 hour) haul up to Collingwood. 

So Easter break began on April 3rd with a massive early morning, Collingwood-bound car caravan. Anna happens to be friends with Micah’s kiwi host, so half of Micah’s flat came up too; it ended up being half of Bri’s flat, half of Micah’s flat, and Riz and I. We gathered at Bri’s house at 7am for a 12-hour drive up the East Coast of the south island, cars laden with emergency snacks: it was Good Friday, so all stores were required to close all day. (That’s one difference in NZ: stores are required by law to close on holidays. Enforced relaxation.)

We drove up the East Coast through Canterbury on Highway 1, passing Omaru, Timaru and Christchurch, then cut inland on the 7 towards Lewis Pass, jotted up north on the 65 to Murchison, curved west on the 6 past Nelson, and finished on the 60 to Collingwood, where Highway 60 ends (see the map). We didn’t experience the entire East Coast, and missed out on Picton and Nelson (northeast South Island), but it was definitely enough driving for one day.

We were on a mission; we stopped only to refuel the car at gas stations and relieve ourselves in the gas station toilets. Music carried our spirits a long way, especially when we realized there was a famous musician in the car: Micah’s flat mate (Alex)’s best friend Nick is in a great band, Squirmy and the Woolens. He had brought his mini travel guitar– which was decked out in colorful designs, quotes, and a list of all the places it had traveled– and strummed us a soundtrack to the sunny scene out the car window. When it got dark, Anna’s brother William hooked it up with an hour of Aziz Ansari standup from his iPod, so we laughed until we peed for the last bit of the ride while munching on McDonalds burgers we had picked up in Takaka (It seems McDonalds, the heathens, do not believe in Good Friday).

Before arriving, all we knew about Anna’s house was it was essentially a small farm in a rural area. Most of the group were only going to be there for one day (Saturday) before taking off for the Abel Tasman, and Riz and I planned to peace out for the Heaphy on Monday. We all expected to stay out of Anna’s family’s business, set up our tents in the big back yard and fend for ourselves the whole time. So what came was a wonderfully pleasant surprise.

We pulled into Anna’s dark gravel driveway around 10pm and stumbled out of the car, upset that the drive was over, now that we were so immersed in Aziz’s jokes. Anna’s mom and Dad, Marta and Robert, were standing on the warmly lit porch to greet us with hugs, kisses and hand shakes, memorizing everyone’s names and ushering us inside. Three tents were already set up in the back yard, complete with pads and blankets. Inside, the family sat us down in the homey living room and brought us snacks and tea. All three of Anna’s siblings emerged to meet and host us. We were showered in the warmest of Kiwi hospitality.

Anna’s mom and dad immigrated to NZ from Hungary and England (respectively). They only settled in Collingwood after scouring the world for the perfect place to settle down and raise children in a naturally beautiful place, where they could live off the land to a certain extent. The choice was narrowed down to Seattle, British Colombia and New Zealand when they made their choice. Golden Bay came out on top partially because of its variable climate that allows them to grow anything from avocado to apples to corn to walnuts to bananas.

In the time we spent at their house, nearly everything we ate was grown on their land, in orchards and gardens. The porch was constantly stocked with barrels of apples, feijoas (a subtropical fruit kind of like a kiwi that you eat with a spoon), walnuts, pears, and chestnuts. They made their own bread, caught their own fish, and roasted their own potatoes. If that's not enough, they bought their own TV with gold flakes that they panned from the region’s gold-rich rivers. (Collingwood was a gold boom-town in the mid 1800’s, and was almost considered for NZ’s capital).

We hit the sack pretty fast that first night, and woke up the next morning to brilliant sunshine, blue skies, green flowery gardens, and a breakfast spread laid out for us by the family: fresh fruits and nuts, bread, cereals and coffee. I went on a long morning run down the country road, passing fields of cows and the foothills of the Tasman Mountains. The landscape looked like tropical farmland, reminiscent of Central America, and then ahead reminded me of the Swiss Alps. As I passed cow fields, the herds ran along side me, leaping and hopping until they came to their fence. Riz and I took a field trip to the walnut trees and picked walnuts off the ground, breaking them open to find the brain-like nut inside. 

In the afternoon, we all loaded up into cars to the rugby field to cheer on William at his big game (Collingwood v Takaka). The Collingwood team was a multigenerational conglomeration of Collingwood men, and most of the town came out to cheer them on. There were no grand stands of spectators, food carts, chants or cheerleaders, just a simple grass field surrounded by trees and a gaggle of admiring family members cheering on their boys. It was really cool watching Anna run around and greet family and friends, and realize that connections in the town run deep and span generations. When Collingwood won, the adults retired into the hut next to the field to grab a beer while the boys showered, and then everyone came out again to watch the coach and captain present their speeches.

Eventually, the town slowly meandered down the road to the town’s only pub to continue celebrating. Since the weather was so nice Bri, Riz, Alex, Nick and I decided to walk. It was about a 15 minute walk to town, which sat at the mouth of the slow, meandering Aorere river, where it empties out into the tranquil Golden Bay. Rather than the road (which is Highway 60– it also empties into the sea), we decided to follow the river to town and to the sea. So we stripped our shoes and wandered through reeds and pebbles until it got too deep. We ordered fish and chips (locally caught) at the pub and sat on the water’s edge to watch the sunset as we ate.

As the evening deepened, the pub became essentially a family celebration as the rugby team bought rounds of beers and someone got the old-fashioned jukebox going. We met aunts, uncles, cousins and brothers, danced to the slightly-out dated but incredibly exciting throwback music we found on the jukebox, and played rounds of pool. It was loads of fun and the most genuinely small-town Kiwi experience I’ve had so far and maybe will have in my time here.

The pub closed near midnight and they put us on the free shuttle back to Anna’s. Walking down her gravel driveway, we scanned the sky for a full moon: we had noticed the night before it was almost full, so it should be full tonight. It was no where to be seen! The sky was completely dark but for stars. Someone has taken the moon!

Finally, someone spotted a red sliver in the sky. Was THAT the moon?! Someone taken to the moon with a carving knife and left but a sliver, painted in lunar blood. But no– it was an ECLIPSE! It was a total lunar eclipse, or “Blood Moon”, the third eclipse in the 2014-2015 tetrad. The moon was totally eclipsed, or completely hidden from sight for a full five minutes, so it honestly was gone. We had the crazy fortune to notice its absence in that exact time span, and to top it off, the sky was the clearest of clear, making the slowly emerging blood-red moon and the surrounding stars stand out in stark clarity.

In this eclipse, the moon’s shadow, or Umbra, moved across the moon to fully obscure it, and then continued to move to reveal it once again, in a matter of hours. How did the earth move so fast? The moon, earth and sun have to be perfectly aligned in a straight line for the moon to completely disappear in the earth’s shadow. The red color comes from the light from earth’s atmosphere refracting off the moon, a process that blocks some wavelengths of light and keeps red. Apparently, the eclipse was only fully visible in Siberia, northwestern Alaska, Western Australia and New Zealand (and most of Antarctica). 

After a few minutes of watching the moon emerge, our attention shifted towards the stars. You could see the Milky Way stand out strongly against the black heavens in a thick, dense, milky stripe, nearly purple. Clouds of thousands of tiny stars millions of lightyears away hovered in like puffs of milky white. Each star stood out like a brilliant gem, and shooting stars flew across the sky every five seconds, it seemed. One shooting star, or asteroid, truly looked like a burning mass of rock; you could see the heavy material on fire and flying through space with a distinct stripe of color trailing the flame. It was the first shooting star I’d seen like that, and the best stars I’ve ever seen. The absence of light pollution, the absence of clouds, and the absence of moon came together in a harmonic trio of celestial clarity. As we watched the heavens, Nick and Alex took turns playing softly on the travel guitar, and we sang along to the songs we knew. It was the best surprise I could imagine.

The next morning we awoke to sunshine and green again, and another surprise: it was Easter! Some how, it hadn’t crossed my mind once that we would be at Anna’s for Easter. But of course the family went into full on Easter mode; I went on a run and Riz and Bri went biking while Marta hid bushels of eggs all over the property for her kids. We got to help on the hunt; turns out they were all hidden high, high up in trees, making for an adventurous hunt.

While the kids were hunting, Marta was cooking up an Easter feast. Most of our crew had left for the Abel Tasman, so just Riz, Bri and I got to spend Easter with the family. The feast was a spread of moist chicken, gravy and cranberry sauce, an array of vegetables and potatoes from the garden, and watermelon and cantaloupe for dessert. We stuffed ourselves fully and then lazed around in the sunshine until it was time for the next Easter activity: Fishing.

Robert, her dad, took us on the fishing adventure. The destination was Whanganui Inlet, a drowned river valley and one of New Zealand’s largest and least modified estuaries. The landscape– a mix of tidal channels and native coastal forest– has deemed the estuary a combination marine and wildlife reserve. To reach the flats we walked along a farm and then through forest, thick rubber gumboots on our feet and long fishing poles on our backs.

The edge of the woods came suddenly; trees parted to reveal a seemingly never-ending expanse of tidal flats spreading out to a narrow strip of ocean water and the distant mountains. Twice a day, the sea creeps up the valley and laps at the forest edge, creating intricate ripple patterns and depositing shells in the vast stretch of flat, shining sand. Walking across the flats felt like walking on a treadmill, across an empty desert, such was the expanse of flatness with no landmarks between us and the mountains on the other side. We walked to where the narrow strip of water lay at low tide and set up our poles, weary that the tide would be coming in towards us as night fell, to slowly envelop the ancient river valley in water.

Robert and the kids took control of setting up the poles and attaching the bait (squid), and we all took turns fishing. The key is patience and vigilance; hold the pole with tender fingers to feel for a bite. A fish could nibble the squid and swim away, but if it’s eaten the hook, you have to reel it in. Whoever wasn’t fishing got to snack on chocolate easter eggs and throw the frisbee for Taz, the sheepdog mutt, who was more interested in swimming around with the frisbee than returning it to land. The fish of choice at the inlet are snappers. We ended up catching three of them; beautiful silver fish with turquoise spots lining their sides.

When the sun was beginning to go down, Bri and I decided to jog over to a strange orange vegetated rock formation in the middle of the tidal flats. It looked as if it had been swept and carved by the tides into a funky, sculpted formation. Wavy stripes of yellow and orange sandstone decorated its sides and it was topped off with a bright green hairdo of bushes, swept dramatically towards the ocean. We climbed to the top of one of the mounds and peeked over the bushes towards the others, admiring this landscape out of an artist’s dream.

It was dark soon and we headed back through the woods, satisfied with three fat snappers. As soon as we got back, Robert gutted and cleaned the fish, and popped them straight into the deep fat frier with some potatoes. We feasted on the fresh fish while watching Avatar, and then got the treat of getting to sleep inside in the guest room before we’d start the Heaphy track the following day.

After only two days with the family, leaving Collingwood was hard. We’d found a short term surrogate family who lived in an idyllic way: In harmony with nature and the land and removed from the dirt and bustle of a city, while still benefiting from a first world society’s infrastructure. They really had found a sweet spot in the lush northwest south island, and we had stumbled across a gem of a surprise. The Heaphy track had been Easter Break’s focus, and now our two days in Collingwood may have turned into the week’s highlight. But on Monday morning, Robert drove us to the store to get camping food and we packed up our bags for the Heaphy, to come next post….


New Zealand Travel