Making friends with the locals

When you set off on a road trip it’s good form to make friends with the locals.  They come in all shapes and sizes, the locals: big and small, young and old, lively and lazy, scruffy and cute-as-hell.  Since we’ve been in New Zealand I’ve made a point of getting to know a few of them, and now is probably a good time to bring you up to speed with the best of the bunch so far.

Floyd

In Picton we spent a couple of nights at Kippilaw House, a comfortable homestay run by Margaret and Bill.  Margaret’s breakfasts are to die for, and the couple’s dogs are wonderful too. Floyd is six or seven years old, and obviously loves living in a homestay.  He greets strangers with a deafening bark, but only because he’s heard that’s what guard dogs do. 

Floyd’s bark is definitely worse than his bite.  He’s plainly delighted that Margaret and Bill welcome a constant stream of guests into their house, guests who like me are only too willing to scratch his back and rub behind his ears.  He also likes to relax on the sofa and lap up the adoration heaped upon him by every human being who happens to pass through Kippilaw House.

Clyde

Floyd shares the house with his old buddy Clyde.  Clyde’s a lovely chap, 16 years old and rather portly.  He appears to spend most of the day snoozing., content in the knowledge that his best pal Floyd is keeping the guests entertained. But when there’s the chance that a mug like me will give him some attention he wakes from his slumber and presents his ears for tickling.

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Much to Mrs P’s dismay cats appear to be a bit thin on the ground in New Zealand, but one evening in Picton we were walking out to get dinner and met a fine young fellow down by the harbour.  I greeted him warmly, and he was only too pleased to offer his head for stroking. 

At last, a cat!

In typical moggie fashion, the meeting was on his terms and as soon as he knew he’d won me over he hurried away, presumably to find another new best friend.  Poor Mrs P was holding the camera and never got to say hello to him at all. Pig sick, she was.

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Omau Settlers Motel is an unpretentious and comfortable motel near Westport, close to Cape Foulwind.  The motel doesn’t do food, so we nipped next door to the Star Tavern for dinner, where we were greeted by Guv, a giant golden Bull Mastiff. 

Actually, “greeted” is stretching a point; Guv was laid out in the doorway, snoozing. He hardly batted an eye as we entered, and probably he qualifies as New Zealand’s least attentive guard dog.  But let’s face it, built the way he is he doesn’t need to do anything to act as a deterrent to ne’er-do-wells. As threatening as Mike Tyson on steroids, nobody’s going to take risks with him.

Guv

By the time we’d eaten our dinner Guv had stirred, and the gentle giant wandered over to bid me a fond farewell.  What a lovely lad he is.

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Lee and Karen, hosts at the Omau Settlers Motel, are a jovial and friendly couple who share their property with two dogs.  The older of the two likes eating carrots. Or maybe he just tolerates eating carrots until he’s offered something more enticing?

Snacking on carrots

But the undoubted star of the show is Alfie, or Alfred the Great to give him his full name.  He’s a nine months old Chihuahua, and probably the cutest dog in New Zealand. I fell in love with him instantly, and even Mrs P – who prefers cats to dogs – was smitten.

Alfred the Great, a.k.a. Alfie

Within seconds Alfie and I were the best of friends, so Karen took a photo and a minute later I was starring on the motel’s Facebook page (see below). 

Alfie is a great dog, and so tiny that I could easily slip him in my pocket and kidnap him.  And believe me, I was so tempted …

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Of course it’s great to make friends with the locals and, as you can see from the preceding paragraphs, I’ve been free and easy with my friendship since arriving here.  But what about the other way round; what if the locals take a shine to us?  

And here we have a problem.  After leaving Cape Foulwind we’ll be heading south along the west coast, the land where the sandflies rule.  We read up about the Sandfly Menace back in the UK and since arriving on these shores countless Kiwis have warned us that these tiny insects are likely to make our lives hell, biting and sucking our blood until we’re begging for mercy.  

So, while I’m always pleased to make friends with the locals, I sincerely hope this particular gang won’t want to make friends with us.

A visit to New Zealand’s most active volcano

White Island (Whakaari) lies 49km off the small North Island town Whakatane. It is New Zealand’s most active volcano, and is regarded as one of the world’s most accessible live volcanoes. Inevitably, therefore, we are keen to pay it a visit.

The trouble is, we’ve not had much luck with boat trips since arriving in New Zealand, and we’re worried that this might be the third in a row to be cancelled due to the weather. But for once the gods smile upon us. Although the sea’s choppy, the wind has dropped a bit and the captain decides it’s safe to leave the protection of the harbour.

As soon as we’re in open water the boat begins to bounce and roll on the waves. Mrs P and I have taken the precaution of having only a modest, light breakfast and so are untroubled by the motion of the ocean. Many of our fellow travellers have been less circumspect, and their breakfasts come back up to haunt them.

Pretty soon we’re passing the steep, heavily wooded volcanic island of Whale Island (Moutohora), which, being free of rats and other introduced mammalian predators, is now a haven for native birds. It’s an impressive sight, clad in thick vegetation and rising steeply from sea, but there’s no time to stop and admire it. The boat speeds on, its spray creating a rainbow that appears to sit over the top of Whale Island, while we concentrate on staring out to sea and ignore the moans and groans of our bilious buddies in the passenger lounge.

At last, after around 90 minutes, we make our final approach to White Island, from the centre of which rises a mighty cloud of steam.  It’s impossible for our little boat to land there, so we all clamber into inflatable landing craft to be transferred ashore. But not before we’re issued with our safety gear.

First there’s the life jacket, in case we fall overboard during the transfer.  Then there’s the canary yellow hard hat, in case the volcano has a hissy fit and starts showering us with rocks.  And finally we are handed a gas mask, in case the bugger tries to poison us instead. Bloody hell, this is supposed to be a holiday, not a training exercise for the Marines or the SAS.  Thank god we updated our wills before we left the UK.

As it happens the transfer on to dry land goes well, and nobody dies.  Once there we clamber over boulders and gather into groups to be ushered around the island by our guides.  There are stern warnings not to stray off the path: the crust in places is wafer thin, and beneath it lies pits of baking rocks that will fry you alive in seconds.  Nobody needs to be told twice.

The landscape is stark and barren, mostly shades of grey and white, but interspersed with splashes of vivid colour courtesy of the sulphur and other minerals that the volcano has spewed out over the years.  Inevitably a sulphurous stink hangs over the island, although to be fair we’ve experienced worse. We don our gas masks for a once-in-a-lifetime photo opportunity, but they aren’t really needed for most of our 90 minutes on the island.

Some of the dangers here, such as the steaming craters, are obvious to the naked eye but others aren’t immediately apparent.  The acidic nature of the rocks on which we walk doesn’t enter our thoughts until our guide, who does this trip most days, tells us he gets through a pair of shoes a month thanks to the acid that eats away at them every time he sets foot here.

As we cast our eyes over the grim wasteland that is White Island it’s difficult to believe people have ever lived here.  But they have, albeit in pursuit of the dollar. There have been several attempts to establish a sulphur mining industry, all of which failed due to the remoteness of the island and the inherent challenges of mining in such a hostile environment. 

Although mining continued sporadically until the 1930s the most notable event in the history of the industry was on 10 September 1914, when 11 men were killed by a massive landslide and the accompanying torrent of mud and rock (known as a lahar), caused when part of the volcano’s main crater wall collapsed. 

The outside world knew nothing of the disaster until the skipper of a supply boat sailed to the island on 15 September and witnessed the devastation.  He returned a few days later with a rescue party but found no survivors other than the camp cat, Peter. The Bay of Plenty Times reported on the scene that the skipper encountered:

He was confronted by “a scene of desolation”, according to the Bay of Plenty Times.  “The effect of the eruption seems to have been to throw the whole hillside overlooking the large lake and camp into the lake and over the whole surrounding area, completely burying the works, dwellings, boats, small wharf and all the inhabitants.  The camp was obliterated, the buildings being buried in about 20 feet of sulphurous mud.”

Source:  Article in New Zealand Herald, 12 September 2017, retrieved 21 October 2019

Interestingly Peter, the only survivor of the disaster, became a bit of a celebrity in his own right.  Having cheated death and used up eight of his nine lives, the cat decided to devote the rest of his life to debauchery.  After being repatriated to the mainland he played the mating game as often as possible and with great skill. He is reputed to have sired countless litters of kittens in his adopted town, and such was his reputation for sexual prowess that he became known locally as Peter the Great.

We may even have met one of Peter’s descendants.  We are staying for a couple of nights in a villa just across the road from the boat dock where the White Island cruise starts and ends, and on our return there we spot a black cat sauntering through the garden.  He has a spring in his step and a twinkle in his eye, as if he knows that greatness is embedded within his DNA. We bow respectfully as he passes but he merely glances at us disdainfully, as royalty does when in the presence of commoners.  He is clearly a cat on a mission, almost certainly a mission of the carnal persuasion.

Peter the Great would be proud of him.