HOKITIKA, N.Z. – This morning we set out to do a bit of fossicking – beachcombing to you.
We walked for more than an hour on the reddish-gray sand, strewn with driftwood, along the Tasman Sea, passing but three walkers, one horse’s tracks and a long-haired guy on a dirt bike tearing up the beach. That’s an average of one person every 20 minutes. This on a sunny day, about a mile northeast of town.
This village, a cross between laid-back, beachie Santa Cruz, Calif., and the kind of windswept Wyoming plains town with wide sidewalks and wooden-doored saloons, bills itself as “the Hub of the West Coast” of New Zealand’s South Island. It alternatively calls itself the “arts capital” – visitors here can watch glass being blown, greenstone being carved and copper sculpture being torched – or the place “where the wild foods are,” a reference to a rather odd March festival in which, our Rough Guide reports, such oddities as “stir-fried possum, marinated goat kebabs and smoked eel wontons” are served.
Whatever billing you prefer, in truth it’s a funky, friendly place with about 4,000 people; a watch tower to take in slow golden sunsets; fly larvae, called glowworms because they glow in the dark; wonderful carved driftwood benches scattered along the largely deserted beach; two movie theaters, and a few really good restaurants.
Kathy and I pulled in yesterday afternoon, intending to stay one night.
“This place is like Fawlty Towers today,” said Brian Dow, our hotelier at 252 Beachside Motel, referring to the madcap BBC sitcom. “Are you sure you want to stay here?”
Brian and his wife Adele had just returned from their 36-year-old son’s wedding and were in great spirits. So, it seems, is just about everyone else in town.
And so one night became two and then three in this not-all-that-touristy burg, where a visitor can spend thousands of dollars on a gold necklace in The Gold Room (the town was born during New Zealand’s gold rush) or can buy “horse poo — $2 a bag” along Revell St.
Yesterday we watched the crafts people work and bought gifts and memorabilia (yes, the glass-blown penguin is a bit corny, but we’ve actually seen these guys). Today we slept in, combed the beach for bits of greenstone (I didn’t think Homeland Security would go for my driftwood walking stick) and caught up with the laundry. Tonight’s big activity? Shooting pool at Stumpers Bar and Cafe, which also serves one fantastic rib-eye steak and mash.
Tomorrow, we’re off to the Hokitika horse races, or more appropriately “Fashion in the Field,” since prizes will be awarded the best dressed couple, man and “lady.” Then, if we’re feeling really energetic, we’ll drive to the Hokitika Gorge Swingbridge and walk around the nearby lake.
Kathy and I started this trip with big plans to see the entire South Island of New Zealand. We’ll end it having seen the lower two-thirds. It is true. We’ll miss the Pancake Rocks, the beautiful white beaches of the North Coast, the vineyards of Marlborough. We’ll neither spend a fortune to see whales in Kaikoura nor swim with dolphins there. But we’ve seen the glorious fiord at Milford Sound in sunlight, watched the sun set behind the high Southern Alps, walked at night beneath the Milky Way, and listened repeatedly to the syncopated song of the Bell Bird. Whatever we do see will be more than enough.
I guess if Kathy and I have learned anything in four decades of traveling together, it’s that we’re neither conventional tourists nor do we benefit from a forced march. At their best, our journeys jiggle, then glide, from jetlagged and frantic (phase 1), to energized and frenetic (phase 2), to easy-going and relaxed (phase 3).
Well, sort of easy-going, anyway. In this land of the long-white cloud, nature eventually sets its own cadence.