Tuesday, July 18, 2006

A meal without wine is like a day without sunshine

Okay, let me firstly say that I am in no way proud of what I am about to recount. However, I do feel the tale worthy of sharing, if only out of relief and surprise.

Someone very kindly offered us use of their holiday home last weekend on the Coromandel (unspoilt playground of the wealthy - a rural/farming peninsula running from south Auckland, parallel to the city, heading back north) and, with an opportunity like that, it seemed only right that we should make the most of it and set off on Friday.

Despite the unspoilt beauty of forests, untouched beaches and winding mountain roads that would give the Alps a run for their money we still had a few issues with Chipshaker Jr and his determination to be sullen and ruin the day for everyone, despite everything we did to make it better (I suspect this is probably lingering homesickness, even after 6 months, and he seems hell-bent on punishing us for dragging him to this wonderful place). Consequently, Friday was a challenging day to say the least and the conclusions we reached at the end of a really difficult day trying to do nice things for Junior's benefit were:

a) if we ever got divorced the custody battle would be more about who got lumbered with the kids rather than who wanted them
b) nothing we could do would make him happy
c) we'd run out of ideas

and most importantly

d) we both needed a beer

Now the day hadn't been all bad - we'd driven a fair distance to a particular beach, known for its thermal springs. And the gloom lifted briefly as the kids, turning slightly blue, bathed in steaming hot water as the freezing Pacific rollers crashed up onto the beach, chilling everything until the hot water bubbled up again. Nevertheless, once the fun was over Junior once again returned to his perpetual state of sullenness.

We were some way from our base, so we decided to stop off for a beer on the way back. After a nice "cold one" things were looking up so we decided cut our losses, relax in front of the log fire and order a meal, with which I had two glasses of a very fair local red wine, as you do.

By now darkness had fallen so I had a "fun" time driving through winding forest roads in the pitch dark, trying hard not to run over kiwis and possums - the former a protected species and the latter a pest. Whilst it is considered good form to run over any possum you spot, they do rather make a mess of the front of the car. We didn't see either but we did nearly run over some farmer's dog.....twice!! Not content with wandering into the road the first time and near choking on the blue tyre smoke, the daft bugger did the same thing again just as I was about to set off!

Nevertheless, we eventually got to the village before the one we were staying in. Clearly a farming community, it became immediately apparent from the sight of two or three bars bursting at the seams that all the farmers knock off at 5pm on a Friday to sink a few cold ones. As we were passing out of town, it also became apparent that the local copper parks his car in the middle of the road at 7.30 and stops every driver in the hope of catching miscreants driving home full to the gunnels.

At 7.45pm, he caught one such miscreant!

"Evening" said I
"Evening sir, could you state your name and address please" said he, as he pressed a breath testing machine to my mouth
"Thank you sir....oh....it's a fail, have you been drinking?"
"Yes, I had a couple of glasses of wine with a meal"
"Where was this?"

At which point, anyone who isn't a native who tries to pronounce some of the local names is heading for disaster, drink or not!

"Er...er...just up the road in Whitty...er...wanger"
"Ah, right, I think you mean Whitianga" (pronounced fittyanga) "When was that then?" says he, looking at Mrs C and the kids
"Well it was about an hour ago, eh love?" said I looking to Mrs C for corroboration, and setting the kids with a steely death stare, daring them to speak
"Yes, about an hour ago"

Having watched a few episodes of "Motorway Patrol" I was well aware of the dim view the NZ police take of drinking and driving and, at the point I saw the police car in the road I knew I was heading for a night in the cells at least, and probably a hefty fine and a ban - and all before I've even got my NZ driving licence!

As I said at the outset, I don't condone drinking and driving, and I'm sure abstinence is the only sensible policy when driving, but I'm sure most of us have had the odd beer, or a glass of wine or two with a meal before heading off home. Knowing I had to drive, I'd deliberately moderated the intake, had a coffee and killed a bit of time before we set off home.

Nevertheless, I suppose I knew from the outset that I was on thin ice. So, as you might imagine, the next event took my breath away somewhat

"Okay sir, no problem, thank you and have a nice evening"

I drove the rest of the way more stunned than I would have been had I downed a bottle of scotch!. No cells, no fine, no ban, no marigolds. Not even a patronising British bobby-style spiel about how irresponsible it was to drink and drive, particularly with kids in the car, and how I'd better watch out next time!


Now this was the first time I'd ever been stopped in all my years of driving but I've since learned that it is fairly commonplace over here. I've also learned from several people I have spoken to since that I was very...very...lucky!

Thursday, July 13, 2006

We commend to Almighty God our brother.....

So, I wake up every weekend and I look out the window to see that winter still hasn't come to this part of New Zealand. Oh aye, it rains occasionally and it's been pretty cold of late - in fact the coldest winter in Auckland for a couple of dickheads (about 20 years), and there was even frost on the golf course last weekend - but we still haven't seen that traditional sopping wet, bucketing down New Zealand winter that everyone keeps threatening me with. So every weekend, we do our best to make the most of it, and we get out 'tramping' or get in the car for a 'tikitour'.

And this weekend was no exception, although it did have some slightly unusual qualities to it!

Having finally found a bookshop that sells road maps for less than a king's ransom I gladly parted with my $7 for a shiny new tourist map - the fold-out type designed to add excitement to any trip as the passenger wrestles with it across the driver's field of vision, trying unsuccessfully to re-fold it along the original lines, and occasionally uttering from behind it the words "who's doing all that honking?", not realising the car is careering across the central reservation as the driver steers by gut feel and intuition. (I can't help but feel there is a market for opaque maps by the way!).

Anyway, I digress....I had planned out an adventure to take us out to the wild, west (that's 'wild, west' as in rugged coast, not 'Wild West' as in lawless gunslingers).

Unfortunately, what I didn't do was fully appraise Mrs C of the route. Rashly adopting a male outlook to any kind of trip, I vaguely traced a finger along what I thought was a fairly simple route indicating the general direction, and left Mrs C to shout directions out rally co-driver style at relevant points. Unfortunately, these points were usually just after the relevant turnoffs, which invariably meant much hard breaking, blue tyre smoke, reversing and the occasional straying over the white line as I tried to point to our current location on the map and drive at the same time.

Having spent a few hours driving up a relatively uninhabited peninsula we got to a point where what was initially a tarmac road suddenly becomes a dirt track. Now even though I'd only paid $7 for the map, it had so far navigated us perfectly through recognisable landmarks (which is more than can be said for Mrs C), so I kept my faith, with only a nagging concern that the track would suddenly lead to the front door of a farmhouse and we'd be greeted by a grinning farmer and the words "Hehehe, another one eh?".

But got there we did, and we found the (near vertical) path down to the beach....just as it started bucketing down with rain! We did a quick traipse down to the beach, passing a couple of stray walkers along the way, and I was only mildly puzzled by the way they were puffing and blowing. But their apparent breathing difficulties were explained when we set off back. Slightly heavier now due to the downpour, I realised that what seemed invigoratingly steep on the way down was calf-burningly, lung-busrtingly vertical on the way back, made all the more challenging by having to drag a rain-sodden, dead-weight five year old behind me, wailing the "Are we nearly there yet?" song all the way.

Feeling somewhat virtuous at the feel of all that lactic acid cramping up our calves, we all piled back into the car, and headed down to Muriwai, and the famous gannet colony. Now that place is impressive. Not the gannets, there's only about two dozen of them, but mind you it was early in the season and most where still on their way back from their holidays in Australia. No, what was impressive was the rugged scenery....and the howling wind!

You can't help but feel that the wind starts out as a mere breeze across the Tasman on the east coast of Australia, a light zephyr caressing the golden sand, but by the time it gets uninterrupted all the way to the west coast of New Zealand it's strong enough to press your eyeballs forcefully through your brain and into the back of your cranium! We had an enjoyable half hour watching gannets make numerous attempts to land on a nesting rock, cruising gracefully on the hurricane-force winds, lowering their feet, and then backpedalling like fury, only to be blown back out to sea just as their feet were about to touch dry land. One gallant fella tried about five times before finally scrabbling his way onto the rock, inches before falling off the other side. Probably a little perverse but I found the whole thing hugely amusing. And my how we laughed....except you couldn't hear any guffawing. Oh no, instead, it was like some strange silent movie with exaggerated facial movements as we tried to talk to each other with every word being snatched away on the wind.

And then the third leg of our tikitour took us down to Bethells Beach. Now Bethells is a fairly remote beach, with nothing there except a scattering of ramshackle beach homes, a surf shack that's closed in winter and four port-a-loos that, on brief inspection, appear to be emptied once a year whether they need it or not! But that said, it has to be my favourite place of all the places I've visited in the world. The word "barren" was invented for this place. It is a huge expanse of black, blue and purple sand (coloured by iron-ore) with huge waves crashing onto the beach. And when the wind blows, as it does with aplomb, it blows all the lighter brown sand underneath across the surface,leaving the most amazing patterns and effects. And at one edge of the beach, an ice cold, fresh water river courses along the beach to the sea, where the huge waves crash against the flow causing a turmoil of water.

And it was at this meeting of waters we made our most bizarre discovery of the day....

"What's that Dad?" says young Chipshaker Jr

"No idea mate, probably just some rubbish washed down the river"

So we wandered down to where the little blue box was tumbling backwards and forwards from river to sea and back again. At first glance it looked like a discarded shoe box but for some reason, I couldn't work out why it seemed to be fully enclosed and didn't seem to have a lid as such. So, captivated by the progress of this detritus we followed it back on its journey upriver, where it was cast upside down onto the edge of the sand by a rogue wave. Having spent a lifetime in an office environment, I'm pretty proficient at upside down reading so I hunkered down to read


Hmm, funny name for a shoe brand, I thought, until I read on

"The cremated remains of Li Ting Su" (name changed to protect the innocent)

Now I'm thinking if I'd bequeathed my ashes to my near family with the wish that they be cast to the tumbling waters of one of the most beautiful places on earth, I'd rather hope the buggers would be bothered to take them out of the waterproof box first!!

Instead someone had hoyed poor Li Ting into the water in his original plastic overcoaat (aye, not even an urn!), for him to spend the rest of eternity washing up and down a five yard stretch of beach. I only hope that was the intention, because if it was the intention to give him a burial at sea all I can say is they didn't consider the tides and the currents!

Mind you, that's assuming Li Ting escapes the attention of passing kids...because I spent the trip all the way back up the beach trying to explain why we couldn't keep him!

"Aw go on Dad, let's take him home....aw why not Dad? But it's a real, live dead person Dad, I've always wanted one of them....aw why not?"