Sunday, 15 April 2012

The Bay of Islands Part Two: Farm Life

Our occupation as ‘farm hands’ in the Bay of Islands was a job neither of us are likely to forget. Everyday life on the farm involved charging around on quad bikes while chased by the resident dog, trundling around in the tractor, and generally immersing ourselves in the glorious subtropical environment.

A standard morning commute
Toiling amongst the fields and paddocks meant that we were brought (sometimes uncomfortably) closer to some of New Zealand’s indigenous wildlife: Weta, enormous cricket-like beetles; six-inch-long stick insects; bright green Mantises that would pray quietly on your shoulder without you noticing; Cicada the size of mice, with a penchant for waging kamikaze into your face, clattered loudly amongst the trees. Abound with creepy crawlies, the bush and paddocks were a natural haven for birds, and we worked in the company of herons, kingfishers, Amy’s beloved Pukeko, turkeys, bright green Kākāri (parakeets) and the endangered Brown Teal duck. Though we weren’t fortunate enough to see them, the local forests were also home to a healthy population of Kiwi.

Just across the road was a secluded bay with easy fishing where we found ourselves accompanied by inquisitive Eagle Rays and Stingrays gliding by the water at our feet while we cast in the quiet evenings. The waters teemed and danced with baitfish as Snapper chased their prey, and we would watch as Mullet would  spring rhythmically in gracefully arcs out from the glassy water.

Only a few moments’ drive from the farm, hidden amongst the hills of dense Mānuka (Tea Tree) and Totora stand some of New Zealand's most magnificent natural wonders: Kauri. 

Enormous twin-bole Kauri looming above the local forests
I’ve mentioned these arboreal giants in passing before, but they’re deserving of much more. Growing only in the country’s subtropical northern quarter, they’re a living relic of a prehistoric New Zealand, where lack of human interference and introduced predation meant that the forests could flourish without restraint. Sadly, the immense Kauri forests were one of the main natural resources New Zealand had to offer at the turn of the 20th century, and very rapidly the they had sacrificed their timber for short-term economic growth. Today, these barely ten percent of these gargantuan trees exist, and only in pockets of Northland, Auckland and the Coromandel, made all the more special by their scarcity. We were fortunate enough to have one of the largest and oldest remaining on our doorstep, a unique twin-bole kauri, thousands of years old and reaching almost 50 metres above the forest floor. Several other giant kauri exist in the country, the grandest and most visited being Tāne Mahuta (Lord of the Forest), a 2500 year old behemoth near Dargaville, but our local grove, tucked off the beaten track, was wonderfully quiet and all the more personal.

Culvert pipe installation. More fun than it sounds. Honestly.
Working on the farm exposed us to dimensions of Kiwi culture that are easily missed as a tourist. Some aspects we loved, and others took us out of our comfort zone. We were taken rather aback when we were handed a duck - fully intact but for the signs of a shotgun wound, and still rather warm – as a meal, and had to quickly learn how to gut, pluck and butcher it. Hunting here is a big part of life, and Amy couldn’t believe it when she saw two men proudly haul an enormous pig onto the ferry one day as she went to Paihia. At times, the farm seemed like a boot-camp for masculinity, where conversation rarely strayed from guns, chainsaws and engines, but we never minded, because we were a part of something we'd never been before.

Above all, I consider my time up north as an education. Before, I’d  have barely known where to start if you asked me to put a fence up. Ask me to install agricultural electric fencing now, and I’ll ask where your wire strainers are. I can now confidently wield a chainsaw, drive a quad bike, and even install a culvert pipe. Okay, so they sound like boring skills, but the experience was epic.

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