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Saturday, 19 August 2017

Chapter 29 ~ Mangapai Mania

At long last, I have reached the final region of New Zealand, and with it, the last place I should work at on my journey. I've been to the East and the West, as well as the far South. And now, I am visiting the last of the four cardinal directions here in...

With an area of 12,500km², Northland is about the size of Montenegro, and its population of 170,000 inhabitants falls just short of the small Caribbean island nation of Saint Lucia. Its coastline is dominated by a symphony of rugged fjordlands in the east and long, straight beaches in the west, the most famous of which would be the inaccurately-named 88km-long 90 Mile Beach, which stretches along pretty much the entire western coast of the north cape.

I'm staying in - or rather, near - the little village of Mangapai, which is located a short ways southwest of Whangarei, the one major city of Northland.

The farm on which I'm helping out this time is - in turn - located a little bit further to the south, and about a hundred meters up into the hills.

Latitude-wise, I'm at 36°S now, which places me at the southern equivalent of Algeria, Tunisia, and the isle of Rhodes in Greece. In fact, the precise antipode point to my present location would be in the middle of the strait of Gibraltar.

After a year travelling around the country, this place should be the stage of...

The Lamb Finale

Once again, I have been summoned. It started happening some time after my stay in the Woodstock Royal Mail Hotel (see Chapter 17 ~ Wild & Woody): Instead of me seeking out hosts, hosts would actively seek out my services, and although I had to turn down most of these offers, since they were just too far out of the way of my travel route, I've answered to such summons twice on my journey. The first time took me to the Barefoot Backpackers hostel in Takaka (see Chapter 20 ~ The Golden Getaround), and now the second time takes me to a little farm in Northland.

The ones who summoned me are the Frenchwoman Delphine, and her husband, the Swissman Ben. The two of them met on a working holiday in New Zealand, and liked the country so much that they decided to stay there. After several years of saving, they purchased a block of land in Northland, and have - with the assistance of helpers such as myself - built a respectable little farm on it.

They also have a lovely 5-year-old daughter by the name of Jelsha, who - despite her young age - is able to speak not one, not two, but a total of three different languages, namely English, French and Swiss German. Their parents raise them trilingually: While Delphine only speaks French with Jelsha, Ben only speaks Swiss German with her, and when conversing with one another, they speak English, allowing Jelsha to pick up on each of these languages. Apart from that, the girl is also quite energetic, and generally a pleasure to have around.

And finally, there is a strange pet of the wooly kind. One of a pair of twins, Jelsha has adopted Nibbles the lamb after the ewe who gave birth to her had trouble looking after both of her children. Ever since, Nibbles lives in a little stable near the house, and is hand-fed by Jelsha and her parents.

Speaking about the house, why don't I tell you a little bit about...

The Place

Delphine & Ben own a little sheep farm on the eastern side of the Rurangi Hills. They also have a number of cattle and a few horses, but the vast majority of livestock consists of sheep.

Apart from the big animals, there's also a small flock of chickens, providing fresh eggs on a daily basis.

Much more impressive than the farm, however, is the house, which is unlike any other house I've been to so far in New Zealand for a number of reasons. Reason number one would be the fact that despite not having central heating, the house is nice and warm day-round. Ben eventually tells me that this is due to the fact that he specifically designed the house to be naturally heated by the sun, and personally supervised the insulation to ensure his house would become one of the best-insulated houses in all of New Zealand.

The other reason would be the fact that this place is completely off-grid. It has its own water supply, electricity is provided entirely by solar power, and even the nowadays indispensable internet access is provided wireless via an optical relay.

That having been said, allow me to give you a little tour of the place.

By the way, the farm is not all pastures either. There's also a fruit orchard in the make...

...and quite a bit of the farm is covered in woodlands, which the sheep and cattle are free to roam.

One night, I am privy to witness a beautiful sky of glowing clouds. The pictures do not do the sight justice...

...and in the morning, I get to see a beautiful sunrise over the crests of the eastern hills.

However, we also get quite a number of wet days, and as a result, much of the farmland is left rather drenched and muddy, making me quite grateful for the fact that Delphine and Ben have a spare set of gumboots for me to use on the farm.

And with that, let us continue onwards to...

The Job

Having arrived here just in time for the beginning of the busy lambing season, I get included into the daily work tasks posthaste. However, not all tasks are directly sheep-related. For one, I get to help with shifting the cattle from one pasture to another along the hill slopes that make up the farm – a task in which the whole family participates.

One indirectly sheep-related tasks is putting batons on a new fence subdividing a larger pasture into two smaller ones. This is a two-man task, with Ben hammering in the staples while I press the batons against the wires – a job that should complete without any major injuries, despite me having to endure an average of 8 hammer hits per staple at 6 staples per baton over a grand total of over 200 batons along the entire length of the fence. That’s over 9,000 hammer hits in total!

Why do we need all these batons if the fence wires are already in place? Well, since only the top wire is electrified, the sheep can easily push through the less-taunt lower wires as they are. That’s where the batons come into play. Although they are not anchored in the ground, they ensure that the wires can’t be pushed apart by fixing them within a certain distance of one another. It’s a job that should take us two whole days, but at the end, we proudly look down on a fantastic finished fenceline.

Regarding the batons… That ends up being another of my tasks. It goes without saying that with New Zealand’s flourishing lumber- and farming industries, there is a market for standard-length batons. It also goes without saying that said standard-length batons are not the length we need for this fence, so it falls to me to use a circular saw, and cut them down to the required length in advance.

Fortunately, Ben had already started with some batons before my arrival, so all I need to do is take care of the remaining 135 batons. Still a respectable number, but with a fully functional circular saw and a sunny day to activate the solar panels which power it, it’s a task that I manage to complete on one afternoon. However, a number of the batons fail under the preliminary stress-test, and break along knotholes, and even despite this testing, there should be a number of batons that would break later on as we try stapling them to the wires.

But now, let’s get to the sheep. For one, there’s little Nibbles, who needs to be fed from the bottle…

…and naturally, just like the cattle, the sheep need to be shifted from one paddock to another whenever the sparse winter grass gets too short in the old one. And believe me, unlike cows, which are relatively easy to shift, sheep can be quite a challenge without the aid of sheepdogs: These woolly ovines are constantly looking for a way to go somewhere where you don’t want them, and it takes the coordinated efforts of the four of us to manoeuvre them across the farm.

Also, some of the sheep like to hide in the woods…

…but fortunately, we have Jelsha with us to help round them up.

Even though the winters are green over here, the grass barely grows at all during the darker months, and while the sheep are still happy enough to nibble away at what little remains or regrows, the cows are beginning to go hungry. To avert this crisis – these cows are being raised for meat after all – Ben has acquired a sizable bale of savoury balage from one of the neighbouring farmers, and both the cows and the horses are quite happy to get such a succulent treat. In fact, whenever they finish their daily ration of balage, one can hear the cattle mooing aloud for about half an hour or so, clamouring for more of the delicious fermented fibre before they deign to content themselves with humble grass once again.

Another day, we professionally install a new water trough in one of the paddocks. And by “professionally install a new water trough” I mean we combine an old bathtub with a ball floater valve and perk it up on some stilts – which admittedly is a good deal more professional than some of the water trough solutions I’ve seen on other farms during my time here in New Zealand.

And then, the stormy weather hits the farm, and the sheep are still in the middle of lambing. In an attempt to save some of the weak newborns, we take them into the house, where we treat them with warm milk and hot-water bottles while wrapping them in cosy blankets.

Sadly, however, it is already too late for them. The vicious weather has sapped their strength, and one of the two little lambs does not make it through the night, and the other one joins his departed sibling before noon the following day. Had they been born in a cramped stable and treated with synthetic medicine from birth, they would have lived, but such is the price of the comforts of living on an organic farm.

Another troublesome complication is that a number of sheep suffer from a prolapsed uterus. This is a serious condition: Not only can the uterus get infected and kill not only the lamb, but also the ewe, but the prolapsed uterus may inhibit the ewe’s ability to properly urinate, thus causing it to perish from metabolic malfunctions even before infection. Fortunately for us, it is painfully obvious which ewes are afflicted.

Treating this is quite the challenge. First, we have to isolate and catch the afflicted ewe. Then, while I hold down the animal, it is up to Ben to manoeuvre the prolapsed uterus back into the ewes womb and secure it with strings in a matter that will simultaneously keep the uterus inside, yet allow the ewe to lamb normally when the time comes. This process is further complicated by the fact that the ewes are spectacularly uncooperative, and often do not have a proper tail remaining, making fastening the strings one heck of a mega-freakingly tough challenge indeed.

One more reason why I’m glad that there also are more relaxing jobs to be done, such as cleaning out the garage…

…or crafting improvised vegetable bed canisters using old fruit crates and plastic sheets.

Next, there is – how could it be any different – firewood, which needs to be transported from the nearby stash to a more convenient location next to the house…

…and finally, I go on a hunt to exterminate the last patches of bright, lush greenery that remain in the paddocks after the sheep are done with them: The thistles, which are the only plants that neither sheep nor cattle nor horses will touch. And so, it is up to me to seek them out and uproot them with a proper hoe this time, making space for tasty grass to grow.

With such a variety of work tasks to be done, I’m quite glad when it’s time to sit down an enjoy…

The Food

Like in so many places here in New Zealand, the day traditionally begins with a bowl of müsli and a cup of tea.

Lunch usually consists of cheese or confiture on home-made bread, occasionally accompanied by soup, carrots or a soft-boiled egg…

…while dinner usually consists of a combination of cooked vegetables with some meat and condiments, occasionally accompanied by some soup or a bowl of goulash.

Every now and then after dinner I also get treated to some dessert, and while my taste buds do not agree to all of those, Jelsha is only too happy to devour what I shun.

Naturally, I also offer to bake my legendary tri-Tail Pizza for the three of them, and while Delphine is sceptical at first about the burden which a kilo of cheese will constitute on her tight budget, they’re only all-too pleased once they experience the unparalleled taste of my masterpiece.

And now, well rested and fed as I am, I feel ready one last bike ride, namely…

Interlude: The Plucky Paparoa Pilgrimage

This should not only be the final bike tour I would undertake in New Zealand, but also the longest one by quite some margin, using one of Ben’s bikes, which is just a little bit too small for me…

…I set out along the ultimate bike tour: An epic track of over 90km in length, which should take me south into the Kaipara District, and all the way to the extensive Arapaoa Estuary, which eventually transitions neatly into the great Kaipara Harbour, and with it the Tasman Sea.

Delphine attempts to dissuade me from this ambitious trip, saying that it’s too far away, and the route would only take me through “boring flat farmland”, but I persist. Confident in my abilities after similarly formidable challenges such as the Collingwood Challenge (see Chapter 20 ~ The Golden Getaround) or the The Tirau Triad Tor-Tour (see Chapter 27 ~ The Circuits of Cambridge), I prepare myself for a full day on the road by packing food and water before climbing the steep driveway and embarking south along Rurangi Road.

It is the day after the mighty deluge, and also the sun is shining quite ferociously today, the roads are still drenched after the long rain. I soon find out that trying to ascend a wet gravel road on a bike such as this is no pleasure, but once I reach the top of the highest hill around, I am rewarded with a beautiful panorama view of the surrounding landscape.

Fortunately, it’s not much farther until I reach the sealed Paparoa Road, which should take me south all the way to the town of the same name…

…and across the boundary into the Kaipara District.

There, I bear witness to the fallout from the recent torrential rains: Pastures have turned into marshlands…

…hollows have turned into temporary lakes…

…and normally lazy rivers are on the brink of flooding.

I also cross over the one significant railway line of the area…

…all the while making my way deeper into the Boring Flat Farmland™.

Knowing I had a long day of cycling ahead of me, I wisely departed early, and hence it is not even noon by the time my destination – the northern reaches of Kaipara Harbour – comes into view between the southern hills. From here, it’s an easy downhill run all the way to Paparoa, and while I enjoy the rush, I am also painfully aware that I will have to scale all this altitude again on my way back north.

It’s not long after that I arrive in the village of Paparoa…

…where I make myself comfortable on the village green, and eagerly devour my lunch, before embarking once again.

Since I’m already here, I spontaneously decide to explore the Paparoa Bush Walk, a walkway leading through the reserve south of the village.

Most notably, it leads through a Karui forest. Once these majestic trees covered the majority of Northland, but ever since heavy logging begun in 1820, their numbers have declined considerably, and today only a few isolated pockets remain. To make matters even worse, a strange disease known as Kauri Collar Rot has started infecting trees ever since the 70s, which is the reason why all entrances to Kauri forests such as this one are outfitted with shoe washing and disinfecting stations in order to prevent travellers from inadvertently transmitting the disease.

As for the Kauri forest itself… while I have to admit that it is a beautiful and serene forest, it should not be the most impressive Kauri forest which I should visit along my journey, but that is a tale for another day.

For now, let it suffice to be said that I eventually make my way through the forest, and across a boardwalk traversing the estuary.

From there, I travel west towards the town of Matakohe, where I get a last glimpse of Kaipara Harbour…

…before making my way back up north through the Boring Flat Farmland™.

According to Google Maps, the road which I have to take to get back to Mangapai is the next best thing to a State Highway. Note to Google Maps: You’re fired.

Fortunately for me, gravel roads in New Zealand are usually quite highbrow, and can easily be compared with the super-ultra-luxury variant of a gravel road back home. Easily wide enough for two vehicles to pass one another, their surface mainly consists of hard-packed dirt and has only minimal amounts of loose material, which makes the road traversable at acceptable speeds even by bike – steep inclines notwithstanding.

My progress here is nowhere near as fast as down the Paparoa Road, but in compensation the route takes me through some idyllic valleys.

Eventually, I reach the boundary of the Whangarei district…

…which runs along the shore of the Manganui River. Normally a modest tributary, the recent rainfalls have transformed it into a quite formidable flow.

In fact, the persistent precipitation has transformed the surrounding valleys into fens reminding me of the river Würm back at home…

…and cows that have been surprised by the devastating downpours now roam the ephemeral islands in search of dry grass.

Looking at all the flooded pastures nearby, it is all but impossible to figure out the original course of the river.

Finally, I reach the outskirts of civilization again – and with that, I mean properly paved roads.

It’s the town of Waiotira, where the railway line which I crossed earlier multiplies…

…and from here on out, it’s a refreshingly straightforward road all the way to Mangapai.

Oh, I’m sorry. Did you expect that was where this ride ended? I’m pretty sure I mentioned Delphine and Ben’s farm is located a few kilometres south of Mangapai about 40 pages or so ago. As such, I still have some distance to cover, starting with passing over an unmaintained railroad crossing.

One last time, I engage in a race against the sunset, as by now the orbital photon blaster is already low in the western skies.

This time, however, I have the advantage. Not only do I ride an European bike – meaning that the back crake is on the right side and the front brake on the left side, as opposed to New Zealand bikes, which have the brakes the other way around – but the bike has, as a matter of fact, a set of fully functional battery-powered lights with batteries that are actually still charged!

…it goes without saying that this level of preparedness means that I’d arrive well before nightfall this time around. However, along the way I should still have the time to capture a picture of a beautiful sunset behind the clouds from my vantage point on the hilltops.

From here, it’s only a little bit further until I reach the farm, where I find a welcoming committee eagerly awaiting my return.

Exhausted from this greatest of all trips, I collapse on the couch back inside the lounge, and allow my weary legs to get some well-earned rest. This has not only been my longest tour, but at a total of 1,106m, also the one with the most ascents, and the only reason why it ended up being 45 minutes shorter in duration than the Collingwood Challenge was the reduced amount of Geocaches to be found en-route.

Having completed this final, ultimate challenge, I now feel accomplished, and ready to talk about…

The Flair

With a trilingual 5-year old of European descent around, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that there are number of comics lying around which remind me of my own childhood – regrettably most of them are written in some incomprehensible extinct language.

Likewise, Jelsha’s all-time favourite movie, Disney’s good old Lion King makes an almost daily appearance on the TV screen, and from observing one of my childhood classics in French, I learn that Littlefoot from a Land Before Time is called Petit-Pied (pronounced: Pettypoe) in that language.

Now, here’s a curiously shaped funnel, which must be every dairy farmer’s dream…

…unlike this mailbox, which is probably every mailman’s nightmare. I for one would hesitate to throw circulars or other spam into such a grim container.

One night, Delphine and Ben indulge in a game of Ecchnasi, and even though they both are newcomers, they turn out to be quite evenly matched, resulting into a game that remains exciting until the last second. This would be the last game of Ecchnasi to be played in New Zealand for quite a while, and I wonder if I’ll ever be able to find a publisher for it. At the very least I’ve been able to excite a good number of people about the game on my travels.

By the way, have you ever been in a place where WiFi could be turned on and off using a switch in the wall? I certainly haven’t – until now that is. I have no idea how Ben did it, but using this contraption, it is possible to turn the internet access on and off at will. In fact, for some reason Delphine and Ben disable the internet overnight, and it only gets turned back on in the morning.

Another day, I catch the cows in the act of trying to eat our solar power. Fortunately, they are going about it rather clumsily, and so their foolish attempt is easily foiled.

While preparing my legendary tri-Tail Pizza, I learn that Delphine and Ben only have the budget-budget variant of a can opener. Using this primitive contraption, opening the can with tomato paste becomes quite a challenge.

However, this is counterbalanced by the fact that they have a really handy cheese grater. After I accomplish in only a few short minutes what would have otherwise taken at least a quarter of an hour, I resolve to get one of these contraptions for back home upon my return to Germany.

Also, beware the moaning panda-ghost that sometimes roams the hallways of this place.

Looking at the map of Ararua, one of the Villages I pass through on the Plucky Paparoa Pilgrimage, one might think that it is meant to be a simplified map that shows only the most important buildings. I, however, know better now: Apart from the Church and the Town Hall, there is not a single other building in sight there. Also, judging from the state of the notice board, this is one of those places that officially have absolutely nothing going on.

By the way, did I mention that Jelsha is also learning the piano? That means that I am regularly subject to the results of her lessons, and I quickly realize that apart from some of the typical piano classics, she is also able to play a number of more… familiar tunes.

And let us not forget that this time, I have a room with view on the lambs.

And with that, let us now proceed to…

The Retrospective

Over the course of my journey through New Zealand, I had the pleasure of staying in many wonderful places. I’ve tried both WWOOFing and HelpX, and have generally found HelpX places to be notably more hospitable than WWOOFing places. Imagine my surprise and disappointment upon realizing that the final HelpX place I would visit should not only rank among the WWOOFing places, but indeed end up being one of the lowest-ranked places I should visit in New Zealand.

So how did it turn out like this? Sure, I had a bike that was adequate for carrying me on the ultimate trip, and the work was varied and interesting as well. However, the workload in this place was the second-highest of any place I visited – only to be surpassed by Thornton Grange (see Chapter 12 ~ Christchurchly Second), and as a result, the Work-Value Ratio is one of the lowest of this entire trip.

Unfortunately, that’s not all. While I had a room, I wouldn’t necessarily call it a private room, since it had the unfortunate combination of mega-freaking HUGE windows, and absolutely no blinds or curtains, resulting in a privacy factor of about zero. On top of that, the bed was not exactly comfortable, but that is something I’m willing to overlook, considering that the house was pleasantly warm most of the time.

The facilities were okay, including a shower and a washing machine, but neither dishwasher nor dryer, as well as only limited internet. Not bad per-se, but definitely a good cut below the facilities of most of the other places I visited. As for the food, it was also okay, although a little bit disappointing, and had too much cooked greenery for my taste. However, the one thing that bothered me most about is was the fact that – save for the one evening when I baked my legendary tri-Tail Pizza – Delphine declined each and every one of my offers to prepare affordable-yet-tasty meals for them. Instead, she preferred keeping the kitchen for herself to spend hours preparing meals into which I wouldn’t be willing to invest even a single minute.

And that, regrettably, brings us to the one point that ruined the experience for me: The atmosphere. This might only be my very own subjective experience, but I’ve experienced Delphine as a nitpicking, obsessive, stingy, self-centred person with overblown expectations, who made me realize just how lucky I’ve been with all the other hosts I’ve had the pleasure of helping out along my travels. It was difficult for me to put up with her this long, and if I am to be honest, one of my reasons for antedate my departure was the unpleasant atmosphere in this place.

As it was, I managed to endure for the ten days I spend in this place, but just barely. Had I come to this same place earlier in my journey, I don’t know whether I would have been able to bear it this long. As for Ben, he was not quite as bad as Delphine, but I definitely prefer the more laid-back attitude I’ve come to like from the many Kiwis that I’ve encountered on my travels. That makes me wonder whether coming to a non-Kiwi place was a mistake, and if this wasn’t my final HelpX stay for my journey, I would make a mental note not to go to a non-Kiwi place in the future. However, to be fair, there was also one spark of good atmosphere in this place: Little Jelsha, who brightened up the place with her juvenile enthusiasm and bright cheer. Thank you, Jelsha!

So, all things considered, I wouldn’t say it was a bad place to stay. However, I have to be honest and observe that of the 18 other places which I have visited over the course of my travels, 15 were more enjoyable, and there were only 3 places to which I would prefer Delphine & Ben’s place – at the very least as it was during my stay there.

Nonetheless, I wouldn’t deny them the honour of a traditional gift artwork. The only place so far that did not receive one of these was Max’s farm in Marton, and that only because they evicted me before I had a chance to create a piece of gift artwork for them. As for this one, it features Jelsha and her parents, together with Jelsha’s little pet lamb Nibbles. However, due to the workload at this place, I only have enough time to make a Black And White artwork.

With that having been taken care of, all that’s left now is…

The Road Ahead

Originally, I had planned to stay in Mangapai until the 11th of August, and then take the bus back to Auckland. However, due to the unpleasant atmosphere in this place, as well as a desire to visit the Far North of New Zealand, I ended up making plans for one final epic road trip using a rental car. Hence, I depart from Delphine and Ben’s farm three days early, leaving behind only aforementioned gift artwork, as well as a fox and a number of Zeritij numbers on the international exchange chalkboard in the guest room.

It’s still early morning when we depart from the farm…

…so I say goodbye to the little lambs, and then we’re off.

Since Delphine needs to go into town anyway that day, she kindly takes me all the way into Whangarei, where my next port of call is the car rental place.

Never before has the smell of freedom been so sweet, and I am simultaneously nervous and excited about that final grad trip which I have planned over the course of the last week. What great things would I see? What adventures should I experience? Would I even be able to drive a car through pretty much all of Northland by myself? So many questions, so many uncertainties. If you are looking forward to having them answered, then make sure not to miss the next chapter of The Travelling Fox Blog!

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