Monday, November 17, 2014

Whimsical Ecovillage


wwoof workaway new zealand northland
wwoof workaway new zealand northlandwwoof workaway new zealand northland Nestled in the rolling hills of Northland, New Zealand, there lies a whimsical dwelling overlooking Kaipara harbor. Massive mosaics flow intricately throughout, while beautifully crafted wooden stairs meld into a bridge over an airy floor plan, and a fanciful spire crowns an impressive tower. Rob and Marijke have been designing and building this one-of-a-kind home for over a decade, and one glance is all it takes to see how much creativity and love has gone into it.
wwoof workaway new zealand northland     We arrived with Rob from Ian and Marcia's, and were immediately enchanted by the abode. We met Marijke, Rob's wife; Anton, their son; and Ben, an Aussie volunteer. After a quick chat, we were shown to our cozy little cabin, and called it a night.
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Wood-chipper-turned-apple-mill
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Belly full of apples
     The next morning we all prepared to press apple cider (or "juice," as it is called in New Zealand, "cider" is strictly the term for what we would call "hard cider"). Rob and Marijke live in an ecovillage, where neighbors with shared ideals own and maintain communal property, including cows, fields and and an apple orchard. The orchard was laden with apples, and the whole community was coming together to reap the harvest. About a dozen of us gathered a trailer full of apples, and then headed back to Rob and Marijke's to press them. Everyone had a good time, and we especially enjoyed the out-of-season treat of fresh cider in April.
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Fish-bird gateway to the cafe
wwoof workaway new zealand northlandWith the house almost done, they of course needed a new project to fill the whimsical building construction void in their lives. Luckily, down the street, a wacky whimsical cafe was on the market. When we first went down to the cafe to help out, we were dumbfounded that such a place even exists, much less in rural New Zealand. The cafe's progenitor was Peter Harris, the self-proclaimed "Wizard of Eutopia," using "ferrocement" and rebar. In his words:
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Even the storage rooms outback had a whimsical feel
     "I am a 'eutopian' visionary philosopher who has temporarily abandoned his search for the precise           meaning of 'Life, the Universe and Everything' and its ideal formulation, to spend the last 12 years writing a sprawling epic fantasy pentalogy called The Apples of Aeden; also building the domed ferrocement carved 'Dreamspace' of Cafe Eutopia, Kaiwaka, New Zealand, and writing Fantastic Ferrocementa Passport to Eutopia, Passport to CreativityThe Nautilus Project, and Icon of Ainenia; and building a carved 'Tree of Life' idea-creation game called Eutopia: the Game."
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Hidden details often revealed
themselves upon closer inspection

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Unfortunately his resources dried up and he had to abandon the project. Rob and Marijke had bought it several months ago and were working to make it a more viable business. We all went down every day or two and cleared brush from around the building, cleaned out the storage tent, and even helped make mosaics. Several years ago, trees were planted around the cafe, and inexplicably, each one had been planted in the middle of a car tyre. Over the years, the tyres had begun to girdle the trees, and removing the ingrown tyres was quite an arduous task. One of the perks of working at a cafe was getting to try Rob and Anton's caffeinated concoctions, they were learning the art of being baristas and made a mean "flat white."
wwoof workaway new zealand northlandBack on their farm, work included the usual  weeding, cleaning up the garden, and planting seedlings. We also used a rowboat and nets to skim a floating aquatic plant off the  top of one of their ponds. The slimy biomass was then used to mulch the gardens.
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Randy's still life: Bee, Grape, Thumb no. 1
There was a smattering of animals around the farm to keep us company while we worked. The two horses  liked to hang out around the house, the two pigs enjoyed the cider pressings, the one lonely chook who had dodged the axe and taken to hanging around with one of the horses, and one fat pony who ruled the pig yard with an iron hoof. They also had a small herd of cows, some of them collective ecovillage cows, and some of them their own personal cows. This meant that we got to eat lots of delicious grassfed beef, yum! They also had quite a nice personal orchard, and we enjoyed fejoa, charimoya, lemons, apples, and oranges. The cherimoya looks like a less-defined artichoke, and has a creamy center reminiscent of a pawpaw. The fejoa, is incredibly popular all across all of New Zealand. About the size of a ping-pong ball, it has a tough outer skin, with an inside consistency similar to a pear. To eat it, you usually cut it in half and scoop out the softer inner part with a spoon.
wwoof workaway new zealand northlandwwoof workaway new zealand northlandAfter the workday was over, there was plenty to keep us entertained. We got in a few games, both Hive, and a card game called Yeniv, with Ben, and a game of Rummikub with Rob's parents who live nearby. Marjike was interested in the artistic hobbies of others, and encouraged Randy to do a painting while we were there. Since they were right on the harbor and had a few kayaks, we enjoyed an afternoon of paddling through the mangroves, glimpsing kingfishers. The mangroves are quite invasive, but they do create a mysterious, maze-like environment to explore. 
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Ben and Randy
Another member of the family was a local fantail, a small cheerful, talkative, insect-eating bird. Its elongated, fanned tail feathers, besides giving it its name, also enable it perform incredible mid-air acrobatics. When we were working outside, we were often accompanied and serenaded by fantails. Rob and Marijke had one that would come into the house, catching flies on the fly and scouring the windowsills for spiders. After hanging out for a bit on the chandelier, it would leave. There is a Maori superstition that a fantail in the house portends a death in the family, but we don't see how these cheerful little birds could ever bring anything bad. 


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Anton, Rob, and Marijke inside Cafe Eutopia
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View out the back door
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From atop the pasture hill

Sunday, August 17, 2014

The Land Down Under

auckland international airport new zealand
Obligatory Lord of
the Rings
 set piece
   We were sad to leave Hawai'i but were looking forward to our first international flight, and we were not disappointed. Air New Zealand showered us with free booze, food, and entertainment. Maybe we didn't get as much sleep as we should have on our 10 hour overnight flight, as we curled up with pillows and blankets and gorged ourselves while watching the latest blockbusters. Our flight path crossed the international date line, so we left Hawai'i the evening of March 31, and arrived in New Zealand the morning of April 2, causing us to totally miss April Fool's Day. Good one, Universe.
   We arrived in Auckland, and went through passport control and customs for the first time. New Zealanders are eco-sticklers, and do everything they can to protect their fragile mutant island ecosystem. They checked the bottom of our shoes for invasive mud, set up and checked our tent for biocontaminants, and confiscated our oranges, avocados, lentils (because they weren't "half lentils"), and a cinnamon log. Once the search-and-seizure was over, we grabbed our much lighter packs and headed for the bus. Transferring to the right buses was a little tricky, and the experience did not bode well for attempts later in our journey when the signs would not even be in the Queen's English. Ian met us at our final bus stop carrying a name card for us, though he identified us right away by our American-sized packs. We piled into his campervan, and headed for the farm. Ian was enthusiastically brimming with information about the local area; on the circuitous route home he gave us a tour, pointing out nice beaches, and properties he had owned or worked on.
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New Zealand has a few sheep
wwoof workaway new zealand     We arrived at Ian and Marcia's farm, and had a snack and a brief tour. They bought their 30 acre parcel 9 months ago, and have been cleaning up and restoring like crazy. The property came with piles of debris and falling down out buildings from decades of neglect, and the progress they have made was amazing. Currently they raise about 30 cows, a handful of chooks (chickens), and yes, plenty of sheep on the hilly pasture, and are busy readying more paddocks. After Marcia arrived home from work in the late afternoon, we all had delicious lamb stew for dinner and learned a bit about each other. Ian is a retired general contractor who has constructed many of his own rental properties from the ground up. Marcia works for the Auckland council, and is currently enjoying training and raising two young cats. Marcia's mother also lives on the property, and enjoys country singing. We were a bit surprised to learn that country singing is a thing in New Zealand, as it is usually considered a pretty American genre, but there are even competitions, and she has won several of them.
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Moo?
   New Zealand was the perfect country to get out feet wet in international travel. Everything was rather similar to life in the US, but with plenty of subtle differences that kept you on your toes. The "yield" signs said "give way", they drove on the "wrong" side of the road, fruit at the grocery store was by the kilo, the light switches were on when they were down, and recipes called for grams instead of cups. And even though we had a language in common, some of their lingo was still foreign to us. They seemed fond of dropping the "y" on many words, saying "yum" and "flash" instead of "yummy," and "flashy." And where did those "y's" go, you might ask? They were added on to the end, or middle, of nouns, like "beersy," "skilly" for skilsaw, and "footy" for football. We picked up a bit of kiwi slang as well, "chockablock" if something is really packed, "jandals" for flip-flops, and "chilly bin" for cooler. At one point Ian mentioned that his "pot plants" needed watering, and after a long bewildered pause we realized he was talking about potted plants. As long as we spoke our respective Englishes a little slower and more deliberately, we were sure to get our point across.
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Kiwi vs. pond
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"S" is for eel
    There was plenty of work to do on their farm. One of the biggest projects we tackled was turning an old trash heap into a usable paddock; a task that would have been infinitely harder if Ian hadn't had a 2.5 tonne digger. Our time was mainly spent picking up cement chunks and branches, and loading them onto the trailer.
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Rock tossers
Because of the amazing amount of cement debris, the only option was for Ian to dig a 4 meter by 4 meter pit, and completely fill it with random rubble. Our work day was routinely broken up by the New Zealand tradition of tea breaks or "smokos." These breaks were pleasantly refreshing compared to the American work-til-lunch mentality. One of the final tasks was tearing out an old buried landscape pond. There was not much left but slime and rotting plant matter, but while Ian was scooping the muck up with the digger, a 2 ft long eel slithered from the muck and off into the grass. After fixing the fence, and hauling innumerable trailer loads, all that paddock needed was a little grass seed to complete the cozy quadruped quarters.
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How it's done
   Ian and Marcia effectively grazed their ungulates in a rotational system. Every few days we would leisurely walk behind the sheep, nudging them onto the next pasture. The cows were moved less frequently. One of the biggest moves was when they were all brought down to the most accessible pasture in preparation for the mobile butchering team who was arriving the next day to dispatch one of the biggest. The cow was destined to be divided between themselves and a friend. The butchering company had, a few days before the culling, sent a sheet listing all the possible cut options, allowing them to order some favorite unique cuts that are hard to get at the grocery store. 
The two-man butchering team showed up in their mobile butchering truck, and quickly and efficiently killed, skinned, gutted, and quartered the cow. To skin it, they first manually skinned the legs and around the head, and then hoisted the carcass up on hooks. Then they attached the neck skin to a winch, and with a press of a button it steadily peeled the hide (to be tanned for a rug) up and off the carcass. Marcia was a fan of tripe, but the butchering company did not have tripe as an option, saying it was too difficult to process. 
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What a load of tripe
We'd never eaten it before, so Randy decided to try his hand at cleaning and preparing the yards and yards of stinky, greenish stomach folds. While salvaging the stomach from the butcher's gut bin, we also scored the pancreas and the caul fat! Randy spent hours washing out the stomachs, and then stored them in salt water in an attempt to de-funk them. While waiting for the tripe to mellow, Randy breaded and fried up the pancreas, also known as sweetbreads, which turned out quite scrumptious. We wrapped the caul fat, which is a thin, lacy net of fat that holds the stomachs in place, around potatoes and baked them. This fat tends to have more flavor, and went well in the dish. Unfortunately the tripe did not fare so well. Instead of cleansing in the salt solution, the cow stomachs fermented and the whole fiasco was hurriedly buried in a shallow grave out back.
   Ian and Marcia made it a point to introduce us to distinctly New Zealand cuisine. "Kiwi pies" were personal-sized versions of what we would call chicken pot pie, except they had a variety of fillings such as beef-bacon-and-cheese, or steak and kidney. Ian treated us to a pie and a doughnut for lunch one day. A kiwi doughnut is a delectably delicious long, bar doughnut cut in half like a hot dog bun and filled with whipped cream and an optional filling (we tried apple). We even got the chance to sample some strange new produce; the kumera and the feijoa. A small green fruit the size of an egg, the feijoa tastes like a cross between strawberry and guava, and is ubiquitous throughout New Zealand. The kumera is a sweet potato variety introduced early 1800s by American seafarers. On a side note, in New Zealand, kiwis are people, not to be confused with kiwifruit. If you happen to ask "are the kiwis ripe?" you will answered with some strange looks, and quickly corrected.
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Kahawi on a homemade smoker
Soon to be dinner
   Ian is an avid fisherman, and wanted us to try a few of the local varieties. And this was a good a reason as any to spend a day out relaxing on their boat. His friend Rod came along, and at 5 am we set off for a day of fishing. It was a windy day, so we stayed in the harbor instead of going farther out. First we laid two set lines with 25 hooks apiece. On each hook was a small bait fish we had caught with nets the day before. After setting the lines, we went and took a leisurely break while waiting for the fish to find our hooks. We liked this method of fishing, a little work punctuated by extended smokos. After setting and hauling in the lines twice, we came back with 8 snapper. We had caught a few more, but they were below the legal size limit, so we threw them back, and a nearby "shag" (cormorant) enjoyed a snack.
On the way back we passed through a small bay, and did a little rod fishing off the end of the boat. We could see the kahawai jumping, and within about fifteen minutes we'd both caught two. Feeling that our trip had been successful, we headed back to port with our soon-to-be delicious catch. Ian and Marcia beer-battered the snapper, and smoked the kahawai for our supper the next day; no fish is more delicious than the fish you wrestled in yourself.
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Smell that dairy air
    Lucky for us, Ian and Marcia enjoyed taking us out on the town, and we got to experience a variety of excursions. When Ian learned that in all our farming travels we had never seen a rotary cow shed, he quickly called around to fill this gaping hole in our farming knowledge. A few days later we got to see morning milking. Due to the unusually warm season and lack of rainfall, the cows were being milked on a 16-hour schedule, so the morning milking was at 11 am, rather than the traditional 6 am. As the milking began half the herd, some 300 cows, are herded into a circular pen attached to the milking shed. A rotating gate kept the flow of cows moving through the milk shed. As a cow entered the shed, it moved into a stall on top of a giant rotating disk that held about 40 cows. The disk turned slowly providing an open spot for each new cow to stand. Then a person quickly rinsed the teats and attached the cups. By the time the cow returned close to the starting position, the milking was completed and it was shuffled off the disk, providing an empty space for the next cow. The whole operation was ran by a sharemilker, a farmer who owns his own herd of dairy cows, but leases land from another farmer to house and feed his herd, hoping to eventually save enough money to have his own land.
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Old cement works
wwoof workaway new zealand     The marina where Ian and Marcia keep their boat is a close-knit community of friendly boaters. While we were there they had a party down at the marina, and we enjoyed an evening of delicious food and good company. The boatyard is adjacent to an abandoned cementworks factory, which had a rich history, ending in it being used as target practice during WWII. Although the actual ruins were fenced off due to safety reasons, the factory's old lime quarry is now filled with water, and is a popular swimming hole.

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A relaxing day on the beach near Goat Island
   As everyone knows, it takes out-of-town visitors to motivate you to see the sights of your home town. Our presence was as good an excuse as any to check out the Warkworth Museum. After an afternoon perusing the menagerie of eclectic relics with hand-written captions, we had a sense of the history of the area. The displays included everything from local flora and fauna specimens to life-sized dioramas of shops and houses in the 1800s; the mobile dentistry unit used in the early 1900s was particularly horrifying. The museum grounds included a short "bush walk" showcasing the magnificent kauri tree. The kauri tree is an impressively massive tree, growing up to 150 ft tall with a 12 ft diameter. Praised for its long straight trunks, it was logged almost to extinction by 1900.
Randy, Marcia, Holly, Ian
   One night we all went over to their friends' house for dinner. Greg and Mandy lived in a converted box truck, with a trailer addition. Despite how this sounds, inside was a cozy, nicely furnished home which gave no inkling of its previous life. We enjoyed a delicious meal with some of their own sheep sausages, and had a quick soak in their hot tub after.
    When we weren't working or taking in the local sights, we enjoyed watching old American sitcoms with Ian and Marcia, and of course plenty of rugby.

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