As I rolled into Takaka of the South Island’s Golden Bay, there was a steady stream of young hippies filtering through this small, progressive community. It reminded me of when the “Grateful Dead” would come to town… VW buses, patchwork clothing, dreadlocks, and all. This is never been my style, in fact, I don’t believe I have a style at all… but seeing these cute, little nomads always puts a smile on my face with their care-free, “wherever the road takes me” spirit. It’s also always fun to witness the international version of this huge tribe. The differences from nationality to nationality are subtle, but the like-mindedness reigns supreme, and this is what I most enjoy.
There was no “Grateful Dead” concert, just a holistic festival known as “Luminate”, meant to shed light on the many ways we can better the world and ourselves. Sadly, it was ending as I was arriving, but I would soon find that its universal philosophy resided staunchly in the mind of my host, Sunshine Appleby. Having already been made aware of her name through our prior correspondence, I assumed as much… but nothing could accurately prepare me for the level of commitment to these ideals, or the unbridled love, gratitude, and generosity that exuded from this vibrant seventy five year-old woman.
The first job she gave me was shoveling horse shit. Afterall, most of her guests are “Woofers”, and her gardens and the community garden she is graciously affiliated with are works of art as far as the right way to garden. The cornerstone of Sunshine’s teachings lie with compost, which was the perfect place for me to start. The proper way to compost is an in depth layering of various ingredients which I will not divulge here. I will leave it to the reader to go to the Takaka Community Gardens and see it first hand. Aside from Sunshine… Lawerence, Murray, or Saul, whom do a great deal of organizing at the gardens, will be happy to grace you with their considerable knowledge.
The Takaka Community Gardens are unlike any community gardens I’ve been to. On any given weekend, one can take part in classes ranging from alternative eco-building to Lawrence’s favorite: “50 Ways on How to Unfuck the World”. They not only have a fantastic farmstand to sell their impressively wide range of produce, but the gardens also house an apiary to sell honey. Every other Friday, they will fire up their outside, brick ovens to serve the public their own personal, wood-fired flatbread.
After the weeks following the “Luminate Festival”, most of the nomadic hippies had moved on (not all, in fact many of the locals refer to their town as “Stuckaka” as many who visit Takaka become voluntarily stuck here), I realized that the town had not just tolerated all these liberal visitors… the town itself was the most liberal of all. Aside from Sunshine, the Community Garden folks and all their friends, I havn’t come across a more friendly, laid back group of people than the kiwis, especially Takakan kiwis. Their humor has split my sides on more than one occasion, and their liesurely attitude is contagious. I must say, I really enjoyed the freedom of walking through a grocery store barefoot. Its the little things.
It wasn’t long before Sunshine learned of my skills with a paintbrush, and pulled me out of the gardens to turn me loose on the inside of my small cabin I was given to sleep in. It is called the “writer’s studio” but alas, from me, very little writing was done there. I asked what she wanted me to paint. My answer was, “The sky’s the limit.” In fact, I took my subject past the sky and into outer space, creating strange, floral wall borders and scroll work, populated by lauroidal, alien plant-life. This was the kind of creative freedom that Sunshine nurtured. She genuinely wanted everyone there to explore their inner, spiritual selves.
When I wasn’t learning about innovative composting methods or painting extraterrestrial strawberries, I was exploring Takaka and the surrounding area with the many friends I fell in love with at Sunshine’s house. Visiting the many beaches or river swimming holes was a daily occurrence. There was an endless amount of hiking to do, climbing the surrounding mountains, which the kiwis called hills, or spelunking at Rawhiti Cave. Taking a drive up to the Mussel Inn for great music and a relaxing atmosphere was also a good weekend thing to do.
It was very difficult to leave my family in Takaka, but after a month, I shouldered my pack and hit the road south with my thumb out. I had never been on this end of the hitch-hiking scene before New Zealand, but here it is just another way to get around. It’s very easy and everyone is so nice and accommodating. After several hours, I was in Charleston on the West coast to meet my next host, Don.
My education continued with another extremely interesting host. Don Levy, a native New Zealander and solar panel investor, has also been around the world, doing a variety of interesting things over the years, from volunteering his time in southeast Asia, dismantling old land mines, to running a multi-million dollar cattle ranch in Nevada. He had no shortage of wild stories to tell. There wasn’t a single plant on Don’s property that he couldn’t tell you the name of, from the eucalyptus to the mighty macrocarpa, and the manuka, of which his bees use to make his honey. During my stay, his on-going project was designing a solar array for a primary school in Nepal, solar power being a particular subject that I liked to pick his brain with.
I was placed in charge of painting one of his tenant houses on his 150 acre farm. Needless to say, there was plenty of room to explore and paths to walk without leaving the property, complete with citrus orchards, cows, ducks, and chickens… all in the company of Sydney (Syd), Don’s very lively, two-year-old border collie. With his fourteen-panel, amorphous solar array, Don boasts a high level of off-the-grid living. He is nothing if but a survivor, having beaten back lung cancer without the use of kemotherapy. A large-scale power outage or other catastrophe would certainly not worry him much.
Charleston is without a doubt a one-horse town, the largest town up the coast to the north, being Westport… but its draw is not its community, like Takaka. What brings you to Charleston is the raw beauty of the New Zealand’s west coast. Most of this area consists of small farms squeezed between high elevations of cool rain forest and the raging sea. The mountains bring hikers, climbers and spelunkers, mostly toward Paparoa National Park, but the west coast is known for its surfing. The ocean is powerful here and not to be taken lightly. Charleston is known for its dangerous riptide. It is also not far from the famous “Pancake Rocks” of Punakaiki.
My time of departure from New Zealand draws near. Its rugged landscape and beautiful, resilient people will be sorely missed. Even the horrible shootings in Christchurch this past month have done little to blemish the peaceful atmosphere of this wonderful, little country. If anything, the kiwis have strongly renounced such hateful action, standing firm to their almost-utopian way of life.