They are eating vacuum-sealed, dehydrated Fettuccine Alfredo flown in from California, sitting on folding chairs outside of their rent-a-van covered in a tiger mural. They are still hungry when they join me on my yoga mat. I’m slicing onions, garlic and cabbage with shoulder bacon waiting for a hot skillet by candlelight with my iPod on shuffle.
Americans. Fresh off the plane. Always in a rush.
We first saw each other at a scenic cove overlooking the eternal meeting place of blue-green water, forest-covered cliffs and smooth-stone beaches. We greeted each other and kept driving. I start down the unsealed road to the East Cape, the most easterly point in New Zealand and home of the most easterly lighthouse in the world, when I see their van behind mine. Awesome, I’ll have some cool people to hang out with tonight, I think to myself.
The drive is filled with cows and calves grazing unfenced on both sides of the gravel road. I have to stop to encourage the little ones to get out of the way.
I see the hills reflect off of a still pond and I have to pull over to take some pictures. Their van stops next to me and he says,
“Are you looking for the same campground we’re looking for?”
I tell him I’m going to the lighthouse. I’ll see you there?
I didn’t know about a campground, I just wanted to check out the lighthouse to see if I could camp there for easy access to sunrise. Unfortunately, it is private land so I told them I plan on walking to the top tomorrow morning for sunrise. They agreed with my plan so we drove the slow, scenic six kilometers back to the campground, which was just a paddock with a spigot and an outhouse.
I’m excited to meet them and they want to learn about me. Britney and Tim lived across the hall at the University of California, Santa Barbara. They were both planning on traveling to New Zealand and when they met each other, they thought it would make sense to split the costs and go together. They are sleeping in a van about the same size as mine and they aren’t having sex. Weird.
Tim has long California hair and he lives two minutes from the beach. He is studying engineering and he works for some technology company. I assume he is well paid because he is able to take a three-week holiday to New Zealand.
Britney is graduated and is now working at REI, which explains why she brought along the backpacking meals-in-a-bag and why she is going on about her “Campsuds” when I say I’m going to wash my dishes.
After sitting and talking over the candle, we part ways and I fall asleep early to prepare for the next day. They said they would join me for sunrise at the lighthouse.
I woke at 5 am, brushed my teeth and flashed my lights at their van. No response. The lovely young Czech couple next to us shows signs of life. I give a double honk as I leave the campground, hoping Britney and Tim won’t be far behind.
I drive faster than I usually would on a gravel road with cows, calves, sheep, lambs and horses grazing unfenced in the dark. But I can’t wait to lie down in the grass with my camera on my tiny, flexible tripod to take a long exposure of the purple hues of early dawn.
The Czech man crests the hill with his GoPro recording every second. They don’t speak much English but we don’t need to speak much to share such a special and beautiful moment. We are at the edge of the world witnessing the first sunrise together.
While the boyfriend is on the other side of the lighthouse taking pictures, I ask her where they are from and how she likes New Zealand.
She says they wanted to get away and travel and see beautiful places, and she was surprisingly eloquent with her limited English. I wish I knew more languages so I could have a full conversation with people from all over the world.
Then it was time for them to leave. They said Goodbye and then I said Goodbye. They were very happy and polite and not like the Americans.
Britney and Tim never made it to the lighthouse. By the time I returned to the campsite, they were gone.
They were probably driving all day. Meanwhile, I had a relaxing day of preparation and adventure. I cooked bacon, eggs and toast with blueberry jam over two cups of coffee, waxed my leather boots, sharpened my hand-forged knife gifted from my step-mother, mended holes in my merino wool underwear and socks, and packed my bag for a long walk.
I set off toward the paddocks and forests away from the coast, and as I’m walking out of the campsite, the farmer drives in. He kills his engine and motions for me to come around to the driver’s side.
“Kia Ora,” he says.
“Kia Ora,” I reply.
He tells me his name is Len and I tell him my name is Sean.
“Kia Ora, Sean,” he says as we shake hands. His are callused, hard and dry.
“Nice to meet you,” I reply.
I ask him if he lives out here, Yup, the homestead is down by the lighthouse. I say it’s beautiful and isolated.
“Very isolated. My neighbor is just down the road, about four k’s,” Len says.
He says I look like a keen photographer, and I do with a full backpack and camera slung from my shoulder. I say I’m headed out for a walk and I’m wondering if this is all private land and if he minds if I wander around.
Without hesitation he tells me it’s fine.
I assure him I will shut all the gates behind me but he doesn’t seem to care at all at the thought of some random tourist tramping through his land. I’ve realized the importance of having a camera in hand. You can go anywhere if people see that you are just a photographer. As I walk away, though, I’m a little surprised that he didn’t tell me where his bulls are. I know they are out there so I’ll have to tread lightly.
He heads down the road a bit to shift his springer mob, the cows that are calving soon – and the only herd that are actually fenced in – and I open a gate and close it behind me and walk on his tyre tracks.
There are paddocks with wire-less fence posts on either side of the road. On one side, the paddocks end at the beach, and on the other, they end at pine forests and native bush.
I follow his track to the edge of the forest and jump in. The pine trees are planted in neat rows, like every pine forest in New Zealand, and this helps me to not get lost. Where the pines end, the native bush takes over and I’m overwhelmed by its thickness. There is a bloated, decomposing cow in a ravine. I realize if I keep going forward I will get lost in the dense forest or I’ll fall or something bad will happen and I’ll end up like the cow so I turn back. I decide to walk along the road but then I see a logging track and decide that would be perfect. This is obviously not Len’s land, but he said I could go anywhere and I doubt there is anyone out here right now.
I walk down the path and practice my stealth skills so I can sneak up and capture birds with my time traveling device. It is futile. The birds have been evolving for thousands, or millions, of years and they fly away before I have time to draw and shoot. But my stealth skills still work on humans.
After walking as silently as possible for about 90 minutes, I turn a corner up a hill and see a small all-terrain-vehicle with three people standing around with coffee and smokes. They think they are alone out here so I don’t want to frighten them. I walk much closer than I expect before they notice me. I say, Hello. The Maori man facing away from me jumps. I say Kia Ora, I’m sorry, I’m just going for a walk. The man on the side of the vehicle is rolling a thin cigarette and asks me where I came from. Uhh, the end of the road, I’m staying at the campsite, I tell them. This is a very isolated area and they don’t understand how I made it up here on foot.
He says I’m not allowed to be up here, “We don’t give a shit, but the site manager would.”
He says there is a wild bull out here somewhere and I should be careful. I tell them Len said I could go anywhere and they all laugh.
I decided my best course of action is to head back the way I came so I don’t get caught here in the dark of night where I’m not allowed to be with a wild bull lurking.
I’m extra careful to listen for oncoming trucks and I look for places I can jump to stay out of sight. But I’m alone.
I make it back to the road and walk into the unfenced paddock and head toward the beach. A small group of cows and calves run away from me and I see a big black cow with its head down by the boundary fence.
I sneak behind the big cow expecting it to hear me or sense me in the way that only animals can but it keeps its head down in the grass.
I make it to the boundary fence and – by force of habit from working on Digger’s farm – I check it for electricity with a blade of grass. Of course there’s no power so I straddle the wire fence up to my crotch and step over. I walk in front of the big cow, now on the other side of the fence, and it finally acknowledges me.
It lifts its head. It is broad and heavy and powerful. His body is a mass of muscle and I realize, Holy Shit, I just walked a few meters behind a bull. I’m either really lucky or really stupid or this bull was just really hungry.
Cows can be controlled and guided while bulls are unpredictable. They don’t care how confident you are, they will charge you and pin you against a fence without thinking twice. On my first day milking cows at Rian’s farm one of his monstrous bulls hulked through the shed, after the girls were milked, with the swagger of Gregor Clegane. They are terrifying.
As I’m getting over how lucky I am, I see a self-contained Britz caravan trying to find the perfect spot to park for the night.
When I return to the campsite, I approach them. They are from Switzerland, on a two-month holiday.
I love the Swiss. They take their holiday seriously. When I was a waiter at the Overlander’s Steakhouse in Alice Springs – the real “Outback Steakhouse” – we had to place flags on every table to show the assortment of nationalities. Every night we had at least one table with the square red flag with white cross. They travel often and travel well. They don’t fly to the other side of the world for a measly fortnight.
Unlike the budget travelers I meet, who are usually a year or two or three younger than me, this efficient couple went for the camper with room enough to stand, cook, clean and have wild sex. He hasn’t shaved in four days and his English is more practiced than that of his wife.
She says with a hard accent that their car locks automatically and they have been locked out before so if it happens again they will come sleep in my van. We all laugh with the joy of meeting strangers in a strange land.
We tell each other how long we are here, the second mandatory question among travelers. I say two months is a good chunk of time, they aren’t in a rush and they can see most of the country without driving for seven hours a day. He says, Wow, a year. He says I have the best way to live. Work and little, travel a lot. He’s right.
There are difficulties, however, like finding a balance between going on adventures with wild animals, wild humans and wild landscapes and sitting down at my laptop somewhere with power and Internet to write about said adventures.
And what book should I read next?
When the Swiss couple leaves the next morning, we share a happy, hearty wave. I love the Swiss.
After another relaxing morning of seaside breakfast and yoga, I leave the East Cape and think about Britney and Tim.
They didn’t see the first sunrise and they didn’t meet Len and they didn’t trespass through crown forest and sneak behind a bull or see the sunrise the next morning with magical horses grazing through the campground beneath the magical sky. I can’t blame them, they don’t know any better. I’m on a completely different schedule than them. I can afford to spend two nights on the Cape and then spend three nights at a motor park in Gisborne to wash my body and my clothes and renew the Warrant of Fitness for my van and buy contact solution and thread and darning wool.
Len is the luckiest man in the world. He owns the most easterly land in New Zealand. He spends his days with his sheep, cows and horses. His animals are happy — they graze freely and babies stay with their mums — and he is happy. He can go fishing or collect shellfish from the bountiful sea. And he can stop to talk to travelers who come to camp on his land.
I’m glad I decided to tour Eastland instead of heading straight to Gisborne to sit in the library and write all day. Adventure comes first. Blog comes second. You gotta have priorities in life.