I wonder how many of you are thinking “Wasn’t she supposed to be volunteering during these travels?! What’s with all the sightseeing stuff?” If you are, you’re quite right! It turns out that in high summer in New Zealand, a few days’ or even a few weeks’ notice is simply not long enough when you’re contacting potential volunteering hosts to propose dates when you can work for them. I enrolled as a volunteer through the WWOOF New Zealand website – though, erm, I was already in New Zealand by then! I must have contacted about fifteen different WWOOF hosts, all over the two islands, streamlining the search bit by bit as I left areas I knew I wouldn’t be returning to, but people either replied in the negative (“Sorry, we’re full”) or not at all.
Except one :) And I’m so very glad it was this one!
Ross Smith and his son Jed have various business projects on hand, and ideas for a whole stack more! They run Seal Island “glamping” accommodation at Fox River, just north of Punakaiki on the West coast of the south island. Fox River is a genuinely tight-knit community of about 40 people, and hundreds more visit each week to swing by the well-established Fox River Sunday Market. The little neighbourhood has the Tasman Sea on its doorstep, and the steep, lush hills of the Paparoa National Park behind.
However, Ross’s glass is generally NOT for sale! It’s not what he sells at the market. His trademark product is a foodstuff he calls “fruit leather”: fruit is stewed down into coulis, which is then spread into thin layers, dried over 16-18 hours in a dehydration machine, and then peeled off in solid yet flexible strips with a deliciously tangy flavour. And now that he has established the basic product and process, Ross can potentially make fruit leather in a huge variety of flavours – as many as the fruit combinations available! Here, in its dried, packed form, is the one he makes most frequently: Feijoa and peach.
I had never encountered a feijoa before. They’re about the size and weight of kiwi fruits, but with a smooth green skin the colour of ripe avocado flesh. Feijoa flesh is white, with the same sort of near-invisible seeds you find in a cucumber. I’m told that Feijoas are native to SE Asia, and as far as the taste goes, the best analogy I can come up with is sweet-tangy citrussy sherbet! They’re like cool, soft sherbet lemon sweets, tingling on your taste buds! Delicious. Ross and Jed have an orchard of about forty feijoa trees, so their fruit supply is as local as it gets – and free :) The fruit leather can also be produced all year round, as the coulis, once prepared, is nicely freezeable.
While Ross is busy producing fruit leather (among myriad other projects), Jed manages the glamping accommodation that he built himself, dubbed “the Hexagon”. It’s just a few hundred yards up a very steep track from the house, and I reckon Jed’s favourite part of his job is zooming up and down the track on his quad bike with tools, bedding and so on ;) Jed has done a fantastic job of putting the place together and equipping it with everything guests will need. There’s a kitchen, outside loo (compost again, not flushing), basic shower, beautiful sea view from the deck, and here’s the main room with its big comfy bed.
After a couple of minutes spent browsing the visitors’ book you realise how many people have come here and fallen in love with the place. There is no mobile phone coverage here, and no Wi-Fi, so guests have no choice but to sever the link with their phones, computers, Wi-Fi, for a few days. In doing so, they are released from all the social and other obligations of their “e-lives”, and instead turn their thoughts to other things, which it seems has led some guests to take stock of what truly matters to them and make some big decisions. The Hexagon has changed lives!
Ross and Jed act with great care when it comes to their impact on their environment. They minimise water use (they use a compost toilet; some taps on the premises are disconnected). When on the point of buying household consumables, they consider where each item has come from, and go out of their way to find local / organic / chemical-free / fair trade alternatives. If they can, they make their own, for example their home-made insect-repellent! Citronella, with olive oil as the vehicle... what could be simpler? And good lord, you need it – the West Coast sandflies are vicious. Domestic water is heated ten minutes before use, or otherwise cold. The Smiths are good at making the most of nature’s resources, though not to excess. For example, the beach provides them with mussels – huge and fleshy! –, and the occasional bucket of sand or shingle, which they take sparingly, with a quietly-uttered word of thanks. Maori ideas about spirituality run deep in this area... you must not take without permission, or anger the unseen; always show respect.
I found Ross and Jed to be inspirational companions during my stay at Seal Island, and loved the way they talk about all sorts of possibilities that they see for the world around us. We were also joined by the wonderful Haley, a young American who came to us by chance, swiftly recruited on sight by Ross (funny story ;)... but probably not by chance at all. It was a privilege to meet her and have so many hours to talk, woman to woman, as we worked side by side. All four of us wished more people thought along the same lines, but at least here at Fox River there are quite a few who do.
One very successful initiative is the “Penguin fence” that runs alongside the road; it has saved the lives of dozens and dozens of little blue penguins! They’re small creatures, maybe about 60cm tall, and at night they come ashore, following centuries-old homing signals that tell them to climb up into the bush (to nest and to rest). Unfortunately, this has cost at least 70 penguins their lives :( Because as they leave the beach, they cross a few metres of bush... and then they’re on State Highway 6, in the dark. Vehicles on the state highway move a lot faster than the poor penguins, and SO many birds used to get squashed. Poor wee things! Thankfully, those days are now long gone... it must be extremely frustrating for the penguins when they can’t get through the fence, around it or under it to follow their instinct, but the fence has been 100% effective. No more casualties – hooray for local initiatives!
I found it hard to keep track of all the things Ross and Jed still want to do with their place. Ross is wondering about branching out into chutneys, but finding it hard to produce one that isn’t crammed with sugar. He also sells large pots of top-quality manuka honey at the Fox River market, and reckons there’s a niche for it in Eastern Bloc countries like Georgia, where many people make their own natural remedies (manuka honey having tremendous medicinal properties). With help from volunteers, he’s renovating part of the house to make it his “retirement villa” for when he is unable to be as active as he is now. He is also turning the lower floor of the house into a shop, where he will sell his beautiful plants, along with glass, fruit leather and honey...in fact I have an open invitation to come and be the shop manager ;)
And Jed? Jed has some fantastic, far-reaching ideas about woodchip-powered vehicles, building more glamping places, and possum-shooting ;) Possums wreak nothing but destruction and are the kiwi’s no.1 enemy! I’ve pointed out that possum-fur hats and scarves seem to be pretty popular in New Zealand, so if ever he feels like some rifle practice...
Jed would love to see hydroelectric power-generation work at small-scale level, where it can supply a couple of dozen houses at a time and make everyone less dependent on the national grid. He wonders how feasible it would be to engineer it himself... In the shorter term, he thinks he might start serving evening meals – for a fee, of course – to hungry glampers who haven’t had time to stock the kitchen yet. Or start a “book-a-picnic” service, where people who have reserved a meal (anything from deliciously simple fare to champagne and strawberries for two) can rock up, collect it and enjoy it on the beach a few metres away.
My work at Seal Island mainly consisted of weeding and clearing messy bits of garden/track, and a bit of plastering Ross’s villa-to-be. Pretty ordinary I guess, but my time there was not without its unforgettable moments. Like collecting mussels on the beach at sunset, after a swim in the sea. Looking up at the starriest night sky I’ve ever seen, with the Milky Way clearly visible. Listening to the sound of the cicadas and the ocean all day as I worked. Catching a mischievous weka (a large, nosey, opportunistic bird that runs around the place) pecking away at low-hanging apples. Attending two musical gatherings in quick succession, one of them given by Billy TK Senior, one of NZ’s finest blues guitarists. It was free to attend and there were about 10 of us watching... the ultimate in small, intimate performances! Have a look for him on YouTube if you'd like to listen to him in action (Math and Rob especially ;)
I consider myself really lucky to have spent time at Seal Island; it was the kind of experience you hardly dare to hope for when you first contact a potential WWOOF host, but ultimately what this kind of volunteering is supposed to be about. Why not have a look at the glamping profile if you think you might want to experience the place as a guest?! https://www.airbnb.co.uk/rooms/11259943?s=BVf7jBSy