Saturday Sun on the West Coast

When we decided to take a job in Greymouth, countless people asked us why. We were told the West Coast was the place least worthy of our time in the South Island. The only thing stopping us changing our minds was our English nature – our desire to follow through with a commitment to the job, and fear of letting someone down.

Having spent two months on the West Coast, I can only say that it must be one of the world’s best kept secrets. Sure, if you pass through Greymouth for one day, you might be ready to leave in the morning (particularly if you hit it on a grey day): the town itself doesn’t have a huge amount to offer in its current state, having suffered a huge amount economically since the closure of the mines. But stick around for a few weeks with some wheels, and the place becomes a unique kind of paradise: uncharacteristically relaxed (even by New Zealand standards), wonderfully wild, and unimaginably beautiful. It doesn’t have the golden sand beaches and heat – that tropical beauty which sends you to sleep; it has the green, waves and mountains that make you feel awake and alive.

Perhaps it’s because the West Coast suits a particular kind of person. For someone who wants the excitement and buzz of a city, it might feel too remote, frustratingly quiet, and unwilling to embrace the modern world (some West Coasters are known for their resistance to change). If you don’t like the outdoors – swimming, fishing, hunting, hiking, the bush – this place might not be enough for you. But if you appreciate nature and the simple things, if you can enjoy the company of the people around you and make the most of where you are in the world, it could be the place in which you are your happiest.

Lake Brunner

Cook and Abel

December 25th 1769: Aboard ‘The Endeavour’, anchored just off Three Kings Islands.

James Cook stood to toast his crew this Christmas Day. The wooden boards of the decking groaned in protest: his foot landed in a short, sharp movement to the left, followed quickly by his right, as if his legs were attempting to perform an Irish jig without the rest of his body’s consent. A few men noticed this stumble and boomed laughs across the table: the sound was affectionate but lacked the standard of respect the captain had become accustomed to on The Endeavour; Cook took a moment to enjoy the camaraderie.
He thought back to their arrival in this land three months ago; how time plays with your mind, feeling fast and slow simultaneously. He could hear Young’s distant shouts of triumph above the noise at the table; the day a piece of earth was christened Young Nicks Head to mark the boy’s success – a promise fulfilled by the captain. The boy’s sharp eyes scanning the tapestry of sea locked on this bead of hope, like spotting the first fin in a family of cruising dolphins. Young’s excitement in his achievement was almost as gratifying as the sighting itself. But the landing brought troubles Cook had hoped to avoid, and in the last weeks, each course taken persistently reminded them they were in unchartered territories. The anchorage tonight was no different, off the northern-most tip of this distant land. Tonight, Cook hoped he and his men could find comfort in tradition and interior space.
The ship rolled in the swells of the sea, stiffly resisting the wind, unable to bend to absorb the shock. The storm (and the few drinks the captain had consumed with his men on this celebratory occasion) made standing feel as tough as sailing on these seas. Cook imagined the small pieces of land on their port side as anchored masses, plunging into dark waters to emerge again for the next wave; in his mind’s eye they mirrored the movement of his ship, and this perception, although fantastical, was a comfort to him. The lands permanency gave solidity to their own island of wood and sails.
The captain was brought back to the table by the clatter of a cup hitting the deck. It was not until it made contact with the floor that he realised he had watched its whole journey, rolling in a curve towards him, to spill flecks of red wine on his off-white trousers. The crew, unaware that Cook’s mind had temporarily wandered to the hazardous upper-deck, looked disappointed by his slowed reactions. Their expressions seemed apologetic more than conciliatory, as if they had failed to uphold their end of a mutual protective relationship.
Knowing the ease with which a joyous drink could turn sombre (or in fact clamorous), Cook enthusiastically seized the empty cup and held it aloft, offering a theatrical flailing of arms alongside a wide and rare grin:
“A toast!”
The crew cheered their festive support. Cook knew that his men respected him, even liked him, but he didn’t often feel included in the joke; a human compass. He thought that humour and affection must find balance by holding hands. Steadying himself and licking his reddened lips, he spoke:
“Firstly, thanks to Joseph, for providing our bird for this evening’s feast. Tonight, we will be dining on gannet pie!”
In their drunken state, this revelation became unbearably funny: uproar – of both the feigned-angry kind and belly-laughing kind – ensued, with some crew faking belches and others rubbing their stomachs enthusiastically. Joseph Banks contrived an expression of deep insult, digging his eyebrows into his tired sockets. About to stand to defend his invention, Cook stepped in: he recognised the need to move the toast along – a level of perception and intuition learned by a captain:
“No, it is not our traditional goose pie, but this is not a traditional Christmas”, he continued.
“You can say that again. The first bloody Christmas this place has seen”, one of the crew mates chimed in.
“Don’t forget the Dutch fella”, another responded. “Abel Tasman. He was here around this time too. Wonder if they found a goose…” (a chorus of appreciative chuckles and murmurs).

Cook knew Abel Tasman’s story well, the first man to find and name this spot on the edge of the world. He was about to reply that in fact they ate pork on New Zealand’s first Christmas Day… The captain had studied Tasman’s diaries, memorising descriptions of land; coordinates and sentiments. The words could only teach him so much, but he had hoped to avoid Tasman’s mistakes; to learn from history. He knew too well that unknown lands come with unknown peoples: Cook had become sufficient in pushing fears of the unfamiliar to the back part of his mind, but it goes against instinct; for those men who depend on predisposition, strangeness is pure threat; an unfamiliar fruit is always poison before it can become medicine.
Tasman anchored in a bay of golden sands, and minutes later departed from Murderer’s Bay. The beauty of the place had not changed, for the eyes cannot remember. But the mind cannot completely forget: for those who’ve heard about Tasman’s landing, this bay will always show red sands, even when they’re no longer conscious of why – feelings outliving memories. The explorer himself printed this name in these shallow waters, but Cook considered that the Maoris may well have inscribed the same in their own tongue to describe their first encounter with Europeans; there was death on both sides, without a universal language to speak of peace. He wondered how these syllables might sound to his ears.
Now the captain felt Tasman’s journey had become part of his own, imagining an affinity with this man as strong as blood. The same blood, shed and lost. Sometimes at night he heard the Dutch explorer perform a reading of his own encounter with the Maori people. And it was always that first, even though he’d had many since, and of the better kind. At the end Tasman would turn to Cook and simply shake his head, and Cook would slip away, calling that he came in peace. He woke feeling angry at himself and disappointed in mankind.

It was the quiet that shocked Cook back into the present, every face now turned on his, in expectation of direction. He imagined it was the sea that had made his mind so vulnerable to wandering; thoughts meandering like waves with no end, stopped only by some form of obstruction. Who would have thought quiet could become an obstruction? Thinking about his own thoughts… He rebuked his own inner melancholy.
He returned to the surface of his mind – that part which feels like it’s doing no thinking at all – and, as if in response to a request, he shouted: “Alright, alright. Let us remember this country’s first Christmas, before we eat and fall asleep in our chairs. A toast to those who came before us!” And he began to tell a story.


Tribute to Hayley

Sometimes in a novel, you read a moment whose unexpected truth makes you smile. A feeling you have been subconsciously trying to identify in your own life is suddenly brought before your eyes with perfect clarity. You realise this is exactly what you’ve been trying to say: a sentiment which feels so familiar though it has never been consciously thought – swimming in the deeper parts of your mind. The expression in words is clear, simple and poetic, to match the feeling.

“Solitude is a condition best enjoyed in company”

When I read this in Eleanor Catton’s ‘The Luminaries’, it seemed to answer an unspoken question about the last couple of months. Hayley and I have talked about the pros and cons of travelling alone, and have always agreed that we would much rather be with a friend (if it’s the right one…). We are both happy in our own company and have previously liked doing things by ourselves, like walking the dog, or going to see a film that no one else wants to see. And it isn’t necessarily the big experiences that are enhanced by the presence of a friend, the focus being your relationship with what you are doing. But it is the everyday parts of travelling which are made so much better: bus journeys, working days; moments of static, when you stop to take in a view.

There is a romanticism to the idea of solitude which forms a perfect accompaniment to travel; this sense that you can only “find yourself” when you are by yourself; that moments uninterrupted by someone else are somehow more whole and experienced. But there is an extraordinary level of mutual understanding and respect between Hayley and I (yes, this must be called a tribute to my wonderful friend) that makes moments of inner peace evermore peaceful; being alone with your thoughts is made better by the presence of someone thinking their own.


The Perks of Work

When you think about travelling a country, you think about all the things you might see – beautiful scenery, history, culture – and all the things you might do – swim with turtles, skydive, watch a sunrise. But when you think about working in a country, you think about all the people you might meet. Often, working is seen as a necessary slog to save some money for travel. And this is partly true – the main focus is earning money. But when you stop viewing it as merely a means to an end, the time spent working can take on a much greater value.

It’s easy to speak only to other travellers when you are moving around from day to day: staying in hostels and following tourist tracks. But when you stop and become part of the function of a town, you form relationships with people who actually live in the country you have made your temporary home. You might have more in common with other travellers, comparing notes on places been and things done. But they can only share about the country what you can experience for yourself.

A new friend told me that tourists – particularly younger – often actively avoid local people in social settings. It’s as if their status as “local” brands them strange. Of course, you aren’t going to like everyone you meet, just as at home. But from a different country doesn’t mean to be kept at arm’s length. Take the chance to see how people live, what they prioritise in life, how they feel about their home; and take the opportunity to be showed the very best of where you’re living by someone who knows. If you’re lucky, it’s a relationship which never has the chance to turn sour: you’ll feel sad to know you won’t see the person again, but glad you had the chance to meet them.

At the Paroa hotel, a huge part of our job has been making conversation with people sitting at the bar. This has sometimes felt like the biggest challenge: when your questions are responded to unenthusiastically, it’s surprisingly hard not to take it too personally. But it has also been by far the easiest and best part: talking to familiar faces and friendly people passing through can turn a regular work shift into a truly enjoyable seven hours. When conversation is made into a duty of the job, it immediately becomes forced and effortful. But frame it as a chance to talk to someone new, and suddenly it becomes much easier. One thing that has become apparent over the last six weeks is that you can never have too many conversations: no matter how random they might seem at the time, to someone, or in some way, they’re significant.