The Ferry to the South Island

Day 133
December 26, 2012
Boxing Day
The hostel mother, who has set up a simple breakfast on the kitchen counter and cleared away the mess from last night’s party, gives us a cup of freshly brewed coffee because we are ‘oldies’.
 – The kids, she says, would steal the coffee if I put it out, which is why they get tea.She loves being a hostel mother, most of the backpackers are respectful, although none of her three boys would dare leave a kitchen in the  state many of her guests do.
 – Some parents, she continues, have done a great job raising their children, while others have hardly made a dent. Behaviors have changed amongst today’s backpackers who  have more money than those traveling even a few years ago, did. No longer are travel stories exchanged at the kitchen table, now travelers spend evenings together in companionable silence, bent over separate machines.

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Wellington is overflowing with shoppers taking advantage of the Boxing Day sales. The holiday stems from the British tradition of giving service and trade personal Christmas gifts – packed in boxes – the day after Christmas – to thank them for their services during the year.
I visit the Te Papa museum, housed in a fascinating modern building, while Christof rides along the wharf. The Natural History section has an extensive collection of wildlife specimens, shells, prepared insects, birds and fish, as well as skeletons of dolphins and  whales. Bush City, part of the permanent collection, allows visitors to stroll under enormous fern trees and amongst rain forest plants, while another area depicts earth quakes, volcanoes, fires, and the destruction caused by the frequent natural catastrophes in New Zealand. I’m here because Brigid recommended the museum as a must-do venue to learn about Maori culture, but the bottom floor is so full and fascinating, I run out of time before getting to the upper levels which deal with Maori culture. I simply have to come back again!

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Lunch at a Dutch pub before riding to the ferry where we wait, with cyclists, kayakers, and dog owners in the light rain, for the call through a loudspeaker, directing us to deposit our gear on the lowest deck, next to the train tracks.

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Kaha, an attractive young Maori woman, sits down at our table shortening the three-hour ride to Picton with tales  of life on New Zealand’s farms. She says she’s,
 – A shiiiiip shiiiiiirer.
 – Excuse me, I ask, somewhat embarrassed at my inability to understand English, and at having to ask her to repeat herself more often than socially acceptable.
– I’m a shiiiiiip shiiiiiier.
 – Sorry? I say for about the sixth time, I can’t understand your accent.
 – I’m a person who cuts the wool off of sheep, she clarifies.
 – Oh, I say with a breath of relief as the light dawns, a sheep shearer!
 – Yes, she answers, that’s what I’ve been saying, a shiiiiiip shiiiiiier.
Feeling sorry for us because we are traveling by bicycle, she invites us to spend the night at her,
– Wee little place in the country.
During the ensuing telephone conversation with her partner, we catch the fact that he doesn’t second the motion.

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– We were planning on camping in Picton, we say quickly bridging the awkwardness of the moment, but we’ll stay in touch. If we pass your workplace and it suits, we might just pop in.
We exchange phone numbers knowing how slim the chances are us of ever seeing each other again.
– Do you catch the odd fish? she continues, after checking to see if we have grandchildren. We have to admit to having neither grandchildren nor fishing.
– I love to catch the odd fish and cook it for dinner. My family, whom I visited over Christmas, celebrates on a river, where we swim, fish and cook what we catch.
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Kaha came to the South Island when she was only 18, and discovered with a shock, once she was here, how few Maoris there were. She ended up marrying a white man, which was hard on her mother, and now sadly, her own children go to a ‘normal’ New Zealand school and are growing up ignorant of the Maori language and customs, spending Christmases with her ex-husband, and rarely seeing their Maori relatives who live on the North Island. Kaha’s mother was a shearer, and she and her six siblings, grew up in the sheds. All of her siblings have stayed in the shearing business, though most of them have moved to Australia where the pay is better.
Today farming is crowded with new regulations, so she’s not allowed to bring her children to work. When she is out on a job – which can last for 10 days – she has to hire a babysitter. By the time she’s paid them, most of her earnings are gone, and working is hardly worth her while.
We tell her about Germany which has heavily subsidized day-care centers and kindergartens for all small children. Most German institutions are open from 6:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. making it easy and comfortable for mothers to work. This would be a Godsend for New Zealand.
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Shearers travel around the country to wherever farmers need sheep shorn, usually sleeping in rough sheds during jobs. The men do the hard work of holding up the struggling animals and  shearing off the wool while the women – the ‘rousies’ – assist them, getting the worst dirt – mostly sheep shit – out of the wool, keeping the sheds orderly and in a pinch holding down panicked animals. Sheering is hard physical labour and only those who ‘get to it’ are able find and keep jobs. The others are shown the door.
We set up our tent on the meadow next to other cyclists and hikers who share their travel experiences on the South Island with us. It is chilly and a strong wind brings in rains, which drum cozily on the tent roof as we drift off to sleep.

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