December 4, 2012
I am sitting at a picnic table on top of a hill overlooking Onetangi Beach a small cove on Waiheke Island, a hobbit-like landscape half an hour from the capital. On the way here Air New Zealand used characters from the film The Hobbit, to pep up the otherwise dry security announcements. In the arrival hall at the airport in Auckland, floor to ceiling size posters of the actors welcomed us to Middle Earth. The film – like the Lord of The Rings before it – was shot here. It premiered in Wellington last week, and is due for release on December 12th, a subject followed with enthusiasm and great national pride.
The hilly terrain covered with luxuriant spring growth, and herds of peacefully grazing sheep is a joy and delight to both the eye and the heart.
We have set up camp in a field of long lush grass, downhill from a hostel housing the predominantly German ‘work and travel’ crowd. Because Waiki is such a stunningly beautiful spot, and the vineyards and agricultural businesses rely on transient low-paid help, the backpackers easily find jobs here and use this hostel as home base, sometimes for months at a time.
The hostel father, who lives next door with his young family in a house with a view of the bay, is an cool dynamic fellow. He organizes impromptu soccer games with the kids, who come back from playing on the beach together exhausted, refreshed, dirty and in good cheer. Once a week he cooks a barbecue for everyone and is responsible for keeping the hostel organized and clean – some of the girls do the daily housework in exchange for a free room – and for the general well being of its inhabitants, often chatting with them until late into the night.
There are two large refrigerators in the common kitchen and people either cook individually or share the duties in larger groups, hanging out for hours at one of the three long tables in the kitchen, or outside at the picnic bench on the flag stoned patio, or on one of the many the bean bag seats spread around the garden, the perfect place to catch up with friends and Skype with parents while enjoying the view of the beach below. The living room is equipped with sofas, tables, books, games, computers, a television, and of course wifi, which is sold by the hour and the day at the reception.
The backpackers admire and respect the hostel father and generally follow his rules: evening gatherings are not to deteriorate into rowdy parties, absolute quiet in the house by midnight.
A collection of vans is parked in front of the hostel, so that the backpackers camping in them can use the amenities. It has become popular to buy used vans – they are cheaper and vastly more convenient than public transport – and are easy to resell to the next crop of work and travelers. Another option, a buyback guarantee, ensures the backpacker retrieves 30-50% of his original investment from the seller at the end of the year.
We’re awakened this morning by a riotous, foreign-sounding bird concert. Isolated and insular, New Zealand developed a unique diverse plant and bird life. In the 1770’s during one of his three visits to New Zealand, Captain Cook commented on the deafening loud bird song. There has been a tragic loss of natural diversity since then – roughly 40% of the endemic birds have become extinct or are seriously threatened, and yet his description still precisely captures our experience.
With exception of bats, New Zealand was virtually mammal free, a paradisiacal habitat for innumerable species of birds until humans arrived – Maoris in the 13th, and Europeans in the 17th century, bringing a hosts of mammals along with them – mice, rats, dogs, cats, stoats, weasels, pigs, goats, deer, hedgehogs, and possums, endangering and decimating species hitherto unaccustomed to predators.