Earning our keep in Karamea

Off to work! Weird…it’s been quite some time since we have said that, huh?

Waking up to yet another rainy morning and having already returned our rental car, we had a soggy walk to the edge of Greymouth to begin our day’s hitching. In the world of hitchhikers, rain is just about the worst thing you can imagine. Not because we will melt in it, but because it makes actually landing a ride really difficult. For some reason, no one ever seems to want to go out of their way to get their vehicle’s interior sopping wet. Imagine that. Thankfully, luck was on our side and after about an hour of wishful roadside shivering a local woman took pity on us and pulled over. She was only driving a few miles up the road, but it was a few miles further than we were so we gladly accepted her offer. Even better, she dropped us at a corner shop (which Kiwi’s call a “diary”) where there was a little shelter that we could stand under to continue our hitching and stay dry.

As the rain began to let off, our hitches got easier. We made it all the way to Westport without too much hassle. We always have fun talking to the different people, locals and other travellers alike, we meet while hitching so time tends to fly by. On the pavement again, we waited for a bit before catching our final ride of the day with a decidedly surly Irishman named Patty. Wrinkled, tattooed, clad in filthy flannel, and sporting a wispy ponytail, it was clear that he did not make a habit of socializing. We told Patty we were headed to Karamea to work for a few weeks and as it turned out, he was well aquainted with our hosts. I think that is when it began to sink in just how small and utterly remote Karamea really was. This place is literally the end of the road. Whoa.

Beautiful New Zealand

We walked the last few miles into Little Wanganui, the township-esque settlement located just outside of Karamea where we would actually be working, and navigated our way to the Anderson’s house. Dianne and Russell Anderson that is. To set the scene, we walked in to their little farm house and were immediately greeted with cookies and tea. We could already tell that we had scored a phenomenal workstay.

Dianne, Russell, and us

So a little about our amazing hosts. Dianne was a warm, friendly, and cheerful person…all the time! She was also a terrific cook. In fact, my mouth is watering just thinking about her kitchen concoctions. (In the words of New Zealander’s, “Yum-as”) Russell was soft spoken and very much a listener. When he did talk though, he was the perfect combination of knowledge and underhanded humor. They have traveled a shocking amount and were full of good stories. It seemed like every time you think you have them figured out, they have some other surprise up their sleeves. Their grandson, Frano, was also living with them for the season. Frano was fresh out of high school and just an overall nice guy. In a nutshell, everything about Frano was perfectly 17 which meant we had a lot of laughs with him, usually over the cookies we baked or the bad (but guilty pleasure) TV he was watching. At their core, they were just good, hearty, salt of the Earth people who we were really lucky to get to know.

The finished product!

Dianne and Russell run a dairy farm as well as a bed and breakfast. Well, Russell runs a dairy farm and Dianne runs a B&B. Growing up in the Midwest, it was totally bizarre to wrap our brains around a dairy farm being located right on the coast. The beach was literally across the road and it was beautiful. One evening we walked out there after dinner to catch low tide. It was incredible to say the least! The beach was so flat that with the tide out, it seemed impossibly wide. A sheer layer of water on the damp sand reflected the setting sun and left the whole beach shimmering, sparkling, glittering. It was so magical to just stroll along the sand and know that you won’t forget that little nothing moment for the rest of your life. I can’t imagine having that right out your front door. I think that answers the question of why they choose to live this far out, just barely on the grid. (I mean, they didn’t even have electricity in Karamea until the 70’s!)

The way Help Exchange, the website we found this workstay through, works is really simple. Basically, the deal is that we work for four hours per day in exchange for food and accommodation. While in Karamea, we primarily worked with Dianne on the B&B side of things since they had paid, trained employees for their dairy operations already. For the most part, the work was really easy and quite fun. We tackled everything from washing and detailing their car to cleaning out the fridge for an upcoming B&B inspection, from weeding the garden to helping in the kitchen. Although we think that Dianne thought I was rather dainty and needed “lady work” which implies that I was hardly to leave the kitchen. Kind of funny, but I really can’t complain. With Dianne being such a great cook, I came away with heaps of her “secret family recipes”. Yum-as! (The only problem I might encounter trying to whip up some of her specialty sauces at home is that unlike Dianne, I might have a tough time getting my hands on 30 kilos of tomatoes at one time 🙂 )

Cooking up a storm

It wasn’t all work and no play though. That is for certain! (I know you were all really worried about us working too hard.) Karamea is the gateway to the Heaphy Track, one of New Zealand’s famed Great Walks, which takes hikers through the heart of Kahurangi National Park and hence this little dot on the map bumps right up against a collection of awesome outdoor excursions. When it finally looked like a solid day of sun with no threat of rain, we borrowed one of the farm vehicles (which I might add required you to drive with the steering wheel at a 90 degree angle in order to go in a straight line) and drove up the coast a little further to see a few sights.

Amber colored water

Our first stop was at the Oparara arches. There was a short hike through the rainforest taking you past two naturally formed arches, aptly known as the little arch and the big arch by locals. Typically, when we think of arches we imagine the thin, delicate, red rock sandstone arches of Moab, Utah. These were completely different. They were made of limestone and instead of being the thin, defying gravity shape we expected, they were more like open ended caves with rivers flowing through them. It was really neat to be able to walk right through these caverns and see how the amber colored water has shaped the rock over the years. The It was a very unexpected landscape which made it all the better in our minds.

Great day of exploring

After the arches, we drove a little farther to see the caves Dianne and Russell told us about. There were no lights so we just had our one, slightly dull headlamp to guide us. The first cave we ventured into had these crazy formations on the ground. It looked like someone had gone in there and done extensive tile work. It was so cool and also, unfortunately, near impossible to really describe. The other cave was called the Box Cave. Well named too since that is exactly what it was. Unlike most caves with their curved roofs, stalactites  and stalagmites this cave was a perfect box punched into the side of the hill. It looked like a cube of earth had simply been carefully removed and taken elsewhere. The farther we walked the more endless the Box Cave started to feel. Couple that with the many side tunnels available and I think you could spend ages exploring this cave and probably still stumble upon something new. A pretty cool perk for living in the middle of nowhere for a few weeks. Between the arches and the caves, we had ourselves a full day of exploration and heaps of good fun.

Inside the Box Cave

And then disaster struck. Well, that it pretty dramatic I suppose. Basically, I just got sick. Really sick. I don’t remember the last time I was sick enough to not get out of bed, but for several days straight I was more or less completely bedridden. I was pretty sure it was a sinus infection, but I had no idea such a common illness could render you completely useless. I was in so much pain that I actually woke myself up crying. It was like some sort of mideval torture device was strapped on my skull trying to crush it. Not looking like the medication I was taking was making any headway, we decided it was time to see a real doctor. (Not the rural doctor in Karamea who proved to be less helpful than WebMD.com.)

Being sick is the worst

The closest doctor was in Nelson, a good five hour drive away. Lucky for us, a girl working on the dairy farm, Noelia from Argentina, was starting the Heaphy Track that same day. Conveniently the Heaphy ends near Nelson. Rather than her trying to hitch by herself back to the Karamea trailhead to retrieve her car, it worked out that we were able to drop her at the start and drive ourselves to Nelson to the Urgent Care. In a few days time, we would pick her up when she finished her hike and she would drop us back at our Nelson Help Exchange workstay. The stars aligned perfectly! And thank goodness they did because I’m not sure hitchhiking was in the cards for me.

And the saga continues. Stay tuned for the next edition!

Check out the full photo gallery here!

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