Eely-feely

The Stray group spent Thursday afternoon and evening at Kohutapu Lodge about an hour’s drive from Rotorua – the tourist mecca of New Zealand. The lodge is owned and operated by Karl and Nadine Toe Toe of the Ngati Manawa Tribe. It sits on private land, on the shore of Lake Aniwhenau, just a few kilometers from Kaingaroa Forest which at 2900 square kilometers is the largest forest plantation in the southern hemisphere.

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Before checking into the lodge we met up with a young Māori guide who took us on a brisk walk through virgin forest (not the fast-growing pine that stretches as far as the eye can see.) We eventually came to a ravine, and at the bottom of a rocky outcrop we got a chance to inspect a collection of 1100 year-old cave carvings that pre-date the Great Migration by about 400 years. A portion of the cost of staying at the lodge will go to the restoration of these carvings. Work on removing some 20-year-old graffiti will commence later this summer.

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After the hike it was time to relax on the lodge’s back porch and enjoy a few beers with some of the people who I have now known for three days. It was a diverse yet well-traveled group so interesting stories came easily. The Toe Toe’s pet pig heard the commotion and waddled over to see what was going on. Nadine swears that he thinks he’s a dog. I can see why based on the way he bounded up to the door of the orange bus when we pulled into the yard.

At 7:00 p.m. we met near the lake to get the dinner preparations underway. The meal was cooked in a hāngi – the traditional Māori style of cooking where steam is used to cook food which is buried in the ground. Pre-heated volcanic rocks were placed in a pre-dug pit, followed by wire baskets containing six large stuffed chickens, a leg of wild boar, smaller pieces of venison, chopped carrots, pumpkins, potatoes and kumara (sweet potatoes). The food was covered with wet burlap sacks and a large pile of moist sand was shoveled onto the burlap.
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At 9:30 the pit was excavated and the food carefully removed so as to avoid getting sand on the chicken. By 10:00 we were enjoying some of the best roast chicken and the best stuffing I have ever tasted.

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After dinner Nadine explained how they repackage leftover food into box lunches that the Strays deliver to a local school on their way through town the next morning. The mostly Maori and often under-privileged kids not only appreciate the nutritious food but also the chance to meet Stray passengers from around the world. Since Nadine and Karl started this project the drop-out rate has been cut dramatically, grades have soared, and many kids who previously had no idea what they would do with their lives once they left school are now talking about becoming graphic designers, and game developers, and dental technicians and civil engineers like the ‘Strays’ they have met on an almost daily basis. A few have decided to travel and see the world. For many this was the first real interaction with someone from outside a tigh-knit but somewhat isolated community that could pass for many in Northern Ontario or Manitoba.

Unfortunately we didn’t get the chance to visit the school as the kids are on summer holidays but Nadine promised to deliver the leftover food to local seniors. The elders of the community are particularly grateful for a traditional Māori meal of roast meats, vegetables and smoked eel.

And that bring me to our final optional activity at Kohutapu Lodge. It was almost midnight before the dishes were done and we were given the option of going to bed or donning hip waders and going eel fishing in the dark with Nadine’s husband Karl. You might be surprised to learn that eel fishing in the dark isn’t high on the bucket list of the average university-aged girl from The Netherlands or Germany or the U.K. Only Jon (Pennsylvania), Mathias (Amsterdam) and myself opted for the “rely-feely” as Karl calls it.

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Karl walked us down to the partially submerged dock from which he usually fishes. We were joined by the lodge’s two dogs and a fat black cat who closely resembled my old buddy Tyson. The fact that the dock was under about an inch of water didn’t faze the cat. He waded out to the end of the dock and hopped up on a bench where he watched over the can of bait for well over an hour. When we were done fishing Karl gave the signal and the cat dined on the leftover bait (chopped fish). I have never seen a cat obey any signal, let alone walk through water and sit patiently beside a pail of chopped fish until being told it was okay to dig in. Amazing!

I caught the first eel, naturally. It was a long time before Jon or Mathias caught one but they eventually got two apiece. Karl will smoke the eel overnight and the Stray group that arrives the next afternoon will have smoked eel for dinner, just as we did. Pay it forward!

Everyone in my cabin slept soundly (if not quietly) on Thursday night. This was a welcome change from Wednesday when we camped out on the floor and front porch of a Māori Meetinghouse near Mourea. Sleeping on the floor wasn’t an issue. I thought it would get warm inside so I pulled one of the foam mattresses out onto the porch and together with three others we watched an amazing light show in the southern hemisphere sky. Yes, the ‘big dipper’ and other constellations familiar to North Americans are upside-down if visible at all from New Zealand.

Those who slept inside were treated to a smoke detector that went off at approximately 2:00, 3:00 and 4:00 a.m. Somebody eventually had the good sense to fetch a 20’ ladder and rip said alarm from the ceiling. I believe it was semi-pro British Rugby player Sam Breeze who should get credit for fetching the ladder. If it wasn’t Sam I’ll still give him props for having by far the best name on the bus!

We were up early on Friday morning and on the road to Lake Taupo before 7:30. I didn’t have any big plans for Lake Taupo but nevertheless it turned out to be one of best days of the entire trip. Hint: I got high! Details to follow in my next post.

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