The crossing from Wellington was for us a blessed relief as the, albeit grand, city had been a draining experience. We had spent 5 hours in a hospital waiting room for my knee to be seen and Cesca to have her toe looked at. They say that you should really try and get off the beaten track in the countries you visit, but I say there is no way better of understanding a people than by being caught in the gears of their bureaucracy. Nothing I said to the lady in the hospital helped speed anything up. Of course we were hardly bleeding to death on the floor but when I gently inquired – after 2 hours of waiting – what the suspected total wait would be she informed me that she had not even put us in the system yet. Anyway, when the doctor did arrive she was magnificent and I got my knee X-Rayed within 10 minutes.
Not surprisingly then we wanted a break from city life and boy did we find it.
We left the North Island on the mighty Interislander ferry that rolls its way between the landmasses that make up New Zealand. It is a titan of a ferry, which gleefully swallows trains, cars and passengers aplenty without burping.
Inside it has all the mod cons such as food, drink and even that most vital of oceanic equipment: a full size cinema. Coming into the South Island is to pass through a maze of broken up coastlines called sounds.
Sounds are where a tectonic plate has been pushed down and has flooded leaving only the tops of the local mountains poking out of the sea filled valleys. They are very similar in effect to fiords only without glacial involvement. They comprise a heady formation of passages which are long and have formed into large inlets. In these are multitudes of houses and hotels all buried amongst the short beach lines and masses of trees.
One part is known as the Queen Charlotte Track and involves a 4 day hike around the points and campsites.
Hidden within this maze lays Picton and the port of call for the ferry. Picton is a small town built up around its status as a transit hub and while it has a quite pleasant harbour you can tell that this is a working port.
Its main use is the ferrying not of goods but of people in the form of multitudes of water taxi’s and small ferries out to the Sounds various accommodations. For transport further into the South Island then Picton is the final stop on the train line (yes an actual train! in NZ!) that leads down the coast via Kikura and into Christchurch. It also is the hub for the hire car companies and the bus companies. Not surprisingly then, it is chock full of Backpacker choices in terms of accommodation.
We used the web to book what seemed like the best choice. The Tombstone Backpackers is right opposite the cemetery, which is something that most people would not harp on about. Tombstone uses the location to be its USP and having stayed at some of the other hostels I can see why. It is slightly further out of town (still walkable) and its competitors all give away free Apple Pie and Ice Cream.
That’s right, I stayed (weeks later) at the Lodge in town and the staff at the counter booked me in and then handed me my passport back, my change from the money I gave, the keys to the room and a bowl of apple pie and ice cream. Just like that. As if it was the most normal thing in the world.
Anyway, any visual images of Tombstone backpackers were melted away once we arrived and found that it is one of the every best hostels we have ever stayed at. It is all brand new for a start. A large kitchen, two TV sets (one massive LCD), two quiet rooms of sofas, a pool table and a hot tub. The room was frankly a revelation. I wondered if we had wandered into a top hotel my accident as this was a stonkingly good room. Ensuite. For NZ$60!
Also the landlady was very helpful. She quickly chatted to us and probed our somewhat haphazard plan about walking some of the track and within a jiffy had a plethora of good suggestions. And when she heard that we were looking for WWOOFing… jackpot! One of the lodges, on the Queen Charlotte Track, was looking for workers in the gardens for a few days. How about we get the water taxi to drop our stuff there and we then go to the next stop and walk back along the track? The taxi will be cheaper if we are staff at the lodge and they will provide food as well. Sounds good,
“What was the name of this place?” I asked.
The next day we boarded the Cougar Line water taxi at 9am and watched as our stuff was stowed properly. We had tagged all the bags to go directly to the lodge and, of course, had concerns about leaving our most precious gear in someone else’s hands – a classic no no for backpackers. The ferry got underway and soon we were streaming through the sounds on our way. I checked my go-bag had all the provisions I needed for the walk and then relaxed and enjoyed the view. The water was calm this day and we both were happy as the trees zipped by.
The walk from historical Ships cove to Furneaux was worth every step and a wonderful way to spend an afternoon. However, it was a hot walk and a significant 3 hours trek up and down the hills. By the time we came around the headland and could see the borders of Furneaux’s land I was in dire need of refreshment.
Happily it has a bar.
The main house of Furneaux is an old mansion that has been converted into the business it is today. It has that palatial feel of large white panelling and classic style decking all around the front. Its large bulk sits amid a collection of chalets and huts inside tree lined gardens and a stream running right through it. The building is split roughly into two. One side is the lounge bar, which is nicely appointed and fully serviced with both food and drink of all types. The other side is the main restaurant, which – on our first visit – was closed for the season. Behind these are the kitchens and above the kitchens is the staff accommodation. Out the rear of the building, across the stream, lay the higher-end chalets in a graceful arc looking towards the mountains. Walking in like we did we missed the most impressive sight of the grounds from the sea. On approach, this way, the buildings rise up out of the forest and very nice jetty welcomed you through the grounds and gardens up to the house.
We quickly introduced ourselves to the staff and even quicker downed a pint of beer that had been well earned from the walk. There was about 8 permanent staff spread over a variety of jobs from bar works to grounds, kitchen to cleaners. The more senior staff, like the head chef John, had their own rooms and everyone else either shared of bunked in a dorm room. As a kind gesture, mainly due to us being married and it being off-season, we were housed away from the house in the “Possums”, which were small but fun rooms 100 meters from the house.
Work was set to start the next day with some other WOOFer’s who had already got going. As it was 3pm, and work had finished at 1:30pm, we were told to settle in and relax until the morning. Bliss. Sitting out on the boards and looking out to the sounds (with a second beer in hand) was wonderful. Either side of the sounds the high hills frame the backdrop nicely and the eye is drawn down gently to the crystal clear waters lapping the shore.
Work started the next morning at 9. All food was provided by the host here and so we got dressed by 8 and selected suitable work clothes for the day, which was looking to be very sunny. We then joined in with the other morning workers and made ourselves some toast and cereal from the kitchens. Here we met the other WOOFer’s – three girls who were from Germany and Denmark. After hello’s and hi’s we presented ourselves to the staff for instruction.
The task for the next “few days” was to weed out the back chalets that had grown over and had not been disturbed over the winter. We were given directions to the tool shed and told to make a start. Lunch was to be at 11:30 to midday and then work again until 1:30pm. We went around to start and were presented with a monster weed infestation. The sheer size and volume of the weeds here was amazing. Some were so big that they could literally be confused with trees and all the earth was sown with a low laying creeper that made a lattice of green across all of the gardens.
I went and got a bigger fork.
Weeding is a lost art really. It is not quite the most unpleasant of jobs, for while it is hideously monotonous you do get a lot of time to think. I think a lot already, so I turned on the iPod to the longest audiobook I could find (The hobbit – 35 hours!) and just zoned out. Here the task was either very picky and required the weeder to pull out thousands of tiny weeds growing between gravel or very labouring and required that you dig over every square inch of earth pulling up the lattice-weed on the way. I chose the latter and the girls all clustered into a gaggle of broken English and good humour and got stuck into the little stuff.
After a pleasant morning we broke for lunch. I wasn’t expecting much, a sarnie perhaps, but was incredibly impressed with a large cooked breakfast buffet style. Even with all the staff tucking in we all had plenty. With a slightly full stomach we cracked back on and soon the sun was taking its toll. I made a mental note to stock up on water for the next day.
The other thing taking its toll was the sandflies.
Sandflies are the only menace worth mentioning in New Zealand. The country was blessedly free of snakes, had only rare dangerous spiders and not a large predator in sight. What it does have is a species of blackfly about the size of a matchead that requires blood to breed. And its favourite type of blood is human blood. Sandflies are talked either down or up by Kiwis. They don’t want to spook visitors with tall tales of being hit by thousands at once, but at the same time the little bastards are absolutely everywhere and an unholy terror. A sandfly bite matches and challenges a mosquito bite for itching and they take ages to heal. They can swarm about someone in battalion strength numbers and almost drain the poor sod dry of blood. Thankfully, they don’t like DEET and hate Mosiguard. However, be out near a stream or shore line and not slathered in the aforementioned and you can seriously be made to regret it. The worst I saw in my time in NZ was 200 hundred on Cescas back (in the Nelson lakes).
The numbers in Furneaux were thankfully less than in other places, but bites were exceedingly common on that first day. The stream ran right by the gardens of the chalets and we were exposed to multiple attacks. Everyone made plans to combat that the next day. We finished up at 1:30pm and relaxed for the evening. The other girls went for a trip in the company kayaks and there was much talk about fishing over the next few days. However, I was happy to relax that first night with another well earned beer. Got to love staff prices at the bar. Any illusions about being under fed after the large lunch were banished when dinner turned up for staff at 5:30pm. Another massive and greatly high quality meal was dished up and all the staff got stuck in.
There exists a well cultivated and friendly atmosphere at Furneaux between the staff members. The lodge is very isolated in terms of geography and it is greatly to the managements credit that they have recognised this and run a gamut of staff perks to prevent high turnover or regular burnouts. Basic perks like good food – more important than you’d think – and cheap drinks are just the start. Staff can borrow the lodges equipment on their day’s off and go kayaking or fishing. There is free WIFI, something that costs the earth via satellite connection but is vital to staff moral, and Sky TV with all the trimmings. A comfy staff room brings the staff together and free pool when the bar is empty keeps the competitive spirit going. However, by far the greatest innovation is called “Thirsty Thursday” where the management puts a wedge of cash behind the bar and buys every member of staff free drinks for as long as it lasts.
Such a fine balancing act explained why we were put in “the possums” as this prevented anyone from having to move around rooms and perhaps upset people.
The greatest facet was of course that this all extends to WOOFers as well as full time staff. So many places treat WOOFers as “lesser” to full time staff, but here they are treated very well indeed. This method of management reminded me of my own – a happy staff works hard and plays hard – and I was not surprised to find out that the owner had worked in a city job before buying Furneaux. The owner’s name was Geoff and he arrived back from Nelson the next day. Like many Kiwi’s he exhibited the relaxed but hardworking bonhomie that we have come to greatly like about this country. Very relaxed in his kingdom home he made all the WOOFers feel welcome, but checked up on us a few times a day as we worked.
And worked we did.
After-work highlights included fishing off the wharf and kayaking into the inlet. During the kayak expedition 30 dolphins swam up to the kayak and Cesca leapt into the freezing waters to swim amongst them.
5 Days later the weeding was almost done (and I had run out of Audible downloads to listen to),
and sadly we had to leave Furneaux for the journey down to Christchurch and a meet up with Arabella. We promised to come back…
…and four weeks later we did.
Our second trip to Furneaux was during a windy day and the crossing to the inlet was incredibly rough. Waves crashed over the small Cougar Ferry and the entire journey was like being in a washing machine. It was great fun, but more than a little scary!
Work the second time around was a little different but still not too taxing, we spent a day sanding down the decking readying it for painting.
I spent a day cutting wood (which was a lot of fun – little destructive bugger that I am)
A Day moving logs
A day edging all the gardens (this was hard work and left me with blisters on my hands)
…and a day fixing the boss’s laptop!
Finally after 5 more days we left Furneaux for the last time (until next time!). The experience here had been about as good as WWOOFing can get and had more than made up for the gig in Kangaroo Island. My faith in the whole enterprise had been renewed completely and my love for New Zealand increased permanently.
If you are in the Sounds, looking for work, I definitely recommend checking them, and the Sounds, out.