Our school holiday jaunt to New Zealand involved food and eating, but it was much more about another kind of soul food – family.
It was an overdue time for Bennie and his grandma, Pauline Ethel Weir, to spend some time together and for father and son to wallow in some family time of a more extended kind.
While only encompassing a smallish quotient of the family spread across both islands of New Zealand and in Australia, it was without doubt a ripping fine time and a true delight.
It was also a chance for us to explore – albeit briefly – a part of New Zealand we’d never before visited, grandma having moved to New Plymouth, in the province of Taranaki, midway on the west coast of the North Island.
It’s a lovely city of about 70,000. It’s also a surf city, with a small port and surrounded by rolling hills of what appeared to us to be incredibly rich farm land.
For this return to the land of my birth, it struck me for the first time how few are the differences these days between Australia and New Zealand.
New Zealand’s nationwide collection of ancient vehicles and a variety of quaint ways once set it apart – whatever the commonalities between the two countries – but today the differences are increasingly hard to spot.
There were precious few pre-1970s cars to be seen.
And while some of the smaller towns we visited had heaps of charm, New Plymouth itself sported plenty of industrial-size retail precincts with vast spaces dedicated to Hardly Normal, Rebel Sport and more.
We had some beaut eating-out experiences; we had some mediocre ones, too.
But that was fine, because that wasn’t what it was about.
New Plymouth and Taranaki are looked over by the sublime and striking beauty of Mt Egmont – the awesome volcano spends much of its time shrouded in its own cloudy climate, but when it’s clearly visible it’s amazing!
Bennie gets to know the locals as Mt Egmont looks on.
We visited Ratapiko School, where Kay, Kenny’s cousin and Bennie’s second cousin, teaches.
The 100-year-old school deep in the midst of Taranaki farm land has just 20 pupils, ranging from prep up to the Kiwi equivalent of grade 6. Coming from Victoria, where school closures and amalgamations, and their ramifications, remain a sensitive subject, this struck me as quite wonderful.
It was the last day of school for them, so we happily joined in the break-up sausage sizzle.
Having spent the week to that point in the company of two adults, Bennie loved hanging a while with the Ratapiko kids and even kicked a football around, and was astounded to learn that some of the pupils regularly rode their horses to school.
After the school visit, we headed for the farm run by Kay, her husband Lawson and daughter Amy.
We were given The Tour by Lawson.
City Boy Bennie had never been around so many animals … outside of the Collingwood Children’s Farm or, in earlier years, petting zoos.
He fed a hungry spring lamb that had earlier demonstrated its eagerness by sucking urgently on a digit, and played with Misty the cat and Basil the house dog.
Basil, who makes up with personality what he lacks in good looks, apparently lords it over the nine or so working dogs on the farm and generally reckons he runs the joint.
That night we enjoyed a farm-style roast dinner with all the trimmings – a routine meal for Kay, Lawson and Amy, but a pretty darn cool treat for us!
The next day, Kay and family took us to the footy – rugby union, that is.
Everyone in Australia knows New Zealand is obsessed with rugby, but you’ve got to be there to understand just how deep it goes.
Heck, even the premier school teams – “first XVs” – are featured on television. Not live, and not full games, but still …
But while the All Blacks rule and the Super 15 competition grabs the rest of the international action, it is the provincial teams that are the heart and soul of the nation’s game.
So it was a real treat, for me anyway, to attend a home Taranaki match against neighbouring province Manawatu.
The Ranfurly Shield was at stake.
Like most provincial games these days, it was part of the ITM Cup season, but the shield is a lot older and highly venerated.
Taranaki is the shield holder, and so faces a set number of home-game challenges every season until it eventually loses the shield.
Taranaki was favourite.
The Manawatu supporters – Bucketheads – were in full voice but to no avail.
Their team spent quite a lot of the game on attack, but Taranaki was devastating on the counter. As they say in the biz … in the end, it was a blow-out scoreline.
Food-wise, Bennie and I decided to go for whatever was different from the stuff available at footy matches in Melbourne.
Which was why we ended up with a pie, chips and a Coke …
Why Bennie insisted on swapping seats with his dad.
The Manawatu supporters – the Bucketheads – make a noise and fail to get their team over the line. Or even close to it.
That night, the whole gang – including Grandma Pauline – hit a teppanyaki joint on Devon St, the main drag of New Plymouth.
Otaku was a fine teppanyaki experience – the first for most of our party, and the first Japanese food of any kind for my mum – with all the usual bells and whistles.
With our Japanese chef, Julius from the Philippines, presiding, much fun was had.
Some omelette went into mouths, and some did not; most bowls of fried rice were caught, but some not cleanly; and Pauline slurped miso soup with seaweed and tofu in it.
On our final day, we spent a few hours frolicking – well actually, Bennie frolicked, dad and grandma watched – on the glorious black-sanded beach at the small township of Oakura, just south of New Plymouth.
The cool spring day had a fabulous silvery sheen about it.
Before heading to the airport, we enjoyed lunch in another Devon St joint, a newish place called Joe’s Garage.
It was sort of blokey, but we had a room to ourselves with a big screen, so we could watch the All Blacks make short work of the Pumas in Argentina.
Grandma had the whitebait omelette in a roll, while Bennie and his dad had burgers, which were of the looks small/eats big variety.
The chips were ace.
Why don’t more places do their chips with the spud skins still on?
A pity about the spelling …