Steve Braunias on five hours of quality loafing.
There they all were these past few weeks, every New Zealand family - whitey, Māori, mixed-race, blended, in-laws, old codgers, fat babies, dogs - hanging out together in holiday homes and tents and caravans and motels, enjoying that holiest and most precious single event in New Zealand life: summer. Summer, which makes the rest of the year in our cold and dangerous archipelago worth all the effort. Summer, radiant and easy. And there I was, too, enjoying and experiencing the great New Zealand ritual of a family summer holiday, for five hours.
I stayed home a lot. It was nice. Auckland emptied out like a shell; you could put it to your ear and hear the sea. The city was as quiet as a country town or a seaside town in winter. I slept, I barbecued, I swam in the pool. But every now and then I thought: I wonder what summer feels like on some distant Kiwi shore, with sand on the pavements, a fish on the line, a game of cards played on deckchairs in the shade.
A family generously invited my daughter to go camping with their daughter somewhere in the Coromandel. We arranged that I'd take her on the bus to Thames and they'd take her from there. The timetables meant that I'd arrive at about 2.10pm and return at 7.40pm. That sounded great to me: an afternoon to loaf around Thames, that flat, watery town on the edge of a plain.
The bus ride was only two hours. We wanted it to last a lot longer because we had so much fun chatting and playing cards and pointing at pretty trees and fields outside the window. It was nice to travel in the countryside on a warm day, the sun high in the sky, the grass short and brown, the day dazed with summer. "I love you so much," she said.
"You're the best dad in the world." And then: "Are you crying?"
She hooked up with her pal in Thames and off they went. Five hours of quality loafing lay ahead. I wanted to make the least of it: do nothing, eat, rest, put my face to the sun. It was bliss. It was happiness. It was an essence of summer in New Zealand – a small town, no one in any hurry to get anywhere, heat, shadow, bright light.
I'd arranged to meet the legendary Shade Smith, a great songwriter from the 1970s, in a pub. We sat down with a couple of drinks and a guy with a red face walked in and said gidday. "Oh hi, Boggsy," I said. It was my boss, the CEO of the company. He had bare feet.
Thames has a remarkable feature: very deep gutters. One end of town is dominated by a magnificent war memorial on a hill, and the other end stretches towards the river. The sky has that quality of light on all coasts: a thinness, a haziness. Dense and very tall mangroves cool their feet at the water's edge.
Lunch was beer, dinner was ordered at quite possibly the finest fish and chip shop in the North Island: Thames Wholesale Fisheries, a hut on the old Shortland Wharf. Families were scoffing their seafood suppers on outside tables. Two guys were fishing off the wharf. A boat started its engine, and cruised past; I gave the skipper a crisp salute and he returned it. A sign on the wharf warned, 5 KNOTS OR $200. The sky was busy with terns, shags, black-backed seagulls, godwits.
A guy was scraping the hull of his boat in the nearby boatyards. I said, "You're putting in the work." He said, "That I am." A walking track led past a row of mangroves keeping the river intact and came out at a park. I lay down with my delicious meal. A guy walked by and sat a few metres away on the grass bank. We got to talking; he said he worked on a mussel barge and divulged that there was very good fishing to be had on the mussel farms. "The snapper get fat on mussels," he said.
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The sun was low and shadows were lengthening. Fat on beer and fish, I waddled towards the bus stop. The main street was empty. Everyone was home or gone swimming. What a beautiful town, shining like a jewel in the hard sunlight of a New Zealand summer.