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The International Writers Magazine: New Zealand Woofing

Wait, You Did What in New Zealand? 
Bobby Bingle
I WWOOFed in New Zealand.  No, I did not huff exotic forest fumes.  I did not participate in an exciting new sensual act.  And I did not howl at inanimate objects, not in New Zealand at least.  


I worked on organic properties.  WWOOF stands for “Willing Workers on Organic Farms.”  WWOOF is a worldwide community that promotes awareness of ecological farming practices.  Individuals can work and learn in organic settings in exchange for their meals and accommodation.
    In New Zealand, WWOOFing can lead to a broadened understanding of different cultures and a deeper connection to the land.  Also, it can lead to railway car homes, drunken bird islands, helicopter rescues, and hazy farm parties. 
    Last May, I found myself one of the first college graduates with an uncertain future.  As a confused, anxiety-ridden free spirit, I decided to try to live in a different country.  So, last summer I saved up and headed to New Zealand.     
    In August, I arrived in a country full of brilliant landscapes and open-minded people.  I spent the most time in a region called Northland.  Northland is the northernmost region of New Zealand known for it’s mild climate and farming and forestry lands. 
    Upon arriving, my first and only plan was to WWOOF for a friend’s uncle’s friend, named Dean.   Dean, a leading environmentalist in New Zealand, sported long dreadlocks and a braided goatee.  I enjoyed Geology classes and had tried to give off an appearance of alternativeness for years.  I did not feel completely out of my element.     
    After our initial meeting, Dean and I drove to a remote area of Northland called Otangaroa.  A ragged gate opened to sweeping hills, low wetlands, and a deep forest, which he called home. 
    Dean showed me my room, a 1950's campervan tucked against one of the hills.  I toured his house, a converted freight train car with a bed, kitchen area, table and shelf.  A solar panel powered a singular light bulb and music speaker.  A stream for bathing and an open outhouse completed the abode.
    The simplicity and beauty of the situation assuaged any initial concern of mine over the living style.  Dean and I planted fruit trees, restored wetlands, gathered compost from his neighbor’s paddock and roamed through the Otangaroa forest. 
    For hours we wandered the forest without fear of harm. Dean explained that in New Zealand only two species could kill a person: a small spider and a big mammal that wears clothes.  Due to New Zealand’s geographic isolation for 80 million years, the only native land mammals are bats.  Other land mammals were introduced and are non-lethal.  
    Each night we unwound with wine and music on Dean’s lean-to porch where he described the different bird calls.  Dean changed my opinion of all the dreadlocked, freight car-living people I had met before.  He proved erudite and kind.  His genuine curiosity for the natural world cracked some of the layers of asphalt implanted in my brain over the years.   
After a week, Dean went to Papa New Guinea for Greenpeace and I searched for another place to stay.  A week earlier, a nice couple gave me a ride up to Northland and mentioned their willingness to help if needed. 
    I called them, showed up at their door and tested their previous statement.  They welcomed me into their home and proposed I stay on and help with work around the house.  I readily accepted and found my second WWOOFing spot. 
    Maureen and Bernard, who insisted that I call them by their first names, lived in Russell, the first European settlement and seaport in New Zealand.  Today, Russell is a quaint town in the Bay of Islands in eastern Northland. 
    Two hundred years ago, it was an untamed stop off for sailors looking for a release from months at sea.  Charles Darwin described Russell as the “hell hole of the Pacific.”  I was pleased with my decision to stay. 
    Maureen taught art therapy and Bernard worked in construction and made iron sculptures. Their house rested among towering trees on a hill overlooking the bay. 
    Bernard and I built vegetable boxes, wheel barrowed endless piles of soil, planted, and drank evening beers.  Maureen taught me to cook pumpkin soup, celery soup, cheese scones, steamed mussels, and other dishes.  She forced me beyond my palate of buttered noodles and chicken.  
    Between work, we managed to see the showering Whangarei Falls, walk through a grove of massive kauri trees, and enjoy sushi and beer on a tiny beach. 
    On my final day, we sailed their boat, Rhythm, through the Bay of Islands.  We passed cliffs and rock formations until we reached an island filled with blazing, yellow kowhai trees. 
    Ashore, we watched as Tui birds ate the trees’ nectar, which fermented in their bellies and caused a reaction of drunkenness.  We sat beneath the trees as the birds crashed into branches and one another.  It made me homesick.
    Before I left, they insisted on paying me for my work.  I refused at first and almost said, “I can’t accept money when I can never pay you back for what you’ve given me.”  But they had a solid radar for BS and I felt that they knew my appreciation without such sap.  So I took the money, some recipes, and my memories.

wwoofers From there, I headed south, out of Northland and into other parts of the country to WWOOF.  Eventually, I took a break from WWOOFing to earn money due to expensive adventure activities and DRINKing.  I spent a few months working paid jobs on construction sites and vineyards.  At the end of November, in the name of free spiritedness, I hitchhiked my way across the entire North Island to return to Dean’s home for a massive party he threw every three years.

My WWOOFing duties included tent set ups, speaker transportation, and station wagon direction.  For my difficulties, I received blinding honey schnapps, various natural substances, wood fired pizza, and the company of fascinating and altered New Zealanders, or Kiwis, as they’re known.
    After those remarkable two days, I could not leave Northland.  I found an artisan town of two hundred people called Kohu Kohu.  I WWOOFed at a bed and breakfast and art gallery for an Australian painter, named Louisa. 
    I painted the steps and porch, cut wood, and made garden patches with Louisa.  Each day, after work, I walked through the one block downtown and swam off a dock into a crisp lake.  At night, I slept in the gallery surrounded by Louisa’s vibrant paintings.  She had declared, “I’m world famous.  The world just doesn’t know me yet.” 
    One Sunday I accompanied Louisa and a few other residents of Kohu Kohu on a day trek through a forest.  During the middle of the wooded walk, Louisa slipped and snapped her ankle. 
    Because of our depth in the forest, a helicopter arrived to airlift her out.  A paramedic lowered through the canopy, administered medication and secured Louisa.  The world didn’t see it.  But I saw the painter rise through the trees with a mangled ankle and a morphine smile. 
    While Louisa recovered in the hospital, I agreed to join her partner, a trapper and artist named Mike, for three days of trapping in a Northland forest.  
    At night we discussed current events and drank wine in a make shift cabin.  During the day, we traversed difficult routes through the snapping forest.   We removed possum, rat, and stoat carcasses from traps along the trails and reset the traps. 
    Several people had told me that these non-native animals decimated the native bird populations such as the national bird, the Kiwi (also the word for someone from New Zealand).  Though conducted in the name of bird conservation, being part of such immediate and tangible death proved difficult.
    However, I forgot about the rat blood underneath my fingernails when Mike’s artistic eye led us to a clearing in the trees that opened to a sun flooded landscape.  He said, “I wonder how many other people, if any, will ever see this view.”  I wondered too.     
    Eventually we left the clearing and I left New Zealand.  I returned home to questions about the country and what WWOOFing meant.  I’ve had trouble articulating that in my own mind let alone to other people or in a fourteen hundred-word piece. 
    I’ve recited the acronym.  I’ve tried to describe forest wanderings, inebriated birds, and world famous painters.  But I’m not sure I can fully explain it.  From now on, I think I’ll just tell people that I went to New Zealand and huffed forest fumes while performing a howling new sensual act.  And it was fantastic.         

© Bobby Bingle - May 2011

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