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August 13, 2018 | by  | in Features |
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Blue Cod Journeys

My family and I did a roadtrip of the South Island in memory of my grandad when he passed.
We called it the “blue cod trip.” You see, Grandad always waxed lyrical about the taste of blue cod, obtainable only in certain parts of New Zealand. The blue cod trip went from Invercargill to Christchurch to Nelson — my Dad and I did the same journey two years earlier, to bring my grandad’s car up from Invercargill when Nana passed. But I napped the whole way that time, put to sleep by the lullaby of freezing air conditioning and staying up late texting my year 11 girlfriend. She also dated two of my friends. That relationship didn’t last. But the hazy memories of a New Zealand summer did. I’m not sure if we were going anywhere in particular on the blue cod trip, but that wasn’t the point. You’re not supposed to. You just follow the route.
There’s a cross stitch in the laundry at home, and it says “the road to a friend’s house is never long”. Neither is the route unfamiliar. You don’t need a map, you know the route.

So it was, that Dad knew the way south of Invercargill, from a tiny shearing town where he grew up called Nightcaps, to Ophir, another tiny shearing town in Otago. Upon arriving in Nightcaps, Mum profoundly declared it as the “ass end of the Earth”. There’s a common theme there, and that’s manual industry. That industry is the raison d’etre for civilisation; without that industry, the town has no purpose. Most of that industry died out, or regressed in the 80s/90s. And it is in this era, “post raison d’etre”, that we as New Zealanders now find these towns.
Therefore, when you’re travelling in New Zealand, you need a purpose. Lest you too become a relic of days gone by, your sign faded and paint peeling in an old town off SH45 in Taranaki long since devastated by mass dairy capitalisation. Manaia. Kaupokonui. Waitara. These are all names of towns you wouldn’t recognise unless you’d grown up there, and even then could be forgiven for leaving as soon as possible.
SH45 has been colloqiualised by people as “surf highway 45”. There are world class waves all along the Taranaki coastline; growing up, I was spoiled for choice. Despite the obvious quality, we’ve never had an international surf competition, the locals are prone to pooing on the windscreens of out-of-towners, and warding backpackers off their farm land with the end of a shotgun.
Manaia. Home of Yarrows Bakery, “the bread capital”. Capital of what, I’m not sure. It could be Taranaki, but bread isn’t really of such provincial significance to warrant denoting a particular town as the bread capital. We do not travel in convoy to Manaia to get our bread.
Kaupokonui. There’s a small holiday camp, complete with rickety swing bridge over the Kaupokonui stream, and pensioners who sit outside their caravan all year round drinking red wine and smoking Rothmans. There are enormous hills of sand bordering the beach, and as you cross into the sand hills there is a sign saying:

“BEWARE OF WILD CATTLE IN SANDHILLS”
The town is vaguely apocalyptic, the type of place where a resident might have a hidden bush hut, too many rifles, and a marijuana plantation. Marijuana. These tiny towns from last century are a drug production dream. The methamphetamine in Taranaki is the purest in the country, come one come all, crackheads and common people, we might have signed the execution warrant for oil drilling in the region but at least we still have the semi-precious stone industry.
Waitara was once called the “garden of the Pacific” by a settler brought to poetry by the sight of lush growth on the banks of the river. This land was of course confiscated, after a series of events that would become known as the Land Wars. This was a civil war, an event of such magnitude and consequence, of characters such as Wiremu Kingi, Titokuwaru, Te Whiti, and Tohu, and vivid expressions of 19th century life such as the Māori stealing the British cannon overnight and then offering to sell it back to them the next day.
You’d think there’d be national recognition of it and extensive local commemoration. But at the battle sites sit moss-covered, beaten up old heritage trail markers.

The site themselves are scrubby paddocks, strewn with rubbish and sheep poo. This despite the scars still scored in the earth of the sap line, trenches dug for miles and months on end to reach a pā site, only for the Māori to abandon it at the last possible moment. There was a freezing works at Waitara in the 90s, shut down during a price war between competing meat producers. We studied it in competition law, where the works were declared as “only a small contributor, and their removal wouldn’t have large ramifications for the North Island meat market”. Instead, the consequences for local unemployment would be huge. Waitara still features market gardens and plant nurseries, but in more recent times has made a name for itself after being the site of a shootout between rival gangs for control of the “not-pot” highway, where “not-pot” is sold. A Stuff article said, “fear for safety after gang shootings not felt by everyone in Waitara”.
Of course, none of this is really remembered. When you speak about Waitara, all people say is, “there was a freezing works there once”.
Waitara is, as my law lecturer put it, just another small town in the middle of nowhere. One of those places akin to the setting of a Ronald Hugh Morrison novel, where the road workers all sport massive beards and no PPE, stare at you as you enter the town, and stare at you as you leave. There are no residents on the streets, but you can hear a motorbike for miles in the distance, till the braaap draws nearer and the rider shoots through, no helmet or shirt, just a pair of league shorts and battered meatworks gumboots. There we are again, manual industry.
If these small towns are lucky, State Highway 1 passes through them, something to look at fleetingly through car windows. If they are unlucky, they are missed by State Highway 1, and no-one would know they existed unless they had a reason to visit. Which no-one does, unless they are visiting a friend.
Dad knew the route, from the “ass end of the earth” to the tip of Te Wai Pounamu, because the knowledge was hereditary. In his last days, my grandad had a conversation with another venerable pensioner, my friend’s grandad. Bernie MacKenzie, farmer and former All Black. He lived all his life in one of these small towns in Taranaki, Kaponga to be precise. My grandad lived his whole life in a small town in Southland: Nightcaps or, the “ass end of the earth”.

The two had a conversation about what they thought was the same place. Their memories intertwined, painting a picture of different towns that were at once the same. And it was, for though they were referring to different characters, different events, a different instance of the time when my grandad’s boss tapped on his window at 5 in the morning, “Eric, Eric, wake up the sea’s perfect”, and they caught 40 blue cod that day, before there were MAF limits, and they had so much everyone in Tinkertown had fish for dinner even the Māoris and Mrs Fielder and she had a tribe of kids — anyone observing the conversation would see they both knew what they were talking about. They both knew the routes to their friends’ houses, and regardless of where that road goes, it won’t be long.

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