There can’t be too many places left in the developed world where almost everyone’s clothing comprises baggy, rainbow-coloured trousers, where barefoot pedestrians outnumber those in shoes, and almost no one seems in any particular hurry to either do anything or go anywhere. Welcome to Takaka, home to New Zealand’s happiest hippy community and our home for the next three weeks.
We're staying at an organic b&b on the Anatoki River, run by a friendly ex-pat couple who keep goats, Muscovy ducks, chickens (known in NZ as “chucks”), sheep and a loveable old horse, all of which roam some 18 hectares of meadow surrounding the farmstead. David and Fiona’s produce, ranging from large succulent avos to lemons, nashis (Asian pears) is 100% organic, and sells well at the weekly farmers’ market, where local growers team up with the resident hippy population to offer an eclectic mixture of healthy, wholesome food alongside sundry assorted home-made jewellery, healing and palm-reading services.
The whole atmosphere is vibrant, fun and laidback, although the music the day we visit, I must say, leaves something to be desired. Chewing on tasty apple pie washed down with locally roasted organic coffee, we’re entertained by a motley band of beatniks producing a rather monotonous, hypnotic-like sound. “It’s not always quite so hard on the ears”, laughs Fiona, who’s selling avos at a stall alongside. Fiona’s offering four avos for 2 dollars, which strikes me as akin to charity, considering we’ve each just forked out twice as much just for a frothy hot drink.
Bag a bargain: Fiona's avos - four for just two dollars
Fiona introduces me to Grant Knowles, who runs the market along with the local art gallery. Barefoot, dreadlocked, and draped in shawl and baggy trousers, Grant comes over as the ultimate hippy guru. His straggly ZZ Top-type beard blends beautifully with the phalax symbol-like craftwork he's selling.
The Knowles clan
Same day as the market we see a “Picnic for all Ages” advertised at “The Lovin’ Gardens”. Billed as the largest communal garden in the southern hemisphere, anyone who wants can rent a small allotment, and sell their produce to the garden, with profits ploughed back into the community. It sounds a great social system but the prices, we notice, are not exactly social – even for NZ standards. Above an honesty box a sign instructs self-service, self-pay customers to “Give more than you take”. Venturing into the crowd, we discover that the picnic is not quite for all ages. Most picnickers look like they’re stuck in a 60’s-style time warp, somewhere between student life and adulthood. Bea and I, dressed in plain shorts and the only ones wearing any type of footwear at all, seem rather out of place. We dither whether to join the cross-legged crowd, or to stand aside with the remaining party people, most of whom seem to be locked in a permanent bear-hug embrace. Exchanging glances with Beata, I’m relieved that she’s feeling the same way. Although it’s gently drizzling we decide to quietly slip away and head off to the beach for a walk instead.
Wedged between the Kahurangi and Abel Tasman National Parks, Takaka is unique in many ways. Geographically it’s accessible by road only from one direction – a 2-hour zigzag ride up and down the mountain range fencing off Golden Valley from the rest of the world. People tend to come and drift away only very slowly – like several hundred hangers-on, who have just been to Luminate, the annual earth-friendly festival of art, music and culture.
Or they simply stay - for good. Like several hundred Germans, who have made their home around Golden Bay area, performing a variety of activities, from bread baking to wood carving. Passing traffic in this region is virtually unheard of, as most sealed roads end up as gravel or dirt tracks – generally at the start of a national park trail, such as the 80 km Heapy Trail. These tramping paths often provide the only overland access to the north, east and west coastline. Since a lot of young backpackers are travelling through Golden Valley between these trails we give them a lift whenever we can. Over the three weeks we carry an assortment of nationalities: Germans, Americans, Aussies, French and Belgians. Squashed up on the backseat between their bags, musical instruments and a rather bemused Matilda, they're always very talkative and cheerful. One such hitchhiker has an enormous skateboard with him and, when we drop him off, literally catapults himself off the backseat onto the pavement.
Beach combers' paradise
Early one morning we visit Milnthorpe Park, 25 km north of Takaka. It’s an enchanting little corner of Golden Bay, thick bushland, crisscrossed by paths with playful names like Bob’s Bit, Mitch’s Loop and Ian’s Incline. The sun is glistening on the sea, little sparks of reflection giving it an almost silver hue – more magical than anything we've yet seen. The tide is going out and Matilda and Freya chase each other around, squealing with delight each time they stumble upon a starfish or a saucer-shaped shell. These they add to the ever-growing seashell collection taking over our rental car boot. We spend a lovely few hours bathing, playing tag and other games on the sand, before Freya reminds us she has to get back to Takaka in time for her weekly Drama class. On the way back we pass a signpost to a café called The Mussel Inn. Signposts in New Zealand, whether to major or minor attractions, are placed just after the turn-off. That means by the time you’ve seen the sign it’s too late to turn off. You end up indicating at the very last moment and doing a clumsy 90-degrees turn – invariably being horn blast by the motorist behind as they cut past at terrifying speed. Or you just keep going a few more kilometers until the first opportunity to u-turn. We end up going miles out of our way, but get back to the Inn in the end.
“Mussel Inn” is certainly true to name. With seafaring souvenirs like old ship steering wheels and anchors adorning the walls and creaky-timber ceiling it’s more like something out of a Robert Louis Stevenson novel. The theme pub is so popular it ranks amongst Lonely Planet's 18 Best Free Things to do on South Island A trio is practicing for a gig that night, and we sit watching them play as the kids wait for an ice cream sundae "to go". I’m just about to order beer to stay - some of the tavern’s tasty tapped lager - when Bea reminds me of the drama class we're supposed to be rushing home for. Heavy hearted, I pull myself away, but not before glancing up at the live music board and noting a number of other music nights in the coming week.
Enjoying band rehearsal at quirky Mussel Inn
While the girls do drama we walk around town, inhaling the vibes of this unique little town so detached from the rest of the world – both geographically and spiritually. As we collect them I notice a queue of flashy-looking SUVs (known in NZ as Utes, short for utility vehicle) lining up to collect other kids bundling them in one by one and racing off – presumably to the next ‘play date’. I mention this to David later and he says “Oh yes, that’ll be the wealthy dairy farmers”. No wonder – milk is the number one income earner in this region, there are over 30,000 cows in Golden Bay. It seems odd, however, watching the wealthy wagons – which probably wouldn’t look out of place anywhere else – cruise down the main street past throngs of happy-go-lucky hippies and hitchhikers.
Sky at night
What I love about the Southern hemisphere is that it can be a pitch-black starry night at say, 5 in the morning, which gives the impression that you’re still only half way through the night. And yet just an hour later virtually all the stars - far more than you could ever hope to see at home in Europe - have disappeared from view, and you can slowly feel the light growing stronger behind the surrounding mountains. It’s the time of day I like best, a chance to quietly relax with the first coffee of the day and sit at the laptop which David has kindly lent me to update my journal.
Our chance to revisit the Mussel Inn comes earlier than expected. I’d seen the advert for Chimuka Marimba Ensemble playing at the venue the following weekend, but their music is billed as “ethnic techno”. I'm open to lots of music styles, but techno's not really my favourite. David and Fiona, however, who've seen the group play live, persuade us to go. “Don’t worry about Matilda”, they say, “we’ll see her to bed”. So we put on our best clothes, kiss little Miss goodnight and shoot off. After drinking craft brew around a cosy log fire in the garden we pile into the crowded inn, where dancers of all ages already fill the remaining floor space between same-level “stage” and bar. I soon see why they call this “techno”– its relentless beat is trance-like, making you want to bop up, down and around to the same rhythm. Yet every tune is somehow different. It reminds me of a gypsy dance, circling around, whirling and swirling your head, hands, arms and legs to the wild, addictive music, willing it to never end. When it does finally end we join the crowd shouting “We want more!”. And we get it too. We finally head back home well after midnight, our bodies still bouncing up and down to the divine vibes.