Fast forward to our last week Down Under. We fly from Nelson on South Island to Auckland, then back over to Whangamata on the Coromandel peninsula. This time our friends Vicki and Chris loan us their lovely bach (NZ English for small holiday home, pronounced"batch"), just a few minutes from the beach.
After a day or two just chilling, getting used to our new environs we head off for our favourite beach, some 10 km up the road from Whangamata. Oputure (pronounced Opotchury) is a 4-km surf beach, reached by a short stroll through pine woods. Alternatively, you can reach it by skirting round the river estuary at low tide. Lined by swamps and grasslands, it's a sanctuary for nesting dotterels, one of New Zealand's many beautiful protected birds. We opt for the estuary route. We spend a lovely morning on the edge of a spit, surrounded by dotterels and crab snappers, all pecking around in the sand.
We're just getting back into the car when Matilda announces she hasn't got her favourite elephant. "When did you last see him?", I ask, sounding more detective than dad. Reflecting a moment, Matilda replies "On the beach. I made a house for him". "And when we left, did you take him with you?" I further enquire. "No-oh", she replies, as this were the most obvious thing in the world. "Well that's that then", I say. It's a half-hour walk back to the beach, and besides I'm anxious to get home and have lunch. No way am I going back for a cuddly toy. Seeing Matilda just about to burst into tears, Bea says "Wait. I'll go back and get him". Turning to me, she asks "When's high tide, by the way?" Fortunately I'd been into the Tourist Information first thing that morning to find out. "20.45", I reply, smiling "so plenty time to go home and have lunch first." Playing devil's advocate, I whisper to Bea "Let's just leave the toy there. One less piece of bagage to carry home." Making quite sure Matilda doesn't hear me, I add "We'll call it burial at sea, OK?".
On the way home we agree that Bea will go back to the beach to retrieve the toy, while Matilda and I go along to a "Summer Fete" at the local school. Bea drops us off, and we make a beeline for the giant bouncy waterslide. Like most inflatable kiddy attractions at school fetes in New Zealand, it's free. They make their money, of course, on the barbecue and refreshment stands. Glad to be saving a few dollars I let Matilda ride the slide for a good hour, while, without venturing too far away, I look around at what else is going on. A decorate-your-own cupcake stall catches my eye, and it's not too long before Matilda notices it too. The result of her efforts looks, actually, surprisingly edible.
This is an Area School, that's to say one where you enter at 5 and leave aged 18. It strikes me though that most of the kids running around here are of primary age. I see hardly any in their teens. This takes me back to my own schooldays, when it was no longer cool to be seen at the school summer fete - and certainly not with your parents - after the age of 13. In a tent queuing for "fruit and marshmallow on a stick", I overhear one girl, aged about 10, say to her friend "I've already seen six teachers. Even Mr. Priestley's here". So it's OK to go along as a teacher, at least. Just as I'm changing Matilda out of her swimsuit, and rubbing her dry after the slide rides, Bea reappears. "Look who I found on the beach"' she grins, pulling elephant out from behind her back.
Overjoyed to be reunited, Matilda is happy just to spend the next half hour sitting playing with him, while Bea and I enjoy watching "Mr. Whangamata". In a 7-point challenge, contestants have to carry out various tasks which all New Zealand males are supposed to be good at: Change a bike tyre, remember five birthdays, fix a surfboard fin, fillet a fish, and braid a girl's hair. All that successfully completed, the eight competitors have to find a piece of chewing gum in a bowl of cream (using mouth only, of course), and blow it without it popping. We laugh together with the crowds of kids, mums and dads as, at one point, whipped cream and fish fly around everywhere. I can't help wondering how many of these challenges I could manage - probably not even half of them. New Zealand males are definitely more "hands on" than we Europeans. The winner, incidentally, completes all tasks in just 15 minutes.
One of the contestants, it turns out, is Head of English, so I introduce myself, explaining I teach English at colleges in Bavaria. When I mention being interested in teaching in NZ too his eyes light up. "Oh yeah, good on y'er, go for it mate, we're desperate for younger teachers here", adding that the average age of teachers in NZ is currently 58. I feel flattered that he regards me as young, and that I could help reduce this figure a little bit.