Monday, May 25, 2009

The Flying Fox, Whanganui River

On my second visit to The Flying Fox, a charmingly eccentric eco-lodge about an hour north of Wanganui, we almost went hungry.

Classic view of the Whanganui River valley from the river road.
River has an h, city does not. It's complicated.
We had arrived via the bright yellow Spirit of the River jetboat guided by Brent Firmin, whose iwi (tribe in the Maori language) has lived on this stretch of the Whanganui River since the 1300s. On our ride up the river he had pointed out his family’s ancestral burial grounds and the culverts his grandfather had helped build during the Depression to help divert rainfall under the then new road along the eastern river bank.

Polly, mom-in-law visting from US, Margo, Kiwi friend, and me in the jetboat and Brent, our guide, below.

The river valley and its stories are in his blood. As he and other local Maori say, “Ko au te awa, ko te awa ko au.” (I am the river, the river is me.”)

Brent’s roundtrip tour of the river took us from his family marae (meeting house) to The Flying Fox and was scheduled around the mandatory New Zealand morning tea break for coffee (or tea) and freshly baked muffins made by Annette Main, owner of the lodge with her husband John. (I am lucky enough to have also gotten to know Annette through the book club I serendipitously fell into upon arriving here back in January, but her reputation had preceded her even before that. When I mentioned to one of the first people we met here that I was into food, she immediately said, “Oh, you must meet Annette Main.”)
View of The Flying Fox from the river below.

Annette greeted us warmly, but joked that we had almost missed out on muffins that morning. “I realized I didn’t have any eggs,” she confided. “So I was out there waiting for the chooks to lay some,” she said, referring to her flock of laying hens who happily scratch their way around the property. “I only found one so I could only make half a batch of muffins.”

The bottomline is that Annette doesn’t have much choice, but she wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s not a quick hop in the car to the dairy (corner store here) to pick up a dozen eggs. Perched on the western bank of the river in the middle of the Whanganui National Park, The Flying Fox can only be reached by boat or by zipline (a flying fox in New Zealand lingo) after you brave the drive, a snap for the locals but a little scary at times for those not used to narrow, windy, cliff-edged roads where, on one occasion, our car found itself smack-dab in the middle of a herd of cows who did not seem at all inclined to move out of the way.

Our boys, on a later vist, at the gong by the gondola landing spot on the river road side.

After you park your car via the river road, the only way across the river is by climbing into a small open gondola hanging from a zipline. (When Annette first bought the property 19 years ago, the airborne vehicle was an old iron bedstead. And, incidentally, people thought she was crazy. A steadily increasing flow of visitors from around the globe and media coverage, including a full-length feature in the glossy New Zealand Life and Leisure magazine, has proven them wrong.) You summon the gondola with a gong and then merrily sail it high across the river towards the red cupola and surrounding cluster of buildings partially obscured behind tall emerald-green tree ferns (pungas).

Like the eggs and the feijoas (a tart-sweet tropical fruit, shown above) that were baked into the huge, fluffy muffins we ate warm from the oven that morning, many of the ingredients Annette cooks for her guests are grown on the certified organic property, including avocadoes, apples, grapefruits, tamarillos (tree tomatoes, see below), pumpkins, and kumara (sweet potatoes). Everything else is sourced as locally and organically as possible and much of it sold from Annette’s stall at the Saturday River Traders Market in Wanganui, which she helped found three years ago.

Annette and John emphasize two things at The Flying Fox: respect for both the original Maori inhabitants of the river valley and for the natural environment. They are honored, they say, to be the kaitiaki (guardians) of the history and spirit that imbues the place. The two guest cottages were handbuilt using as much salvaged building material as possible and furnished with what Annette describes as “rescued furniture and family treasures.” A solar panel provides much of the hot water for the property and toilets are all compost-based. Local art, traditional weavings, quirky antique kitchenwares, and piles of books and records fill every nook and cranny of the buildings. (Yes, records; on an overnight family visit our 11-year-old product of the I-Pod generation learned how to use a record player.)
The two cottages, above.
Upstairs in the Brewer's Cottage Downstairs at the Brewer's Cottage

In the James K. Baxter cottage

One of the cottages celebrates James K. Baxter, arguably New Zealand’s most famous poet, who lived just a bit up the river during the late 1960s. His portrait is in the bathroom, his words written on the walls, and books by and about him can be found on bookshelves in all the buildings. Annette signs off all emails with a stanza from his Sestina of the River Road (see end of entry).

The Glory Cart, a cozy caravan for two

At The Flying Fox, connections , juxtapositions, and revelations pop up in unexpected places. The piles of records include Bob Dylan; Bing Crosby; the New Zealand country group, the Waratahs; and traditional Maori waiata. The guy pruning the bushes during my second visit turned out to be the artist of a striking print I had noticed in one bedroom on my first visit. I was fascinated to learn that avocado trees carry the harvests of two different years at the same time, one the green-black of almost ripeness ready to be harvested, a branch away from fruit of the new crop, shining a deep bright green. Beyond a badminton net and a sprawling grapevine lies a small guest caravan for two (endearingly named The Glory Cart) with an outdoor wood fire-heated bathtub and tiled shower where a wild goat might just peer in on you as you shampoo.

Or the visitor might be Billy, the companionable Jack Russell mix who will sit next to you while you enjoy the river and mountain view from under majestic centurion chestnut trees, accompany you on a walk along the river or up the hill, or perhaps pounce on your badminton shuttlecock and turn it into a chew toy – as Nikko and Alex, our two boys, quickly found out.

The chestnut trees

Each of the cottages has a small kitchen and Annette encourages self-catering, although she does cook for larger groups or sometimes by prior arrangement. The morning after we had our book club meeting/slumber party at The Flying Fox, she was preparing local lamb shanks for a crowd of guests expected over the next couple of nights. When our family of four went for an overnight a few weeks ago and stayed in the Brewer's Cottage, we brought our own soup and salad and Annette provided a loaf of her soft, lightly sweet kumara bread (a recipe from renowned Kiwi chef Peter Gordon, a Wanganui native), and a crumble (crisp in the US) made with her own feijoas and apples.

Annette and book club friends making supper in the main house kitchen --

and then singing for our supper with John, Annette's husband.

Annette in her kitchen The famous kumara bread

It came with a pitcher of frothy crème anglaise. “This is so good. Why have I never had this before?” demanded Alex, our 11-year-old. At my request, she had also included a jar of her really good muesli, laden with pumpkin and sunflower seeds, for breakfast the next morning. Normally she would also have had homemade yogurt to offer, but she is very involved in a range of regional business and tourism projects and had been too busy that week to squeeze in yogurt-making.

A big batch of muesli

We had been lucky with a mostly clear fall Saturday afternoon for my boys’ first and my second trip up the Whanganui with Brent on his jetboat.
We saw the embedded oysters shells that prove the river was once part of a huge ocean and the surprisingly round boulders stuck into the river bank that are believed to be fall-out from a long ago and far away volcano explosion. A few raindrops sprinkled down from a deceptively blue sky as Brent skillfully maneuvered the boat through a narrow spur off the river to show us where there was a government-sanctioned organic farming commune in the 1980s.

The moon shone brightly as we fell asleep, tucked warm in our beds with electric blankets and space heaters, but we awoke to rhythmically pounding rain on the roof. The chooks out the window didn’t seem much bothered by the wet weather and Billy was waiting patiently to play when we poked our noses out the bedroom door to go light the wood stove in the kitchen and lounge area.

The sun peeked through a few times, glimmering on rain-soaked leaves. It beat the rain back long enough for us to take the gondola back over to the river road whereupon a torrential downpour unleashed on the surrounding native forest and as we drove away from this very special corner of the world, we witnessed the reality of James K. Baxter’s words:

Hilltop behind hilltop,
A mile of green pungas,
In the grey afternoon,
Bow their heads to the slanting spears of rain.

Sestina of the River Road

I want to go up the river road
Even by starlight or moonlight
Or not light at all, past the Parakino Bridge,
Past Atene, where the tarseal ends,
Past Koriniti, where cattle run in a paddock
Past Operiki, the pa that was never taken.

Past Matahiwi, Ranana, till the last step is taken
And I can lie down at the end of the road
Like an old horse in his own paddock
Among the tribes of Te Hau.

Then my heart will be light
To be in the place where the hard road ends
And my soul can walk the rainbow bridge

That binds earth to sky.
~ James K. Baxter, 1972

The boys off in the gondola after our visit

Billy watches everyone leave from this same spot

1 comment:

mara said...

What a great blogpost! Thanks so much for sharing - everything sounds wonderful. When we were in the Peace Corps in the Solomon Islands, we made kumara bread all the time...thanks for reminding me about it!