When the southerly urges me north from Wellington I have two choices, forced upon me by the lower North Island’s distinctly pleated geography. I can go east of the main divide or west. Today I head west.
The sun breaks through the clouds as I reach Paekakariki. I bump across the railway and find myself in the kind of sun-bathed village where locals park their cars on the centre line while they pop in to the café to pick up their coffee.
I call into the tiny, but perfect village vege store. There are eggs from Levin, organics from Te Horo and jams from Mick, the preserves man. The locals bring in the excess from their gardens – apparently there is always a bustling trade for lemons.
After a few minutes of disorientation in a kind of brown, beige and grey Bermuda Triangle of suburban housing near Paraparaumu, normal transmission resumes: grass verges and flaking paint walls flank the road. Then, at Otaihanga, my highly trained eye picks out a little sandwich board proclaiming ‘Antiques and Curios’.
Beyond a hedge lies the Chimney Pot Rest, the meticulously spic and span shop tucked away under Adele O’Brien’s house. “This is all I ever wanted,” Adele tells me. “On my seventh birthday my mum asked me what I wanted. I led her to a junk shop downtown. It was a parrot honey pot. I have a passion for pretty things.”
Delving through the lovingly laid out array of treasures is like climbing through the back of a wardrobe and finding Narnia. I lose myself in a box of paper dress-up dolls and sift through neatly stacked piles of vintage fabrics. The sounds of cicadas and birds chirruping outside fade into irrelevance.
Locals are keen and regular visitors, but Adele also sees foragers from the UK, Sweden and throughout Europe. “They tiki-tour the back roads; they’re quite adventurous.” So, there’s more to Otaihanga than a car museum.
I’m too early in the season to fill a bag from the wild apple trees that I spy along the verges as I head for the highway, but berry picking seems a good alternative. The avenues of raspberries at Windsor Park Orchard are tucked away between towering windbreaks and feel far away from the world of traffic and noise. Here, in the hot sunshine, the most important decision to make is whether the next berry goes in your mouth or the basket. With a mouth rouged by raspberries and a punnet in hand for the road, I’m ready to resume my easy push north.
In the back streets of Otaki, Keepers resides in what was once a Methodist church dating back to 1891. An original mural remains and the church is now home to the Kathy’s Kitchen range, plus a rainbow array of handmade knitted gifts and woodwork. Kathy Knowles makes the jams in her own, commercial-scale kitchen and has a church size collection of vintage tins, which she plans to display around the walls.
Beyond the factory outlet shop and fuel-up hustle of Otaki’s main through road, the town is the kind of place in which you feel morally obliged to wear jandals. Down at the beach, I stop to admire a garden gnome posted sentinel on the roof of a bach, keeping a weather eye on the sea.
At the water’s edge there is a strange dance underway: a few hundred yards from the surf club, a picket of locals are foraging for tuatua. The knack, apparently, is to bare your feet, walk into the tide and when you’re about waist-deep, get your shimmy on. Even untutored toes will know the smooth, round edge of this buried treasure when they feel one.
The baches here at this remove from Wellington are a happy cohabitation of shabby and chic, and my overnight stopping place at Te Horo beach is the perfect mix of well-appointed and minimalist. There’s even an Edmonds Cook Book amongst the chattels. And, in the morning, just one street away, I find a bus stop café: enterprising locals are serving takeaway coffees from within a permanently parked bus on their front lawn.
The back roads north meander through the countryside, as a fierce wind musters a mob of clouds over the ranges. Just south of Shannon, there’s a stall of bright-faced posies for sale beside a farm’s front gate. I buy a bunch of orange tiger lilies to remind me of a hot day in the Horowhenua.
For a forager, the town of Feilding is jammed with promise. TradeMe has eroded the ‘opportunity shop’ landscape, but in Feilding I spy four op shops within a couple of blocks of one other, each crammed with a mix of trash and treasure. The crowning moment of my foraging expedition comes at the Arohanui Hospice shop, a place where 50¢ still buys you a bargain. Across the busy space, amongst all the retro and rococo ornaments, the chipped and orphaned crockery, the tired Tupperware, my eyes alight eagle-like upon two TV lap trays that exactly match one that I have at home. This is true retail therapy: handing over the $2 required is a thrill right up there with sifting shells from the surf. I find just the right present for almost everyone I know – including, of course, myself – before I call it quits and drag my four bags of booty back to the car.
Back down the line on SH1, I take the turn-off for Foxton. Who knew that the best of the town was hiding just three seconds from the main drag? It’s here I find the Junk n Disorderly. Carla and Simon Hill-Hayr have collated a store full of slightly spooky mannequins, quirky junk and retro goodies. The store is devoted to its previous owner, the master forger – CF Goldie. ‘Goldie’ was a neighbour at Hatfield’s beach, and the three became friends. They tell me he was also quite adept at faking some of the junk he sold. “He bought nails from Hammer Hardware, hammered their heads down and took them down to the river to rust for a few weeks...”
It’s hard to know how to feel for anyone who might have bought a handful of antique nails from ‘Goldie’. On the one hand, they were cheated. On the other, if they were heading south again with anything like the rosy glow imparted by my haul in the boot, it was mission accomplished. It’s the thrill of the hunt that counts.
Reported by Nicola Edmonds for our AA Directions Autumn 2019 issue