After some extremely difficult bicycle treks, frightening weather conditions, and farming adventures I find myself in Takaka, a tiny town in Golden Bay. Just the name Golden Bay sounds like somewhere you’d like to settle in. Seep right into the white sand beaches like butter on a heap of mashed potatoes. Takaka is found near the west coast of New Zealand’s south island. It is about 105 km from Nelson. You have to go up and over the massive Takaka hill. I took the bus on the rainy and cold day of my arrival and I am extremely grateful now to be writing about the loveliness of Takaka instead of a harrowing trip on the wet, winding highway over the hill.
The township of Takaka is only a few blocks long down one main street and the entire strip reeks of incense. There is only one grocery store, but if you’d like to have your hair dread-locked (chemical-free, of course!) or get your positive energy realigned you will be spoiled for choice in Takaka. I have spotted at least five businesses peddling homemade patchouli soap and no cafe would dare sell anything other than fair trade coffee. The two main modes of transportation are riding a rusted out bicycle and hitchhiking. It is a haven for artisans, yogis, the barefoot and unbathed. A playground for wanderers, dreamers, and adventurers. Takaka is a place where backpackers unpack.
I wound up here by taking a job over the phone to work in exchange for a bed at Kiwiana Hostel. The gig sounded easy – handling the reception for four hours a day, five days a week through the new year. I was in a hurry to line up places to stay and cycling routes for a number of weeks so I didn’t bother to ask many questions. I didn’t even know how to say “Takaka.” After I agreed to show up by bus on December 1, the hostel owner said, “Oh I should probably mention that your accommodation is a tent. But it is quite a nice tent and you’ll have it all to yourself.” My reaction was probably a good indication that I was a bit road weary. A month long tent stay sounded luxurious. A roomy, four-person tent all just for me. With a mattress even!
Arriving at Kiwiana Hostel is like coming home, you just don’t know it right away. There isn’t a reception. You walk straight into the kitchen, plop your bag on a chair as if it belongs there and follow the instructions on the sign to ring the owner, Jules, who lives in the house out back. Undoubtedly there will be a small crowd hanging out in the kitchen and everyone will introduce themselves and start the standard backpacker interrogation. “Where are you from?” They will ask, unless you’ve already been identified as either German or French as is almost everyone backpacking New Zealand. “Where have you just come from and how long are you traveling?” You’ll answer all the questions and forget all the new names you’ve just been told and you’ll say that you’re just looking for a room for perhaps one night. You’ve just come off the Abel Tasman track and you need a good night’s sleep. Then everyone will smile at each other because they were in your shoes, only last week or last month. No one stays in Takaka for just one night.
Depending on your interests the first thing you notice about Kiwiana Hostel might be the large, lovely courtyard with hammocks and giant Jenga. You may appreciate the outdoor kitchen and free herbs, coffee, and tea or perhaps the open all night lounge with ping pong, a pool table, and a dozen free bicycles. There’s also the bulletin board in the kitchen with twenty Golden Bay excursions like kayaking, waterfalls, and beaches. Already a little voice inside your head is telling you to stay maybe just one more night. After all that pack is really heavy, and you’ve been on the move for so long. And you begin to learn some names, which is very easy because the Kiwiana is a smaller hostel with only one dorm room, a few doubles, and a caravan.
Before you know it you are sitting in the kitchen, organizing Golden Bay adventures with new friends. You’re checking off a few things on that list of 20 tacked up on the bulletin board. You’ve got a box of food in the pantry with your name on it and you’ve dropped your CV off at a couple of cafes just in case there’s some work in town. This is how backpackers unpack. Reluctantly at first. The road is a seductive mistress, after all. But a longing for comfort and familiarity is human. And as the heavy bag becomes dismantled an emotional unpacking is also taking place. You move beyond the standard backpacker questions and learn about the broken relationships or creative aspirations which have lured your fellow travelers onto the road. You tell them about how you grew up and what you are afraid of. You find out how much you are all alike and different.
This is how I find myself in Takaka. I adore my tent with the comfy mattress and my own private space behind the hostel. I lay around in a hammock in the sunny courtyard and read for hours on end or head to the delightful Whole Meal Cafe and write all day while munching on organic fare. I bicycle to the beach and along the bay, discovering little caves turned into lending libraries with hammocks. I pedal to waterfalls, and cold, clear rivers with rope swings. I hike the most breathtaking tracks along secluded white sand beaches. I shop at the weekend farmer’s market and wind up with strange fermented milk and a $5.00 dress. Like my fellow hostelers I am unsure quite how I got here and how long I’ll be here, but I am very happy that for right now I can call this corner of paradise home.
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