Road trip turns up local characters

With his grandmother Huhana looking over his shoulder, Lou Armstrong studies a traditional Maori...
With his grandmother Huhana looking over his shoulder, Lou Armstrong studies a traditional Maori weapon he carved from ancient whale bone. Photos by Stephen Jaquiery.
A traditional Maori weapon set, one of two carved from whalebone by Lou Armstrong.
A traditional Maori weapon set, one of two carved from whalebone by Lou Armstrong.
The Kotuku Gallery and museum in Whataroa (above).An estimated 1.4 million people drive past it...
The Kotuku Gallery and museum in Whataroa (above).An estimated 1.4 million people drive past it on State Highway 6 every year.
John Tardif is happily reunited with an old friend, a Bedford truck he used as a night cart in...
John Tardif is happily reunited with an old friend, a Bedford truck he used as a night cart in Port Chalmers many years ago.
John Tardif proves his point that animals are good company.
John Tardif proves his point that animals are good company.

It began with a table tennis tournament in Hokitika in September and ended with a 1300km round trip from one side of the South Island to the other a few weeks later. Along the way, ODT regional editor Dave Cannan and illustrations editor Stephen Jaquiery met some fascinating characters, so, jump into the 4WD and enjoy the ride.

Some things are just meant to happen, I reckon.

I had no intention of playing in the South Island Chartered Clubs annual table tennis tournament for the very simple reason it was to be held in Hokitika and that seemed an awfully long way to drive for a couple of days of Ping-Pong.

But, there I was, standing outside the Westland District High School's gymnasium on a sunny Friday morning, all tracksuited up and ready to give my all for the Dunedin Cale-Metro C premier grade table tennis team.

Three (successful) days later and the long journey back home began, down the West Coast, pausing for what was going to be a brief lunch break at Whataroa.

I fancied whitebait but not at $24 for patties, salad and chips, so settled for a pie instead on the tables outside the White Heron tearooms, opposite the Kotuku Gallery.

Between mouthfuls of a so-so pastry, we passed the time with a local who looked up occasionally from his Sunday paper to tell us gloomily that it was middle of the calving season and he couldn't remember when he'd last had a day off but, mustn't grumble.

Then, clutching his freshly cooked takeaway, he wished us well and roared off up State Highway 6 in his mud-spattered Japanese import, leaving us with an unimpeded view of the Maori art gallery across the road.

Usually I give such places a wide berth but it wasn't long before we were inside, silently perusing the displays, reading all the signage and searching, as you do, for the price tags to see if there was much point in staying any longer when a big, smiling chap emerged from the back of the shop to welcome us to his place.

Meet Kereama Armstrong. Everyone calls him Lou.

His patter was well rehearsed but far from hard-sell.

I suspected he soon recognised from our telltale accents that we hadn't come weighed down with American or Australian dollars.

Just two rubber-necking Kiwis, your typical don't-leave-home-till-you-see-the-country types, killing time, passing through.

But the vibe remained friendly and welcoming; we were comfortable in his presence, locked in to Lou's stories of carving ancient whale bone and its inexplicable powers that had lured all manner of strangers from all parts of the globe through the same doors to hear the same stories.

It was compelling story-telling and the most vivid tales stayed with me for the rest of the long trip back to Dunedin.

In fact, it stayed with me longer than that, long enough to convince me I needed to go back to Whataroa to hear the same stories - and a few new ones as well - from Lou.

When I'd rung him to see if he'd be interested in telling me his life story and the reasons why this Maori boy from Rotorua had ended up in Whataroa, it was almost as if he'd been expecting the call.

Of course mate, come on over; be nice to see you again.

And when I asked about the best place to stay in Whataroa, I soon learned it was in his spare room. No arguments.

And bring nothing but yourselves. That's the deal when you come here, mate.Don't suppose you like roast venison?

And so, with photographer Stephen Jaquiery for company, the long journey back to Whataroa began, a minute or two past the 7am rendezvous deadline.

You do realise how bloody far it is?, I asked, flourishing an AA map under his nose.

To be honest we're not quite sure what we'll write about or photograph when we get there, or what we might find along the way, but there is a boyish excitement in the sheer uncertainty of it, especially when he tells me that first we have to go find some goats in Middlemarch.

At 8am there's little sign of life in Middlemarch.

The main street is deserted and as uninviting as the overcast and gloomy conditions overhead as we search for a local woman who milks goats.

Stephen wants to do a photo centrespread on goats in the upcoming Focus on Farming publication and has been given two names, Irene Ramsay and John Tardif.

Irene lives not far from the museum, which boasts a submarine on display. Submarines in Middlemarch? Of course.

If they can have a surf-lifesaving club here (I interviewed them years ago, up at the local nudist colony on the hill; what a classic bunch) - then why not a U-boat.

Except it looks nothing like a submarine; more of an elongated farm silo that's been blown over by one of Middlemarch's notorious gales.

We find Irene just around the corner.

She is sensibly wearing a hand-knitted balaclava and welcomes us warmly to her world of white Saanen goats, all feeding quietly behind the deer-fenced enclosure, waiting their turn to be led up the wobbly stairs to the milking stand.

She will milk five of them today, tomorrow and the next day and on into the future, just as she has done since 1974.

More than 30 years of milking goats and who knows how many more years to come. Just think about that for a second.

I do, for much longer, and marvel at such dedication. What a life.

I soon realise there is nothing, absolutely nothing, Irene doesn't know about goats.

She answers each question with a flood of information, all the time carrying out the morning's milking.

She's been on the Internet already today, helping out someone in America with a problem goat, but had to leave them mid-explanation to get the milking done.

When she gets home again she'll finish the conversation. People come to Irene when they have goat issues to sort out.

"Yes, I suppose I do know an awful lot about goats. Don't get me started. I could talk for hours," she laughs modestly.

Later I check the Internet and find a whole cache of goat articles written by Irene on the website, with such intriguing headlines as "What to do when your buck won't" (all about low libido); "Natural ways of treating mastitis" and "Worms-visible signs and information".

As the site host says, Irene is "full of wisdom".

She's also got a kind heart, giving us a plastic container of home-made goats milk nibbles to help us on our long journey, although we don't have far to go to the Tardif farm, she says; a mile or so up the road, on the left; keep an eye out for a mob of Boer goats.

Which we did (only just), doubling back after sailing past the homestead and then driving up a gravel track (the wrong one) before finally finding the main road into the farm.

There's no-one around, just a friendly Labrador (Kim, as it turns out) and a few hens scurrying among the wrecks of at least two lawn mowers under the trees.

No sign of life at the house.

Then, just as we ponder our next move and the possibility of moving on, a ute roars up the driveway and out steps a dapperly-dressed chap.

Meet John D.Tardif (with one f: "you can use two if you like, they don't cost anything").

As we chat we can't help but notice the sprawling collection of vehicles and machinery under the pine trees, amidst coils of wire netting, gates, posts and other farming equipment.

"Yes," he confesses. "I'm a collector. When somebody wants something people say: `Go and see John; he'll have two of everything'.

"Kate [Wilson, local councillor and café owner] even calls me Noah."

Only two of everything?

We've come to photograph his Boer goats but John happily invites us to check out the rest of his menagerie on his 81ha (200-acre) farm first ("a good walk will do you good," he chirps) and in the next hour or so we discover he has lots of just about anything and everything, starting with a pen of brightly-coloured Mandarin ducks which he got from the North Island for $150 each.

He saw them first on a trip to Tapanui and decided he had to have some.

The fancy-looking ones are the males (of course, he chuckles) and if he can breed them up there's good money to be made.

A few minutes later Stephen is up close and personal with John's pet ostrich, which patrols its deer-fenced enclosure with deceptive menace.

I keep a safe distance but John fearlessly holds out his hand and doesn't wince as the bird grabs his finger.

"See, it doesn't hurt; it didn't even make a mark," he proclaims, showing me the proof of all fingers present and correct.

So, why an ostrich? Well, he explains, they are something different. He did have five of them at one stage, got them from someone at Earnscleugh.

As we head to the next paddock, to look at some Clydesdale horses, John cautiously responds to my questioning, filling in some of the gaps about his life, although finding out his age (75) proved a challenge.

He was born in the Channel Islands, off the French coast of Normandy in the English Channel, and came to Dunedin in 1949 with his family, his father Alf being a Methodist minister at Roslyn for a time.

After leaving school John had a few jobs, including grave digger at the Port Chalmers cemetery and also operating the night cart around the town in the days before houses were connected to a sewerage system.

Later we discover the original night cart truck parked under the trees, along with countless other trucks, cars, tractors, wagons, hay balers, trailers - you name it, John probably has it.

I can't help but compare the collection to that famously gathered years earlier by the Ardgour Valley's own magpie Bill "Willie Wong" Cowie and eventually auctioned one Labour Weekend when he simply ran out of room to store it all.

John thinks he may have met Bill once but can't be sure.

But, like his Central Otago counterpart, he doesn't see it as junk at all, preferring to describe it as treasures, some of it potentially useful, some of it even valuable, all faithfully gathered in the 20 years he has lived in Middlemarch.

"Don't suppose you like clearing sales?", I ask him.

"I love them," he confesses, his eyes lighting up.

He points to a chaff cutter which he bought to do up but has since discovered it's not worth fixing. I suspect the same applies to much of what surrounds us.

"People like to come and have a look around," he says.

John also loves planting trees and being around animals, especially horses. He doesn't know how many roam his paddocks - "lots" - but they are well fed and cared for.

He's bred a few, including racehorses, and has dabbled in both the racing and trotting games as an owner. The thing about animals, he says, is they are good company; they don't seem to get into bad moods.

To prove his point we wander up to a couple of quiet Highland cattle, which he got from Pigeon Flat, and John reaches out between the huge handlebar horns and scratches one on the nose, scolding him: "you've been rolling around in the poo".

They are, he agrees, an imposing set of horns - "they'd look quite good on the front of a car," he jokes.

By this time we have walked to near one of the farm boundaries and as we turn around to head back to the homestead a phone rings.

Reporter Marjorie Cook wants us to call in to Ardgour Valley and take a photograph of Bill Cowie, who is selling his favourite Palomino stallion.

How's that for coincidence? We wander back slowly towards the house, past the red deer and the alpacas, call in to see the Boer goats and check out Dice, the miniature Timor cross pony.

There seems no end to this McDonald's Farm.

It all has a surreal feel about it, like John lives in stress-less world; a simple but rewarding life, to be envied by city dwellers like me.

"There's nothing wrong with this, is there", he says with a knowing smile.

Back on Highway 87 Stephen and I have time for a coffee and a chat with the irrepressible Ngaire Sutherland, who has ambitions to transform the 1869 Hyde School into a thriving business by making it a dining and conference centre.

But, mindful of the long trip ahead, we have to cut our visit short and get back on the road, marvelling later at Ngaire's inexhaustible energy and enthusiasm , having promised to return for a longer stay.

Now well behind schedule we reach Tarras to find the Cook-Cowie interview almost over, shoot the pictures, then, pausing only for petrol and a couple of Jimmy's pies at the Tarras store, we are back on Highway 6.

We stop outside the Hawea Flat church, where the mobile phone reception is strong, to warn Lou not to put the roast into the oven just yet - his guests still have some serious mileage to cover.

No time to stop at Makarora, we reach the Haast Pass then swing down the other side towards the West Coast.

By now it's raining, mist and cloud cling to the bush-clad mountains in that Lord of the Rings-like atmospheric way that dominates our vista through the foggy windows and dries up the conversation as we become totally engrossed in the dramatic change of scenery.

Time seems to be dragging, as it often does when you are constantly checking the map and counting off the kilometres.

We sweep past the spectacular Knights Point lookout (we stop on the way back) and through lakes Moeraki and Paringa and then back to the sweep of the Bruce Bay coastline.

Somewhere in the advancing gloom, on a straight past Jacobs River, we stop to pull a camper van and a couple of very grateful tourists out of the bog, then on to Fox Glacier, Franz Josef and suddenly Whataroa is only 30 rain-soaked kilometres away.

Soon we're knocking on the ranch slider door and Lou is ushering us towards the warmth of the log burner, thrusting a cold beer into our hands, turning the roast potatoes and salting a pot of vegetables.

Whataroa. What a day.



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