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The Ebb and Flow Hostel, Waipu

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Frank, joint proprietor with his wife, Mary, of the Ebb and Flow hostel in the north of New Zealand, is the most hyperactive person I have ever met. I don’t mean hyperactive in an attention deficiency sort of way but that activity defines life itself. As I sat in the living room pretending that I had some sort of artistic capabilities with paint, brush and shell, Frank was outside, literally running a lawn mower up a hill in his perpetual race to get the most out of the day.

We had arrived at the Ebb and Flow pretty much by chance. After travelling a colossal distance from Rotorua to Paihia to sample one of New Zealand’s North Island’s supposed highlights we had been disappointed to find little more than a motel strip. Even a beautiful walk through nearby Russell did little to banish the disillusionment we felt. As nice and as pretty as the seaside town was, it simply wasn’t the South Island. Worse still, the nearest substantial climbing was some 6 hours drive back the way we had come, in Wharepapa.

Barbara had no intentions of another epic drive, so pretty much at random she chose a hostel that sounded nice a couple of hours south. The plan was to break up the journey and perhaps spend a couple of days winding down before continuing south for some final climbing and our rapidly approaching flight to South America.

From the moment we arrived at the Ebb and Flow the place felt right. A green meadow, which our tent could share with the turkeys, swept down to the base of a tidal estuary. Across the mouth of the river lay white-flour sand beaches deserted bar the nesting rare and endangered birds. The hostel itself was seaside white and blue, perched on stilts with a massive deck facing out to sea.

So much of your overall impression of a hostel comes from the first five minutes after you arrive. Frank, in his uniquely energetic way, gave us the tour, seemingly unable to differentiate between what he should show us and the continuously growing list of work he had lined up for the day. His tour went through facilities all but unheard of in other hostels: an extensive 70s and 80s record collection, a secluded outdoor hot water bathtub, kayaks, mountain bikes, fishing equipment, art supplies and all for free. As we walked through the hostel he introduced us, by name, to every guest. One guilty look between Barbara and myself was all it took and we knew we wouldn’t be doing any more climbing in New Zealand, the Ebb and Flow was exactly the type of place we had been secretly yearning for.

Books were read, records played, meals cooked, seashells painted, puzzles puzzled and just occasionally someone would do something energetic like cycling a bike. It was just the perfect place to let the sun, sea and barely filled days blow away the stresses of travel.

After a day of destroying the natural beauty of a stack of seashells with fumbling paint filled brush I decided that perhaps my time would best be spent observing rather than creating. With much prodding I roused Barbara out of “her” sofa, prised the novel from her fingers and eventually convinced her that the cycle to Waipu caves to see the glowworms would be worth the roast chicken dinner I had promised. Scattered showers and another two interested parties soon turned the cycle into a drive and we were off.

Elsewhere in New Zealand Waipu Cave could easily have been commercialised, with tourists walking along wooden walkways and clasping rope handle rails as some minimum wage recited the reproductive cycle of falipitus fawlinguses. Everyone would ooh and ah in amazement as the guide snapped the overhead lights off and the glowworms blinked into existence as night blindness faded. But the natural world can’t be fully appreciated on a guided tour or done by arrangement. It’s like getting off a tourist bus en masse to experience sunrise – it just can’t be done – nature has to be caught unawares as if both you and it have been caught by surprise.

Luckily Waipu Cave is nothing like that. There are no walkways, no lights, no guides, just you, a hopefully powerful torch and 30 kilometres of caves to explore. We waded through streams, clambered over boulders and skidded through mud and when we turned the torches off the cave turned to the blackest of nights and slowly like stars the glowworms blinked into existence. Even though we knew the roof was just a couple of meters above us the illusion of gazing into the cosmos was complete.

I’ve always liked the idea of growing, catching, hunting or finding and then cooking my own food. It must be some kind of primeval urge. So from the moment Frank mentioned that there were mussels aplenty on the rocks nearby and cockles and pipis in the estuary I had my heart set on a big pot of shellfish with a white wine and onion sauce. Frank told us everything we need to know and gave us onion bags, buckets and gloves and at the next low tide we were off.

Catching mussels is so easy it isn’t catching at all - it is collecting. We waded into the chilly water, leather gloves on our hands to protect against the sharp rock and onion bags to be filled with our bounty. We groped under the water with our hands, feeling through the seaweed in search of the mussels the size of our hands that Frank had promised us. After about 10 minutes of doing this we decided the tide wasn’t low enough and we settled on picking smaller ones, though still larger than we could buy at home. An hour later we had filled our bucket and proud with our catch we headed back to the hostel.

Cockles and pipis down by the estuary were just as easily obtained, we just looked for where the birds were feeding and made a bee line for the most crowded of pools. Here we dug into the muddy sand with our hands. Once a fruitful spot had been found each handful produced 3 or 4 cockles or pipis. Nothing could have been simpler

We left them to soak for the afternoon so that they would spit out any sand in their shells. Cooking them was straightforward, we simply fried some onion and garlic in a 15 litre pan, put in the shellfish with a splash of white wine and a head of chopped cabbage, covered and left for 20 minutes while we made an creamy, buttery onion sauce. Needless to say we cooked far in excess of what we could eat and soon the entire hostel was joining us in our gastronomic feast.

Pictures - click to enlarge
Picture of the Ebb and Flow hostel Waipu New Zealand Travleogues
Deserted beach near Waipu New Zealand Travleogues
The Ebb and Flow hostel in Waipu

Golden deserted beaches

Barbara bouldering near Waipu New Zealand Travleogues
Photograph of Caelen bouldering near Waipu New Zealand Travleogues
Barbara bouldering

Caelen bouldering

Picture of the Ebb and Flow hostel Waipu New Zealand Travleogues
Photograph of an outdoor bathroom Waipu New Zealand Travleogues
The Ebb and Flow hostel
A secluded bathtub with hot water