I don’t eat meat, though I do eat fish. By New Zealand standards this makes me a vegetarian. If I was a real vegetarian (i.e. I didn’t eat meat or fish), then I’d have had trouble both in New Zealand and South America, but I draw my personal moral line at food I’m willing to catch and prepare. I realise I’m on shaky ground with tuna, but I still like to test my boundries regularly by procuring my own fish and seafood in the raw.
The slogan ‘Meet ’em Greet ’em and Eat ’em’ was the by-line of a farm near Taupo which uses geothermal heat to raise and then cook large prawns. Having done the meet and greet last time, I went directly to eating, enjoying a delicious plate of shell on prawns with chilli dip.
On the native edible wildlife front the top treat so far was a crayfish from Kaikoura (‘Kaikoura’ translates as ‘good for crayfish’). Bought from a roadside store, this beast challenged my ability to prepare my food, as though it was dead and boiled, I had no tools to get into it and ended up tearing off the carapace with my bare hands.
I also wanted to take the chance to actually catch my food, and decided that a fishing trip on the Queen Charlotte Sound would be a great way to relax after doing the Queen Charlotte Track, as well as giving us a chance to see where we’d just been walking from sea level. I based my assumption about fishing as relaxation on childhood fishing trips on the River Thames. This, however, was sea fishing in 120ft of water, which meant standing braced against the boat rail, and every time I had a likely nibble, spending several minutes reeling in the line, often to find that the fish had not only eaten the bait but managed to tie the line around the hook. Apparently the fish are always a bit funny after an earthquake, and there’d been a small one the preceeding night – another problem you don’t get on the Thames. But, armed with the boat’s ‘fish radar’ and the skipper’s years of knowledge, we still caught enough blue cod for a decent BBQ lunch, plus a number of ugly orange fish apparently related to perch. Though the average size was larger than the river fish I was used to, a lot were still too small and had to be thrown back, much to the delight of the cormorants who followed us and dove down after we’d relased unsuitable specimens to return to the surface wrestling with a fish almost as big as they were. Even though the fishing was harder work than I’d anticipated, it was great to be out on the water, with views of hills green with foliage ahead and fading off into pale misty blue along the sound. Our soundtrack was the lapping of water, the whizzing of reels and a selection of Christmas tunes which leant a certain absurdity to the sunlit scene.
However, let it not be said that my culinary interaction with NZ wildlife has all been one way. One hostel we stayed at advertised ‘Eel feeding’ as an unique attraction. About a dozen eels – most at least a metre long – had made their home in the stream running behind our cabin, knowing they’d get a regular meal there. Feeding them involved holding tidbits out over the water on sturdy plastic tongs. The eels would would form a writhing sinuous mass from which one would occasionally emerge, lunging up out of the water to snatch the food. We were advised to keep our hands well clear.
And then there’s the sandflies. Maori legend has it that sandflies (namu) were put on here to stop people spoiling beautiful places. In South Island, there certainly seems to be a direct correlation between natural grandeur and the speed and volume of sandfly interest, leading me to wonder, to steal a phrase, what they live on when they can’t get tourist. Coming over the Lewis pass in the middle of South Island, we stopped beside a river where natural hot springs bubble up to mix with the cool river and form a set of warm pools. These pools are just the right depth and temperature to sit in, with a warm sandy bottom (as, after a while, did I). The view across the river and to the hills on either side was spectacular. All in all, nature at her best. And within seconds of lowering myself into the water, the sandflies were so thick that I thought I was seeing spots in front of my eyes. I tried to bat them away, and considered just getting straight out again, but then decdied to lie back and accept their attention. After all, I’d enjoyed eating the wildlife thus far, so perhaps it was time to give something back.