Thursday, May 5, 2011

The Many Faces of Mt. Barker

It’s Autumn in Wanaka.  The leaves paint the landscape with their warm colors.  The mornings are fresh and the afternoons are sunny.  The grass often has frost and crunches under your feet.  It’s quiet out here. The only noise comes from male deer calls, bird songs, and the rare mammalian species, Bernie. The property resides on a mountain (or near there, rather) called Mt. Barker.  In my first week there I spent my time harvesting veggies from the garden, light housecleaning, and of course, cooking.  I was welcomed in the house and quickly formed a connection with both Anne and Bernie, both extremely different.  We molded as a family, and as new WWOOFers came in, they saw that and swore I’d been living there much longer. 

We had the first set of WWOOFers come in from Maine, Brandon and Mason.  Bernie began to tell them I was his niece, and it was easy to believe.  The farm at Mt. Barker acts as a family.  Anyone staying there is very fortunate, as the hosts are generous, kind, and knowledgeable.  There is hardly a dull moment at this place, really.  Most mornings are begun with walking the goats, all four of them, whose names are Whipper, Snipper, Lawn, and Mower.  This task of “walking goats” is a completely ridiculous, yet learning and meditative experience.  You get into the mind of the goat.  You have to talk to them.  Sometimes you have to run at them like a lunatic with your arms flailing up and bizarre noises coming from your mouth.  The trick is really to be smart about feeding them from the bag of nuts you carry.  They are stubborn like any other mammal, and they need to be coaxed with something yummy.  The farm also has six free-range chickens that also like chatting.  Anne and Bernie are convinced speaking to the ladies everyday helps them lay (but only in English, of course).  The other animals (besides the WWOOFers and Bernie) are two dogs, Kozo and Mitsu, and a cat named Tofu.  Yes, this place is full of charm and weird names.  It works well in the scheme of randomness. 

As I soon became the personal chef for the house, I realized I could make anything (just about) that I wanted.  I utilized the fresh produce from the garden, which became quite challenging with the endless courgettes (zucchini) and tomatoes.  I even put them in eggs benedict and mac n’ cheese.  Bernie wasn’t too fond of vegetables, but he didn’t have must jurisdiction in the kitchen, especially if I occasionally made a local Hawaiian dish to his liking. 

In the midst of all the cooking, I began bone carving.  I was initially introduced to the idea after one of Bernie’s Maori friends came over to tie a proper necklace for my current whale bone piece.  A few days later he brought spare whale bone and I started.  What started as a novel idea turned into a creative outlet.  Of course, my first piece wasn’t spectacular, but each piece turned out better.  I even toyed with carving ideas I couldn’t quite comprehend.  The majority of my nights for the next three weeks were associated with carving, drinking whiskey (which I feel helps the creativity), listening to music, and socializing with the WWOOFers and Bernie. 

The majority of the happenings are around either the dinner table or the social (or creative) bench in the shop.  Naturally, the dinner table is a bit more on the formal side (but not THAT formal), which includes saying grace, drinking wine, and eating with a knife and fork.  The creative bench is a bit more raw.  It is said that, at this table, “What happens at Mt. Barker, stays at Mt. Barker.”  So it goes that drinking and smoking are obviously in the picture.  Not to mention, the chocolate.  I’m talking about special chocolate that makes your legs go numb and lasts for 10 hours.  The first night “chocolate” was consumed, it was apparent that we had WAY too much.  I didn’t feel normal until noon the following day.  One of the WWOOFers didn’t feel normal until 24 hours later.  This special chocolate is made on the farm.  And the greens are grown in the garden.  The supply is pretty extensive, and although I don’t smoke, it would be a dream to any stoner.  In place of the greens, I stuck with scotch or bourbon.  Those nights at the creative bench were filled with endless bullshitting and creativity.  This place really is special, and as I said before, those to experience it are quite fortunate. 

In my time at Mt. Barker I was able to spend some good time with Anne, too.  It really was very different hanging out with her.  She’s a scientist, and thinks like one.  A highly intelligent, quick-witted, and kind person.   When I took over the cooking she was able to get back into her art, as she is a paper-maker.  I realized our minds were very alike and methodical.  She taught me how to make some really delicious chutneys and homemade tomato sauce (ketchup).  Anne may be a scientist, but she’s a farm girl at heart.  She grew up on the 70 acre property, doing the hard labor of a man.  She spent the 30 years working as a microbiologist in Australia, and came back to New Zealand to take care of her dying parents.  On a more spiritual note, she’s a healing minister.  Her faith in God, along with her visions, can make anyone question their beliefs (seriously).  She’s highly perceptive and real.  Initially, people think she’s a bit tough or anti-social, but it’s just her way of gauging the environment, which I can appreciate, as I do it myself.  She now spends most of her time playing on the computer, playing with her boy Tofu, or playing with her artwork.  

Bernie is a different story.  He’s on a completely other realm of thinking.  More of a child than an adult, he takes everything at first glance, rather than in stride (as Anne).  Very temperamental and compulsive, he has an interesting past that gives way for a better understanding of him, while giving him complexity (as most don’t realize he is).  His childhood was rough, having an abusive father and ignorant mother.  He’s a typical bad boy.  Broke some rules, paid the price.  Went into the military very young (younger than allowed) and became part of the Special Forces.  He’s traveled around the world jumping out of airplanes, killing, and being promiscuous.  His life has changed since Vietnam, and Anne has him on a tight enough leash that he can enjoy his life in the present.  He now spends most of his time harassing the WWOOFers and woodturning (which he's amazing at).  

In over a month I’ve learned a lot about their family.  They have become my family.  In a place so foreign to me, I have found a home away from home.  As I have always said, “My home is where I choose to be,” and it really has rung true.  My initial perceptions of New Zealand have been so skewed by Lord of the Rings and the unknown.  What I’ve done in the past few months have really been something big and amazing.  The people are the nicest that I’ve come across in the world.  The beauty is inescapable.  New Zealand has always been this mysterious, mystical country.  I understand now why the locals wish to keep it a secret.  When you come here and do it right, you’ll never want to leave.  It is indeed, a home away from home. 


  1. Great blog! It's really funny how our lives seem to run parallel at certain points. Mt. Baker sounds so much like Le Vin and it's inhabitants. All i need is a workshop! Thanks for sharing Winlee!

  2. Wow, sounds like an amazing time. I'm glad you have been able to connect with so many great people and find some family among them. Can't wait to read more. Take care and thanks for sharing these amazing experiences with us!