When I first messaged Karee about a Workaway opportunity on her farm, I thought I’d only stay two or three days. But almost immediately, I felt drawn into her family and her home — and I decided to stay a week instead.
Workaway is a website/app where you can find work on farms, houses, hostels, and anything in between, usually in exchange for housing and food. Some people stay places for a week, and some stay for months or years. Having worked on farms before, I knew Workaway was a great option for someone traveling to multiple countries, as you pay for one membership that gets you access to the whole world.
Just over an hour’s drive from Paihia, Rawene is a small town in Hokianga Harbour, an inlet on the west coast of Northland. My friend Nae (who I met in Paihia) recommended I check out the Hokianga area, and I found a great opportunity In little Rawene with Karee and her two kids — Jesse James, 7, and Gloria, 3.
The drive to Rawene was beautiful and quiet, winding through the countryside until I saw the sign for Rawene. 6km down the road, Karee’s house sits at the bottom of a perilously steep, fun driveway. I pulled in and was greeted by Karee and her house straight out of the Shire.
I also met Luca, a family friend of Karee’s who is boarding with her for a few months. He’s 19 and keeps order around the house for the children — a relief, since I can be pretty lenient sometimes.
Then I met Sabrina, my fellow Workawayer. She’s also 19, from Lake of Constance in Germany, and is traveling around NZ for a few months. We all had a (very welcome) dinner of fried snapper, potatoes and salad with veggies from the garden, followed up with a slice of pie and whipped cream. What a dream.
After dinner, we all walked down to the mangrove wharf at the bottom of the hill (or as Gloria calls it, the mango wharf). Sabrina and I did lots of swinging with Gloria, while Luca and Jesse James climbed (and broke) some trees.
The next morning we woke up to a rare rainy day. Karee mostly needs help painting the hobbit house, as she’s putting it on the market to sell and eventually move to Queenstown. We changed into our painting clothes and prepped to paint the entryway ceiling white, laying down newspaper and drop cloths. Sabrina turned on the 70s jams for background music.
For lunch, we had cheese & onion toasties (!), meat pies and cola spider ice cream — not to fear, as “spider” in New Zealand means a sort of soda-ice cream float mixture. 10/10 with a much better name than float.
I took a selfie break with Gloria.
The first coat on the ceiling was finally done, so we had dinner — lamb and veggie stew with homemade garlic bread, hand-kneaded by Luca.
After eating, Sabrina and I went for a walk around Rawene. We ran into the Rawene Holiday Park, where we met the owners and their gorgeous dog. Also, we spotted a house straight out of Midsommar.
We posed for each other’s photos and tried to figure out the name of a Billie Eilish song. Sabrina’s practicing her English while here, but unfortunately for her I like to make up words so I’m not the best teacher in that regard. We headed back to hobbit house to get some well-deserved sleep.
I gave Sabrina a ride back to Paihia the next day (one, because I like road trips, and two, because I can’t get enough of Paihia). Before that, I successfully (?) made myself Weet-Bix with banana.
Before going to Paihia, Sabrina and I made a few pitstops. First stop: Opononi Beach, a 20-minute drive west of Rawene, closer to the open ocean. We ordered lattes at Thai Landing Cafe and walked down the coastline a bit, avoiding the cold water.
We headed west toward Ngawha Springs (pronounced nah-fuh), some hot, sulfuric springs outside of a small town called Kaihoke. The springs were hot, we smelled like eggs, and after about an hour we were all sweated out. We spotted about ten different pools, each with temps ranging from 36-51 degrees Celsius, which is utterly insane that anyone could stand 51. The most Sabrina and I could handle was dipping our feet in a 44.
And finally, we were off to Paihia. Since it was another sunny day, we agreed to kayak around the bay — we paid $35 NZ for an hour on a double kayak. The wind was intense and waves were choppy, so an hour seemed long enough. We went for a swim afterward, walking along the beach to Countdown and grabbing salad and treats for a lunch at Sabrina’s hostel before I headed back to Rawene.
Back in Rawene, Luca introduced me to the Tim Tam slam. If you don’t yet know, a Tim Tam is a delicious chocolate wafer (Australian, sold in the US but I’d never had them before). For the slam, you bite off the chocolatey corners and try to suck a hot liquid like coffee or tea through the wafer before it inevitably melts into the hot liquid. I don’t understand the physics of it, but Luca was the reigning champ.
The next morning (Friday, I believe), I went for a 3-mile run around town. As always in NZ, I encountered a few big hills and a beautiful view.
Back at home, the kids showed me a magic trick with candles and we got to painting a second coat on the ceiling.
For lunch we had leftover lamb stew and meat pies. Then it was off to meet some family friends at Opononi Beach. We all crowded in the car. Gloria documented some of our journey.
Past Opononi town is Omapere, which has a semi-secluded beach spot. We met Christina and Tracy, two of Karee’s friends who also have kids. This was the most children I’ve been around in years, and I was loving it. My heart feels so much more open around kids.
Christina’s originally from Michigan, meeting a Kiwi dude while working in Hawaii and eventually moving to Northland to start a family with him. It’s reassuring to see other Americans living here as ex-pats, and I truly think it’d be a wonderful life.
Tired out, we drove back to Rawene. That night, Karee’s old friend Connie, her husband Rico and their daughter Matilda (7) stopped by the house to say hello. Connie and Rico are German but live in Alberta, Canada. Almost ten years ago, Connie worked on Karee’s mom’s farm outside of Paihia, and their family was taking a trip around NZ and Australia for a month or so. There was also an Aussie couple staying at Karee’s Airbnb sleepout, so we had quite the crew at hobbit house.
My friend Nae texted that he was in the area — although I love kids and large groups of people, it was time for a tiny break. We drove out to Opononi in the dark, looking up at the actually unbelievable night sky full of stars. I have never seen so many, so close. It’s magical out here.
Saturday was a big day. We started by going to the Kaihoke A&P Show, a little fair with food, animals and rides. It reminded me of fairs in small town Nebraska. We met Karee’s mom (also named Gloria), her sister Frankie, and a bunch more children. A little girl named Jazzy was turning 6 that day, so we all celebrated her birthday with cupcakes Karee made.
We spent an hour or so eating and watching the kids get their faces painted. I sipped on an L&P in the shade and talked to Wyn, one of Gloria’s friends who’s into astrology and reincarnation. I’m down with it.
We then went to Paihia (Waitangi, technically) for ANOTHER fair — this one was The Extravaganza, a traveling New Zealand carnival. We saw fire dancers, tarot readers, magic shows… and I took a nap in the shade. Life was good here.
Alas, the fun was not yet over! Karee’s mom Gloria lives on a big farm outside of Paihia (where Karee grew up). We stopped over to hang with a bunch of big dogs, tour the super cool bathroom and swim with horses. And more kids, of course.
Now officially tuckered out, we all drove back to Rawene and just about collapsed with exhaustion. But first… beer. Nae was still staying in Opononi, so I met him for a couple drinks at the Opononi Bar, one of the only things that stays open past 8pm. Sometimes, small town life eludes me.
Sunday morning, I joined Nae for breakfast and we talked about where we each were headed next. I was planning on going south back to Auckland, and he was heading toward Cape Reinga (the northernmost tip of NZ, where the oceans apparently collide). I again got that sense of “for this moment only” — knowing there’s an expiration date to every new connection I make. And reminding myself that it’s all right to be sad about that.
Back in Rawene, it was time to finish painting the ceiling. With the second coat done in the morning, I helped wash the windows while Luca and Karee painted the back of the house.
I enjoyed the afternoon views from the porch, watched cartoons with Gloria, and ate a wonderful dinner of beef sausage (!), boiled eggs (!!) and potato salad (!!!), followed up with a few pieces of chocolate slice homemade by Karee (!!!!). This place will actually kill me.
Monday morning (my last official day in Rawene), we prepared to run errands in Kerikeri, a town on the east coast of Northland. Karee took us to The Stone Store, New Zealand’s oldest store with a Honey House Cafe out back, complete with gardens aplenty.
Outside of Kerikeri is Rainbow Falls (also known as Waianiwaniwa). Karee used to skip high school to go to the falls with friends, and I told her it beats anything we ever did as high schoolers in Omaha. Karee, Jesse, Gloria and I walked through a semi-treacherous path underneath the waterfalls, to a muddy but worthwhile view.
On the way home, we stopped to get Pineapple Lumps (a classic — basically chocolate-covered sugar pieces) and a Red Bull pick-me-up. We also said hi to Gloria, Jazzy and Krysta at the farm once again before blessedly driving back to Rawene.
And finally, the dreaded day came: Tuesday, Jan 21. The day I headed back to Auckland. I made one last morning coffee and bowl of Weet-Bix, packing my bags while Gloria did my hair.
I hugged the family goodbye, so thankful to have Karee take me in for the week. I couldn’t have asked for a better Workaway host, showing me the small and large beauties of the Hokianga area in a way no tourist bus ever could. One time, one meeting — but always in my heart.
Onward and southward, folks! Next stop Auckland, and then… it’s up to the universe to decide.