An American Tourist in Reefton

Note: The events in this post and the posts to follow happened before COVID-19 was declared a worldwide pandemic. I’m only getting around to writing them now, after the pandemic’s been in full swing. I look back on these times with an ambivalent mix of happiness and grief — for what was and what could have been. In these uncertain times, I hope the last few weeks of my travels bring others as much joy (and hilarity) as they brought me in the moment.

March 7: Reefton, New Zealand is a town of about 1,000 people, situated inland from New Zealand’s West Coast, a region known for its gorgeous yet unforgiving landscapes and its ultra-hospitable people. I’d heard Reefton mentioned along my travels so I figured it’d be worth a night’s stop. As I drove into town, I knew I’d gotten myself into some sort of adventure.

On Google Maps I’d seen The Old Breadshop Backpackers, which had good reviews and seemed eclectic. Parking in front of the building, I noted that a dorm bed was $18NZ per night. A hell of a deal… but was there a catch?

I rang the doorbell on the side building. Out came Trevor, a cheery, middle-aged Aussie dude who loved to talk about a range of topics that did and did not relate to me reserving a dorm bed for that night. As the hostel owner, Trevor located me a bed and gave me a grand tour of the Breadshop. In the main lounge area, he introduced me to a couple other old dudes: Brian, who’d grown up in Reefton but now lives in Nelson, and Russell, who lives in Christchurch but whose uncle used to be a crossing guard in Reefton. They were both in town for some horseraces the next day.

Now that I was effectively surrounded by jolly old men, Trevor mentioned that he also ran the town cinema — it serves double-duty as the community center, owned by the city council. Trevor runs two showings per day, and the new Jumanji movie was playing at 5:15. Who am I to turn down a film?

Brian and Russell, whose Kiwi accents and lingo I found increasingly difficult to understand, told me a group was going pubbing that night, and I should join them all once the movie was out. I half-heartedly agreed and made my way down the block to the cinema.

Trevor sat at the makeshift ticket counter, and I bought a piece of raspberry taffy. Sweet treats forever. I was one of five human beings in the theater, including Trevor, who eventually dimmed the lights and put the movie on.

The Jumanji movie was surprisingly good. Obviously I have deep attachments to the original film, but this one featured The Rock and Jack Black and major comedic relief.

After the movie, it was still light out so I wandered down the main road of town, stopping to take a photo of Reefton Coffin Co. To this day I’m not sure what they do.

I heard a voice shout “Molly!” from behind me. There stood Brian in the doorway of Wilson’s Hotel, which housed a popular pub. Seemed like the crew had migrated there during the course of the evening!

Once inside, I was greeted by a crowd of West Coasters, all in town for the next day’s horse races (more on that later). I met Brian’s son, Wiremu, and his son’s fiancée Julia, along with a crowd of rowdy people whose names I will never remember and whose faces I also may not remember. Regardless, they ended up buying me four large pints of Speight’s 5 Malt Old Dark through the course of the night, and I became their little American friend. Talk about hospitality!

Interestingly, Reefton was the first place in the Southern Hemisphere (and by extension, New Zealand) to get electricity, thanks to the Reefton Power Station. Brian and Russell tried to tell me Reefton was the fifth city in the entire world to get electricity (behind the likes of NYC, London and Paris), but I couldn’t find a source for that stat. Just pretend they’re right.

In the morning I woke up for a walk around town, grabbing a flat white and a hot cross bun at The Broadway Tearooms & Bakery. I found out I don’t actually like hot cross buns at all. Worth the try, I guess.

After the walk I joined Brian’s family for breakfast in a hotel that had closed down a few months back. Apparently Brian’s family was still staying in the defunct hotel for the weekend, because that’s just how small towns work. He gave me a quick tour before leading me into the kitchen, where Wiremu was cooking.

You may ask how I get myself into these situations, and I answer to you: I just say yes. Brian’s daughter Anaka and her husband Tiny (or Tony? I couldn’t tell through their thick Kiwi accent) joined, along with Brian’s ex-wife. And ole Russell, who is now an extension of Brian’s family. Wiremu brought me a massive plate of toast with eggs, bacon, sausage, ham steak, some other kind of steak, and a latte.

They all talked about the day’s horse races, which I had agreed to attend the previous evening while slightly inebriated. The favorite to win the first race was a horse called Abadabadoo. The first race was starting soon, but we had one errand to run beforehand.

There’s a swing bridge right outside of town, and Brian drove me over to see it. I believe it might be a point of pride for Reefton folk, although it is a humble-looking bridge. He also drove me to significant places in town, like where he’d gone to school as a child. It was a cool little tour!

Then we were off to the races. The racecourse was on the other edge of town, hosting just one of many weekends of horse races all over New Zealand. This was part of Team Teal, a benefit for the NZ Women’s Cancer Foundation. This meant many people were wearing teal.

I should also note that these were harness races, something I was unfamiliar with. I don’t know much about horses, and even less about horse racing, but I did read Seabiscuit in fifth grade. In harness racing, the driver steers a two-wheeled cart that the horse basically tows along.

Entering the grounds, we spotted an ambulance and a crowd of people gathering — apparently a local had suffered a heart attack and would be life-flighted to the nearest hospital in Westport. It delayed the races for an hour or so, which I spent wandering around the empty clubhouse and being greeted as a VIP by the locals, who Brian kept introducing me to.

Wiremu and Julia led me through a VIP-lookin’ gate and into a special area where drivers were prepping their horses for the races. I felt simultaneously honored and worried that I would scare the horses before their big race.

And finally, the first race began! The drivers completed two laps around the track while a crowd of about a hundred people watched in earnest. Our boy Abadabadoo (whom Brian had bet on) ended up winning.

Then Brian said he’d given me a job to do. I met Ross, the race announcer, who said he needed me to help him hand out waterbottles to the crowd after the next race. When in Reefton… do as the Reeftoners say. In front of the crowd, Ross introduced me and asked how I liked the West Coast hospitality. I grinned and played along, holding up the waterbottles we were giving away as if I were Vanna White.

After the waterbottle hype, it was late afternoon and I had to head out to my next destination, a popular spot called Punakaiki. Brian insisted we get at least one “team pic,” but Wiremu and the rest of the crew didn’t want to be on camera. Instead, I posed with Brian and Julia. A fitting end to my 24-hour stint in Reefton.

I couldn’t have asked for a better introduction to the West Coast than Reefton. The people and their humor are all slightly (and perfectly) off-kilter. And I absolutely believe that Reefton was the fifth place in the world to have electricity. Abadabadoo.

Next stop: the incredible Punakaiki, to see rocks that look a bit like pancakes. Stay tuned.

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