GAKURU, New Zealand — Clouds lay heavy on the round hills beyond my window, muting the crow of a rooster to a mere suggestion. There was moisture on the window behind the lace curtains, lace on lace, and the quilts were warm and cozy. What could ever persuade a sleepy person to give up this soft nest for the uncertain day?
The irresistible lures of country life: bacon sizzling on the stove, coffee brewing and the sounds of life in the kitchen. The realization that the farmer, Brian Oberer, has already been up for hours and has come in for a mid-morning break at 7:30 a.m. and that his wife, Heather, has breakfast nearly ready. Why, I'd missed some daytime already!
My stay in this farmhouse was like nothing so much as a tumble back in time, not only to the simpler life of the farm, as compared to freeways and other high-tension urban realities, but also back to my own childhood with its elementary concerns and truer truths.
The biggest traffic problem in this area, where the only high-rises are distant mountains, consists of Americans in rental cars who forget they're supposed to drive on the left.
Daily conversation has to do with the price of lambs (way down this year), whether raising deer will prove profitable (Koreans, they say, pay plenty for new antlers, which they consider an aphrodisiac), and the usual country concern (real concern, that is) about how the neighbors are doing.
And I did not feel like a stranger here. Along with opening their homes to visitors, New Zealanders are delighted to share their jokes, their gossip and their life stories.
When I decided to try a New Zealand Farm Holiday--booked through SoPac (800) 445-0190 in California or (800) 551-2012 from other states--I asked to stay with "people who really enjoy talking, because I want to get to know them."
"That's no problem," the agent assured me. "The problem would be if you wanted to stay with someone who didn't enjoy talking. I don't know if we have any like that."
The Oberers own a 500-acre farm that has been in his family for three generations. They have two sons and a daughter, all teen-agers. The current animal population is 147 milking cows, 120 yearling cattle, 1,400 sheep, 75 Angora goats and one pet horse with a badly injured leg that they are trying to save.
The house is 50 years old; at least, part of it is. Rooms were added as the family grew. One of the additions was a guest house behind the main house, built a few years ago when the Oberers decided to open their home to visitors. But their sons quickly saw the advantages of having a home away from home at home, and they moved into the guest house, leaving bedrooms in the main house for guests.
An old upright piano dominates the spacious living room. It has a tinny tone that sounds like turn-of-the-century ghosts. Daughter Marnie, 15, practices show tunes in the early evening and once a week she gives piano lessons to a student of her own. The rest of the living room is filled with overstuffed chairs and couches and old-fashioned tables and bookcases. These hold well-thumbed magazines and books that have opened to more than one reader in the quiet of a country evening.
From the house are views on every hand. In the front yard are flower beds blooming with daffodils or roses or whatever the season allows. Beyond these are the round hills that are too steep to plow and plant, with their stands of trees, verdant grasslands and vertical fences dividing cows from sheep, cattle from goats. Beyond the hills but still on the farm is a lake for water-skiing, boating and fishing.
You are not likely to find Ngakuru on a tourist map of New Zealand or even in an atlas. The village is about halfway between Rotorua and Taupo in the middle of the North Island, and the Oberer farm is a few miles out of town. If you get to Rotorua, the idea is to call the farm and get directions. Or if arrangements are made ahead of time, a farm-stay host will collect you at the airport or in town.
Even though the Oberers' guest rooms are comfortable, with quilts and pillows and stacks of magazines, and the living room is inviting, guests tend to congregate before dinner around the counter between the dining room and the kitchen.
This is where Heather is to be found, preparing the dinner they'll share around the long table with its hand-crocheted tablecloth.
On this night she served roast lamb, as tasty and tender as I've ever had, and a casserole of mixed vegetables, braised potatoes, lightly steamed green beans fresh from the garden and whole-grain rolls. Dessert was rum cake. There were four guests who all lingered at the table, talking with Heather and Brian, until after 10 p.m.
On another night the entree was chicken with walnut stuffing; dessert was blackberry pie, with berries handpicked by a pair of guests.