I stand on the stony beach, breathing in the salty tang on the wind, and watch as the village comes alive with the tide. Great billowing clouds of nets are thrown into the rushing river, men swing their netted poles like bull fighters in a ring. There are 20 or more locals, some waist-deep in the water, others bent over buckets on the beach, their weathered faces shadowed by Safari hats.
I’m on the West Coast of New Zealand, part of a road trip that’s taken me to what feels like the edge of the world. Between a ferocious sea and a silent rain forest, I’ve stumbled across a tiny village. But come morning, a natural phenomenon has spurred the sleepy community into action.
As the sun rises over the mountain range behind me, I crunch my way towards two women on the beach, sitting around what looks like a giant Parmesan grater on legs. They look as wind-beaten and hardy as the trees of the native rain forest behind us. Moving closer, I see they hold paintbrushes, and are carefully sweeping stones and seaweed from a silvery catch.
“What are they?” I ask. One woman, wearing a tan cowboy hat, holds out a glittering fish, as delicate as a chain necklace curled in her palm.
“Whitebait.” She says. It doesn’t look like whitebait. I remember serving heaped bowls to the Cambridgeshire farmers in my local pub, some as long as a pencil and fat as a rubber, their frozen eyes gazing through the batter. These fish are translucent, iridescent, like tiny slices of silver and ghost.
“We’ve not seen a run like this in decades. Everyone is out.” She nods to the community behind her, more have since waded waist-deep into the river, bracing against the fierce tide. The woman follows my gaze. “It’s a dangerous game alright. One man drowned a few years back.”
“No life jacket, that’s why.” The other grumbles from beneath her denim cap, but her mouth is set in sadness.
“For whitebait?” I ask, stunned. They both stop brushing for a moment.
“Whitebait is what keeps this village alive.”
“-it used to be.”
“-Each year, there’s less and less fish. More of us leave.”
I join them, and they weave childhood stories of ‘how it used to be’, bickering over which whitebait pattie recipe is best. To settle the debate, they pull Roger from the river, a dripping giant with wrinkled eyes and a wicked grin.
“Flour, egg, lemon, and a bit of fresh whitebait. That’s it.” Roger tells us, smacking his stomach. “We used to have so much whitebait as kids, we’d give those patties away!”
Satisfied he’s sorted the argument, Roger wades back into the swollen river, taking up a stance like an oak tree against a storm.
The denim-capped woman turns to me.
“You say you’re a writer?” The woman says. I shrug, the self-deprecating symbol of a young writer who doesn’t feel they merit the name yet. “Don’t mention the name of this place to anyone.” She says, “This is one of the last good runs us locals have left.”
I nod, and make my way back to a campervan I’d grown rather attached to, and mull on their words. Often, I meet so many people who long for their story to be told, strangers who reveal their passions like a hawker opening their glittering cloak, pulling out gold watches and jewellery to bedazzle you.
But occasionally, I’ll stumble across a story so precious, it’s too risky to share. It’s important to know when to investigate further and shed light into these remarkable stories, and when to recognise something too special for a stranger’s footprint.