I found that this limited the number of farmers I could see to an average of five a day, which was what I wanted. I set out with my mind made up to get two sales out of the five, and I nearly always got them.
I gradually worked up the centre of North Island, until I approached Rotorua, the famous thermal district. I finished one day’s work some miles south of Rotorua and had to pitch camp in the dark. The countryside was covered in manuka scrub, also called ‘ti-tree’. This grows nearly as dense as bamboo, and frequently it is only possible to pass through it by slashing a track. I had trouble finding an open space for my tent, but at last I did, and was soon asleep in the usual way. During the night I was several times woken up by a strange noise, a kind of bubbling, rumbling noise. I looked out of the tent, and could see nothing strange, so went to sleep again. In the morning I found that I had pitched camp on a dried lake of volcanic mud, and the noises I had heard during the night came from pools of boiling mud about five feet away from the tent pegs. This blue-grey mud slowly formed into bubbles up to a foot in diameter, which kept on increasing until they burst with a loud plop. Other noises were rumbles underneath, and hisses of escaping steam.
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I used Rotorua for my base while working the outlying district every day. I found it a fascinating place. Quite apart from the usual tourist attractions, it had a strange – indeed, unique – atmosphere. I don’t mean the nauseating smell of sulphur, which was ever present, but the eeriness. Now I understood why people went back to live on the slopes of Vesuvius after their villages and the people in them had been destroyed. Rotorua could be destroyed any day by a giant eruption, but not only do the people not worry about this, it seems to add a spice to life there. The soil of pumice and volcanic sand is exotic; there are hot and cold rivers, boiling mud, geysers, and earthquakes. The cold lakes and rivers grow some of the biggest trout in the world.
I stayed in a rambling old wooden hotel of one storey called Brent’s. One day we left our lunch there, and rushed off to the edge of the lake. The owner of a little wooden bungalow wanted a supply of water for his detached wooden wash-house at the back, and proceeded to sink an artesian well through the middle of the floor. When we arrived a geyser had blown the roof off the wash-house, and was playing sixty feet into the air through it.
Once I went pheasant shooting over the site of the Tarawera village which had been overwhelmed by the great eruption in the nineteenth century. It was now an arid flat plain, with a few clumps of manuka. It was queer to think of the village, perhaps still intact, several hundred feet below our feet.
In Rotorua I became friendly with a man named Harold Goodwin. He was a queer cuss, very quiet spoken; he really ought to have been a Maori chief because he was so adept at grunting. We used to laugh at his views on women; the girls thought them a great joke. He was like a public schoolboy in the way he regarded women as a nuisance and a useless hindrance to enjoyment of life. But Harold had the laugh later: he made one of the happiest marriages I know to an adoring wife, and thirty years later he sailed from England to New Zealand in a yacht crewed by himself and his two daughters. He was an excellent companion for me, and we went on many little expeditions together. Later, he was indirectly responsible for my life’s being changed.
In the First World War he had joined the New Zealand Navy and had commanded a torpedo boat patrolling the English Channel, until he got TB and was invalided out. In Rotorua he was an architect, and a most ingenious one. Among the things he had devised was a folding canvas canoe, then a new idea. To try this out we set off to the Bay of Plenty and launched the canoe in an estuary. That wasn’t enough for him, and we had to proceed across the bar out to the open sea. We survived; later we motored up to the Bay of Islands and he introduced me to sailing. We rented a seventeen-foot half-decked yacht from a Maori. As we were hard up, we could not afford a dinghy. Each evening we sailed the boat as close inshore as possible, one of us dropped off to wade ashore, and the other sailed the boat out and anchored it, before swimming ashore. In the morning we reversed the process.