As the train pulled into the station at Greymouth, to my left was a Wal-Mart-sized Warehouse and Fresh Choice, two giants in the New Zealand circle of chain stores, and to my right a main street lined with buildings sporting Wild West-style facades. The sun was shining and that was all that mattered. I couldn’t care less that I was about to spend a Saturday night in a town just shy of 10,000 people. The last thing I’d arrived with were great expectations. Throughout the week, as I shared my weekend travel plans with friends and colleagues, I was met with a range of responses, from disgust to pity to plain curiosity as to why I’d ever go to Greymouth of my own volition. They either laughed or said with an all-too-knowing look in their eyes, “Hm, yeah, have fun?” But I went, nonetheless. You don’t know if you don’t go.
I had a mild panic Friday night as it occurred to me that maybe the train station wasn’t within walking distance of the town or my hostel. Those thoughts proved useless as I walked the 500 meters down Mackay Street and easily spotted my accommodation for the night, the Duke Backpackers, blending in in subtle shades of purple and neon green and orange trim. There was no one at reception, so I obediently rang the bell. A girl my age came downstairs and made a phone call, to the owners I presumed – Dory and Shoshy, Israeli transplants.
“Hi…Someone’s here…No, just one, a lady…uh, Candace?” she asked, looking up at me. Nothing like being on first-name basis with the owners to make you feel at home. Just how small was this town? Dory arrived shortly and with him an American guy, easily identified by the way he said, “The train ride was awesome.” His name was Dan and he was wearing khaki cargo pants, a polar fleece, hiking boots, an oversized backpack, and an unkempt bush of a beard…all signs of a true backpacker.
Soon after two more people walked through the door, two French students named Eva and Benoit (think ‘Renoit’ for pronunciation.) Dan was showed to his single room, then Dory took me and the others to the four-bed dorm we’d be sharing. We did the usual introductions, piddled around putting our few belongings on our respective beds, and then they asked if I’d like to join them as they took a walk around town. Going solo on the trip, I’d planned a few things based on what Greymouth seemed to offer in the form of entertainment: a visit to Shantytown, a site dedicated to the West Coast Gold Rush of the 1860s; a tour of Monteith’s Brewery; you know, all those history-based activities a town is forced to invent when it has nothing else to offer. But I welcome any chance to throw aside pre-made plans in the name of spontaneity. Dory had suggested a few hikes around town, so after inviting Dan along, the four of us set off for the King Domain Walk, an hour and a half hike that starts right near the rail station. But it’s not long before you forget the freeway behind you and find your heart racing from the unexpected incline of the trail and the vines and roots you’re forced to fight. I teach Eva the word “slippery” as we trek along the muddy paths.
The hike up, I walk mostly with Eva, learning that she and Benoit are from different parts of France – Nice and Brittany, respectively – but attend the same university and are in Christchurch to study food science for five months. Neither of them speak perfect English, but Eva and I share a love for London and click instantly. She asks me which I like better, “Europe or New Zealand?” and we lament how quiet and small New Zealand often seems. The walk down, I get to know Dan, a rising college senior from Illinois on summer break. For five weeks, he’ll be the hut warden at Westland National Park, a 12km hike from any form of basic civilization, getting his drinking water from a river. Thrilling stuff.
As we leave the trail, Dory and Shoshy and their three kids drive up, the middle child holding a roll of toilet paper. They know how to come prepared. Dory offered to take a group shot. Considering we’d only just met each other, I can assure you it’s an awkward shot, all of us standing pitifully to ourselves. But we’re bonding slowly, over how out of shape we all are and how small the town is. We walk to the beach, taking all of thirty seconds to pass through the center of town, and arrive at the shore of the Tasman Sea. The beach is all smooth grey rocks, no sand, and makes for tricky walking. Eva and I skip rocks with Benoit, who can get up to four skips, while Dan texts a picture of the ocean home to his mother. The sun begins to set and I am taken over by the familiar emotion of disbelief and thoughts like “Am I really here?” while in foreign places of intense beauty.
As we pick up our bags to leave the beach, there were two guys gathering driftwood into plastic shopping bags. One remarked to us that it would be a cool group shot to take a picture of us silhouetted against the sky and the recently-set sun. These people must love their group shots. He handed me back my camera after taking the picture and of course we got to talking about where we were from, what we were doing (in New Zealand and in Greymouth – two importantly distinct questions) – the usual conversation. One invites us to a reggae band’s show in Hokitika, about half an hour away. The other says, “It’s just about the only thing happening in this area tonight.” Now, I know what you’re thinking – how could I turn that down? But I’d like to think that things are never so bad that reggae is my best option.
We returned to our hostel for the free hot soup promised to be served at seven that night. I don’t know why I expected anything along the lines of hearty – the closest it got to Campbell’s Chunky were the bits of vegetables floating in broth most likely made from cubes of chicken stock. But it did give us a chance to get to know the four other people staying in the hostel. Conversation centered around employment, or the lack thereof. A Malaysian girl complained of sore muscles as a result of fruit picking, later revealing she’d only stuck with it for one day. An Italian guy moaned about the lack of job opportunities in Greymouth. I didn’t think it my place to suggest trying something more…populated. Maybe it’s just me, but I wouldn’t expect a small town on the West Coast to have much to offer in the way of jobs. On our way out, we ask for suggestions for dinner. The same Italian tells us everything is closed – “We could drink upstairs, but we’d have to get some booze first.” Man, are the possibilities endless in this place or what?
Once outside, I can’t begin to express the absolute emptiness of the town. I start to cross the street when Benoit throws both his arms out, holding us all back. “Watch out! Look both ways first!” And that was the key – making our own fun. We could have been miserable, but with a sense of humor and an open mind we didn’t have such a bad time. It was like being let loose on a movie set after they’ve finished filming for the day. Everything’s there – buildings, street signs, parked cars – but the people. We were delighted to find the Bonzai Pizzeria open and bustling with a surprising amount of business. A large group sat at a table with “Reserved” signs on it – just a precaution? We dine on Monteith’s brews and pizza, an unimaginably perfect meal after the day’s travels and hike. Eva and Benoit remarked that they hardly ever eat dinner before 9pm in France and as it was just hitting that time as we left the restaurant, we decided we had to go somewhere else.
But where? We passed closed sign after closed sign, asking, “But this is Saturday night, right?” Benoit is determined, holding his pinkie finger in the air like some homing device, in a desperate attempt to find a bar/pub/any other open establishment. We see a neon sign a few blocks down, usually a good indicator, but are greeted with “Ellerly’s Home Appliance Centre” upon closer inspection. Just then Benoit goes out onto the street, looks up, and kisses his finger. Right above the refrigerators and ovens was Franks Café and Bar – oh thank heaven. A chalkboard sign on the sidewalk says, “We are open til late.” We’d believe it when we saw it. Upstairs, again, more business than you’d expect. These people must arrive at a restaurant and literally stay put for hours, leaving the streets deserted. Again, another large birthday party takes up much of the place. It beings to make sense – even in a town as tiny as Greymouth, if you get a big enough group of people together as friends, you’re bound to have at least one birthday every couple of weeks, giving some excuse to get out on the weekends.
Dan and Benoit order more drinks, but Eva and I opt for desserts and I choose a slice of feijoa cake and vanilla ice cream. It’s warm and delicious, but I’m distracted by two guys standing next to our table. One of them keeps looking at me in such a pathetically obvious way. Finally he turns around and asks where we’re from – I’d been wondering what line he would come up with. He sat down next to me and his friend – hopelessly drunk – took the other open chair at our table. Blake begins to tell me about his upcoming 11-week trip to America and Europe and that he’s in a local acoustic rock band, “Although we do all our shows down in Fox Glacier.” Clearly he’s making it big time. A couple of free drinks later, he invites us to come with them to the Working Man’s Club. Again, I took the risk of turning him down. Principles are principles, and I’d like to think I have standards.
Our Sunday morning in Greymouth passed uneventfully – an unsuccessful trip to the History House Museum where we discovered it’s only open on weekdays, a walk through the affluence that is Cobden, and a final hike to another all-too-picturesque lookout. The highlight was, hands down, my mocha and steak-and-cheese pie for lunch at the Wild Branch Café. We said goodbye to Dan who wouldn’t be heading back to Christchurch with us, and boarded the train.
As I settled into my seat, I was completely content. I had managed to visit a town with an incredibly sad reputation and still enjoy myself immensely. Unexpected friendships, great food, even better weather and a beautiful natural environment – anymore people around and it probably would have spoiled it.