The Very Hungry Worm-Eater

Hokitika is a beautiful setting for debauchery.

Its seaside location sits against a backdrop of the looming heights of Arthur’s Pass National Park.  This relatively small town of 3,078 people is the largest town south of Greymouth on the entire West Coast.  The city, which at over two hours away contains my closest bank and post office, is a popular artist enclave filled with galleries, glass shops, and craftsmen of all disciplines.  There is also a surprisingly lively café culture for a town surrounded by cow pastures.  Nevertheless,  Hokitika is a quiet place 363 days of the year.  But on those other two days, this shy, unassuming town tears off it’s bonnet like a Amish girl on her rumspringa and gets wild.

The Hokitika Wild Foods Festival is a bombastic display of bizarre delicacies and the kind of oddity that finds its way onto various top-ten lists of world festivals.  Its popularity has soared over the years with attendance peaking at over 22,000 people in 2003 – no small feat in an immensely rural region.  Now, the numbers are capped off at 15,000 – but that’s just inside the gates and the festival takes over the whole town. Fanfare for the event was already evident when I first passed through Hokitika six weeks ago en route to Franz Josef.  It is the biggest event of the year on the West Coast and folks back in Auckland told me that if I was anywhere on the South Island in March, I had to make the pilgrimage to Hokitika.

Felipe, of Chile, agreed to go with me to the “Gringo Festival,” and we took my new, white, 1995 Nissan Sunny for his first big road trip. The Nissan Sunny took my Argentinean friend Desirée all across the North and South Islands of New Zealand, but her visa for the country was soon to expire and “Winni” needed a new owner.  I, having never owned a car (or much else for that matter), thought it a good plan to purchase “Winni.”

Desirée was a very good saleswoman, “It comes with a free box of tissues, four iffy radio stations, and a free sleeping bag and space heater in the trunk for the cold nights when you have to sleep in the car….Oh, that noise is perfectly normal, the mechanic told me – look, I have it in writing!  Ahh, this door doesn’t open from the outside, but who uses this door anyway?”  I fell in love and the car was mine.

Desirée named the car Winni after Winnipeg, Canada, a town she loves but has never visited.

“Just listen to how it sounds, Wi-ne-peg… Ah, beautiful!  The best name on the map.”

She came up with the name at fourteen when her dad promised her a car by her fifteenth birthday.  The car never came.  Thirteen years later, she bought her first car from her boss at the kiwifruit packing plant and gave it the name she had dreamed up as a girl.

Felipe and I packed Winni’s trunk with a small tent, sleeping bags, and a change of clothes and we were off to find a campsite near the beach in Hokitika.  I called ahead to Oceanside Holiday Park and reserved a spot, but when we arrived, all that was left was a small patch of dirt outside of the lobby entrance.  We paid $40 for this patch of dirt and erected our small green home.  Looking down the grassy side of the beach we saw a squatter colony of tightly packed tents, a small consolation for our isolated, unlikely location.

I was starving and ready to eat some bugs.

We walked through the back streets of Hokitika as drunk, costumed kiwis stumbled like zombies through neighbor’s manicured lawns.  Turning onto the beach, we passed parked trucks blasting Classic Hits 93.1 as scantily clad girls danced around for their amused, beer-guzzling boyfriends.  For a moment, I thought I was in Texas.

Approaching the festival, we watched as a group of Kiwis in neon spandex body suits stopped a passing police car. Felipe and I sat down, cracked open a bottle of tasty $7.00 Springwood Sauvignon Blanc and watched the show.  Exiting the car, the cops were tickled, jabbed and danced with. The poor cops were so gangly and confused, nothing like the overconfident, donut-fed cops in the States.  The spandex brigade completely overpowered them with tickles and gyrations.

Sitting on the lawn above the train tracks, not even in the festival grounds, we observed the costumed revelers parading by.  A man in a wolf mask stopped to sit with us, offering some tips on how to pick up the passing ladies.  To me it seemed rather easy to pick up a girl wearing a shirt that read, “I like sausage,” but he claimed to be a professional with inside information.  We indulged him for a while until, mid-sentence, the wolf-man crawled away towards a nearby girl who screamed, “Ahh!  I’ve seen this predator before.”

We made our way through the gates towards the music of the Festival and past a group of crocodile hunters annihilating a blow-up crocodile float.  I smelled some grubs cooking in a nearby tent and we went to pick our poison.  Making the rounds we left the tent, agreeing that a drink was in order before any insects crawled down our throats when, like a beacon of hope for the squeamish soul, we saw the smoky still of fresh moonshine.

There’s nothing better than a shot of over-proof, backwoods moonshine squirt right down your esophagus to make eating worms sound like a good idea.  Fast-forward to Felipe and I in the tents purchasing every critter we could find.  We had been discussing our desire for sushi during the two-hour car ride to Hokitika and were amused by a stall serving Worm Sushi.  Perhaps, because I had been craving the spongy, salty flavor of my favorite Japanese export for so long, I didn’t even notice the worm filling.  A group gathered outside of a nearby tent to watch sweaty men chop away at wood with axes.  I was unsure what this brazen display of masculinity was about until a Huhu was spotted, flaunted, and served up live to any audience member willing to fork up $3.00.

In another tent, we purchased a Whitebait fritter – a West Coast delicacy.  Whitebait, we learned, is the term for the Inanga (river smelt) in an immature stage.  These slivery, oily fish babies are abundant in the West Coast’s plentiful rivers and estuaries.  The Whitebait look like little translucent worms with beady eyes but when mixed with salt, flour, and eggs and pounded into a fritter, taste like an omelet – if you can pretend that the little black dots are specks of pepper and not eyeballs.

Moving from stall to stall we chowed down on some freshly caught, deep fried Shark, “Westcargo” Snails, pickled Punga (a local fern), and chased it all with some incredibly delicious Elderflower Champagne.  I felt I had taken sweet revenge as I smacked away at the chocolate covered sand flies whose bites marred my wrist during my first week on the South Island.  The Paua steak, made from a large, edible sea-snail common in Westland waters, was one of our favorite local delicacies.  I later learned from a serious gastronome about some of the more peculiar items I missed including bovine colostrum shooters (of the milk produced by the mother cow after the birth of a calf), wasp larvae ice cream, and mountain oysters (these goat testicles were dubbed the new Viagra in an odd marketing scheme).

As the sun descended into the Tasman Sea, the town shimmered in a violet glow.  Crowds poured out of the festival and into the streets.  Diaper-clad boys mingled with She-Pirates while warring superheroes flaunted their less than impressive superpowers to all who would watch.  The pink sky all but faded to a dark purple as we walked down the beach back home to our tent on the small patch of dirt outside of Oceanside Holiday Park.  The beach was ablaze with bonfires as far as the eye could see and, behind each fire, dancing shadows stretched towards infinity.  Partially costumed revelers, amped-up on bugs and beer, gathered around each fire, piecing together the events of the day.

Felipe and I sat around a fireless rock pit near our tent doing much the same.  When the inevitable crazies came by to chat we replied, “Sorry, No hablo Ingles.”  It was easier than trying to make since of drunk Kiwi-talk.

Festivals such as these have no roots in history.  There are no sacred or political reasons for their existence.  I supposed you could call Wild Foods Festival of cultural importance, but even that would be a bit of a stretch.  Sometimes, we just need a reason as a people to celebrate – a reason to dress up like idiots, talk to our neighbors, and share a worm.  Sometimes, we just need an excuse to get off our couch and into the street to flirt with a stranger behind the comforts of a mask – an excuse to drink too much, eat the unthinkable, and dance to the crackle of a bonfire.  Every now and then, we need an excuse to tickle a cop.

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