Summer Essay: Falling into a warm embrace
I lived in Whangarei for two months, but I never went to Heaven.
The bar seemed to have evolved from a different school of marketing to its peers, with names suggesting a punter might expect a brush with casual violence, or at the least a wild night out.
By the time I arrived, Danger Danger had long shut down, but its legacy partied on at Killer Prawn, and Rynoz - and at Heaven, on the corner of Whangarei's faith triangle.
The bar sat across the road from a Salvation Army family store - flanked on either side by a betting agency and an Instant Finance - and a few doors down from a Hare Krishna restaurant, purveyor of the best semolina puddings that $4 could buy.
In keeping with the tradition of city to province diplomacy, Whangarei's reputation is patently maligned by its big city neighbours.
Aucklanders offered their condolences over gluten-free salads, as I passed through on my way north to the Land of Gangs and Beneficiaries.
A Wellington native, it was my longest stay yet with family in sun-soaked Whangarei, and I began to share in the locals' confidence that the rest of New Zealand would recognise its potential.
I nodded my head and shared in the cafe owners' optimism that one day Aucklanders might linger a little longer before they hurtled on to the Bay of Islands.
Yet, tales in the local paper did little to ease a newcomer's reservations about Whangarei after dark.
A poet who picked a spot outside a pub at midnight to air his critique of his home's social ills made headlines in 2005.
A group of eight youths, thought to have been no older than 14, took exception to Peter Larsen's verses which included the line; "Whangarei hurry up and punch me in the face so we can be mates."
To his apparent surprise the youths obeyed and bashed him before making off with his lady friend's jacket.
"It was like art was reflecting reality and reality was reflecting art," Larsen later observed to reporters.
Six summers later I snared a job at the bar where the poet had had his violent encounter.
Each day, the old punters would shuffle in and count out coins on to the counter in return for the right to nurse a pint for hours. I was a captive audience for their insights: Don't fish in the harbour. Chicks shouldn't park on Robert St at night. Mind you check the tides before you drive up 90 Mile Beach. It's not 90 miles - it was measured by a bloke on a bloody horse.
Once, I served a celebratory whisky to a man with blackened teeth who said he'd just been released from Ngawha Prison - assault and battery, some drugs too. Not P though - "I never touched that shit," he said, flashing a rotten grin.
Often, a friendly face would attract unwanted attention. Phone numbers on napkins and business cards went straight into the bin. But every so often a hopeful suitor surprised me.
I told a ranger of my fascination with the story of Mt Manaia steeped in Maori mythology, which looms like a dark sentry over Whangarei's west. He suggested that he escort me for a tour up the mountain complete with historical accounts and a picnic date at its summit. I regretfully declined and he promised he would return next week to ask again. He never came back.
As night fell, my visitors would vacate their bar stools for warm young bodies. They spilled in, laughing and embracing, eyes gleaming with the alcohol that already coursed through their veins.
The girls tottered past the bar and into the bathrooms in packs. They would return a little more unstable on their stilettos to eye up the young labourers flexing their ropy forearms.
The orders came thick and fast. Whisky, please. Tequila! Hold the lemon.
Ten dollars was all it cost for a Jagerbomb in Whangarei. A bargain, compared with the city, for the magical concoction that gives young men everywhere courage to make breaks across the dance floor to where their targets gyrate to Rihanna.
Quick reflexes allowed me to body block the enterprising souls who lunged across the countertop to help themselves to a complimentary pint.
But I wasn't quick enough the time the bar erupted into an all- out brawl. I spun around to face the fracas and felt a breeze whoosh past my left shoulder. To my admiration, my more experienced colleague had vaulted the bar in one leap and disappeared into the middle of a boiling mass of fists and flat peak caps to negotiate peace.
As the evening wound down, he would disappear to cash up and I would be left to eject the couples pashing in dark corners. Mopping floors sticky with Jagermeister would have been more efficient if it weren't for the 3am stragglers - "you got a boyfriend?" - and the mascara-streaked broken-hearted who needed coaxing out of the gutter outside and into taxis. "I'm sure he'll text back.
"Please put your shirt back on."
SOON, I was running the bar. The first time it happened I assumed the owner had vanished home for the evening. Instead, I found him asleep at a table in a dark corner with his head on one hand, the other wrapped around a beer bottle.
As it turned out, my courageous colleague had quit, and the bar was broke.
Each night my employer would sink into a Steinlager-fuelled funk and I would be left alone to entertain the punters.
Help soon quietly arrived as bars around town lent their staff.
A tattooed Maori giant began appearing on the door each evening. He bounced sleazeballs and drunkards in exchange for free access to the bar and became something of a bodyguard and drinking companion.
But word got around and business began to dry up. By Christmas time, we had closed the doors and mopped up the last of the Jagermeister.
I was sorry that the bar had lost its battle but in those two months I had wasted no time growing familiar with my new home.
My friends and I toured Northland in my little green Mitsubishi Mirage, and explored its waters by kayak.
We glimpsed a shark at Onerahi as I paddled back from the ruins of Limestone Island, and climbed the trees overlooking Parua Bay's sun-bleached baches. We imagined settlers taking in the views at breathtaking Waitangi for the first time, ate the world famous fish and chips at Mangonui, and slept on Matapouri beach. We marvelled at New Zealand's biggest kauri tree and stopped in a boarded up town, empty but for someone's itinerant horse.
We used the Hundertwasser toilets at Kawakawa, left doughnut shapes and strawberries in the sand at 90 Mile Beach and slept in wind-battered tents at the tip of the North Island - then paid our respects to Hundertwasser again on the way home.
We disturbed nesting cormorants on a kayak trip to uncover 19th-century graves in overgrown forest, and bathed in the sulphuric stench of Ngawha's mineral hot springs in the river beneath the prison.
I had even been there to count the votes at election time as Northland's prodigal son, Hone Harawira, slid into victory for Tai Tokerau and the political lens spun to focus for a time on the Far North.
Before I left, I finally picked my way up Mt Manaia's jagged outline with a friend.
The second time I climbed it, I stood alone on its angry, triple- turreted crown to take in Northland on a cloudless day.
From 420 metres above sea level I could see Whangarei's modest port guarded by lines of yachts. Over the hill Onerahi's mangrove fringe traced across the shoreline to the Marsden Point coal refinery in the northeast.
I attempted to pinpoint the pristine beaches I had bathed on, nestled in coves alien to the tourist's tongue - Ngunguru, Tutukaka, Whananaki.
I had just turned to start the trek downhill when I spotted a lonely shoe lodged on a precipitous ledge. I wondered at the fate of its wretched owner. Maybe he or she had leapt to another world. Or perhaps, like me, he had returned to Whangarei's warm embrace, but with just one shoe.
The Dominion Post