For our introduction to New Zealand, we didn’t want to head straight to the cities, but instead wanted to check out life in the more rural regions first. We decided to volunteer on a small, family-owned vineyard in Hawke’s Bay–New Zealand’s second biggest wine region.
We contacted the family online through Workaway and took a mutual leap of faith for the rewards of cultural exchange and learning something new. I don’t know who we envisioned to be waiting for us on that brisk September evening as our driver pulled up to the quiet bus stop in Havelock North, but we almost walked past the man with the scruffy, white beard.
“You must be Filip and Josalin,” he calls out to us. We stop and turn, a bit confused.
I’d spoken to a “Ben” through Workaway’s site, which pairs willing volunteers with farmers and small business owners who need a helping hand. But this man introduces himself as Morton. Later in Morton’s car, as we drive through empty roads lined with vineyards and orchards, he reveals that he is Ben’s father. The vineyard that we’re driving toward, which has been around since 1980, was Morton’s brainchild and baby. A psychologist and schoolteacher, Morton never pursued winemaking as a full-time profession, but a passionate hobby.
He tells us the name of the vineyard — Akarangi. “It’s Maori for ‘vine of the heavens,'” Morton explains.
“It’s beautiful,” I say, excited by my first encounter with the sound of Maori, another language to explore.
The next morning, we meet Ben, but not before sharing a cup of coffee with the neighbor who’s stopped by on his way to work at the local school. Of course, after finding out I’m American, the conversation catapults into curious questions about the upcoming election. I oblige, but deflect the hard ones and switch the conversation to wine.
“So, Ben, what have you got planned for us today?”
“Let me show you around,” he says, pulling himself from his leaned stance against the doorway, sunglasses perched on the bridge of his nose and a mug of coffee in hand. Outside he shows us the endless rows of vines, nothing but curly, bare twigs in the off-season. But their quantity brings forth images of abundant grapes and heaps of wine barrels that surely once were.
Ben shows us the tractors we will spend the rest of the week gleefully maneuvering through the rows of vines. Operating these machines was a first for both Filip and me, and needless to say, we were excited to drive them.
Next, Ben shows us his professional-grade coffee grinder, roaster, and espresso machine, the knowledge of which makes Filip the happiest farmer in Hawke’s Bay. We’ll spend our (long) afternoon breaks chatting over lattes that Filip prepares dutifully and ceremoniously for us each day. Over the week, Ben tells us more about the wine industry and his life as an expat in Australia, where he learned the commercial-side of running a winery and vineyard. His dream is to use what he’s learned to make Akarangi a successful business.
We spend most of our days pruning, removing dead vines, and cleaning up the clutter left behind from the last harvest and years of negligence. Morton started Akarangi decades ago, but time passed and life got in the way, so the vineyard fell out of use and into disarray.
But Ben is intent to revive it, bringing life back to the project his father started. One day he hopes to sell wine to locals and tourists passing by his parents’ property, which is conveniently located on a popular bike path that connects other vineyards and wineries in the region.
When Ben was young, his parents bought a church and had it relocated to their land (a common venture in New Zealand). They expanded their house by adding on the church, which was to be used as a new playroom for Ben and his three siblings. Now that the children are all grown, Ben wants to use the space for his burgeoning winery. Morton has already begun the preparation, refinishing the floors and replacing the original stained glass windows with stained glass art of his own – native birds from New Zealand.
We spend most of our nights indulging in a hearty meal, each one delicious no matter the cook. After dinner, we taste the wine, chat about the differences and similarities in our cultures, try to teach Ben Czech, or challenge his mom Vivian to a game of Yahtzee. Our time at Akarangi taught us our first lesson about Kiwi culture – both the land and its people are generous.
This is my fourth experience volunteering with local families using the sites WWOOF and Workaway. For an authentic, inexpensive, educational experience, I can’t recommend these sites enough. If you’d like to know more about my experiences in Thailand, click here or here. If you’d like to read about my experience volunteering on a farm in Le Mans, France, click here.