This year, 2019, saw the Hokitika wildfoods festival celebrate its 30th anniversary, and Cindy Fleming from Destination Westland told me they were well on track to sell the anticipated 10,000 tickets. “And just look at the weather,” she enthused, pointing to the bright skies.
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While waiting for the festival to open, I visited one of the town’s iconic businesses, Hokitika Sock World. I’d bought their hardwearing socks in the past; they’re warm, colourful, long-lasting, and being ribbed they don’t fall around your ankles. Manager Jacquie said she started the business as a hobby, but once interested she really got into developing products. She’d begun by making parts for sock machines and then about 20 years ago, started making the machines themselves. Initially she advertised online with 10 machines available for sale. The whole lot pre-sold overnight and gave Jacquie the funds to set up the business, which has expanded to spinning, dyeing, and selling wool and woollen goods including the vibrantly coloured socks I wanted. Jacquie says the construction and the quality of the 19-micron merino wool fibre is fundamental to the socks. She starts off with natural-coloured fibre that is spun to her own recipe. one she’s refined over the years, then she dyes each batch. No two pairs of socks are the same.
Jacquie now makes a couple of hundred machines per year, has sold thousands over the years, with wool and sock sales adding another dimension to the business. Sock World has the largest collection of circular sock machines in the world. “Not bad for a geriatric pensioner,” Jacquie laughs. She said that while the festival is on it’s quiet for retailers, “but the overall picture is that it’s a huge promotional opportunity for Hokitika that puts it on the map. I’ll probably shut the shop early and see you down there later,” she concluded.
Westland Mayor Bruce Smith agrees that the festival’s great for Hokitika. Wearing his Boss Hogg suit and clutching a purple plush porcine companion, he was mayor of Feral County for the day. “The biggest thing about this event is that 60 community groups can raise all the funds they require for one year, on the one day. It’s a better approach to fundraising than selling raffles and cutting firewood, and the whole day is based right here in Hokitika. Outside of Westgold butter the festival is our biggest brand, and a BERL report has shown that it contributes $6.5 million per annum in terms of economic development.” Bruce went on to pay tribute to Mike Keenan who had run the event for 21 years. “Mike said he went to mass to sort out the weather and it worked,” he joked.
About 40 years ago my husband worked in a portable sawmill near Whangarei for a chap called Ivan Macmillan. Ivan was a staunch West Coaster, and his business (Atarau Timber Company) was named after his home place on the Coast. Ivan was an interesting guy who’d been a pilot and a prisoner of war in Korea, where his abiding memory was of having to eat rotten rice. Although sometimes challenging to be around, he had a myriad of life experiences and could tell a great yarn. Someone had actually begun writing a book about his life – he’d called it ‘Sawdust in my Flying Boots’ – and from time to time I’ve wondered whatever happened to that draft. Anyway, in his later years (he died in the late 1990s) Ivan was determined to return to his roots and equally determined to play his piano accordion in the Kokotahi band, so he came down to Camerons near Greymouth and fulfilled his ambition to play the squeezebox in the band that has been playing for more than a century.
So, it was with some nostalgia, as well as personal enjoyment that we watched and listened to the band, smartly turned out in red shirts and white trousers, black neckerchiefs and bowyangs tied below the knees, regaling us with music from earlier times. Belting out Scotland the Brave, Roll out the Barrel, Happy Days are Here Again and many other old standards, had the listeners swaying and singing in time to the music.
The band was one of several entertainers; others included the local country-music club, the NZ Army Band, and those perennial favourites the Topp Twins who impressed with their willingness to pose for photos with festival visitors.
As for food, there were huhu bugs (produced by axe-wielding blokes chopping up logs to retrieve the hidden critters), all sorts of pork including snouts, nipples and more, chicken feet, deer semen shooters, and mountain oysters. Having previously enjoyed Chatham Island pāua patties, they were a must, as were the cheese rolls – I’m not sure how they were defined in terms of ‘wildness’ but they’re a South Island staple – and they were certainly enjoyed by many, if the long line of punters was anything to go by. There were snails, there was moonshine, and the large crowd certainly entered into the spirit of the occasion with fashions that ranged from fairies to feral. The feral fashion show was great entertainment.
All in all it was a memorable day, helped along by good organisation, excellent weather and a good-natured crowd. We didn’t stay for the evening celebrations, which included a bonfire on the beach. I wasn’t game to try the more outlandish food on offer, but so many people were being dared – or daring themselves – to take the risk, that that in itself was great entertainment.