THE petrol-pump attendant fixed me with an intense yet somehow vacant stare, and shuffled across the deserted forecourt. .Aha! You must be here for the Wildfoods Festival,' he said. I had no idea what he was talking about but I've seen Invasion of the Body Snatchers and I wasn't taking any chances. 'Yes, of course — and some petrol, thanks.' I smiled nervously and, prising the change from his hand, hopped back into the safety of the car.
By the time we got to Greymouth, a small town on the west coast of New Zealand's South Island, it had become more than unnerving how many people had repeated the wildfood thing. Plus, for the first time, my friend Annabel and I were experiencing problems trying to find a room for the night, and it was getting dark.
'Maybe we'll find something in the town centre,' I muttered, looking up and down the empty road. Annabel studied the map. 'This is the town centre,' she said. We had obviously missed the alien invasion; everyone had already been snatched.
It turned out that they were actually all in their beds, because the only two empty ones left in town were in a pub dormitory: a sort of youth hostel with booze. Downstairs in the bar we met a chippy called Pete. He gripped a stool to stop himself falling over, and told us that on no account should we miss the Wildfoods Festival. It wasn't just the food, he said, with a knowing but somewhat ill-focused look. Strewth, no! He lost his grip on the stool for a moment, but managed not to spill his beer. It wasn't just the food; there was going to be a barn dance as well! And that was going to be followed by a rave on the beach! Annabel and I looked at each other. This seemed too good to be true: we'd been told to expect two things in New Zealand, both fuelled by drinking — lots of throwing up and lots of fighting. We hadn't seen either yet. 'Thousands of people will be there,' said Pete. 'And the Beach Boys are playing. You can't miss that, eh?' Too right. We set our alarm early to heat the crowds.
The Wildfoods Festival in Hokitika is the Kiwi version of a huge village fete, except that it's all about gourmet bushtucker rather than homemade cakes and marmalade. It started on a small scale in 1990 and is now the biggest event on the South Island, with the local population of 4,000 swelling to 20,000, and people from all over the world attending — this year it was even rumoured that a television crew from England was coming.
We left Greymouth early the next morning for the 25-mile drive to Hokitika. By the time we arrived at 9 a.m., the place was crammed with camper vans and cars, and tents had been erected on every spare patch of ground. We parked and headed for a cashpoint machine. The long queue was lined with empty beer bottles. 'You girls have got to try the mountain oysters.' said someone, trying to suppress a smile. But we had already been warned about those particular delicacies by a kindly barmaid. 'We're not too keen on that testicledipping sauce that they come with.' I said, before everybody fell about laughing.
The main site of the festival turned out to be a mini-Glastonbury, except that it was sunny and no one offered us drugs. Masses of people milled around the stalls outside and under marquees, beneath brightly illustrated banners advertising things like Westcargots" — a speciality, apparently, composed of indigenous snails in white wine, collected from local gardens by Girl Guides. We began gently, with emu souvlaki and plum sauce, followed by ostrich kebabs — not particularly adventurous, but certainly delicious.
The variety of foods on offer was astounding, ranging from the wild — tarnbi burgers', boar, crocodile, shark, camel, etc. — to the wildly insane — possum meat, gumboot milkshakes and sphagnum-moss candyfloss. The atmosphere, typically Kiwi, was extremely friendly; but the pressure sometimes got quite intense with everyone watching to see how a Porn reacted to earthworm sushi slipping down her throat. Actually, worms were a good choice — having no exoskeleton, at least they weren't crunchy.
Huhu grubs were just as challenging. They look like well-fed maggots, and were offered speared and wriggling on the end of a toothpick. Most people seemed to walk around holding their toothpicks as far away from their mouths as possible and high in the air, like lighters at a Crowded House concert. If you couldn't stomach the live huhus, you could always try the chocolate-coated or barbecued variety. In the swing of things now, we went for a selection of wines, including rose-petal (rather like granny's bath water, but less acidic) and gorse (a bit like tequila, but worse). We drew the line at waiting in the queue to have moonshine squirted down our throats through a plastic tube.
Kiwis are very proud of their food, and with good reason. Everything we tried was surprisingly tasty, and I didn't gag once, although I have to admit that I boycotted the stall advertising 'pony patties' (accompanied by a slice of bread and a dash of horseradish sauce) — hypocritical, perhaps, but there's nothing wrong with being a selective carnivore. The entire event was a celebration of anything and everything that could be eaten. If it moved, it was there. If it didn't, it was probably there too. And it was all nutritious and fresh. Indeed, at the 'Crouching grasshopper, hidden peanut' stall the grasshoppers were still hopping about in their glass tank, unaware that life was about to end in a samosa or vodka jelly.
With all this wild food and drink, I was glad to note the presence of lots of ambulance staff and free water (you could also choose to pay for 'glacial chilled spring water dripped into a cup straight from huge lumps of glacier ice melting in the sunshine). And, of course, there were plenty of dunnies (I later read that local service stations ran out of loo paper and that one unfortunate 'out-of-towner visiting a garage at 6 a.m. . . . was advised . . . that "they should have used both sides" ').
Later in the afternoon we went back into the town for a bit of a breather. The streets were strewn with rubbish from overflowing bins, and there were people sitting or lying in every shop doorway. The supermarket looked as if it was being looted — those still able to stand peered over huge crates of beer cradled in their arms as they stumbled out into the road. Even the staff kept rushing up to suggest which brands to buy before loading you up with another crate. The beach was already littered with bodies and, occasionally, a naked man rushed past, somersaulting into the crashing (freezing) surf. There were plenty of fires to warm up by afterwards, dotted all along the beach.
Then it was time for the legendary barn dance. It turned out that you had to pay separately for the Beach Boys, who were in a rugby arena next door, The hoedown sounded more our style. We weren't disappointed: Hawaiian shirts, Crocodile Dundee hats, and a big plastic beaker of beer in every hand. We never saw Pete the chippy again, but we did see projectile vomiting of quite extraordinary skill and range. Then all we had to do was find a fight.