We don't always walk. Sometimes we just stand. We might wave our feet a bit and there may be some mad dashes to find shelter--or the toilets-- but not a lot of ground gets covered. Still, at the end of the day we feel like we walked and sink gratefully into the couch in front of the fire, with a glass of that nice sauvignon blanc in hand, the rain outside where it belongs.
And so it was at this year's Russell (New Zealand, Bay of Islands) Birdman Weekend Extravaganza. Russell is, as Kiwis lushly say about views, friendships,hugs and small children--gorgeous. A small village accessible most easily by a small car ferry Opua to Okiato, it is summer home to money, yachts and high end "cottage" rentals.
It's winter now and off season rentals are a steal, which is why we are cozily ensconced with our children and their three, four- and- unders, in a gorgeous villa with a side of honeymoon cottage overlooking Russell Harbor. Warm fires, porridge for breakfast, a ride on the high speed Mac Attack to the wave shattering Hole in the Rock, and we are in love.
Serendipitously it is Birdman Weekend. Friday evening kicks it all off with the Drag Queen Race where local teachers, electricians, fishermen and solid citizens sport high heels and feathers to race along the pier to a series of mini challenges which end at the pub. The day leading to the race, we are told down at the hardware and the pharmacy and the Four Square grocery that it's all in aid of the schools but, (a certain amount of foot shuffling here) of course the contestants are doing it for the laugh, all hearty blokes' blokes. Har har. The race happens as the winter day starts dropping into darkness--a swishy saunter down the pier, through the obstacles, much laughter, local crowd and everyone back to the pub, although I note that several of the contestants seem loath to remove their costumes and there is much arch toe pointing and leg flashing.
The weather--is winter in July, which even here in "sub tropical" Bay of Islands is not warm-and the sea is more than chilly. Although the week has been warm, sunny days, Friday night is expected to bring in a storm. A big storm. We keep festive umbrellas at hand along with softer than soft fleece Katmandhu caps and scarves. It's not raining yet--but the very nice Scottish couple who are caretaking our holiday home tell us somberly that the prospects are poor. The weather is expected to be worse than predicted. As we are neophytes here, we have no idea what that means, until a freight train wind tells us somewhere around midnight, that the roof is trying to fly off. The fireplace is full of rain, and the squalls are enough to send three year old Elena straight back to Massachusetts at about the same speed as an Air New Zealand 747 had we not held her very, very tightly.
If we had been home in rain date America, tomorrow would have been canceled; and we listen mockingly to the locals at the pier saying the show will go on--but it does. The Russell Birdman Festival has to be one of the most honorable do or die extravaganzas anywhere outside of Australia. It pours. It gales. People come. Everyone is soaked within ten minutes but no one cares. The littles line up with wet hats and scarves and umbrellas whipped inside -out by the wind and we all watch as contestants saunter down the pier to their own music-walk the gangplank-and jump in. Gorgeous.
High school wet- suited divers await underwater for mishap (the Pope takes longer to surface than is entirely comfortable for the crowd) and a small fleet of fishing boats and motorized dinghies escort the leapers to shore. Betty and Wilma (Flintstone) toss in their foot-mobile before jumping--and the local St John's Ambulance sacrifices an inflatable patient. Birdman him/herself runs mysteriously, neatly and swiftly, before arcing cleanly into the harbor and swimming back to shore. Drama and laughter combine with the music and the ingenious announcer to create an ambiance of fun and adventure despite the drenching rains, gale force winds and sea of umbrellas.
The littles, wet, but satiated by the hot sausages from one of the family stalls under the overhang (home-made sausage wrapped in white bread with a big splat of Heinz ketchup that tastes gorgeous, but leaves trails of bloody ketchup to be hosed off by the rain) stay until the very cool all -the- way -from-Auckland thumbs-up Funky Monkeys get down at the Pub Around the Corner where the adults drink beer (or sav blanc) and refreshingly hang out in back, refraining from the New American Parent need to pretend that they too, are four.
Later that night, back at the pub with a pool cue and a beer, I try to pry--who IS Birdman? The Maori bar tender (he was the cute one in that fabulous red frock in the drag queen race)-- says his lips are sealed --it's the village secret, and tries not to let his eyes stray towards anyone in that huge happy group by the fire.