I should have known better than to ask him along as an observer during his visit to New Zealand. Pete “Gibbo” Gibson was always a loose cannon. Good bloke, he’d always have your back, but he was different. Probably undiagnosed, but definitely somewhere along the autism spectrum. Like cats… and most of us. Pete had been my mate from primary school days on the North Coast of NSW, that endless and carefree expanse of our lives. A period packed with collecting birds’ eggs, making catapults and billy carts, building cubbies by the river, lighting fires under a billy full of spuds, wrecking other kids’ cubbies. It was an exciting time in our lives, made even more interesting by Pete’s quirkiness. With the rear-vision bestowed by adulthood, I can recognize quirkiness now, but as a kid, Pete just “did funny stuff”, and funny stuff was currency for 11 year olds.
I’d been teaching in Taranaki for just over 5 years, having met a kiwi girl from New Plymouth in London, then following her back to New Zealand. I stayed even after the romance fizzled out. One of my teaching requisites was to engage in Taha Maori, which means “things Maori”. Seems weird having an Aussie teaching Maori culture and language to 32 kiwi kids, a third of whom were maori. But I was into it, all it takes is a little patience and a lot of cultural enthusiasm. Eventually I wangled an invite to a hui (conference) in Wellington which involved a 4 day, 3 night stay on the Wainuiomata marae. A maori marae is a courtyard outside a carved meeting house used for social occasions or ceremonies such as funerals. The highlight for me would be the welcome onto the marae and the invitation into the wharenui (big house) followed by the ceremony where I would be accepted as tangata whenua (people of the land) rather than just observing a ceremony for tourists or visitors. These events are very solemn occasions, requiring trust and respect, and it would be a pinnacle of my New Zealand experience.
I drove north from my home in the small dairying town of Opunake and skirted around the brooding snow capped summit of Mt Taranaki before arriving at New Plymouth airport an hour later. Gibbo’s plane from Auckland had already landed. I hadn’t seen him for probably ten years, and our reunion in the arrivals lounge felt like a noisy mugging. He rabbited on non-stop and the enormous dark bushy beard framing his face darted around like a trapped possum. In the main, I’d found New Zealanders a little more socially constrained than Aussies until their third tin of DB lager. The sideways glances of other waiting passengers caused me to second-guess whether Gibbo was going to be able to meet the expected protocols and etiquettes of a marae visit, even though he was just an observer.
After a raucous ninety minutes in the waiting lounge, comparing paths in our lives and mining snippets of info from each other about friends in common, our flight was announced. Air New Zealand’s flight from New Plymouth to Wellington was only a short hop of less than an hour in a 36 seat puddle jumper. Strapped in, we were soon taxiing. Gibbo’s loud and animated yabbering throughout the safety briefing earned a dark look and furrowed brow from the cabin attendant, but Gibbo was oblivious. The thrust from the twin props yanked us backwards in our seats and we were soon being buffeted in the air. After banking around the volcanic cone of Mt Taranaki, we began tracking southwards.
As soon as the seat belt sign was switched off, Gibbo made a beeline for the loo at the front of the plane. A brief moment later he emerged wearing a Wallabies rugby jersey, then he stopped at the front of the aisle and eyeballed all the passengers. I was stunned. What the hell was he doing? My 5 years in the shaky isles taught me that rugby is a religion in New Zealand. It’s the game played in heaven. Members of the All Blacks are revered, and the All Black Captain is virtually a demi-god. Gibbo completed an arrogant 10 second stare-down of all the kiwi passengers before loudly proclaiming, “Ladies and gentlemen, this is a service announcement for all passengers. Air New Zealand would like to remind you that the Wallabies recently defeated the All Blacks on your home soil. Just in case it had slipped your minds. Thank you for your attention.”
Constrained by my seatbelt, I tried to frantically slide further down into my seat. There was an initial stunned silence then a few inward sucks of breath. Eventually a sharp rebuke of, “Sit down you tosser,” crackled through the PA. It was the cabin attendant. A howl of cheers from other passengers supported the cabin attendant’s demand. Gibbo stood defiantly with a silly grin on his face, until a prop-forward sized Polynesian man, replete with tribal tattoos on his bare arms, wandered down to Gibbo and whispered in his ear. Gibbo’s grin quickly slid off his face and he skulked back to his seat beside me. I pretended not to know him as the twitching beard leaned in and asked, “Don’t the kiwis have a sense of humour?”
The passenger across the aisle tapped Gibbo’s arm and asked, “Eh, bro, what should you throw to a drowning Aussie?”
“Dunno… what?” sulked Gibbo.
And the kiwi replied, “His wife and kids.”