When we set off in the morning, we didn’t know where we’d end up, but I certainly didn’t expect to find the Swamp Palace so soon! After cruising along the highway, we were enticed by a sign to explore more of the countryside, and this split-second decision made the day wonderful.

I was hoping for a memorable sunrise over the water at our beach-front location at Matauri Bay, but Friday dawned grey and rainy. We headed off after cooking breakfast in the camp kitchen and drove along the highway, heading for Cape Reinga.

On the way, we stopped at Mangonui to sample the chips at a renowned fish and chips shop on the water. The rain was starting to ease when we sat in the restaurant and tucked into our chips. The seagulls twisted in the air currents outside our window, and sheltered under the restaurant’s eaves.

As we continued to drive west — our destination was the northern cape — but a sign to the Bush Fairy Dairy sent us south again.

The Bush Fairy Dairy is a convenience store started in 2002 as a cooperative venture between eleven locals. Their vision was to make organic produce available locally. Although it’s not a particularly profitable business — sales dropped dramatically after the Bush Fairy Dairy made a deliberate decision to cease stocking tobacco and cigarettes — locals do rely on the shop for purchases, and it attracts a certain number of tourist to the back route.

Bush Fairy Dairy, March 2011
The Bush Fairy Dairy is a friendly local convenience store with an emphasis on organic and locally-sourced produce.

We spent a long time carefully browsing through the little store before David selected some spices and we all enjoyed an ice cream. When we drove away, it was with a bit of regret as the Bush Fairy Dairy looked like a good place to hang out.

We headed down the road, following the signs to the Nocturnal Park where we hoped to see the New Zealand national bird in captivity. However, the little kiwi proved to be more elusive than that — the park was closed, permanently.

So it was raining, we’d been in the truck most of the day, and it would be great to be somewhere undercover where the kids could play. At the Bush Fairy Dairy we saw signs advertising a fairy festival in a local hall the next day, and we decided to head to the hall to wait out the rain and attend the festival in the morning.

At Oruru Hall — which also doubles as the famous Swamp Palace — a man was working when we arrived. As we pulled up, he poked his head out the door and declared, “I’m not officially open, but you can come in and browse in my second-hand shop if you like!”

Ian Sharples, karate expert, March 2011
Ian calls his shop "Swamp Junk" and keeps very irregular opening hours, so we were blessed to have arrived at the same time as he was here!

We were delighted to move out of the truck and into the hall. David and I found some interesting bits and pieces in the shop — an old slide rule, some handles for within the truck, a grinder and a red jacket for me. While we were browsing, Calista and Aisha played in the main hall — running off all their childish energy on the floorboards.

Aisha and Calista playing in the Swamp Palace, March 2011
In the main hall, our girls played with new toys from the junk shop, making them dance and perform for the imaginary audience.

Ian is a very friendly proprietor. He’s trained with many karate masters and goes by the titles of Sensei and Renshi — he’s reached 4th Dan status, and so I was very careful to be polite. He generously showed us around and shared the history of the hall — how it was originally built in Whangarei and was floated around by barge to Cable Bay where it served to house the workers who laid New Zealand’s first submarine telecommunications cable in the ocean. Later, half of the building was taken to Russell to be a hotel, and the other half was floated upstream and then dragged by bullocks and sleds to its current location.

Swamp Palace, March 2011
Many old movie posters are on display around the hall.

The Swamp Palace was an eccentric local’s cinema for many years and now provides a local venue for community events and some international musical acts. While we were camping at Tauranga Bay, I had first heard about the Swamp Palace from Colin who told me that Sanders Alley Geiling would be performing here in April.

It was late in the day when we finally said good-bye to Ian. Because the Swamp Palace is our destination tomorrow, we’ll just spend the night outside in the truck. It’s good be self-contained because we can stay anywhere, anytime!