Our year of work and travel in New Zealand had come to an end, as all good things tend to do. It was time to pick up the loose ends and get ready to move somewhere else. One loose end was Bernie, our trusty van, which we had to sell.
Now this task can be a cause for major stress for the odd backpacker, because depending on the season, there is no buyer’s market. So if you had arrived in spring and went on to buy a vehicle, you found prices to be rising and when you had an appointment to see a car, the vendor might have called you an hour before to tell you that he just sold the car to the guy who had the appointment before you.
If you now had gotten the impression it would be “easy as” to resell your vehicle after your trip, you would be up for a nasty surprise, if you were trying to resell in fall/winter.
Because that is the season when there aren’t any backpackers yet who would buy it. So you have to either hang around or sell your car for a price that makes you cry for one week straight.
Luckily, we didn’t have a flight booked anywhere yet, so there wasn’t a deadline. It was July, and we knew we probably had to be a bit patient. We would be selling Bernie in Auckland, but we had no interest in staying there, so we chose a tiny town with a communal campsite at the beach as our base for the time being. It was a half an hour drive away from Auckland and very much to our liking.
We cleaned Bernie thoroughly, got her a new certificate for road worthiness, bought her a new tire, took flattering shots of her shiny assets, wrote a wooing description and put up ads all over the Internet.
Nothing happened. Not on the day we published the ads, not the next day, not the day after. We waited. Read books. Browsed the Internet. Did some dreadlock maintenance. Watched series on the computer. Walked the beach. Got to know the regulars at the mostly empty campsite.
Well, there were only two, actually, and they weren’t even always there. There was Ted, the nicest surfer on the planet, and Harry, who was in his fifties, and who told amazing stories about his life without ever revealing too much about himself. The only thing that wasn’t mysterious but very obvious about him, was that he liked to drink.
Although the four of us didn’t necessarily have much in common in real life, we enjoyed bumping into each other and chatting about all sorts of things.
One thing that I couldn’t get my head around with Harry was how he took long walks on the beach. When we got up in the morning, he usually had already been walking for a few hours. That totally wasn’t like him. He was active, alright, but he wasn’t the sort of person who would walk just for the sake of it, or to stay fit, or to enjoy the beauty of the breaking day.
One afternoon I finally asked him what he was doing out there. He took a sharp look at me, as if he was trying to figure out if and how much he could trust me, hesitated a moment, and eventually spilled the beans. Moving a bit closer, he said, with a slightly lowered voice and very confidentially: “I am looking for Ambergris!”.
This revelation did apparently not have the desired awe-inspiring effect on Laurence and me, as we had no idea what the hell he was talking about. Amber-what?
Harry sighed, and began to explain: Ambergris was a waxy substance produced by sperm whales which finds its way to the outside world mainly by the whale vomiting. Laurence thought about this. “So you’re essentially saying you’re looking for… whale barf?”, he asked. Harry nodded: “I guess you could say that.”. Then he added the more relevant information: Ambergris was extremely valuable – we are talking 70,000 NZD for a kilogram. He told us the stories of people who had found Ambergris and made millions.
We got a bit more excited: and you could find it here, on this beach? Harry nodded again. Due to the current of the sea and the whale migration, this was a good spot to keep an open eye. He showed us some greyish blobs he had found of which he thought they might be Ambergris. He was going to take them to an expert to have them evaluated, he said, because he himself had never actually seen Ambergris.
We went back to Bernie and did some research on the Internet. All that Harry had said was true. The only thing the Internet remained fairly vague on was what the bloody stuff looked like. The various existing descriptions seemed to contradict each other and the only sure thing we could make out was that it was not going to be obvious. Oh well. We had already decided that we might as well try to become millionaires if we were walking the beach twice a day anyway.
The next day we went for our walk, our eyes glued to the sandy ground. Since we didn’t really know what the Ambergris would look like, we picked up a lot of promising looking blobs, but most of them were bits of tar, or rubbish. Of course there was this brilliant moment when Loz got all excited, bent down to pick something up, and shoved it triumphantly under my nose.
“I think that’s old dog poo, though”, I stated after giving it a close look.
“Oh.”, said Loz, looking at his hand.
“I don’t think I want to hold your hand anymore now”, I carefully broke the news to him after an appropriate pause.
This was probably my favourite moment from our mission to find Ambergris, since the other favourite moment, you know, the one where we actually found this massive lump of it, didn’t really happen.
You would have thought that we could have found something else, like ancient coins of a pirate treasure washed ashore or something, but no.
Still, every other night we would sit together with Harry and discuss it all, kindling our motivation so the next day we would be ready to go out again, absorbed in our quest and unresponsive to the rugged beauty of the beach.
Then came the day when someone finally emailed us to buy Bernie, and we had to face the fact that we had to leave the beach without having found Ambergris. Even worse, we still had no clue what the darn stuff actually looked like.
We had found some blobs that we weren’t sure about – they might have been Ambergris -, and when we said goodbye to Ted and Harry, we gave our remaining food supplies that we wouldn’t use anymore to Ted, and the blobs we handed over to the trusted hands of Harry, who looked sombre. It was all very serious. From now on, he would have to go on without us again, keeping the secret cause for his beach walking to himself.
Until I wrote this blog post, that is. Sorry, Harry.
I wonder if he ever found any Ambergris, but if he did, I’m sure he would not be the kind of person who would tell it to the newspapers, so there’s no way of finding out.
Who would have known that walking the beach can make you a millionaire? I’ll keep my eyes open. And if I don’t find whale barf gold, but you do, and it’s only after reading this post, you will have to show me what the bloody stuff looks like, okay? Of course you can also buy me a house on the Bahamas, if you want to, but really, that’s up to you.
Seriously, has anyone here ever heard of Ambergris? If you google it now, do so at your own risk. We got quite obsessed, and our beach walks lost a lot of quality – in fact, they started to feel like work. And working to become a millionaire – I mean: that’s just ridiculous! So go walk the beach, look for treasures, don’t get too serious and try to avoid the dog poo. I think that’s really my most valid tip here, folks – the dog poo thing is a bit of a downer.
My second tip is that you could carry a plastic bag and collect some rubbish while you’re out there. It will make you feel good, I promise. And I’m pretty sure it ups your whale-barf-finding-karma, too. Oh, and should you be looking for Ambergris in New Zealand and you happen to run into Harry, say hi from Loz and Vera! That’s all, really. From here on, it’s all up to you – best of luck!
There are 8 comments on this post
Please scroll to the end to leave a comment
Brad Harford says
Hi all I go up muriwai every day or so looking for ambergris and drift wood.The best place to look is about 25ks Mark near the top of the beach.lots of stuff gets washed in here.
Laurence Norah says
Good luck Brad! It’s a beautiful beach to have as your hunting ground 😀
This was a hilarious post! I think I’ve heard of ambergris once before on Vancouver Island as well. Didn’t go searching for it though I believe someone was on a casual lookout for them. Maybe next time you guys!
Laurence Norah says
Loved this post! It very much sums up travel generally – a lot more waiting around than you expect, random chats with hopefully wonderfully weird people, and joy in the adventure of searching for a something you’re not quite sure of.
Laurence Norah says
That was pretty much it!
Update: I’ve asked my wwoofing hosts about it and the lady says she used to find it sometimes as a kid. She says it’s a whitish grey color and looks kind of like it’s in casing and like hard custard (I think was the comparison) and it comes in fairly sizeable globs (like two hands worth sometimes). If that helps round out your visual at all.
Laurence Norah says
Thanks very much! We never found any significant quantities unfortunately 🙁 Maybe you’ll have better luck!