It’s eight hours since my last cup of tea, and I’m willing to swill just about anything.
The plan – to have afternoon tea in Waimate North on our way north – is failing spectacularly.
The olde world tearoom near the Mission House that my beloved remembers from three decades ago has closed down.
It’s a bit after 3pm when we get there and discover our mistake. Lunch seems a long time ago. But ever intrepid, we cut across towards State Highway 10, confident there’ll be a cafe around Kerikeri or Waipapa.
Clearly, we’ve forgotten the lesson of last summer, when we couldn’t find breakfast on the main road around Kerikeri. By now we’re not fussy; it’s more than eight hours since I last had tea, and I’m willing to swill just about anything.
We pull off the road into at a couple of spots claiming to be cafes, but they’re locked and shuttered .
Things are getting tense in the car, with hunger joining tea deprivation. My beloved finds a couple of potato wedges left over from lunch. We take one each, and push on bravely towards Mangonui, our final destination.
But what’s this, in Kaeo? An old building with cafe emblazoned across the front and open doors. The car screeches to a halt and out we tumble.
My marks out of 10:
Cup 4: One of those cup-under-the-teapot jobs, make unknown. Far too big, but it is at least a teacup, and it’s pretty.
Tea Choysa bag in pot, 6: New Zealand’s gumboot tea, and my mother’s favourite since forever. Usually I turn my nose up at it, but in the state I’m in today, I’m inclined to agree with Mum – it is nectar of the Gods.
Setting 7: Kaeo is famous for its floods – so much so that in 2007 then-Prime Minister Helen Clark caused a bit of a stir when she suggested that, with climate change likely to mean more heavy rain and higher tides, some of the town might have to move.
The Old Saddlery Tea Rooms and Cafe is on the road that floods. The main road, in other words. Kaeo, established in 1823 as a Wesleyan Mission and abandoned after being sacked by Ngapuhi Warrior Hongi Hika, is on the Kaeo River, 4km from Whangaroa Harbour.
The chap who owns the building appears while we’re sitting on the verandah. A boilermaker from Taranaki, he was living in Australia when he saw the old girl on the internet and bought her, sight unseen. He’d never even been north of Auckland, let alone to the Far North, but he packed his backs and moved to Kaeo, and started the massive renovation work.
It’s a work still in progress.
He tells my beloved that the flat rugby fields across the road – the land that floods – used to be part of the harbour.
“The scows came right up here,” he says. “But it silted up.”
The cafe building started life as a general store, then became a saddlery.
“There were stables right across the road, but all those buildings have long gone,” our host says.
Open after 3pm: Yes. The front door closes at 4.40pm while we’re sitting on the verandah, but the side door is still open, catering for the locals who turn up late.
The Old Saddlery Tea Rooms and Cafe, 34 Leigh St, Kaeo