Photo of beach on North Island, New Zealand by Pat Butler
Another day in paradise.
Knowing their Clifftop Cottage was extremely isolated, the couple looked forward to swimming naked during their stay.
Feeling confident about driving on the left, Chris took the wheel of their rental car. Sally was too nervous to even try. So she navigated while he drove without incident all the way from Auckland
to Matauri Bay near the top of the North Island. This took about four hours on a two-lane highway, which had plenty of passing lanes on hills.
Unwilling to endure yet another cold, grey February in Canada, the retired seventy something couple chose to live in New Zealand for a month in early 2020. Some retired Toronto contemporaries habitually decamp to Florida or Mexico for the winter. They decided to give New Zealand a try.
Sally had never worked outside the home, preferring to take care of their three kids and do the books for Chris’s busy architecture practice. Now that he’d retired, she delighted in having him around all day every day. At home their togetherness was periodically interspersed with separate sports, hobbies, and friendships.
After six days in a disappointing condo in central Auckland, they headed north to the Clifftop Cottage that Sally had rented for two weeks. The minute they reached the isolated destination, met the owners, and toured the property they were blown away by its unique beauty. Perched on a cliff about 250 feet above sea level, it exceeded the expectations triggered by online photos.
The owners’ expansive house was next door to the tenants’ modest, one-bedroom cottage with its enormous windows facing the sea. They were invited to use the heated pool on the other side of a cement wall anytime, and its temperature was set to their preference. Sally adored swimming before every meal and couldn’t wait to dive in. Chris enjoyed swimming in the nude whenever possible, so was more selective about actually getting wet.
The cottage furnishings were straight out of NZ House & Garden and the view from the deck was spectacular. Two peninsulas marched along the coastline to the west and four jagged uninhabited
islands poked up out of the water straight ahead. The property faced north and far below the cliff lay the owners’ private beach. Over to the east was a substantial point of land with very few houses or trees. An easy-to-navigate footpath ran along the edge of the cliff in front of both houses, with a
gradually sloped section leading to a stairway.
“There are 140 steps down to the beach, so be sure to wear sensible shoes and use hiking poles if you decide to go down,” advised owner Anne during the tour. “And take drinking water and bug spray.”
Settling Into a Routine
The nearest settlement of any size was Kerikeri, a 40-minute drive away. Beforehand Anne had suggested they stock up on groceries there, so Sally had bought easy-to-prepare dinner items like
chicken, pasta, cold cuts, and readymade salads. She was no foodie, and she doubted there’d be restaurants nearby for dining out. Chris’s culinary skills lay in prepping cheese trays and boiling eggs,
much to her chagrin. Now that they were both retired, she wished he would at least experiment in the kitchen.
The two unpacked groceries and organized the kitchen. Then blonde, slender Sally changed into her black one-piece bathing suit. Tall blue-eyed Chris wore his white hair in a thinning brush cut. Putting on red swimming trunks, he was keen to swim several strenuous lengths after sitting in a car all day. Heart disease ran in his family, so – determined to outlive his late father – he made a point of daily exercise.
At the pool, they were delighted to find the owners were nowhere to be seen but kept their bathing suits on in case Anne and Don appeared. When changed for dinner, Chris fixed pre-dinner drinks in
plastic glasses. Nothing more complicated than beer and wine for this pair.
Later sitting side-by-side at a medium-sized teak table on the deck, Sally and Chris ate their first meal
facing the breathtaking view. Waves crashed below against rocks and sand, birds glided overhead catching bugs on the fly, cicadas chirped in the evening heat, and lights slowly began to come on in the few houses sprinkled around the bay. Thankfully all dwellings were too distant for them to hear any music, conversation, or barking dogs.
They were so thrilled with their new 14-day home that what they ate that evening was irrelevant. When discussing how they would fill their days in this idyllic place, they decided to alternate days-out
exploring beaches, towns, and other terrain with days-at-home being creative and soaking up the sun. He’d taken up painting after retiring from architecture; she’d recently taken a course in creative writing and was starting her first novel. It was a struggle.
The next morning Chris set up his portable easel on the deck and had trouble deciding which view to paint first. When travelling he worked in watercolours because both acrylics and oils are too
messy. Sally began the first of lengthy writing sessions, shifting locale whenever the heat became an issue.
Every morning after her early swim, they’d say something like: “Another day in paradise!” while breakfasting on the deck and marveling at the view. Its beauty was constantly morphing. Waves crashing against the rocks varied with wind strength and tide level; shadows on the sloped vegetation varied as the sun crossed the sky; the tempo of bird and insect chirps varied with time of day. It
almost made observers dizzy.
On occasion Sally tried reading a book while reclining on a chaise lounge on the deck. She found all the natural changes so distracting that she eventually gave up and just drank in the beauty before falling asleep.
Having the Place to Themselves
On their sixth morning, Anne popped over to explain that she and Don were taking their dog to the vet in town and doing some errands. “We’ll be back about suppertime so just have fun. The pool is yours.”
Twenty minutes after hearing their car wend its way down the steep gravel driveway, Chris stripped off his clothes, put on his sunhat, and headed for the pool. Sally stepped out of her yellow sundress and joined him. Becoming newly retired empty-nesters had reinvigorated their sex life and they found unfamiliar locales particularly enticing.
After eating tuna sandwiches on the deck, Chris suggested they hike down to the owners’ private beach. On a trip to Nova Scotia seven years ago, they swam naked on an isolated island beach and
the idea of doing the same here was appealing.
He often suggested fun, slightly quirky activities like attending a movie or concert that hadn’t occurred to Sally. She was especially thrilled he’d taken her to hear Leonard Cohen in 2012 given the growly
voiced singer died only four years later.
They gathered bottles of cold water, snacks, Chris’s portable painting kit, Sally’s Lumix camera, sunscreen, and towels to load into expandable backpacks. She slipped her cellphone into an
outside pocket. So far in New Zealand, they’d only used it for wayfinding, but her habit was to take it on every outing.
Putting on sunhats, sturdy footwear, and opening their telescopic trekking poles, the pair approached the stairway. What lay between the top step and the beach was unnervingly primitive in construction.
“Well, honey,” said Sally. “Anne said there are 140 of these steps. This is going to be slow-going.” A congenitally impatient woman, she did her best to just slow down and be super careful.
The stairs at the top were made of two-foot logs, about six inches in diameter, embedded into the earth. There was no handrail. Chris led the way, planting his poles solidly before taking a step
down. Sally carefully mimicked this motion. Plant pole, shift weight, take step, she thought.
About 30 feet down, wooden steps were replaced with used rubber car tires positioned horizontally, the central cavity of each filled with earth. A quarter of each tire had been removed, so they
were no longer circular. The cut part was embedded into the slope.
The lower they descended, the louder the sound of waves crashing on the shoreline. They were excited about a swim in the sea.
Further down the incline, the grass on either side was studded with outcroppings of rock, gradually getting larger and pointier. Some steps were just flat rocks instead of tires. Once they had a
clear view of their beach destination, they picked up the pace a bit. Chris was about 15 feet ahead of his wife.
Suddenly he stumbled, lost his balance, and careened off the stairway to the right! His right temple landed on a sharp rock, and he yelled out in pain. Sally’s heart flipped and she hurried down to him, petrified that she’d fall too.
“Oh my God! Are you okay?”
He clearly was not. Chris fell silent because he had been knocked out and lay in a heap. Blood gushed out of a cut above his right ear; she grabbed a towel to press against it. Having never taken a course in First Aid, she at least knew about tourniquets, but she couldn’t exactly tie one around his neck! Repeating his name, she tried to position his head above his body on the grassy slope to stop the profuse bleeding. She poured cool water over his face. There was blood everywhere.
Her mind was racing. What on earth should I do? How do I get help? The owners are away. I’ll call 911. She dialed the number, and nothing happened. Oh, yes. Somewhere I read the emergency number here is 111.
She dialed it and heard, “You’ve reached 111. What is your emergency? “in a broad Kiwi accent.
Words tumbled out as Sally described the accident and Chris’s condition. Naturally, the dispatcher asked her exact location.
“All I can remember is Matauri Bay. We’re staying at a cottage at the left fork in the road after that bay. There’s no sign or street number. The Greens own this place. We’re almost at the beach below the cliff. Hurry, please hurry!”
She struggled to control her panic, telling herself Chris would survive. Just breathe deeply, Sally, breathe.
The dispatcher said, “Our paramedics are on their way. Let’s just stay on the phone a while and I’ll help you. My name is Deb.”
Giving her advice about applying pressure to the wound and administering water, the dispatcher did a stellar job of calming Sally down. Typically, it was Chris who kept a clear head in an emergency. She knew she’d eventually dissolve into a sniveling mess. Whenever one of their kids had an accident drawing blood, it took hours to recover her equilibrium.
Just hold on a little longer. You can do this. He needs you. You need to save his life, she repeated to herself.
After the paramedics arrived and assessed Chris’s injuries, he was still unconscious. They administered First Aid and radioed for a helicopter. Within 20 minutes, they began the process of hauling him up
to the top of the cliff in a sling. Accompanied by two paramedics, Sally clambered up using her poles, and then leaned over to vomit.
“Slow down, Sally,” said the female paramedic. “You are probably in a state of shock. Just sit down on a step and rest for a few minutes. The helicopter has just landed in the owners’ field and our guys are attending to Chris.” She sat down.
In lieu of an ambulance ride to Kerikeri, the helicopter delivered both Sally and Chris to Northland Health Hospital. He received such superb care that a tidy three-inch scar on his scalp is the only evidence of their aborted attempt to reach Clifftop Cottage’s private beach.