CALL IT NEW ZEALAND GOTHIC; CAROLINE AND COLIN TREAT THEIR GUESTS LIKE FAMILY

WHATAROA, New Zealand – The cows are happy, and so are the customers, because Mom and Pop take such good care of them.

New Zealand Gothic. That’s the portrait I’ll keep in mind of Caroline and Colin Dodunski, the proprietors of Sleepy-Hollow Farm on the lush west coast. He does the farming, she does the feeding and fussing with the guests. Between them they make you part of the family. Just sitting in the kitchen, shoes off all around, having a beer with Col, talking farm prices (about which you know and care zilch) while Caroline chats about something else and whips up the beef stroganoff for dinner.

Not exactly the spare and dour rural couple of Grant Wood’s classic painting, “American Gothic,” however. Hardly. Caroline, a robust, broad-shouldered blonde who cheerily admits tasting too much of her cooking that’s meant for the guests’ dining room, is an earth mother, New Zealand style. Ruddy Col, taciturn at first, is farm-man strong, the kind of guy who can do anything that requires muscle and improvisational ingenuity.

Whataroa on the South Island isn’t much, a short block of stores, a gas station amid the beauty of lonesome farmland backed by the Butler Range. And the Dodunskis’ B & B, of course. Bed and breakfast. Bountiful and becalming, the way Caroline runs her half of the partnership, a remodeled, refurnished, shining, white-frame house trimmed in blue. A brand new bathroom’s double Jacuzzi tub lies beside a mountain-viewing picture window.

She’s English, an ex-papergirl who met him, a native Kiwi, when he was visiting friends on her home delivery route in Lincolnshire. “I was 15. We fell in love. He said I’d be better off in New Zealand than the newspaper business. He was right. Pretty soon I joined him.” Delivery to a new home.

They’ve been married 23 years, have a strapping son, bought the 400-acre farm 21 years ago, and recently redid the house because, she says, “We needed more income to make ends meet. Dairy farming wasn’t doing it, what with the prices going down. So I went into business, too. We’re in debt for the house improvements, but we’ll be all right now.”

It all obviously agrees with them. Up at 5, he for the first of twice-daily milkings of his star room-and-boarders (200 cows); she to attend to hers, who wander in from across the planet.

“Sometimes they don’t speak English, but,” she laughs, “everybody understands food and sleep.”

“Same for the cows,” says Col.

The drive along Route 6 from Greymouth had taken us, at sea level and above, past miles of deserted beaches, some foamy-mouthed with explosive surf. The Tasman Sea, a gleaming teal, crashes and bashes in a heavyweight battle against stacks of layered limestone called the Pancakes. Watery body-punching crumps, noisy as artillery, have eroded and pierced the rocks, sending geysers through a blowhole – but the Pancakes refuse to be digested.

Digestion was on our minds acutely when we finally found the Dodunski place after a search along dark roads outside of Whataroa. Though dinner time was well past, Caroline was quick to the kitchen. Col pitched in, too, and tables were set for leftovers that did just fine. Some beef became fritters with onions, followed by her heated-up apple pie dusted with ice cream.

“Tomorrow you get the birds,” she says. “Herons. But not to eat, of course.”

Whataroans are justly proud of their scarce birds, stately blizzard-white herons, known as egrets in some foreign locales, and here called kotuku in the Maori tongue. Although herons are fairly common elsewhere on the planet, this exclusive gang – the Waitangiroto Colony, deep in the bush at Okarito Lagoon – are the country’s exclusive loners, about 150 of them. Their migratory ancestors were probably wafted by high winds 1,200 miles across the Tasman Sea from Australia about 2,000 years ago.

Kotuku, meaning a visitor that appears rarely, were regarded as sacred by the ancient Maori, who kept their plumes in special cases of honor to be worn by chiefs in ceremonial splendor. The plumes also nearly led to the birds’ extinction in these parts, so prized were they as decor for settlers’ hats. At one point, after German naturalist Gerhard Mueller discovered them in 1856, the winged colonists were down to four nests. But they’ve been protected and encouraged since.

A watering hole in dense jungle, Okarito, a tidal estuary not far from the Tasman, is their dating-and-mating bar where herons convene in September for romance and parenthood. At the end of February, they’re off to forage in other areas of New Zealand, returning again in September to a home sweet with abundant seafood such as eels, shrimp, and whitebait. Very good for raising screeching infants, their formulas regurgitated from either maw or paw’s maw.

Their privacy is only slightly breeched by us peeping toms and tomatoes in an elevated, camouflaged hut called a “hide,” end of the line on a wildly swerving jet-boat spin eight miles up the mangrove-lined Waitangiroto River. Since the river, only about four inches deep, is crowded with everything but water, Dion Arnold, driver of the the shallow-draft craft, has to pick his spots at a loud 55 miles per hour over the “hang on, mates!” this way-that way route. “Not to worry,” Dion says, “I could maneuver this thing on moist dish cloths.”

“Swell. Is there a way to walk back?” wonders Ron Sampson.

“Oh, you’d never find it,” consoles Dion.

But the herons always find Okarito, where, among dark, flitting spoonbills and cormorants, they seem marshmallows decorating a salad while tending nests atop pine and fern trees. An ornithological choir of cheeps, chirps, croaks, caws, peeps, waws is the Muzak of this sanctuary. Sibling rivalry is serious as ravenous chicks, dancing beak-to-beak, jostle fiercely for food that “won’t be enough for all of them,” says resident naturalist Peter Riley. “Those that can’t push their way to favor will starve.”

A cold, snowy shoulder from maw or paw makes a chick’s future sleety bleak. Darwin had a phrase for it.

On feeding flights, the parents flap and float gloriously, flaunting 5 1/2-foot spans of cloudfluff wings, stretching their inquiring? necks as they peer for groceries. Looking frail, standing 3 1/2 feet, they weigh but 2-something pounds as adults but are powered by remarkable engines that must constantly be fueled.

“They love to breed here,” says their housemother, Riley. “Quiet, remote, plenty to eat. Sometimes they’re monogamous, sometimes they choose new mates, the females falling for fresh moves. We can’t tell the difference, but they can.”

Returning to Mom and Pop Dodunski’s, our brood is glad not to have to duel with beaks to get at her rewarding stroganoff.

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