Pirate Speak, Burgers and Blues? All in a Day’s Work

“Forsooth, landlord. I’m not the scoundrel who put an anti-guggler (a straw) in your cask of brandy. Black the white of my eye (honestly), ’twas not me!

In 19th century New Zealand, I’m sure, speaking like that, I’d have been understood. After lengthy voyages, its early immigrant settlers were undoubtedly familiar with jackspeak—sea-faring slang.

Not far from Auckland, the Riverhead is a historic tavern whose walls are adorned with bizarre nautical sayings. Most of those sayings have long vanished into the vault of forgotten phrases.

Jackspeak can be wondrously lurid, but “sucking the monkey” takes bizarre to new levels. Apparently it meant illicitly drinking from tampered coconuts. As far back as the late 1700s, British sailors in the West Indies were cunningly replacing fresh coconut milk with rum. The resulting drunkenness “remained an unexplained phenomenon for years.”

I probably don’t need excuses to visit a pub that hosts live blues music on Sunday afternoons, but the Riverhead provides an excellent one for a travel writer. Awash with decades of drinking tales, it’s New Zealand’s oldest riverside hostelry and holds the country’s second oldest liquor license.

Originally named Deacon’s Hotel and then the Forrester’s Arms, it was established in 1857. On the banks of the Upper Waitemata, the little town of Riverhead was still developing territory at the time. For centuries, Maori travelers had disembarked here and then portaged their canoes across land to the Kumeu river. Immigrant farmers, gum-diggers and missionaries followed the same route.

So did the smugglers. In 1865, the Southern Cross newspaper carried a report of the constabulary detaining Riverhead’s hotel-keeper in Auckland’s lock-up. They’d found several cases of gin hidden in nearby scrub and 30 gallons of brandy in a cask partly covered by earth.

One of New Zealand’s best-known blues bands, Riverhead Slide, were performing in the hostelry’s Boathouse when I visited. Even if you’re not much of a blues fan, Sundays are tremendous fun. It’s all very casual, and there’s no cover charge. Some people were dancing (or attempting to dance), while others had settled down in the garden or on wooden decks with waterfront views.

I’d intended trying the Riverhead’s formal restaurant—lamb fillet on a beetroot, feta and mint Waldorf salad sounded fabulous—but all the tables were taken. No problem—not with such tempting smells wafting from the BBQ burger shack in the garden. By burgers, I mean gourmet burgers. Costing $8.20, mine came stuffed with strips of tender, marinated lamb. Delicious. But if you prefer finer dining, book a restaurant table in advance.

By car, the Riverhead is a 20-minute drive from Auckland. But though it’s popular with Aucklanders, it’s also very much a local tavern with quiz nights, a sports bar (“for blokes and blokesses”) and Saturday night dance bands. Unlike the tourist-oriented places around the Viaduct, Auckland’s waterfront, it felt a real Kiwi pub experience.

As there’s a ferry landing, it’s also accessible by boat. I arrived on the MV Hogwash—a “party vessel” operated by The Red Boat Charter Company. Sailing times vary depending upon the tide; the journey takes 90 minutes from Auckland’s Westhaven Marina. The round trip $28.80.

We sailed under Auckland’s Harbor Bridge and into a watery maze threaded with nut-brown creeks. Skipper Andrew provided entertaining commentary on passing landmarks and the bygone days of settlers, gum-diggers and traders. The old Chelsea sugar factory… a Lockheed bomber crash-site… the man who stole a beach. But from the grimaces of other passengers, learning where Auckland’s 19th century “night soil” got dumped definitely qualified as too much information…

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