We’re getting into the Halloween spirit with the first chapter of Sue Copsey’s award-winning spooky novel for 9-12 year old readers called “The Ghosts of Tarawera”.
‘Ew! What’s that disgusting smell?’ Anastasia wrinkled her nose as she climbed out of the car.
‘Ha ha, Roto-pooh-a,’ said Joe.
‘It’s sulphur,’ said his mum. ‘Don’t worry, you’ll stop noticing it after a while.’
‘Er, I don’t think so,’ said Anastasia, fluffing out her hair after the long car journey. ‘OMG, are we spending, like, the whole week here?’
‘OMG yeah,’ said Joe. ‘Well, we are. Feel free to go home at any time.’
His friend Eddie gave a small snort as he followed Joe out of the car. The boys sniffed the air.
‘Pooh. Anastasia, did you just –’
‘Okay Joe,’ said his dad. ‘That’s enough.’
‘It’s Anast-ar-sia, not Anast-ay-sia – I told you like a billion times,’ said Anastasia.
‘Yeah Joe,’ said Beckie, last to climb out of the car, stretching after hours jammed between her brother and her friend. ‘Dad, they’re being really mean, tell them not to be mean.’
‘Lay off the girls, okay?’ sighed Dad.
Joe and Eddie trailed behind as the girls trotted after Joe’s parents towards Rotorua’s visitor centre.
‘They’d better stay out of our faces,’ said Joe. ‘Eleven-year-old girls – doesn’t get any worse. Look at her texting, just so we can all see she’s got a flash new phone.’
‘Maybe we should call her Nasty for short,’ said Eddie.
‘Or Nasty-Arse-ia,’ said Joe. Eddie sniggered.
They were walking down a street bristling with flashing motel signs advertising hot tubs, satellite TV, and mostly No Vacancies, this being the summer school holidays.
‘Welcome to Roto-vegas,’ called Dad.
‘Huh?’ said Joe, catching up.
‘You know – it looks like Las Vegas, with all the flashing lights and motels.’
‘I’ve been to Las Vegas,’ said Anastasia. ‘This is so not like Las Vegas. Las Vegas is awesome.’
‘Oh really? I heard it was really tacky and for loser gamblers,’ said Joe. He couldn’t help himself, it was the effect she was having on him.
What had Beckie been thinking, inviting her? His plan to have Eddie on holiday with them again, after their fantastic adventure on the East Coast last year, had resulted in his sister bringing a friend, too. Not one of her old friends, whom Joe had known and tolerated for years, but this new one, recently arrived from America. All the girls in Beckie’s Year 7 class thought she was supercool, and Beckie had been thrilled when she’d been allowed to join them for a week in the Central North Island.
‘Hey, there’s steam coming out of that drain,’ said Eddie. ‘And that one.’
‘Look at that park, there’s steam all over the place!’ said Beckie. ‘Can we go there?’
‘Okay,’ said Mum. ‘It’ll be nice to stretch our legs for a bit.’
In many ways it was a perfectly normal park: expanses of grass, a children’s playground, people jogging in the late-afternoon sun. But here and there were signs: DANGER! Thermal Activity. Keep to the path at all times. And around the park, from amongst clusters of bushes, billowing white clouds rose into the blue sky.
Joe and Eddie ran over to a plume of steam surrounded by a wooden fence. A sign read: DANGER! Do not attempt to cross the barrier. Serious injury may result. They could hear a low bubbling and hissing; it sounded like a giant pan of water coming to the boil. As a gentle breeze blew the steam this way and that, they could just see a deep hole, its sides encrusted with something pale and powdery. A puff of wind sent the plume over to Beckie and Anastasia as they reached the barrier, engulfing them in warm steam that carried with it a whiff of rotten eggs.
‘Pooh!’ said Beckie.
‘What did you say that smell was?’ asked Anastasia, holding her nose.
‘Sulphur,’ replied Eddie. ‘That’s what’s making those yellowy deposits around the hole. You get it in volcanic areas.’
‘Would you die if you fell in there?’ asked Joe.
‘There must be some very hot water at the bottom,’ replied Eddie. ‘You’d probably get a nasty scald, at least. This whole area’s like a kettle, with the geysers and hot springs like the spout, letting the pressure out. And if there’s too much pressure and not enough escape routes, that’s when you get volcanoes erupting.’
‘Wow, you know, like, heaps,’ said Anastasia.
‘He’s a walking Wikipedia,’ said Joe.
‘I have to say,’ said Mum, ‘I’m always a bit nervous when I come to this part of the country.’
‘Eruptions round here do tend to happen without warning,’ said Eddie. ‘They didn’t even see that one at Tongariro coming,’ he added, referring to a recent blow from a volcano not far south of Rotorua. ‘And there are detectors everywhere round there.’
‘Good holiday choice, Mum,’ said Joe.
‘Well, we ought to be getting on,’ said Dad, wiping his steamed-up watch.
As they headed back through the park, Joe spotted an ice-cream van parked across the far side of a sports pitch where a few locals were passing a rugby ball. All at once he craved a soft cone with a chocolate flake.
‘Can we have ice creams, Mum?’ he asked.
‘Oh Joe, no – look, by the time you’ve got over there and joined the queue …’
‘I’m fine,’ said Eddie.
‘S’okay Mum, I’ll be really quick,’ said Joe, taking off at a run. He heard Beckie say something about it not being fair, then his Dad called after him, ‘You’d better be!’
He jogged round two sides of the playing field. He wouldn’t want to accidentally block the path of one of these rugby guys. Many were Maori – solid, powerful and fast.
The queue was down to just one when he arrived, and he was soon heading back round the field, enjoying the cool, soft, creamy, sweet ice cream … oh, it was good. As he walked (he wasn’t going to risk losing his flake), he noticed that, whichever direction he looked in, whether towards the surrounding hills or up a side street, there was steam rising.
Uninvited, an image suddenly flashed into his mind – the ground beneath his feet was just a thin layer of rock, and below that was a boiling lake of water, and below that was a boiling lake of lava. He looked again at the people jogging, playing rugby, frisbeeing; dogs chasing sticks, children swinging and sliding. He supposed they must be used to it. But as he walked, he couldn’t shake off a creeping sense of unease.
And then he realised what else was causing the prickles on the back of his neck. Across the field, a man – a Maori – was staring at him. Unusually, he was wearing traditional warrior dress, and his hair was pulled up into a topknot. In one hand he held a large club. But it was his face that demanded attention. Even from here, Joe could make out the swirls of dark ink across his cheeks, nose and chin. And his eyes were wide and unblinking, their whites standing out against his dark tattooed skin.
It was not a friendly face.
Joe felt himself grow cold and stood quite still, unable to look away. The man nodded slowly, then raised the club.
What? Joe tore his eyes away and glanced around, but nobody else was paying attention to the figure. He’d definitely been nodding at Joe. His eyes again locked onto the man’s, and the tingling that had started in his spine crept stealthily along every vein in his body until it reached his fingertips, toes and scalp.
He was pulled out of his trance by a splat, and looked down to see that his cone had lost its ice-cream top, which now lay sad and semi-melted at his feet. Instinctively he bent down to save the half-eaten flake. As he straightened, he looked back across the field. The man had gone.
‘So, what do you fancy doing while we’re here?’ said Mum, as they entered the visitor centre. ‘There’s geysers, bubbling mud – all the thermal attractions. Or mountain biking, walking tracks, pony trekking?’
‘Come on Joe, let’s have a look around.’ Eddie tugged Joe by the sleeve over to a display.
Joe made an effort to shake off the unease that lingered after his strange encounter in the park, and turned his attention to the banks of leaflets.
‘Zorb, yeah!’ he said, pulling out a brochure picturing a person rolling downhill inside a giant see-through ball. He collected another about the luge, and a third about go-karting.
‘Rotorua Museum, that looks worth a visit,’ said Eddie.
‘Only on a very rainy day, though,’ said Joe. Eddie’s idea of fun often confused Joe.
‘We’d never have met Baz if we hadn’t visited that museum last year,’ said Eddie, referring to the head of Gisborne’s museum, who’d helped them solve the ghostly mystery they had found themselves involved in. They had stayed in touch with Baz, who now had a regular spot on children’s TV (‘Once upon a time in New Zealand’), and had become famous as much for his bloopers as for his enthusiasm for New Zealand history.
There was a clatter from across the room, and the boys saw Beckie scrabbling around on the floor picking up handfuls of leaflets. Anastasia was pretending to be intensely interested in the contents of a display a little way away.
‘Can’t take her anywhere, she’s so clumsy,’ said Joe.
‘Time to go guys,’ called Dad. ‘What have you got then?’ he asked, as they met up again.
‘A wildlife park, pony trekking …’ said Beckie. ‘Look at the baby kiwi – so cute!’ she said, holding out a leaflet and pointing to a photograph.
‘I could fix your nails for you,’ said Anastasia, lifting Beckie’s hand with its raggedy nails. ‘Polynesian Spa looks cool,’ she said, dropping the hand again.
‘Mm, soaking in a natural hot spring does sound tempting,’ smiled Mum.
‘Animals and baths – women!’ said Dad. ‘What you got boys?’
‘Luge, Zorb, go-karts, and, er, the museum,’ replied Joe.
‘Hm, something seems to be missing,’ said Dad. ‘Like geysers, bubbling mud, volcanoes?’
‘The smelly stuff?’ said Anastasia.
‘Well, that’s what Rotorua’s famous for,’ said Dad. ‘And Maori culture, of course.’
‘I saw a Maori in the park in all the warrior gear – flax skirt, feathers, loads of tattoos,’ said Joe.
‘He was probably from one of those cultural shows,’ said Mum.
‘Maybe,’ said Joe. ‘He was … kind of scary.’
‘Oh, they absolutely freak me out when they do that haka thing before the All Blacks games,’ said Anastasia.
‘I think that’s the idea,’ said Dad.
‘Anyway,’ said Mum. ‘I’ve got plenty of info – let’s go shall we? I’m dying to see the bach.’
At last they neared their destination, a holiday cottage on the shore of the remote Lake Rotomahana. The lake was only twenty-five kilometres or so south-east of bustling Rotorua, but as they drove down a dirt track enclosed by dense, dark forest, it felt like a world away.
‘There don’t seem to be any baches here at all,’ said Mum, peering at the directions she’d printed off the Internet. ‘But I’m sure this is the right road … well, track.’
‘Bach? Is that like a condo or something?’ asked Anastasia.
Joe rolled his eyes. ‘How long have you been in New Zealand? It’s just a holiday house.’
‘Yeah I heard that before – but why is it called that?’
‘Yeah, why Joe?’ added Beckie.
‘Well, it just is, isn’t it? Like, why is a tree called a tree?’
Joe looked at Eddie for help.
‘I think it’s short for bachelor, because they used to be places for guys to hang out at weekends, for fishing and hunting and that sort of thing.’
‘I knew that,’ said Joe.
‘Didn’t the women get holidays then? So, like, sexist,’ said Anastasia.
Eventually they broke free of the forest, and ahead saw the sparkling blue waters of the lake. The track opened into a parking area with a jetty beyond. A large campervan was parked on the grass, and as they drove past, Joe noticed that its roof bristled with aerials and satellite dishes, and that it said GNS Science, gns.cri.nz on the side. As he turned to have another look, a little black spaniel appeared from behind the campervan and chased them for a short distance, its pink tongue hanging out.
‘Oh, how adorable!’ said Anastasia.
‘So cute!’ said Beckie.
‘Are you sure this is right?’ said Dad, as the track bent inland, then began to disappear under long grass. The lake was now only just visible through the trees.
‘Must be, it says to follow the track past the parking area for about another five kilometres,’ said Mum. ‘Good job we haven’t had much rain recently,’ she added, as they lurched to avoid a large dip, causing Joe to clonk his head on the side of the car.
Finally, after an uncomfortable ten minutes or so, the track ended at what seemed to be the only house on this part of the lake – a red-roofed two-storey wooden cottage. Tree ferns clustered around it, and along the front Joe saw a large deck overlooking the lake.
‘This looks lovely,’ said Mum happily. ‘Now all I’ve got to do is remember where I put the keys.’
As Joe climbed out of the car, his mum’s words reminded him of the week before, when he’d answered the door to a courier who’d asked him to sign for a small package. He’d ripped it open, assuming it was the new PlayStation game he’d been anxiously awaiting. Instead, he’d discovered a set of keys along with a note, which had begun: Here are the keys to the bach – the last people who rented it took them home by mistake! The little tiki on the keyring will be happy to be home again. We dug him up when we were planting out the vegetable garden …
Joe had held up the keys and examined the tiki – a little Maori figure carved from what looked like bone. Some of Joe’s friends wore tikis round their necks. This one was old and worn, and he’d thought its eyes were missing – tikis usually had eyes made from shell. But he’d been wrong. As he’d traced the swirls and dots with a finger, a shaft of sunlight coming through the front door had fallen on the tiki, and its silvery eyes had suddenly come to life, glowing bright in the faded ivory coloured figure. Almost immediately the sun had gone in again, and the glow had faded from the tiki’s eyes.
For a moment Joe had felt a prickle of fear as he stared at the tiki, which felt warm in his hand. Then he pulled himself together. No, don’t go there Joe. Enough already with the ghosts.
He’d dropped the keys onto the hall table and managed to forget all about them.
The boys were sitting on one of the two sofas in the living area, watching TV.
‘What’s the WiFi code here?’ asked Anastasia, plonking herself down on the other sofa. Her phone had a mauve cover that matched her nails.
‘There isn’t any, sorry dear,’ called Mum from the kitchen.
Anastasia’s eyes widened and her jaw dropped open. ‘Oh. My. Gosh. You have got to be kidding me? How am I going to check my Twitter and my Facebook? And I need to tell Mom I’m here.’
‘You can text her – there’s mobile coverage,’ replied Mum. Joe detected the usual hint of exasperation when the issue of technology on holiday was raised.
‘Well, ya, I can text Mom. But what about my Twitter and Facebook and all my other online stuff?’
Eddie looked disapproving. ‘You’re much too young for a Facebook account.’
Joe made a big show of taking his own phone out of his pocket, and touched the screen. ‘I’ve got 3G – cellular coverage. You only got WiFi then? Never mind, eh,’ he smirked.
‘It’ll be nice for you kids to have a break from all that, find other things to do,’ said Mum. ‘Like helping me with the dinner.’
Here we go again, thought Joe. The old ‘getting away from it all’ routine. But then again, last year, when they hadn’t even had mobile phone coverage, they’d had the best time ever. A scary time, admittedly, but very cool.
Joe saw that he had a message, from a number he didn’t recognise. It read ‘5’. He typed in ‘wrong number?’ and pressed Send. Probably the phone company doing one of those annoying promotions, he thought.
That night, Joe and Eddie lay on their sofa beds downstairs, while the girls and parents had the two upstairs bedrooms. The creaking of floorboards overhead had stopped, suggesting that everyone was now in bed. Joe lay tapping his phone, while Eddie was attempting to read a book with the help of a book light clipped onto its back pages. But the light kept falling off and getting lost in his duvet, and eventually he gave up.
‘Anything happening at home?’ he asked.
‘Just some random photos of George and Alex,’ replied Joe, referring to two of their school friends. Then: ‘Hey! Awesome – a message from Baz!’ He sat up in bed.
‘Cool! What does it say?’ asked Eddie.
Joe read out: ‘Hi Joe. Thanks for your Christmas card. Just remembered you said you were going to be in Rotorua about now. Are you going to be there for the next week? Message or call me – there’s someone you should meet! Over and out, Baz.’
‘Hm, he sent that at … nine twenty p.m. I’ll message him back.’
He read out as he tapped: ‘Hi Baz! Yes we are here for a week with mum and dad and sister and her annoying friend. We are at Lake Rotomahana in a bach. From Joe and Eddie.
He sent the message. A short while later, a quiet bullip let the boys know that, over on the East Coast, Baz was also tapping away. Joe read out:
‘Well there’s a coincidence! You must pay a visit to my geologist pal Rocky. He’s at Lake Rotomahana too. He works for GNS Science, and they’re doing some intriguing research – he might be able to make use of your detective skills! His mobile number is 026 201752. Send him a text if you’re keen. Have a great holiday guys, and try to stay out of danger this year! Baz
‘Rocky? Very funny. Not his real name I assume.’
‘Ha, I guess not,’ said Eddie. ‘That’d be great, meeting a proper scientist. Do you think we’ll be able to go and see him?’
‘Yeah, but preferably without the parents, and definitely without the girls,’ said Joe.
As they settled down for the night, a sliver of moonlight slid through a gap in the curtains, throwing a silver shard across Joe’s bed. Through the gap, on the distant far side of the lake, Joe saw the silhouette of a huge flat-topped mountain outlined against the starry sky. All was quiet, apart from the occasional hoot of an owl echoing across the water.
Listed as a ‘Best Book for Christmas 2015’ by the New Zealand Herald
Storylines Children’s Literature Foundation of New Zealand: Notable Book award, 2016
Libraries Aotearoa Hall of Fame (junior fiction)