A man on horseback charges past us in the middle of the road, three mutts darting right behind. They seem accustomed to ruling this narrow highway, not a bit worried about traffic. Then again, I haven’t seen another car in miles.
“Are we there yet?” Mom asks from the passenger seat, fidgeting with a theatrical brass and amber necklace that hangs down to her waist. “Are you sure we haven’t passed it?”
“Of course,” I bluff. “We’re almost there.”
We are in the middle of Te Urewera, the mountainous heart- land of New Zealand’s North Island. In our 300-some-page guidebook, this 821-square-mile forest occupies one measly paragraph. Driving from Rotorua, a popular resort town ringed by geysers, we’d cut through eucalyptus and pine forests until the straight asphalt band of State Highway 38 came undone like a dropped birthday ribbon. The slopes tilted steeper each mile. Gravel crunched and popped under our tires as we rounded the hairpin turns (nervously, on the lefthand side). Mom and I snacked, gossiped, and alternated between radio stations until all became static.
Now, we need a break: from the drive, from each other, and for a bathroom.
I don’t often go on trips with Mom, who turned 74 on our flight to Auckland. As a traveler, I thrive on chance encounters, aimless wandering, hilariously bad meals. But now that I think about it, this might be our first-ever solo mother-and-son trip, and I want everything to go perfectly.
We are on a pilgrimage for manuka honey, which is produced by bees that pollinate New Zealand’s manuka trees and has become famous for its medicinal properties. Although I’m a backyard beekeeper, I admit that I’m a skeptic about these magical powers, especially since Hollywood stars and celebrity athletes started championing manuka honey’s ability to boost the immune system and cure all sorts of ills. Mom, on the other hand, swears by bee products, manuka or not. Once, when her dentist failed to alleviate an ache, she applied molasses-like propolis—the tree resin that honeybees gather and use to disinfect their hives—and voilà: The pain was gone.
Which brings us to the real reason we’re in this car, on this road, right now. Mom had been planning a trip to New Zealand last year when her doctor called: He’d spotted suspicious masses in a scan of her left breast. A domino of referrals, biopsies, tests, voice messages, and, finally, surgery followed. Across her chest, she was left with a crimson trench 14 staples wide; below that, a slit where a catheter had drained post-surgical fluids.
To fight the pain, once the bandages came off, she began to apply her favorite natural remedy onto her battle scar. I rolled my eyes, but I knew some hospitals use manuka honey to dress wounds that even antibiotics fail. So now we’ve come to the Land of the Long White Cloud not only to satisfy my apiary curiosity and to make good on Mom’s canceled plans, but also to see how this supposed miracle-worker is made, and if it really is better than ordinary honey.
“If you were staying over, we would have welcomed you with powhiri,” says Brenda Tahi apologetically, when we finally arrive in Ruatahuna, a tight-knit community of 300. She explains that overnight guests are formally received with songs and speeches, but since we’re passing through, it’s just fluttering butterflies and foraging bees that meet us on the grassy marae, the ceremonial grounds that mark each Maori settlement. Milky moisture hangs all around, between the valley ridges and the boxy homes. I can see why the Tuhoe, the local people, are called the Children of the Mist.
The tall, soft-spoken Tahi runs Manawa Honey NZ, a 1,000-hive business that focuses on products made with nectar from native plants. Before we talk bees, though, she leads us to the marae’s meeting house, an A-frame building of sienna stripes and ornate carvings finished in 1888. We take our shoes off and step into the cavernous space, its soaring walls covered in woven leaves. Every few feet there are colorful wood panels, ornamented with elaborate grooves and fierce paint strokes, that punctuate the geometric latticework.
“These are poupou,” Tahi explains. “Each represents a specific ancestor.”
“Why are they sticking out their tongues?” Mom asks.
“Because it’s the most powerful part of the body,” Tahi says. “Words can protect, and words can hurt.”
Outside, we pass by the last of the season’s manuka flowers, miniature facsimiles of cherry blossoms that grow on squat shrubbery. Manuka honey is best when bees’ other food sources are limited—a challenge, because the insects are voracious, opportunistic eaters. Thanks to stringent government regulations, honey in New Zealand must pass one DNA and four chemical tests in order to be labeled as manuka, and authentic manuka honey with high antibacterial activity will show elevated levels of methylglyoxal and can go for more than $100 a jar. For the people of Te Urewara, the isolation of their homeland turned out to be a blessing. (Deep-pocketed companies have been known to fly beehives into secret locations with helicopters, and scammers in some places add compounds like dihydroxyacetone, which is used in sunless tanning lotion, to mimic the honey’s unique chemistry.)
“These used to be considered a nuisance,” Tahi says of the trees. “Farmers used to rip them out. They grow back so fast—thank god.”
Inside her tidy office, Tahi opens a jar of honey. Manuka is the reason we’re here, but I can tell right away that Mom hates the taste, an earthy tang with a peppery kick that goes down the back of the throat. She sticks out her tongue, like a child—but still buys half a dozen bottles.
“You do know there’s never been conclusive evidence that eating manuka honey’s good for you, right?” I ask her. “Doctors only know it works on skin.”
“It doesn’t taste great,” she replies. “Must be good for you.”
Mom’s the type of person who puts blind faith in foodstuffs, texting me at odd hours about how she just heard that blueberries have antioxidants, I’d better start stocking up on something called moringa, and, oh, don’t forget that curcumin prevents Alzheimer’s, because I’m not getting any younger. I know, after this trip, she’ll start stirring honey into her yogurt at home. And though I feign annoyance at her buying jars and jars, I think: Whatever it takes, Mom. Whatever it takes to stop the cancer from coming back.
The next day, we detour to the Waimangu Volcanic Valley, where sulfuric steam rises from lakes that glow in different shades according to the whims of algae and the sun. Giant ferns droop under their own weight; knolls of lichens and moss thrive on crusty soil that can reach 160 degrees Fahrenheit. The place appears positively Jurassic, but in geological time what we see today was made in the blink of an eye. Mount Tarawera erupted in 1886, burying villages, scooping new craters, creating new bodies of water. From the devastated landscape rose an ecosystem rich with endemic plants. Now, manuka, as well as its lookalike plant, kanuka, spill down the valley toward the steaming shores, interrupted by rangiora shrub and harakeke flax, both used by the Maori to make bandages.
As Mom and I walk through the volcanic reserve, I can’t help but marvel at nature’s power to heal itself. In just over a century, this otherworldly landscape has not only recovered but flourished. It’s as if this primordial-looking flora has never known devastation.
“Quick, take a picture!” Mom hams it up in front of the aptly named Frying Pan Lake, the world’s largest hot spring. “I’m younger and slimmer than I ever will be.”
Her heavy necklace flashes against her all-black ensemble—impractical for a hike, but she came ready to slay some photoshoots and make the rest of the family jealous. Mom’s a glass-half-full type of woman, self-deprecating humor and brash optimism her greatest weapons through the ordeals of last year, when life changed overnight. Just as the Tarawera eruption revised the topography forever, suddenly we had to accept cancer as part of our family. And speaking of flourishing: Outside of having to take a few more pills each day, Mom seems to be back to where she was before the mastectomy. She keeps pace with me, who’s half her age, as we hike up and down the winding paths. It takes more than an hour to cover a mile, but that’s mostly because of all the snack breaks. From her Mary Poppins bag of treats, she pulls out an apple, a tangerine, pretzels, two slices of toast glued together with honey—a diabetic mother’s way of saying “I love you.”
“Only if I had an egg,” she half-jokes. “The hot spring would be perfect for a soft-boil.”
A band of American bros passes us on the trail. Just a few years ago, I might have felt embarrassed about traveling with my mother. Now, I don’t blink an eye as the guys say “’sup.” I know, deep down, they’re envious of all the snacks she packed, anyway.
Over the course of a week, we cover more than 500 miles of backroads. We get used to each other’s quirks anew: How she leans back, eyes squinting and arms straight, to take pictures of New Zealand’s shocking green hues with her iPad; how I insist on attempting pop songs an octave above my range while I drive; how she stealthily repacks my bag each morning, dirty laundry and all.
Just outside Huka Falls, a series of emerald-colored cascades, we stop at a famous honey store advertised on tourist websites. In the bright depot, bottles of all shapes and sizes are pile up, along with glossy brochures promising beauty and longevity. Mom picks up a face cream here, a propolis spray there, and puts them down, sticking out her tongue as if she just tasted something sour.
“Look at the prices,” she says. “We should have bought more back in Ruatahuna.”
“You already have enough to last years,” I reply.
The store has a corner where tourists can don a beekeeper’s suit and pose for a picture in front of a transparent hive. It saddens me, all of a sudden, how manuka honey has become such a sleek industry. An average worker honeybee produces around one-twelfth of a teaspoon of honey before working itself to death; mono-floral honey, like manuka, is all the more taxing. (Imagine having only one thing to eat.) When a busload of tourists arrives, I rush Mom out of the store.
In Taupo, a sparkling lakeside town that sits on a parfait of mighty geothermal layers, we go for a morning walk on the moss-grouted trail. Hot streams empty into a lake the size of Singapore. We stop at a pebble-filled basin by the promenade and roll up our pant legs. A sign warns that the nearby brook can reach boiling temperature.
The hot creek mixed with the fresh lake water makes for a pleasant foot bath. But it turns out the temperatures aren’t constant; pockets of skin-searing water dot the otherwise lukewarm nook. At times, our feet dig too deep into the black sand, and we have to hop onto the rock to cool down. I suppose it’s a bit like spending time with family: You try to find that comfortable zone where you won’t get cold or burned. You end up doing a lot of comical hopping, but still, you keep trying.
We’ve spent every waking hour together for a week now, and we’re starting to grate on each other. It’s not easy being around someone 24/7. I realize Mom had no choice but to do that for years after I was born, but that doesn’t stop me from getting annoyed when she complains for days about an overpriced bowl of pho—or, while, fanning herself at Lake Taupo, she says, “It’s too hot.”
“Nobody made you dress for a funeral every day,” I snap. “And why that big necklace?”
Mom smoothes her billowy blouse and manages a smile. “I’m trying to distract. I don’t want people to notice.”
It takes me a few seconds to realize what she means. When the surgeon presented her with the option of a lumpectomy, Mom had been cavalier. “Just cut the whole thing,” she said. “It’s fed three kids. It’s done its job.”
A year and 7,000 miles away from that morning, I finally understand. In that windowless doctor’s office, holding my trembling hand, she was putting on a brave front for my sake.
I think back to the carvings at the Ruatahuna meeting house, those ancestral figures with protruding tongues. Words hurt. Words protect. But so much more goes unspoken. We simply hope our loved ones understand.
I look across the lake, so big that it’s more like the sea. I wish a jar of honey could fix the body and the heart. I wish I knew the right thing to say to make all the hurt go away. But of course I don’t. So we just stand there a while longer, until our feet burn again. I throw my arm around her and say, “Let’s hit the road.”