The morning streets of Bluff seem as still as the vases on every windowsill, as the crayfish pots heaped at the back of vast barns, as the seagull lying dead and spotlessly white on its back in an empty section. An unpainted buoy with a slot hacked through it acts as a letterbox. An empty coal-sack is taped to paper over a smashed window. Smoke rises then slumps out of chimneys; there is nothing quite like the melancholic smell of coal fires on summer mornings.
A quiet (population 2,500), lovely, deserted town at the very end of New Zealand, but the facts are completely different seconds after the stroke of midday at the Bluff Bakery. The place is packed. You can't hear yourself think for the wild laughter of old ladies sipping on their tea. The lamingtons (cakes) are delicious. You might have to tramp to Reefton for a cheaper bag of hot chips.
Next door at the taxi company, a woman has bought four crumbed chicken drumsticks, and is feeding the bones to her two pups on the carpet. You used to, she says, get maybe a dozen free feeds during the season - she means an oysterman's catch, the oysters fresh from the bags dredged from their beds in Foveaux Strait. 'The best oysters'. But since the quotas, and since the bonamia virus destroyed an estimated 700 million oysters, you'd be lucky now to get two or three feeds.
Bluff is a used-to-be-town - there are no banks, no chemist shops, the Ocean View freezing works has closed. About 24 oyster boats would go out fishing. Now there are 14. 'You've got to wait for someone to die before you get a job on these boats,' says Rex Ryan, a skipper who has a crew of five.
Tall, wild-haired, Irish, Ryan works from a large shed in Bluff during the season.'The oysters are taken from the boat and put in a coolstore overnight' he explains and is then seized by an uncontrollable mirth, stabbing at the air while describing the oyster-opening shift at Barnes. 'At 7.30am, it's cold steel for everybody. Hoi! Ha! Yah!'.
His boat came in past Land's End, past the Tiwai aluminium smelter, past banks of lupin, past the Bluff pubs - Flynn's, the Eagle, the Golden Age - and tied up at the wharf. He went out to the Straits at 4am, and returned with 30 sacks. 'Go on,' he says, and puts the cold steel to half-a-dozen shells. The best, the very best.