Dar­ren Hanlon finds him­self drawn into trans-Tas­man ri­valry in the tiny vil­lage of Bar­ry­town, as his New Zealand tour mates dis­miss Aus­tralian milk.

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Ap­par­ently , Na­dia Reid doesn’t like the milk in Aus­tralia. “It tastes pretty rank to me,” she says from the front pas­sen­ger seat.

I’ve been in this car for a few weeks now, play­ing shows across New Zealand with Na­dia and An­thonie Ton­non, and all pleas­antries have fallen away. What’s left is a con­stant bar­rage of cul­tural gib­ing.

“What do you mean?” I ask.

“You’ve got rank milk.”

“What the hell?” I say, the son of a Queens­land dairy farmer. “No we don’t.”

“It just doesn’t taste fresh. New Zealand does good milk. Fresh. Creamy.”

“Ex­plain. Is ours wa­tery? Or it’s the flavour?” “Hor­ri­ble flavour,” she says.

“We milk cows just like you do. Does the rank­ness come from the cows them­selves or the grass, you think?”

“Could be the grass. Or maybe there’s too much time be­fore bot­tling. I like min­i­mum time be­tween teat and tummy.”

Much of this past week has seen us cling to the western edge of the South Is­land, against a coast­line of grey, en­raged, sea-churn­ing drama. We’ve just driven from the vil­lage of Okar­ito, where last night we played un­plugged to a sell­out crowd of 40. This was a good re­sult, con­sid­er­ing the town’s pop­u­la­tion is 43.

Tonight’s show is less promis­ing. We’re play­ing at the Bar­ry­town hall and have sold only one ticket. The or­der was to a per­son called “Tree”.

“Maybe we should can­cel?” Na­dia says. An­thonie as­sures her it’ll be fine.

He’s or­ches­trated this trip and is full of op­ti­mistic pa­tri­o­tism for his coun­try. He’s also driven us the whole way and is in a con­stant state of im­mac­u­late pre­sen­ta­tion.

“Trust me, they’ll come out,” he says as he slicks back an er­rant hair. “That’s just the way it works around here. It’s very dif­fer­ent from ev­ery­where else in the coun­try. It’s still pop­u­lated by the same peo­ple who came out here in the early ’70s seek­ing an al­ter­na­tive life­style. They’ve held on. The ’60s Sum­mer of Love thing hit NZ five years late.”

In front of us, Juras­sic moun­tains slope down to meet the sea. It’s hard to be­lieve there’s any road ahead. I won­der why I’ve never seen this in a brochure. Are they keep­ing it se­cret?

In Bar­ry­town, the scenery is as­ton­ish­ing. Hardly a town; the old wooden hall has a sweep­ing view down across dairy farms to the ever-rag­ing Tas­man. I’m told the venue is hal­lowed ground for mu­si­cians. You can trace its his­tory by read­ing the band posters that pa­per the wooden shut­ters: Bad Man­ners, Shel­lac, UK Subs, Fugazi, even cult Portland punk band Dead Moon. When The Bats played here in 1988, I’m told, a mo­tor­cy­cle gang rode in to ex­e­cute a few burnouts, stain­ing the wooden floor­boards be­fore tear­ing out again.

We set up and An­thonie claps and says, “Hear that? It sounds like ’80s gated re­verb.”

I go for a walk, a cou­ple of miles down the road, to dip my toe in the sea. I pass green-car­peted pas­tures oc­cu­pied by cu­ri­ous well-fed cows. Ev­ery now and then, I stop to look back at the moun­tains. It’s an ir­re­sistible panorama from all di­rec­tions. Na­dia even­tu­ally drives down look­ing for me and we head up the road to the touristy Pan­cake Rocks, named af­ter the thinly lay­ered lime­stone for­ma­tions carved by the tides and blow­holes that shoot up in­ter­mit­tently.

It’s on the drive back that we make an ex­ec­u­tive de­ci­sion to can­cel the ac­com­mo­da­tion we’ve booked up the road and try our luck with the lo­cals tonight. We don’t want to lose any of this scenery to the night­time.

Back in Bar­ry­town, cars are parked ev­ery­where, a snaking line out of the hall, and An­thonie is pan­ick­ing at the door, fum­bling change and stamp­ing wrists. Lo­cals are spread out on couches, kids up on the stage mim­ing songs and play­ing air-gui­tar to the house mu­sic. A popup taco stall and bar is in full op­er­a­tion.

I can tell by the re­ac­tion to the first song that it’s go­ing to be a good night. We’ve been pa­per/rock/ scis­sor­ing to de­cide who per­forms their solo set first, and ex­plain the process to the audience.

“How many shakes again?” I ask, to make sure. “Three shakes and then re­veal,” An­thonie says.

“In Aus­tralia we do 15. It’s ’cause we’re all dairy farm­ers, too,” I joke, and mime the closed-fist shake as if milk­ing a cow.

“That’s one way of say­ing it,” heck­les a lo­cal up the back.

A very big laugh. The crowd is ram­bunc­tious, at­ten­tive, and con­tin­ues heck­ling through­out our set.

In the break I stand in the kitchen with the or­gan­is­ers. I chat with Roger, the rak­ish chair­man of the hall who’s been run­ning the place since the ’60s. He has long, wavy grey hair, a cham­bray work shirt open at the neck to re­veal a silver abalone amulet on a leather lace, pur­ple suede slacks and bare feet. I ask him about the ru­mour that Townes Van Zandt played here.

“Oh, yes,” he tells me in a bari­tone drawl. “But it was in the dead of win­ter and Townes thought this hall too cold for him. We didn’t have heaters back then. So we said we’ll just go and light the fire up in the pub and do it there. He said, ‘Yeah, that’d be bet­ter.’ We had a huge crowd turn up and he ended up stay­ing around for a few days.”

Af­ter we’re done a drunk man ap­proaches me at the merch desk and of­fers us a room to sleep in at the dis­used pub where Townes played. He’s turn­ing it into a back­pack­ers’. Na­dia grate­fully ac­cepts but An­thonie and I de­cide to set up camp here in the hall. We each choose a couch and fash­ion nests from our pro­vi­sions. I walk around on the creaky boards and turn all the lights off and wres­tle my body into a po­si­tion of com­fort. This feels like a great thing, sleep­ing here in this big old room full of the his­to­ries of nights spent danc­ing, singing and carous­ing. An­thonie and I chat back and forth for a while like we’re at a school slum­ber party. I can hear the pound­ing sea too. I drift off to sleep with a feel­ing of gen­eral well­be­ing.

In some parts out here, the road is al­most touch­ing the shore­line. Ev­ery now and then we spot a hol­i­day cabin – or, as New Zealan­ders call them, “batches” – built right on the sand. Any more beach­front and you’d be in the wa­ter. We’re head­ing north and all crav­ing cof­fee.

It comes up that An­thonie knows the guy who in­vented the flat white. Or claims to.

“He said he was work­ing in Cafe Bodega in the early ’80s,” An­thonie says. “Only two cafes in Welling­ton had these brand new Ital­ian espresso ma­chines. Peo­ple were fizzing about them; they were be­com­ing quite pop­u­lar. But at that time you could only get two kinds of cof­fee, an espresso or a cap­puc­cino.

“Those days were be­fore they knew how to store the milk and fid­dle with the cows to make sure there was fat in the milk year round. In au­tumn when the calves were off the teat, there was no fat in the milk. So he was at this cafe mak­ing cof­fee and ev­ery­one’s or­der­ing cap­puc­ci­nos, but he couldn’t get any foam out of the milk when there’s no fat. This one lady was get­ting up­set so he just heated up the milk, put it in the cof­fee and said, ‘There you go. That’s a flat white.’ ”

An­thonie is like an en­ter­tain­ing Google, full of his­tor­i­cal and cul­tural facts and mono­logues. “Re­ally?” I ask. “He just made it up on the spot?”

“That’s what he said,” An­thonie replies.

“But now what about this de­bate that Aus­tralia reck­ons we in­vented it?” I ask.

“Rank milk,” Na­dia says, and I go quiet.

Bar­ry­town Set­tlers Hall.

DAR­REN HANLON is an Aus­tralian song­writer and mu­si­cian.

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