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Hitting the Ground singing: On Tour with Sol3 Mio

Hitting the Ground singing: On Tour with Sol3 Mio

Duncan Greive hits the road with Sol3 Mio, New Zealand’s biggest local tour in years.

This story was first published in the April 2014 issue of Metro. Photos by Stephen Langdon. 

 

Day one: Founder’s Theatre, Hamilton / March 3

Tenor Pene Pati is holding court. He’s on stage with his brother, Amitai — also a tenor — and cousin Moses Mackay, explaining the intricacies of operatic vocal convention. “In opera, tenors always get the girl. Basses — they’re the father. Or Satan. Baritones? In opera, baritones always die,” he laughs. “Nobly!” pipes up Mackay. He’s a baritone.

They launch into a trio of arias delivered solo. Their voices are vast and imperious, the product of lives spent singing and, lately, several years’ world-class training, and they juxtapose soaring moments with matching one-liners: “Shocking singing from the bro, there” and “It’s so hard to find a good baritone these days”.

The jokes and semi-rehearsed conversation keep the audience close, help ensure they don’t drown in an alien culture. I’ve only seen the like once before: at the Vector Arena with One Direction. Coming away from that show, as with this one, you had the sense you’d hung out with the band, got to know them as personalities, got a feel for their internal dynamic and sense of humour. For One Direction, it was likely data-driven and micro-managed. For Sol3 Mio, it seems like the only way they know.

It’s compelling. “So many artists want to maintain that distance, that coolness,” says promoter Campbell Smith. “And that’s what’s so great about this live show. You can go home and put on the CD, but you can’t replicate that.”

The show combines opera arias with popular tunes from bygone eras, and the crowd of 1200 who’ve turned up to hear it tonight are the first of tens of thousands Sol3 Mio will entertain this month. The last theatre tour on this scale by New Zealand artists took place in 2000, with Dave Dobbyn, Bic Runga and Tim Finn. Three of our biggest-ever artists, sharing a stage at the height of their fame — unlike these guys, who have been together a mere 18 months.

Yet if sales to their final three arena shows go well, Sol3 Mio will eclipse Dobbyn et al. Their album outsold Lorde’s locally and went quintuple platinum in just six weeks. They are now signed to the world’s largest classical label, Decca, who will release the album in the UK this month.

 

It’s not all good: a pair of paradoxes lurk at the edge of this rocketing fame. Although the trio might adore opera, the more successful they are with their crossover opera/light-entertainment show, the less chance they’ll get to sing those arias.

Older folk still buy CDs. The opera trio had the biggest-selling album — yes, Lorde included — last year.

More problematically, they formed to show 20-somethings like them that opera wasn’t just for oldies — yet it’s mostly rest homes which have emptied out tonight. Gold Card-toters make up the clear majority of their fanbase. They laugh at Sound of Music jokes while remaining nonplussed at a Happy Feet reference. When a song’s announced, instead of cheering, they sigh contentedly. If Sol3 Mio aren’t careful, they’ll be stuck with this audience. It might already have happened.

Here’s the thing about older folk, though: they have money and aren’t shy about spending it. Another: they still buy CDs. Tellingly, the average King’s Arms band has more Spotify streams than Sol3 Mio, but the opera trio had the biggest-selling album — yes, Lorde included — last year. A Spotify stream nets a record company around $0.008. An album retails for $20.

Little wonder they’ve attracted some of the sharpest minds in the New Zealand music business. Adam Holt of Universal Music signed them. Civic Events, run by famed promoters Brent Eccles and Campbell Smith, is handling the tour. And Scott Maclachlan’s Saiko, most famous for their work with Lorde, are their management.

Of course, albums and shows aren’t Sol3 Mio’s only revenue streams. They also have a nifty line of merchandise. They hawk programmes and T-shirts from the Founder’s Theatre stage, using cheesy humour as a very effective consumer weapon. “Aren’t there tea towels out there?” asks Pene from the stage. “So you can wash the albums?”

Right now, though, all this money has remained tantalisingly beyond the reach of Sol3 Mio themselves. There was a meeting in their dressing room earlier in the evening: they discussed the UK album release, an international tour manager, the booking agents all lining up to work with them. World domination, basically.

Afterwards, Maclachlan asked if there was anything on their minds. “Crazy question!” says Moses Mackay, the most direct of the trio. “When do we start getting paid? My card was declined at Countdown the other day.”

“That happened to Ella [Yelich-O ’Connor, aka Lorde] at the same time,” said Maclachlan. But these shows, which should gross around $2 million, will finally get them out of the endless hustle that has been their professional life to this point. “Your income for the tour will cover your costs for the rest of the year,” said Saiko’s Amy Goldsmith. All three smiled at that.

Soon it will be go time. They pound some Powerade Zero and eat some raw broccoli. The alternatives were Coke Zero and Sprite Zero, raw carrots and almonds. It’s easily the tamest rider I’ve ever seen, but there’s method in the blandness. They’re on a strict diet and exercise regime.

Repetition and endless downtime is what tends to drive the mythical hedonism of artists on tour. Wake, eat, drive, eat, soundcheck, eat, play, drink, sleep. Rinse and repeat. Do that for a month and you’ll come back 10kg heavier with a week-long hangover.

It was Sol3 Mio — not their promoters or their management — who looked at their waistlines, thought about the year ahead and decided to short-circuit the routine. They joined a gym, started calorie counting, had a personal-trainer friend put together a dietary and training regime and — except on one glorious occasion — they kept to it.

The first day is always the hardest. Over dinner, Pene, a burly former prop forward, looked down at a giant mound of lettuce and sighed. “I can’t do this.” He added: “I ordered a [Subway] six-inch for lunch. First time in my life I’ve ever ordered a six-inch.”

It’s fuel enough. Three hours later, the first date’s down. Nineteen to go.

 

Sol3 Mio
Family rough-housing: Pene Pati (left), Amitai Pati and Moses Mackay

 

Day four: TSB Showplace, New Plymouth / March 6

I rejoin the tour for the third show, flying into New Plymouth early on the afternoon of showday. Across the aisle sits promoter Campbell Smith, who is attending every one of the first week’s dates. Brent Eccles will take the second half of the tour.

I ask whether heading out on the road might be a bit below these guys’ pay grade. After all, Smith runs the Big Day Out and Eccles just toured Springsteen. But to Smith, making a new artist feel valued is some of the most important work he does. There are other advantages to being on the ground, too. An incident the following night in Palmerston North will require all his nous as a promoter.

The plane descends into a crisp, cloudless Taranaki day. On the drive into town we discuss the Hamilton show. It was an undeniable hit, but there was a routine in the second half that jarred harshly. Pene came out wearing a blonde wig and shrieked through Adele’s “Someone Like You”. There were jokes about the English singer’s voice and size, a brand of humour at odds to Sol3 Mio’s usual sweet self-deprecation.

I voice my misgivings and Smith admits his own. We’re not the only ones. During the meeting in Hamilton, Maclachlan passed on some feedback they’d received from a London showcase they’d performed in February.

“The purists thought maybe there was too much slapstick,” he said delicately. “They think this is a serious medium. But this tour is a great opportunity to finesse that.”

It will require a very deft touch, because humour is precisely what differentiates them from the likes of Amici Forever, a successful, now-defunct popera group. Amici’s leader, New Zealander Geoff Sewell, insisted on calling them “Sol Three Mio” when I interviewed him, and disparaged them for needing grants.

Grants have had almost no bearing on Sol3 Mio’s fame. They raised the majority of the combined $100,000 tuition fees they needed to attend the Wales International Academy of Voice through DIY tours.

Grants have had almost no bearing on Sol3 Mio’s fame. They raised the majority of the combined $100,000 tuition fees they needed to attend the Wales International Academy of Voice — an elite course which takes only 20 students a year — through DIY tours, learning a lot about stage performance along the way. They’re still learning: each of the four shows I witness is an improvement on the last, and the Adele segment never recurs. Instead they add an interactive version of The Sound of Music’s “Edelweiss”. The crowd becomes an impromptu choir; it’s a very affecting and climactic moment each night.

 

When we pull up to the hotel Pene is sitting on the steps eating a Pita Pit wrap. “It’s all I’m allowed,” he says with a smile. Their self-imposed diet becomes a staple of the on-road humour. He looks refreshed after a day off, during which they visited the Waitomo caves, gaining free entry in exchange for a song. While a normal commercial hire would run to thousands of dollars, Pene looks thrilled — like they got the better part of that deal.

A couple of hours later we meet in the lobby ahead of soundcheck. Mike Peters, a heavyset and unflappable tour manager, guides us to an eight-seater Kia, and we head to the venue. It is around 300 metres from door to door. At times he can be a little too fastidious.

During soundcheck their uncle PJ arrives, a grey-haired, loud-shirted fellow, who has joined the tour from his home in Whanganui. He’s more than earned his backstage pass — they’ve played his hometown more than their own, and he has always handled the promotion.

They sit around a large rectangular table in the green room, remembering the early days. It’s subterranean, with a low ceiling, and despite being the smallest of the week is still bigger than the venue they first played — a masonic room in Cambridge.

The fundraising shows were DIY to the edge of farce. Catering was handled by family, ticketing by the band. “I was backstage in my suit, selling tickets off my phone. People were emailing me, saying, ‘We’re outside, can we get tickets?’ It got to the point where I said, ‘Free concert — just come in,’” says Moses. “Free concert?” says Smith, shuddering at the thought.

“Now I don’t even have to turn the piano on,” marvels their accompanist Claire Caldwell, who’s been with them from their first performance. (In parts of the show, all three singers also play various instruments. No end to their talents, these guys.)

The fundraising hustle lasted almost to the moment they got on the plane for Wales. Pene recalls rummaging through a courier van for passports on a Saturday afternoon — with the course starting that Monday. They arrived just in time, only to be accused of not taking it seriously. “Are you kidding me?” he thought. “Do you know what we’ve been doing the last month?”

Uncle PJ smiles wryly, then offers, “You don’t build character by having an easy time.”

Nothing’s come easy to Sol3 Mio. The Pati brothers attended Aorere College, a decile-two school with a fairly rudimentary music department. Mackay went to Rosmini, and was expected to star at sports, not opera. The Patis learned their trade singing in rest homes every week for 14 years; Mackay learned his singing for dementia patients. Now Pene is being talked about as a new Pavarotti, and Amitai and Mackay aren’t far behind.

This has led to some high-profile attention. Andre Rieu is arguably the biggest star in classical music: known as the “King of the Waltz”, he’s grossed over $US500 million in concert earnings, and a while back he took a shine to Sol3 Mio. It didn’t work out.

“Andre Rieu wanted to put this video together showing him discovering us singing beside the road in Samoa.”

“He was too demanding,” says Pene, euphemistically. “He wanted to put this video together showing him discovering us singing beside the road in Samoa. And say that it was his idea that we do a group. He wanted us to do a haka and rip our suits off. We canned it.”

The clock crawls round to eight. “It’s time to get,” says Peters. A circle is formed, a short prayer intoned. Hands are shaken, backs are patted. Then it’s on up the darkened staircase.

 

A bit after 10 the final encore is done. They sign autographs after each show, a process which takes up to an hour, thanks largely to selfies — they’re not just for teens — which add another layer to nearly every transaction.

Is the crowd full of classical buffs disappointed by the relative paucity of opera in the set? It doesn’t seem so. I speak to three generations of the Henshalwood family after they’ve had their Sol3 Mio moment, about what brought them along.

“I love Pavarotti and all that carry on,” says the grandmother. “I don’t like the sheilas.”

“The sopranos?” “Yeah. I suppose I’m a bit uncouth.”

Heather Allen is head of front of house — effectively boss of the ushers. It’s a voluntary position she’s held since the 70s. She watches the scene, beaming. I ask her what she thought of the show.

“Very, very good,” she says. “If white people said jokes like that it wouldn’t work.” Later she talks admiringly of a kid she’d seen singing on TV, “brown, like them”. There’s a tension between these young Samoan New Zealanders and their older Pakeha audience. Conversation with the crowd can get awkward.

The following night, in the balmy afterglow of the Palmerston North show, another usher is chatting with Campbell Smith. “I know they’re not New Zealanders,” she says, “but we understand them.”

“They most certainly are New Zealanders,” shoots back Smith.

“They’re proud Tongans, though,” she says defensively. Just 30 minutes earlier Sol3 Mio had closed their show, as they always do, with an emotional rendition of “We Are Samoa”. Close, but no cigar.

For many in the audience, they simply lack the language to talk about these guys.

It’s easy to labour this stuff, but I’m not sure it would be fair. This is ignorance and inexperience mixed with goodwill: for many in the audience, they simply lack the language to talk about these guys.

For the most part it’s a quite beautiful thing to watch these two sections of modern New Zealand, meeting in something like awe of each other. The comments inscribed on fan club membership forms found on every seat speak to the way the crowd feels. Pene reads them out after the last of the autograph hunters have gone. “My eyes and ears are open to opera.”

And, in that spidery hand possessed by all grandmothers, “Thank you for making the world a better place.” All-round melt.

Sol3 Mio

 

Day five: Regent on Broadway, Palmerston North / March 7

The crew don’t finish packing down until after 2am, and rise for a 6am lobby call. Artists run a different schedule — they meet for gym at 9am. Sport is in their blood, along with the singing: Mackay played age-group rugby for North Harbour; Pene convinced his whole Aorere first XV to join the choir, and during his time in Wales was the top try scorer in Cardiff club rugby.

We walk to the local branch of Jetts. It’s cardio day, so 50 reps of exercises like sliders, mini push-ups and this strange motion that resembles breaststroke on dry land. Each one interspersed with a 200m treadmill run. Hanging out with them, I feel obliged to muck in with them. It’s no joke. Just when you near total exhaustion there’s a section which includes 15 of each in a row, followed by 1km on the treadmill. By the close they’ve taken a quarter of an hour out of the time for the equivalent set four days earlier. Off and running.

We eat breakfast at Chaos, a local cafe which feels like a painstakingly assembled tribute to Wellington’s Cuba St circa 2002, down to the large-scale graffiti canvas which serves as a logo, and Black Seeds on the stereo. The boys had packed up and got out promptly despite Peters securing them a late checkout. They have the opposite of a rock-star mentality — insisting on playing by the rules, even when expressly told they don’t have to.

Peters, Caldwell and I demolish large cooked breakfasts. Sol3 Mio pick through porridge, muesli or poached eggs on one piece of toast. With no great enthusiasm.

We pile into the Kia. Pene sits next to luggage in the back seat, while Mackay, Amitai and I share the cramped middle row. Caldwell is up front. The best seat in the car, but Sol3 Mio wouldn’t dream of taking it.

We chat idly as we roll out of New Plymouth. Mt Taranaki is shrouded in cloud, but the remainder of the sky is a brilliant, endless blue. Soon the pillows come out and, within 30 seconds of one another, all three are sound asleep.

They remain so all the way to Whanganui. There’s 20 minutes for some Pita Pit — who will do well out of this tour — then we’re off for the last hour or so on to Palmy. On the way out of town we pass a beloved pie shop. Last visit it nearly caused a major problem with the tour. “I didn’t know how I was going to explain missing a flight because I was buying pies,” says Pene. They gaze wistfully.

 

Later that evening I arrive at the Regent, another beautifully restored old theatre, and find Pene holed up in a quiet corner of the labyrinthine backstage. His huge frame is bent over an iPad, lit by a showbiz mirror surrounded by little light bulbs. Caldwell is further down the bench, playing a Roland digital piano. Her hands dance over the keys while she sings an aria from Verdi’s La Traviata.

As soon as this tour’s done, Sol3 Mio are off to the UK, before Pene is reunited with the San Francisco Opera and the other two take up European opera dates. Reviews have praised Pene lavishly: “A lithe and radiant tone, deep theatrical instincts and plenty of charisma.”

One career is infinitely more lucrative, the other more artistically fulfilling. Showbiz fame or an opera career: it’s hard to see how they can have both.

Next year, Saiko wants Sol3 Mio to mount a full-scale assault on the US. Next year also, San Francisco Opera wants a full year from Pene. One career is infinitely more lucrative, the other more artistically fulfilling. Showbiz fame or an opera career: it’s hard to see how they can have both.

In the meantime, Pene is shoehorning in practice wherever he can. “Nulla son io per lui” he reads aloud, then tentatively translates: “I’m not for him”? “I’m nothing to him,” corrects Caldwell. All three are learning Italian, German and French on the fly.

Much of the discussion is technical, with Caldwell instructing on rhythm (“You’ve got a semi-quaver there — but that one’s a quaver”) or pitch (“You’re hearing such a strong f-sharp — you’d like to have it. But you can’t. Sorry”) or sentiment (“non vingano — shut up girlfriend, basically”).

The session ends, and Amy Goldsmith brings back some gifts the audience has brought along, including three pairs of hand-knitted slippers. Campbell Smith looks bemused. That doesn’t happen on his winery tours.

A few minutes later, they’re under lights, magnified versions of their off-stage selves. Pene is loud, quick to laugh, constantly cracking jokes and, despite his all-world talent, careful not to push himself in front of his younger bandmates. Mackay seems the most naturally self-confident, revelling in his ability to surprise the old white folk with his immaculate pronunciation of French and Italian. He’s supremely focused, with a strong hand on the performance’s momentum and shape.

Amitai is the only one who carries traces of nervousness — he’s slightly stiff in his posture, sometimes wooden in his delivery. He’s prone to disappearing, mostly to call or text his longtime girlfriend, who’s at the Wales International Academy of Voice. But his boyish good looks and the delicacy of his tenor (“He’s my favourite,” says Caldwell) mark him as the potential face of the group, and even through the week I’m with them you can see his confidence grow, nourished by these rapt crowds.

 

The show starts brilliantly, until someone in the darkness at the far left of stage produces a loud, pronounced groan. I had been joking earlier — in extremely poor taste — about the near inevitability of someone dying in the crowd, given their vast number and advanced years. For an awful moment I thought it was occurring in front of me. It felt like I’d willed it into happening.

On stage, Pene hears it too, and instantly clocks that it’s someone with a form of disability. But as they’re miked up full-time, he can’t whisper to Amitai and Mackay. With audience interaction a big part of their act, he prays the others don’t mishear the sound as a yawn and crack a joke.

Soon a second voice joins in, forming a wailing chorus. I’m at the sound desk with Campbell Smith, who is in an awful bind: does he leave them in and let them disrupt that half of the theatre? People are already starting to complain. Or does he have them removed and look like the worst person in the world?

He heads for the exits, grabbing an usher on the way. When he returns, he’s got an armful of merch. Fortunately, the situation has already begun to resolve itself. One patron has already been wheeled out — their carer says his charge has cerebral palsy and the vocalising is pure joy. Soon the second exits too. They’re grateful for the gifts, and the carers understand about the dilemma. The crisis passes and the show goes on.

The show comes down, the autograph crowd forms a line that snakes out the door and down the block, and Sol3 Mio, signing tea-towels, know that tomorrow will bring the most anticipated date of the tour: in Wellington’s magnificent Michael Fowler Centre.

Sol3 Mio

 

Day six: Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington / March 8

Before the beauty, there’s brutality. Another gym session, and this time it’s legs. Yesterday’s cardio played to my weedy white strengths; an hour of leg weights, foolishly trying to match these first XV-calibre forwards, leaves me shaky and aching for days.

Breakfast is the beacon which makes it all worthwhile. After I check out, Peters pulls up, but without Caldwell and Sol3 Mio. He says we’ll grab them on the way.

They’re at Cafe Brie, on the outskirts of the Palmy city centre, which is hosting part of the Rotary Club’s Youth Music Festival. An enthusiastic, rat-tailed boy met Sol3 Mio after the show last night and asked them to come to his show. And while Sol3 Mio are tired, hungry and have a fairly important date that evening, they showed up. Once there they sang “Hallelujah” with the kid, then stayed over an hour, signing autographs, taking photos and watching the performances.

This behaviour is bizarre. The tour manager is unimpressed, the pianist is keen to go, uncle PJ is waiting out front in the car and Mackay’s mother has to leave, because she’s cursed with a bacon allergy — seriously — that means she can’t spend long in cafés. But Sol3 Mio stick around.

These guys just give and give and expect nothing in return. Whatever the source of that attitude, making every fan’s interaction with them deeply affecting is no small contributor to their success.

This isn’t for my benefit: I’m beyond hungry and not a little grouchy at this point. There’s no other media present. These guys just give and give and expect nothing in return. Whatever the source of that attitude — instinct, culture or upbringing — making every fan’s interaction with them deeply affecting is no small contributor to their success.

It’s nearly midday when they finish. Any chance of stealing a couple of hours’ rest in Wellington is gone. This is unfortunate, because Pene has twice recently sacrificed his bed to visiting family and is severely fatigued. Once again, though, they’re asleep within minutes of hitting the road.

 

That evening, a little after 7pm, Sol3 Mio have sequestered themselves away in dressing rooms, all branching off a short, narrow hallway with five identical doors and a lift down to the stage. I stand, listening to the warm-up ritual. All three are doing scales, moving in and out of time with one another. Occasionally a few scattered notes of Caldwell’s piano ring out of a fourth room. It’s deeply eerie.

A few minutes later they emerge, ready for action. Or almost ready: Pene has forgotten to bring socks. It’s 15 minutes until they go on stage and he doesn’t want to flash a bare ankle. Someone volunteers to hit the local supermarket, but there’s no time. Neither Smith nor I are wearing black socks. A hunt begins. PJ wanders in and relieves the rising tension — he’s wearing some. He sits and starts to untie his laces. Before the first shoe falls a pair is located alongside the watercooler. The show will go on.

Amy Goldsmith and I take our seats. It’s the fourth time I’ve seen the show this week, and I become so accustomed to hearing them at this time of the evening that I play the album at home during dinner the night after I get off tour. For all the familiarity, though, tonight feels different. The crowd is way up. They’re a bit younger and more cosmopolitan — there’s a guy waving a Samoan flag, even. They’re more boisterous, too. Someone shouts “cha-hoo” at one point.

Sol3 Mio respond in kind. They’re looser, more relaxed. They’re making mistakes and turning them into the night’s best jokes. Guy Williams, the radio host and Billy T-winning comedian, is in town, and sits alongside us. He leans over and whispers, “I hate these guys, because they’re funnier than me.” He’s wrong. But not that wrong.

The show is more emotional tonight too. Mackay dedicates “Tell My Father” to a friend whose dad died a couple of weeks earlier, and chokes up. Pene is similarly affected when talking of his sister’s move back to Samoa. She asked that Caldwell wear something of hers on stage that night “so she’d be with the boys”. There’s something very affecting about watching young men so at ease with expressing loss and sadness as well as joy and laughter.

I can’t help but feel that comes both from their personalities and the intrinsic qualities of the music. As a contemporary music critic, I find their presentation of opera fascinating. Modern pop music is arguably the popular cultural form which has been most markedly influenced by the values and aesthetics of 20th century art movements. Minimalism, repetition, DIY. The idea that the quality of a voice is less about its purity of tone than what it conveys.

Genres like EDM, folk, country, hip hop and synth pop — the core of our charts and critical obsessions — are all essentially street musics which mainstreamed. We take this stuff for granted, but it’s radical at heart.

The rise of the global pop industrial complex has, to my mind, been a wonderful and democratic thing. Yet it has served to ignore and thus diminish by implication what’s worthwhile about the scale, drama and resonance of classical music. Especially opera.

The opera is essential and superbly executed, but “Ten Guitars” and “My Way”?

To stop this being a nostalgia trip, however, Sol3 Mio will have to address a few lingering issues. Like the genre balance. The opera is essential and superbly executed, but “Ten Guitars” and “My Way”?

Staging and lighting is simple to the point of banality. Aside from the music played live by the trio and Caldwell, they use recorded orchestral arrangements that veer into saccharine: panpipes and billowy synthesised strings.

It manifestly works for this audience — but it won’t bring young people into the opera tent. Their superb cover of 90s R&B classic “No Diggity” would help, were it incorporated into the live set. But what we really need is opera: more of it, and more challenging selections. Trusting that their humour, storytelling, talent and charisma will keep us hooked. The other music can feel like a crutch, one used more out of habit than necessity, at this point. Success can entrap as easily as liberate, and if Sol3 chain themselves to this audience they may lose the opportunity to connect to a younger crowd.

You can only play what’s in front of you, though. Tonight is a triumph — their finest show yet — and everyone from the singers to the crew knows it. Afterwards, with a travel day to follow, there’s every reason to finally cut loose.

Fat chance. Back at the Intercontinental, crew, family and performers chat happily but wearily in the lobby bar. Peters buys a round of 40-year-old Glenfarclas, which runs to over $200. In Hamilton he told me, quoting Eccles, “There’s good money and bad money on tour. Looking after artists is always good money.”

After a show like this, it’s hard to deny. The whisky doesn’t distract them from the tour ahead, though, and they turn in not long after 1am.

 

Day seven: Travel day, Wellington–Whanganui / March 10

We reconvene at nine for breakfast. All week there had been talk brewing of a “cheat day”, when the dietary rules would go out the window. Today, inspired by the Intercontinental’s fine buffet, it’s time. Mackay starts things rolling with five poached eggs. Pene ups the ante with seven, which he swiftly bumps up to 10. I ask Mackay if he’s going to follow.

“I could. But I’d be uncomfortable,” he says.

“You can’t do it Moss,” heckles Pene.

Mackay won’t stand for that. He gets up, does some elaborate stretches and heads to the buffet. Moments later he returns with a bowl containing six poached eggs. Even Pene looks shocked. “You can have the win.”

In all, Mackay eats 13 eggs. Halfway through he pauses for a moment, sips his English breakfast tea and grins broadly. “What are you smiling at?” asks Goldsmith.

“Life,” he says.

 

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