Great Walks for Wusses: My Top 10 North Island Day Walks

When it comes to outdoor activities, I’m a bit of a wuss. I like tramping – nature, fresh air, fitness – but I don’t like getting muddy. Or sleeping in huts or tents. Or going through streams. Basically, I like to be comfortable. (And what’s wrong with that?)

New Zealand is a very outdoorsy nation. Bush walks are a big thing. The Department of Conservation maintains nine ‘Great Walks’ around the country, but they all take a few days to do. I like walks I can do in less than a day. Happily, New Zealand has more of those than you can count.

As I live in the North Island of New Zealand, I’m more familiar with the North Island’s range of day walks. I haven’t mentioned any South Island tracks for that reason, but from what I have seen of the South Island, the walks down there are even more beautiful than the walks up here.

This is a list of my top ten North Island day walks.

1) Karangahake Gorge

Karangahake Gorge 017

I’ve posted about Karangahake Gorge on this blog before. It really is my favourite place to go walking. An hour and a half southeast of Auckland, its spectacular walls tower over you as the Ohinemuri River alternately rushes and meanders below. There’s a variety of intersecting walks, both short and long, leading you not only through bush, but abandoned mines and railway tunnels. It’s historically interesting as well as breathtakingly beautiful, and there’s a gorgeous swimming hole to picnic at.

2) The Waitakere Ranges

There’s a whole heap of walks to do in ‘the Waitaks’ – a bushy, hilly wilderness right next to Auckland City. If you want classic New Zealand rainforest, this is it, plus it’s really easy to get to. A great place to start is the Arataki Visitor Centre, especially if you’re new to New Zealand. I learned a lot there as a recently emigrated kid. There are also some good walks from the Cascade Kauri park. The Waitakere Dam is a must-see if you’re in the area, but the Waitakere Dam Walk is too short and easy, even for a wuss like me. I’d go to the dam and start another walk from there.

3) The Tongariro Crossing

The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is the most demanding day walk on this list, but still doable for wusses for like me. It’s something you should seriously consider doing if you visit New Zealand. It takes about seven hours, but it’s seven hours across a truly remarkable landscape. You might recognise parts of it as Mordor from The Lord of the Rings films – it’s so cool walking through an active volcanic zone! Mount Ngauruhoe looks amazing from the track. Then there’s the stunning Emerald Lakes… It might be a little strenuous at times, but you don’t need top-grade hiking boots – sturdy trainers will do. I know a guy who did it in jandals, but he’s a Kiwi. They’re like that.

Ngauruhoe

Ngauruhoe

4) Puketi Forest

I visited the Puketi Forest when I was in Kerikeri and, honestly, it was the most beautiful patch of bush I’ve ever encountered. Northland is famous for its magnificent kauri specimens, and the ones in the Puketi Forest are certainly magnificent. Kauri trees can grow to over fifty metres tall and five metres wide! There are walks of varying length in the area, including a twenty-minute boardwalk that is not only fantastic for people in wheelchairs – it’s elevated above the undergrowth and, as such, gives you a whole different perspective of the forest. It’s magical.

The raised boardwalk

The raised boardwalk

5) The Putangirua Pinnacles

You know the bit in The Return of the King when Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli go to find the Army of the Dead? Well the Dimholt Road was filmed at the Putangirua Pinnacles in Wairarapa. (‘The Putangirua Pinnacles’ is often shortened to ‘the Pinnacles’ – don’t confuse it with ‘the Pinnacles’ in the Coromandel like I did.) The track’s a little rough, so definitely don’t try this one in jandals, but it only takes about two hours and it’s worth it for the scenery. It’s quite alien; a most impressive example of badlands erosion.

6) The Waitomo Walkway

Waitomo is known for its spellbinding collection of caves rather than its walks, but, as my family found when we visited Waitomo on a New Zealand campervan holiday, the walks are pretty good too. I’ve raved about the Waitomo Caves on this blog in the past, but I didn’t talk about the awesome rock formations on the surface, the ones we found at the end of the Waitomo Walkway. It goes from Waitomo Village to the Ruakuri Scenic Reserve, following a stream. I really enjoyed it. There were archways of stone to walk under, boulders to scramble on, an enchanting bridge surrounded by trees and great picnic spots. It was decent length walk too.

Waitomo again – it’s like you’re Alice walking through a keyhole into Wonderland!

The Waitomo Walkway – it’s like you’re Alice walking through a keyhole into Wonderland!

7) Tiritiri Matangi

Tiritiri Matangi is an island off the coast of Auckland that’s a sanctuary for native birds. The ferry to get there is quite expensive, but it’s well worth going. Not only do you get to see lots of endangered birds, the island itself is really nice to walk around. The views are fantastic. You don’t need to take the guided tour – you can spend the day exploring the various paths on your own. There’s an old lighthouse to discover, and when you’re done walking you can swim in the sea.

A view from Tiritiri

A view from Tiritiri

8) Cathedral Cove Walk

I’ve written about the beauty of Cathedral Cove elsewhere on this blog – I think it’s New Zealand’s best beach. To get there, though, you either have to take a boat or do a steep three-quarters-of-an-hour walk (from the Cathedral Cove car park. It’s about half an hour more from Hahei, which you might end up doing, as the Cathedral Cove car park is often full.) I definitely recommend a water bottle on this walk – I hadn’t realised it would be such a strenuous walk to get to the beach and I was gasping! The sheer majesty of Cathedral Cove, though, is more than worth the walk.

Cathedral Cove 1cropped

From the ‘cathedral’

9) Mount Victoria

If you ever go to Wellington, you have to climb Mount Victoria. It’s not difficult, but it is nicely bracing. The view from the top is a treat. It’s easy to get to, as it’s right in the city, and there’s a good two-and-a-half-hour loop walk. It’s refreshing to walk through a pine forest in New Zealand, as opposed to the usual native bush. As an added bonus, the Mount Victoria forest is where Peter Jackson filmed the hobbits hiding from the Black Rider in The Fellowship of the Ring.

10) Rangitoto

Rangitoto is Auckland’s most iconic volcano. It forms an island in the Hauraki Gulf, so, naturally, you have to catch a ferry there. The walk to the summit passes through bush and over open lava fields. The crater is quite something to see, as are the views back to Auckland City, and there are lava caves to explore, which is quite fun. There are lots of different routes to choose from. You can easily spend a day meandering over the island, but don’t miss the ferry back! Also, don’t forget to take a hat, as the lava fields are exposed and hot.

What’s great about all these walks is you don’t have to be super-fit or have ‘proper’ hiking equipment. You would, however, be stupid to do any of them without prudent preparation. Bring a hat, a rain jacket, sunscreen, food, water, reliable shoes, plasters, a torch, a mobile phone and clothes you don’t mind getting slightly muddy, and even wusses like me can enjoy walking. (A map would also be good, but the tracks are usually so well signposted you don’t need one.)

Rangitoto

Rangitoto

My Weekend in Wellington

I just got back from Wellington, the capitol city of New Zealand. I was really excited to go. I had been once before, but years ago, with my parents. All I remembered from that trip was getting my skirt blown up above my head in public. Wellington’s notorious for being ridiculously windy.

The 'Windy Wellington' sign

The ‘Windy Wellington’ sign from Mount Victoria

This time, however, there was hardly any wind at all. The weather was perfect – warm and sunny even though winter’s nearly here. I spent the weekend wandering around the city centre with my boyfriend and I loved it.

We’d been planning the trip for a while. We live in Auckland, but a friend of ours recently moved to Wellington to do a law degree and we wanted to visit him. We were originally going to take a campervan down, but time simply wasn’t on our side so we ended up flying.

It takes about nine hours to drive from Auckland to Wellington. If you do hire a campervan in Auckland, don’t try to do it all in one day. Good stops along the way are Hamilton and Taupo. My family spent the night in Taupo when we drove down to Wellington that time. Actually, it might have been two nights. We did a jet boat ride on Lake Taupo. That was fun.

Wellington 005

“Seriously, Gandalf, this is the last time…”

So my boyfriend and I got to Wellington on Saturday morning. As our plane came in to land, we saw a few ferries crossing Cook Strait. It was cool being able to see both the North and South Island at once. Our friend met us at the airport, which, I was delighted to discover, had a giant Lord of the Rings eagle hanging from the ceiling with Gandalf riding upon its back. There was also an enormous model of Sméagol looming over the food court.

In case you hadn’t noticed, New Zealand takes The Lord of the Rings very seriously, and Wellington is right at the epicentre of the hobbit mania. The city rebranded itself ‘the middle of Middle-earth’ – it is, after all, in the middle of New Zealand as well as being spiritually the centre of the whole Lord of the Rings franchise. Wellington is the cradle of the genius that is Peter Jackson. It is the home of Weta Workshop, which we didn’t visit, and the forest in which the hobbits hide from the Black Rider at the beginning of The Fellowship of the Ring. We did go there.

But first we went to Cuba Street. It’s famous for being Wellington’s premier shopping street, but I have to say that I wasn’t that impressed. There were a few mildly interesting shops and cafes and a few mildly interesting artworks, but if it weren’t for the surprising number of second-hand bookshops I would have been quite bored. The harbour front was different story.

Background: 50% of New Zealand’s navy

Wellington has the prettiest and most interesting harbour front in New Zealand. Lively with both locals and tourists, it has stunning sculptures and gorgeous views; random pieces of poetry and a fantastic bridge that’s a work of art in itself. As we made our way along, watching the people kayaking on the sapphire water, we found a colourful piano and a wonderful underground market. It was here that my boyfriend had the best crepe of his life.

After this, we made our way to the government district. Our law student friend showed us Government Buildings, built in 1876 out of wood and made to look like stone, because stone was deemed too expensive. (It ended up being really expensive anyway, much to the government’s embarrassment. The building was opened without fanfare.) Until recently, it was the largest wooden building in the world. The funny thing is a smaller building was constructed in its shadow, this one actually built out of stone, but they wanted it to match the original building – so it’s stone made to look like wood made to look like stone!

The Beehive

The Beehive

The next day we visited the Beehive, the architecturally controversial Executive Wing of New Zealand’s Parliament Buildings. From it, you can take a free tour of the Parliament Buildings. I’m not too interested in politics, but the tour was enjoyable. It’s strange to see such opulence in New Zealand: the marble, the gilding, the furniture, the artefacts, the stained-glass windows… There was even an exquisite sculpture of the hobbits hiding from the Black Rider. Yes, The Lord of the Rings is THAT important.

And staying with The Lord of the Rings, the next thing we did was climb Mount Victoria. The thing about Wellington is it’s all hilly – and big hills at that. The only flat part is the city centre, and it’s only flat because it’s built on reclaimed land. While this does make Wellington a very pretty city – every time you look up you see you’re surrounded by green hills, the houses merely white patches amongst verdant bush – it’s incredibly tiring to walk around. Also, due to the higgledy-windy-uppy-downy nature of the roads, buses take a lot longer than you think they should. By the time we got to the foot of Mount Victoria, we were already exhausted!

I found this somewhere on Mount Victoria

I found this somewhere on Mount Victoria

It was a really good walk up it, though. The forest that covers Mount Victoria is made up of pines rather than New Zealand natives. Probably why Peter Jackson chose it. We met an old lady with a pair of hiking poles coming the other way, and she told us how grateful she was to have such a good walk right by her house. It must be really easy to keep fit in Wellington. There were a lot of mountain bikers around as well, although I’d never dare to bike on such terrain.

Not the actual hobbit hiding place, but close

Not the actual hobbit hiding place, but close

The place where the hobbits hid from the Black Rider is barely worth taking a photograph of. The tree in the film is fake, so all that’s there is a depression in the slope just below the path, blanketed by brown pine needles. Above the path, however, there’s a rocky outcrop that looks more like it. In fact I remember getting a picture crouching there as a kid, pretending to be scared. I’m sure I shouted, “Get off the road!” at some point too.

The real treat of Mount Victoria is the view from the summit. You can see all of the city, the harbour, the surrounding hill, Cook Strait and, if you squint hard through the haze, the South Island. It was just beautiful. If you only do one thing in Wellington, climb Mount Victoria. It’s not too difficult and doesn’t take that long.

A view over Cook Strait

A view over Cook Strait

From the top of Mount Victoria, we walked down to Te Papa, renowned as New Zealand’s best museum. Although there weren’t any outstanding exhibitions on this time, there was certainly plenty to look at. The museum has a wonderful look to it, both futuristic and traditional. The displays are a treat for the eyes. One particular exhibition struck a chord with me: the history of New Zealand immigration. I must say, I’m very glad it only took my family twenty-four hours on a plane to reach New Zealand, as opposed to six months on a cramped, pestilential ship with a significant chance that not all of us would survive the journey.

The harbour from Te Papa

The harbour from Te Papa

We stayed at Te Papa until closing time. By then we were definitely in need of dinner, and our friend knew exactly where to take us: Inferno. He’d been raving about it all weekend. Newly opened on Courtenay Place, Inferno is an American-style chilli bar. The food is cheap and absolutely delicious. As well as the traditional chilli con carne, you can get a lamb and chocolate chilli and even a pork and spinach chilli. There are five levels of hotness: Mild, Medium, Hot, Extra Hot and Inferno. I was a wuss. I went for Extra Hot. Ooh, it was lovely. I think I could have had the Inferno, as long as I was careful not to get any on my lips. I got some of the Extra Hot on my lips and ended up having to wet them every few seconds to sooth the burning!

Courtenay Place, opposite the Embassy Theatre

Courtenay Place, opposite the Embassy Theatre

Rather fittingly, Inferno is just a few doors away from what our friend described as the best place to get gelato he’d ever been to. All weekend, we’d been promised the best ice-cream – sorry, gelato – of our lives, so, needless to say, our expectations were pretty high. The place was Kaffee Eis. There are a few of them throughout Wellington and, let me tell you now, you MUST visit one when you’re there. Our high expectations were not only met, but surpassed. It genuinely was the best ice-cream – sorry, gelato – we’ve ever had in our lives! Seriously. Oh, my goodness. Amazing.

My boyfriend had amaretto and I had white chocolate and coconut. Now, I’m not usually that keen on ice-cream – gelato, we get it! – but I simply didn’t want to stop licking this stuff. I was blown away. (Figuratively blown away. As I said, Windy Wellington was surprisingly calm last weekend.)

So, in conclusion: if you’re going to Wellington, make sure you pack a coat. The wind is usually quite cold. If you’re driving down from Auckland, make stops along the way. Once you’re there, make sure you visit the harbour front, Mount Victoria and Te Papa, and don’t leave without trying a Kaffee Eis gelato. Of course, there are heaps of other things to do, but that was my weekend in Wellington.

See more Lord of the Rings locations I’ve been to…

Top 10 Most Brilliantly Insane New Zealanders

Chances are you’ve heard the words ‘crazy’ and ‘Kiwi’ in the same sentence. This is because New Zealanders are insane.

No concern for personal safety, they throw themselves headlong into their obsessions, combining inherent ingenuity with mad optimism. Kiwis can conquer the world with a piece of number 8 wire, or so they enjoy telling themselves.

Reading this list of crazy kiwis, however, you might well believe it. The following 10 New Zealanders all displayed varying degrees of insanity – the brilliant kind of insanity – and have consequently left their mark upon on history:

1) Charles Upham

The life of Captain Charles Upham reads like an episode of Michael Palin’s Ripping Yarns. Born in Christchurch in 1908, Upham received not one, but two Victoria Crosses for his actions during World War II – the only person on the planet to achieve this. Before the war, he worked as a sheep farmer, (because what else is a New Zealander supposed to do?) During the war, he was a badass who single-handedly destroyed tanks and kept on fighting despite broken limbs, dysentery and being riddled with bullets. Eventually, he was taken as a prisoner of war, but the badassery didn’t stop there.

hitlercroppedYou see, Upham had what the Germans considered a nasty habit of trying to escape. Once, when he was with a group of POWs being transported by truck, he made a daring leap for freedom. He broke his ankle upon landing, but still made it 400 yards before he was caught. Another time, he was being transported by train. To prevent another daring leap for freedom, he was only allowed to go to the toilet when the train was moving at high speed. This, however, didn’t stop him. Unfortunately, being knocked unconscious on the tracks did.

Yet another time, he tried to climb a camp fence – in broad daylight. As you might imagine, this didn’t go so well and he got himself all caught up in barbed wire. But as he waited for the guards to arrive and shoot him, he did his most badass thing yet: lying there, casual as you please, he lit a cigarette. This amused the guards so much that they didn’t kill him. Instead, they took a photograph and let him back inside.

All these escape attempts – and several others besides – landed Upham in Colditz. He was there when Colditz was liberated by the Americans. As you’d expect, most of the POWs were now very eager to get home, but not Upham. He immediately armed himself and, presumably, roared, “Let me at ’em!”

2) Edmund Hillary

Of course this list was going to include Sir Edmund Hillary. Though he wasn’t quite the tank-killing badass Upham was, he shared Upham’s mad disregard for personal safety. Good thing too, or he’d have never conquered Everest.

New Zealand's highest mountain, Aoraki or Mount Cook

New Zealand’s highest mountain, Aoraki or Mount Cook

His attitude was ‘get to the top, or die doing it’. There he and Sherpa Tenzing were – sleep-deprived, affected by the altitude, scarily low on oxygen supplies – facing weather conditions that would have made any sane person turn back, and they carried on. And what did Hillary say when they’d returned victorious?

“We knocked the bastard off.”

3) A. J. Hackett

Any person who thinks it’s a good idea to tie a bungy cord round their ankles and leap from a great height must be at least a little insane. New Zealand’s Alan John Hackett turned it into an industry.

Born in Pukekohe, but raised on the North Shore, Hackett’s first bungy jump was off Auckland’s Upper Harbour Bridge. (He tested the cord with a bag of rocks first, which shows more foresight than most Kiwis.) The fact that he didn’t die encouraged him to jump off more and more bridges around New Zealand, but he wanted to get the attention of the world. What better way to do that than sneak up the Eifel Tower one evening, spend the night up there, and jump off it the next morning? That’s exactly what he did on June 26th, 1987.

He was arrested immediately afterwards, but – hey – totally worth it. The rest, as they say, is history.

4) Bill Hamilton

The Shotover Jet

The Shotover Jet

In 1974, South Islander Charles William Feilden Hamilton was knighted for his services to manufacturing. These included inventing a method of propelling oneself very quickly up very shallow rivers: the jet boat. I’ve been jet boating several times, and it really is insane – insanely fun, that is. I remember thinking, ‘The bloke who invented this must have been a right nutter.’ No, he was just a Kiwi.

From typical Kiwi bloke tinkering away in a shed to triumphant silencer of critics, Hamilton became an inspiration to mad inventors everywhere. His invention was the first boat ever to travel up and down the Grand Canyon. Like A. J. Hackett, Hamilton’s daring spawned an industry. Chances are you’ll find yourself riding a jet boat when you come to New Zealand!

5) Burt Munro

Who’s seen The World’s Fastest Indian? Well that was about this guy. (Not an Indian, a Kiwi.) Born in Invercargill – the city Mick Jagger described as ‘the arsehole of the world’ – Burt Munro had a need for speed. Growing up on a farm – New Zealand, remember – he dreamed of escaping Invercargill, because who doesn’t?

pyrotechnicscroppedIn 1920, Munro got himself an Indian ‘Scout’ motorcycle and started modifying it to go faster. Poor as he was, he’d make his own parts out of old tins, often working all through the night, as he had a full-time job. After his wife divorced him – God knows why – he gave up his job and lived in a garage with his tools.

After about 40 years of modifying and re-modifying the Indian, Munro took it all the way to Utah to test its speed on the Bonneville Salt Flats. As a man in his sixties, he set three world records, one of which stands to this day.

6) Nancy Wake

Nancy Grace Augusta Wake was one of the most decorated servicewomen of World War II. As badass in her way as Charles Upham, Wake was an important guerrilla fighter in the French Resistence and the Gestapo’s most wanted. She killed a member of the SS with her bare hands for goodness’ sake!

Wake was born in Wellington in 1912. (We’ll ignore the fact that her family moved to Australia in 1914.) At the age of 16, she ran away from home. By the 1930s, she was a journalist in Europe and, as such, witness to the rise of the Nazis. In 1939, she married a Frenchman, and was living in Marseille when Germany invaded. She joined the Resistance as a courier.

IMGP0121With the looks of a femme fetale, Wake had a particular talent for charming her way past guards and eluding capture. The Gestapo called her the White Mouse, which sounds pretty cool. She was forced to flee Marseille in 1943, but her husband was captured, tortured and executed. She’d soon be back with a vengeance. In 1944, working for the British Special Operations Executive, she parachuted into Auvergne to make contact with the Resistance. The local leader found her tangled up in a tree and said, “I hope that all the trees in France bear such beautiful fruit this year.” She said, in her badass way, “Don’t give me that French shit.”

Wake had no compunction about shooting people in cold blood, nor killing Nazis with her bare hands, and claimed to have never been afraid in her life. Upon being offered honours by the Australian government, she told them “they could stick their medals where the monkey stuck his nuts.” Awesome.

7) Peter Jackson

Bag End 2Now Sir Peter Jackson is completely insane. His obsession with making The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit films as accurate possible extended to having  the sets, costumes and props rendered in such minute detail that you’d never see it all on screen. Take the Hobbiton set, for example. It was built as an actual, proper village that could be lived in by Council standards. Most of it didn’t even make it into the films, or only made it in for second. There were trees in the village that were different to the particular trees that Tolkien mentioned in his books, so what did Jackson do? He had each individual leaf and fruit removed and replaced with thousands of individual fake leaves and fruits of the right sort. Mad!

Jackson’s earlier works include the gory Bad Taste and the even gorier Braindead. If the films themselves don’t disturb you, trying thinking about the mind they sprung from! When he was a little kid, he tried to remake King Kong with his own stop motion effects. He also dug up his parents’ lawn in an effort to recreate the Somme. Jackson is a self-taught filmmaker, showing as much of the backyard inventive genius as Burt Munro or Bill Hamilton. He’s done so much for New Zealand and I can’t wait to see what he does next.

8) Jean Batten

Tim's Graduation 029Jean Gardner Batten was one ballsy lady. Born in Rotorua, she became, in 1936, the first person ever to fly solo from England to New Zealand. Before that, she’d well and truly beaten Amy Johnson’s England-to-Australia solo flight, and afterwards she continued to break records. She was world-famous and always made sure she emerged from the cockpit perfectly made-up. She was sexy and she knew it. (She wasn’t above batting her eyelashes at men to fund her flights.)

She was ambitious and eccentric, yet despite apparently relishing attention, Batten became increasingly reclusive. She died in obscurity – no one even knew about it until five years afterwards – from a dog bite that she refused to get treatment for. Ah well. Anyone who’s ever entered Auckland Airport knows how much New Zealand loves her.

9) Richard Pearse

Richard Pearse, the South Island farmer who may well have achieved mechanical flight nine months before the Wright Brothers, was actually nicknamed ‘Mad Pearse’. People laughed at his inventions and they laughed when he crashed into hedges, but on (possibly) 31st March, 1903, he flew his monoplane (possibly) 140 metres. Before injuring his collarbone crashing into a hedge.

Culture 3croppedIt’s frustrating that his flight attempts weren’t properly recorded. He consequently died in obscurity. Even if Pearse did beat the Wright Brothers into the air, however, his flight was not controlled as theirs was. His achievement, though, was possibly more remarkable, as he had no money and no mechanical training. He was just a Kiwi in a shed working with scrap, like Burt Munro and many, many others.

10) Glenn Martin

Glenn Martin certainly fits the now-familiar crazy-Kiwi-inventing-things-by-night-in-a-garage type. You may not have heard of him, but you’re about to. The thrill-seeker from Dunedin has spent the last 30 years inventing a proper, commercially-viable jetpack.

Yes, that’s right. A jetpack.

Apparently, one night in the early ’80s, Martin was sitting around with his uni mates. They were talking about how disappointed they were that jetpacks hadn’t been invented yet and, well, Martin decided to take matters into his own hands. He’d always liked building things – a trait that had made him somewhat of a fire hazard as a kid – and by the time he left university, he’d already designed a ducted fan flying machine.

IMGP0198Soon to go on sale, (for $150,000,) the Martin Jetpack is capable flying for a full thirty minutes, reaching speeds of 74km an hour and heights of over 800 feet. Just goes to show that Kiwis can invent anything.

More NZ Top Lists

Holiday in New Zealand

Last Night of the Poms: The Story of Our Move to New Zealand

The streets of Edinburgh were strange. Alien. I felt disconnected from the world as we walked, hardly aware of my mum holding my hand. Something was wrong. They hadn’t said anything, my mum and dad, but my stomach was attacking itself in warning. That, and I was hungry.

Dad was on edge. Every time we crossed a road he glared left and right as though it was the city’s fault that he wasn’t where he needed to be. A conference, they’d said. ‘Daddy has to go to a conference.’ Apparently, he didn’t know how to get there. He’d started using car-words. (Words that only Daddy was allowed to say and only in the car.)

My little sister was oblivious to this developing turmoil. She kept running ahead and shouting, “PACHY!” – much to my mum’s embarrassment. (She didn’t realise she was being racist. Her imaginary friend was a pachycephalosaurus.) She didn’t even know what a conference was. I only had a vague idea. It was something frightening.

My family in Retford, the year before we moved to New Zealand

My family in Retford, the year before we moved to New Zealand

Eventually, sick of my whinging, Dad told Mum to take ‘the girls’ to get some food – he’d find the conference on his own. I was relieved we no longer had to hurry after him, but still confused. Why did Dad have to go to a conference? What was the conference for? Weren’t we supposed to be on holiday?

It had been quite a nice holiday so far. We’d driven from our home in Retford, up through Yorkshire, and visited Lindisfarne before arriving in Edinburgh. I’d never been to Scotland before, so I was all excited. Then the conference. The conference that I had yet to receive a straight answer about. ‘It’s something for teachers’ was all I’d managed to glean. (Dad was a teacher.)

It wasn’t until that evening that I’d learn our whole holiday was a sham. That we wouldn’t have come at all if it hadn’t been for the conference. The sense of betrayal the nine-year-old me felt at that realisation, however, was nothing compared to what was to come.

The nine-year-old me

The nine-year-old me

We were in an Italian restaurant. All the tables had red and white checked tablecloths and candles in bottles that were obscured by many layers of hardened dribbles. My dad was angry with the food. He thought it was ‘pap’, but my mum thought it was fine. My sister was ‘feeding’ Pachy. Then my parents looked at each other and looked at me, and they told me the truth.

The conference was for British teachers who wanted to teach in New Zealand.

“New Zealand?” I said. “You mean that little, triangle bit at the bottom of Australia?”

“No, Abby, that’s Tasmania,” Dad said.

“But you were very close. Well done,” Mum added.

“But…” I was engulfed in a rising tide of dread. “But you can’t teach in New Zealand. We live in Retford.”

“Abby –”

“Unless you get a really fast plane every morning –”

“Abby. We are going to live in New Zealand.”

Bam. My eyes and lips were trembling. The implications of moving were stuck in my throat, all pushing to get out and blocking the way in the process. “H-how far away is it?”

“About twelve thousand miles,” Dad said.

“Tw-tw-” It was no good. Tears were starting now. My world was falling apart and my heart was breaking. The restaurant was spinning. I remember the red and white checks blurring together. “But what about my friends? What about Elizabeth?” My voice got shriller and shriller. People at other tables were staring. “What about dancing? And Grandma?”

“Sit down, Abby,” Mum said. (I hadn’t realised I was standing.)

“No!” I cried. The idea of having everything I knew and loved torn away from me… my best friend… my dancing lessons… and to be replaced with New Zealand. New Zealand was a wasteland!

“Abby –”

“I’m not moving to New Zealand!” I shrieked. “You can’t make me!” And with that I ran into the toilets.

I kept running until I was in a corner by a hand dryer and then I screamed. Conscious of the noise, I slammed my fist into the hand dryer to turn it on. Accompanied by the roar of hot air, I sobbed and sobbed.

Mum came in and put a hand on my shoulder. I flinched. “We are going to New Zealand,” she said.

I couldn’t take it. I ran away again, this time out onto the dark Edinburgh street. At least I had the sense not to stray far from the illuminated restaurant window, tempted as I was to get myself lost. When I went back inside, it wasn’t because I’d forgiven my parents; it was because I was cold.

Mum and Dad didn’t want Grandma to know that Dad was applying for jobs in New Zealand. They didn’t want to worry her. They’d only tell her if – when – he actually got a job. It was a pretty big secret for a nine-year-old to keep.

Grandma lived just round the corner from us. Ours was a neighbourhood of Victorian terraces, quite depressing compared to what we’ve become used to in New Zealand, but I’ll always remember it fondly. Grandma was short and plump, and she always wore cardigans and stockings and called me ‘duck’. She died last year, but at least she’d been able to visit us in New Zealand twice. She’d never even been out of Britain before that, (well, except to Jersey,) and she hated anything foreign.

Last Day 002

The alley behind my gran’s terrace

Across the street from my gran, there lived a girl who always wanted me to come out and play with her. I did, even though I would have often preferred to have stayed at home on my own, reading or writing. One day, I was sitting in the alley behind my gran’s terrace when she found me. Her cheerfulness intruded upon my artistic misery.

“’Iya, Abby,” she said. “Wanna go play on the railway bridge?” When I didn’t respond, she tugged my arm. “Oh, come on! The nettles aren’t bad. You just have to step on them.”

“We’re moving to New Zealand.” That stopped her dead.

Her face slackened. “You’re… you’re moving? Like… away?”

“Yeah,” I said.

“But you can’t! I mean… Where’s New Zealand?”

“You’ve never heard of New Zealand?” I asked, taking a nine-year-old’s delight in her ignorance. “Duh – it’s in Australia.”

“Australia?!” she cried. “But that’s full of kangaroos and aberrations and… and it’s the other side of the world!”

“Yeah. Me dad said it were twelve million miles away. Or summat like that,” I said.

“Wow,” she said, sinking back against the wall. “I’m really going to miss you.”

“No, you’re not,” I said.

“Yes, I am!” she whined.

“No, you’re not,” I said, “because I’m not going.”

“What do you mean you’re not going?” she asked. “How can you not go when you parents –”

“I’ll run away from home before I go!” My voice echoed around the alleyway.

“Wow,” she said. “Where’re you going to go?”

“Grandma’s,” I said.

“But int y’ grandma’s just round the corner?” she said.

“Exactly.” I grinned smugly. “It’s the last place they’d ever think of looking for me.”

A photo of our house, taken from the railway bridge

A photo of our house, taken from the railway bridge

I’m not sure how long I seriously entertained this notion. I seem to remember wanting to run away then realising that it would soon be tea time, and, of course, there was no sense in running away before having tea. Anyway, my friend and I did end up going to the railway bridge. (It was right next to my house.) As we sat there, legs dangling over the tracks, she asked, “Are there trains in New Zealand?”

I didn’t know. I didn’t think so. There probably wasn’t electricity either.

After a while, my friend sighed. “I hate it here,” she said.

“Why?” I asked.

“Everything’s just so… grey. I bet New Zealand isn’t grey.”

“No,” I said. “It’s green.”

“How do you know?” she asked.

“Mum and Dad keep saying so.” I shrugged.

When we got bored of playing on the railway bridge, we went to sit against ‘our’ wall. It was the wall of an alley that ran in front of a row of bungalows out the back of my house. In one of the bungalows, there lived an old lady called Betty. (She was a bit gaga so we called her Batty.) She often saw us and brought us sweets, which we ate even though they were years out of date.

Now, this next part of the story is a bit of a guess. You see, at some point, Betty told my grandma that my mum and dad were planning on jetting off to New Zealand without telling her. This, understandably, made my grandma very upset, and there was a lot of explaining to do. What I think happened is that Betty overhead my friend and I talking and jumped to conclusions.

So it was that my parents’ plan about not telling Gran that we were moving to New Zealand until my dad actually had a job was ruined. As it happened, we were at my gran’s house when Dad got the call on his clunky ’90s cell phone. My mum screamed and hugged him like an excited teenager and my gran burst into tears.

I was scared stiff. It was happening. It was confirmed.

We were moving to a place called Waiuku. Waiuku, my dad explained, was a Maori name. It meant ‘muddy waters’.

“But that’s stupid!” I said. “Who’d name a town ‘muddy waters’?” (Later, I realised with a surge of satisfaction that the name of the town I wanted so desperately to stay in, Retford, means ‘muddy waters’ too! It comes from the Anglo-Saxon ‘Red Ford’ – when cattle were driven across the ford, they churned up the mud at the bottom, turning the water red. How cool is that? It was like fate.)

My last Christmas in England

My last Christmas in England

The next few months went by in a blur. Dad’s job was to start at the beginning of the coming year, 2001, because school years in New Zealand start in February, not September. This presented a problem for my sister and I, because we were still halfway through our school year. (I was in Year Five; Lucie was in Year Two.) In the end, Dad went to New Zealand six months ahead of us, leaving Mum to sell our house.

Saying goodbye to Dad at Manchester Airport was horrible. It was the first time my family had been separated. It didn’t hit me that I should be sad until we were hugging him at the gate, and everyone else was crying. I suddenly realised that six months was a long time. I howled with the rest of them.

School was weird for me after that. Knowing I was leaving soon made everything seem a bit meaningless. I remember my class did an Aboriginal art project, and I got all excited and asked Dad to send me some pictures of Maori art, figuring they’d be similar. (How wrong I was.)

Then the time came for all our stuff to be shipped off. The men from Britannia Movers International arrived. I liked their logo – the classical goddess Britannia with her Union Jack shield – but it took great restraint for me not scream at them, “Put that back!” My life was literally disappearing around me.

Abigail croppedI felt like I was fading away. Like Marty McFly at the end of Back to the Future. My last day of school, I sat on a side bench in Mr Lilley’s classroom and watched the rest of the class as though from under water. The headmistress, (ironically named Mrs Britain,) approached to offer me luck and words of comfort. Unfortunately, I can’t remember what those words were, only that they seemed significant and grownup at the time.

Then the school day was over. I panicked. It had come too fast. Never again would I have a lesson at this school, or see any of these people. I had a few photographs with various groups. (A good delaying tactic.) Then everyone started drifting away. Only my best friend, Elizabeth, was left. I knew I’d miss her far more than she’d miss me. I just wanted to cling to her and never let go.

I hugged her and hugged her, but all too soon my mum pulled me away. It was time to go. We lived in opposite directions from the school. We started walking down Bracken Lane in those respective directions. Then I looked back. She didn’t. I watched her back get smaller and smaller. She was wearing a light blue jacket. I know because the image was burned onto my mind, and I recalled it so often during my lonely times in New Zealand that now I’ll remember it until I die. When I realised that she wasn’t going to look back, I started to cry.

Not just cry. I had a full-on tantrum whilst walking home from school. My mum wanted me to be quiet – it was shameful – but I didn’t care. I had so much grief inside me that I just had to get out. I think that was the last tantrum of my childhood.

The horrible goodbyes weren’t over. Next we had to say goodbye to Grandma, and we didn’t know if she’d be able to visit us, as she was terrified of flying. Then Uncle Damon drove us to Nana’s house in Ellesmere Port, Cheshire, and we had to say goodbye to Uncle Damon. My nana, who now lives with us in New Zealand, had prepared something very special for us.

Chester

Chester

It was our last night in England – the last night of the poms, as my dad later joked – and Nana had hired a limousine to take us on a tour round Chester, and then to our favourite restaurant. It was wonderful. I felt like I was famous in my blue, fringed, ’20s-style dress, drinking from a champagne flute on velvet cushions.

The windows were tinted, so no one could see who was in the limo, and people on the street started taking photographs of us. My nana wound her window down a bit so she could do a regal wave. What a way to spend our last night, in true Britannia style!

Then, of course, it was our turn to fly out of Manchester Airport. I don’t envy my mum’s task of getting herself, two little girls, and all three sets of our luggage across the world in one piece, but she did it. We even had a night enjoying the sights in Singapore on the way. Then we were in New Zealand…

My first impression? I was kind of zonked out from the flight, so I didn’t notice much. New Zealand seemed pretty much the same as Britain, rather boringly. At least it wasn’t the backward wasteland I’d feared. The light was different, though. New Zealand was bathed in warm light. I can still see it, what I saw from the back of Dad’s car as he drove us from Auckland Airport to our new home. It was a strange light, the light of an alien world, but it was comforting nonetheless.

That was twelve years ago. Nearly thirteen.

561 Porirura-River 173

Sunny New Zealand

I’m twenty-two now. I remember what happened then in such great detail, not only because I replayed the events over and over – clung to them rather sadly – but because I wrote the story of what happened at the time. The conversations above are exerts of that story, not made up. It’s funny looking back at what a melodramatic brat I was! (And how I thought New Zealand was pretty much Australia. Sorry!)

Of course, I’m glad now that we moved to New Zealand. I wouldn’t have it any other way. New Zealand is a far better country to grow up in than England. At the time, though, I thought I’d never forgive my parents. The move undoubtedly had a massive psychological impact – you can read about that in The Existential Crisis of the Immigrant Child – and, although I still don’t consider myself a true Kiwi, I love New Zealand and want to grow old here.

For the next part of the story, in which I recount my first day at my new school in New Zealand and my brief return to England years later, see Kiwis, Kiwis and Kiwis: The People of New Zealand.

Mount Maunganui 026