The Best Place to Live in New Zealand

Mount Maunganui

Since moving to New Zealand, I’ve lived in four very different places:

1) Waiuku, a sleepy town south of Auckland,

Waiuku

2) Tauranga, a peaceful city in the Bay of Plenty,

Mount Beach

3) Auckland Central, the busiest part of New Zealand’s busiest city, and

Auckland Rangitoto

4) Hamilton, a city that’s mocked by the rest of the country, but actually has a lot going for it.

HamiltonChristmasTree

I’ve also experienced life out at Bethells Beach, as that’s where my partner’s from. He’d tell you it’s the best place to live in the country hands down, but I’m not so sure. Yes, it’s close to a very beautiful beach and boasts magnificent valley views, but it has its disadvantages too.

The mysterious West Coast (Bethells Beach)

So what is the best place to live in New Zealand? Obviously, I can only speak from my own experience, but someone somewhere might find this useful. I’m going to attempt an analysis of the four places I’ve lived, plus Bethells, beginning with…

Waiuku

Waiuku Weather StoneI was ten years old when we found ourselves in Waiuku, a small town surrounded by farmland. It’s located at the southern tip of the Manukau Harbour and is within easy driving distance of several beaches. The two nicest are Awhitu and Kariotahi, which, despite being quite close to one another, are whole worlds apart. Awhitu has calm waters and golden sand, making it perfect for picnics, whereas Kariotahi has wild waves and velvety, black sand, making it perfect for surfing. It’s also perfect for watching the sun set over the Tasman Sea from the cliff tops.

Waiuku Clock TowerIn Waiuku, we lived within easy walking distance of yet another beach, this one called Sandspit. I was always wandering down there. There was a big slide in the water… It’s still there, actually. I went to Sandspit Road School, a primary school that starts at Year 1 and finishes at Year 8. I remember being quite disappointed that I wouldn’t move up to “big school” in Year 7, as I would have done in England, instead having to wait until Year 9. I was bullied quite badly in the mean time. (I believe this had more to do with New Zealand’s – and especially small-town New Zealand’s – tendencies towards anti-intellectualism and tall poppy syndrome, though, than with me being an immigrant. See The People of New Zealand for an account of my first day of school in New Zealand.)

WaiukuDespite the bullying, Waiuku always felt like a safe town to me. My parents were letting me walk places on my own within days of settling there. The town centre was quiet, but lovely, with a few nice cafes and historic buildings. When my family first moved there, we believed it a wonderfully idyllic place. It was only after a few years that we were itching to get out. My parents both taught at Waiuku College, which had a rather high proportion of newly-emigrated teachers. We soon found out that was because no one who was familiar with Waiuku wanted to teach there. The newly-emigrated teachers were, like us, still seeing things through rose-tinted glasses.

The Kentish Hotel, WaiukuNot that rose-tinted, though. I mean, compared to where we’d just come from, Waiuku really was great. People mock it, and it does have its bad aspects, but it’s not a bad place to live. I recently returned there for a few hours with my partner, only to find that it’s actually improved in the ten years since I lived there. And it’s set to grow even further. With the Auckland housing shortage and rocketing house prices, Waiuku’s becoming a popular place to commute from. It’s only a fifty-minute drive from Auckland City. Well, fifty minutes without traffic, that is. With traffic, I shudder to think.

WaiukuOnce, I would have said don’t live in Waiuku. Run from it. But I’m not going to say that now. If you’re after a peaceful, small-town life that’s not too isolated, you could do a lot worse. Waiuku’s problems are the problems you’d expect of any small town; its rewards are many.

Tauranga

Mount Maunganui BeachWhen my family lived in Waiuku, we once went on holiday to Tauranga. I never dreamed we’d end up living there! It’s somewhere rich people live. We were never rich. We lived in a tiny terrace with a shared garden in England, but, lifestyle-wise, we got very lucky, I guess. When we moved to New Zealand in 2001, the exchange rate was three New Zealand dollars for every one pound, so we ended up with a house far nicer than we ever could have had in England. Then, when we moved to Tauranga, my nana sold her house in England and came to live with us, so we could get an even nicer house… Yeah, we got lucky.

Red Square, TaurangaTauranga is a balmy, coastal city that’s an extremely popular retirement destination. I love the fact that while it has all the amenities of a city, it’s still quite small. It feels so laidback, especially compared to Auckland – even Hamilton. It has lots of flash bars and restaurants, and plenty of awesome places to go shopping, but it’s relaxed. You can stroll along the harbourfront and climb Mount Maunganui, and you can take your pick of beaches.

TaurangaOf course, being a city, Tauranga has a few different schools to choose from. The school I ended up at, Otumoetai College, turned out to be a lot better for me than Waiuku College had been. Waiuku College had been too small to offer subjects such as Classical Studies, which turned out to be my favourite subject! There were simply more opportunities at Otumoetai. I wasn’t bullied there, either, although that might be to do with the fact that I was now in Sixth Form, or Year 12, and bullying tends to drop off at that age.

Mount Bench(My little sister got bullied there, though. One boy in particular wouldn’t leave her alone. Until the day she lost it in front of the whole school and started beating him up. The teachers hated to punish her, really.)

I was only in Tauranga for two years before it was time to leave for university. I chose the University of Auckland partly because it’s the only university in New Zealand to be ranked amongst the top 100 universities in the world, and partly because it’s only a three-hour drive from Tauranga. My parents still live in Tauranga, so I go back a lot and, every time I do, I marvel at how wonderful a place it is to live.

Auckland Central

Sky TowerI lived in Auckland Central from 2009 – 2013. Three of those years I spent on Whitaker Place, the most densely populated street in New Zealand. (Parking was a nightmare.) Whitaker Place is five minute’s walk from the main University of Auckland campus, so, naturally, it’s chock-a-block with student accommodation. When I lived there, a single room cost about $200 per week to rent and, knowing Auckland, it’s probably gone up significantly since. (And the Student Loan still only goes up to $176.86 per week.) Yes, Auckland prices are horrendous, but what’s it like to live in the city?

Auckland Domain Winter GardenActually pretty good. Auckland’s a very walkable city, and while its public transport isn’t the best, its buses are adequate. There are several great areas you can walk to from the centre: the Domain, Albert Park, Mount Eden and the harbourfront all come to mind. Being New Zealand’s biggest city, Auckland has the most jobs and the most things happening. Not being in Auckland, I miss being able to easily get to so many events. Many tourists and immigrants actually find Auckland a peaceful city, because, comparatively, it is. Fewer than two million people live there!

Auckland Book SwapAuckland feels very fresh as a city. Being right on the sea helps, I suppose. There are so many beaches, and nature walks are only half an hour’s drive away. Auckland was recently ranked as the world’s third most liveable city, because it does have a lot going for it. I managed to enjoy living there and, being a student, I really didn’t have any money to spare. If you do live in Auckland, though, be prepared to spend well over half of what you earn on housing, and be prepared to get stuck in traffic.

Hamilton

Garden Place, HamiltonDue to the Auckland housing crisis, more and more jafas are moving down to Hamilton, which is driving up Hamilton house prices, which is p**sing off all the Hamiltonians now having to compete for flats. (Jafa = Just Another F**king Aucklander.) Whenever this fact is mentioned, my partner and I look awkwardly away and begin to innocently whistle. Hamilton is an hour-and-a-half’s drive south of Auckland, and whilst some people are prepared to commute that far, my partner and I came here because it’s where he happened to score an IT job out of uni.

Waikato River, HamiltonWe also chose Hamilton because we wanted to live far enough away from our parents to feel independent, yet close enough to visit easily. Hamilton is an hour-and-a-half’s drive from Tauranga, where my parents live, and two hours from Bethells Beach, which I’ll talk about next.

That’s the thing about Hamilton. People are always talking about how conveniently close it is to other places. Oh, it’s great if you want to visit Raglan, or Waitomo, or Hobbiton… As for Hamilton itself, well…

Casabella Lane, HamiltonWhen we said we were moving here, people laughed at us. Hamilton is a small city, larger than Tauranga, but seen somehow as being comprised of farmers with ideas above their station. People mock it as the STD capital of New Zealand, even though statistics show that it’s not. True, the city centre of Hamilton isn’t particularly nice, except for Garden Place and Casabella Lane (in the picture,) there are a lot of beggars, and there’s not all that much to do, but, in all seriousness, Hamilton doesn’t deserve the reputation it has.

Chinese Garden, Hamilton GardensHamilton has three great things going for it: Firstly, the Hamilton Gardens. They’re officially amongst the best gardens in the world and they’re free to enter. Secondly, the Waikato River. While it’s polluted by farm run-off to the extent that you wouldn’t want to swim in it, (though people still do,) it looks very pretty, running directly through the city with plenty of trees, parks and bicycle paths along its banks. Thirdly, Hamilton Zoo is just as good as good as Auckland Zoo, if not better. Hamilton’s also got a lake that’s pleasant to walk around, walking distance from the city centre. Just don’t go there at night.

Parana Park Childrens Garden, HamiltonMy partner and I actually quite enjoy living here. It’s nice to be able to walk and cycle places. (We only use the car for visiting our parents.) It’s got a few excellent playgrounds, (not that we’re planning on having kids any time soon,) and nice-looking houses. Whenever we go back to Auckland, my partner looks out of the window and goes, “Wow, look at the all the tall buildings and flashy lights! I’m not used to it anymore!”

Bethells Beach

Bethells BeachAlthough we met when we both lived on Whitaker Place, attending uni, my partner is from Bethells Beach, a community out in the wop-wops, on the very west coast of Auckland. It’s a rugged place, full of aging hippies living alternative lifestyles. It’s so peaceful. The only sound you occasionally hear echoing through the valley, my partner once joked, is that of a police helicopter searching for marijuana patches. Also known as Te Henga, Bethells Beach is one of the most beautiful beaches in the whole of New Zealand. I’m not biased. Well, I am, but it’s not just me. So many films, television series and music videos use Bethells for a location, especially those in the fantasy genre. It has a magical quality, something that just draws people to it… The community at Bethells is closer than in any place I’ve lived. People don’t just know their neighbours, they invite them to parties. They even have bands down at the beach in summer.

Bethells BeachBethells is surrounded by the emerald bush of the Waitakere Ranges Regional Park. Whenever we’re driving there, when we get to the edge of Auckland City and the trees start coming up around us, my partner simply sighs in relief. Of course, its isolation is both a pro and a con. It’s a half-hour drive along narrow, winding and sometimes unsealed roads to the nearest shops, further to a big supermarket. It’s ironic that people trying to lead such environmentally friendly lifestyles are forced to use so much petrol. Until recently, the Internet out at Bethells was almost unusable, but it’s getting better. The biggest drawback for me is all the mosquitoes, but apart from that, life at Bethells is almost perfect.

Bethells BeachIf you love nature, want to know your neighbours, enjoy a quiet life, want beach views, don’t get car sick and don’t mind long drives to buy food or, indeed, go anywhere else at all, Bethells Beach is a great place to live.

Tauranga Rocks 4I honestly think you could be happy living anywhere I’ve mentioned. I think it’s obvious, though, that my favourite is Tauranga. It’s peaceful, with beaches right on your doorstep, not to mention Mount Maunganui, and other nature walks an easy drive away, but with all the convenience that cities bring.

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Road to Perdition

Abigail Simpson as a nun in a LARP

I don’t know where to begin this story. I could begin in media res, with a familiar yet disturbingly alien landscape trundling past a window. I could begin with the provocatively dramatic image of a nun aiming a revolver at a sheriff. I could begin before the beginning, with a little girl arriving in a strange, new place, being comforted with the promise of a kitten. Or with me being told that my beloved childhood pet must now be killed to protect my parents’ carpets.

I won’t begin with my boyfriend finding a lump on my breast.

This is a lot, so I’ll begin with what happened on Sunday, 1st May, 2016. My parents were visiting my boyfriend and I in Hamilton. It was a lovely day, so we all went for a walk around Hamilton Lake. Tim and I were very excited about a larp we’d be attending the next weekend, a western played over eight hours. We were each in the process of putting together a costume: he a sheriff; me a nun. (Explaining to non-larpers why we needed a cowboy hat and a wimple proved rather amusing.)

Abigail Simpson as a nun in a LARP

NUN SELFIE!

During the walk, I asked my mum, just casually, how the cats were. Her refusal to answer was enough. Fighting back tears, I demanded to know. Crookshanks, the kitten I’d got soon after immigrating to New Zealand nearly fifteen years previously, had started pissing on the carpet. You know it’s the end when cats start doing that. So I hastily packed a bag and returned to my parents’ house to say goodbye.

My parents live in Tauranga, but that’s not where we lived when we first arrived in New Zealand. Back then, we lived in a town called Waiuku. Coincidentally, Waiuku was where the larp would be taking place. (Well, at a place just up the peninsula from Waiuku, somewhere my family always went for picnics: Awhitu.) I hadn’t been back to Waiuku in ten years.

Sheriff

Tim

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Tim couldn’t come with me to parents’ house, as he had to work and was in the process of fixing a beat-up, old car he’d just purchased. We needed the car to get to the larp. So I had to face saying goodbye to Crookshanks without him. It was quite an upsetting few days. I returned to Hamilton the night before the larp. That was when Tim found the lump.

You know what it’s like. Googling the symptoms. Most breast lumps aren’t deadly. That doesn’t stop me shaking and crying. I’m so scared. Tim’s mum died of cancer last year.

I’ve got a doctor’s appointment tomorrow morning.

So the night before the larp I barely slept. I was too anxious. I’m the sort of person who gets anxious very easily. I have, in the past, literally cried over spilt milk.

Not just cried. Had a full-on panic attack.

I wrote quite a therapeutic article about my experiences with anxiety and depression a while ago, and a piece about how it relates to the existential crisis of the immigrant child, so I won’t go on about it here. But if that’s what I’m like with things that I have no real reason to get anxious over, imagine what I’m like now.

Which is why the timing of the larp couldn’t have been better.

The thing about larping is you’re spending a few hours pretending to be someone else. You get all caught up in their story and immersed in the drama going on around you. There really is no better way of distracting yourself from anxiety.

So the larp. It’s called The Train Will Whistle One Last Time. It begins with all the characters – cowboys, Mexicans, Indians and various other western types – boarding a train to a town called Perdition. For some, it’s returning to a place they’d rather not go back to.

Waiuku Train Mural

From a mural in Waiuku

In real life, I was returning to Waiuku – a place I never thought I’d go back to. It was nice enough when my family first moved there, but by the end I was fairly glad to escape. I was bullied rather badly there. I had some great friends too, but it was a small town in which one could easily feel trapped. It’s one of those towns outsiders make fun of.

As Tim and I approached the town in the newly-repaired car, the sight of the fields and trees trundling past the window made me feel odd. I kind of remembered them. I had this uncomfortable feeling that we shouldn’t be driving this way. No good would come of it.

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Waiuku… has changed.

Waiuku

Was this always there?

It’s gotten a lot prettier in the last ten years. Seriously. It looks like it might actually be worth visiting now. (And if you do, you can camp overnight in the library car park for free with a self-contained campervan rental.)

One of the oldest pubs in New Zealand, The Kentish Hotel, was a dingy, seedy-seeming establishment with sticky carpets and no real character when we lived there. Now it’s dead nice. This is the ceiling in the dining room.

Waiuku The Kentish

(It’s an old map of New Zealand!)

History is apparently Waiuku’s main focus now. It has some old (for New Zealand) buildings, including a colonial jail and schoolroom. They’re down by the water, where there’s a new walkway. Of course, the buildings were there when I was, but there weren’t quite so many signs proudly proclaiming Waiuku to be this wonderful, historical town.

Waiuku1

See?

The depressing, gravel-and-broken-glass-strewn car park where I once tripped and split my lip now has plant life and a boardwalk around it. Small improvements like that make a lot of difference to a place.

But I was happy to find the weather stone unchanged.

Waiuku Weather Stone

(Read the sign!)

So it turned out that returning to Waiuku was not at all like returning to Perdition. I won’t go into details about the larp to avoid spoilers, but I will say that it was possibly the best larp I’ve ever played. And I got to point a revolver at Tim! I didn’t end up “killing” anyone in the game, but at one point one of the other players ran back to the train shouting, “The mad Mexican’s shot the sheriff and the deputy!”

All in all, a great weekend.

Except I just thought about the lump again.


UPDATE: It’s just a cyst! A stupid, harmless cyst. I don’t even have to do anything about it!

🙂

Thank you to all the people who messaged me/commented with kind thoughts. Hearing about all the women (and men) who’d been through the same thing was greatly comforting, especially hearing that the vast majority of those lumps and bumps were benign!


 

Proof That New Zealanders Really Are Hobbits

On my first day of school in New Zealand, I was shocked to discover that no one was wearing shoes. I was ten years old, a recent immigrant, and my classmates were actually laughing at me for wearing shoes.

I found it strange to say the least. Where I’d just come from, England, the opposite would’ve happened: you’d get laughed at for not wearing shoes.

I remember asking a girl why she and the other kids weren’t wearing shoes.

“Dunno,” she replied in her upwardly inflecting Kiwi accent. “It’s more comfy wearing bare feet, I s’pose.”

shoes-for-kids-930176_960_720As she turned away, I struggled to undo the confused knot my face had become. How was it more comfortable to not wear shoes outside, walking over concrete, gravel and bark chippings? (I was also laughed at for saying ‘bark chippings’ instead of simply ‘bark’.) I could understand not wearing shoes on the school field, but some kids walked home ‘in bare feet’ as well.

Maybe it’s cooler, I thought. It was quite warm, after all, even though it was August – winter in New Zealand.

I should mention that this story takes place in Waiuku, a small town surrounded by farmland and beaches. You don’t see many people walking around barefoot in New Zealand’s cities. You do see some though.

footprint-648194_960_720I’ve talked about this before, (in Kiwis, Kiwis and Kiwis: The People of New Zealand.) I met a kid who’d had a slither of broken glass stuck in their foot for the past few days. They didn’t seem too bothered by it, though. Their soles were so thick and toughened from years of going barefoot that it barely even hurt. I watched, oddly fascinated, as they casually dug it out with a needle.

What more proof do you need that New Zealanders really are hobbits?

feet-830503_960_720My experience of being laughed at for wearing shoes is far from unique. Recently, I read an article in the Hamilton Press – that’s the free paper that keeps appearing in our letterbox – about a 105-year-old woman with similar memories to mine. She moved to New Zealand from England nearly 100 years ago – way back in 1918. Apparently, all the children at the local school went barefoot and called her a sissy for wearing shoes. As a result, she took her shoes off as soon as she arrived at school each day. Her feet became tough. Kiwi feet. Hobbit feet.

It’s funny how things don’t change. My feet have never hardened, though.

A few months ago, some people I know – Kiwis – clubbed together to buy a PS4 for one of their mates. He’d recently been burgled, you see, so this was an awesome act of friendship. They tricked him into accompanying them into an electronics store and surprised him, filming his reaction on a cell phone. This is the video – it went kinda viral:

As well as praise, it attracted quite a few nasty comments. (Well, duh, it was posted on the Internet.) Most of the nasty comments were from non-Kiwis disgusted at the guys’ lack of shoes. Another video was made to address the issue. I want to show it to you because it’s a lovely insight into this particular aspect of Kiwi culture. The guys are just so down-to-earth and light-heartedly funny about it – so Kiwi about it – that it makes me smile. Here it is:

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

 

Awhitu: A Special Place in My Heart

There’s one place in New Zealand that I’ll remember fondly forever, somewhere my family always went for picnics when we first arrived here, the place that taught a bitter, homesick ten-year-old how wonderful it is to live in New Zealand: Awhitu.

Awhitu – pronounced ‘ah-fee-too’ as the Maori ‘f’ sound is represented by a ‘wh’ – is a peninsula that spouts up from Waiuku, the small town my family used to live in, south of Auckland. It is home to the Awhitu Regional Park, a place of peaceful, understated beauty with a bit of interesting history thrown in.

The main picnic area has a bookable barbecue and plenty of benches, but also lots of trees you can spread a blanket under and open spaces perfect for playing – my family used to take our badminton rackets and shuttlecocks, not that we were any good with them. The area was always full of fantails, cute, friendly, little birds that flitted about beneath the branches, waiting for us to rouse the insects from the grass.

We didn’t always eat our picnics in that area though. Sometimes we descended the sandstone cliff and ate our egg sandwiches on the beach, in the shade of ‘our’ pohutukawa tree. I don’t know how many other families referred to that tree as theirs, but we were pretty annoyed when anyone beat us to the spot.

AWHITU~3

The view out over the water was rather lovely. There’s a tiny island close to shore, (so close you can walk to it at low tide if you don’t mind sinking knee-deep in mud, but is deceptively far if you try to swim to it,) that is little more than a yellow rock with a few low trees and a single tall tree at the crest of it. This single tall tree is actually quite striking, and turns the view of an otherwise ordinary New Zealand beach into a perfect painting.

And the Auckland Regional Council has, in fact, turned the view into a painting. Awhitu, like a number of other regional parks around Auckland, has a giant, golden picture frame featuring a jumble of New Zealand plants and animals, which is placed at a point from which there is a fantastic view through it, creating a ‘natural masterpiece’ – a painting of which every tourist has to get a photo and every child has to climb into. Locals hate those picture frames, but the ten-year-old me loved them.

AWHITU~1I also loved swimming at Awhitu – the water is ideal for it. And I enjoyed walking along the beach until we got to the old jetty and the jutting piece of cliff, which was very scenic and had lots of boulders you could scramble over at the bottom. What is it about scrambling over boulders that’s so satisfying?

There are some longer walks you can go on at the top of the cliffs, but not too long. One takes you past the Brook Homestead, a wooden house in a quiet glade that was built in 1878 by a family of English immigrants. Here we were, English immigrants one and quarter centuries later, and how much easier it was for us. We didn’t have to build our house from scratch with our own hands in some remote location. We didn’t have to live in a shack consisting of two tiny rooms until our proper house was ready. My sister and I didn’t have to sleep in the roof cavity, which would have been freezing in winter and roasting in summer.

Next to the Brook Homestead is a campground where you can park a campervan for up to seven nights, though, to be honest, there probably isn’t enough around there to occupy you for a full week. Even so, it’s a popular place to camp. There’s another campground close by, and a self contained campervan parking area in which you can stay for one night. Bookings are recommended, especially during the summer.

What’s special about Awhitu is not many international tourists know about it, so when you camp there, you’re usually accompanied by locals. It’s a tranquil, isolated sort of place. The Waiuku townsfolk say that the people who live up the Awhitu Peninsula have webbed toes, but then people from bigger towns say the same of the people who live in Waiuku.

It’s not true.

Beached As, Bro

Nearly three-quarters of New Zealanders live within five kilometres of a beach.

And they’re pretty gorgeous beaches. Even the average ones are far more picturesque than the likes of Skegness and Cleethorpes, which were my nearest beaches growing up in Britain – and they were each a long train ride away, as opposed to at the bottom of the road.

In fact, looking back, both Skegness and Cleethorpes are extremely depressing in comparison to what I have now. I remember weary stretches of grey punctuated by flaking piers and consolatory donkey rides.

You don’t seem to get donkey rides at New Zealand beaches, or those creaky, old-fashioned fairgrounds. What you do get is nature at its most glorious; views that outshine even the dramatic shores of Cornwall and Wales.

Beach 1

A view from a friend’s beach house in the Coromandel

Still, New Zealand beaches aren’t what I thought they’d be when I was first told we were moving here. The ten-year-old me thought they’d be all sparkling, white sands, crystal-blue waters, and coconut palms providing shade and convenient snacks. Imagine my amazement, therefore, when we arrived in Waiuku and my dad drove us the ten minutes (the closest beach was ten minutes’ walk) to Kariotahi: rugged cliffs, wild waves and black sand.

Seriously – BLACK sand.

It’s volcanic, also called ironsand, and is mined on the West Coast of New Zealand to make steel, yet it’s the softest thing I’ve ever felt. When my tender, British feet stepped onto it for the first time, I actually gasped. I felt like I was walking on velvet – and silky, high-quality velvet at that.

There are only two problems with black sand: it gets way hotter than normal sand and can burn your feet, and it’s very difficult to rid yourself of. But totally worth it!

The black sand beach at my boyfriend's parents' house

The black sand beach at my boyfriend’s parents’ house

Two of the first things my parents bought me upon arriving in New Zealand were a wetsuit and a bodyboard. Bodyboarding – or “Boogieboarding” – is basically surfing for wusses. I loved riding the waves at Kariotahi, but it sometimes got too dangerous and we had to stop. Lots of New Zealand beaches, including Kariotahi, have Surf Life Saving Clubs operating at them. They put a pair of flags out to mark where it’s safe to surf, and watch for people in trouble. I’ve never had to be saved, but I have experienced being dragged a scarily large distance by a rip and battling to get back between the flags.

West Coast beaches may be more dangerous to surf at, but the soft sand means you don’t scrape your knees when you get beached!

A black sand beach next to my boyfriend's parents' house

The next beach over from the one above

It’s impossible to holiday in New Zealand without hitting a beach. Most of them have places to camp nearby, and many of these have barbecue facilities. A barbecue on the beach is a very New Zealand thing to do – it’s sometimes said that’s what the Kiwi Christmas dinner is – but the most traditional beach food is, as it is in Britain, fish and chips. Or “fush and chups” in the New Zealand accent.

And ice-cream, of course.

Beach 4

Beaches aren’t a special treat in New Zealand, they are a fact of life, and, as such, are often taken for granted. As a teenager, I was guilty of grumpily refusing to go to the beach – I would never have turned down an opportunity to go to the beach in England! Then again I was a little kid in England. Still, I recently told myself off for taking the Mount Maunganui beach (where I lived with my parents before moving away for university) for granted – a quick reminisce of Skeggy got me appreciating where I was once more.

Mount Maunganui is the perfect beach for sunbathing on. You can also surf, swim, fish, kayak, jet ski, paraglide, climb the Mount, cruise the harbour… But I’ll write a proper article about it another time. It’s very different from the beach at, say, White Island…

Beach 6

You probably wouldn’t want to sunbath on that.

Beach 5

There is, however, a volcanic beach where it’s absolute bliss to sunbath. At Hot Water Beach in the Coromandel, you can actually dig your own spa pool! You see, hot springs filter up through the sand, so at low tide it’s really warm. I must confess that I haven’t actually been there, but I’d love to go. Maybe next time we hire a campervan, we can stay a night around there. Hope so. It’s supposed to be one of the best beaches in the world.

No surprise it’s in New Zealand.