Thursday, 25 September 2014

My (spiritual) island home

My connection with New Zealand started well before I understood that the Australian suburb where I attended primary school, Waitara, was named after a place of historical significance in New Zealand and is in fact a Maori word that means mountain stream (according to Wikipedia).

It existed earlier than my teenage crush on the new wave stylings of bands such as Split Enz and Mi-sex. Went beyond a devotion to big-hitting Lance Cairns and Sir Richard Hadlee's defiant underdogs in the exciting early 80’s new form of day/night cricket (despite their beige strip). Outlived the fully fabricated Kiwi persona I adopted when forced to change high schools and impress new friends. (Sydney obviously wasn't as exotic as Auckland back then.) And was present an eon prior to meeting and marrying my Christchurch-born husband with his outdoorsy good looks and English enunciations.

Somehow it seems inherent, seminal even, which may be closer to fact than fiction. It is well recorded in family folklore that my great grandmother, being a lively lass and one of 26 siblings (yes you read correctly), ran away at age 16, to avoid the drudgery of life as a dairy maid that had killed her own mother (never mind the child rearing) with the first handsome man to ride by on horseback. This swarthy gentleman was rumoured to have travelled from across the ditch. A New Zealander, a Kiwi, a cad! A subliminal connection to the land of the long white cloud? Perhaps.  A growing love affair with Aotearoa? Definitely.

I've only visited New Zealand’s south island twice, once in early 2011 a matter of days before the earthquake that levelled Christchurch’s CBD and forever changed that genteel city’s heart, and again in April this year to revel in the autumnal splendour of Queenstown and surrounds. But what strikes me about the country and its people is the down to earth, no bullshit genuineness of the place. Like Aussies, Kiwis call a spade a spade but there is something else, a quiet confidence and sense of place seemingly absorbed from the land itself: the wild rivers, mountains, forests and beaches. And then there is that rugby team. Both annoyingly and admirably, Kiwis are a hardy bunch of parochial over-achievers.

This is an excerpt from my travel diary on that first trip:

“I feel like I'm trespassing on this island’s grief – welcomed open-heartedly by a people still reeling from the tragedy of the Pike River mine disaster and a destructive series of earthquakes and after-shocks that threatened to flatten NZ’s garden city. But nowhere have we found the depressed or down-trodden, in fact the opposite. The mood is buoyant if not the economy.

As we batten down the hatches and prepare to be lashed by the tail end of tropical cyclones Vania and Zelia which combine with a low in the Tasman to produce a storm system/rain event that will see 90km winds and over 100ml of rain dumped on the top of the south island I am quietly confident that we too will weather the storm.”

You can read my piece on Kiwi earthiness "Bach to the Future" in the spring 2014 issue of Slow magazine.

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