(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, February 15.)
Things happen to you in New Zealand that I can’t imagine occurring anywhere else in the world. Let me give you a couple of examples.
In an earlier column I referred to a pending family reunion in Nelson. This took place on Waitangi Day weekend in Golden Bay - or, to be more precise, at Pakawau, roughly halfway between Collingwood and the base of Farewell Spit.
There can be few places in New Zealand more isolated, which was part of the reason it was chosen as the venue. Golden Bay itself feels cut off from the outside world by the formidable barrier that is the Takaka Hill; descending into the Takaka Valley always feels to me like dropping into a mystical realm reminiscent of the author James Hilton’s fictional Shangri-La. But even by Golden Bay standards, Pakawau is off the beaten track.
The tiny settlement doesn’t hold an especially significant place in the history of my family, although some cousins have a bach there, and in many ways it was a wildly impractical location, being a long way from anywhere and particularly hard to get to for those coming from Auckland and overseas.
Yet in other ways it was wholly appropriate, being a beautiful, unspoiled spot surrounded by bush and sea and a long way from civilisation. These are irresistible attributes to members of my whanau, who inherited from their parents a fondness for out-of-the-way places.
But I digress. The main reason for explaining all this is to emphasise how remote Pakawau is, and how improbable – but utterly typical of New Zealand – was the experience I’m about to relate.
On the Sunday morning we all gathered to clean up the Pakawau Memorial Hall, a classic Kiwi country hall where we’d had a knees-up the previous night. The job done, a few of us were standing around outside saying our goodbyes when a Farewell Spit Tours bus trundled past.
This being a place where traffic is so infrequent that strangers automatically acknowledge each other, we gave a friendly wave to the handful of people on the bus. I was vaguely conscious of someone waving back.
It was only when my wife and I got back home to Masterton several days later that our next-door neighbour poked her head over the fence and told us that she and her husband were the couple waving from the bus.
Now I’m no mathematician, but the odds against such an occurrence – our neighbours from a town hundreds of kilometres away in the North Island passing that spot at that precise moment, in one of the most sparsely populated parts of the country – must be overwhelming.
In New Zealand, though, we are almost conditioned to expect it. We live in what must surely be one of the most intimate societies in the world. It has become a cliché to say that the six degrees of separation that supposedly connect every human being on the planet are reduced to two in Godzone.
It must make the conduct of an illicit affair infernally difficult. The chances of being spotted, if not in the act then at least in incriminating circumstances, must be higher than anywhere else in the world. (For that reason it was hardly surprising that a brothel that started up a couple of years ago in a Wairarapa town lasted only a few weeks; it was on the main highway and its carpark was in full view of passing traffic.)
Being seen outside the Pakawau hall wasn’t the only example during that weekend of the eerie New Zealand propensity for freakishly coincidental encounters. On the Saturday morning, I drove to the Collingwood store to get a few supplies, including ice for our chilli-bin.
I had barely walked in the door before the woman in charge of the store approached and asked if I wanted some cardboard cartons to put my ice in.
“Whoa!” I thought. I knew Golden Bay was renowned for its other-worldly quality, but never imagined that the local populace was endowed with extra-sensory perception.
The explanation turned out to be disappointingly prosaic, but in keeping with the two degrees of separation theory. Someone else from the du Fresne whanau had phoned earlier to inquire whether the store had ice, because it was needed for the bar that night.
When I walked in, the woman behind the counter recognised me from my time at the Nelson Evening Mail (as it was then) 25 years before. She had worked there too, and assumed I was the du Fresne who had phoned earlier about the ice. Only in New Zealand …
When I related this to other family members my sister, never one to be outdone, mentioned that when she and her husband called at the charming retro coffee caravan parked near the boat ramp at Collingwood, the female barista who served them had been a pupil in my sister’s art class in Hawke’s Bay aeons before – and furthermore, the barista’s brother was married to the former girlfriend of my sister’s son and farmed next to him in the foothills of the Ruahine range.
By now I suspect we’re getting down to one degree of separation.
My sister also told of lunching with her husband and daughter at the Mussel Inn (a famous Golden Bay establishment which I regard as over-rated, though it’s considered heretical to say so), where the daughter knew the bartender from her theatre course at Victoria University.
But two degrees of separation stories don’t just crop up in New Zealand. My favourite one, still, concerns my first visit to London in 1985.
On a quiet Saturday afternoon I checked in to the Royal Commonwealth Society in Northumberland Avenue, where I was to stay, and entered my name in the guest register.
The guy behind the counter, who had said very little up to this point, looked at my name and remarked casually: “You must be one of the Waipukurau du Fresnes” (actually he used “Waipuk”, the abbreviation favoured by locals).
Indeed I was one of the Waipuk du Fresnes. It turned out that he came from Waipawa, five minutes away from my home town, and his mother knew my mother through the Catholic Women’s League.