(First published in the Manawatu Standard and on Stuff.co.nz, April 1).
While our fellow New Zealanders were angsting over the escalating coronavirus crisis last month, my wife and I were on the road. It was possibly the best place to be.
There’s something to be said for isolation, and I don’t mean the isolation everyone has experienced over the past week in their homes. In our case it came from being in remote places where access to newspapers, TV, the Internet and even radio was intermittent and sometimes non-existent. This meant we were able to make our way around some of the scenic nooks and crannies of the upper North Island largely untroubled by the increasingly gloomy news emanating from Wellington.
And when I say scenic, I mean scenic. There is no more effective antidote to a looming health catastrophe than the visual distraction of the New Zealand landscape.
Our route took us through Hawke’s Bay, the Volcanic Plateau, the Bay of Plenty, the King Country, the Waikato and North Auckland. Everywhere we went, New Zealand from the road was a joy to behold. It just keeps looking lovelier.
It’s not just the obviously outstanding physical features, such as mountains, lakes and beaches, that make this country so pleasing to the eye. On a more basic level, it’s something very simple: trees. Nothing transforms the landscapes so much as trees, and over my lifetime I’ve watched as they’ve grown and proliferated throughout rural New Zealand.
Despite the opprobrium heaped on them for supposedly raping the land for profit, farmers deserve much of the credit for this. Early pastoralists may have stripped the land bare in their eagerness to turn it into grass, but subsequent generations of farmers understood the aesthetic value of trees and we all benefit.
So where did we go? Well, we stayed at Ohiwa, a magical spot in the eastern Bay of Plenty where the camping ground nestles under a pohutukawa-clad bluff, at the top of which, if you don’t mind a bit of a climb, you can see the remains of fortified pa sites, strategically located so as to command a view of advancing enemies.
Maori history is all around us, but it’s often not obvious. You have to seek it out, but it’s there – as in the Hukutaia Domain, near Opotiki, where we gazed in silent awe at a massive, 2000-year-old puriri tree called Taketakerau, the Burial Tree, under which the Upokorehe iwi interred the bones of their distinguished dead.
Ohiwa has the great advantage of being out of reach of what I call the Auckland Effect. No offence to our biggest city, but Auckland is like a gradually spreading stain whose economic and cultural imprint extends far beyond its official territorial boundaries.
As with London and the rest of Britain, there is Auckland and then there is the rest of New Zealand. It exists in its own bubble, but one that keeps expanding. From Auckland north to Warkworth is effectively one giant construction zone.
Pahi, on the Kaipara Harbour, is distant enough to have escaped the Auckland Effect too. I wanted to go there because it was where an uncle of mine had a hideaway, and I reasoned – correctly, as it turned out – that he would have chosen it for the best of reasons.
It’s an enchantingly pretty and serene corner of the world. From our caravan site at Pahi we looked out over an arm of the Kaipara at a scene depicted in a Dick Frizzell painting that hangs in our lounge. We bought the Frizzell print years ago because the place he painted, called Whakapirau, was so unmistakeably New Zealand. I’m pleased to report that although there are a few more houses at Whakapirau now (and the classic Kiwi caravan on the hillside in Frizzell's painting is nowhere to be seen), its essential character is unchanged.
I can’t mention Pahi without returning to the subject of trees, because it’s the site of a magnificent Moreton Bay fig tree thought to have been planted before the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi. And 15 minutes’ drive away is the justly famous Matakohe Kauri Museum, which intrigued me because while it celebrates this most majestic of trees, it simultaneously pays tribute to the rugged and resourceful men who cut them down and milled them.
So what else did we do? We enjoyed a spectacular sunset framed by elegantly sculpted macrocarpas at Muriwai Beach. On the Napier-Taupo road I bored my wife for the umpteenth time about what the road was like when I was kid, when it was unsealed and tortuously slow and deer sometimes crossed in front of you. In Tauranga we missed a crucial turnoff amid road works and I cursed the NZTA – again, not for the first time – for its pathetically inadequate signage.
We also had one of those two-degrees-of-separation moments when we found that another couple among the four in our tour group at the Waitomo Caves used to live just along the road from us. Only in New Zealand …
Oh, and we were rudely woken when our caravan was rammed by a rogue ute at 4.30am in the Port Waikato camping ground, but that’s a story for another time.