I’ve been pretty silent for the last ten days, but in that time I’m mostly been visiting people rather than places – so, for those of you who don’t know my extended family, that might not make such interesting blog posts.
But what I can say is that I still love New Zealand. It has pretty much always been top of my favourite countries list, even before I spent a year living here in 2006-2007. I decided that, in transport industry terms, NZ might be a bit small-town after London so decided against settling here for now at least, but I’m delighted to be much, much nearer for holidays!
This time I haven’t travelled too far from my base of Auckland, where my aunt and uncle live. (This is my dad’s sister, as opposed to my mum’s family who are all in Sydney). However I have made it to Hamilton to spend a weekend with my cousin Matt, his wife Julia and their gorgeous baby Madeleine, and am writing this from Paihia on the beautiful Bay of Islands, a few hours’ drive north of Auckland. I’ve also enjoyed my aunt’s choir performing the Messiah, and two dinners out with friends. It will be a while before I forget the hapuku with aubergine kasundi that I enjoyed with Jane in Depot, central Auckland!
Paihia has been delightful. Combine glorious sunshine, stunning coastal scenery and a bit of walking and you get a happy Sarah (as discussed in parts one and two of my campervan travels). Add in a dolphin-seeking boat trip, some interesting historical sites, good company, and some super food and drink (I’m being rather less parsimonious than on my South Aussie trip), and it gets better. I’ve been here before, with my cousin Matt on a road-trip in 2006, which also included Cape Reinga (far north of the country). But that was September and it rained, and I doubt we collectively had the funds for the dolphin trip, so I’ve been very happy to return! This part of the world is very significant in NZ history, with the first European settlers being here, the Treaty of Waitangi signed about a mile away, and there being various religious missions, and battles between Maori and westerners. It’s made for fascinating visiting and reminded me of some of the national history that I probably knew ten years ago.
For some time, I’ve considered myself an honorary New Zealander. But why do I feel so at home here? I guess it’s got a lot in common with home (language, culture, etc.), but with a much more laid- back pace of life, far fewer people (most of whom are super friendly) and, if anything, a better array of fabulous scenery. It’s not that NZ has the most spectacular coastline, mountains or forest in the world, but the combination of natural features in relatively close proximity is what sets it apart. For example, from where I used to live in Christchurch, within two hours I could get to the top of a ski slope, most of the way to the west coast glaciers, into the Mackenzie Country with its lovely lakes and mountains, or to Kaikoura with lovely coastline and whale watching/ dolphin opportunities.
I’ve come to love the North Island too, having got to know many of its scenic spots, and appreciate Auckland for what I now reckon it is – a mid-size waterfront city with a fantastic food scene. It may not have the charm of Wellington, the traffic (and drivers) may be bad and public transport isn’t what it could be, but I adore the amount of water you can see from any vantage point, the place has a multicultural and cosmopolitan feel, and I’ve not had many meals ever better than the one last week including the hapuka!
Now I know I can come back more frequently, I’m already compiling a mental list of things I want to do here: re-visit Wellington (one of my favourite cities in the world but I’ve neglected it since 2010); ski in some of the South Island ski fields that I haven’t done before; go to Dunedin, the Catlins and Moeraki Boulders; go back to the Coromandel for more stunning coastal scenery; skydive in Taupo; visit the volcanic Rangitoto Island off the coast by Auckland; walk the Milford and Routeburn tracks. But my first trip back will be at the end of March, to see two NZ v England test matches in successive weekends, in Auckland and Christchurch. The Christchurch game I’m particularly excited about, given the Hagley Oval’s development from club ground in the park into an international venue following the 2010 and 2011 earthquakes, and its proximity to where I used to live. But it will surprise nobody to read that cricket is the reason for my first planned holiday from a job I haven’t even started yet!