After the long haul across the Indian Ocean from Dubai, I spent a frustrating hour wandering around a hot and humid Sydney terminal before re-boarding for the short hop over the Tasman Sea to Auckland. On the final approach, the clouds over the North Island shone brilliantly in the sun and, seeing them stretch out southwards in great narrow wisps, it was not hard to understand how the Maori had come to name the islands The Land Of The Long White Cloud.
The view apart, twenty-six hours had taken their toll and I felt a little subdued as I navigated the combined forces of Customs, Biosecurity and Immigration. However, as I exited the terminal and headed into a cloudy but warm Auckland afternoon, I couldn’t help smiling: I was about to begin a trip that I had been planning for a good long while, one that could change our family life dramatically. Wondering if I could pull it off and whether the outcome could be as good as we have hoped, I pulled my hire car into the traffic on Highway 20A and headed north to Auckland.
Once settled into my motel room, I picked up my contacts book to make a few calls. One of the things I did in preparation for my trip was harvest as many Kiwi contacts as possible from friends and colleagues so I could meet local folks and get a feel for normal family life in New Zealand.
Linda and Gideon were just such folks and, when I rang to introduce myself, Linda immediately invited me to dinner and drove over to pick me up. After the requisite introductions, I was whisked away on a brief tour of the delights of Tamaki Drive and Mission Bay whilst Linda remotely organised the family preparing the evening meal back home via her mobile phone.
Given that I was the previously never mentioned husband of a friend of a sister, Linda along with husband Gideon and their children Susie, David and Amy were gracious in their hospitality and I enjoyed their company over a pleasant dinner. As they had sagely prophesied earlier, the minute the meal hit my system and I sat back in the living room with a cup of tea – having eschewed alcohol since London – my eyes grew heavy and I started to lose the thread of the conversation.
As the minutes passed, my mind seemed to be undergoing a gradual shutdown and the harder I tried to concentrate, the more elusive clear thought became. Spotting my declining mental and physical state, my kind and understanding hosts simply guided me to the car and drove me back to my lodge. Once there, it took all my will power to stay awake long enough to make a slurred “good morning” call to SWMBO and the sprogs before hitting the bed like a redwood toppled by a lumberjack’s axe. So, on my first day in a country that I have long planned to visit, my first impression was the dent I left in the mattress.
Far from being the “England on the other side of the world” I’d been led to expect, the wooden houses and wide tree lined asphalt streets of Auckland’s suburbs reminded me of the small-town America I had seen on my trips to Virginia. However, the tall palms and pohutukawa trees, the voices of the locals and the cars driving on the left all made it clear that New Zealand was very different and very not-anywhere-else.
The hot and humid weather with brief tropical showers was very pleasant when not wearing a suit and tie although the sun was deceptively strong, as my pink forehead soon proved. It seemed that, other than a few backpacking Brits I saw, I was the only person in the city who didn’t have a tan. The weather in New Zealand seems to engender the easygoing relaxed demeanour that I found in almost every person I met.
When I jumped aboard his bus for the third time that day, to head back into the CBD after a dash back to the motel for papers, a walrus-moustached Maori driver looked over his mirror shades at me, raised an eyebrow and said, “Forget something, mate?” before cracking a wide smile. This attitude and behaviour is beguiling because it seems more mellow/less brash than the directness of the neighbouring Aussies.
Observing folks on the streets, in stores and in bars and restaurants, I notice that society here seems to be a little more balanced than elsewhere, with young and old, European and Maori mixing without the class-ridden self-consciousness of the Brits or the status symbol awareness of the Americans.
With this in mind and after a couple of beers to take the edge off our thirst, I ambled down the hill in the company of Steve, the father of a friend and colleague back in London, past well-attended touch rugby and lawn bowls competitions, to take my first ever swim in the Pacific.
Warning Steve that exposing my pale European flesh had been known to cause children and women to scream in horror, we piled our shirts and towels on our shoes and waded out through the gloriously warm shallows until we were able to dive in and swim amongst the moored yachts and families kayaking back and forth.
Most of the bays around Auckland seem to cater well for those seeking respite and relaxation in the evenings and weekends, with tree-shaded grass, clean showers and toilets and picnic tables for those choosing to dine al fresco. Watching families having their evening meals and few “cold ones” whilst watching local biathletes compete nearby, it is hard not to be seduced by it all and imagine that life here is always like this.
That said, the Kiwis seem far more geared up for such things and although New Zealand has very low unemployment at this time and an increasingly energetic economy, one senses that here, the “work to live, don’t live to work” ethos is well and truly engrained in the national psyche. It is our hope that, as a family, we will be adopting this very mindset when our dream of emigrating becomes reality later in the year.