The Land of Kiwis

I got married on December 2nd, 1985, and my new husband Douglas and I headed out on a world tour of indeterminate length on the 29th of that month. We bought special tickets from American Airlines which allowed us half a dozen plane trips over the next 12 months provided we always headed west. This allowed us to choose destinations as we travelled, with our last flight bringing us back to Toronto. Our first stop was Hawaii, and we spent New Years Eve in Honolulu on the beach at Waikiki. The fireworks were breathtaking and we loved Oahu, but it was really expensive so we left for Fiji the very next day.

Fiji is a series of more than 330 volcanic islands situated in the South Pacific, some 2,000 km northeast of New Zealand. Like most countries in Melanesia, Fiji passed through the hands of many European colonizers over the centuries, eventually coming under British rule in 1874. The British brought in more than 60,000 indentured labourers from India over the next 45 years, many of whom stayed. One could sense a lot of tension between native Fijians and Indo-Fijians when Douglas and I were there, and a series of revolts and coups erupted in the years following our visit. By 2014, however, things finally settled down and after drafting a more equitable constitution and holding a free election, the newly minted Republic of Fiji was welcomed into the Commonwealth, where it remains to this day.

We landed in the capital city of Suva but didn’t stay long. Suva is situated between mountains which catch moist trade winds, making it rainy year round. Also, there is no beach in Suva, and we had heard that Fiji’s coral reef was an absolute must see. We consequently left the capital the same day we arrived and headed for a small town on the southern coast recommended in our guide book. I honestly can’t remember the name of the town, but the locals were friendly, the beach was amazing, and the fruit in the local market was unbelievably fragrant and flavourful. I had the best mangos and pineapples of my life in Fiji. I simply couldn’t stop eating them, even though they consistently sent me running for the toilet.

We found a place to stay quite near the water and then immediately hit the beach, setting up next to a friendly Australian couple who had been there for several days. They told us that the reef started at the very edge of the water and we would need surf shoes if we didn’t want our feet sliced by coral and shells. They also warned us that the sun was incredibly intense and unfiltered in the South Pacific. We should stay out of it as much as possible and ensure we were either covered by shirts and hats or slathered in sun block whenever we ventured into the water. I am half Portuguese and therefore have a fair bit of melanin in my skin. I had never in my entire life had a sun burn, and I therefore assumed that their warning didn’t apply to me. 

I haphazardly applied sun screen before going in the water, but otherwise took absolutely no precautions whatsoever. My hubris caught up with me later that day when I developed an excruciating sunburn. I was feverish and in substantial pain over the next few days, becoming progressively more exhausted as my stinging skin made it impossible for me to sleep. Finally on the third day things calmed down and my battered skin started to slough off in sheets – a process which I found equally gross and fascinating. By the fourth day I was feeling like myself again and, assuming that I had now achieved what is known as a base tan, I once more went blithely out in the sun with very little protection. I wish I could report that my base tan theory proved true, but alas I cannot. The second sunburn was ever worse than the first, not just because my skin was still incredibly raw, but also because I was furious with myself for letting it happen again. It reminds me of that old proverb, ‘Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. But if I fool myself twice, then I’m clearly a moron.’

We stayed in Fiji for a few more days to let my body heal, and I had no defence against Douglas’s ribbing because I was so obviously responsible for my own misery. Finally we got on a plane to Auckland which is located about two thirds of the way up New Zealand’s north island. Wellington is New Zealand’s capital, but Auckland has always been its largest city. It is bordered by the Tasman Sea to the west and the Pacific Ocean to the east, making it one of the few cities in the world to have a a harbour on each of two separate major bodies of water. The hills around the city are covered in rainforest and the landscape is dotted with 53 dormant volcanic cones. Auckland is home to the largest Polynesian population on earth, and despite being extremely expensive it is recognized as one of the world’s most liveable cities, having ranked third in the 2019 Mercer Quality of Living Survey.

All of these things of course make Auckland a very desirable place to visit, but we had mostly come to meet a whole branch of Douglas’s family. Douglas’s dad was named John Beall, and his people came from a suburb of London. John’s father Frank lived on a street which was also home to the Hamers – a house well known to the boys in the neighbourhood because it contained five sisters. People’s worlds were much smaller in the early 20th century so it’s no surprise that Frank and his brother each married a Hamer girl. This meant that John, his older sister Val, and his younger brother Barry came from exactly the same genetic pools as their cousins David, Josie, and Anne. 

One of the Hamer girls died at home with her parents during The Blitz when their house collapsed after a direct hit by a German bomb, and another married a French man and moved to Paris. John’s mother died when he was a boy and his father quickly married the last available Hamer sister to help him raise his kids, so the Hamer/Beall influence in John’s life remained unbroken. Everyone in John’s generation emigrated after the war – Val went to California, John to Canada, Barry to Australia, and all their cousins went to New Zealand. We had arranged to spend time at David’s house in Auckland before we left home. He and his wife Mair said they were overjoyed to host us, but Douglas was still nervous when we finally arrived on their front stoop. 

He hesitantly knocked on the door which was immediately thrown open by a beaming couple. Mair was a pleasant looking if somewhat dowdy middle-aged woman with a warm countenance and lots of laugh lines. Douglas and I both gave her awkward hugs at her insistence, but it was David we couldn’t take our eyes off. His physical resemblance to John was absolutely extraordinary, and as he welcomed us into the house and showed us to our room it became clear that he moved and spoke just like John as well. He shut the door behind him as he left us to get settled, and Douglas and I dropped our bags and looked at each other with our eyes wide and our mouths agape as soon as he was gone. We began speaking simultaneously after a few seconds of stunned silence, astonished at the profound similarities between David and Douglas’s dad. These two men had not seen each other in 40 years and yet they remained uncannily alike in every way imaginable. Genetics are a miraculous thing.

Every day David revealed more of what made him similar to John as he used identical turns of phrase and facial expressions, and even had the same physical ailments of varicose veins and arthritis. The only way in which he was unlike his cousin was in temperament – John was openly racist and tended to be morose, whereas David didn’t seem to have a hateful bone in his body and was quite optimistic. His wife Mair (pronounced “My”) had an equally sunny disposition. She spoke with a lyrical Welsh lilt, and was one of those people who made you feel welcome by constantly pushing huge amounts of food at you. She would ask Douglas and I if we were hungry a mere hour after an enormous meal, and when we responded with a resounding “No!” she’d say, “Alright then. I’ll just make you a wee sandwich.” 

My favourite memory of Mair involves her reaction to a comment I made in passing one day. I don’t know exactly how the subject came up, but at some point I mentioned that an American company was selling diet potato chips. I believe they were lower in calories than conventional chips because they were baked rather than fried. Mair was seemingly amazed at this development. Later that day her daughter Pam (pronounced “Pim” with a New Zealand accent) dropped by. Mair immediately made me tell her about the diet potato chips, and Pam seemed equally as gobsmacked as her mother. She was quiet for a moment and then looked at me and asked, “Couldn’t they just eat fewer chips?” to which Mair added, “That’s exactly what I was wondering.” I thought her astonishment was in response to the ingenuity of U.S. food scientists, when all along it was just a profound misunderstanding of the American character. I chuckled at their charming naiveté and simply said, “Americans would never consider having less of something. That’s just not how they work.”

Douglas and I stayed with David and Mair for about four days and then hitchhiked down to Wellington, both to have a look around the country’s capital city and to catch a ferry to the south island. Wellington proved to be a pleasant if unremarkable place, and luckily it was a calm day so the 3.5 hour ferry ride was quite lovely. We landed in Picton and proceeded directly to Nelson, a nice little city on the island’s western coast. There was a well reviewed hostel in Nelson which had rooms for couples, so we immediately made our way there.

We arrived late in the morning to find two young Maori men with fishing gear leaving the building. One of them was quite outgoing and introduced himself to Douglas with a hearty handshake. The other man seemed much more shy, and even though he hung back we noticed each other right away. We have all experienced such encounters in our lives – a chance meeting with a stranger to whom we are inexplicably drawn. I don’t know if it’s pheromones or what, but when it happens there is no denying the primal attraction. The young man and I surreptitiously exchanged probing looks until he drove off with his friend and Douglas and I entered the hostel.

Later than day Douglas and I brought possibly the best fish and chips I have ever eaten back to the hostel for dinner. Every commonwealth country I’ve been in other than Canada calls takeout food “take away”. I think we only call it takeout because that’s what Americans say and we are profoundly influenced by their culture. New Zealanders put a singular spin on the phrase “take away”, pronouncing it “TA-key AH-way” to mimic the particular cadence of the Maori language. To me this seemed like a nice little nod to their indigenous people. 

We had just finished our meal when the two young Maori men we’d met earlier in the day came into the kitchen. The more social of the two put a bag of fresh caught fish into the fridge while the one I was attracted to put a small cooler down on the table. The former called Douglas and I over to watch as the latter pulled a sea urchin out of the container and placed it spiny side down on the table. He then drew a knife from his belt and used it to open the urchin, revealing its still beating heart. The other man explained that in Maori culture being offered the raw heart to eat was a real honour as his friend skillfully extracted the heart and held it out to me on the end of his knife. I knew it would be impolite to refuse, but I also knew that I would vomit if I put that gelatinous lump in my mouth. I thanked him profusely for the gesture but said I was so full from dinner that I couldn’t manage even one more bite. Douglas then came forward clearly expecting to be offered next, but the young man simply shrugged his shoulders and popped the heart into his own mouth. He and I then managed to exchange a few more longing looks before Douglas bid them goodnight and we headed up to our room. Douglas always got very angry with me when I was singled out in social situations or succeeded when he did not, so I studiously avoided mentioning what had just happened in the kitchen. On the inside, however, I was secretly glowing because of that handsome young man’s attention.

Douglas and I were impressed by the immaculately maintained, thoroughly signed hiking paths we encountered in every New Zealand forest we entered, and we experienced some of the most beautiful landscapes we’d ever seen on its south island. We marvelled at the Remarkable Mountains, located just outside Queenstown on the edge of Lake Wakatipu, which earned their name by providing a stunning backdrop for the waters and because they seem to magically change colour over the course of the day. You have seen the Remarkables if you’ve ever watched the Lord of the Rings movies. Then there are a series of fjords on the south island, the most famous of which is called Milford Sound. Milford Sound was carved out by glaciers during the ice ages and features lush forests atop steep cliffs with plunging waterfalls crashing down into inky black waters. Rudyard Kipling called Milford Sound the “eighth wonder of the world”, and it is acclaimed as New Zealand’s most famous tourist destination. I can say from experience that its reputation is well earned.

We visited the Franz Joseph Glacier, which was breathtaking and absolutely enormous. I really wanted to take a helicopter ride to the top of the glacier but Douglas vetoed the idea, claiming it was too expensive. It turned out that it wasn’t the money that made him refuse, however, because the very next day he booked us into an expensive white water rafting trip without my knowledge. I had absolutely no interest in such an excursion as I am not a strong swimmer and don’t particularly enjoy taking risks. Douglas got mad when I said I didn’t want to go, railing on about what a drag I was and that I would be wasting our money if I didn’t go since my ticket was nonrefundable. I quickly capitulated in the face of his anger – shooting rapids would be faster and less scary than enduring days of his protracted rage and disdain.

New Zealand’s south island is home to the Shotover River, a fast flowing waterway with numerous rapids which first came to prominence in the 1860s when gold was discovered in its bed. The Shotover is now famous for white water rafting and several companies vie to take untrained enthusiasts down its treacherous course. Douglas and I got on a bus at the head of Skippers Canyon, the deep ravine through which the river runs, to begin the first part of what for me was a harrowing day. The road at the start of the canyon was plenty wide, but it soon began to narrow until it could just barely accommodate the bus. I was already feeling quite uneasy after the first ten minutes of the ride when we passed a sign which proclaimed in bold black letters, “All insurance policies are null and void beyond this point.” My anxiety took a noticeable leap after reading these ominous words, and things got exponentially worse from there. 

We eventually got to our camp at the head of the river, and after eating a sparse lunch provided by the tour company we received a brief tutorial from our guide. He told us we had to follow his instructions to a tee, to tightly grasp the handholds provided on the inside of the raft whenever possible, and, if we were accidentally pitched into the water, to lie on our backs with our arms and legs outstretched to prevent smashing our heads against one of the many semi-submerged boulders. Every single thing he said just made me more alarmed, but I gamely put on my helmet and life jacket and took my spot in the raft with a terrified smile on my face. The trip itself was kind of like a nightmare – the rapids were so loud that I couldn’t hear our guide’s instructions, and there was no way to hold on and paddle at the same so I felt incredibly insecure every time we hit white water. Everyone high-fived and hugged when we got to the end of the run, feeling the euphoria which comes from having survived a high adrenaline experience. I joined in the celebration, but my joy came from the relief of knowing that I would never have to do anything like that again.

New Zealand, at least at the time we visited it, was like paradise. They generated electricity in a sustainable way, their indigenous people were treated with respect, and their wilderness was so pristine that you could drink directly from any stream or river without fear of getting sick. Their society was civil and democratic, their language and culture were completely familiar, and their climate was beautifully temperate. I don’t imagine I will every get back there given how far away it is and the great expense of a plane ticket, but it remains, of all the countries I have visited, the place I would most like to live. 

4 thoughts on “The Land of Kiwis

  1. Thank you so much for yet another escape.
    New Zealand is a country that I have always admired and your description of it served to further solidify my positive impression!

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    1. On top of all the positives I mentioned in my article, New Zealand’s calm and controlled behaviour during the pandemic has been exemplary. I know I said I’d never go back, but I’d really like to. Maybe I’ll meet a rich guy who’ll sweep me off my feet and whisk me away to Oceania! I don’t suppose you know any likely candidates…

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      1. I agree totally about how New Zealand is dealing with the pandemic! Jacinda Ardern is leading her country in a firm but sensible manner!

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  2. Thank you so much for yet another escape.
    New Zealand is a country that I have always admired and your description of it served to further solidify my positive impression!
    Your whitewater rafting adventure must have been terrifying!

    Like

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