Reticent Kiwis, heed the call

Anna Rawhiti-Connell tells herself to stop being a dick about domestic tourism and visits the Waitomo Caves 

I have never been a great one at heeding calls. Group participation is what my nightmares are made of.  It’s not my own awkward response I worry about, it’s a specific anxiety that manifests in the moments between an enthusiastic call to respond and the deafening silence and inaction that follows that causes me physical pain. If you’ve ever been a New Zealander in a tour group overseas, you can probably relate. We are a reticent people. 

Our own tourism sector has been hard hit by the loss of overseas visitors. While many sectors will begin to return to normal at Level 1, the impact of long-lasting border closures will see the tourism and aviation sectors face into harsh winds for months and maybe years to come. 

So, the call has gone out, we must rally and begin the great domestic tourism adventure to help stem the bleed. 

I love to travel but have been a dick about doing tourism and travel in my own country. Ask me about any city I’ve visited in the world and I will enthusiastically bore you with advice about doing all the tourist stuff because ‘you might never do it again’. Ask me about tourist attractions in my own country and I might muster some enthusiasm for the wine stop at the end. They have always seemed like activities for others. 

Fortunately, better people than me are prepared to heed the call. Perhaps cured of their kiwi reticence after years overseas, my brothers, who’ve been in lockdown with our parents in Hamilton, have decided to embark on a whirlwind tour of tourism hotspots and usher me along with them.

My brother called last week with the invitation. ‘We’re going to Waitomo Caves this weekend. Do you want to come?’

‘Why?’ I drawled, like the true unpatriotic arsehole from Auckland I am.

My family’s last domestic tourism adventure involved a stop in Kaikoura on our way to Dunedin. My parents, my brothers and I squashed into the family station wagon that also doubled as a graveyard for the stale wine biscuits and raisins my mother always had on hand to placate us. 

I was 13, hated everything and spent most of the time listening to the Evita soundtrack on a cassette dubbed from an album taken out from the Hamilton Public Library, only breaking concentration to punch my brother’s leg when it drifted too close to mine. By the time we reached Kaikoura, no one had spoken to each other since Picton.

The idea had been to do a whale watching trip but on arrival, and after a quick toting up of the cost, Dad asked the man at the desk if the boats were gold plated and we left. 

On Sunday, 27 years after the non-event in Kaikoura, my husband, parents, brothers, my brother’s girlfriend and I travelled to Waitomo Caves in cars that have never seen a wine biscuit crumb let alone the intact article. Everyone was still speaking to each other on arrival.

I dressed like I was going to Aspen. "Always got to look like you couldn’t be mistaken for a local eh Anna," my brother said. He moves too quickly for me to punch him now. He was also right. 

We did the Ruakuri Caves, while my parents, perhaps recalling previous attempts at family tourism activities, opted to do Waitomo. Mum maintains this was a scheduling and capacity issue. 

The trip begins with a quiz from the tour guide. ‘Two dogs’ I yell when asked what the name means, forgetting I hate group activities. There are 12 of us in the group including three kids for whom the questions are really designed. 

As we descend beneath the earth, it’s hard not to be struck by the costly man-made efforts to open this ancient natural environment up while keeping it safe. There are air locks which ensure the temperature remains regulated and you are told that if you touch a stalactite or stalagmite, causing it to break, you bought it. At the cost of $30,000 each, my hands remained firmly shoved into my pockets.

The questions from the guide keep coming. My brother, as if made smarter by the changing air conditions, asks about cave coral. He makes the guide’s day and glows smugly, as bright as the star attractions we’re about to see. 

Before this trip, my knowledge of the caves and their worms was minimal, and I am surprised to find I am suddenly interested in geology and the life cycle of the glow worm as told to us by our guide. This group activity, packed full of enthusiastic requests to participate, coupled with complacency and entitlement, are why I’ve avoided tourist activities in my own backyard. My own awe at the pin pricks of light in the ceiling of cave and lace-like rock formations that have been there long before we were, is a timely kick up the bum to get over myself.

Near the end of the tour, my brother suggests Hobbiton for the next trip and I don’t baulk. Our guide has talked about kaitiakitanga and thanks us for our role in helping to maintain the eco structure that keeps the caves open and preserved.

I don’t know if it’s the crippling national condition of muted enthusiasm or that I take it for granted that these things will always be there that’s kept me from seeing what my own country has to offer. 

What I do know, is we now face the very real possibly that these things will not always be there, on offer whenever we feel like taking them up. Some tourism outfits will not survive and it’s not just the jobs and livelihoods that will go. There are entire towns and cities that rely heavily on overseas tourism. The natural wonders of which we boast so proudly are part of an economic ecosystem that depends on the tourism dollar to preserve and protect them.

Now is not the time to be a dick about whether local charms can possibly live up to international cities, reticent people. If like me you’ve harboured less than enthusiastic thoughts about domestic tourism activities and are in the position to do so, it’s time to get over yourself. There is an enthusiastic call to respond and for the sake of making sure we don’t know what we’ve got ‘til it’s gone, we need to heed it with a roar. 

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