Covid-19

Back on the forgotten world highway

Freed from lockdown in the south, Allan Ramsay points the car north towards the uncertain future.

“Must’ve changed a bit then?”

Asked with equal doses of sorrow and hope, it’s a question I hear surprisingly often.

And it’s fair enough to ask me, a “returnee” to this little strip of land at the edge of the world after 31 years elsewhere. Last century, before I left Aotearoa, I was asking the same question of OE returnees. Maybe it’s that infamous Kiwi insecurity – that fear that the rest of the world might have forgotten about us. Or, if it does remember us, will it merely be to laugh at our funny little ways?

The question has grown into an ear worm as I drive around the North Island in a long, meandering post-lockdown roadie. I’ve left those long Covid-19 weeks behind in the Pelorus Sound, given the capital a swerve and headed straight for the Wairarapa for a few days. Then up through Palmerston North, a night in Ohakune and on to Mt Taranaki.

The road north. Photo: Allan Ramsay

By Ohakune, the ear worm has been joined by an iconic meme from our aural history: “Don’t leave town till you’ve seen the country.” A tourist industry slogan best spoken in the broadest Kiwi accent you can find.

In our new virus-conscious world it’s been handily updated into a “buy local, travel local” message. Given international travel has frozen, it does raise the question of where else we’re going to go anyway. Nevertheless, our recovery has to start somewhere, and it needs a slogan. And if a roadie needs a reason, that’s as good as any.

So here I am doing my bit to rebuild the nation. Apparently, there’s a lot of us returnees about. No one knows exactly how many, but we suddenly attracted attention when our presence jacked the population over five million. Our reasons for coming home are as varied as the places we’ve left behind.

Some, like me, finally gave in to the vague, nagging call of home that plays constantly on the mind of the offshore Kiwi. It was once described to me, by another pining for our homeland, as the call of the shine on the paua shell. Whatever. We were on our way home anyway. Others are here as fugitives who heeded the Prime Minister’s call to come home to family and turangawaewae just before Covid-19 locked us all up.

But our motivations are irrelevant. We returnees are now a Kiwi demographic in our own right. It’s a kind of homecoming.

The view to the summit of Taranaki. Photo: Allan Ramsay

Accordingly, and for reasons I can’t remember but which now seem unwise, I thought the view from the top of Mt Taranaki would be a good place to get a look at a large bit of my new home. Quite possibly it is, but I can’t confirm that because I didn’t make it to the summit.

The view from halfway up Taranaki. Photo: Allan Ramsay

I did however stay at the Stratford Mountain House where staff bustled about with the purpose of people glad to be back at work again. It was the same with the walkers and climbers out on the hill.

Encouragingly, most of my fellow guests in the dining room that night were obviously locals – couples grabbing a little privacy and anonymity from small town Aotearoa to do some post-lockdown couple maintenance and support the local economy at the same time.

On the Forgotten World Highway, deep in the gobsmacking beauty of the King Country, somebody has taken the trouble to pat themselves on the back by putting up a large roadside sign reading “Make Ardern Go Away” in large letters. I’m sure I heard them and the neighbours chuckling at their own wit as I drove past swearing at my satnav.

In a Taumarunui cafe, a farmer left his muddy boots at the door but took great pleasure in forbidding his sons to sign the contact tracing register. He wasn’t going to have them saving lives on the instructions of any latte-sipping Wellington bureaucrat.

I passed through Auckland with a side trip to Piha, where we ate roast lamb for lunch around an outdoor fire.

And I’m now staying with friends in Whangaroa, Northland. As a Southlander originally, this is an alien land. North of Auckland was an Aotearoa I had seen only in Don Binney’s paintings. It looked strange enough for me not to want to visit. That’s changed now.

For a start, it’s warm. Kiwi and ruru call during the night. On the first morning, we caught four good-sized Kahawai in one hour out on the harbour. In the afternoon we lit a fire which we fed with slash wheelbarrowed up and down a slope – a proper, steep, awkward and slippery Northland hillside. We stopped only for fresh scones and soup, eaten while sitting on the wet and muddy ground. It was a big and satisfying day and I slept like a shot flounder.

Sunset over Whangaroa Harbour. Photo: Allan Ramsay

I’ve been away and buried by intense urban living for so long I’d forgotten the feel of the other rhythms by which people live. I don’t think much has changed ever in this particular corner. The outboard motors and the chainsaws may be quieter and more efficient, the vehicles may have more traction and come in a wider variety of colours, but what we use them for remains the same.

History feels only a page away here. If, 211 years ago, I’d looked up from where I’m sitting now, I would have seen the 395-ton brigantine Boyd being towed up the bush-rimmed harbour by local Maori. In a terrible act of utu, they killed and ate most of those on board after a chief’s son had been flogged and humiliated by the captain. Only four of the 70 pakeha survived.

In 2020, the history we’re living through is still invisible, written by something so fatally small we can’t see it but so far-reaching we have no idea of the price it will extract. Advertising slogans seem a little puny next to the bill we’re going to have to pay. And I fear for how these small, out-of-sight-out-of-mind heartland communities will look five years from now.

Time to turn around and head south.

* Made with the support of NZ on Air *

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