In search of work, Abby and I plowed through highway after highway while edging our way up the North Island. The roads were straighter, the towns bigger, and the countryside flatter. I missed the South Island.
Heading up from Wellington, the multi-lane highway was clogged with trucks and traffic. I had told Abby (who had joined me in Wellington) how all the roads in New Zealand twisted and turned around hills and squished into one lane to cross a bridge… All of these facts I had thought to be truths did not apply to the North Island. Nothing screamed home like these Americanesque interstates with their toddling trucks and honking traffic.
The roads were a bottleneck through sprawling suburbs into the endlessly horizontal countryside. The passing towns were windswept and weathered. “These are the scary, backwards places I avoided in Colorado.” Abby questioned my insistence that everywhere in New Zealand was absolutely breathtaking. I too was beginning to wane on this position.
Palmerston North, the next city on the map, only added to the disappointment. The small metropolis, with its dueling towers, was centered along an audacious town square that was as banal as it was pompous. I felt sorry for the poor kids at Massey (New Zealand’s largest university) who called this, the “student city,” their home.
Further north, we spent the night in an old horse stable on the Pacific coast at Napier. Other than the high ceilings, the only thing resembling it’s equine past was the wall-to-wall horse murals and framed unicorn silhouettes. Majestic horses have always fascinated me, but I find horse paintings inherently creepy. They conjure up the image of a certain persnickety girl from forth-grade with a penchant for My Little Pony and Crayola Crayons.
From said friend’s adolescent dream room, we left to explore Napier in all of its Art Deco Glory. You may remember Ranfurly, the “rural art deco capital of New Zealand.” Napier was the real deal in all its kitsch grandeur. It was as if Walt Disney had designed a retirement city along the Florida coast with a Riviera theme.
Napier was the kind of place with an immediate appeal that vanished steadily and heavily as the hours passed. Once you’ve bought into the gimmick, you find that was all it ever was at the start. But, at least Napier presented an outward charm. A giant effort was made. That, I could appreciate.
Neighboring Hastings was content on looking like shit. They were not going to put on a façade and hide behind cream-colored geometrics like their neighbors. Nope, the sinister citizens of Hastings were pleased to be the agricultural waste station of Hawkes Bay. In a coast of endless orchards, Napier hung proud to it’s artificially enhanced core as Hastings sat rotting below.
Coming from the northern hemisphere, what that had always struck me about the New Zealand countryside was its trees. How could pines and palms stand together in the same forest? Trees, so gnarled and stunted, trees that branched out halfway from the top, trees that appeared upside down… I had never seen such trees before in my life.
So, when I drove north from Napier past rolling hills of logged forest, I was saddened. And, the deforestation continued the whole way northwest to Lake Taupo. As I write this in my notebook, I feel hypocritical. I know paper comes from a tree that comes from a forest. We all use paper, so we all need trees. I guess sometimes it’s easier to detach the thing from its origin. But, to see so many unique trees downed in such a (generally) untouched country was a disappointment.
I found myself thinking, “this would never happen on the South Island!” Everything was preserved there – every corner a National Park. I had become such a staunch defender of the South, the place that northerners thought of as slightly backwards. I had always heard that the South Island was the jewel of the country but I had not imagined the north to be this bad.
But, perhaps bad is a poor choice. I was accustomed to the small town charm of the South that catered to every one of my inner-tourist desires. Here in the North, I had found a countryside that let its flaws show. It was crowded, harried, and, well, normal. This was New Zealand without the perpetual ebb and flow of tourism.
I began to question what it was I had considered, “the real New Zealand.” Was it the tailor-made towns of the southern countryside? Or was it the bland suburbs of the north? Was the South Island really just a big tourist trap that I had bought into whole-heartedly?
From Taupo on north, we witnessed a reappearance of the familiar drama of New Zealand. The north wasn’t as bad as I thought. When you’re on the South Island everyone talks about how bland and overcrowded the north is and when your up north they gasp that you could spend four months living in a town of 300 people. Perhaps I’ve bought into a certain southern mentality that I’m having a hard time letting go. Maybe things don’t need to be so tough and gritty. Food doesn’t need to cost a dollar more because I’m in the middle of the mountains and the local post office doesn’t have to run out of the gas station. I need to embrace the fact that I am up north. It’s crowded. There are actual places to shop, three choices of supermarkets, and real places to see a movie outside of the local town hall’s monthly special. I work with Kiwis instead of foreigners. Instead of parks and hotels, there subdivisions. It’s a bit easier, a bit more normal… but it’s no less New Zealand.