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Helen Gilchrist
In the Land of the Long White Cloud

Total freedom and the pure thrill of being on the road in the beautiful, fresh and dramatic Land of the Long White Cloud; this is how I remember my first couple of months in New Zealand. Each new day presented us with new places, faces, sights and experiences. We faced decisions as minor as where to stop for lunch, to major problems like how to deal with breaking down in the middle of nowhere in a torrential rain storm. Whatever happened, each day was completely different from the next.

What a long way I’ve come! Four and a half months down the line, I’m living in a real nice Kiwi household, working a regular 9 to 5 job, and socializing with a group of people I’ve come to know pretty well by now. Every now and then, on the odd long weekend, I venture out to some place I haven’t been to yet – but for the first 150km of the journey the roads, towns, lakes, sheep dotted paddocks, orchards and pine forests are all so familiar that I hardly notice them any more.

When we were on the road, we spent a lot of time looking. New Zealand is such a diverse country that we never tired of fresh things to feast our eyes on. Now, however, it’s not the scenery and panoramas that woo me, but the people. Instead of looking, I seem to spend most of my time talking. Work commitments and lack of money have restricted my travels, but I feel that I’m learning more and more about New Zealand through its inhabitants. And they’re all too keen to teach the ‘whingeing Pommie’ a thing or two about Kiwi life.

So I’m learning. Lots. Just like the new group of Japanese students I’ve been assigned to look after. They’re over here for a month on an intensive language and culture programme. The idea is that they stay in Kiwi host families, have English lessons at the University, and take part in various activities and excursions which are designed to give them an insight into different aspects of typical Kiwi life and culture. And I’m their guide – which is ironic, as a lot of it is almost as new to me as it is to them. Talking of irony, I’m also finding it pretty amusing that I’ve gone from a quick unplanned, unwanted stop in Hamilton to fix a dodgy car battery – to living here – to becoming a teacher and tour guide responsible for helping a group of Japanese students discover the city’s delights…
Photo Helen Gilchrist


Tuesday: Visit the Senior Citizens’ Centre. I must confess that I was not overly excited when I read this on the itinerary. No offence meant to the elderly – it’s just that the most popular activities so far had proven to be ‘City Sights, Shops and Cafés’, ‘Raglan Beach Horse Riding’ and ‘Te Rapa Ten-Pin Bowling’; I couldn’t really imagine the students getting too excited about this one. Not even when the activity was called ‘Celebrating Age’. But the Japanese are some of the most enthusiastic and friendly people I have encountered, and they showed no signs of distraction or disinterest as we approached the centre – in fact they spent the taxi ride studying the questionnaire sheets they would be using to interview a selection of New Zealand’s senior citizens. On arrival, the centre was just as I had imagined it to be; first impressions were the brown and orange Paisley carpets, pseudo-wood finish furniture, sludge green fake velvet armchairs, faint musty smell, and, on the sideboard, a big urn of tea, cups, saucers, and biscuits.

When we met Ita, Rodger, and Cliff, I ditched my preconceptions and the real experience began. I spent two hours both fascinated and enchanted as we moved around chatting to each of them and listening to their stories, observations and opinions. First I spoke to Ita, 82, who reminisced about her childhood in Mount Eden village, in the countryside, about an hour’s ride on horseback from Auckland. Now Mount Eden is just another suburb on the CityLink bus route. After she married, she and her husband worked a big dairy farm, near Huntly, for fifty years. The farm also had many orchards, and she and her husband used to give the fruit to the local school. They were forced to give up their rural idyll and move to Hamilton when her diabetic husband kept collapsing and lying undiscovered for hours in remote parts of the huge farm. ‘Moving to the city was very hard, but we consoled ourselves by planting apple trees in our little garden and giving the fruit to the local primary school.’ After losing half his foot, her husband died 20 years ago. ‘I kept picking the apples for him until about 5 years ago, but I just can’t do it any more.’

Then there was Roger, 84, wearing khaki shorts with long beige socks pulled up over his brown, muscley legs. He was an avid mountain climber in his time, and clutches a stack of faded black and white photographs to prove it; he proudly shows us pictures of him as a strapping young fellow perched on the top of Mount Cook, abseiling down a steep escarpment, and standing halfway up a glacier with a huge rucksack on his back, clutching an ice axe. He was also involved in numerous mountain rescues. ‘It was all voluntary in those days – someone had to do it – and there were so few people around in the Southern Alps that if someone was in trouble, you just had to drop whatever you were doing and go and help them as fast as you could. There were no helicopters in those days, see.’

He remembers spending three days up the mountain in the winter blizzards, rescuing a hiker who was stuck in an ice cave. ‘We lowered food and a little hipflask of brandy down to him on a rope; that’s what saved him I reckon! Hee hee! Brandy’s good for keeping the blood warm, see.’ He chuckles and his eyes glisten beneath big bushy eyebrows. What’s the key to reaching old age? ‘Walking. Take a walk everyday and you can’t go wrong.’ Kyoko asks him what has changed the most. ‘People communicate so much more than they used to. When I was young, the country was so sparsely populated that we just used to stick together in our own isolated communities. It used to take five days to get from Christchurch to the West Coast. Now, with the roads and phone lines, everyone is a lot more in touch with each other. And it’s not just the nation – it’s the world! People travel and interact with other people and cultures so much more than it was ever possible to when I was young. There’s a lot less racism and a lot more interest and common understanding.’

Finally, I talk to Cliff, a bright, sunny fellow with a booming voice, who shook my hand enthusiastically and took care to remember all of our names and use them each time he addressed us. However, despite his cheery countenance, he is not quite as positive as Rodger about the present. ‘No-one uses their brains anymore. We used to do everything up here,’ he says, tapping his head, ‘but kids these days can only get the answer from a machine – and, well, if the electricity goes off, it’s all over then, isn’t it?! We all knew our times tables – we had to – but these days you pay with a $10 note and the kids in the shops can’t even work out your change without using the till.’ And it’s not just the state of education that worries Cliff; when Ayumi asks him what has changed the most in his lifetime, he replies: ‘Maori relations. It’s all changed beyond belief. When I was a boy, the Maori folk we’d see around the village were just like any other folk – we’d wave and say hello… but now a few of them have been educated, and they’re stirring everything up making claims all over the place, talking about loss of their land, suppression of their traditional culture… this word ‘culture’, they use it far too much, don’t they? Culture this culture that… if only things were still how they used to be; everything was so much simpler then. You can’t do anything these days without stirring up the local iwi [tribe]…'

He starts to tell me more about it, and I so want to listen, but the two hours that I had thought would pass so slowly have flown by and the taxis are waiting outside, ready to take the Japanese back for their English lesson


Photo Helen Gilchrist
New Zealand has a worldwide reputation for outdoor adventure activities and adrenaline sports, so it was no surprise that the EXTREME GAMES - Extreme Air competition was to be held in Hamilton. A huge crowd gathered over the three days to wonder at the iron balls and zero fear of the international pro’s (including the legendary skateboarder Tony Hawke) testing the limits of gravity on their skateboards, wakeboards, BMX’s and motor-cross bikes, while a selection of Kiwi bands mixed up some cool background beats. After a bad start, with monsoon style rain on the Friday, it was a fantastically hot, blue and sunny weekend, and the crowd lounged around in the sun, eating ice-cream, drinking ‘stubbies’ (little bottles of beer), jumping in the lake, slapping on sun cream and clapping gasping cheering as they watched a fair share of air being conquered in style. Just like the rest of the world, these sports are HUGE in New Zealand, with new shops, skate parks and dirt-bike tracks springing up all over the place. And it’s not just young guys either; it’s anyone and everyone. We saw heaps of girls, families – young and old – babies in prams too, and all sorts of styles from the usual low-riding boxer-showing big baggy trousers and skate shoes right through to tight shorts and singlets, long flowery sundresses, and even the odd suit! If you actually do these sports yourself, it’s inspiring to watch the ease and style of the professionals – and, if you don’t, well, it’s pretty exciting anyway seeing the gravity-defying stunts that most people normally only see on TV being performed right before your eyes, with the whistles, cheers and roar of an eager, amped up crowd echoing through your ears.
Photo Helen Gilchrist
Then, as the sunny afternoon draws into the orange pink glow of early evening and the burger vans, beer tents, and merchandise stalls begin to pack up, we pick our way through the ice cream wrappers and empty cans towards the gates and on to our next activity… which, in true Kiwi style, is a bar-b-que on the beach, loaded up and sizzling with burgers, steaks, chicken wings, sausages, fish, spicy pumpkin patties, veggie kebabs… and, of course, there is a large ‘chillie bin’ filled to the brim with ice and ‘stubbies’, ready to help wash it all down.


At the same time that Cliff worries about the Maoris ‘stirring things up’, many Maori people are deeply concerned about the dying out of their language and the Maoritanga (Maori culture). Today only about 15% of the New Zealand population is Maori, and, while their traditions and customs are still widely upheld in rural areas, there is a huge Maori population living in the cities, where European culture dominates. In Maoritanga, ancestral and family ties are critical, but 1 in 4 Maori today cannot name their iwi (tribe), and few urban Maori visit their marae (the meeting house where the tribe gathers, which is the centre of each Maori community). In recent years, there has been a concerted effort to preserve the Maoritanga and encourage widespread use of the Maori language by establishing primary schools where only Maori is spoken. These schools are called Kohanga Reo, which means ‘language nest’. The concept is that, just as a nest protects young birds while they grow and wait for food, these schools nurture and protect the Maori language and traditions. The subjects they learn are the same as in any other schools, but they are all conducted in Maori.

Monday morning’s activity is a visit to one of these schools, and it’s not just the Japanese who are excited about it: I feel very lucky that my job is giving me opportunities I would not normally have. We are also lucky because there is a new boy starting at the school today, and so there is going to be a pôwhiri - the traditional welcome given to all new pupils. We wait with the new boy and his family outside the school gates, until the head teacher, standing with her arms spread wide above her head, starts singing the welcoming chant in a beautiful and powerful voice. Following the new boy, we advance slowly through the gates and into the schoolyard, where the pupils are all stood barefoot, and have begun to sing heartily, illustrating their song with fluid hand and arm movements. When the song finishes, we move down the line shaking hands and pressing noses (hongi) with all the children and their teachers, before taking our seats for more songs and a performance of the haka (the warriors’ dance) by the boys in the school, who clearly relish bulging their eyes, flickering their tongues and being fearsome warriors.

Once this is all over, it’s time for the children to mix with the Japanese; they all break off into little groups and some show them round the school, some play basketball, some start skipping games, and some get out their musical instruments. We quickly realize that these kids are just like any other kids in New Zealand: dressed in shorts, jeans and Pokémon T-shirts, they’re friendly, cheeky, competitive, and eager to show you their things. They bring us all sorts to look at, from traditional Maori poi balls on long pieces of coloured string, to surfing magazines. As they talk to the teachers and each other in Maori, it’s easy to forget that they are totally bilingual; I find myself speaking slowly and extra clearly to them – and they must think I’m a right idiot as they talk to me just like any other Kiwi kid would. Some of them were at Extreme Air at the weekend, and they jump on the tables and pretend to be skateboarding,
Photo Helen Gilchrist
'I'm Tony Hawke!’
‘No, I am!’
‘NO! Look at me, bro’s, I’m more stylie than both of you’s!!!’
The girls look at them as if they’re stupid, and take us back out into the schoolyard to show us how to spin the poi balls. All to soon, it’s time to leave, and there’s five minutes of frantic address swapping (‘I’m going to come and visit you’s in Japan when I’m older!’), gooning around pulling silly poses for the many cameras, more Tony Hawke impersonations, and lots of high fives and hongis. As we finally walk away, the children start speaking to each other in Maori again as they head back to their classrooms.

© Helen Gilchrist 2001

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