To me, as an Australian, New Zealand feels like a relative from whom I have been separated at birth. We share the same language and Commonwealth affiliations, our National flags (at least for now!) are strikingly similar and Auckland is closer to Sydney than Perth. We’ve fought together, traded celebrities, made movies together and many have crossed the ditch between us forging connections of work, family and friendship.
I confined this visit to the North Island leaving a venture south for another time. My jumping off point was Auckland. On the foreshore creativity spilled out in new residential and office developments, cafes and cocktail bars, containers converted into cozy reading spaces, and industrial heritage melded into the public space. I mingled with relaxed crowds strolling on a gorgeous sunny day.
From Auckland I travelled north as far as the Bay of Islands staying in Whangeri to visit my actual dna based NZ relatives. This aunt is another daughter of Pearlie. She is lean and striding, elegant and opinionated. She was a very talented actress and comedian who starred in satirical reviews in theatre in the 1950s and 1960s. Though it has been many decades since she left that life behind she retains an aura of the theatrical about her. Her son who lives nearby is a talented musician and a person of kindness and humour. I feel an easy connection even though continental drift has separated us for almost all of our lives.
Leaving Whangeri I drove south to Rotorua, looping around Lake Tamo to Waitomo Caves, back to Auckland to catch the train to Wellington and finally north east to the Art Deco delights of Napier. Flying back to Auckland the mountains I had driven through were now covered in snow.
Despite the sameness and connection I sense more difference than I expected. There are little things, trim coffees rather than skim and what was probably a passing eatery trend of skewering food with increasingly large implements to the point where I felt I was removing a dagger from my prey. There was the self effacing modesty of the beehive parliamentary complex in Wellington, where walking in from a major side entrance I couldn’t see any sign confirming what it was. There was the slightly eerie early morning weekday quiet of the major city of Wellington.
Moving through the country though, the stark difference that confronted me, is the way in which the indigenous and non-indigenous are woven together into the fabric of the place. It is evident in things as diverse as street signs and parliamentary debate, in language and heritage, in formal recognition and visible presence in daily life. There are many reasons why it is not like this in Australia. Neither is this to suggest that I what observed as a passing visitor is the whole story. As always though, even travelling to visit this next door neighbour changed the way I saw that place and my own.