Deborah Hill Cone

Deborah Hill Cone is a Herald columnist

Deborah Hill Cone: Seeing the other side of the two New Zealands

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Summer break spent slumming it in provinces can be an eye-opener for those of us in the jammy middle class.

Hokianga harbour in Opononi. Photo / Supplied
Hokianga harbour in Opononi. Photo / Supplied

I am writing this lying in bed and staring out at the Hokianga Harbour in the Far North. Lucky me. I've had a wonderful holiday here learning to play 500 (addictive), watching boxed sets of Californication (dirty) and drinking aged Cuban rum (gives you Hokianga Flu).

This is how the jammy middle class rolls when you slum it for a few weeks a year in the provinces. There is no internet or TV and you can get only one bar of cellphone coverage standing on the edge of the cliff; irrelevant, as I forgot my cellphone charger.

The children go even more feral than usual and run around with no clothes on in the mud when the tide is out. It is considered bohemian when people formerly known as Yuppies let their kids do this kind of thing on their summer holidays - a bit of benign neglect, kids go for days without baths, eat chips for dinner while their parents ignore them and drink rum and play cards.

If I was poor, and dare I say it, Maori, this exact same behaviour would probably be seen in quite a different light. But we all know, whether or not we admit it, there are two New Zealands.

If you come from my one - urban, privileged - it is liberating to visit the other one - provincial, impoverished - and soak up the authenticity.

On this visit, though, I can't help wondering more about the other New Zealand - the people who live here and have never seen an iPad and each year seem to be getting left further and further behind in economic terms.

I've been coming to this place now for 13 years. I sincerely love it here, and I hope not in an obviously Jafa-type condescending way. There is something special about Hokianga.

You can be yourself here; there is a relaxed tolerance of eccentricity, even being an outright nutbar. Hokianga is an antidote to all that is stuffy and conventional and middle class.

But free as I am here, I am uncomfortable at the same time, because the very things that I love about it - simplicity and isolation - are the same things which make it very hard for anyone to make a living and bring up their kids here.

This is a very poor area. The local town, Kaikohe, has fish heads and second-hand beds and pork bones on special. No point asking about buying an iPhone charger. The busiest places are the court, the Winz office and McDonald's.

But despite the down-at-heelness, most of the people here are proud and self-respecting and just trying to make a good community. It must be disheartening for them to be portrayed by urban sophisticate journalists as though all anyone does in the dark heart of the country is have drunken parties and attack policemen, after the incidents in Dargaville and Kawhia.

It also doesn't help being blamed for the moribund economic situation as if the fickle forces of the economy are somehow their fault.

And there are signs of enterprise. Kohukohu, a historic harbourside town, has always had a crumbling grandeur but now has a cool arty vibe. There is an excellent al fresco cafe with hand-cut chips, a fresh white gallery wittily called Black Space selling fastidiously presented Maori art, and a trendy clothing shop with necklaces imported from Milan.

But wherever you go there are reminders things work differently here.

On the way back from Kohukohu we wait for the ferry. There are about 50 cars waiting but the boat can take only about 15 cars at a time.

It is going to be a long wait. For us, that is.

A black four-wheel drive scoots up past the waiting queue. Inside is a big man with a patched jacket and tattoos across his bald head, a gang member who does not expect to wait.

The bourgeois part of me is affronted at his sense of entitlement. But I am trying not to judge. Maybe he is pushing in because he has a sick child he is visiting in Rawene Hospital? I'll give him the benefit of the doubt. After all, I get to go home and plug in my iPhone.

- NZ Herald

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