Still trying to escape to Hokianga

By Paul Little, Wendyl Nissen

A year on, the country life still beckons Wendyl Nissen and Paul Little, but a flash new job has led to a change of plans.
Wendyl Nissen and Paul Little. Right, the Hokianga, a place to get away from the rat race. Photo / Jason Oxenham / Supplied
Wendyl Nissen and Paul Little. Right, the Hokianga, a place to get away from the rat race. Photo / Jason Oxenham / Supplied

Wendyl Nissen

"I really don't want to leave." Six words I had been longing to hear for two years. The two years we had been attempting to spend time living in the Hokianga where we had decided to make the move to the country, leaving behind the sounds of constant renovation in Grey Lynn.

A year ago we wrote about the move and it would be fair to say Paul was keen but lacking in the necessities for country living. As I wrote then, he loves the sound of traffic on a still day, office blocks in the rain and a pollution haze of an afternoon.

Journalist Wendyl Nissen. Photo / Supplied
Journalist Wendyl Nissen. Photo / Supplied

And so to those six words uttered by Paul. It was two years since we had bought the property up north. We had spent a few weeks there and I left him to come back to the city for work.

My absence, it seemed, had allowed the joys of country living to sneak in the back door and possess him. He weeded the garden, planted a shade garden, walked the dogs on the beach, sat on the deck, watched two sunsets and finally, he was smitten.

Which is just as well, as in the coming year he'll probably be spending more time there than I will.

I have applied a handbrake to my dreams of living in the Hokianga permanently in 2016, after my decision to accept a job editing a magazine, something I had been swearing for the past 15 years would happen over my dead body.

But back then, the internet was not as amenable as it is now. I can be at my desk looking at the Hokianga harbour and pull up my entire magazine on the computer. Genius.

But I still have to be in town to "put it to bed". And having dipped my toe back into the cool waters of print I find I am smitten.

It's a bit like going home with a guy I met in the pub (in my younger days) because he seemed harmless and nice but certainly not the Adonis I set out to meet. And then waking up in the morning and being quite overcome with how wonderful he is.

The view over the harbour, sand dunes, and wharf from the Copthorne Hotel Hokianga. Photo / Supplied
The view over the harbour, sand dunes, and wharf from the Copthorne Hotel Hokianga. Photo / Supplied

That's how I feel about my magazine. It's my new love and so the Hokianga has taken a step down the ladder from No 1 obsession to No 2.

My dreams of a huge garden laden with produce have also not been realised. My garden is a sorry blank canvas, thanks to my knees. They took one look at country life and immediately had a fit. "You're having a laugh," they shouted.

Turns out they are both arthritic and just won't work. So weeding, digging and planting are out.

"I guess there'll be no garden this year," I mumbled into my martini on the deck, knees comfortably nestled. The next day I caught Paul looking long and hard at the garden, even bending down and tugging a plant.

"That's not a weed," I said helpfully. "But the one next to it is."

And so began our new shared interest. I rest on the fence post issuing instructions and he obeys. He is now what some people would call a gardener and others might call free manual labour.

The one thing that hasn't changed in our year of supposed country living is my ability to make new friends. I'm not good at it. When I close the gate I want my privacy and rarely leave or talk to other people.

I'm unapologetic about that, I talk for a living, this is my down time.

I was persuaded not to put a "Private Property Keep Out!" sign on the gate when others suggested it was very Auckland and hugely offensive.

So I settled on "Dogs Running Free". Which is true. We have two big dogs who run free all the time.

So I have no friends up there. Well, I had no friends up there. In the past months my best mate, Kerre McIvor, deigned to visit me after two years and fell in love with the place in two minutes.

She now has a place five minutes away. And my ex and his wife who are good sorts have moved up, too. So I've brought my friends with me. Problem sorted.

Wendyl Nissen is the editor of Australian Women's Weekly.

Paul Little

Journalist Paul Little. Photo / Greg Bowker
Journalist Paul Little. Photo / Greg Bowker

Just over a year ago my wife and I wrote about how we had bought a home in the Hokianga and divided "our time between the two, more in town than in the country".

And how "at the end of next year, when our daughter finishes school, the ratio will be reversed". That is now.

And we're getting there. But one or two things occurred to turn the tables.

The first was that Wendyl's knees went. One day she was skipping behind me around the perimeter of our soggy section, dropping baby pohutukawa into holes I dug.

The next she was asking me to help her move from sitting to standing. The reverse move seemed hardly less painful. Gardening could no longer be one of her key performance indicators.

Fortunately, issuing simple instructions is. So I became the gardener for any activity that required bended knees which, it turned out, was nearly all of it.

I am not a born gardener, but traditionally, of course, one goes into the wilderness on a journey of self-discovery. This has been true for everyone from American writer Henry Thoreau to that guy who got eaten by the bear at the end of the movie. And I discovered something.

Although I am not handy, mechanically inclined or garden literate, I am strong, and if you point me at something I can rip it up or out to order.

I discovered I can enjoy turning a weed-covered wilderness into a plant-ready plot. Or digs lots of holes and puts things in them.

But I also learned I am not at home in nature. The pre-existing bee allergy made itself felt early on. I thought being in the country meant bare feet on the grass, that sort of thing, but apparently bees spend time there.

Bee allergies are cumulative - instead of developing immunity the reaction is worse each time you're stung. The epi-pen is now never far away.

Nor is the prednisone, after a couple of encounters with something in the soil that brought me out in a rash that gave me calves the Elephant Man would have been proud to call his own.

Herald on Sunday columnist Paul Little ponders a move to The Hokianga while drinking coffee in the urban environment of West Lynn Auckland. Photo / Doug Sherring
Herald on Sunday columnist Paul Little ponders a move to The Hokianga while drinking coffee in the urban environment of West Lynn Auckland. Photo / Doug Sherring

In other words, the country rejected me.

So now I garden with body covered. But I am also addicted and get fractious if weather prevents me doing an hour or so in the day.

Apart from that, all went smoothly until Wendyl was offered the big job, a demanding, high-level, editor's role at a big, fancy magazine.

She was keen. Although it seemed inimical to the lifestyle, we worked it out. She could do most of it remotely.

My meticulously arranged study is now an imperial media nexus full of machines whose function I will never need to learn. So we've learned we can make the demands on us fit in with this life.

We've also learned how much we both love it. In my case that's partly because of the pleasure to be had from confounded expectations.

Such as when we arrived one afternoon and found the climbing rose that we had given up on burst out into a conflagration of blooms.

That same day I found four hedgehogs drowned in the pond. A Facebook post elicited a wave of sympathy for the deceased and none for the schmuck who had to fish out their putrescent corpses and bury them while fending off an over-inquisitive dog.

Still, at least we don't rely on the pond for drinking. It wasn't like the eel in the water tank.

Also, they've started to arrive. First it was Kerre McIvor, who has bought just up the road. Then Wendyl's ex, who has bought around the corner. They are both excellent company, but you have to admit, it's a bit odd.

Suddenly, there are tales of properties going to auction with four Aucklanders bidding on them.

Was the Hokianga going the way of Grey Lynn, where we had been part of the wave of middle-class Pakeha buying up a fashionable neighbourhood? To paraphrase Gandhi: were we the change we didn't want to see in the world?

I think the country is immune to any change we might bring about. A couple of weeks ago I stopped at the Waimamaku Four Square in pursuit of lemons.

"I haven't any, sorry," said the woman minding the store, "but come with me." And she led me to the section next door.

"There might be some on that tree. But if there aren't - see that trailer?" she went on, pointing to a house along the road. "They'll have some. Just tell them Lana sent you."

I'm looking forward to spending more time in the country. It can't be far away. I should be able to let you know this time next year.

- Herald on Sunday

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