Who We Are: Living in New Zealand in 2016
David Fisher is a senior reporter for the NZ Herald.

Who We Are: Only a road trip savours a real taste of Aotearoa

To preview a major Herald series, starting on Monday, David Fisher relives the highlights of a 6200km road trip through New Zealand.

Oh New Zealand, I love you best of all. From Bluff to Cape Reinga, you captivate and confound me.

Set forth, said editors, and search this nation. "Go find the pulse of this Land of Plenty and take its measure. Tell us - who we are."

Well, I have been and returned. There will be a time to explain what we have learned. But now, what was seen and eaten needs to be shared. This is a traveller's story, of things we saw and places we ate. This is a journey of the body, not the soul.

Let me tell you how videographer Mark Mitchell and I turned a 2100km journey into a 6200km odyssey.

We began in Bluff. I ate a salted caramel icecream at the Whitetops Convenience Store, made by Joji Katon. Mitch ate what were apparently the last six oysters the town held, although we learned later the locals have entire bowls in reserve.

The path we took wasn't straight-forward. I wanted to see it all. It meant there were many zigs and zags.

It's easy in Bluff to construct a good argument for going north - few other options exist. Gore was kind, Balclutha wonderfully curious.

Dunedin, though, was electric. What a city! If you haven't been, you must. The architecture is older than European history in New Zealand - it gives a feeling of age absent from most of our places. The city was buzzing, the harbour lively and the landscape breathtaking.

St Kilda and St Clair, the developed waterfront, are a treat. The Esplanade restaurant there served as good an Italian meal as you'll find anywhere.

By now, the road was rising beneath the wheels of the campervan and we were propelled into the Otago hinterland, up through Middlemarch where I found the best cheese scone ever created.

We were heading for Queenstown, somewhere I was pleased to leave. Pretty town, surreal existence. Is there anywhere so geographically accessible but financially out of reach to New Zealanders? It's another country, and not one I need or want to visit.

Cellist Robert Ibell, 54, of Wellington, playing his cello under a pohutakawa tree at Omapere. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Cellist Robert Ibell, 54, of Wellington, playing his cello under a pohutakawa tree at Omapere. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Haast though, was different. The road there is spell-binding, the town generous and welcoming if you make the effort.

On we went. The West Coast flashed by, through Hokitika and over Arthur's Pass (so misty) before Christchurch unfolded. The rebuilding is a baffling and occasionally encouraging sight.

We had traded coasts - west for east - and Kaikoura passed by with its seals and whales before Waipapa Bay came into view. There's a great roadside cafe at Waipapa Bay which is worth a visit but you darned near need to sell an Auckland house to afford a crayfish.

If you eat anywhere in the South Island, by our limited sampling, try Dietmar Schnarre's Dodson Street in Blenheim. It's a German beer hall treat.

And in Picton, we watched the All Blacks get into Wales at the Crow Tavern and Restaurant, which served a fantastic roast pork with plenty of cheap, cold beer.

When I complained I hadn't been charged enough, the annoyed publican shouted at me: "It's a pub! It's not one of your fancy places!"

Tourists blather on about the South Island so much that I wonder if they've even set foot in the North Island. I thought on this as we mounted the Rimutaka Range, going north through Wairarapa. It's a great road over the hills, and the bush speaks of adventures to come.

The kilometres rolled by until Woodville turned up. By God, those pork chops at the New Central Hotel were good. If you're looking for decent, honest food, get out into the country.

Hawke's Bay came and went as we headed for SH50, the "Gentle Annie" road to Taihape. For beauty and grandeur, it has to be the North Island's best inland drive. It's all sealed, now. Icy and snowbound in the dead of winter, it is generally a driver's dream.

Sunrise at Beachside Holiday Park in Paihia. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Sunrise at Beachside Holiday Park in Paihia. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Taihape now has a mosque. If there was any proof needed we have changed as a nation, that is it.

Near Manaia on the South Taranaki coast is a small camping ground at a place called Kaupokonui Heads. It is a grand space for a camping holiday with kids. Watch out for the wild cows in the sand dune. The campground is so good that this paragraph might be the pay-off for reading the entire article.

We scooted around the Taranaki coastline, passed by Parihaka and Cape Egmont, then headed inland for Te Kuiti. The whitebaiting on this coast, oddly, is done differently to down south - and differently again to what we saw on the rivers on East Cape.

We are fortunate to have East Cape, and not just because of the delicious Ruatoria Pies. Remote and wild, welcoming and wicked, and always proud. The northern side, towards Opotiki and Whakatane, sets the spirit free at every turn.

We wrestled our way through Tauranga's toll road, clogged with Auckland evacuees, and headed for Cambridge. There's a tavern there called Five Stags (for the five deer heads on the walls) which serves up great game food.

North we went, through Hamilton and its fancy new toll-free roads, through Auckland to Dargaville.

Our early history is spelled out on these wide streets, with the two-storey hotels like the Northern Wairoa Hotel. History is on every corner in a town paid less heed than it deserves for so long - a town discovering its own vibrancy and rhythm.

The end was in sight. It took 24 days in all to get to Cape Reinga. The journey from here skirted the Hokianga, wound through the Bay of Islands and paused at Houhora Heads before the final push.

That stretch of road north to Cape Reinga is a pilgrimage for many of us. You can see the names in the visitor's book at Waitiki Landing - many from towns we have passed through.

That final push, right to the end of the road, leads down to the lighthouse.

And there we stand, looking north and knowing that the best things in this world are behind us.

Sandboarders on the giant dunes at Te Paki, Northland. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Sandboarders on the giant dunes at Te Paki, Northland. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Who we are: Being Kiwi in 2016

The current flag got a tick from the people of New Zealand, but the referendum triggered an unprecedented debate about our sense of national identity and how we're seen on the world stage.

Who We Are: Being Kiwi in 2016 is a major new Herald series.

We'll meet dozens of Kiwis and tell their stories, showcasing the towns and country where they live. We'll investigate the themes that unite - and sometimes divide - us. And we'll build a unique snapshot of how you view New Zealand.

Who We Are starts on Monday, July 18. Online, on apps and in print.

- NZ Herald

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