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

Who We Are: Country music and ices down south

David Fisher and videographer Mark Mitchell spent almost a month driving round New Zealand in a campervan. Their mission: to find out what it means to be a New Zealander. Find out more about the series below.

Bluff, population 1788. This morning, in early June, there were two more.

It was dark when I woke and stayed that way until about 8.30am. That was the first sign of how south - deep south - we had come to start this road trip.

The other sign should have been the extreme cold, but that wasn't really a factor. That was a relief - I had "eating ice cream in Bluff" on my New Zealand bucket list and had imagined it akin to swimming in a mountain stream.

But it was warm. Warmish, anyway. And the sun was out.

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Sure, there were days when my anticipation of cold would have been rewarded, Joji Katon told me. She shivered thinking about it. Joji was helping me with my New Zealand bucket list, making a double-scoop salted caramel ice cream at the Whitetops Convenience Store, mainland New Zealand's southernmost dairy.

I had thought it brilliantly hilarious to buy one but Joji makes plenty of ice creams here.

Yes, she said, there are days when the snow comes in sideways and piles up at the front door.

But it doesn't last for long. The sea is just over the road and that tends to pushy winter back up the hills.

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Bluff has fascinated me since I saw a play by author Geoff Chapple about Joseph Hatch, one-time Mayor of Invercargill and Member of Parliament. Hatch harvested (killed in their millions) penguins on Macquarie Island, rendering oil out of their corpses and making New Zealand an exporter on an international scale.

Thank God that stopped. Would we have run out of penguins before the United States invaded?

Dr Mike Stevens, a historian at Otago University, is from Bluff. He is studying the community in a project that examines New Zealand's place in the world.

I told Mike we were setting out to discover "who we are" as a nation.

Mike Stevens, of Bluff, in Dunedin with his chalkboard message on what it means to be a New Zealander. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Mike Stevens, of Bluff, in Dunedin with his chalkboard message on what it means to be a New Zealander. Photo / Mark Mitchell

He thought it was a ridiculous mission. "There are lots of New Zealands," he said. Every community has its own place in our world - never mind national borders.

But then, he said, when he returns from abroad and the plane touches down in Auckland - far away from his own community - he relaxes and thinks, "I'm home".

"It's a kink in my own argument," he admitted, quite good-naturedly.

Anyway, onwards. The signpost at Bluff says it's 1401km to Cape Reinga. That's as the Kiwi flies. If driving, it's 2081km along State Highway 1.

Our route was going to take longer. Much longer. Our mission was never going to be resolved on the main highway. We needed to plunge deep into the heart of New Zealand.

So we went to Gore.

Unbelievably, we were delayed by a traffic jam. It was the weekend of the Gold Guitar Awards, which also sees an annual parade of trucks. Fire engines, lorries, truck-and-trailer units stretched across Southland - a line of traffic aiming to thread itself down Gore's main street.

The Gold Guitar sucks into Gore people from all over the country. It's brilliant, spilling out into the town with the Freeze Ya Bits Off busking competition. Anyone can play whatever they want for pretty good prizes. "Entries will be judged on their music choice," state the rules. "We prefer country music."

The giant brown trout sculpture at Gore. Photo / Mark Mitchell
The giant brown trout sculpture at Gore. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Hard to leave, wanted to stay, but we had to go. We stayed in Balclutha for the night, where I marvelled at the lack of traffic on a Saturday night on State Highway 1. The next morning just north of town we found a car which hadn't made it. Crumpled, windscreen broken, it lay in a ditch and across a farmer's fence.

That was where we met Neil Goodwin, 33. Sunday morning, Neil and his dogs had come to make sure the car hadn't made a hole through which stock might escape. Crisp and clear, on a quad bike with dogs sounding off behind, he thought of the word which for him summed up being a New Zealander. It's a question we asked hundreds of people.

"God's own," he said, then left. He needed to get to church and we needed to get to Dunedin.

• Tomorrow - Dunedin to Hokitika

• David Fisher's first video blog:

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About the series

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.

What better time to hit the road and visit every corner of our amazing country. We wanted to know how we feel about ourselves. What are our hopes? Our fears? Do we like our national character? What could we do better? What should we celebrate?

We met dozens of Kiwis and over the next fortnight will tell their stories. We'll showcase the towns and the countryside 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.

The giant anchor chain sculpture at Bluff. Photo / Mark Mitchell
The giant anchor chain sculpture at Bluff. Photo / Mark Mitchell

From today we're publishing daily travelogues and video blogs by two-time reporter of the year David Fisher. His words are illustrated with images by award-winning photographer Mark Mitchell.

We're also publishing animated graphics featuring everyday New Zealanders and the word (or words) that best sum up, to them, being Kiwi in 2016.

Next week we'll go into even more depth, publishing a series of mini-documentaries about those themes. The series will conclude with an interactive presentation showcasing our conclusions.

We want you to be part of this special project. On social media, share the word (or words) that sum up being Kiwi to you. Use the hashtag #NZin1word and we'll add the best submissions to our #NZin1word hub which will run throughout the series.

At the end we'll analyse the answers to create the Land of the Long White Word Cloud - a visual representation of how we perceive ourselves.

- NZ Herald

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