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

Who We Are: Part 7 - Rotorua to Hicks Bay

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.

Part 7: Rotorua to Hicks Bay

If you have not driven as far east as the country will allow, then you must.

Do it now. It's a Sunday - get in the car and drive to East Cape. Yes, it would have been easier if you started yesterday but there's still time.

We went. Setting out from Gisborne, there was rain on the roads. That's not all that was on the roads. There were logging trucks, one after another after another.

Tourists under an umbrella on the historic wharf at Tolaga Bay. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Tourists under an umbrella on the historic wharf at Tolaga Bay. Photo / Mark Mitchell

They kept coming, a constant stream of trucks carrying trees across roads being chewed to pieces by an endless thrum of tyres.

We got off the road to check out Tolaga Bay. That's the place with the wharf which goes right out - the longest in the country.

It was there I met Peps Rewita, who was in the large shed down by the wharf. Her partner was out in a crayfishing boat. "Here he comes now", she said, and as much as I searched the horizon I couldn't see the speck she had spotted.

It was five minutes before I could make out the dot which grew, bigger and bigger until the boat arrived. In all that time, there was nothing else in that vast expanse other than beauty. It filled everything. What a place! Tolaga Bay was elemental.

Peps Rewita, 43, at Tolaga Bay with a chalkboard message on what it means to be a New Zealander. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Peps Rewita, 43, at Tolaga Bay with a chalkboard message on what it means to be a New Zealander. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Except it's not really Tolaga Bay. Peps told me the place has been called Uawa for much longer. Tolaga Bay was the name James Cook gave the place when he passed by in 1769. There are theories Cook mangled a Maori word or imported a Tahitian word but no one really knows.

On we went, further east. More pitted roads, more logging trucks. The coast swung into view every now and again but mainly it was hills and winding roads through valleys. Have you been? If you haven't, look at a map and consider how much of New Zealand is taken up with East Cape.

Les Ahuriri can't see why anybody would live anywhere else. He's in a bus with Wendy Lindsey at Tokomaru Bay, no power and no running water. "I exist and that's enough for me," he told me, shaking his head in bewilderment at the idea of anyone living in Auckland. "But why? Is it the traffic jams?"

Les hunts, and there's a pretty good-looking vegetable garden out the back of the bus. There are fruit trees. I realise then the dogs are chewing on bits of pig. I recognise a hoof. I'm not sure about some of the other bits. Happy dogs. Don't expect they'd much like Auckland either.

We detour off the main road to Ruatoria and buy a couple of Ruatoria Pies for lunch. They are excellent, selling from Whakatane around East Cape and down to Gisborne. I wish I'd stopped to talk to the pie-makers about the business they built.

Te Araroa arrives - this is where the road stops turning east and goes north. Our destination is Te Kura Kaupapa Maori o Kawakawa mai Tawhiti in Hicks Bay, where we were hoping to meet and talk to a young teacher working at the immersion school.

Campbell Dewes, 54, at Hicks Bay with a chalkboard message on what it means to be a New Zealander. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Campbell Dewes, 54, at Hicks Bay with a chalkboard message on what it means to be a New Zealander. Photo / Mark Mitchell

To principal Campbell Dewes an apology: I'm sorry we turned up without notice at your lovely school."G'day," said videographer Mark Mitchell to Campbell who marched towards us across the courtyard. There was a glare and one eye pinned us both as he asked: "Is it?"

Campbell was guarded. "I'm trying to work out if you're friend or enemy," he said, thinking about it. And it made sense. The schools which the kura replaced had declining rolls. Now, education is booming at Hicks Bay. Campbell's not just looking after a school. He's looking after a language, growing a seed unlike any you will find in Pakeha New Zealand. It's a treasure which needs its guardians.

Not only did he let us in, he let us go. Thank you for your welcome Campbell.

• Tomorrow, Hicks Bay to Hamilton

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. This week and next, we're telling their stories, showcasing the places where they live and investigating the themes that unite - and sometimes divide - us.

We're publishing daily travelogues and video blogs by two-time reporter of the year David Fisher. His words are illustrated with stills and video by award-winning 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. Here's today's:

Video

Later this 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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