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

Who We Are: Part 12 - Houhora Heads to Cape Reinga

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.

"I can't make it out," said Chris Tait, outside the motorhome parked up at Houhora Heads. He's talking about Auckland, like people from Waikato do.

"It's the narrowest bloody part of the country and everyone is trying to cram into it. No wonder the traffic is so bad."

The peach of the sunrise had faded to blue. Somewhere across the water I could hear a bird singing. In the distance, the waves roared and crashed on Houhora Heads.

Chris Tait of Te Awamutu at Houhora Heads with a chalkboard message on what it means to be a New Zealander. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Chris Tait of Te Awamutu at Houhora Heads with a chalkboard message on what it means to be a New Zealander. Photo / Mark Mitchell

What's an Auckland, I thought? Birdsong. Water lapping. Waves crashing.

Videographer Mark Mitchell and I had been 24 days on the road through June. Go find Who We Are, said an editor. Travel from Bluff to Cape Reinga, he said. Surely, he said, the answer is between those two points.

In a way, it was. I was between those two points. So was Mitch. So were the hundreds of people we met along the way. So are you, probably, if you're reading this.

Rarawa Beach was between those two points. I sat on a dune and tried to explain to the camera how I felt about being there. My voice cracked, I choked with emotion and tears tried to work their way out as I blathered away about the beauty of the place. We left wheel marks in white sand and took the road north.

The white sand at Rarawa Beach, Northland. Photo / Mark Mitchell
The white sand at Rarawa Beach, Northland. Photo / Mark Mitchell

We met August Smith and Paris Waenga at Te Paki sand dunes. At the end of a metal road to the coast, they sat together in a container renting modified boogie boards to anyone wanting to slide down the monster dunes.

He was leaving the next day to work on a dairy farm down south. She was spending time in the container before he went.

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

Time felt like it was hanging between them, moving only when someone came by to rent a board. It would hang all day, and tomorrow when he was gone it would seem as if it had raced by.

We left and I thought about August in June and Paris in the Far North. It had the feel of an epic to be written but no, it was an epic being lived. They, too, were between Bluff and Cape Reinga. They, too, are Who We Are, and we are better for it.

August Smith, 19, at Te Hapua with a chalkboard message on what it means to be a New Zealander. Photo / Mark Mitchell
August Smith, 19, at Te Hapua with a chalkboard message on what it means to be a New Zealander. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Pilgrims, we were. Our pilgrimage was to Cape Reinga. We were headed for the end of the road, the lighthouse at the end of the trail. First car I had, I drove north. I slept on a beach in Paihia, cooked over a fire and unrolled my sleeping bag under the stars. That was my first pilgrimage, Ford Escort sliding out around metal road corners as I headed for the lighthouse.

The road is sealed now and the Ford Escort long gone. I am older but feel no different. The pohutukawa at the bottom - the one on which no flowers grow - seems no larger.

I stood at the end looking down at it, Te Rerenga Wairua - the leaping off point where spirits follow the roots of the pohutukawa, leaving Aotearoa for the underworld.

"We've knocked the bastard off," I said to Mitch, because it seemed like the sort of thing you say after you've climbed a big mountain. Then, like Sir Ed, I felt perhaps those words did a disservice to what I was trying to capture.

And off we went to do the last bit of video, the last photograph, the last interview. That was Zarriyarne Mason, 13. I chatted to him about coming to Cape Reinga and asked him what word summed up being a New Zealander.

Zarriyarne Mason, 13, of Auckland, at Cape Reinga. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Zarriyarne Mason, 13, of Auckland, at Cape Reinga. Photo / Mark Mitchell

"Good," he wrote on the chalkboard. I must admit, after 6200km of zigzagging up the country I felt a little underwhelmed. Not "great", or even "pretty okay", just "good".

Then I realised I was taking an unreasonably literal view of things. Undoubtably Zarriyarne meant morally righteous. Who We Are is a force for good. In short, New Zealanders are the Jedis of the world.

(You can read the more thoughtful, considered answer to Who We Are tomorrow.)

What a trip. May the force be with you.

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. Over the past two weeks, we've told their stories, showcased the places they live and investigated the themes that unite and, sometimes, divide us.

We've published daily travelogues and video blogs by two-time reporter of the year David Fisher. His words have been illustrated with stills and video by award-winning Mark Mitchell.

We've also published 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

And we've gone into more depth in a series of mini-documentaries about those themes. Check them out here.

There's one last chance for 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. Then 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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