On a bench outside a shop on Parnell Street in Rawene, Cheyanne Korewha was filling out a job application.

She's already worked out the fastest way out of the south Hokianga town but isn't yet ready to leave. She has three months to go at the local NorthTec outpost before she qualifies as a carpenter.

Until then, she needs the work.

But that time is short and then, like most of the kids she went to primary school with, she'll be gone.

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"It's different, Rawene, to any other place," says Korewha, 21, who's already been out for a look at the world. She gets a dreamy look in her eyes, thinking about Rawene as if she had left again already.

"I don't need to leave but I want to. I'm going to be doing something with my life."

Rawene feels as solid as an anchor. If this strip of peninsula on the Hokianga Harbour was all that tethered the North Island to the ocean floor, it feels it would have strength enough.

The turn-off to Rawene sits to the south amidst mangroves, halfway between Kaikohe and Omapere.

It deceives as it winds north, one side shielded by the mangroves and the other by low hills. And then, just before the end of the peninsula, the land arches up and you enter the village of 471 people.

The hospital is on one side of the road and the cemetary on the other but the sea is everywhere else.

The Hokianga's bewitching, shifting, sparkling glory is to the west and the east as far as you can see and at its centre sits Rawene.

Take Parnell Street downhill to the harbour, and it is like sinking through time as recently built homes give way to colonial cottages and then shops, some perched out over the harbour.

A large paved area at the end of the road allows cars to queue for the northern route out of town - on a car ferry across to Kohukohu on the other side.

"Home will always be home," says Korewha. It's that way for many here - they went when they were young but you keep finding those who eventually came back.

Dallon August wants to help youth. Photo/David Fisher
Dallon August wants to help youth. Photo/David Fisher

The statistics say Rawene has more young people and more aged 65 or older. Between those times, people go elsewhere.

"There's not much to do for teenagers to do around here," Korewha says. There's booze and weed but if you're talking "opportunities", there's not anything much.

Jobs, she says.

Census data shows greater numbers of unemployed in Rawene than across Northland. Also, collectively, Rawene earns less than the rest of Northland.

That's largely why people move away, she says. Like Korewha did, when she moved to Christchurch to live with her sister for a while. It was fun, complicated, expensive.

Then came carpentry. It's what her dad does. She's always enjoyed it and enjoyed working with him. "I just wanted to see if I can actually commit to it - the three years."

NorthTec made it possible and she qualifies in December. Then she's off again. "Probably down to Christchurch. There's heaps of building work down there."

With all that energy and life going on, there's no room for elections. "I think I voted once but I forget what that was for.

"I don't really get into that stuff."

Not get into it? Not get into democracy and having a voice? Surely Korewha is one of the legendary "missing million" voters? The untapped electoral El Dorado of which politicians dream?

Nah, she says. "I don't buy into that. I reckon it's bullshit."

Over the road Eru Wano, 64, is one of the returnees. He runs The Station, a second-hand and antique store.

Jobs, he says. That's what the government can do. Wano came back to New Zealand after 25 years in Australia and looked around the north for a few years to find the right place.
Rawene - where he settled 15 months ago - has a spiritual feel. That was the drawcard.

"We still have to work," he says. Jobs, he says. "You have to create some. That's what I've done."

His partner workers in Auckland (two weeks there, two weeks here) and he runs the shop and picks up work here and there. A diesel mechanic by trade, he teaches at NorthTec and became involved in community volunteer activities.

Wano was 58 when he got back to New Zealand and employment wasn't easy. "Being at that age, you always get kicked back for too much experience or being too old for the job.

"Your esteem drops a little bit but as an individual, I don't let that stop me. You've got to be a go-getter if you want things to happen."

Such a creative town, he says. Such a bustling town when the sun is out. Such opportunity, seen in embracing Maoritanga on his return to New Zealand. "Working out in the desert for many years, you lose that with the different cultures you come up against."

But back here, it's immersive and unavoidable. Rawene is predominantly Maori at 64 per cent. Europeans are the minority at 48 per cent. Across Northland, those percentages are reversed.

The town also hosts an unusually large number of te reo speakers - 27.7 per cent. That's almost double Northland's average, and far beyond New Zealand's 3.7 per cent.

Not when Wano was growing up. "English was our language. Maori wasn't taught." Now, when Wano opens The Station, he gets out a ladder to place United Tribes flags either side of the door.

Eru Wano says you need to be a go-getter if you want things to happen. Photo/David Fisher
Eru Wano says you need to be a go-getter if you want things to happen. Photo/David Fisher

For all that, he votes on the general roll. "I think we have enough Maori in mainstream politics to sort our problems out."

But he's not yet settled on where to put his vote. National, a hard force to contend with?

The Greens - "I don't mind the Greens." Labour's more interesting with Jacinda Ardern in charge. Her predecessor Andrew Little seemed "a bit weak" but "a nice guy".
Jobs, he says. That's what government could do here.

Dallon August, 50, also came out of the desert to return to Rawene. Unlike Wano, his desert was in Qatar, in the Middle East.

"I never seen so much rain," he says of his return. That's his impression: "That and nothing has really changed as far as decision-making goes. It takes forever to get anywhere."

August - an artist - is muscled and lean with barely a fleck of grey. He exudes dynamism, leaving the gym building on the edge of the optimistically-named Rawene Doman.

"We had unfinished work. I loved working with the people here... to try to be one of the motivating forces in the place."

August's enthusiasm and optimism is about to be turned on Kaikohe youth. He talks of a "positive approach" and doing everything with "the best intentions of the people and the land".

But there's so much to do.

"You can see when people are doing it hard. They don't mind living with no power or the long drop. It's part and parcel of the Hokianga."

The problems people face, though, are same across the country, says August. The difference in Rawene is that everyone lives so closely to each other there are few secrets and little desire to put on a false front.

"You can read between the lines here which you can't in the city."

That's what August wants to hang onto, that distance from civilisation and the troubles that come with it. To have stability and to know where you can stand.

He'd always seen the Waipoua Forest on the West Coast south of the Hokianga Harbour as a natural barrier to the south. Devout, he thought of the previously metal roads, making it a long and dusty drive, as "God's hand" blocking intrusion from the south.

There are thoughts passing through his mind when he thinks about voting this year - slow down, take your time New Zealand. The rejection of a new flag for New Zealand was an uplifting rejection of change, so he's feeling upbeat about democracy.

Raised a Labour vote, though, he was not so upbeat about spending a vote on John Key in the past. "I was pretty disappointed in my choice," he says.

"John Key, he's good as far as the economy. He's not dumb. But he doesn't have any real understanding of how people feel about the land."

In an uncertain world, it is the voice of Winston Peters that has resonance. August's enthusiasm for people moving to New Zealand is balanced with a frustration that those migrants aren't learning enough about our way of life.

"Winston Peters has sort of been like my saviour in the past few years."