More than four years ago, I hatched an idea for a weekly travel column, it was to be a love letter to the small towns of New Zealand highlighting their quirky charms. But, before getting properly stuck in, I needed to come up with a title. For a long time I couldn 't quite decide whether it should be Tena koe Te Kuiti, Gidday Gore or Hello Hamilton — clearly I have a fondness of alliteration. As it happened, Kia Ora was the winner on the day largely because it's warm, it's welcoming and it's as much a thank you as it is a hello.
As the years rolled by, I wrote 223 of these civic snapshots and, along the way, I went on some truly memorable journeys. Sometimes I'd visit the place in real life (so much more fun) but, more often than not, I'd do my exploring on the telephone with each story starting with a call to a perfect stranger. Finding the perfect person to be my source on the ground was critical to the story's tone. It had to be someone who loved their town with all their heart and was also able to share that love with me. As part of that weekly quest, I'd ring schools, real estate agents, hairdressers, people or organisations whose websites looked welcoming.
I used to say I was looking for the town's biggest cheerleader and it was always clear when I'd found them.
And having found that person, I also had to trust they were giving impartial information and not just grinding their own axes as time went by, I became pretty good at reading between the lines. Although there was that one time when noses were put out of joint in a little West Coast settlement — I had no idea there were two residents' associations and it turned out they did not get on one bit.
Choosing places to write about, I began by focusing on the ones I already knew. Other times I'd be driving somewhere and see a sign pointing to a town I'd never heard of — I was astonished at how many of those there were. I even dug out the lyrics from John Hore Grenell's Kiwi adaptation of the song I've Been Everywhere (Man) and if I'd done all the little towns named in those lyrics I could've carried on with Kia Ora for at least another two years. But at the end of 2016, it felt like the right time to call it quits for Kia Ora.
I'll always be a little sad that I never got around to doing Tolaga, Taupo or Blueskin Bays, not to mention Nightcaps, Pahiatua or the Chatham Islands. Taradale. Bethlehem, Ruatoki, Outrim, Kohukohu, Ohaupo, Gonville, Aria, Kaeo, Kaka Point, Rotorua, Eastbourne and Havelock North were also left out.
And not wriing about Ettrick means I'll never get to explore the Southern Hemisphere's largest collection of McDonald's paraphernalia.
But I'm so glad to have been on this 223 town adventure. How else would I have learned about Houhora's butt crack bandit? Or found out about the dolphin bell at Ngunguru School? Or the kink in Milton's main street? And how will I ever forget that the takahe does 7m of poo each day?
I especially liked discovering the stories behind the Maori place names — usually they'd tell a poetic story from the past. One of my favourites was Te Hupenui, the original name for Greytown. Translated from te reo it means "the big snot" or if you prefer a more elegant translation, 'the fluid that runs from your nose at a tangi'.
Having covered the country from Stewart Island to the very Far North, I looked for the best pies, the finest flying foxes and the most breathtaking views and I fell in love with Aotearoa just a little bit more each week.
But what really struck me over the years the thing I've loved most about writing these stories has been the people who've shared their worlds with me. One element turned out to be universal: community spirit; with all of the towns thriving on the hard work of volunteers from residents' associations to firebrigades and fundraisers who help make the parks, playgrounds and public amenities so epic. He tangata, he tangata, he tangata.
But all good things must come to an end, and so it is time to say "ka kite" to Kia Ora — but don't be sad because to take over from Kia Ora, from now we'll focus more on those people and their fabulous stories. We'll share the adventures of interesting people doing interesting things all around our beautiful country, whether they're smack bang in the centre of a tourist authority or they're running small group adventure holidays in the back of beyond.
We're going to find out a little bit about who they are, where they've been and why they're passionate about their neck of the woods — which could conceivably go for quite a long time because it will be a very long time till we run out of wonderful people.