A rising number of people have traded the Sunburned Country for the Land of the Long White Cloud. Number from Statistics New Zealand released earlier this month showed the Western Bay of Plenty had a net gain of 136 people from Australia last year, ending a 20-year trend of more people leaving Aotearoa for Australia. But at least one expert says what's happening is neither an invasion nor an exodus - it's a natural cycle of migration. Reporter Dawn Picken spoke to Aussies and returning Kiwis about what brought them to the Bay.

Small children file past Colleen Mullen and myself as we chat poolside at Mount Maunganui Primary School.

It's already hot on this Monday morning and I ask if we should seek shade. "We can sit in the sun. I'm used to it," says the Australian native.

Mullen has just deposited two of her three children, 7-year-old Joshua, and 10-year-old Amelie (one of the students in the pool) at the school. Twelve-year-old Madeleine attends Mount Intermediate.

Mullen says, "There are many amazing families at the school who've been very inclusive.


"There's always that awkward stage when you move somewhere new when you're feeling very fragile and raw, and some beautiful people have really helped with that."


Mullen says her husband, Matt Adkins, was tapped for a position in research and development at Zespri so the family of five moved in mid-2014 from Yackandandah, in Victoria, to the Mount.

"We were quite happy to relocate. We always had that desire to go abroad, so New Zealand for us was kind of an easy move."

Mullen had not visited here until her husband started work at the Mount.

"I never really had much of a concept of how things were in New Zealand ... and they're so close, so it's been really neat to learn how their society functions, and they're a tiny country. The population size [nearly 4.7million, according to Statistics NZ] is Melbourne, almost, in an entire country."

She finds the Kiwi lifestyle fairly relaxed, aside from an early run-in with a shop worker over where she could drink coffee.

"I sat down at a middle table and the guy said,'Oi, love, don't you think about sitting here.' So that was my first impression - that they can get uptight - I was a little bit surprised that the country's so relaxed in one sense but not in others. And that, I think, is a big difference between Aussies and New Zealanders."

Nathan Hight and Jenny Hight traded in Sydney for Papamoa to return to the Bay of Plenty to be close to family after having their first child Frankie. Photo/George Novak
Nathan Hight and Jenny Hight traded in Sydney for Papamoa to return to the Bay of Plenty to be close to family after having their first child Frankie. Photo/George Novak

Mullen says she's struck by the deep division between rich and poor; she likes the community's global diversity and loves Maori culture.

"That is a lot more progressive than Australia ... perhaps there's an underlying racial tension ... but they should be proud of themselves for integrating the Maori culture and encouraging it with their children."

Mullen says while the new job meant a higher wage, the family is probably still on par with their old life in Australia.

"We've been shocked at the cost of living here." She says staples such as food and petrol cost much more in New Zealand."

We meet Colleen's husband, Matt Adkins, and the rest of the family near their rental home at Pilot Bay.

Adkins says: "It's been fantastic. I'm really enjoying working at Zespri. It's a great company and fantastic people and it's been a rewarding move."


Another Australian who moved to the Bay, sight unseen, is Janet Kan. The 23-year-old quit her graphic design job in Melbourne to move to Rotorua, where she was hired as summer help at tourist attraction OGO.

"I decided I didn't want to be trapped in an office nine to five. I chose Rotorua because of the mountain biking." Kan says she enjoys the 'really friendly' people of Aotearoa, greener environment and shorter travel times. "I can ride to the forest five minutes from my house. In Melbourne, I'd have to travel half an hour to get to good trails. I know a few other Australians who've moved here just for the trails."

Other migrants include Kiwis boomeranging from the Bay to Oz and back. Nathan Hight left his position as general manager of Surf Life Saving Australia to move from Sydney, where he lived for three years, to Papamoa, at Christmas time. Hight and his wife, Jenny, enjoyed their Aussie jobs and lifestyle, but the birth of daughter, Frankie, five months ago, caused a course shift.

"For us, it's a more holistic view and life ... it's not all about work. The opportunity to stay here and raise a family is a lot better than staying in Sydney and climbing the corporate ladder."

Jenny says they paid $550/week (Australian) for a one-bedroom apartment in Sydney's Eastern suburbs. When we visit, the family is at the three-bedroom home they bought in Papamoa in 2008.

"It's so much better having a lot more space, even being able to have grass is great." says Jenny. Matt started his own consultancy firm (Hight Strategy and Risk), to create opportunities in a market he says includes relatively few executive roles.


Kiwi Warrick Jackson and his wife returned to the Bay to retire a year ago after living seven years in Australia.

The 62-year-old former retail bank manager (with ANZ) spent most of his time in Queensland, and did an 18-month stint in Darwin and the Northern Territory.

He says he lived abroad for the opportunity to make more money and experience Australian life, but it's wonderful being home.

"I think the green and being able to enjoy the beach ... a lot of places we lived, we couldn't swim in the sea because of jellyfish." Jackson's two sons and four grandchildren live in the Bay.

Colleen Mullen says her family is here indefinitely. She knows her new community is imperfect - the day we talk, signs along the beach and in the water at Pilot Bay advise 'NO SWIMMING' due to sewage contamination.

Still, Mullen says her family is feeling settled in the Mount. "It does provide a great lifestyle. It's up to the individual to make it work or not make it work. But having said that, I love Australia, too."

Her husband adds: "I guess the question is what would convince us to go back to Australia and I don't know what that is. We're pretty happy here."