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New Zealand|Politics

The Road Ahead: Into the North, the return of the virus and a Covid-19 shock

David Fisher

Senior writer, NZ Herald

RoadAhead

Reporter David Fisher and visual journalist Mike Scott took a nationwide road trip to ask New Zealanders: What matters to you? In this final instalment, they head north of Auckland as the virus returns.

The morning of the second lockdown, traffic streamed south towards the tunnel at the head of Auckland's Northern Motorway.

On this hill between Puhoi and Warkworth, north of Auckland, there was little to mark this day different to the day before or the 100 days before that.

Below on State Highway 1, people raced to work, raced for home, raced bumper-to-bumper, going as quickly as morning traffic would allow.

But there was a difference. At 9.15pm the night before, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern had called a surprise press conference to break the news to the nation. Covid-19 was back. Auckland would go into level 3 lockdown at noon. The rest of the country shifted to level 2.

The Herald's project, "The Road Ahead", had started in Bluff to map our life in a pandemic world and intended to finish at Cape Reinga. We began when there were no cases and we would finish on tenterhooks, vibrant to an enemy that cannot be seen.

Our path lay to the North, away from level 3 lockdown conditions, although the extended city limits of Auckland meant there was an hour travelling left to do.

We didn't stop until we were clear of Auckland, and when we did, it was like stepping back into a world we left almost four months ago.

In Kaiwaka, at the excellent bakery and cafe La Nonna Italian Bakery, customers were once again doing the Covid-19 shuffle-dance. Suddenly, it was one-way traffic through doors, queues with orderly gaps, movement designed to create and maintain personal bubbles, coughing into elbows.

Ilia Petro, 44, who owns the business, took care to keep at least a table distance away when saying: "Things have changed in 24 hours. Nobody can predict. There are a lot of unknowns out there. Even the politicians don't know."

'It's going to come again'

The health warnings of the week before had put people on edge. "You can see people worrying," says Petro, "that it's going to come again."

Ilia Petro is a director of La Nonna Italian Bakery in Kaiwaka. Photo / Mike Scott
Ilia Petro is a director of La Nonna Italian Bakery in Kaiwaka. Photo / Mike Scott

At the time, there was criticism of the Ministry of Health and the Government talking up precautionary approaches. Critics complained about fear-mongering, and that there was politics in warnings to wear masks, stay clear of others, stay home if unwell.

Today, it seems anything but political. Asked the difference between the day before and that day, Petro says: "When you've got a big mortgage, that's what you think about."

Petro has three QR codes at various places in his business, starting at the front door. During the first lockdown, business dried up. Since then, staff have reduced hours to ensure all had some income, rather than losing people.

The consequence of Covid-19 on his life, and the lives of those who work for him, is very real. "My staff came today, they are like 'what's going to happen', and I said, 'it is what it is - we have to move on and try to stay afloat'."

The outlook is not heartening from Petro's perspective, informed by regular contact with family and friends in homeland Albania. "People, they just try to move on. You can't win. None of the countries win."

We weren't the only ones going North. Petro had been watching the traffic - everyone north of Auckland was watching - and there were a lot of people leaving Auckland.

The great escape

Beyond the Brynderwyn Range, the anger of locals would be palpable. I live in the Far North where, during the first lockdown, the sight of a car towing a jet ski was enough to create a burning rage at Aucklanders with their coastal bolt-holes.

But we weren't there yet. The north Kaipara beckoned with its outpost towns of Maungaturoto and Paparoa. Before State Highway 1 carved a track through Warkworth and Wellsford in the 1930s, those towns were to north Kaipara as Helensville was to the south - a great arrival and leaping off point for those travelling on the network of Kaipara Harbour ferries.

A sign in Maungaturoto. Photo / Mike Scott
A sign in Maungaturoto. Photo / Mike Scott

In Maungaturoto, people are back to using road rules on footpaths - keep left - while a large community noticeboard carries the message: "Take care of yourself and look after each other."

Carolyn Skelton, 66, of nearby Whakapirau, is at the Maungaturoto Op Shop. "I come here every Wednesday. This morning was a question as to whether we would open."

The ripple effect of Ardern's press conference the evening before was everywhere. Those who organise the op shop, like the country, were pulled up short and thought, hard, about the return of the virus and what it meant.

There's a book sale at the op shop, which is a closed and cluttered space. Shoppers move gingerly in limited space.

Carolyn Skelton in Maungaturoto. Photo / Mike Scott
Carolyn Skelton in Maungaturoto. Photo / Mike Scott

The caution dissipates somewhat as communities become more isolated, less drawn together by the connectedness forced by Auckland. Along the road at Paparoa, Don McGuff, 78, is walking Cody to the local shops. Here, on State Highway 12, McGuff watches cars passing through and takes comfort.

Toilet stop

"It doesn't bother us up here. People stop here for the toilets and that's it," he says. "All these little villages along the road, they're all the same."

It's a view endorsed by local Mike Plunkett, 53, who has parked up opposite a local cafe.

"Auckland is like another country. We're all bloody careful around here."

Plunkett - like most others - caught the news the night before. "It was bound to happen. There are too many people coming and going into the country."

Mike Plunkett stands in front of a cafe in Paparoa. Photo / Mike Scott
Mike Plunkett stands in front of a cafe in Paparoa. Photo / Mike Scott

At noon, Northland became an island and Auckland a quarantine facility. The roadblocks were up at Te Hana and the Bombay Hills, marking the Queen City's boundaries.

Turning north from Paparoa, the road takes us through the rarely-travelled back road that passed between Dargaville and Whangārei. Mike Gibson, 66, is siphoning off 1000 litres of milk to feed calves.

"I turned my phone on this morning to read the news in bed and (the alert level warning) flashed up."

It was early, there was a cup of tea and toast, wife Judith next to him.

"We were both lying in bed. She had a phone, I had a phone. I thought, 'what, is this the right date or what?'," when he saw the news.

"I suppose that's life. I did expect it would happen. People are not doing as they were told. I don't think [the Government] is tough enough. You can't afford to be taking any risk."

Farmer Mike Gibson near Whangārei. Photo / Mike Scott
Farmer Mike Gibson near Whangārei. Photo / Mike Scott

There are two daughters in Auckland and a grandson. Gibson, in isolated countryside, thinks of the virus "especially when you get another bloody dose of it".

"I just keep clear of everyone."

Panic in the second lockdown

The madness of panic shows its first signs on the outskirts of Whangārei. From the Maungakaramea turnoff, it should be 15 minutes to Whangārei. The day of the second lockdown, State Highway 1 was jam-packed and it took almost 90 minutes to make the journey.

Massive car jams heading into Whangārei the day the second lockdown began. Photo / Mike Scott
Massive car jams heading into Whangārei the day the second lockdown began. Photo / Mike Scott

There were Aucklanders heading north, those living outside Whangārei who felt a sudden compulsion to do "just my regular weekly shop", those who felt an urge to be tested. The traffic crawled North until it reached Whangārei's suburbs, next to the big Bunnings, and then it crawled in both directions.

At the Northern Advocate office, editor Rachel Ward was working out priorities for the next day's coverage. She had read the news on the NZ Herald Online the evening before and recalled it brought "instant awakeness and anxiety".

For a regional media outlet, it meant quickly turning the Advocate's focus from planned coverage to helping its audience understand what changes in the world outside meant for Northland.

The newsroom phones had gone quiet that morning as, by Ward's reckoning, locals spilled out of homes and workplaces "rushing around getting food, hand sanitiser, getting tested".

Rachel Ward is editor of the Northern Advocate in Whangārei. Photo / Mike Scott
Rachel Ward is editor of the Northern Advocate in Whangārei. Photo / Mike Scott

Speed matters when meeting audience demands in a developing event. What was needed for those travelling to Auckland? And what about the location of testing stations? "People had lost sight of that sort of thing."

Amid all that, there was "not getting caught in the wider craziness".

At the supermarket

There was plenty of that on the streets. Sharp words between shoppers at a Lotto counter as a two-metre gap evaporated, long queues at supermarkets, Northlander Billy Te Kahika banging out conspiracy theories.

Over at Pak'nSave, shoppers were organised into lines that stretched right along the side of the supermarket.

Paul Morrison, 61, is talking about people leaving Auckland and those from the North who go there to work. "Get serious on those that are jumping out of isolation," he says. "That could be attempted murder or manslaughter.

Paul Morrison loads his shopping from Pak'nSave in Whangārei. Photo / Mike Scott
Paul Morrison loads his shopping from Pak'nSave in Whangārei. Photo / Mike Scott

His trolley carries a regular shop, with a few extra blocks of cheese "because it was on special". The price soared during and since the first lockdown.

A few shoppers along was Wilmarie Jansen, 34, who was shopping with Bart-Jan, 2. "I'm doing my shopping now so if it goes to level 4 I don't need to leave home." There are a few things she stocked up on - nappies, dog food, frozen food - but there were definitely others "panic buying", she says.

The shopping trip was prompted by the announcement the night before. "There was no shock. We knew it was coming with all the travellers coming in."

Wilmarie Jansen shopping at Pak'nSave at Whangārei. Photo / Mike Scott
Wilmarie Jansen shopping at Pak'nSave at Whangārei. Photo / Mike Scott

The impact of the announcement was everywhere. The Serenity Cafe in the Whangārei Basin had distanced tables, built a buffer with other tables to create space at the counter, put out a sign-in register and placed hand sanitiser at the entrance.

'NZ has had it'

There was less need to keep space between customers at the Towai Tavern, a superb roadside pub about 30 minutes north of Whangārei. It serves Flintstones-sized steaks and sparkling cold beer.

There's been less of that poured since Covid-19 emerged, says Jackie Shelford, 55, who works behind the bar. The hours she worked and the job she has isn't what it was, but then neither has the passing traffic that supplied the pub's customers.

"Covid has been a dampener on a lot of things around here. We rely on the tourists. We do get support from the locals around but it's not near what it was."

 Jackie Shelford pulls a pint at the Towai Tavern. Photo / Mike Scott
Jackie Shelford pulls a pint at the Towai Tavern. Photo / Mike Scott

Bang went the door and in came a man looking for a pint. Shelford leaned on the tap and filled a glass.

"You're spending your life savings now, just to get by," she says. "Which is pretty sad though, because you think you have a nest egg at the end of your years of working."

Eating into savings, hours reduced, it impacted across life from rent to shopping. Talk of the cost of cheese brings Shelford to scoff. "If I was working fulltime I'd buy cheese but I can't. Just the basics."

She delivers the pint and says: "I just think New Zealand has had it, to be honest. It's not going to pick up."

In Kawakawa, Bill Croft, 74, describes life in a pandemic world as "rat shit". The emergency alert on his phone the night before brought back worry the virus would make it to the North. "Life is a big gamble. It's good to be above ground."

Bill Croft, of Kawakawa. Photo / Mike Scott
Bill Croft, of Kawakawa. Photo / Mike Scott

Nearby, Russell Allen, 67, presides over The Cave, a trove of knick-knacks, power tools, bikes and assorted detritus of life waiting for a new life with new owners. "I was in disbelief to start with," he says of the return of the virus.

"I thought we were okay. I thought we had done everything right. It was bound to happen though, wasn't it?"

Rain on the roof

This fatalistic sense of security yet expecting it would fail was so common. We revelled in our Covid-free life and lived it like there was no tomorrow, from cinemas to funerals to malls to sports games to weddings and everything between.

And yet, of all we spoke to, there would be very few surprised the virus had found a way in. No matter how good your roof is, water will get through if the rain is strong enough.

Looking out to the Bay of Islands from Paihia. Photo / Mike Scott
Looking out to the Bay of Islands from Paihia. Photo / Mike Scott

Dark clouds fat with foreboding and rain had shadowed us north but they disappeared as we descended into the Bay of Islands, over the hill from Kawakawa. Sun low over the water, we talked to a couple of guys getting stoned on the beach who were rejoicing the absence of tourists.

"To be honest," said Darren, 53, "a few of us were glad to have the Bay back to ourselves. It's a chance for us to have our turf back to ourselves."

It's a sentiment that would find little affection with the businesses, restaurants and shops who survived on tourist trade. There was a huge bump in domestic tourist traffic during the July school holidays.

On one evening during the holidays, I watched crowds build outside Jimmy Jack's Rib Shack until the pavement was jammed. There were so many people in Paihia that the passenger ferry across to Russell was filled with passengers.

Looking out to the Bay of Islands from Paihia. Photo / Mike Scott
Looking out to the Bay of Islands from Paihia. Photo / Mike Scott

Now, Paihia is as it is always during winter. There are empty streets and shops that open late or close early, some that go through the rhythm of service knowing there's unlikely to be many, if any, to serve.

This isn't entirely normal because the domestic tourism boom had papered over cracks exposed by the border closure. It had been a welcome bump during a traditionally slow period. Now, though, the Island of Northland was isolated from making a living.

Joy Moore, 77, provides information to tourists at the Paihia Wharf information kiosk with colleague Maxine Whauteri, 64. The shift to domestic tourists was confirmed, although today's advice was mainly for those wondering how they could get home.

Maxine Whauteri and Joy Moore at Paihia. Photo / Mike Scott
Maxine Whauteri and Joy Moore at Paihia. Photo / Mike Scott

"It's going to change even more now," Moore says. "Horror" was the word she chose to describe her reaction to the second lockdown.

'Like a movie'

Away from the Bay, islands vanish in the rearview mirror as the road north turns inland to Kerikeri.

There, Kui Loth, 20, is hitchhiking. Given the increase in alert levels, the German backpacker seems overly optimistic and dangerously foolhardy all at once. The prospect of picking up a stranger to sit together in an enclosed space never seemed more fraught.

He's heading to Auckland. "It's tricky to tell if people are scared of taking someone because we're in level 2 now, or if people will have more sympathy, more compassion."

Loth had a flight booked out of New Zealand two days later. He's been on the road for 17 months.

Hitchhiker Kui Loth tries to get a ride out of Kerikeri a day after New Zealand went to an alert level 2 and Auckland locked down at level 3. Photo / Mike Scott
Hitchhiker Kui Loth tries to get a ride out of Kerikeri a day after New Zealand went to an alert level 2 and Auckland locked down at level 3. Photo / Mike Scott

"There's so much change for me while I've been travelling," he says. "So far, I've only profited from Covid. My visa got extended for free, I stayed at a place I really liked and got together with a girl I really liked.

"And then lockdown happened," he says. "It was like a movie!"

The movie was coming to an end. Loft faced returning to Germany which, as he relates, managed the outbreak better than other countries even though there was risk.

The backpacker took comfort in one other detail, too. "As a healthy young man, I feel less vulnerable."

Testing times

That morning, after staying at my home outside Kerikeri, videographer Mike Scott and I had talked about getting a Covid-19 test. When we contrasted our journey with the outbreak, our slingshotting journey around the country seemed wildly rash.

Yes, we had taken care but was it really conscious, Covid-19 aware care? There were handshakes and hongi, some interviews that were closer than perhaps necessary. I had obsessively scanned every QR code, earning amazement and occasional derision, but that was only good for after the virus had been passed on.

Also, Mike had woken with a cold.

Our wait at Kerikeri's Turner Centre wasn't long. Northland DHB staff efficiently ordered those who had turned up then bundled us through. The swab went up my nose and near out the back of my head but it wasn't unpleasant until it was removed. If it felt like anything, it's that nerve-grinding feeling of accidentally inhaling a mosquito.

Up the road from the testing station was Kerikeri Primary School, where my youngest child is in Year 5. The night of the second lockdown announcement, principal Dr Sarah Brown had been at home when text messages started rolling in: "Are you watching the television?"

Kerikeri Primary School principal Dr Sarah Brown. Photo / Mike Scott
Kerikeri Primary School principal Dr Sarah Brown. Photo / Mike Scott

Ardern had yet to finish speaking before Brown turned to preparing the email that would go out to parents at 8.15am, before "tweaking" the level 2 safety plan the school had previously operated under.

Brown's email told parents there would be changes "to control the controllable rather than return all aspects of school back to normal".

"While I know many of you will be anxious at this time, we will ensure that school is the safest possible place for your children."

For Brown, that early communication with the school community was critical. "I wanted to get it out first thing in the morning. We knew there would be some panic - Auckland is just down the road and too close to home.

"When you can show you have a plan in place from the get-go, it gives people a sense of security."

As the school bell approached for the end of the day, Brown met with board chairman Fintan McGlinchey so the pair could meet with and speak to parents. "Parents were really receptive," she says, "really good."

"Parents want to make sure you've got everything in place to ensure their child's safety."

A whack in the face

At mechanics BOI Electrics on nearby Mill Lane. Karl and Nicki Quin, 46 and 51, were wondering at the calm that had descended on the town. The country wasn't even 24 hours into a return to alert level settings.

When the emergency alarm went off that night, Nicky Quin picked up her phone and read the message, rolled over and said to Karl: "Oh shit. This is what's happening."

Karl and Nicki Quinn, of Kerikeri. Photo / Mike Scott
Karl and Nicki Quinn, of Kerikeri. Photo / Mike Scott

She has a daughter, Jessie, 26, in Melbourne. "She's been in lockdown even before we went into lockdown in March." The second lockdown added to her worry - if Jessie did now want to come home, would that be possible?

"It's quiet," says Karl Quin of usually bustling Mill Lane. "You can tell straight away. People aren't going to get caught with their pants down this time. They'll make sure they've got plenty to do."

They did. The couple have bought paint enough to redecorate the business, if they can't open. "You've got to do something so we will work on our business."

And how was it, knowing the virus was back. Karl Quin, always quick with a (usually filthy) joke, didn't need a drum roll because, really, it wasn't very funny.

"It's like being whacked in the face."

End of the road

Our road lay ahead, to the North, on State Highway 10. We left Kerikeri behind, passed through Kaeo and stopped briefly at Mangonui before heading on towards Awanui, where we would pick up State Highway 1 again. From there, it was a straight run to Cape Reinga.

We were north of Taipa, on the approach to Awanui, when Mike said: "We need to stop and have a talk. My symptoms are getting worse." We stopped and he rattled off a few: sore throat; sinus pressure, feeling feverish.

Video journalist Mike Scott during the NZ Herald's The Road Ahead project. Photo / David Fisher
Video journalist Mike Scott during the NZ Herald's The Road Ahead project. Photo / David Fisher

And that was it. The Road Ahead stopped right there, in a roadside gravel pit a day short of our objective. The best health advice is to stay home if you're ill, so that's where we went.

After the Covid-19 test, I waited while Mike's was done. In the asphalt carpark at the Turner Centre, a weed had grown through the hard-packed surface. I thought of the virus, and how life will struggle to find a way.

The end had arrived, and with it a realisation. For almost three weeks, we travelled the country and spoke to people about life in our pandemic world. Those people, so generous with their time, shared experiences and also their views on what New Zealand was doing, and how it was doing it.

A weed growing through the carpark of the Turner Centre in Kerikeri, where Covid-19 testing was being carried out. Photo / David Fisher
A weed growing through the carpark of the Turner Centre in Kerikeri, where Covid-19 testing was being carried out. Photo / David Fisher

We talked to people on high, and down low, and we would talk of big things. We spoke of government policy, Ardern's leadership, and that of National Party leader Judith Collins.

We talked of the fate of nations and the borders between those nations. We talked of the virus and where it came from, what it did, the toll it claimed.

We rarely spoke of the small things. It was rare we discussed washing of hands, wearing a mask, getting a Covid-19 test if you have cold-like symptoms, keeping a distance from others, not touching face or nose, staying home from work if you're sick.

It is important to focus on the big things. It is critical we each, individually, take responsibility to focus on the small.

Our Covid-19 test results came after four days. They were negative.