The first reply was a picture of a young girl running on a dark sand beach in the late afternoon sun. The tide has retreated into the bay, promising to return at some later time; clouds like cobwebs hang in an endless blue void. In the distance, a boulder breakwater shines against the hazy line of the horizon. It is Pohara Beach, in Golden Bay, where I am lucky enough to holiday with family. The tweet reads, "You know the reason."
It ends with a loveheart.
It was May 4, which feels like a year ago or yesterday depending on your perspective. In the current phrasing we, as a country, were a week into level 3 of the Government's Covid-19 response. There was some hope that soon we would be able to get back on track, or at least get our children out of the house. But there was also a distinct funk. You could feel it, although it would be foolhardy to attempt to articulate it for all. For me, it was this: I felt disconnected, cut off, marooned. I was sure that, like me, others pined for a little piece of New Zealand - a drive, a dive, a hike, a bike, a walk, a swim, a trek, a trip, a run in the hills - and I wondered where that might be and why.
And so, I sent a tweet: "What is the first NZ destination you will go to when you can? Post a pic and a reason."
A quick twitter conversation starter:— Scotty Stevenson (@sumostevenson) May 4, 2020
What is the first NZ destination you will go to when you can? Post a pic and a reason.
I didn't expect too much by way of response - one should never expect too much on such a platform - but then something lovely happened, something really lovely that confirmed what I already knew about the vast majority of us who call Aotearoa home: we feel deeply, utterly helplessly, head-over-heels connected to it.
After that shot of Pohara came another: the Wānaka tree sitting there in that dark, cold lake as if to say, this is completely normal tree behaviour. The message said, "because they need it". "They", I assumed, referred to the many small businesses slowly being crushed by the absence of visitors and customers.
There was a sunrise on a frosty morning in Ohakune with a plea for the snow to return and the ski fields to open, and then there was a half-munched bacon butty sitting on a formica table top at The Running Duck in Geraldine. The boat was calling Duncan to the harbour at Raglan, and Waiheke's wineries were wooing Julia to the island. Mark just wanted to get back to Addington Stadium, where he hoped the Highlanders would defeat the Crusaders. Ben wanted to go there, too, to see the Crusaders win instead. Kimberlee posted a shot of Mt Taranaki taken from a plane, it's cone dusted in early season snow, puffy clouds clinging to its flanks. "Home", is all she said.
There were places I knew well. One of the benefits of having travelled New Zealand following sport - maybe the key benefit - was that I got to places I may never have got to had my career gone down some other path. I can still remember the day a flight between Christchurch and Dunedin was cancelled and we had to drive instead, making it to the commentary box about two minutes before kick-off. Afterwards I realised I had managed to cover the entire length of State Highway 1. I wondered then, and still do, how many other people have been fortunate enough to do that.
Of course, so much of the joy is not found on the highway, but off it. I was sent photos of the driftwood piled on the rocks of the Wairarapa Coast, and Opito Bay shimmering on a calm and spotless autumn Day. There was Lake Hawea stretching out below the tussock hills, and Napier's shoreline through a beachfront window; a rainbow arcing over the orange brick bleachers of the Basin Reserve, and a kayak at rest under the pōhutukawa, on the sand at Āwhitu. Rob wanted the ducks to come back to the pond at Piako Swamp, so he could hide in the maimai and unleash lead. Joy dreamed of getting back to the farm at Maungatapere. My dad was born there. That made me smile.
My feed filled up with beautiful photographs but, more importantly, it became an outlet for the emotional connection we have to our places. Taumutu, Waihora, Manapōuri, Akitio, Ōhinemutu, Glenorchy, Ōtorohanga, Coromandel, Castlepoint, Maketū - each fresh tweet revealed something about the author: they missed their feet in the sand, or their feet on the land. They missed the feeling of sun-drying after a salty swim, or the thrill of the blood flowing back to the skin after a plunge in a South Island river. They missed the privilege of fishing off the coast, or meeting their friends at their favourite pub.
They missed their family.
Green Party Co-Leader and MP Marama Davidson sent a photo of three kids on a trampoline in a suburban backyard. "Home to my loves in Manurewa," was how she put it. Black Ferns Sevens Captain Sarah Hirini wanted to go back to her mum and dad's farm. My mate Morgan longed for the lounge at his parent's place. Ah, parents' places: Rēkohu, Ahipara, Christchurch, Palmerston North, St Bathans, Taieri, Queenstown.
For the next couple of days I scrolled through sunrises and sunsets, across summers, autumns, winters and springs, over pastels and vivids, and watercolours, too. I saw hugs and kisses, and wishes and smiles; felt the gravel on the trails beneath running shoes, and the spray from a boat ride to Stewart Island, I felt the embrace of a grandmother and the heat of a beach fire. I listened to the sounds locked away in the pixels.
When I had scrolled through once, I would scroll through again, and it became clear to me that there was one word that people used more than any other: home.
And it is our home, and I can't wait to see it all again.