The West Coast makes you want to invent words.
Something for the way the mist clags the trees. Something for the sound of salt on limestone-sandstone-greenstone. Something for the people that is not hard, or tough, or — seriously, you can f*** right off now — "resilient". They're all that. And then they're not.
We moved there when I was 9. I never remember exactly what year I left. Old enough to have car keys, a live-in boyfriend and a dog. My first newspaper job was at the Greymouth Evening Star.
I rode a bike called Tulip and I played social netball in a red skirt for a club called Cobden-Kohinoor. My flat belonged to a Member of Parliament and the living room had a floor-to-ceiling feature wall made of DB beer cans.
They should have been Monteith's, because mythology is important. The West Coast is built on mythologies and lingering shots of old men with beards sitting outside rusting tin sheds. No camera crew ever filmed the shiny Countdown or Warehouse or McDonald's because nothing ruins a good story like the facts.
"Last, loneliest, loveliest." When I'm on the Coast, I think a bit about that line in the Rudyard Kipling poem, The Song of the Cities, that sounds like it could have been written for Greymouth, Hokitika and Westport (although not in that order) but was, in fact, written for Auckland. It's how we like to think of the Coast. Apart. Away.
Different. And, when it comes to the rest of the country, indifferent.
I remember a day in Greymouth. A fishing boat had foundered. Men were missing. In the office, we got word of a rescue. Part way down Mackay St, I watched a woman stop a young man who must have been 22 or 23. They spoke. He pressed his palms together, raised them to his lips and looked up to the sky and smiled for what felt like 22 or 23 years. They're hard and tough and resilient. And then they're not.
It's not my home, because that requires a minimum five-generation ancestral count. Also, more than one Kumara Gold Nugget Race induced hangover. But it is my heart. It is why I think white sand is for cliches, wild surf is a panacea and the grandeur of trees makes me cry (the latter is not a universally held West Coast opinion).
Last time I was there, I stayed in a bach in Punakaiki and, for four days, it rained hard. There was swimming at Bullock Creek, kayaking on the Porarari River and exploring in the cavern at the bottom of the hill on the road to the Pancake Rocks where, one Telethon, my sister and I set up a toll gate and charged tourists for entry.
My 13-year-old niece and her friend slept in a puddle in a tent on the back lawn, and for four days their hair was wet and tangled and they didn't care what their clothes looked like. On the last day, we scrubbed up and went to the pub. It had Wi-Fi. I read texts from Auckland friends concerned we'd been caught by the flooding that Coasters just called "weather". No. But I had lost badly at Rummikub.
In Ponsonby, people look familiar because they're on Shortland Street. In Greymouth, people look familiar because you went to school with them. Humans are fond of this narrative where nothing changes.
This is how it was and this is how it always will be and in that always place, Dire Straits is always on the radio. One day, you discover security blankets can suffocate. Pick at those crochet edges.
When I went to school there, te reo was taught in a prefab on the sports ground. Off to one side. Now you enter this place of learning through a carved gateway and inside there is a purpose-built whare. Greenstone is definitely pounamu now.
In my computer, there is a document I send to friends when they tell me they are going to visit the Coast. Whitebait pizza in Hokitika. Any beach for a sunset; Rapahoe Beach for a swim. Te Miko and Truman's Track for the very best short bush walk in the world.
Blackball and Brunner for history. Nelson Creek for river swims. Read all of the plaques all of the time and understand what it has cost some people to live here.
On a good day, when all the roads are open, it takes six hours and 50 minutes to drive the 512km between Karamea and Haast. It's just a little less — and a whole lot more — than the distance between Auckland and Wellington. The only people who mind this don't live there.
Air New Zealand flies from Auckland to Hokitika, via Christchurch. airnz.co.nz