Saturday, 10 November 2012

New Old Zealand

I started writing this blog whilst listening to 'Leo Sayer's Greatest Hits' - one of the 80 cassettes in the listening library at the Te Aroha hostel. 'Thunder in my heart' - a great song from 1977 (revived in 2006 by Meck) and 'You make me feel like dancing' were both slightly unusual but uplifting choices for a Sunday morning.

Te Aroha means 'The place of love'. We are paused here for two days as we have both been sick, James is bed-ridden.

Te Aroha made it to the tourist map because the railway stopped here. It has hot, soda springs and a beautiful setting. Once the railway went further however it was eclipsed by Rotorua and was suspended in time. Now of course this is part of its charm. A good place to have been forced to stop - even if it is by sickness.

The hostel was set up in the 1963. Literally 'set up' because the house was at the bottom of town and was relocated by the Youth Hostel Association to its position just under the impressive Te Aroha mountain. It is managed by Danny and Helen who live nearby and pour a lot of love into the place. There are books, leaflets, board games, cooking equipment, a spice rack - meticulously labelled, a guitar and no television or Wifi. It reminds me of Ystumtuen youth hostel close to Aberystwyth in mid-Wales where I spent a few days adventuring with my school friend Zoe some 18 years ago. It is the kind of place I didn't think existed any more. It is always unlocked and holds within it the memories of thousands of travellers who have captured their observations in the Guest Book.

We arrived in Aukland almost a week ago now. We were very lucky to stay in my friend Sally's apartment though unfortunately she was overseas. It was a good way to settle in. I put my bike together for the first time and changed a puncture. Putting tyres on is much harder than people claim - especially if you have very tough tyres. It requires great physical strength and looks easier with big manly fingers. I don't have very manly fingers.

In Aukland, we met up with Simon who we had met in Hawaii. Aukland is his home town but like many young New Zealanders he has decided to move to Australia. Similarly Heather who we stayed with in Hamilton and had cycled in Lau and all over New Zealand - both her children have moved to Australia. Ken and Tricia whose beautiful vineyard we stayed on and who have been on several long bike trips in Europe including from London to Rome - their daughter has moved to Australia. The man in the bike shop's daughter is in Stratford Upon Avon and the hard working folk who manage the youth hostel their daughter is in England. A pattern perhaps?

New Zealand population is still growing but at a slower rate than ever. 53,900 New Zealanders emigrated this year and with only 14,000 returning . New Zealand has always relied on immigration. Calling itself the youngest country on earth, New Zealand was late to be settled by Polynesians in the 1200s. European settlement began in the 18th century. People of European decent now make up 62% of the population (interestingly down from 92% in 1962). 15% of people are Maori and 9% Chinese. Half the population of New Zealand lives in Aukland. You can see why so many people came from the UK. The place really does look like home.

We stopped for a chicken sandwich (possibly the cause of the sickness) in Rangiriri. Here was the site of the battle in 1863 where united Maori tribes lost to the British. This marked the colonial domination of New Zealand. These land wars were also the reason that many Maoris from the Waikato region in particular, refused to fight in the First World War - a white man's war. In 1995 Queen Elizabeth signed the bill apologising for taking Maori land. New Zealand however has the feel of a country that is closer to being at ease with its complex colonial, difficult past - more so than America. The Maori tradition is strong and pervasive - on the surface at least.

The main draw to Australia and overseas for New Zealanders seems to be wages and opportunities. The recession has hit New Zealand harder than Australia. In fact the government asked people to give suggestions to kick start the economy and one suggestion that was accepted was a long distance cycle path from north to south. Great idea when it finally takes shape. Young people are also looking for more going on. Whatever 'going on' means. Simon described it well. 'It's busy on a weekend but if you want to go out on a Wednesday there just aren't many options.' New Zealand's population is also ageing with the biggest increase in the over 80s.

This emigration problem is also an interesting contrast to those who fear there are too many of us in the world. People want to live near people. Humans are natural group seekers. Cities, despite their grit, draw people - especially young people. As a world we just need to make sure that this growth is not at the expense of the environment or people in poorer parts of the world.

Oddly enough Leo Sayer was also drawn to Australia becoming a naturalised citizen in 2009. On reasons for emigrating Sayer said '"I'm 60 and I feel like a 20-year-old in my life here because everybody is so encouraging to keep working." Those in the UK reading this may feel they can live without Leo Sayer feeling 20.

The grass is always greener. Is it? Does home look more like eternal happiness when you are away? Does the warmer climate of Australia, the better job prospects and the cultural mix make for a happier life? Do the bright sands of Hawaii look more like paradise from the dark mornings of November? I know that when I am home and back into the routines of school, washing, weekends, wine and coffee I will look back on this year with a smile. The trick surely has to be then to be content in the present. It is also good to appreciate your own green grass and to know that it is either just as green or that it couldn't be green without the rain.

I have noticed there are more quotes around than there used to be. You know the kind I mean, the posters made just of a sentence. Perhaps it is a void left by religion. As human beings we need meaning and optimism.

Two examples that have recently caught my eye..

'Life is easy when you look back at it. Even easier when you look forward to it.'

And from then film The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, 'It will all be alright in the end. And if it's not alright, it's not the end'.

Time to head for a swim in the hot pools that made Te Aroha so famous. Today being well, giving the legs a break is more than enough to be content in the now.


  1. Great journey and great story! Glad you got to stay at and enjoy YHA Te Aroha! Did you snap any pictures there?

    1. Thanks. Have added the pictures of the hostel to the blog. Now at the YHA in Taupo where the manager speaks Welsh!

  2. You're in my Homeland Mari, hope you enjoy it! I have good bike/people connections in Wellington and people connections in Christchurch. My groovy inlaws own a camp site near Chch that you MUST stay in, it's very very good. If you want route advice (though I am sure you are getting plenty of it) don't hesitate to ask. The national Park side of Mt Tongarrio is a longer ride but much quieter than State Highway 1. And when you ride from Bulls to Wellington you have to go the back way (via Palmerston North), SH1 is very unpleasant there. If you had lots of time the Wairarapa is an even better way to Wellington but would add a day. Paekakariki is worth having lunch on the beach at. There is also a backway into Wellington which is good (Tawa and then Ngaio gorge).

    Allen (TSN)

    I know the baths at Te Aroha, lovely.

  3. Thanks so much. Have taken your advice and tomorrow take the national park route out of Taupo. The camp site sounds great - if the weather improves!


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