A trip through New Zealand's past

Last updated 05:00 05/11/2012
An old church at on Awhitu Rd, west of Auckland.

An old church at on Awhitu Rd, Pollok, west of Auckland.

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During our travels around New Zealand we (Sas and I) covered a total distance of 11,300 kilometres. The journey took us to 60 randomly selected locations distributed throughout the country.

The main objective was to determine if a departure from the tried-and-tested routes had an alternative travel experience to offer, perhaps one that enabled a different understanding to be gained of the country and its people.

The enforced random selections pushed us into areas that we did not want to go and challenged us to understand more about the places that we visited. And by taking us to those areas it opened up vistas that very few New Zealanders or visitors will have seen and which simply reinforced how very beautiful the country is.

We travelled to the gorges of Utiku, the sands of Omapere, the views beyond Haketere, the sheer drops around Coonoor, the reflections on the waters of Upokongaro, the curling break of waves on Claris beach, the isolation of Pouto, the rock formations of Oparara. And also the discoveries, the trans-Tasman landing site at Herepo, the poem of Honikiwi, the history of Houhora, the laughter of Algie's Bay, the shoes of Pyramid, the alien landing at Ngatimoti, the pebbles of Quarry Hills, the mystery of Jimmy's Road at Oponae and so on.

And apart from the single location of Gisborne, the random selection took us to rural locations where the majority of New Zealanders do not live. They are places whose past is greater than their present, whose contribution to the general wellbeing of the country is largely undervalued, whose futures are in doubt. The church, the community hall, the war memorial, the primary school and the derelict cooperative dairy factory lend a common theme to many of these places. They act as reminders of what New Zealand once was and what it is in the process of rapidly losing. And what it is losing is community.

There is a beauty about New Zealand's rural churches that is unrivalled. It has to do with their wooden construction, their small size, their cleanly painted lines, their white walls, their cool interiors and now silent bells. And the poignant plea of the Nukutawhiti faithful, "Yes, we are small. And there are those who would get rid of these little churches. Nevertheless, where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them," says it all.

The rural churches are dying, just as belief is dying, just as concern for them is dying. In time many will be placed on low loaders and will be transported to desirable suburbs of Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch. John and Jan will invite friends for drinks and they will admire the gleaming kauri and totara flooring while the ghosts of the departed and dead will mingle among them unnoticed. The church graveyards will no longer be tended and the grass and weeds will grow long and lank until nature finally reclaims all to its own.

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The community hall lies unloved and unused. No longer will the hall hold its annual 'stags and hinds' dance to encourage procreation and rural community survival since everyone will be far too busy watching their 'telescreens' or will be communicating online with their three thousand or more 'friends'.

The halls were built with great hope by their fathers and forefathers who understood the importance of community. Many of the halls were founded on loss of the most profound kind when the young men of the district left laughing and smiling never to return. How do you describe the grief of parents, siblings, uncles and aunts when the great tragedy of war took so many young men in their prime.

It was not as if rural people were unused to death since many years ago childhood had always been a precarious rite of passage. But taking so many young men in so short a time took away the very future of the place. The construction of the memorial halls demonstrated the resilience of the rural people and the respect that they had for the sacrifice of their kith and kin. The halls demonstrated their hope for the future.

The war memorials often sit close to the church, community hall or both. There is a feeling of pride about them, that when called upon we did our bit. It is the surnames which haunt, particularly the two or three of the same name. Dead. The memorials are invariably well-tended but the new generation, far in time and distance from the wars, wonder about their present day relevance. But sometimes even they must reflect when they see their own surnames engraved in stone. But how long before these memorials join the church and community hall on the road to decay?

Many rural primary schools still sit as a testament to hope, education and progress. In design they are attractive with large windows through which pupils can sit and gaze at the distant landscape where they would far rather be. Perhaps their fathers and forefathers also studied there and maybe that is where their ancestors met their beloved? They are warm, intimate places far distant from their city cousins that have become factories of learning, of experiment, of targets and of disillusion.

For many years New Zealand has been a home for 'lifestyle' properties where people disillusioned with urban life have had the opportunity to become disillusioned with rural life. It doesn't take long for most to realise that you can't make a living from 30 sheep, a few watercolour paintings and a handful of olive trees.

That has been the experience of the vast majority of new-age lifestylers. However, this does not mean that a reverse migration to the rural communities is not a good thing. In fact it may be a solution to both the urban and rural malaise. And the critical ingredient for such a movement is broadband access and the internet.

Much is written about the power of the internet and how people can work remotely from any location in the world. Indeed many governments subsidise rural internet access and a number of libraries provide access free of charge. Unfortunately this well meaning service is invariably misused and does not fulfill its intended purpose.

Youngsters catch up on their Facebook entries and games status while others just search out the latest recipes. At the end of the day reliance on the Government is inefficient and unsustainable and it is up to the rural communities themselves to establish their own cyber enterprises.

To achieve that objective they may have to set up their own broadband services and encourage people and businesses with specialist expertise to join their communities. After all it is in their own and their children's interest to stop the current rural decay and resurrect what were once vibrant communities.

What was surprising for such a free and easy going country is the number of private property and no entry signs that have sprung up in recent years. Everyone can respect the right of individuals to have their own privacy, peace and quiet but this phenomena appears to be part of a national land grab that involves unscrupulous property developers, vested interests and foreign entities who have no interest or understanding of the Kiwi psyche.

Some of the most beautiful parts of the country are being sold off to the highest bidder and before long New Zealanders will be tenants in their own land. It is as if an economically beleaguered country is saying to itself, "what else have we got left to sell?"' and what they are selling is the very thing that makes them an independent nation. And once it has gone it has gone for good. And the entities that are buying are not the simple 'buy and sell for a profit get-rich-quick' capitalists.

The entities that are now buying land, mineral resources and forestry are in it for ever and once they have control it is just a resource that they will exploit without any concern for the indigenous people, whether they be Pakeha or Maori. They will own you and your children just like medieval serfs.

A visual image that particularly struck us on our travels was how few people live and work in the rural areas of New Zealand. There is nothing perceptive about this observation since it is characteristic of most developed countries where migration from the land to the industrial cities has taken place for more than three centuries.

The difference is that in other countries the contribution of land based industries to the economy is now small, and in many cases insignificant. New Zealand is very different in this respect since agricultural and forestry products represent the most important components of the national economy.

Total New Zealand merchandise exports in 2009 were recorded at $39.7 billion while service exports, including tourism and consultancy services, were $12.7 billion.

The 'merchandise' export figure is particularly relevant since a break down of that figure reveals that the land based industries contribute to eight of the top 10 exports namely, milk powder ($4.3 billion), sheep meat ($2.9bn), frozen beef ($1.56bn), butter ($1.51bn), cheese ($1.36bn), fruit ($1.06bn), wine ($1.01bn), and wood ($0.95bn). The two remaining top 10 exports were crude oil ($1.73bn) and coal ($1bn).

The current population of New Zealand is 4.4 million of which the four major cities contribute 53 per cent of the total, namely Auckland (1.36 million), Christchurch (0.39 million), Wellington (0.39 million) and Hamilton (0.20 million).

These dry statistics may seem a million miles away from a random journey around New Zealand but in fact they are at the very heart of the matter. The figures indicate that only 14 per cent of the population live in the rural areas and yet these people are the major wealth creators of the country. It may seem an unfair point to make but what are the 1.36 million people in Auckland actually doing? How much of the national wealth are they creating?

One can only conclude that they are primarily servicing the needs of each other in respect to education, health, social welfare, transport, law and order, consumer goods and so on. If you want to lose an awful lot of friends you might even say that the majority of urban dwellers are living on welfare since they are not actually creating new wealth. In a democracy, and thank goodness for that, every adult has a vote.

Parliaments are of relatively short duration and therefore the individual political parties cater for the needs of their individual electorates and in New Zealand, as in most developed countries, they are in the main urban in nature. And so by this measure the rural areas that we visited no longer have any voice and will never have any voice.

Perhaps all countries are on the same self-destructive downward spiral where powerful political and business interests continually dictate that the nation needs more people to create demand for yet more houses, cars and consumer goods. Instead the policy is rapidly taking every nation into the realms of the lunatic asylum.

What countries should aspire to is a stable educated population that can use modern technology to create more wealth for the individual and the country as a whole. If any country can break this cycle it is New Zealand. Can it do so? Yes. Will it do so? Most probably not.

The random journey confirmed one thing in my mind and that is that New Zealand is the most beautiful country in the world. Others may dispute this point of view and that is perfectly understandable, but I would be very happy to argue the case.

New Zealand is a great little country as are the people that inhabit it. Long may it remain so.

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