A few years ago I was at a train station north of London, wearing a T-shirt bearing the logo "Hawke's Bay Wine Country". A young woman almost pounced on me, asking if I came from Hawke's Bay.
Such was her enthusiasm, I was almost sorry to admit that I'd bought the T-shirt during a visit to the region, and had chosen it for its cut and colour rather its message. The woman said she'd grown up in Hawke's Bay, she was on her OE, and my T-shirt made her nostalgic for home. She was almost tearful as she said this.
Despite New Zealand being so small - and the demarcation lines a bit blurred at times - we still remain loyal to our home regions. As this random conversation so neatly showed.
My sons have long since left Waikato, and may never live here again. But their region of origin is writ large on their hearts and they remain especially committed to the red, yellow and black colours in all sporting contests. Even our grandchildren have Waikato booties and beanies, courtesy of the excellent Purple Patch shop in Hamilton's Barton St.
Which leads me to say, of course, what a great time it is to claim Waikato as home. At the end of a bleak winter, we're having an amazingly golden run.
You know the score: the Magic netballers started it with their big win in the ANZ Championship grand final, the Karapiro-based elite rowers and Cambridge equestrian Mark Todd have just collected a bunch of Olympic medals in London and the Chiefs aced the Super Rugby final last Saturday night. And in what might be regarded as the Culinary Olympics, Hamilton's Palate restaurant took the top regional title this week in the Cuisine New Zealand Restaurant of the Year Award.
Commentators who are given to taking cheap shots at Waikato - particularly Hamilton - are now asking if there's something in the water that has caused the flood of success.
While the Waikato River is a splendid feature of the region's landscape, I'm not sure it contains magic molecules. I think the greatest treasure of this part of the country lies simply in its diverse and gutsy people. As demonstrated lately.
Some would argue that not everyone who's won the "Waikato" Olympic medals, or is a member of the Chiefs or Magic, is actually from around these parts. But I think our embracing of them shows the natural propensity of the Waikato to welcome and support those who fetch up here.
Irene van Dyk and Sonny Bill Williams, for instance, have both worn our colours, they've both been lifted by the vocal Waikato crowds. We've adopted them, they'll never forget us. That's how it goes.
But is there a true "Waikato" personality, character or spirit, or do we make it up as we go along?
I've lived here all my life, and I think maybe there is, in an understated way.
I remember seeing it at the funeral a few years ago of legendary Cambridge horseman Ken Browne. He had been paralysed after a spill from a horse, and he lived his disability with huge courage.
Waikato people didn't say much about Browne's tragedy, didn't make a fuss, but he and his wife Ann were much admired for the way they dealt with it.
Hundreds turned out at his farewell in June 2006, and on that day the crowded venue at Cambridge Racecourse was the Waikato heartland.
You could almost reach out and touch the spirit of it in the room. Men and women of all ages, from town and country, were quietly honouring an unpretentious and honourable man. One of its own, who embodied the character, dry humour, stoicism, and generous nature of the Waikato.
Browne, of course, taught Olympic champion Mark Todd to ride on the green hills of his farm, and will be long remembered locally.
Maybe there's something about funerals. There was a tangible Waikato spirit, too, at the tangi for Maori Queen Dame Te Atairangikaahu [just a couple of months after Browne's death] when vast crowds silently lined the riverbanks at Ngaruawahia and beyond as Dame Te Ata's body was taken by waka toward its resting place on Taupiri Mountain.
There is nowhere else in the world where you would see such a farewell for a leader, a woman known for her kindness, dignity, humility and humour, who lived and worked in the understated Waikato way.
There are many other local heroes like Dame Te Ata and Ken Browne, and more to come.
This newspaper has captured a good number of them in its multimedia Waikato 100 series. Some of those chosen are Waikato born and bred, some more recent arrivals who've been drawn here by work, sport, family, or other reasons.
New faces are good, so are old ones. We all contribute. We're lucky to be part of this singular place, proud to see our bold colours on the rise, and I'm happy to say I'm completely biased about the pleasure of these golden few weeks.
- © Fairfax NZ News