“How was New Zealand” my friends ask, when they hear I spent a couple of weeks in December travelling around mainly on the North Island of New Zealand.
“Rainy” is the first thing that comes to mind. “And a bit stormy”, I add. But you could say that about many other places in the world, if you happened to be there when the weather was rainy and a bit stormy.
“This is not typical for our summer”, said the locals. “Must be the impact of climate change,” they continued as if everybody had listened to the same gurus on the television. This is what they use as an explanation at many places in the world right now. All atypical weather conditions are referred to the climate changing. Disagreements start when people believe in different reasons for the climate changing…
There was one place in New Zealand where the sun shone during the two days I spent there. It felt heavenly amid all the humid days. It is a town called Katikati with about 4500 residents on the east coast of the North Island. Not only for the sunshine but also for other reasons it will stay in my memory as an earthly paradise, where I could imagine living unless it was situated on the opposite side of the world from Finland.
It took me three and a half hours by bus to get to Katikati from Auckland, the biggest city of North New Zealand with the main international airport. My ‘Servas’ hostess Christine, a retired journalist, picked me up from the main street bus stop in front of the information center. She gave me a friendly hug as if we had met before. During the drive to her house a kilometer from the center, she pointed out some colorful murals and walking path signs she recommended for a later closer look.
As soon as I had settled down in her bungalow-style house with a well-maintained garden and drank a welcome coffee, I went for a walk on the Haiku-path. It starts from the main road at the southern end of the town and follows the Uretara River close to Katikati’s center. Along the path one finds volcanic andesite boulders with famous Haiku-poems carved onto them. I stopped to read every poem on my way. They complemented perfectly the rose smelling, idyllic scenery with abundance of exotic singing birds, fern-trees, yellow-white daisies, blue flax, and other flowers I could not identify.
“The old pond; A frog jumps in — The sound of the water” -haiku, resonated most with me. It reminded me of a Finnish children’s song, a fantasy world of talking ducks and frogs in children’s’ picture books. Later I found out this haiku was written by the famous Japanese poet Matsuo Basho. I also learnt that the Haiku-path resulted from the Katikati-people’s wish to mark the start of a new millennium. They wanted to give it as a gift for future generations. Now 18 years later some of the boulders have lichen growing on them and need cleaning to make the poems easier to decipher.
Another public gift the residents of Katikati have agreed upon, are the more than 60 huge murals painted mainly on façades and sides of buildings in the center of the town. In the morning on my second day, I spent a couple of hours studying them.
The murals depict the history of Katikati from the time the first pioneers arrived from Europe in the 1870s until recent American politics that are probably considered to influence life in tiny Katikati too.
One of the many murals. Other murals and open-air art in Katikati can be seen at https://www.muraltown.co.nz/gallery/
The murals have descriptive name, like “ The River was the Road”, “It’s Harvest Time”, “Haymaking”, “Sunday in a Bush Camp”, “Reverend Kattern’s Ostriches” , “A Pioneer Kitchen”. One of the murals shows the first homestead in the area, that Christine took me to visit later that day. It was the home of one of the early women pioneers, Adele Steward, who died in 1910. Adele, who was raised in a reasonably wealthy middleclass family in England showed exceptional resilience in the new country without the conveniences she was used to. She learnt to keep poultry, cattle and bees, make butter, cheese, and grow a big variety of vegetables, fruit and flowers. She also baked frequently and made clothing for the family and later employees, when the farm grew.
The same evening I read Adele’s diary My Simple Life in New Zealand, where she tells how her husband and their son started their life in Katikati in a small tin shed “Tin pot Castle” while her husband built a better house in stages over time. Reading about the hardships made me grateful I was born over one hundred years after Adele. Despite long working days on the farm, Adele found time to organize social activities, contribute to establishing a school and a church and later to start a French conversation group, where women could refresh their knowledge of French.
During the two sunny days, Christine took me also to swim in the Bay of Plenty, to a farmer’s market, a local library and a church as well as to a fundraising concert with local performers in the park of a retirement home. One memorable performance was a preteen Maori-group in traditional costumes with striped, fringed skirts woven from flax singing English Christmas carols. It sounded so foreign to my ears that I fled indoors and talked with some of the residents and staff about how elderly people’s living is organized in Katikati. From what I saw and heard living is good, but pricey.
Of all my visits to the South Pacific islands and lots of new experiences during six weeks of traveling, the visit to Katikati is the most memorable. Not only because the sun was shining, but also because everything in the small town is a testimony to residents who care for their environment and other people. The fact that my hostess took such great care of me influenced my positive perception too.