“When I first came to New Zealand, I spent most of my time in Wellington. I still enjoy going to ‘town’. But after a few years, I was drawn to a New Zealand that I found in rural villages, in the bush, and at the beach. I no longer hear the siren call of the cities.”This is probably a common-enough feeling among American expats I’ve heard about. New Zealand’s largest city—Auckland—has about 1.4 million people in it, which isn’t all that big by US standards. So I think it’s safe to say that most Americans who move to New Zealand don’t do so for city life.
On the other hand, Auckland has about a quarter of the entire population of New Zealand, so it’s big by our standards. Yet it has no single identity as other world cities do. Currently governed by eight separate councils, the city will come under a new unified Auckland Council in November. If Auckland ever gains an identity as Auckland, it’ll start being created after that.
Other cities in New Zealand are quite different, and not just because they’re much smaller. Wellington, for example, has a much more compact CBD than Auckland, which makes it much more walkable.
Much of rural New Zealand is farming country, tied to a town that forms the service centre for the district. It may have banks, farm supply stores, offices of local government and a memorial hall, among other things.
We lived in Paeroa in the Hauraki District for a couple years. The District, with a total population less than the town I grew up in, had three main settlements: Ngatea, Paeroa and Waihi, along State Highway 2, the main road connecting Auckland with Tauranga.
Most of rural New Zealand is conservative by New Zealand standards; in American terms, it’s mostly like “Blue Dog Democrats”, not Republicans (and it has nothing to do with religious conservatism at all). This means they tend to vote for the New Zealand National Party, almost without exception. For example, in 2002—the worst election for National in decades—it wasn’t that rural voters voted for Labour, it’s that they didn’t bother to vote at all. I was happy that the booth I voted at in 2005, Paeroa’s Memorial Hall, had among the highest votes for Labour in the electorate, but National won the electorate handily.
Things tend to move slowly in rural areas. Shops in Paeroa closed promptly at 5pm, few eating establishments were open in the evening, most of the town was closed on Sunday and much of it on Saturday, too, or they closed around midday on Saturday.
This was a problem for us because we were renovating our house. If we needed something from a hardware store on a Saturday afternoon or on Sunday, we had to drive to Waihi (easily the better part of an hour round trip) because the two hardware stores in town were closed.
The way to deal with that was to plan ahead: A Saturday or Sunday trip to Hamilton, the largest city close to Paeroa (45 minute drive or so each way), to pick up things at the home centres there—or furniture stores, or whatever else we needed. I also planned trips into Thames (half hour drive each way) for paint (sometimes bringing my mother-in-law with me so we could have lunch). We could also order things in over the Internet, but that could take many days.
If we weren’t renovating a house, this may not have mattered, but I was also used to Auckland where pretty much anything we needed was available every day. Some people don’t care about such things, or they appreciate the many things that rural life has to offer (like wide open spaces, for example, or fewer people and no real traffic).
But there was one more thing: Anonymity, or rather, the lack of it. One can be invisible in a city, but in a small town everyone knows your business. In Auckland, we felt we could just get on with life, but in Paeroa it was a bit like being “the only gays in the village”, though that was absolutely not literally true. No one ever made us feel uncomfortable (the opposite, in fact), but we were aware that small town gossip can do a lot of harm, and so we probably overcompensated in our efforts to remain private.
I think part of that is a generational thing, with younger gays, accustomed to expecting full acceptance, possibly approaching it all differently. But the detachment of city life, the lack of connection to the neighbours, I realised, were things I actually liked—that, and the easy availability of goods and services. Having said all that, we enjoyed our time in Paeroa.
Rural life, like city life, isn’t for everyone. I think the key is realising what you like and want, then finding the best environment for it. For me, it’s urban, and Auckland—spread out, messy, diverse and fragmented though it is—is perfect for me (for now…). One thing experience has taught me is, “never say never”.
Photos: Top photo is of Paeroa’s main road in January, 2005. The trees were later all cut down when they rebuilt the footpaths. The photo below is of Hubbard Road, just outside of town, taken around the same time. It connects State Highway 2 and the Thames Road, providing an alternative route to the Coromandel during Christmas, when traffic backs up for kilometres leading back from the one-lane Kopu Bridge (soon to be replaced). Hubbard Road was part of my regular route to and from Thames.