Wā Kāinga, a distant home. That’s my parents’ place in Matapōuri, Northland. It may not be the house I grew up in as a child, but it is the house with the bottomless fridge today.
With Sandy Bay on our doorstep, the landscape changes with each rolling tide. The wise men never left here and the nostalgic come home at Christmas. Freedom campers are just friends we haven’t met yet. Locals young and old paint doughnuts in the sand with their utes, side-by-sides and dirtbikes. Of course, my mum yells at them from the balcony, while dad surf-casts for snapper and kahawai.
In the mornings a family of quails march up the steep hill to our doorstep expecting toast crumbs and coffee. Our neighbours are kingfishers, tūī and - at night - ruru. When the milky way is particularly clear and the Southern Cross beams down on the ocean, you can hear kiwi rustling in the bushes for worms. Nothing quite compares to the hum of the night here.
Forty-five minutes down the east coast is Whangārei - Aotearoa’s city of 100 beaches. I never understood why Kiwis who hadn’t lived there would describe it like a ghetto; a poor and violent town with nothing really going for it. I’ve slept in places that fit the bill but Whangārei is far from that. Rich in characters and culture, murals embrace much of the buildings - and those who busk outside salons have musical talents begging for a red-curtained stage.
Pie shops, art galleries, second-hand book and vintage clothing stores are my favourite places. The Quarry Arts Centre is a boon of Northland’s most talented and Megan Dickinson’s Gallery boasts suitably wacky creations by local artists. In the hotter months, the town basin roasts and you’d be silly to wear a closed-toe shoe or long trousers. The fashion up north is home to New Zealand’s classics. Jandals, Red Bands or going barefoot are in, and the more opposing patterns you can fit into one outfit, the better.
The north holds great mana. People say what they think and do what feels right. The land and moana here is sacred. Local iwi Ngāti Wai placed a rāhui on Matapōuri Bay’s Mermaid Pools back in 2019, so that the coastline could recover from overtourism. This allows the ancestors to finally skinny-dip in peace.
As a freediver, I have to say the most cherished place here is likely the Poor Knights marine reserve. Observing from the coast, its sleeping form will change colours across the day drawing from a palette of chocolate, chestnut, ochre, charcoal and cream. You’ll need to catch a boat from Tūtūkākā to reach it, but on arrival just a second’s glance through goggles reveals the gate to modern-day Atlantis. Tropical fish are swept in from currents of the Coral Sea and they mingle with local species of snapper, pink maomao, kingfish and John Dory. Some are so large they make our burly fisherman cry - the reserve protecting kaimoana for generations to come.
Back on the land, often witty and lyrical roadside placards call for the attention of the Government to the people of Northland. Sustainable land and water management, a proper highway, and specialist doctors are all desperately needed up here if it is to cope long term. After making it across the death trap that is the Brynderwyns, I feel a deep-rooted sense of home, nestled in pōhutukawa and far away from the noise of the capital.
You may have heard of 'Northland time', a unique phenomenon where tradies show up late and bars open early. Frankly, this is all based on wanting to make the most of the winterless north, with its golden sand beaches, smiles for miles and winding roads leading home. This is where I have returned to this Christmas, stopping first at the Matapōuri Dairy - whose decadent deep fried oysters remind me I am, undeniably, home.
Ellie Franco is a producer for RNZ's Morning Report.