Perched on a last lip of sand dune and wetland country between steep rugged hills and Te Moana-o-Raukawa, the village of Paekākāriki tries to nestle in against the winds before the stronghold of Kapiti Island.
I say perched. This is Te Pae, the perch of the green parrot, the kākāriki. The bird is only occasionally seen, but we are kākāriki green.
In the 27 years I’ve been here, kererū and tūī have multiplied. Every year the trails of kohekohe flowers get more florid in remnant forest tucked into the hills. Local environmental group Ngā Uruora (translation: the groves of life), regional council and many others have worked with the community over decades now to plant this green ribbon between island and mountains. Planting was part of our children’s playcentre and school days. There in the groves lie their placenta.
You approach Paekākāriki one of two ways from the south. Both are spectacular. By car, you descend the new Transmission Gully through a gap before our maunga Wainui and Pouawha. You peek at the village to the left but before you are the growing wetlands of Queen Elizabeth Park. US Marines trained in the dunes here during World War Two, and grazing has now been stopped in preference for carbon-sink planting and a growing array of cycling and walking tracks.
The second, preferred, approach is across the steep escarpment from Pukerua Bay. By train, you pop out of a network of short tunnels, or by foot traverse stairs and swingbridges on the ridiculously popular new escarpment track. Below you the moana opens out.
Why do I live here? In truth couldn’t stand Whanganui-a-Tara’s winds. No matter its beauty, I didn’t feel as connected to the deep blue and the light. I grew up near bush and water on an estuary 30 minutes drive north of Tāmaki Makaurau. My body seemed to gravitate to an equivalent close to Wellington. The trip is a 45-minute train journey you never tire of and on which I get my best work done. I’m writing this there now.
And that lip. I like edges, places in-between. It’s why I love the arts. A place where things are always changing and through which people move and change. That’s Paekākāriki. During a conversation I had with Dame Anne Salmond for RNZ Culture 101 recently about art and anthropology, she spoke of the Māori concept of te pae, the edge. The places where creativity happens are the meeting or bridging places.
Paekākāriki has long been a staging post along the coast - a railway town (check out the gem of a museum on the station platform or a diverse gathering at St Peter’s Hall). Yes, there are many of us as set in our ways as anywhere but it still manages to be a place where difference feels accommodated. Witness every Labour Weekend the world’s shortest Pride Parade.
It’s also a place of escape. Just that bit further psychically away from town. I came here leaving a relationship, as you do, holing up in a small bach near the sea. I found my community: actors, environmentalists, artists and oh so many poets, all escaping the 'burbs. I found love, and it came to be a place to grow community around raising children. Traditionally life was centred here around railway, and the pub and surf, bowling and football clubs. Civil servants took off ties and heels and mixed in, escaping the capital. Still is.
In the face of a climate emergency and an economic system that’s stripped our village of many services, this community has developed a culture of trying to be more sustainable and resilient. It feels good not to cross the tracks. Our local village store run by Bhavesh and Horace is legendary, our small local businesses pitch in, and our housing trust, free meals service Paekai, Paecycle, Wai Ata youth centre and other initiatives are our pride.
When we started a community radio station here 10 years ago, Paekākāriki.fm (housed today in an old dental clinic at the school) my now-RNZ colleague Melanie Phipps and I named our flagship community show Te Pae (it still runs 12 noon or 6pm daily).
My part on the back of Paekakariki.fm has been to bring people together as a community to develop and run a website where we can share information, connect with community groups and events, walks and rides, and remind ourselves to use our local businesses run by our neighbours first.
I fear banging on about Paekākāriki and community is something people tire of me doing. But it’s a form of mihi I figure every community deserves. Wherever it is, the people around us matter.
And, sadly, the real reason I ended up staying here is we could afford to buy a house here 19 years ago, when we couldn't in the city. How things have changed. The exponential rise in property prices has affected the make-up of our community deeply.
Local hapu Ngāti Haumia ki Paekākāriki once had fertile land around the awa Wainui at the northern end. Today less than a handful can afford to live here. Many other old families have similarly had to leave. It’s getting harder for the 20-somethings like I was to find those boltholes. I worry we’re just building our own cushy retirement village. New housing models are needed - and being considered.
It’s easy to romanticise a place where environment dominates. As we nestle in we can also hide from realities. Every community has its voluntary heroes. You just don’t always see them as brightly as the cap of the parrot kākāriki against the green.