Whangarei was the first place I visited outside Auckland. Ten days after I landed in New Zealand, I found myself heading north for two hours in a hire car, stopping only to avoid a lorry that had managed to overturn and block both lanes of the main road; the roads in New Zealand twist and turn wickedly and are rarely level, what with all the hills, mountains, valleys and forests in the way, and the journey made me extremely glad that I'd aborted the crazy idea of cycling round New Zealand before it had even got off the ground. I don't know if the rugged terrain is the reason for the slight dubious quality of New Zealand's driving, but it certainly can't help.
I was visiting Whangarei on business, to help on a stand at a small education show where Peter, the newly appointed Acorn dealer for the area, needed a bit of help getting to know the products and how to sell them. I met up with him at the show, managed to lock myself out of my car (NZ$25 later, I had the keys in my hand and felt a right wally), and met up with Mel and Sue, a lovely couple who looked after me and put me up in their house for the weekend (Sue's brother is the marketing manager at Acorn). The show was a bit quiet, but it was a pleasant weekend, and it all helps to fill the coffers. I also got to see what all the fuss is about: although the drive I did was far from scenic in relative terms, it was so luscious and green that I now know driving round New Zealand will be a wonderful experience.
The highlight of the weekend, though, was the election. I turned up in Australia just as the election was kicking in there, and a year later I've arrived in New Zealand to find myself in the middle of party political broadcasts, election promises, and a fair splattering of confusion. The confusion is mainly because unlike previous elections, this election is New Zealand's first MMP election (that's proportional representation to you and me). MMP means everyone gets two votes – one for the local MP, and another one for the party you'd like to see running the country – and most people I spoke to got quite confused when trying to explain the new system to a foreigner. None of this mattered, though, as Mel and Sue had some friends round on the Saturday night for an election party, so we all drank far too much wine, had a ball, and watched the results roll in (quite a fun experience when you know nothing about the personalities involved). I learned a lot about Kiwi politics as well as a lot about New Zealand, not least from a wonderful Dutch couple who had emigrated here years ago, and who had really lapped up the lifestyle1.
In the end the election concluded with no party having a clear majority, which means the politics will keep on going while someone tries to form a coalition government. It all seems a bit silly, really, especially as the chances are high that the party that got the most votes, the National party, won't get into power because the third party (New Zealand First, a party lead by an MP who defected from National) holds the balance of power, and almost definitely won't want to form a coalition with the Nationals. Ah well, that's proportional representation for you.
Rotary in Whangarei
I visited Whangarei for the second time, just as I was about to finish off my trip round New Zealand. From Thames I shot straight through Auckland to Whangarei, coming across my first real rush hour for months. Whangarei was hot and humid, but seeing Peter and his family again was worth the effort. I discovered that mixing Kahlua and milk is delicious (and is called a 'brown cow' by middle-aged Kiwis, though their children just look at them in despair when they tell you that), and after visiting schools with Peter all day, I was invited to a meeting of the Whangarei North Rotary Club. Now that was an interesting experience.
I've never really understood Rotary, simply because I've never actually thought about it; I suppose I just assumed that Rotary was another of these funny little clubs with quaint customs and a no-women policy. Of course, I was wrong on some counts – women can be Rotarians, as long as the members don't black-ball them, and the only wacky clothing I could see was the chairman's chain of office – but there was still plenty of formality and a slight whiff of committee meeting about parts of the evening.
All the more credit, then, to Peter and his Rotary friends, who were nothing if not interesting, friendly, and above all, laid-back. I suppose enjoying a Rotary meeting means that not only have you turned into your parents, you're doing a better job at being middle-aged than they are, but there's not many Pommy tourists who can say they've not only been involved in a Rotary club flutter down Christchurch casino and won, but they've also been to a meeting as an official guest. That's one more interesting and pleasant social experience to chalk up on the blackboard of life...
1 As well as the sense of humour. I must thank Hank, the male half of the couple, for my first taste of Kiwi humour:
Two paedophiles on a beach, one says to the other, 'Hey! Get out of my son!'
Well, I laughed, anyway.