On my way to the border

I GOT UP, dressed, and walked to the airport. Everyone else was driving as fast as they could to beat it out of the city, out of New Zealand, to catch the first flight leaving for the colonies – Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne, even Darwin. There were incredible statistics. Every week, thirty thousand people – equal to the population of Gisborne, that lovely, beachy city on the East Coast, where Captain Cook first made landfall – were fleeing New Zealand, wanting away, deserting the ship that wasn't so much sinking as going round in circles.

Poor old New Zealand. The money wasn’t as good as the Australian dollar. The weather wasn’t as warm, the natives were a lot less restless. The various assorted claustrophobias of living in a narrow archipelago north of the South Pole could get you down. Everyone knew each other’s business; nosiness and complaint were the New Zealand condition. It was also a form of entertainment. The most popular and longest-running TV show was Fair Go. Reality TV before it became a named genre, it dealt with consumer affairs, and made a cult out of shonky service and broken promises. But the numbers streaming every week to Auckland International Airport suggested Fair Go had spawned an even more popular sequel: Go Away.

I wasn’t in any hurry to get there. I had no intention of leaving. I just wanted to make my way to the border, on foot, and take in the view on the way. It was the last the émigrés would see of New Zealand, the last few kilometres of road and creek, countryside and strip mall. It was also the first that new arrivals would see of New Zealand; not the tourists wanting to gawk at mudpools, snow, and hobbits further south, then leave, but the new New Zealanders, humble and not necessarily downtrodden, here to set up shop, coming from Asia and Africa, the Pacific and the Middle East, the ESOL generation with prayer mats and dim knowledge of an island nation on Chile’s latitude.

New Zealand, the obscure country. It makes a fetish of its station in life; class-conscious, race-conscious, self-conscious above all of being in the bottom right-hand corner of the atlas, the two islands like a couple of crumbs scattered on the wide Pacific. Does it have small-man syndrome? Is that why it constantly feels the need to assert itself, make belligerent noises about ‘punching above its weight’? But that belligerence is, for the main part, provincial. The cities are too busy. They just go about their business, none more so than Auckland, the city with the most people, about a third of the country’s population hammering away on an isthmus. We’re doing our best to send the kids to school and put food on the table. We’re Aucklanders, and we’re stuck in traffic.

But I was free to walk. I closed the front door. The light was soft; moisture collected on the broad, fat leaves of the massive rubber tree in front of our house, its roots muscling in on the foundations. Must chop tree. It was a pale morning in late summer, 19 degrees and rising, the fructifying heat of subtropical Auckland yet to come in on the tide that filled the mangrove swamps with green water.

ONE OF THE neighbours was out at the letterbox. He was barefoot and one toe was bandaged. He gave a long speech about having six stitches after the removal of his ingrown toenail. He is Māori, works on the rubbish trucks, and has three sons – West, Wonder, and Wrath. Come out fishing, he said, and yanked his thumb at his aluminum dinghy on the front lawn. I wondered idly about the possibility of sailing to the airport. Could it be done, in this city of waterways, creeks and rivers?

I live on a peninsula. It’s shaped by the sucking tide. Thick, oozing mud gathers on the banks of the creeks, and out of it grows the native mangrove, Avicennia marina, with its ingenious system of roots known as pneumatophores. The pneumatophores drink saltwater on the incoming tide; when the tide retreats, the salt is despatched through the plant, and spat out on the surface of the leaves. A mangrove is a saltworks. They are all over Auckland, gathering at bays and on the sides of creeks and rivers, hunched and woody, a steaming forest of pale green – wait a while, and before long, you’ll see a flash of white. It’s a face. The white-faced heron roosts on top of mangroves, an expert spear-fisher, feeding on crabs that scuttle out of the mud.

I was about to consult the neighbour’s opinion on navigating a course to the airport when I saw the old sailor approaching. The old sailor had a red nose as big as a doorknob. He was a familiar sight. He walked around the neighbourhood all day; he lived alone in a house concealed behind a bottle-brush tree, and you’d see him bailing up strangers on the street, his doorknob glowing, an ancient mariner talking about his days in the navy, and about the wife who left him to fend for himself and their handicapped daughter. The daughter left him, too. The bottle-brush tree surrounded the house. He was desperate for company. I left him and the neighbour to it.

It struck me that the first two people I met on my airport voyage, both of them New Zealanders born and bred, were hobbled and wretched. Were they like Lawrence’s crippled Lord Chatterley – fairly crude and not especially subtle metaphors of impotence and failure, signs that the New Zealand way of life was on the fritz? Did it follow that I would meet Mellors in blackface, an immigrant, some raw, calloused son of the soil from the other side of the world?

MONARCH BUTTERFLIES AND bright Australian parrots poured colour inside a cool, dark pine forest. Further along, I came to a river. Green water trembled in the shadows of the mangroves. Layers of history flowed in on the tide. I was standing at a river mouth where Māori once took flaming torches to frighten bar-tailed godwits off the shellbanks; the birds would fly into nooses made from the leaves of cabbage trees.

Houseboats were moored alongside the banks. A seventy-year-old resident had recently been in the news; on his way back from KFC, he lost his grip on the handrail of his boat, fell into the mangroves, and couldn’t move. He was stuck there for twenty-four hours. He drank rainwater. A mate found him. He said, ‘He’s only a little fella, and he’s fairly plumpish. He’s not fat but he had plenty of meat on him to keep him going.’

I crossed the bridge, and into an industrial estate lined with an estimated eight hundred factories. It was watery, leafy, fertile. The harbour sparkled to my left, a creek mooched slow and dreamy to my right, the two waterways shaping the estate into one of Auckland’s most graceful peninsulas. ‘The flats are not to be beaten for carrots and cabbages,’ declared a visitor in 1891, when the dark, damp earth was tilled as a vast market garden. Tomatoes were staked to ti-trees, citrus went berserk. Grapefruit and lemon trees are still all over the peninsula, and so were oak, wattle, magnolia, Moreton Bay fig, gum… I had arrived at an industrial heartland, but was on a nature walk.

Behind the trees, factories were filled with hoses, surfboard bags, cages, fasteners, resin, windscreens, mannequins, trampolines, forklifts, rifles, drinking chocolate; the lovely, woozy scent of dried herbs emanated from the doorway of a low warehouse. I called in.

Mr Wang, forty-four, wearing a collarless jacket with tartan lining, led me to the upstairs kitchen for a cup of green tea. There was a faux grandfather clock. It had stopped. In the timeless room, Mr Wang said he had only recently arrived in New Zealand, from Shanghai. His sister owned the warehouse. He was its new manager. Downstairs were sacks and trays of medicinal herbs with exquisite names – phoenix-tail, wintersweet flower, charred hawthorn, hollybark. What did they do, exactly? ‘I don’t know,’ he said.

He was shocked when I asked him whether he was married. ‘Is a personal question!’ I said I was sorry. He said, ‘No. No wife.’ He had bought a house. How much? That was an okay question to ask. ‘$790,000. I think is good price.’ He was, I told him, an eligible bachelor. He sighed, ‘The right woman…where is she?’

The loneliness of the long-distance immigrant was played out again, ten minutes later, when I came across Mr Odiah. He was at his letterbox. He wasn’t looking for mail or the morning paper. It was just something to do. He looked up and down the long boring street. ‘No one is here,’ he observed, correctly. He was from Nigeria. He had been in Auckland for four years. He knew some other Nigerians.

He lived in a row of battered wooden villas and peeling stucco flats. The grass in front yards was thick. I saw a dead rat. Curtains were ripped and torn, fences were smashed, there were packets of cigarette papers on the pavement. I bent down to pick up a toy gorilla. Ants marched around it. A silverfish approached. It intercepted a crumb passed between two ants, and rode off.

The front door to a flat was open. Manjoola, seventeen, small and shrewd, lay on the couch in pyjamas and sheepskin boots; her sister Sophie, twenty, shy and rather large, stood in the kitchen, wearing a yellow terry-towelling dressing gown. They were beautiful girls, Indians from Fiji, and there seemed such decadence in their sleepwear. But they were shiftworkers, at Burger King and KFC – perhaps Manjoola sold the old man in the houseboat what was nearly his last supper – and they lived with their parents in a dark two-bedroom flat that cost $280 a week.

I asked about their neighbours. There was an old New Zealand man who hung his gigantic white underpants on a line they could see from their kitchen. There was a Cook Islander couple with a big dog. ‘Tinnie house,’ said  Sophie, meaning they sold dope. How did they know? ‘Pair of sandshoes tied up on the power lines outside,’ said Manjoola. There were also three Chinese girls, very young, very pretty. I told Manjoola and Sophie about Mr Wang, and said, ‘He is looking for love.’ Manjoola said, ‘They sell it for an hour.’

The sisters laughed. It felt like such a happy house. There was a prayer room and candle set up inside the broom cupboard. What did they pray for? ‘Mum and Dad and Manjoola,’ said Sophie. Manjoola said, ‘Mum and Dad and Sophie and Mr Wang.’

THREE OF AUCKLAND’S dormant volcanoes rose round and grassy as I stood on top of a rise and admired the view. You could see flat, stunned suburbs, the rectangles of sports fields, and the oval of an abandoned racetrack. I was loving the walk, the fresh air, the smell of crushed figs fallen from Moreton Bay fig trees – they smelled of coconut. The sun was high. Warm air waggled above the pavements.

An old woman on a mobility scooter waited at the traffic lights. The crone held onto the leash of her pitbull. I was entering a zone of high security and low expectations. A retirement village, cruelly, was on Ash Road. A few doors down, I called in on Noel, an old man who I saw sitting inside a hut. It had a phone in it and a calendar. Noel wore a Texan tie and – how do you do, Lord Chatterley? – a neck brace.

He sold fences and gates. He was very cynical. ‘The crime scene in New Zealand is wonderful,’ he said. ‘We can’t keep up with it. Ten years ago if you said you wanted razor wire, you’d be run out of town. Now everyone wants it. People are desperate for security.’

The hut was his office. His home was on the other side of town, on the same Auckland street as New Zealand’s millionaire Prime Minister, John Key. Even there, he said, there was a crime wave. Two days ago he counted six cars which had been broken into. ‘Key, he wouldn’t know a bloody thing about it. Walking disaster. Idiot. But they love him. Wake up, New Zealand!’

I NEEDED A rest. I’d walked about eight kilometres, a third of the way, and stopped in at a Korean dumpling restaurant in a row of five shops. There was a superette, a bakery, a hair salon, and that constant in any low-income precinct: a coin-operated laundromat. No one was in it. The salon was closed. An elderly Chinese woman with an angry face, framed beneath a hairnet, glared above a tray of large sugar doughnuts at the bakery. The superette was a miracle of tidiness, every object perfectly positioned, the floor spotless; an Indian woman with exquisite make-up waited for customers.

I read the paper at the restaurant. ‘Very bad man,’ said the woman who brought out a bowl of dumplings. She stabbed her finger at a photograph of a man in a business suit. It was the investment analyst who had become an overnight villain. Famously, he had driven his Saab over a Korean man who had marched over and angrily banged on his bonnet. The businessman had panicked, and fled, not realising that the ‘small bump’ he felt beneath the wheels was the legs of the Korean. His victim, who sold cigarette lighters and batteries to convenience stores, suffered terrible injuries.

The finger stabbed again at the photo. I pointed at another picture, of the Korean, and said, ‘Very angry man.’ I hated the simple little morality tale of the press coverage. The businessman lived in a $2 million house with a pool, earned a $100,000 bonus every six months; the Korean slept in a warehouse, and couldn’t afford his medical bills. A jury found the businessman guilty of reckless driving. He was given a community sentence. The law, howled the mob, was an ass. Throughout, the businessman had failed to give the mob what it wanted: an apology. He had transgressed some deep New Zealand code by not admitting fault. ‘Very bad man.’ We are all Koreans now.

MAD DOGS BARKED in the midday sun behind razor wire, possibly sold by old Noel, and the heat climbed. But Mr Sione was wrapped up like Scott of the Antarctic as he ambled along the pavement.

He said, ‘Oh, is so cold in New Zealand! I go home Saturday to Tonga. I been visiting family for three months.’ Where was he headed today? ‘To Pak’NSave,’ he said. ‘I arks my brother, is it far? He say, “A walk do you good”.’ He smiled, and wrapped his coat around his shoulders. ‘It don’t do me good.’ I arks my brother. He spoke in a kind of fluent Tonglish.

I turned a corner, and walked among the servants of Allah. The next suburb I had come to was a little mecca, with its mosque and its halal gizzards, its Egyptians, Iraqis, Pakistanis, Palestinians; and an Ethiopian, Gabra, who arrived in New Zealand in 2001. She had very big round eyes. She wore a gold cross around her neck. I asked her about her faith, and she said, ‘When I come here, life is dark. Everything was mess. Immigration say, “We don’t accept you. No work permit for you.” I waiting, waiting, waiting. I ask God, “Where are you?” That night I dream. God say, “You will win. I bless you.” I am born again.’

Did this bring happiness? Gabra said, ‘Not really. I’m not happy. I wanted to visit my mum when she was sick, but I didn’t have the papers to leave and come back. My mum waited, waited, waited for me, until she died.’

I headed for the shining waters of an inlet, crossed a pedestrian bridge, swung east, and made for New Zealand’s longest and most important road, an epic stretch of street laid in concrete one foot thick, first cut out of swamp and bush in 1843 – the Great South Road, made great in the 1860s, when Governor George Grey expanded it to move troops from Auckland to invade the Waikato, and smash the Māori resistance. 

What layers of history moved on the tides of its past? Buried violence, foundations of lawless impulse. Scott Hamilton, in his brilliantly provocative and unashamedly intellectual blog Reading the Maps, has often written about the history and meaning of the Great South Road. He notes, ‘Soldiers were regularly flogged for desertion, theft and drunkenness, and sometimes appeared in civilian courts accused of more serious offences. In January 1864, for instance, a member of the First Waikato Regiment named Michael McGuire was charged with raping a fourteen-year-old Pākehā girl in one of the settlements along the Great South Road.’

One of his blogs is a kind of open-letter proposal for funding. With director Paul Jarman, Hamilton wanted to a film a documentary about the Great South Road. He knew his subject. He writes, ‘In the 1940s and ’50s Māori from the Waikato and Northland began to settle in significant numbers in the new suburbs beside the Great South Road. In later decades of the twentieth century, South Auckland became the main destination for new immigrants to New Zealand. In the 1960s and ’70s tens of thousands of Pacific Islanders were drawn by the promise of jobs in the area’s burgeoning economy.’ Despite the neoliberal restructuring of the economy in the late 1980s and the ’90s, and the closure of railway workshops and factories in South Auckland, the flow of new citizens from the Pacific has continued, and has been complemented by immigration from Asia and the Middle East. ‘With their linguistic and cultural diversity, the new communities along the Great South Road offer a glimpse of New Zealand’s future.’

I kept my eyes peeled for glimpses. There was Khaled from Cairo, a confirmed Marxist and indifferent Muslim, smoking a waterpipe in front of a barbershop. ‘These fanatics,’ he said, squinting in the direction of the mosque, ‘with their rules and hierarchiesHypocrites!’ I asked if he knew enough Marxists to form a cell. ‘Please. Take me seriously,’ he said, I apologised, and felt ashamed. He passed the waterpipe. It was orange flavoured. We talked about his barbershop. He said he sub-let a room above it to an Iraqi tailor. How much? ‘Market value,’ said Khaled.

Mr Singh sat on the front steps of his flat in a kind of row of barracks. He was only fifty-four, but looked decrepit; there were black hollows carved beneath his eyes, his mouth was thin and bitter. He came from Bangalore. He arrived in Auckland with his wife in 2008. Their son, an engineer, flew them over, but he left last year for a better job in Australia. ‘We have no relatives, no friends,’ said Mr Singh. ‘All the time staying at home. TV. But New Zealand is good country.’ He wore a faded pink T-shirt. It mocked him; it read, COOL GUY.

The barracks were next to a river. Two Chinese men were fishing, and had filled half a bucket with twitching mullet. The brown water stirred, and up popped a shag, large and sleek and glistening. Afternoon rush-hour sent up wads of exhaust smoke; the sky darkened, and I walked past a massive brewery. There were grand houses with chipped fountains, an empty caryard, a Mongolian barbecue restaurant.

George from Rarotonga sat in his wheelchair – Lord Chatterley in blackface, but he wore a singlet, and his upper body was strong, athletic. He was twenty-three. Two years ago, in the Cook Islands, he was climbing up a waterfall but lost his footing, and fell. He was flown to New Zealand for emergency surgery, and stayed: he was paralysed from the hips down. 

He said, ‘Oh man, New Zealand’s the best! Good food, and you get the benefit, not like fucken Raro.’ Good food? ‘KFC.’ There was a scar on his forehead. ‘Oh, that. I fell off a bridge once.’

TWENTY KILOMETRES DOWN, and just the last ten kilometre stretch to the airport to go. I looped back towards the west. There were planes overhead. Leaving, not landing: Gisborne had grabbed its hat, made its goodbyes, was out the door. On the ground, a finance lender brazenly advertised its services to BENEFICIARIES WITH BAD CREDIT, and a short, dazed Māori with tattoos around his neck came out of a dairy, stared at the traffic with his mouth wide open, and then walked upstairs to his room in a boarding lodge.

But there were palm trees in rude good health, and a cheerful shopping centre, selling pink taro and green coconuts. There were a lot of Dollar Shops. There were a lot of Pacific Islanders and Asians. I got to talking with Michele, half-Māori, half-Chinese, as she walked along the pavement with her shopping bags. They were stocked with porkbone, watercress, pumpkin, kumara, cabbage, carrots, beetroot and turnips. ‘We grew up loving food,’ she said. She was the youngest of twelve growing up in a market garden south of Auckland. ‘Parsnips is where Dad made his name and his money. It’s a hard vegetable to grow; it has a poisonous sap that can burn your skin – look,’ she said, and rolled up her sleeve. ‘I still have scars.’

Another inlet, another bridge, another round, grassy volcano. Golden light glowed on a stand of gum trees. A faint breeze stirred the Tongan and Samoan flags in a lawn cemetery.

I got to the last block of shops before the pastures and scrublands surrounding the airport. A homeless man walked into a park. A tough Māori woman wore a T-shirt which instructed readers, IF YOU TALK SHIT, YOU GET HIT. An Indian restaurant advertised goat curry. An Asian hair salon advertised LADIE’S HAIRCUTS. Outside a Catholic church, a statue of Mary was protected by a security fence – no razor wire, yet. The foundation stone of a Presbyterian church was inscribed in the unlovely mangled English of Corinthians: OTHER FOUNDATION CAN NO MAN LAY THAN THAT IS LAID WHICH IS JESUS CHRIST.

An office building advertised a Chinese medical university, Mrs Wong’s Ballet Academy, and Mr Xu’s tax accountancy firm. I walked in, and found Mr Xu behind a stack of papers on his desk.  ‘I’m so busy!’ he wailed, and returned to his figures.

A few doors down, a young Indian loitered in the doorway. His hair was sleek and shiny. He looked fit, agile, happy. He said, ‘Do you want to have fun?’

I asked what he had in mind. ‘Come upstairs,’ he said, and took a step backwards. He was nervous, breathy, strange.

No, I said, tell me here. He said: ‘Man on man fun.’ Here, at last, was the potent and orgasmic Mellors – but I was being cast as Lady Chatterley. I said, I don’t think so. He said, ‘I’ve never tried it! I was just curious…’

IT WAS A dismal way to end my tour of civilisation. The shops finished, and the fields began. There were three large glasshouses full of tomato plants. There were cows, spur-winged plovers, trucks. I stopped for a beer at a deserted airport hotel. There was a giant kiwi sculpture on the roof. The setting sun shone on its fat arse.  

I tromped along a four-lane speedway to the airport. The traffic was hard and fast, making it too dangerous to walk on the side of the road, so I stuck close to the fence-line, and staggered the last four kilometres in a muddy ditch. My shoes got wet. I was happy. I’d gone for a thirty kilometre stroll. I got to Auckland International Airport and sat down and didn’t move for nearly an hour. Six flights had left for Sydney that day, and another three were scheduled; the numbers were only slightly less for Brisbane and Melbourne. There were flights to Perth, the Gold Coast, Cairns, Adelaide. A flight arrived from Guangzhou, another from Kuala Lumpur. It wasn’t a bad exchange. The new world was arriving, and New Zealand was getting out of the way.

The new New Zealanders moved slowly, cautiously. The departing New Zealanders, any minute about to become ex-New Zealanders, brayed and stuck out their stomachs and stocked up at duty free. They were taking the New Zealand way of life with them, including the belligerence and complaint, the aggression and claustrophobia, and their large stupid children with wizened, bitter faces.

It had got dark. It was a beautiful summer’s evening. I looked at the anxious Kiwi fatties heading for the door, and thought: You must be mad leaving all this behind.



For a walk of a different kind, read ‘Nocturnal’ by Owen Marshall, in the e-book Pacific Highways: Volume 2, available free at

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