Jen and I landed in Dunedin on the Friday night. From the plane, the mountainous surrounds of Dunedin were breathtakingly beautiful, but on the tarmac it smelled of cow poo! Definitely a glorious mix of heaven and earth.
Here is the view from my hotel window when I woke up on Saturday morning with the mist rolling in:
After the Dunedin Storylines Festival, we flew up to Wellington, which I think might have to get my vote as favourite city of New Zealand. I loved it. Like Dunedin, it was very steep, and driving along the winding coastline, we saw houses perched precariously on the sides of mountains, some so high off the road they had their own private cable cars to get to their front doors. I thought they were the coolest thing I'd ever seen though our guide assured us they were a pain if you had to make several trips up a cable car with loads of shopping.
The Wellington schools I visited also had some of the most spectacular views I've ever come across. Imagine overshooting your basketball in this playground:
At one Wellington school we visited, Jen and I were presented with LOLLY LEIS. Which beats a pen or a mug any day. Maybe not a bottle of wine though. Oh dear, listen to ungrateful me!
Wellington was very beautiful, very groovy, and had the most fabulous shoe store just near our hotel where I bought an inexcusable amount of shoes. (They were on sale!) And was punished by having to lug my ridiculously heavy suitcase on to Auckland a few days later.
I think the reason I loved Wellington a teensy bit more than Auckland was that it felt quite different to Melbourne, whereas Auckland, being a bigger, flatter city, felt quite similar. Which is not a bad thing, obviously, Melbourne being as fabulous as it is. Having said that, Auckland has a 'big spike', as my son called it. He and my partner joined us on our last weekend in New Zealand and we ate at the top of the 'big spike' in the revolving restaurant which gave us a great view of Auckland but also made me feel slightly queasy. Plus, at the end of the evening, we discovered my handbag had dropped off my chair and made its way halfway round the restaurant before one sharp-eyed waitress spotted it and rescued it from the revolving bit. Actually the non-revolving bit. We were moving, my handbag stayed still. Anyway. You get what I mean...
(Not my photo)
The highlight of my whole trip happened in Auckland. On the Thursday afternoon, my sixth day in, I had already spoken at two festivals, six schools and two bookstores in three cities, and was beginning to feel pretty weary and bored of the sound of my own voice. The first talk of the day had fallen a little flat and I was starting to miss my family. I was even starting to wonder whether all this touring stuff was really as much fun as I'd hoped it would be. Surely, I could just talk to all these kids via Skype and stay at home in my pyjamas?
Then, at the last school of the day, I received a traditional Maori welcome.
I don't have great photos unfortunately, because it didn't really seem appropriate to be whipping out my iPhone, so I will try to describe it as best as I can, though I'm pretty sure I won't do it justice. It began with the principal ushering me out of the hall once all the kids had sat down, explaining that they had prepared a surprise for me. As we were walking out the side exit towards the front entrance he whispered that I was going to receive a traditional welcome. At that moment a young boy jumped out at me with a big stick, poked out his tongue and rolled his eyes. I would have got an awful shock had I not received the principal's warning.
The boy shouted some words in Maori, then placed a fern leaf at my feet. The principal whispered for me to pick the leaf up without losing eye contact with the boy. Then, two girls, in traditional dress and painted chins began to sing me into the school hall, in the most hauntingly beautiful voices I have ever heard from such young children. I followed them and as we entered the hall another group of children began to dance and sing traditional songs. Songs so beautiful and with such sweet earnestness that I had tears in my eyes by the end of their performance. I have never received a more beautiful or moving welcome. And to think that I'd been doubting my purpose there.
One of the things that struck me during my travels throughout New Zealand was how respectfully integrated Maori culture seemed to be and how proudly New Zealanders of all backgrounds claimed it as their own. Not once did the gestures towards Maori traditions feel tokenistic or awkward. In fact, the school that sang me the Maori welcome didn't even appear to have any obviously Maori students. But those children performed that traditional welcome with as much pride and ownership as if it had been passed down from their very own ancestors. This is what impressed me the most.