Why I Left Waipu New Zealand
Waipu, which means ‘red waters’ in the Maori language—is a dairy farming town of around 1500 people, situated in what is possibly the loveliest stretch of coast in New Zealand, Bream Bay. Roughly equidistant between Auckland to the south and the Bay of Islands to the north, at around two hours’ drive to each, this Northland town gets an influx of mainly domestic visitors in the summer, lured by the pristine white sands of Bream Bay, the clear blue water and friendly, small-town vibe.
The Waihoihoi River runs through the town, and there is only one main street, ‘The Centre’, along which are spread a couple of cafes, a boutique or two, a local history museum, a couple of antiques shops (that do a thriving trade in the summer), a grungy pub and the ever-popular Pizza Barn’n’Bar, which set the pizza standard for me back in 1998 and remains unbeatable. There is even an herbal apothecary, and a long-surviving mural of the town’s kilted Scottish founders (whose heads are rather too small for their bodies). Ten minutes further down the road, in a couple of directions, are the spectacular Waipu Cove and Uretiti beaches: white sand, clean water, sweeping views of Bream Bay and a few picturesque Pohutukawa trees.
Secretly, the locals are smug that they live in such a desirable location, and will still be here when the holidays are over.
Waipu doesn’t get very many international tourists, however, even though New Zealand is a tourist hot-spot. “Auckland is as far north as I made it,” many an ex-visitor to New Zealand has told me on learning where I grew up. Their loss, I always think, perhaps a little glad that Bream Bay can remain, if not exactly a secret, then at least a place reserved for people in the know.
The locals might complain that for three weeks in December and January, the otherwise quiet Waipu Town Centre, where everybody knows everybody, bustles with unfamiliar faces and traffic, mostly tourists from Auckland or a little further south. Secretly, though, they’re smug that they live in such a desirable location, and will still be here when the holidays are over. Summer temperatures in these northern, semi-sub-tropical parts of New Zealand can linger well into April, and the sea is at its warmest in the late summer and autumn.
Sound like paradise? It is, in many ways. My parents certainly thought so in the late 1990s when we moved from the UK to New Zealand. They were sick of the winters, the congestion, the high prices, the urban problems and the crowding of the UK. Yet, I left Waipu in early 2002 when I went to university, only returning in the summers to work in a café. I left New Zealand in 2007 and have only returned once a year, then once every two years, then once every three…
I sometimes wonder in disbelief how I could have strayed so far. I wondered especially hard this past winter in Buffalo, NY—where I moved in August 2014—when the snow kept on coming and coming and coming. Waipu rarely sees temperatures below 10ºC (around 50ºF) in the winter, and Northland is known as “the winterless north”. Since leaving Waipu in 2002 I’ve lived in Dunedin—at the opposite end of the country to Waipu—followed by Japan, Australia, Nepal and now the United States.
Although Waipu is one of the more prosperous small towns in New Zealand, not blighted with poverty and underemployment the way a lot of rural North Island towns are, there is little to do unless you are a farmer, or provide services for the local farming community.
People sometimes ask me here in Buffalo—although far more commonly in Canada, where the level of knowledge about other Commonwealth countries is much higher—how, why, I would leave New Zealand for Buffalo! Like I might be a little bit mad.
As tempting as it is—especially in the winter—to think that life in a place like Waipu would be better than in the northeastern US, I know in reality it would not, for someone like me.
The reasons I left still stand today. Although Waipu is one of the more prosperous small towns in New Zealand, not blighted with poverty and underemployment the way a lot of rural North Island towns are, there is little to do unless you are a farmer, or provide services for the local farming community (including, of course, teachers, doctors, small business owners, etc). Some people I went to high school with have left and gone back, especially when they’ve wanted to “settle down” and raise a family in the safe, quiet, outdoorsy community.
But I know this will never be an option for me, being part of an academic couple. The closest we could get to Waipu, potentially, would be Auckland, New Zealand’s largest city, two hours’ drive away. But even that is unrealistic, as professional jobs of the sort we’d need are not abundant, even in the places where they exist. There are only seven universities in the whole of New Zealand, and most aspiring academics from the country will not end up working in them.
New Zealand’s population is only four million—about the size of Oklahoma, smaller even than Costa Rica—but an estimated one million New Zealanders live outside the country, in Australia, the UK, Europe, North America. For the educated and ambitious, New Zealand’s a limiting place to be. When I see the enormous social and economic problems in the United States—the unaffordable and exclusionary healthcare and education systems in particular—it is tempting to dream of returning to “paradise”.
I know that even if I hadn’t come from a family of explorers, growing up in New Zealand would have instilled in me the expectation of getting out there and seeing something of the world.
However, I know that this is a case of the grass appearing greener on the other side: the very things that make New Zealand and its pretty small towns attractive to outsiders, to people like my parents in the 1990s, are also the factors that cause so many young New Zealanders to leave. My parents left the UK as middle-class immigrants looking for a better quality of life elsewhere. I have ended up precisely in the kind of place they were seeking to leave—with long, heavy winters, urban crime, deteriorating public services—and the irony of that is not lost on me.
New Zealand is a nation of well-travelled people, a striking contrast to the US. It is isolated—situated in the middle of the gigantic Pacific Ocean, at least a three-hour flight from Australia—but rather than encouraging New Zealanders to stay put, this geographical isolation has encouraged them to travel. The big OE (or overseas experience) is a rite of passage for many New Zealanders when they leave school or university, a period of travelling, but usually working, abroad for a year or more. I know that even if I hadn’t come from a family of explorers, growing up in New Zealand would have instilled in me the expectation of getting out there and seeing something of the world.
The combination of a nationally-encouraged wanderlust and lack of certain job opportunities means, however, that many of the one million New Zealand expats will never return for more than a summer holiday. But what a great summer holiday it will be, in Waipu.