Never Make Eye Contact with a Kiwi

We sailed into the Bay of Islands in northern New Zealand on 09 November 2019 after an 1100-mile, 8-day passage from Tonga. Being here for more than seven months, over five Brown Kiwiweeks of which was spent in strict lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve learned a few things about the country and its culture, and more importantly, its people, lovingly known as Kiwis (after the nation’s native flightless bird). People here are so welcoming and open, in fact, that we have a running joke: If you’re not ready to come over for dinner, never make eye contact with a Kiwi.

We had been looking forward to our time in New Zealand. Having visited several years ago we were excited to explore new areas of the country, both by land and sea, as well as revisit some of our favorites from past travels. As we were going to be here for several months, we purchased a used car shortly after we arrived, which was a much cheaper alternative to renting every time we needed to provision or wanted to go on a road adventure. It also allowed us the freedom to visit local friends.

From 2008-2011 we lived in Singapore and were blessed to build a network of friends across the Asia Pacific region, several of whom were from New Zealand. We’d not seen these friends for many years and it has been wonderful to catch up during our time here. Angela and Paul took the ferry from Auckland to Waiheke Island for a wine tour and a night on Gadabout.

Suz and Mark braved a rough, wet dinghy ride in high winds for a cocktail onboard in Whitianga, and provided us with a much needed dog fix (good boy, Chester!).

Karl and Nikki introduced us to our first wild hedgehog (which was eating the cat’s food on their deck) in Wellington.

Not only did these friends share adventures with us, though; they also opened their homes to us, offering everything from a place to stay to a ride to the airport to laundry facilities (always a welcome offer for travelers).

When we were in Tonga, we frequented a local coffee shop in the town of Neiafu. One morning, sitting outside, we struck up a conversation with the gentleman whose table we were sharing. As it turned out, John was from New Zealand and the owner of a local Tongan vanilla farm. He was also very knowledgeable about boats, having built, owned and sailed several in his lifetime. We exchanged cards and he told us to reach out when we got to New Zealand. Unfortunately, we took John’s business card with us when we left Tonga to head home for a couple of months and inadvertently left it in the States. Bummer. Guess we won’t have a chance to catch up with him, we figured. As fate would have it, though, John kept our information and a couple of months after arriving in New Zealand we received an email from him asking how we were doing and inviting us to catch up if we were in his area. John and LOn one of our road trips of the North Island we were going to be very near his neighborhood so we asked if he would like to meet us out for lunch. But no, that won’t do for a Kiwi. He insisted that we come to his house for lunch instead, a gracious offer which we gladly accepted, spending a lovely afternoon with him and his wife. 

One of the first road trips we took shortly after getting a car was a 3-day tour of the Northland region, the northernmost part of the North Island. We planned to drive from our marina in Opua to Cape Reinga at the tip of the island, spending each night in a different town. The first afternoon, we pulled into Mangonui, a charming little town situated along a perfectly calm harbor with few tourists and an assortment of shops and restaurants along the main street. We decided to stay for the night and were lucky to find vacancy at a wonderful studio apartment complex overlooking the bay. As we settled in there was a knock at the door. It was the owner, Daniel, offering us a tour of the harbor on his boat that evening. Needless to say, we jumped at the chance to get out on the water and glean some local knowledge of the area. Six o’clock rolled around and we joined Daniel, his dog Tippy, and two German guests on the boat and spent the next hour seeing Mangonui from a different perspective. Upon our return to the dock Daniel invited all of us to join him for dinner in his home and we ended up spending the entire evening getting to know our fellow travelers and host (and playing with Tippy, of course!). We had so much fun that we decided to make Mangonui our home base for our entire trip, venturing out to explore the places we had planned to see but returning to enjoy more of this idyllic spot. We had a great time getting to know Daniel and vowed to keep in touch.

In March, as the COVID-19 situation was starting to heat up Daniel was in our area taking his new motorcycle out for a spin so we caught up over lunch. About a week later the government announced the lockdown plan. A few hours after that, we received a text from Daniel offering us one of his apartments for the duration of the lockdown if we needed it. We are comfortable staying on the boat but his generous offer was one more example of the kindness of Kiwis.

The cruising community is always a source of new friendships. If there is more than one boat in an anchorage there will be a friendly wave, a rap on the hull, an invite for sundowners. It’s rare to leave an anchorage without at least one new acquaintance. And a lockdown can’t stop a Kiwi from a kind gesture. Over the last month, local boaters have given us fresh fish in one anchorage and, in another, offered to pick up groceries for us. New friends who left their boat before lockdown even emailed us and offered their bottles of gin if things become desperate (liquor stores are not categorized “essential” here). Now that’s generous!

We are truly blessed to have so many friends in this country, friends we had and friends we’ve made along the way, all of whom have opened their homes and hearts to us, especially in this time of pandemic uncertainty but also before this new normal. Yes, New Zealand is full of natural beauty and exciting adventures, and we’ll share stories and pictures of those, too. What makes it special, though, is its people. Their hospitality and generosity are unmatched and their offers genuine. So be ready to accept.

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