Yeah, so we recently spent a month in New Zealand. It was our third visit in three years and this time we confined ourselves to the North Island. Confined isn't really the right word. Once you leave Auckland you find yourself in a big little country, very sparsely populated.
In scenic terms my wife describes NZ as being like Scotland on steroids. It's all a bit bigger and more beautiful and emptier but still strangely familiar. The people though are something else. They just have to be the friendliest in the world. Even at passport control when they ask you why you're there they seem genuinely interested. Maybe that's why the queues move so slowly.
Because we always take our walking boots with us we have to go through the strict environmental control channels. This time around a rangy young customs officer checked to see that our boots had been properly cleaned and disinfected. When he was satisfied he asked us which part of NZ we were heading for. When we told him we'd be staying up north near the Waipoua forest he immediately started to give us a detailed description of some of the birds and wildlife we could expect to encounter, as well as some places we just had to visit. Uncomfortably aware of the growing queue behind us we eventually made our excuses, shook hands with the young man and headed for the airport exit. Looking round we could see the queues stretching back towards passport control as he engaged the next new arrivals to his country in earnest, enthusiastic conversation.
Away from Auckland when you drive into the outback it's also a bit like stepping back in time. Back to the fifties in fact. A kind of more innocent, more self-reliant age. Don't get me wrong, this isn't some kind of Shangri La, and NZ has plenty of social problems just like any other country, but you'll go a long way to find a nicer place to live.
Even though I'm a chronically shy person, and normally find it difficult to engage with the indigenous people of the country I'm visiting, in NZ that isn't a problem. Go into any shop and you can expect a genuinely warm welcome. Ask any question and the locals will be delighted to give you a detailed response. It just seems like they're glad you've taken the trouble to visit their tiny little country in the back of beyond.
So would I live there? No. Certainly not in the suburbs which can be deadly dull. And the small towns with their hotels running bingo, and bikini competitions, and seriously hard drinking every night. I dunno, but sometimes you don't want to be trapped in a timewarp, a sort of fancy dress Groundhog Day.
Don't get me wrong. I love the country and I adore the people. It's such a nice place. And that's the problem. Somehow for me it lacks an edge. It's almost too safe, too pretty, too content with itself.
But hey, give me another couple of months back home and you can bet your bottom dollar I'll be desperate to get back there, back to a modest kind of paradise. As a matter of fact, as I watch the snow falling outside the Pundyhouse window, I'm beginning to wonder what the airfare is right at this moment.