small-town sensibilities: day three on the north island.

Otorohanga had left me thinking.

The authors of the book I’d read in the town’s i-Site had included a poem by Denis Glover titled “Home Thoughts”:

“I do not dream of Sussex downs or
quaint old England’s quaint
old towns —

I think of what may yet be seen in
Johnsonville or Geraldine.”

Johnsonville, a suburb north of Wellington. Geraldine, a town of about 3,500 just over two hours south of Christchurch. There’s a reason these places are among the lesser known of New Zealand’s cities. I didn’t get the nostalgia in Glover’s tone and even sensed, in my opinion, a sort of misguided optimism. It reminded me  instead of a different piece I’d found a few days earlier in the latest issue of North and South, a magazine marketed to “Thinking New Zealand.” The poem was by a man named Brian Turner, drawn from a recently-published collection titled Just This:

“I come from New Zealand.
Most people don’t know where it is,
or what it stands for. Good.

Nor do most New Zealanders,
if they ever did. Sad.

All of us are islands, entirely lost,
pretending we are not.”

The title of the poem was “Improving for the Worse” and struck what I felt to be a more honest chord. There’s a lot of talk about New Zealand’s inferiority complex and sense – or lack thereof – of identity. Otorohanga certainly sets out to counteract such a complex. It offers up each icon, each paneled walkway, each trash can, even, as another piece of evidence in its defence of the national psyche. Not only do we know who we are, the humble town seems to say, but we can show you, too. We’ve got the street art to prove it.

And yet, the constant resorting to titles and dubious claims to fame almost points to a deeper, unsettling insecurity in the minds of these small towns. Just three short days on the roads of the North Island have brought me to Dutch windmills and Shakespeare spin-offs, to places that are the country’s capital of who-knows-what and home to the “World’s Largest” whatever.  Do these towns feel they have nothing else to offer on their own merit? Is it so necessary to contrive kitsch symbols and catchy sayings to ensure the necessary amount of tourist traffic? Even my friend Steve – himself a Kiwi – wrote in an email, “Must be funny touring a country in which insecurity and the need to prove oneself with very silly gimmicks is like a… unifying national feature.” Of course I love the titles, but it all comes across as somewhat superficial. Otorohanaga is no more “Kiwana Town” than Foxton or Stratford or Te Kuiti…though I suppose it’s something.

But then I came to Kihikihi. From the Maori word for “cicada,” it’s barely twenty minutes down the road from Otorohanga. I had no intention of stopping as it was late in the afternoon and there was a hostel waiting for me that night in Raglan, but a clocktower made me think otherwise. No, it wasn’t housed in a glockenspiel or decked out in Kiwiana cut-outs, indeed, there was hardly anything remarkable about it – and maybe that alone was enough to catch me off-guard.

Part of an aging art deco war memorial building, the tower was stocky, thick and squarish, and the face of each clock looked like that of a compass rose. Below the clock was a cross, built from the kind of light bulbs you’d imagine finding in Vegas, on an old marquee or a dressing room mirror. The whitewashed walls were stained with rust, an eerie orange tint at their edges, and the five o’clock sun had just begun to hit the front of the building with that perfect sun-drenched look.

I pulled over across from an old dairy and discovered a township Edward Hopper would’ve killed to paint. There was an aged yet timeless quality to the town, a place entirely devoid of gimmicks, puns, mascots and mottos. I let out a deep sigh of relief and felt like something in me said, finally. A mural of a polo match – “Another KihiKihi Rotary Club Project” – had been curiously painted on the side of a food equipment retailer called the Meat Factory. Town Hall, dated 1904, had a gabled roof and green trim and a long bench in a matching shade sat on the sidewalk beneath its windows. And for once, on the exterior of the Kihikihi Fish Shop, there wasn’t a disconnect between the upper art deco facade – this one reads Mounsey’s Building 1955 – and the lower, newer commercial signage. Loneliness wouldn’t feel so lonely here.

Walking away from town towards the Alpha Hotel, a two-storied clapboard building covered in signs for Waikato Draught – “The strong taste of a real beer…” – led me to a little house set away from the road on a gently sloping hill. I entered through the gate of a picket fence and came to Temple Cottage, built in 1870 for a forest ranger named Charles Temple. It passed through the family and into the hands of a historical society who is now responsible for its cornflower blue door, the child’s rocking chair on the covered front porch, and the delicate purple flowers rising out of the shrubbery in the yard. This was history at its finest.

Before leaving I picked up a sausage roll and a can of L&P from the dairy and rolled the windows down, knowing this was a moment that would stay with me through the rest of my journey around the island. There’s hardly a town I’ve stopped in that I didn’t love, but so often because of the element of ridiculousness they all seem to have about them. With Kihikihi, though, the sensibility behind how this small town does life seems different. There was nothing to alert me when I crossed into the town limits and nothing to wish me farewell as I left. It didn’t seem particularly concerned with whether or not I stopped at all…

And I was perfectly alright with that.

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