Before the 2011 Rugby World Cup in New Zealand, ‘The Independent’ newspaper ran a story telling their British readers that there was a violent underbelly to New Zealand society, citing gang troubles in the northern Hawkes Bay town of Wairoa as evidence. The examples they used were graphic, including gang shootings and a culture of conflict between the two rival gangs the Mongrel Mob and Black Power. Dig deeper, and you find a town affected by its isolation, poor transport links north and south, unemployment and depopulation (by some 20% in the last 15 years to 0.02 persons per hectare).
All of which makes grim reading and suggests that Wairoa is a place to avoid.
Today it is primarily a stopping place for drivers en route between Gisborne and Napier, with a few petrol stations and eating places to replenish cars and occupants. Few people stay for long for there is always a journey ahead – and more’s the pity. A few hours spent in the town and they might see the people and place a little differently.
Here I must declare my hand. Wairoa is my home town and while I have lived abroad for some 18 years, I return regularly to visit the town where my father was a doctor for some 30 years and where my mother still lives. So it is no surprise that, while conceding the problems that occasionally beset it, I have seen another, more gentle and caring side.
Wairoa (meaning ‘long water’) is the centre of a farming area with a national park and lake (Waikaremoana) to the north, thermal springs and superb beaches to the east on Mahia Peninsula. The town itself, described by the same journalist as ‘an edgy town bisected by a broad river’, is, in fact, the centre of a rural hinterland that has been facing a constant decline over the past twenty years or more. Yet dig beneath the economic decline and there is still a sense of community in this once thriving service town; people speak to you, in shops and in the street; there is kindness, charity and a sense of care not apparent in more sophisticated towns and cities. People look after each other each other, ask after them, watch over them, and you sense family, and the extended family (the whanau) are still very important. Yes, there is evidence of poverty (all strictly relative, of course – this is New Zealand), a certain lawlessness and long-term economic decline, evident from the many shop closures, but there is also a spirit that comes through in community events, in the revival of the town’s cinema and epitomised by my favourite New Zealand café (the East End café) which manages to be quirky, friendly (as well as serving excellent food and coffee). Yes, the outside of the town is gruff and even angry at times, but within is a community suffused in humanity that speaks volumes of those who live there.
Sometimes, you have to live in a place to know its heartbeat.
With vineyards north (in Gisborne) and south (in Hawkes Bay), rich fertile soil, an attractive river setting and as good a climate as anywhere in New Zealand, Wairoa has a lot to offer. It just needs jobs; it just needs some economic injection; it just needs a chance to become the town it was in its heyday.