In Aotearoa: Small is Beautiful

I have been back in New Zealand, the enchanted Land of the Long White Cloud, since June 16. During that surpassingly enjoyable period I have been  reacquainting myself with various parts of the country – Auckland, Northland and the Coromandel peninsula, attending a conference on Science Diplomacy at Otago University’s 46th Foreign Policy School in Dunedin, condulting with colleagues at the NZ Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and  speaking at various branches of the New Zealand Institute of International Affairs.

All of this has been most rich and rewarding, and some of the subject matter has even generated interest in the local press.

Before getting into any of that, however, here’s an instructive tale.

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You never know what lies around the next bend in the road…

I awoke very early the morning of June 24th in delightful Coromandel town. I wanted to see the tip of the peninsula, and calculated that I would have just enough time, but first I had to repack to get all of my stuff for the flight from Auckland to Dunedin at 14:05 that afternoon. I also wanted to do my emails, have a look at the day’s press, and so on.

After a quick breakfast and several cups of  coffee, I was on my way by 8:00, heading north towards Port Charles.  It was a beautiful morning, I was in stunning natural surroundings with the windows down, the slightly edgy, sensuually delicious scent of the native New Zealand bush pouring in, a smile on my face, and not a care in the world.

The road from the village of Colville running south back towards Coromandel town is gravel, or as they say here, unsealed. I was ascending a steep hill not far past Kennedy Bay, and just entering a corkscrew turn when I heard the sound of something sliding on gravel.

I thought it might have been what new Zealander’s call a slip – a landslide.

I slowed almost to a stop. The next thing I saw was a car, out of control, in my lane, about 10 feet away.  On my left was a sheer drop, no guard rail, straight off into a ravine, perhaps 200 feet down through forest into a river.

On my right was a sheer cliff, cut into the side of the hill in order to construct the road.

Nowhere to go.

I hit the brakes, and braced for impact.


Head on.

No injuries.

Both cars badly damaged, if not wrecked.

I had been crashed into by 19 year old Richard Whale, a local lad working as a butcher’s apprentice in nearby Whitianga.  He immediately accepted responsibility and said that he was sorry.

But he is uninsured.

* * * * * * * * * *

Thanks to the good advice provided by my Wellington friend Tara Durdin, on my visit last year I had purchased an NZ cell phone…

I contacted the police, informed the car hire company of the accident,  and provided a heads-up to Air NZ  to say that I didn’t think I could possibly make my flight at 14:05. I asked them to please pass a message along to the conference organizers to the effect that I regrettably would be unable to make the opening ceremonies – and the speech by NZ’s Foreign Minister, Murray McCully.

I was glad that everyone was unhurt, but slightly bummed because my plans had been undone, and the insurance on the rented car was $NZ 1000 deductible.

NZ Police Constable Andrew Grice arrived about 45 minutes later. In response to his question regarding how I came to be in the middle of nowhere,  I explained my situation,  told him that I was in the country as a guest of the NZ government’s foreign ministry, and that I was sad to be missing my flight and the evening engagement in Dunedin. It was 11:30.

He looked  at his watch and asked me how badly I wanted to make it to the airport and on to Dunedin.

I replied, “very”.

It was 11:30.

“OK”, he said, “get in my truck”. “We will yank the cars off the road with my chain, and leave them for towing later. I will look after the paperwork and other formalities tonight”.

He had a big 4WD,  we fastened our seatbelts, and  and we raced –  flew –  into town, with him working his cell phone and radio all the way. He was trying to find me, first, another rent-a-car, which was impossible because the one local place wouldn’t do a one way rental, and then, a taxi, of which there is only one in Coromandel.

And, Constable Andrew thought,  the service had just been established the week before.

When we arrived at the Coromandel police station we were met by the most affable Jane Warren, gassed up and ready to roll in her brand new cab. For $NZ 300 she daid that she would get me to the Auckland airport, hopefully in time to make the flight.

I was her very first customer.

We zoomed off.

She know every hill and corner all the way down the west coast of the peninsula.

Good thing.

* * * * * * * * * *

I had not been asked to produce my driver’s license, the car rental papers, or anything of that nature. Just some personal details and my signature on an accident report form.

Clearly there would be no time to stop at the car rental office.

Two hours later, at 13:50 I was at the airport, being whisked through security by Air NZ ground staff.  The airline reps said that they would try and get me on the flight, which they had very kindly held for a few minutes, but that my bags wouldn’t make it until later.

I didn’t think that would be a problem.

Then, an even more unexpected development. The security screener said that there was a knife in my jacket packet. My heart sank. It was my travelling Swiss Army knife. In all of the excitement,  I had completely forgotten about it.

I mumbled something about having had a bad morning, that I was sorry to lose it, but understood, and, and…

The man behind the X-ray machine said “It’s alright, mate”. He  handed the knife  back to me, and urged me to hurry.

I boarded the flight, and made it to the conference opening.

So did my luggage.

I was a few bucks poorer, but unspeakably happy.

Not to mention alive.

All quite incredible, really.

Another one for my already bulging file of NZ lore.

* * * * * * * * * *

And, might I add, it could only have happened here.

New Zealand is an unusually integrated, cohesive and, in important respects, intimate society. Help is there when you need it, but otherwise, most Kiwis are quite prepared to leave you alone and let you get about your business.

Never in your face.

Everything is highly personal.

Trust matters.

That means you can get things done in a fashion which is easy, uncomplicated.

Among other things, it makes for exceedingly happy travelling.

And, from the perspective of advancing New Zealand’s interests abroad, a very appealing national brand.

More on the meaning of all of this for diplomacy, the foreign ministry and the foreign service prospect in the next post.