On this day one year ago, GARY STEEL moved away from Auckland and up north. What led to that decision, and how did it work out?
I’m celebrating the first anniversary of having fled the heaving metropolis of Auckland for a remote backwater by the beach up north.
It really does feel like yesterday that we packed up our household and headed for the hills, and I can report that neither I, nor the family, have for one moment regretted the decision.
Admittedly, we had a practice run. Back in 2008, we looked at buying a house in Auckland, but on realising that our small deposit would get us either a postage stamp or a rotting hovel, we escaped to Helensville, some 40 minutes from the CBD.
I remembered driving through Helensville on a squally winter Sunday afternoon in the 1980s and thinking it was the worst town in the world. Who could possibly want to live in such a place? Fast forward a couple of decades, and the answer was: ‘Me!’
We loved it there: the old-fashioned country values, the close-knit community, the absence of the noise-floor that exists in all big cities, the views of rolling pasture, the sound of cows mooing in the night even from the village, the easy stroll down to the township, which had pretty much everything we needed, including low-cost medical care, and a famous birthing centre.
What had enticed us to Helensville were the thermal hot pools in Parakai just down the road. We’d been hauling our aching bones out there to soak once a week for about a year when it occurred to us that we could avoid the trip back to town by buying locally. Driving into Armageddon after a therapeutic soak is a sharp wake-up call, but living in Helensville, we could be home in five minutes.
Auckland had been my home since February 1988, when I jumped in my bright yellow Escort, packed with two cats and just about everything I owned, and left Wellington for the big city. It took me years to like Auckland. I’d lived in the Capital for 10 years, and had loved just about everything about it, except for the wind, and the chill factor of the wind in winter. Moving was a career move: I’d been hired to edit RTR Countdown magazine, and needed to be where all the music action was.
I’d always lived within walking distance of the city and its venues – Freeman’s Bay, Nelson St, Ponsonby, Arch Hill, Kingsland – but always disliked the dissipation of energy that came with a city centre that was more or less dead after 5pm and a region that seemed like a bunch of poorly planned suburbs bunged together so that they went on forever. Like Los Angeles, but deadly dull. Back then, I aspired to live in New York, or Tokyo, or Melbourne, and even Te Atatu Peninsula where my parents lived seemed like death, even though it was a mere 12 minute drive.
My thing then was that Auckland wasn’t about the city, it was about access to the cool stuff out of the city – the bush walks of the Waitakeres, the wild west beaches, the splendour of the east coast beaches – and I squirmed with embarrassment at the way Aucklanders really, really wanted to transcend their hick town suburban roots and somehow become metropolitan sophisticates.
Over time, however, Auckland got under my skin. Just like Wellington, it was possible to walk from the city fringes to the city centre. And it was hard to ignore the unique geography – the expansive harbour, the volcanic aspect, and other features like the ferry to pretty Devonport or the view from Mt Eden summit. There are things about Auckland that have an aroma of their own, and One Tree Hill and Cornwall Park is one such place.
But like so many, I was priced out of Auckland, and luckily, by the time I moved to Helensville, I was old enough not to care so much about the concerts I was missing, having attended so many thousands of them since I was a cub music reporter in 1978 that I have permanent tinnitus.
We got this fabulous old house in Helensville, purchasing it from an old couple who had built it in the 1950s and raised their kids there, and added an A-frame kitchen in 1970. I loved the separate lounge, which the previous owner had set up as a hi-fi listening room in the 1960s, and Yoko loved the kitchen/living room, and there was a huge garden area for chooks to run around in.
Forty minutes wasn’t so far from Auckland, and when we moved there I was driving to Grey Lynn every day to my job editing hi-fi magazine TONE. My heart would sing every evening as I headed home over winding country roads instead of overburdened motorways groaning with soot-shooting 4WDs.
Then in early 2010, I was made redundant when my ethics-free overlords decided that I was surplus to requirements. [The magazine closed a year later]. Back in 2004, they’d described it as a ‘lifestyle’ job, but a series of retrenchments meant that for too long, I’d been working 12 to 14-hour days, and often seven-day weeks. It was a poisonous atmosphere, and bullying was rife. But I’d hung on because the magazine was my baby, and I wanted nothing more than to make a success of it.
That’s the delusion of over-work, because no editor can make a successful magazine if he or she doesn’t have the full support and co-operation of the company. But that’s another story.
Why am I telling you this? Because my whole life I had suffered the agony of a condition called ankylosing spondylitis (an auto-immune disease that is a kind of arthritis of the spine), and the years of workaholism and consequent health neglect was set to come down on me with a vengeance.
In 2012, AS was finally properly diagnosed for the first time, and (surprise!) a bonus was added: the ankylosing spondylitis had caused early onset osteoporosis. So, not only did I have ‘bamboo spine’ to look forward to, but brittle bones and fractures. Oh, and secondary fibromyalgia too, which impacts on the muscles.
Going freelance in 2010 and struggling vainly to try and earn the kind of dollars that got me a mortgage in the first place – and failing – brought the fragility of my situation down on me like a tonne of bricks. There’s an underlying pain with AS at all times, and that pain is exhausting, and rest and good sleep is the best thing for AS, but it’s also the hardest thing to achieve. The thing is, AS sufferers twist and turn their way through the night, so often wake up feeling worse than they did when they went to bed.
I was servicing a huge mortgage and – because of my small earnings – having to watch every penny, and selling stuff off on TradeMe just to make up the difference. From 2010 onwards, survival was a struggle, but living in Helensville never felt like a mistake. If anything, it was our reward, and our refuge.
Did I miss immersing myself in the culture of Auckland? Sure, and it hurt that Auckland was at this time slowly becoming a really vibrant city centre, with genuinely world-class restaurants. But I wouldn’t have traded regular visits to the art gallery, gigs and movies for my life of quietude, and I discovered that half an hour in the garden with my chooks was much more valuable as a break from the grind than a stroll down to a café in the city. Cheaper, too.
During these years, we learned to be frugal. Soy lattes were a rare event. $170 tickets to big shows were out of the question. Yoko made our bread from scratch. We grew and ate a bounty from our garden.
Then, our little miracle came along, and I became a first-time parent at the age of 55. Old friends – and new friends we’d hardly known – were so generous that it gave us a whole new spin on the world.
That year though – late 2014 to late 2015 – would prove to be a volatile mixture of incompatible elements. Looking after and nourishing a new life is never an easy thing, but we were not only new to this parenting kick, but older with it. I’m inclined to agree that, where possible, couples should have kids when they’re young and more resilient. Yoko was amazing, but my AS flared up with the extra stress, and small actions like bending over to scoop baby up, or holding her for any length of time, were agonising. I constantly felt like a bad Dad, and that made me deeply melancholy.
Into this cauldron of stress came my mother. We’d been suggesting that she move up from Tauranga to live with us – or to build a small house on our land – since 2010. She’d been increasingly lonely in Tauranga as she’d become disenfranchised from my brother and his wife, and wanted to be with family. But she’d taken too long to make her mind up, and by the time she finally did, the toll on her health had been great.
When she finally sold her house and moved in with us in April 2015, she was determined to build a mansion in our garden, except that from the time she moved in, her life was a series of appointments with GPs and health specialists. By May, she was so weak that she needed iron infusions, and that fact led to more tests that, in August, revealed that she had bowel cancer.
She never got her house built, and it was a household under great duress. Between dealing with Mum’s health issues and talking endlessly about her house plans, somehow I had to meet deadlines and generate story ideas and balance budgets. Oh, and we had to, you know, do whatever you’re supposed to do with an infant.
There were moments of profound joy that year, but the strain was too much for all of us.
Mum was dreadfully ill in the few months prior to having the operation that was supposed to cure her, with multiple health issues, so my sister Anne – bless her – came over to stage-manage Mum’s health in the lead-up to the surgery. It was a horrible time for all, apart from those special moments that young children bring to lighten the gloom. Mum had COPD, which shortened her breath and made her susceptible to chest infections, and one such infection caused a delay in her operation by several weeks. Sadly, she was so concerned about catching bugs that she wouldn’t come physically close to any of us in the weeks leading up to her operation; an operation that ended up killing her.
In the weeks leading up to the operation, I’d had a bright idea. We’d had endless problems with the Rodney District Council (a division of the so-called super city), and got mixed messages around the level of red tape attached to Helensville’s designation as a historic area. In the end, building was going to be too hard. Instead of putting up a small modern house suitable for a pensioner, we would have had to buy an old house and renovate it. Impossible.
Realising that Helensville was now infected with Auckland’s housing boom and that we could probably achieve a good price for our property, I started looking for areas around the country that might allow us to get rid of our mortgage woes and stressful lifestyle, and where we could either live with Mum, or where she could buy a stand-alone unit. She was up for it, and we even had an exploratory drive to look at houses in the first place that took my eye: Dargaville.
‘Dargahole’ (as the locals once called it) is not so different to Helensville. It’s still on the Kaipara, it’s a sleepy little old-fashioned town, and it’s a mere two-and-a-half hour drive from Auckland CBD. Houses were cheap as chips.
It had occurred to me that I was eking out a living and getting nowhere, despite working relatively long hours, with a mortgage that was set to finish when I turned 84. We’d taught ourselves how to live on very little, so what if we got rid of the mortgage? It seemed to me that I was on the cusp of making one of the few sensible financial decisions of my life. All those families caught up in the vicious cycle of Auckland consumerism, where they work so hard that they can’t see past the trap that they’re in. So many families who are so short of time; short of time with their kids, because they’re so enmeshed in long hours of work to pay for day care and the endless lure of consumer bliss via shopping malls. Rather than trying to work harder and earn more, why not lose most of the mortgage and associated insurances, lower our cost of living and get a better quality of life?
It was a no-brainer. Unlike many, as a writer/editor, I work from home. Yoko is a full time Mum, partly because we don’t have any family to support us on a day-to-day basis, but also because she wants that experience. I want to experience my child, too. So many full-time workers are so busy commuting that they get home after their children have gone to bed at night. I can’t imagine that huge sacrifice.
But Dargaville? Isn’t that a bit of a sacrifice in itself? Maybe if I was 20, it would be. But actually, it’s fantastic here. We live out at a wild west beach in a lovely house that’s great for our child, with supportive, friendly neighbours and the constant roar of the sea. The air is fresh and town is only a short 15-minute drive. Dargaville is a charming old-fashioned settler town with a main street that’s not resounding with the roar of logging or Fonterra trucks, because sensibly, the town was designed to have a parallel road for that sort of thing. There’s an original milk bar where Minay can still get an ice-cream for 75 cents. You are guaranteed the time of day (and if you want it, a long conversation) in any shop you go in. There’s none of that blood-curdling urgency that accompanies everything in big cities. Dargaville has got most everything you need, and if you’re really hankering for that mall experience, there’s always Whangarei just 50 minutes away. Internet speeds are good here, and I’ve got a huge room that doubles as an office and hi-fi/music listening room, and the best sound I’ve ever experienced outside of systems costing $100K or more.
I’ve also decided that I’m seriously into limitations. In Auckland, everyone aspires to send their kids to the best schools, and yes, I understand that parents want the best for their kids. But it creates a kind of competitiveness that just doesn’t gel with me, and leads to chaos on the roads as most parents drive their kids to school across several suburbs. Limited choice means you make the best of what you’ve got. I know there might be a downside to sending our daughter to school in Dargaville, academically, but I’ve already met some of the teachers at the local schools, and they’re fantastic human beings with generous skill sets.
Other downsides? Well, my biggest gripe is with the lack of nicely priced vegetables. There are a lot of kumaras in Dargaville, but there’s no actual vegetable shop. The township could also do with a good bakery, a couple of good cafes with decent espresso, an Asian supermarket and a spice vendor. But that’s not a deal breaker. And it would be great to see the odd concert, or visit a gallery, but these days, I’ve got the beach, which is ever-changing, and is an actual experience, not a second-hand imitation of one. And Auckland isn’t so far away. At two-and-a-half hours, that’s the time it takes a lot of commuters all over the ‘developed’ world to get to and from their jobs in the daily commute.
Mum’s death really hit me, and still haunts me daily. It’s the great untold story of the 50-somethings: that when our parents die, we’re not actually ready for it, us baby boomers, because we’re still babies at heart, and we feel like orphans as a result.
And I’m still dealing with my AS and the exhaustion that brings with it, but it’s about 50 per cent better than it was a year ago. Meanwhile, we’re still unpacking boxes, we still haven’t found the muesli, and I’m as happy as I’ve ever been, and grateful, and feel blessed. Everything is healing nicely, thank you.