With the world in crisis, many are talking about heading to the regions to better weather the storm. GARY STEEL was in the first wave of 2016. How did it work out for his family?
I noticed a police car going in the opposite direction, and then it was right up my bum, lights flashing. There were no other cars on the road. It had to be me.
“Didn’t you see the stop sign?” It was my one chance to use a variation on a hoary old excuse: “Sorry, my wife’s in labour and I’m on my way to the hospital, so my mind’s on other things.”
“Oh, you better get a move on then! Congratulations!” And he let me go.
In the dead of night with a sleeping 4-year-old in the back, I drove the hour that it takes to get from our tiny beach settlement on the west coast of Northland to Whangarei hospital. It’s a busy road by day, pummelled mercilessly by logging trucks so it’s reliably bumpy, with potholes big enough to feel like they could break the axle of my long-suffering Suzuki Swift.
It was 10.30 pm when the midwife rang on October 22, 2018. “Your baby’s in a dangerous position so the doctor has made the call to get him out. You’d better come now!” I’d been trying to get the 4-year-old to sleep for hours, but unusually, she’d resisted the nightly routines and was running around the house like a mad thing.
It had all started five nights earlier. My wife woke at 3 am with her water breaking. On the midwife’s advice, we hurried to the hospital, where she was admitted for observation. The baby was seven weeks early, but we were told that with the right drugs he might make full term. Instead, here we were at midnight in a hospital room waiting for my wife to be wheeled out after the emergency caesarean.
It was during the weeks that she remained in hospital and our boy was intensely monitored in SCBU (Special Care Baby Unit) that I seriously wondered whether I’d made the biggest mistake of my life moving away from the big city.
We were supposed to be living the good life, but this was hard and scary. What if she’d had our wee chap on the side of the road in the dead of night? What if the car had broken down? In the months leading up to the birth, we’d had to travel to Whangarei for every appointment with the midwife or scan or ultrasound because Dargaville – the largest town serving the whole of Kaipara – doesn’t have a birthing unit. Its large, full-service hospital was decommissioned early in the new millennium and instead, the local medical centre gets to spread its wings around its copious, empty corridors.
Suddenly, I felt really vulnerable. And we learned that had our boy been born one week earlier he’d have had to be helicoptered to Auckland’s Starship hospital. How much strain would that have put on our limited resources?
As it happens, 19 months later our bouncing baby boy is happy and healthy, and most of the time, it still feels to us as if we’re living the dream. We arrived at this beachside community of around 300 in July 2016 after a tough few years (see my original blog here).
With a lovely, large, sun-drenched house and a quiet, friendly neighbourhood it was hard to see a downside to our decision to move far away from the big smoke.
We love the sense of community and the local characters here, and even though it appears to be a place where little ever happens, I’ve been surprised at how busy people are with a variety of practical and creative pursuits, and the interesting things that are going on even in a tiny coastal “Erewhon”.
In truth, however, once the rose-tinted view wears off there’s always a reality check going on in the subconscious mind. And to be honest, I do miss indulgences like supping on a great coffee in the ambience of a world-class café, along with the sheer variety of food available in a multicultural city like Auckland. I also miss the social and cultural stimulus available in Auckland: friends with shared interests, music events and movies.
As a self-employed writer/editor (at least up until the Covid-19 pandemic and its gutting of jobs) I need to travel to Auckland at least once a month for work. But that three-hour journey is exhausting with a day’s worth of appointments on top of it and – when I stay the night – having to rely on the kindness of friends to put me up. Any excitement I experience visiting the Queen City soon dissipates as I get bogged down in the reality of the traffic gridlock and the problem of parking, and I start yearning for wide open, empty spaces and air that doesn’t reek of diesel exhaust, dust and too many clashing odours. Oh, and the quietude.
I thank my lucky stars that there’s work for me to do remotely, even if the low pay rates keep me tied to the whipping post. It’s wonderful working at home but I’ve yet to figure out how to explain to the kids that daddy’s at work even when he’s at home and that he’s not to be disturbed, so my output is determined by how many interruptions I have in a day.
What else is wrong? Power is obscenely expensive up here, it’s hard to find a good tradesman, the rural roads are in an appalling state, recycling is almost non-existent and rubbish bags are small and expensive. My mechanic is excellent but charges double the price of the guy I used to go to in Auckland. Dargaville retail is reputedly controlled by the Exclusive Brethren and the farming community is by and large deeply conservative (you could say stuck in the mud).
Dargaville is the kind of town that seems built for that satirical Facebook page, Shit Towns Of New Zealand. It’s a one-horse town with no traffic lights and lots of shops available to lease. But I love it. There’s new blood in town and things are slowly changing. Heck, there’s even a (really great) plant-based café. Parking is free and it’s pleasantly chilled out. The river might be brown but catch it at dawn with the sun shining on just the right angle and it’s as beautiful as the Danube.
The environment here is great for kids but there are no school holiday activities for under 5’s to stop the little monsters driving their parents to distraction. A few lovely friends helped us through those tough weeks when my wife was in the hospital and I was having to be a full-time Dad to our 4-year-old, but most of the long-term residents here are (understandably) busy with their extended families. As we have no living relatives in the area this creates our biggest burden, because there’s no fallback position. If both of the grownups are sick or stressed or just need a break we can’t just pass them onto the grandparents or whanau for a day or two.
If I’d known how gruelling this would make life at times I might have opted to move to a larger regional town with more infrastructure, better support for parents with small children, and closer proximity to the hospital.
But really, that may have also been the wrong decision, because I still wake up every morning to the thrilling roar of the waves and the fresh air and the absence of the infernal mechanical hum of the city, and it feels like home.