Such a cliche title I know! But this is the feeling that kept smacking me in the face after staying here for more than a month now – the feeling that slapped me as hard as the bone-chilling breeze, the cut and fallen kiwi branches, as well as the deformed fat kiwifruits that dropped on my face at times. They all punched me equally hard in the face. Guess my mom wouldn’t recognise me after this.
When I came to New Zealand, I told myself that I would love to immerse myself in the local culture and tradition – especially that of a Māori. Though a part of me still holds dearly to the idea of the comfort and convenience that stem from living in the city. I had taught my students to write essays about living in the city vs living in the country, and almost always favoured the latter. It was the idea of living in the country or a small town that seemed appealing, or sensible. So when I came here, with no former experience of living in the country, I didn’t know how I would survive. Louis, however, loved the idea of staying here. He compared it to Air Salak back home.
Opotiki is so small, it may go unnoticed in the map of NZ
That’s right. Half a page of map covers the entire Opotiki town. It is like a hidden pea in the far right of North Island.
Actually, Opotiki isn’t that painfully small. The entire district of Opotiki is slightly larger. How big you may ask? Two pages. About one and a half page more compared to the previous town map. That’s an improvement.
A brief idea of Opotiki
There’s nothing really worth feeling hyped about in this tiny cross-shaped town. Nothing party-exciting, restaurants lining up the streets, buildings after buildings of supermarket, or a place to hangout with friends (not entirely none, just painfully limited).
You see – Opotiki is the ideal place for retirement. It is not at all exciting and you don’t see young people around. Opotiki has been listed as the eighth best New Zealand town to live in but the worst for doing business in.
Now you can imagine why all the youngsters and young adults are leaving for the big cities. Shops close early and majority don’t operate on Sundays. There’s no nightlife other than your own cozy homes and cabins. There’s only ONE supermarket – New World (An image of juxtaposition is clearly established here).
Coming from being used to living in big cities, especially after Auckland, this was the beginning of a stage of utter shock and lots of getting used to.
OMG. WHAT HAVE I GOTTEN MYSELF INTO?
Everything in Opotiki is either limited or monopolised. Options are not an option here. Only a supermarket; two Four Square convenience stores; an Indian food and spices shop; and pharmacy that sells everything else (hats, jackets, sunglasses, CDs, clothes and everything else miscellaneous were displayed at the front door!) and limited medicine. We bought a thinning scissors for 26 freaking dollars!
The following image is the only supermarket in Opotiki – New World.
We especially love the nuts and snacks section whereby we can take the nuts that we want and write down the code on the ziplock bags provided. Picture below shows Louis doing just that. I also find Whittaker’s packaging funny. I think they printed the Jelly icon wrong – on the founder’s head – which was stupidly hilarious.
There are three other options for grocery shopping:
On left: Opotiki food and spices (Indian spices)
On right: Four Square (convenience store)
My favourite one would be Opotiki fresh and grocers, where they sell cheaper-than-New-World vegetables and fruit bags that are affordable and sweet as!
The following image is the local pharmacy:
Didn’t seem like a pharmacy… more like a convenience shop.
Of course, we did eventually end up in the pharmacy. Louis was getting these rashes and eczema from the kiwifruit thin hairs (or perhaps we should blame it on the weather).
Walking in, after being greeted by hundreds of hats, jackets, porcelain bowls and plates later, we finally walked into a prescription counter – a part in the pharmacy that actually sells medicine. We consulted the pharmacist for medicine. She was extremely helpful and talked to us about her experience when she was in Malaysia.
The initial plan was to stay at a backpacker’s lodge (found on Facebook) with all the other happening young adults, you know, exchanging culture all those blabberish – my hope for a dash of city in such a monotonous small town.
When we got off the bus, we were told that there was no double-bed room for us, everywhere in the lodge was full, so we were moved to stay in a homestay with an elderly couple – Barry and Heathy, both of whom we grew to love dearly now.
We were utterly thankful for the sudden switch of accommodation because our stay with our hosts has been wonderful thus far! We also didn’t need to worry about communal bathrooms and kitchen because we have all the spaces in the house and garden to ourselves!
So what do I actually find exciting in this godforsaken place?
It's bland, yet exciting
Horses all over the place
From what my host told me, horses roam the streets often in Opotiki.
This is something that is very common in Opotiki and I have seen it more than three times now. Funny enough, the place where I live has a horse stable and grazing field just one-minute walk away. I didn’t realise it was that near to me and have never been to that part of the street because we usually use another way to go to town or work. We happened to be at the right place at the right time, when the sunset was in full force and the horses noticed us and ran to us for some pat on the face.
We were afraid to touch them at first because I’ve had unpleasant experiences with horses in Malaysia. But they’re just absolutely darlings and I couldn’t stay away! I went back the second time, with no problem patting them and calling them “horsie” again and again. It didn’t seem to annoy them.
Walking without shoes
I have seen more Māori people walking barefooted everywhere in Opotiki than meeting Asians. Did I try walking barefoot? Oh yeah you bet, and it’s painful as heck. Louis, on the other hand, was enjoying the Māori way of walking without shoes on our way home from New World – just once. Well, he found it…comforting.
It's a densely Māori populated town
Statistic showed that there are only about 9,000 population living in this small town – majority of whom – Māori people. Our neighbours are Māori. The schoolchildren I see on the streets are Māori. The supermarket is a place to see even more Māori.
I didn’t know that Opotiki used to be a populous Māori centre before arriving. I also didn’t know that it used to be a busy harbour place. I came here knowing NOTHING. I was so näive, yet finding out about it made me feel like I was now way smarter.
Even our Sunday mass was conducted in Māori language once or twice a month.
Opotiki has the sweetest sweet corn
All my life, I grow up believing that Cameron Highlands in Malaysia has the sweetest corn – boy, have I not met New Zealand. If sweet corn is compared to educational qualities, then sweet corn in Cameron Highlands is a high school graduand; while sweet corn in New Zealand is a bachelor degree holder. I did not push it too far to phD because I am sure that there must be sweeter corns somewhere in this galaxy. I’ll just have to live long enough to taste it.
Why would I say that it’s a Bachelor of Corns (FOOD) Sweet Corn? I cooked it in a broth for almost an hour and none of the sweetness from the corn was lost! In addition to that, the soup tasted surprisingly sweet. It has won the best staple food in my life right now. 6 corns for $4. This place is just plentiful with it’s corns! Lining up bays and bays along the highway. They grow as tall, or even taller than me. I guess that’s how New Zealand name this region the Bay of Plenty.
And the most succulent kiwis
I have never been a kiwifruit person. Funny how I ended up working in one of its orchards. How do I know it’s going to be succulent? Well, because I work here and I know!
Just kidding. That was an answer that could score me a C if it was an exam. Workers here work hard to pick out the rotten ones and leave only the best of the best on the trees. The kiwis, even when rotting, smell like they’re going to taste heavenly. I can’t wait until the time I get really sick of eating kiwis.
Located in the region of Bay of Plenty, this area is just teeming with bays of kiwifruits and orchards. New Zealand imposed strict rules and regulations against orchard owners, so anyone who breaks the law would be fined or stopped from operating in their kiwi orchards. At least that’s what I read from the newspaper.
Despite being tiny, Opotiki has a domain
And it’s called the Hukutaia Domain. It’s a forest reserve, but like the word “domain” suggests, it’s definitely a walk in the park. Within an hour, we finished all three routes available and still had plenty of time to spare.
What made this domain so special is the old tree – Taketakerau.
Paraphrased from the information board:
Taketakerau is estimated to be about 2,000 years old. The name translates to Old strong trunk to support many leaves. Exhuming the (dig out) bones of the distinguished dead was an ancient practice that was carried out, with sometimes the sacrificing of slaves to add prestige to the occasion. The bones that were dug out were then scraped clean and hid under the cave or hollow part of the tree where they would not be found and put to base purposes by tribal enemies. This tree is very sacred. It was once the final resting place for the ancestral remains of Te Upokorehe iwi.
The statues you see beside the tree, there were plenty of them, but I can only take one of them from this angle. They are the guardian of the once sacred tree – Taketakerau.
Every path in the domain leads to Taketakerau somehow. Besides this tree, there were also many other things to see in the domain:
Motu Trails for biking and hiking
In fact, Opotiki or near Opotiki, there are 15 different trails and walks that we can take.
From my description up until now, Opotiki seems like a fairly quiet retirement town, but dozens of people flock into the town every weekend to go fishing for NZ’s famous mussels, shellfish, fishes and crabs; cycling along the town or Motu Trails; walking and hiking in the 15 available walks and hikes; and just generally chill out for the weekend.
And stunningly clean beaches
From the district map posted earlier in this post, you can see that there are four main beaches in Opotiki. They’re all facing the same ocean just different spots to chill at. This was the Hukuwai Beach that I went to with Louis and 2 other backpackers.
It is so clean and the water is so blue. If I were to make a comparison between this beach and the ones in Malaysia, I would say that they’re basically the same, just bluer water and cleaner sand. The sand was really soft too, with a tinge of black in the sand that came from the nearby volcanic island – White Island.
Oh, Hukuwai Beach also has great view. From the image above, you can see a stretch of mountains in the distance, half-covered by the morning mist. It was a magical sight to behold. In the far distance, on clear days, we can see White Island.
The waves rose and broke then crashed so rhythmically, that means you can surf here – provided if the waves are at a certain height. We dared only watch from a distance because swimming in the sea right now can be daunting – especially when we’ve only done most of it in calm swimming pool waters.
A great recycling system
You could argue with me and say that the recycling system is not only significant in Opotiki but the same all over New Zealand – and I would completely agree with you. When I was in Auckland for a week, I came across 2 types of bins: general waste bin and recycling bin. They were really serious about sustainable living and recycling.
When I arrived in Opotiki, I was amazed to learn that even Opotiki, a town so small, is practicing recycling. I can easily lay my hands on an eco-friendly biodegradable laundry liquid at an unbelievably affordable price! I’ve seen this once, shared in Malaysia Zero Waste Facebook group, but never thought I’d get to buy one here myself!
In such a small town, you can easily find 2 to 3 recycled labels / clothing shops. One is called recycled labels, while another hospice shop. Due to the small nature of Opotiki town, they are even lined up on the same street! One of my backpacker friend told me that he bought the jeans that fitted him perfectly, waist and hip all, with just 1 dollar!
Then there’s Boomerang bags, whereby people who have bought their goods in New World boomerang their plastic bags – or bags they don’t really need anymore – in the Boomerang bins provided and other shoppers can just pick them up and reuse them if they forget to bring their own bags.
The way Māori and Kiwi people pronounce things
When you see the sign below, how would you pronounce it?
Let me guess – most of you will pronounce it as WAH KA TA NE right? But in Māori language, the WH is usually pronounced as the English F sound. So it’ll be FAH KA TA NE. But because “KA” is followed, so when the locals read it fast, they tend to say “FUCKATANE“.
When the top of the vowels have a long dash (we call it macron, like so: ā), the vowel should be a long vowel. So Māori should be read as Maaaaaaaaaaaori.
Another thing that the rest of the world couldn’t grasp would be the way Kiwi people read the “e” vowel. They read everything “e” as “i”. For example, “exit” as “ixit”; “upset” as “upsit”; “Necessary” as “Nicissary”; “Venision” as “Vinison”. It’s really mind-boggling but at the same time amusing. I also got used to the way they say “tomatoes”.
I relish living in this tranquil town of Opotiki. Driving through waves and waves of mountains and grazing fields going to work everyday still punches me hard in the face – in a good way. I never thought that I would end up in this small town, let alone fall in love with it.
Take home message: Searching for non-exciting things may not always mean that you will end up missing out the chance of having a whale of a time; it just means that you’re taking life in a slower, digestible pace. To see life, in all its glory: the raw and untouched view, undervalued by so many.
Then it hit me: this was why I decided to come to New Zealand, and Opotiki has helped me realise that.