Today we stay in the Southern Hemisphere, but travel to the land of beautiful vistas and abundant outdoor sports. It's New Zealand, and taking us there is Ambassador (writer/blogger) Debbie Cowens (for the literal-minded, she's not really an ambassador). Take it away, Debbie!
I guess I should start with the basics. New Zealand or Aotearoa (meaning ‘Land of the Long White Cloud’ in Māori) is an island country in the Pacific Ocean with Cloud a population of about four million people and about 40 million sheep. (When I was a kid in the eighties it was more like 70 million sheep.) More recently we’ve become known as the place where Lord of the Rings was filmed but we kiwis* like to think there’s more to our homeland than woolly ruminants and hobbits. Some of us, myself included, have never even met Peter Jackson or owned a sheep.
Most New Zealanders live on the two main islands – the North Island or the South Island. I live on the Kapiti Coast of the North Island, about 50 minutes drive north of Wellington, the capital city. I’ve lived here for nearly seven years now but it’s only this year I’ve started writing mystery fiction set in the Kapiti area.
I’ve found the community of Kapiti has a different feel to other New Zealand suburbs or cities I’ve lived in. It’s a combination of a friendly, relaxed beach atmosphere and a local predilection for arts and crafts events, enjoying the great outdoors, and a tendency to organise a fair, sausage sizzle or gala to celebrate or fund-raise for pretty much anything. The Wellington café scene has also seeped up the coast which is great for espresso-guzzlers like me. Yet despite this bustling atmosphere, there’s a strong sense of remoteness to the area. Perhaps it’s the sense of distance and isolation that permeates all but the most densely populated urban areas of New Zealand. Geographically, we’re isolated, over 1400 miles south of Australia. A person does not have to travel far from the cities and farmland to be surrounded by a landscape that looks, and indeed was, untouched by humans for millennia.
I’ve found this to be especially true in Kapiti. If you venture out onto the beach early in the morning or on a windswept winter day, you may see no one, only sand and waves stretching out towards Kapiti Island, one time home of the mighty warrior Te Rauparaha, chief of the Ngati Toa tribe, who composed the haka now famously performed by our national rugby team the All Blacks before every match. On a sunny day, however, the beach teems with people and children splashing in the sea while seagulls lurk around the shore and nearby playground, hoping to scavenge left-over ice creams and fish’n’chips.
Kapiti has numerous parks and nature reserves which I adore. Many days I’ve gone for long walks through native bush and towering Nikau palms without catching a glimpse of another person. Take a weekend stroll on the scenic Otaihanga trail along the Waikanae river and you’ll see just about every dog-walker in the area.
For me, it’s these two obverse sides of Kapiti that dominate my writing of it. The seeming contradiction of a haunting, timeless landscape with the colourful community, heavily dominated in demographic terms by retired people and young families. I’ve found it to be an ideal setting for a mystery. A place filled with quirky characters and a warm vitality, yet it’s perched between the ocean and the feet of the Tararua mountain range. It’s a landscape that captures the primordial beauty of nature but also its elemental danger. The sea, the bush and the mountains can inspire us but buried secrets and bodies can lurk beneath the surface.
* New Zealanders often call themselves kiwis after our national bird, not the fruit.
Thank you, Debbie, for this journey through a beautiful world. You are a lucky woman to live in such a magical place. If you'd like to read some of Debbie's work, here is a link to one called "The Show of Wondrous Creatures." You can find more stories in the right column of her self-titled blog.