"If it would not look too much like showing off, I would tell the reader where New Zealand is.": Mark Twain 1835-1910
Last time I visited New Zealand, the film "The World's Fastest Indian" had just been released. Based on a true story and celebrating of a real life eccentric, it starred Anthony Hopkins as Burt Munroe, an elderly Kiwi from Invercargill. He lived alone in a small community where everyone was very close. His reputation was mixed: admiration for his mechanical skills; distaste for his gardening practices (he used to pee on his lemon tree).
I had been told that, if I wanted to understand New Zealand, all the clues I needed were in that film. The main character had a passion for motorbikes; he owned an old Indian (a brand more famous in its day than Harley Davidson is now) and constantly tinkered with it. He used imagination, improvisation, and above all very little money, to tune it up so it went very fast. He learnt of the speed trials for motorbikes on the salt flats of Utah and determined to prove that his was the world's fastest Indian. But he had to do it all on a tiny budget.
His three problems were the flakiness of his machine, his lack of money to fix problems, and his small town background. He did not understand procedures, or rules, or safety regulations. He was accustomed to a world where people made things up as they went along and everyone had a chance.
The two qualities which made it possible for him to break the barriers were his innate charm and his naïve refusal to accept that what seemed to him the obvious solution to any problem might be against the rules. He also possessed an indefatigable ingenuity; he allowed nothing to get in his way.
This story captures a quality that continues to live on in New Zealand. A friend, a nurse, told me about a patient who arrived at her hospital with a serious cut across most of his head. He was 78.
An enthusiastic hiker, he had gone on a three day tramp, alone in the wilderness. His wife was due to pick him up at the end of his trip. So she was surprised to receive a call asking her to pick him up a day early. He had been crossing a river using stepping stones when one of the rocks came loose and rolled away, throwing him into the water. He gashed his head on a rock and the water was so deep he had to swim, but he still had the strength to throw his sodden pack onto the bank and climb out after it.
He mopped up the blood on his head and made a dressing for the wound by ripping up a T shirt. He set about gathering wood and making a fire, despite the fact that much of the wood was green. He painstakingly dried the content of his backpack over the fire, including his mobile phone, and then set off to climb a steep hill to find a mobile phone signal. From there, he telephoned his wife but he still had to walk tens of kilometers to reach the road.
It was his wife who told him how badly he had injured his head. But instead of going straight to the hospital, he insisted on going home to take a shower. His next port of call was the Department of Conservation, where he reported the danger of the loose boulder. Only then did he agree to go to hospital. And when he arrived in the emergency department, he asked for some sutures so he could stitch his own head.
Tough bunch the Kiwis.