“You can get tuatuas here,” Anne Moore says, brightly.
“A tuatua,” she adds by way of explanation, “is like a pipi but not as big as a toheroa.”
I have no idea what she’s talking about but the sound of the words makes me happy. Tuatuas and pipis and toheroas, Anne explains, are types of mollusks. You dig them up at the beach as snacks.
Anne points out a sign by the road that says hot hangi. That’s a Maori stew, she says, cooked in the ground.
“Have you ever seen a kumara?” Anne asks. It’s a purplish sweet potato grown around here. And where is here? I’m trying to remember.
Anne is a new friend. We met the week before, at another pal’s wedding on the island of Waiheke, near Auckland. Now she’s our guide on a road trip somewhere far north of there, driving with the sunroof open across the very top of New Zealand. From the backseat of her silver-blue BMW jalopy, I watch the dreamy place-names pass by. Opononi. Kerikeri. Pakaraka. Kawakawa. I repeat these words to myself and lose track of where we are on the map. Outside, it’s all lush greens and sparkling blues. There is a warmth, a pacific—lower- and uppercase—quality to the light in the north of the North Island.
At Russell, on the Bay of Islands, a little seagull follows us around. He waddles behind the car as we drive out of town with a look that seems to say, “What’s your rush?” Sorry, little bird. Nothing personal.
Except that in New Zealand, everything has a way of feeling personal, intimate, connected. The country’s image handlers have done a great job positioning the place as a kind of holy land for extreme-sports seekers, as well as for those who seek extreme pamperedness at grand pleasure palaces known as super lodges. But what pulls me back is something more essential, a feeling I get from the people here. They’re friendly and open, but more than that there is this sense of an entire country where everyone seems to know one another, a sense of community you don’t get in bigger countries. Aotearoa—the country’s Maori name, meaning Land of the Long White Cloud—has an area slightly larger than the United Kingdom but one-fifteenth the population. Nearly a third of the 4.2 million Kiwis live in Auckland. Outside the city it’s a big-sky, small-world place.
Looking to explore these connections, I devised a kind of travel challenge for myself, an experiment in serendipitous social networking. What would become of me if I arrived in Auckland knowing nobody and let myself be guided only by the introductions of people I met along the way? There would be rules: I couldn’t just ask someone to recommend a place they’d heard or read about. They had to hand me off to friends or colleagues, people they actually knew. And I would keep moving. Landing in Auckland, I’d head roughly south with every suggestion to see how far down the length of the country I could get.