In Ngunguru village, on the Tutukaka coast, there is a no-exit road that undercuts a hill, that leads to water, that tracks an estuary, which expands to open sea.
Tucked away here is quite possibly the best little primary school in New Zealand. A school with its own special bell, but I’ll get to that later.
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As part of their curriculum, the kids have adopted “their” estuary across the road, aka the front yard. Part of this involves monitoring its mauri, or life force. On special field days, they race to school, some already dressed in wetsuits, armed with flippers, masks and snorkels, de rigueur kit for youngsters in these parts.
Then off they head over muddy flats, dodging razor-sharp oyster shells with quick-moving bare feet, before fumbling in with flapping flippers, to float back on the building flood tide.
Each student is armed with an underwater slate and pen so they can carefully examine and document the life they see around them. Over time the picture they have been building makes them very aware of any changes.
But most importantly they are developing a lifelong connection to the sea.
For some, this learning environment has become a stepping stone to a career. Nearby Dive Tutukaka company employs several former pupils, who have risen through the ranks, with plenty more eagerly waiting behind them.
I’m writing about all of this in a travel piece because so often what you see on a holiday never really gets to properly scratch the surface.
Who are the people that have actually chosen to make this patch of land home? What is the sense of community like here? How do they connect to this environment?
What creates the imprint of emotion you get with each place you visit: is it the geographical features? The weather? Or is it the interactions with locals and what they have collectively created over generations that give it “the vibe of the thing”.
I had dinner recently with an older American couple who were semi-professional cruise ship attendees, fresh off a cruise in Australia and New Zealand. With zero obligation they offered that the highlight for them, of all the things they had seen and done, were the cruise ship volunteers in Gisborne.
To the uninitiated, these are a small army of volunteers who give up their time to put on a uniform of sorts and station themselves around town gently directing blinking cruise-ship visitors in bumbags as they wander on wibbly-wobbly sea legs about the city.
Apart from feeling enormous pride that my hometown had been so well received, it reminded me that so much of a place is created by the people who live there.
Places like Ngunguru, which most people merely scoot through – often without a second thought – on their way up and over the hill to Tutukaka. A place with a school that has a special bell that is rung whenever a pod of dolphins or orca enter “their” estuary. No matter what the lesson, pens are instantly dropped, books slammed shut, and the whole school turns out to excitedly watch and observe the very best live classroom lesson provided free by nature for all.