It is December 1996. The 767’s pilot slams the aircraft unceremoniously onto the runway. A couple of overhead baggage compartments fly open and a carton of duty free cigarettes drops onto the ancient Greek lady across the aisle who has been praying all night after a short panic attack midway across the Indian Ocean.
It is just after 10 pm and this family with two children, aged 12 and 9 have just landed in Auckland, New Zealand, our new home.
Passport control detains us only briefly. The business of arriving for the first time as a permanent resident takes less time than expected. This is the culmination of three years of immigration applications, submissions, sworn affidavits, police clearances, sad farewells, resignation letters, job applications, career changes, banking compliance issues, months of doubt and anxiety and periods of remorse and guilt.
Its getting on for 11 pm as we go to collect our luggage. The official in the customs hall is hell bent on finding contraband. Three warnings are issued to us before our bags are ceremoniously opened to see whether we have anything that qualifies us for the ten (or is it twenty) thousand dollar fine. We must match the offender profile, for no shoe or item of apparel is left unturned. He finally waves us through to the arrivals hall. Welcome to New Zealand.
We pay for the keys for an Avis Toyota. As we step out into the night, we breathe for the first time the crisp air which is found at 36.84 degrees south of the equator. Here, at midnight on the other side of the world, the reality of a new beginning. We pack our bags into the car and begin to drive.
Tentatively we merge onto the motorway towards the city in pitch darkness and a fine drizzle. We have absolutely no idea where we are, so a decision is made to head for the first lodgings we come across which is a lonely motel, very near to the airport. Our two children are stricken by a combination of grief, anxiety and exhaustion. It has been thirty two hours since we left the country of our birth.
The motel owner emerges with a weary midnight smile and a 250 ml carton of real cow's milk so we can make tea when we wake in the morning. In the dark he takes us to a spotless family suite with the regulation floral curtains, morgue-like fluorescent lighting and the strong smell of carpet shampoo. I spend a sleepless night but in the morning the kids have not stirred as I listen to the unfamiliar sound of soft rain at 5 am. At seven I venture out into the icy air and down the road to the corner convenience store which I will later learn to call a dairy. The houses I walk past have no gardens, just well fenced lawns and bull terrier dogs which appear to be the pet of choice in this neighbourhood. I am reminded by a low flying 747 that we are very close to the airport.
I purchase my first ever New Zealand newspaper from the dairy owner and walking back to the motel room I am thinking of breakfast. A brochure at the reception desk catches my eye. It advertises an old part of the inner city which is being redeveloped and turned into a tourist precinct. It says that previously derelict blocks have been revived and a charming restaurant and entertainment precinct is now under development. The map on the brochure shows a McDonalds in the main drag. The kids have never eaten at a McDonalds. I make the ill-judged decision to head there for breakfast.
So at 8 am with a map of our new city, we carefully make our way downtown. Parking is scarce but we finally score a space and feed a parking meter. We are parked outside a shop which sells sex toys. The kids are old enough to deal with this but not really prepared for the vomit in the doorways. Gross, they say. A couple of derelict people are just emerging from their improvised sleeping arrangements and syringe needles litter the sidewalk.
The McDonalds sign is just ahead and our spirits lift in anticipation of bad food and awful coffee and happy kids. Once inside though, we encounter a bad smell and a figure in a trench coat completely collapsed on one of the tables. The main concern of the staff is for the speedy removal of this person from the premises before he erupts any more than he had already done, so we move on. We later learn that this is Karangahape Road or "K" Road, the heart of Auckland's red light district.
Back in the car, we head down the more salubrious Queen Street. Between the tall office blocks, we look down towards the harbour precinct and see the historic Auckland Ferry Building. We park and walk towards the crowds of tourists and backpackers at the ferry terminal. Our kids have still not had breakfast but their mum buys them each a lambs wool toy sheep in the souvenir shop and my daughter christens hers Jonah “Lamu” after the rugby player. My son is too hungry to think. The assistant in the souvenir shop gets our situation, and imparts some local knowledge. As always, my wife has found the right person to talk to; she is good that way. She directs us East out of the city centre and along the winding and picturesque Tamaki Drive.
So with the waters of the Waitemata harbour on our left, we drive along one of the loveliest harbour drives we will ever see. The rain has stopped. Rangitoto Island presides over the waters of the Hauraki Gulf with its sedate procession of yachts and ferries. The sun has come out for what will turn out to be a characteristically short while and the turquoise waters sparkle. A one hundred and eighty degree rainbow straddles the islands to the north east, with the left side of its arc pointing to where we will 2 years later build our home.
10 am. Twelve hours into our new country. Maybe this is going to be OK after all.