Saturday, 29 March 2014

Hamilton - A tiki-tour of the Waikato, New Zealand where K T Bowes sets her novels.

Marker located outside the Council Offices next to Hamilton's statue
Hamilton or Kirikiriroa, which is its Maori name, is 150 years old in 2015. Surprisingly, despite its massive size, it does not predate the smaller Maori stronghold of Ngaruawahia, but developed as a result of the Waikato Wars and the terrible English ravaging of this part of the country. The town began on the banks of the mighty Waikato, named after Captain Hamilton as a garrison settlement where the soldiers were allocated an area of 2 acres each on which to make a home at the end of the war, kept in New Zealand as a peace keeping force. The land was largely swamp and of poor quality and records show that the population dropped at one point, to as low as 300, as farmers left their unworkable land in desperation and disgust.

150 years later and Hamilton, or Tron as it is mockingly called by residents, is a sprawling metropolis containing over 150,000 people and is still growing. Most houses now are fortunate if they can claim more than 600m2 as a property size and the rash of high density housing has spread like an infection. It is the 4th largest city in the country.

Captain Hamilton's statue
When we first arrived at Auckland Airport, armed with a suitcase each and a one way ticket, we travelled around the North Island and noticed that Aucklanders in particular were scathing about Hamilton. We were told on many occasions not to bother going there, but to take State Highway 1B and avoid it at all cost. So we did. After an unhappy trip to Wellington, which was where we thought we were headed but on arrival decided that it wasn’t for us, we arrived in the Waikato, almost by accident. Needing petrol for the camper van we ventured into the city and were not disappointed. We actually loved it on sight and it was the strangest feeling. We were exiles, thousands of miles from where we had begun and yet it felt like coming home. We stayed and haven’t regretted it.

Hamilton Central Library, Garden Place
For most of the year, the Waikato is beautifully green, boasting every hue and shade that nature can provide. Droughts in recent summers have made it dash back to the colour wheel to borrow ochre and brown, but even then, it is still a stunning area of the country. Hamilton was originally a farming community, dominated by the dairy industry and it largely still is, although nowadays it also boasts a world class university and polytechnic. Where once, poor Tron was sneered at by the dominant Aucklanders, now the northern suburbs of the town have become the home of Auckland commuters seeking a greener lifestyle, cheaper housing and different choices in schooling than those offered by the metropolis. There is rumour of a decent commuter train within the next few...decades perhaps?When we first decided to settle in Hamilton, my husband and I paid a visit to the local transport office, seeking a bus or train that he could use to commute to Auckland each day, which would increase his options for employment. We were told by the ticketing staff, with completely straight faces, that there was a bus to Auckland from Hamilton every day at 5pm and the Overlander Scenic Train (steam driven on special occasions) passed through once, around lunchtime. We walked away stunned and shell shocked, after a life in which my husband had commuted regularly to London from the Midlands for work on an Intercity 125. We felt like aliens in a strange land.

Fountains in Garden Place
The suburb of Flagstaff was our home for 5 years and it is the setting for many of my novels. Our house on Achilles Rise lent itself easily for so many different scenarios, providing the location for Hana Johal’s home in About Hana and also that of Sophia Armitage in Free From The Tracks and Sophia’s Dilemma. It was a beautiful, sprawling house which was also used in the movie, Havoc. The film producers animated blowing the house to smithereens, which was quite disturbing to watch. They promised that they had faked turning on the gas and wedging a piece of cardboard into my toaster before setting it going, but I would like it on record that the toaster never worked again and had to be replaced! The filming process also began with ‘Please may we use your garden?’ which quickly escalated into, ‘Will you be going out soon as we would like to film indoors?’

Host of eateries outside Centre Place
The all-boys’ school that Hana works at is based in Fairview Downs, an eastern suburb of the city, but is modelled on Church College, the secondary school owned and run by the Church of the Latter Day Saints. The college closed down shortly after we came to Hamilton but I was always fascinated by the dynamic of it and loved the openness of the buildings and the beautiful location. When writing the novels in which Hana is an administrative assistant in the Student Services Centre of the school, Temple View was too rural a location for the kinds of things that the boys and staff got up to and so I exercised my artistic licence and moved it more into town.
Casabella Lane

Hamilton town centre is a bustling hive of activity, boasting wide, open streets and covered sidewalks. Much of the Waikato is surrounded by imposing mountain ranges which protect Hamilton from earthquakes, hidden as it is in a river basin. It is probably one of the most geologically sound places in New Zealand and many businesses have their contingency units and back-up offices housed in the city. We could potentially survive a good shake here, but would be undoubtedly cut off from the rest of the country.

For five years Hamilton hosted the V8 Supercar races, which ran through the city streets for a whole weekend. The central city roads were turned into a racetrack in the weeks leading up to the event, and there are very few people in the town who don’t smirk wistfully at the memory of lining up at the traffic lights on Mill Street, neatly parked behind a freshly painted, white starter line, revving for all they were worth. I did it once, in my old Toyota Estima, laden down with four bewildered children, revving loudly just like everyone else, including a policeman in the lane next to me. The lights turned to green and with a gallant salute, the cop sped off leaving me stalled in the inside lane, having ruined everyone’s turn at a speed start.

The city is dominated by the Waikato River which cuts right through the centre of it. It can make getting from one place to another particularly interesting, especially in rush hour as you have to make sure that you have factored in bridge crossing to your journey.

Bridge to Bridge race on the Waikato River
An hour and a half to the east will get you to the sea and 45 minutes to the west will have the same effect, only Raglan and the west coast has unusual black sand because of the high iron deposits in it. Our first visit to Raglan left us speechless initially, as a small child came up from the beach completely covered in wet black sand. It looked like he had been rescued from someone’s chimney and it is quite hard to get used to at first. The great thing about it, is that you can see the sand to vacuum up out of the car, instead of just having to feel for it but the downside is that it gets incredibly hot in the sunshine as my mother-in-law discovered, when she actually burnt her feet!

Anglican Cathedral on Grey Street
A little over an hour away north is Auckland and to the south is Rotorua, Taupo and the whole of the King Country to play in. It’s really central and has the reputation of being an ‘events’ town, hosting Field Days, Equidays, Parachute Music Festival and many other myriad concerts and spectacles. The Bridge to Bridge water-skiing competitions are great to watch and when there is nothing else booked, the Saturday market held in the underground car park on Bryce Street is guaranteed to be buzzing or alternatively, the various Farmers’ Markets around the city.

Hamilton is an incredible place to bend into novels, which is why I love it so much. There are always streets to describe and car chases to conjure up. Local readers have told me how much they love reading about places they know and have visited, which is partly why I keep the street names as they really are and describe actual buildings that I know well.

My novels, particularly my Hana series are completely and utterly pure New Zealand. They couldn’t be set anywhere else. They are a taste of the complicated culture that I live, breathe and work in and it’s my feeling that, if I live in one of the most beautiful places in the world, why on earth wouldn’t I invite my readers in - and show them around?


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