How a trip to a foreign policy conference became a hands-on lesson in good foreign relations.
I have been back in New Zealand, the enchanted Land of the Long White Cloud and a place where I once lived, since June 16. During this enjoyable period, I have been reacquainting myself with various parts of the country – Auckland, Northland, and the Coromandel peninsula, attending a conference on Science Diplomacy at the University of Otago’s 46th Foreign Policy School in Dunedin, consulting with colleagues at the country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and speaking at various branches of the New Zealand Institute of International Affairs.
All of this has been most rich and rewarding, and some of the subject matter has even generated interest in the local press.
Before getting into any of that, however, here’s an instructive tale.
You never know what lies around the next bend in the road …
I awoke very early the morning of June 24 in the delightful town of Coromandel. I wanted to see the tip of the peninsula and calculated that I would have just enough time, but first I had to repack so I would be ready for the flight from Auckland to Dunedin at 2:05 p.m. that day. I also wanted to read my emails, have a look at the day’s press, and so on.
After a quick breakfast and several cups of coffee, I was on my way by 8 a.m., heading north toward Port Charles. It was a beautiful morning, and I was in stunning natural surroundings with the windows down, the slightly edgy, sensually delicious scent of the native New Zealand bush pouring in, a smile on my face, and not a care in the world.
The road from the village of Colville running south back toward Coromandel is gravel – or, as they say here, unsealed. I was ascending a steep hill not far past Kennedy Bay and just entering a corkscrew turn when I heard the sound of something sliding on gravel. I thought it might have been what New Zealanders call a slip – a landslide.
I slowed almost to a stop. The next thing I saw was a car, out of control, in my lane about three metres away. On my left was a sheer drop, no guardrail, straight off into a ravine, perhaps 60 metres down through forest into a river. On my right was a sheer cliff, cut into the side of the hill in order to construct the road.
Nowhere to go.
I hit the brakes and braced for impact.
Head-on. No injuries. Both cars badly damaged, if not wrecked.
I had been crashed into by a car driven by 19-year-old Richard Whale, a local lad working as a butcher’s apprentice in nearby Whitianga. He immediately accepted responsibility and said that he was sorry.
But he was uninsured.
Thanks to the good advice provided by my Wellington friend Tara Durdin, on my visit last year I purchased a cellphone. I contacted the police, informed the rental company of the accident, and provided a heads-up to Air NZ to say that I didn’t think I could possibly make my flight. I asked them to pass a message along to the conference organizers to the effect that regrettably I would be unable to make the opening ceremonies and the speech by New Zealand Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully.
I was glad that no one was hurt but slightly bummed because my plans had been undone and the insurance on the rented car had a NZ$1,000 deductible.
Police Const. Andrew Grice arrived about 45 minutes later. In response to his question regarding how I came to be in the middle of nowhere, I explained my situation, told him that I was in the country as a guest of the Foreign Affairs Ministry, and that I was sad to be missing my flight and the evening engagement in Dunedin. By that point, it was 11:30 a.m.
He looked at his watch and asked me how badly I wanted to make it to the airport and on to Dunedin.
“Very,” I replied.
“OK, get in my truck,” he said. “We will yank the cars off the road with my chain, and leave them for towing later. I will look after the paperwork and other formalities tonight.”
He had a big 4WD, so we fastened our seatbelts and raced – flew – into town, with him working his cellphone and radio all the way. He was trying to find me, first, another rental car, which was impossible because the one local service wouldn’t do a one-way rental, and then a taxi, of which there is only one in Coromandel – and the officer thought the service had just been established the week before.
When we arrived at the Coromandel police station, we were met by the most affable Jane Warren, gassed up and ready to roll in her brand-new cab. For NZ$300, she said that she would get me to the Auckland airport, hopefully in time to make the flight. I was her very first customer. We zoomed off. She knew every hill and corner all the way down the west coast of the peninsula.
I had not been asked to produce my driver’s licence, the car rental papers, or anything of that nature – just some personal details and my signature on an accident report form. Clearly there would be no time to stop at the car rental office.
Two hours later, at 1:50 p.m., I was at the airport, being whisked through security by Air NZ ground staff. The airline reps said they would try to get me on the flight, which they had very kindly held for a few minutes, but that my bags wouldn’t make it until later.
Then, an even more unexpected development occurred. The security screener said there was a knife in my jacket pocket. My heart sank. It was my travelling Swiss Army knife. In all of the excitement, I had completely forgotten about it.
I looked up dolefully, mumbled something about having had a bad morning, that I was sorry to lose it, but understood, and, and …
I was sure that my travelling companion of some 40 years was on its way to the waste bin. But the man behind the X-ray machine said, “It’s alright, mate.” He handed the knife back to me and urged me to hurry.
I boarded the flight and made it to the conference opening, and so did my luggage. I was a few bucks poorer but unspeakably happy – not to mention alive.
All quite incredible, really. Another one for my already bulging file of NZ lore. And, might I add, it could only have happened here.
New Zealand is an unusually integrated, cohesive, and, in important respects, intimate society. Help is there when you need it, but otherwise most Kiwis are quite prepared to leave you alone and let you get about your business.
Never in your face. Everything is highly personal. Trust matters. That means you can get things done in a fashion that is easy, uncomplicated.
Among other things, it makes for exceedingly happy travelling. And, from the perspective of advancing New Zealand’s interests abroad, a very appealing national brand.
More on the meaning of all of this for diplomacy, the Foreign Affairs Ministry and the foreign service prospect in a future article.