It has been exactly one year today since I got my first ever tattoo; the logo for New Zealand's South Island region of Central Otago. A year on, I love it as much as I did the day I got it. For any of you wanting a sentimental and slightly rambling read, here’s the story behind it.
I GOT IT FOR THE PAST
Although both my parents are South Islanders, I am an Aucklander born and bred – it’s the only place in New Zealand I have ever lived. With both parents calling Otago home though, and all four grandparents plus uncles, aunties and half-siblings living there, my childhood was seasoned by regular holidays south. In particular, the town my maternal grandparents lived, and what my uncle refers to as what was once New Zealand’s best kept secret, Wanaka.
Despite always living in Auckland, it never – not since my earliest memories – felt like home the way Wanaka did. I don't know, maybe it’s because for me, it provided the all-encompassing comfort of grandparents’ house... a place for most of us, surely, more universally welcoming and homely and loving than almost any other.
Their house in Wanaka was in a spot like no other... everyone who ever visited would always say so. Even within the most beautiful towns, there are views that make your heart beat a little harder. Above this though, it was our view. It was unique to that house and the house was unique to my grandparents; they even had the windows custom-made to my grandma’s height, so she could just see the top of the Peninsula beyond Lake Wanaka when standing in the kitchen. The view was objectively magnificent, but it could easily be said the house was not, that it was in fact decidedly average. To me though, it was the most perfect building in the world.
My grandparents both passed away before I turned nine, and at the time my mum and uncle, who the house now belonged to, decided to keep it rather than sell. For 15 years, it was used by family and friends, continuing the hospitality I understand my grandparents were so good at. Their old ‘Visitors’ Book’ remained on its spot on the bench and became fuller over the years, our family holidays continued and as I got older, friends accompanied me down south to see this Wanaka I always talked about. To let others in on it, to see them instantly taken by its magic and beauty was something I never tired of.
As Wanaka was discovered by ever more people, it became less the sleepy lakeside town of my childhood and more a luxury escape for the wealthy. Small wooden cribs, sparsely located amongst manuka trees, were soon surrounded by huge concrete holiday mansions with SUVs in the drive. Each trip down revealed a new commercial building standing on the lakefront spot occupied – only months before – by a modest home. The horses down the road from our house suddenly weren’t there anymore, their paddock being taken over by a fancy new homestead. The suburb limits reached ever further into surrounding countryside, the fields not yet built in quickly filling up with pegs from property developers and city planners. The views from Mount Iron, which looms over the township, changed with every visit, the houses creeping closer and closer until they were built right up the hillside. The quirky local cinema relocated from its ramshackle original location, upgrading to a bigger, better building. As did the library. As did everything.
The Wanaka I knew and loved was transforming, and while the beauty of the place will never disappear so long as the mountains and lake remain, it was losing the charm which made it – for me – so special. It was fast becoming something else entirely; a destination for holiday-makers, a base for the masses of skiers and snowboarders every winter, a pilgrimage site for students to celebrate New Year’s Eve every summer, a festival hotspot, a must-see stop for tourists visiting from abroad.
One thing remained though; our house, our view, unaltered and ever as lovely. Wanaka, change as it may, always felt like home when I walked through that door, when I smelt the aromas that occupied only that house, when I saw that view. Sitting on the deck listening to boats on the water and bell birds in the trees, drinking from my grandparents’ funny squiggly-patterned ceramic mugs, looking out over the lake, my view slightly obstructed by the tall, skinny tree we called ‘the snail tree’... all the details together, they made up my happy place.
When I left New Zealand to move to London two and a half years ago, I went for one last trip down, as I almost always did come December. I didn’t say goodbye; I didn’t know to. Two months after my move though, my sister and I got an email from my uncle informing us that he and mum had decided to sell. A completely understandable decision – they were both nearing retirement, after all, and could hardly share a house, yet neither could afford to buy the other out. It made utter logistical sense, yet my sister and I were devastated. We thought the window of possibility in which the house could be sold had well and truly passed... we saw it as simply unfathomable that the house could simply not be there for us to go back to. Accepting the decision to sell was harder than I can say, and I’m still not sure I've really done so.
I had always, since my earliest days, had the idea that the house would be to me what it was to my mum... a place to spend holidays and share with family, if not be a home in itself. That house had always featured in the vision I had for my life, so I felt like a part of my future was taken away without my being able to do anything about it. Dramatic, I know, and I am well aware this is the height of first-world-problems (losing the holiday home, oh no!) and of course completely selfish, as it was never my house or my decision. The sensible, logistical decision was made by those to whom it belonged, and I can't argue with that. Yet for some reason, since being told of their decision to sell and every day since my head and heart have been screaming 'no!' It is irrational, dramatic and overly-emotional, I know, but I’m just that kind of person, me. I keep telling myself it is just a house, just a view, just a place... there will be others, won’t there? But even if there are, I will always be so genuinely grateful for the Wanaka house and what it provided me.
I got the tattoo when I returned for a visit this time last year, my first time in Wanaka without the house to stay in. I got it done in Wanaka itself to remember the times I’ve had there, to thank it for the love of place it has instilled in me, and to mark the end of what was a pretty damn amazing era.
I GOT IT FOR THE PRESENT
I am a traveller. Wanderlust may as well be my middle name, but the more places I go, the more sights I see, the stronger my love becomes for the place I call home, and the more I know in my heart of hearts that there’s nowhere like it. It calls my name like no other.
Even as I write this, I am sitting on a plane flying back to London from Marrakech, undoubtedly one of the craziest, busiest, and most beautiful places I have ever been. Even as I walked the streets and marvelled at its charisma though, even this incredible place reinforced my love for Central Otago; the part of the world unparalleled in beauty and magic in my eyes. I know many people would (and do) disagree with me – they see things I don’t see, and vice versa. Isn’t that what makes somewhere home for one person and another place entirely home for another? It’s a personal thing, a connection between individual and place that as good as makes up part of our identity.
A friend from home recently honeymooned down south and I happened upon her photos just last week, on the tube during my morning commute. Scrolling through them, I experienced homesickness such as I never have before. I actually ached... I didn’t know you could ache for a place like that. It took me unawares and I was gripped by a sudden urge to up and leave this London life which affords me so many opportunities and brings me so much joy. In a moment of madness I wanted to give it up to be forever in Central Otago.
To smell pine needles in dry fields where sheep graze. To taste the juiciest cherries and sweetest apricots that nowhere does quite like Central. To watch the brown mountains blaze gold as the setting sun hits their tussock-filled slopes. To walk dusty, riverside paths underneath willow trees. To watch the towering poplars turn from green to a yellow so rich it’s startling in its beauty. To look out my window at schist landscapes and rows of fruit trees and vineyards. To get to know the owner of a coffee shop I can call my local, in the old building which used to be a small town Post Office. To live the life I have dreamed for myself since I started dreaming.
I got the tattoo not on a whim, but after two and a half years of living abroad in places I have loved, but places that taught me there is nowhere quite like home. Central Otago is the place I carry in my heart, and therefore in the back of mind as benchmark, no matter where I go. Every time, no matter how amazing the destination, it is never ever surpassed in splendour. For a place to be so permanently etched in my consciousness, it seemed almost strange not to have some representation of it etched onto my person. It felt like something that had been waiting to be done.
No matter where I go, no sight out a plane window gives me more joy than this one
I GOT IT FOR THE FUTURE
The life I dream for myself will always be what I want for my life. I am traveller, don’t get me wrong, and I am loving the life I am choosing to live right now – seeing the world as much as I can, doing the career thing in London; it’s all one big glorious rite of passage, and one I didn’t want to miss.
But I think my ultimate desire to live life in Central Otago is what enables me to embrace London so wholly and make the most of it while I am here... because I am constantly aware that it’s all temporary; a detour on the way to my destination. I’m getting the travel, the career-chasing, the big city living out of my system so that when I get to where I ultimately want to be, I won’t feel like I’ve missed out.
A lot of people who know me here as this girl living in a big city, pursuing her dream of being a writer... even people at home who know me as an Aucklander, think it so odd when tell them my plans for the future, but it is what I have always wanted, and what I want still. I used to beg mum to move us down south, and when my grandma passed away and the Wanaka house was unoccupied, I assumed we would move in... It seemed both logical and desirable to my 8-year-old way of thinking.
When I met Jesse, I remember the trepidation I felt the first time I took him to Wanaka, at the time deeming his feelings on the place a make or break. He’s not really a city boy at heart (though he persistently tries to tell me that his hometown, Upper Hutt, is in fact a city, thank you very much) and luckily, he loved Central Otago on first sight. Basically, if there’s a body of water to fish in, good beer at the local pub, and space enough to get a dog, he’s happy.
I’m lucky to be with someone who shares my hopes and ambitions – not just for the present, doing the London thing and travelling often – but for the future. We constantly discuss “the farm” and look at Central Otago property offerings online. The vague vision I’d had for the future for myself has transformed into a slightly less vague vision that we share, and planning it with someone else makes the dream more like a reality, which I’m hopeful it will become.
I got the tattoo for this hope for the future, for my commitment to turn the dream into a reality. I am living my current lifestyle because I have the luxury of time. There are days I think, ‘why am I here when where I really want to be is there?’ But I know this is just my impatience talking on days when I’m feeling homesick. If all goes to plan, I will have so many years living in Central Otago, and during those years I’m sure I will look back on these ones and the memories I am currently making with gratitude. If time was robbed from me (touch wood) and I found I had less of it than I anticipated, I’d be on the first plane home because, when it comes down to it, home is where the heart is, and my heart is in Central Otago.
I got this tattoo for my love of the place... for the past memories it gave, for the present hold it has, and for the future I hope it has in store.
Thankfully, Jesse loves Central too