Arriving in Auckland two days before record flooding wreaked havoc across the city, Canadian Jen Pimm and her family found themselves driving north in the heaviest rain they had ever seen.
En route to Warkworth to see family, Pimm’s partner Anthony Desfosses did his best to get used to driving on the left-hand side of the road as the water gushing alongside it turned to “rivers”, trees fell, and hillsides crumbled.
“It was surreal,” Pimm said. “You just didn’t know what you were going to see around the next corner – that was the crazy thing. We thought ‘Oh my god, we need to get somewhere our kids are safe’.”
Having fallen in love with New Zealand on previous trips, Pimm had been wanting to show Desfosses and their three children – Lucas, 7, Violet, 2, and Sebastian, 6 months – the country for years. With the pandemic preventing them from visiting for about three years, they booked the trip a year ago, planning to spend time in Northland, Waitomo and the Coromandel, all of which Pimm had visited before.
Cyclone Hale hit New Zealand, causing widespread flooding across the North Island, a week before they flew out from British Columbia but, at that stage, Pimm and Desfosses weren’t worried about their trip being affected.
The family arrived in Warkworth, where Lucas’ grandparents and aunt and uncle live, just half an hour before the road closed, feeling grateful to have arrived safely when many other motorists were forced to abandon their cars or spend the night in them.
Hunkering down in Warkworth, they realised their plans had been completely derailed. While Pimm does not want to complain when others lost their homes and, in some cases, their lives, they were disappointed as they had invested a lot of time and money into the trip.
“We weren’t able to snorkel at Goat Island, visit the glowworm caves in Waitomo, or see the Coromandel – Cathedral Cove was closed due to slips. But we were more concerned with the people of New Zealand, and the destruction the weather was causing. Our hearts were with everyone affected.”
They also worried about being “a nuisance” on the roads, with Pimm saying “we didn’t want to be those tourists who were getting in the way.”
Being from British Columbia, they are used to extreme weather and having to change their plans at the last-minute as a result.
“There’s several feet of snow back home, and we deal with blizzards and forest fires, so we’re accustomed to things like losing power and roads being inaccessible,” Pimm said. “There’s a similar community attitude here, and that’s probably been my favourite thing – seeing how people help each other out. Everyone can be going through the hardest time, but they’re still like ‘how can I jump in and help out?’ It’s beautiful.”
Kiwi hospitality, even in the most trying of circumstances, has helped ensure their holiday has not been a complete wash-out.
“A highlight that truly showed the Kiwi spirit was when a stranger heard my daughter crying from inside their house and brought a stuffed puppy out to console her. I was so touched, and my daughter hasn’t put it down.
“Everyone has been sympathetic and apologised for the weather, and I have been offered so much support on a (Facebook) group I frequent called New Zealand Travel Tips. People have given great suggestions for changes in our plans due to the weather, and offered tips for cool places our kids have loved. Every Kiwi we’ve met has been friendly. We feel at home here.”
Pimm has also appreciated Kiwis’ ability to maintain their sense of humour when times get tough, saying Canadians have a similar tendency.
“Reading the Facebook comments has been cracking us up. Like, someone said something like ‘Hey Gabrielle, can you hold off, I’m trying to dry the washing?’ That sense of humour – we get it. We’re similar that way as Canadians.”
Pimm said being forced to change their plans enabled them to discover things they wouldn’t have otherwise. Before Cyclone Gabrielle struck, they visited Hobbiton, which the kids loved, and Hawke’s Bay, where they enjoyed indulging in food and wine, before heading to the South Island.
“We’ve been able to just kind of roll with it. Like it’s raining again today where we are, and we’re just like ‘of course it is’. Since we’ve had kids, we always say that we don’t go on vacation, we go on adventures.”
While they had fled to Dunedin when the cyclone began wreaking havoc in the North Island, it meant Pimm wasn’t able to return to Canada when she learnt her grandmother had died.
“I had to make the decision not to fly home to attend her funeral, which is today,” she said on Thursday. “With the cyclone shutting down international flights, and a national state of emergency being declared, and so much uncertainty, we decided to stay.”
“Heartbroken” by the cyclone’s trail of death and destruction, Pimm feels grateful to have been welcomed by New Zealanders when they were suffering a national emergency.
“Everyone has been so amazing. New Zealand is incredible, and we absolutely love it – the big things, but the little, day-to-day things too. We have enjoyed the places New Zealand is famous for, but we have truly loved chatting with locals at farmers’ markets, getting advice on hidden gems to see, having our children meet friendly Kiwi kids at playgrounds, and everyone making us feel at home here.
“Highlights have been discovering unique smaller towns like Matakana and Oamaru, the Hawke’s Bay Farmers’ Market, seeing wild penguins and seals, swimming in a waterfall, finding glow-worms in the wild, and meeting so many wonderful people.”
Heading toward Hokitika when Stuff caught up with them, the family had 11 more days in New Zealand before they were set to fly home, and were particularly excited at the prospect of visiting Abel Tasman National Park, kayaking with dolphins, and seeing Lorde perform in Christchurch.
Asked whether she has ever regretted coming to New Zealand, Pimm said, “Not for a second.”
“We are loving our time here and making memories as a family. We can laugh about the rain, and we feel grateful that we have the luxury of being able to travel to a new place when the weather gets bad. Our hearts are with all of you who are dealing with the devastation of these storms. Thank you for welcoming us to your beautiful country.”