By Emily Norman
It was my first visit to Pongaroa, and my first ever drive on Route 52.
“If I’m not back by 5pm, I might be lost,” I said to work colleagues before heading out of Masterton, toward Eketahuna, and out along Alfredton Rd.
The sun was shining, which was nice for a change, but the drive was made slightly painful by my inability to get the car radio going throughout the whole hour-and-a-half drive.
So, there I was, driving a winding country road alone with my thoughts, pondering what this tiny township had in store for me.
Pongaroa village. Population 100.
As I pulled up the main drag I wondered if my recently-dyed blue hair would put me at odds with the townsfolk.
Turns out the people of Pongaroa had seen it all before, one of the first residents I met also had blue hair – I had good feelings about this town already.
The woman was the owner of the Pongaroa Store – a classic kiwi country shop with shelves and shelves of single-stocked products for every need, and a well-priced menu offering everything from breakfast to hot drinks.
Her name was Jackey Lowe and she and her partner Gilby had run the store for about two-and-a-half years, though now they are on the lookout for new owners.
I grabbed a cute snack pack (probably meant for young children) and a hot chocolate.
Jackey directed me to a slightly damp wooden bench outside where two dry comfy cushions rested.
Today I was in the town for one of the biggest happenings of the year – it was the sod-turning ceremony signalling the start of construction of what was to be the town’s only petrol station.
Prior to that, residents had been stockpiling petrol at their homes and even in cars, which was a bit of a hazard to say the least.
As I waited, sipping away at my nice hot drink, the street began to pack with people.
Population 100? It must have been every resident and their dog that turned up that day – the whole street was humming.
“Good weather isn’t it,” people kept commenting, “you should have seen it the last couple of days”.
The air was a little bit chilly, but you tend to forget that when you are in new (and sunny) surroundings.
The entrance buzzer at the store seemed like it was going off every 30 seconds behind me as locals grabbed a bite to eat and talked excitedly to each other.
People kept walking past, smiling.
When I asked them, “how are you going”, each person actually stopped to tell me how they were – instead of saying “good thanks” and walking on without a second glance.
I liked it in Pongaroa. Life seemed simpler, and the air felt cleaner.
Though not everything is rosy in Pongaroa.
The nearest access to health services was an hour’s drive away, residents said, and it was difficult to even get on the map for visiting mobile health services like breast screening.
I spoke with Brenda Murdoch who had lived in Pongaroa for 10 years after moving from Woodville.
She had a spunky short blonde hairdo, and was wearing aviator sunglasses as she rattled off all the activities there were in the town.
“We’ve got a rugby team, netball team, golf course, squash court, school, horse sports, rodeo, beach…”
I was starting to think I had totally underestimated the small township.
“But the fuel thing… this is a big deal for us.”
I started to drift back to reality with that comment.
It was so foreign to me; seeing a small community band together, recognising what they needed to prosper, and as a community laying the foundations for a project that would change everything.
There used to be a petrol station in town, but that closed for good in 2015 after it changed hands a few times.
Since then, a committee of keen locals have been working tirelessly to bring a fuel stop back to town.
As the ceremony began to wrap up, I began feeling a bit sad knowing that I probably wouldn’t be returning to Pongaroa until the fuel stop opened in August.
But then again, Pongaroa is only an hour-and-a-half drive from Masterton – or about an hour according to locals.
I will definitely be returning to the area, and have even been offered a place to stay by some of the wonderful residents.
As New Zealanders, I think we all have a little piece of us that clings to yester-year small towns.
It just feels like home, even if it’s your first visit.