There’s a song by Australian artist Dope Lemon, also known as Angus Stone, called Golden God. It’s something of a spoken word track, with an underpinning of the artist’s classic surf-rock musical backing. In the second line of the song he asks, “Did you know the human eye can see more shades of green than any other colour?” It’s a remarkable fact, proven accurate after a cursory Google. It’s also a fact my father tried to co-opt as his own in a conversation with my sister a few days before I arrived home in New Zealand for Christmas. Given my family’s penchant for taking the piss out of each other, we understandably ridiculed him for it enormously, and the phrase stuck in eternal Codyre lore.

Our light, loving bullying aside, it was also the first thing that occurred to me as the Fullers ferry pulled into Matiatia Bay on Waiheke Island. And when I stepped out onto my parent’s deck at Sandspit and took in the sun rising over the hill-framed Matakana estuary beyond. Stone’s crooning tones popped into my head as a break in the pre-Christmas rain clouds directed sunbeams directly onto the two headlands that define Matapouri Bay, highlighting the multitude of trees in all of their glory, and it continuously stayed there every time golden hour seemed to bring into focus every individual leaf on each tree on those same hills. After a month-long visit, I still couldn’t decide if the country I call home had always been that beautiful and it just required the juxtaposition of weeks of relentlessly grey London winter for me to notice it, or if sometime over the past five years it had undergone a kind of metamorphosis, or proverbial glow up.

In September 2018, 21 years old and fresh out of university, I moved to London on my own to pursue a career in journalism. Over five years of my life, the majority of my twenties and the entirety of my professional career has taken place in this city, and yet I still unequivocally call New Zealand home, despite the fact that since that day in 2018 I have only actually spent a cumulative five months in the country. It is strange to be so associated with a place that simultaneously feels so foreign. The restrictions of the Covid-19 pandemic didn’t help either – there were three whole years where I was effectively barred from entering the country I called home. My first trip back after the borders opened in 2022 was a frantic whirlwind of emotional catharsis; attempting to shed the betrayal I felt that my own country could turn the cold shoulder on its citizens, and the deep gratitude at finally being back on home turf with all of my family together. It was characterised by rivers of tears, a lot of late-night conversations and a heavy dose of nostalgia. This time, I was hoping for something a little more calm but also to rediscover what ‘home’ really meant to me.

As far as airborne arrivals go, it must be up there as one of the best in the world, giving travellers a free scenic tour of the region around Auckland

If you asked me what it is to be a New Zealander, or to call the country home, I’d initially reel off a list of the stereotypical ideas (yes, most of them are true) – barbecue dinners, endless summer holidays on the beach, popping to the dairy (our term for a corner shop) for a TipTop ice cream, treating everyone as if they’re already your friend and finding it near-impossible to leave the house without bumping into someone you know. I would say it’s an entrepreneurial spirit born from living at the bottom of the world where, if you want something, you often have to make it or create it (we didn’t have Amazon until a few years ago and many Kiwis are still sceptical of it). It’s going into the supermarket and being dazzled by a cornucopia of small brands rather than homogenous products all produced by the same factories at the expense of quality. It’s pulling over to the side of the road for a real fruit ice cream (frozen berries and vanilla ice cream, extruded through a machine into one unified, purple-speckled behemoth of a frozen treat) and driving down someone’s driveway to buy avocados from an honesty box stall. But I’d also say it’s this kind of intangible feeling that I suppose comes with knowing your bones belong in a place. No matter how long you live elsewhere or how much of the world you visit, this is the land where you finally feel like you can breathe out. Like you’re safe. Like you’re home, I guess. For some, it’s the place they’re born; for others, it’s a place they find. For me, it’s definitely the former.

That was the resounding feeling as our plane swooped low over the Coromandel peninsula in the budding dawn light, a week before Christmas. As far as airborne arrivals go, it must be up there as one of the best in the world, giving travellers a free scenic tour of some of the country’s most impressive coastline. Swathes of sand and remote coves give way to forest-covered hills as you cruise over the Pinnacles. The world drops away suddenly into the Firth of Thames and then rises up again as you soar over the Hunua Ranges, only occasionally interrupted by the odd farmhouse before, suddenly: civilisation. The outskirts of Auckland appear out of nowhere, the industrial parks backing almost directly onto the wilderness and then, abruptly, the screech of tyres on tarmac as you touch down at Auckland Airport.

There is an arch you walk under as you come through to passport control that has always signified that I’m home. The traditionally carved tomokanga (gateway in Māori) is hewn from Kauri and Totara wood, depicting classic creatures and symbolism from Māori mythology. As you walk through it speakers play native birdsong. A 2008 press release about the unveiling of the archway said that “the carving symbolises a spiritual portal from one realm to another, a journey from the dark (the outside world) into the light (world of the living)”, which almost perfectly describes the sensation of walking through it. On one side, the big wide world. On the other, my beautiful home.

My mum meets my partner, my brother and I at the arrival hall. I see her before she sees us; she’s bouncing on the balls of her feet and nervously scanning the gates as they open and close rapidly, depositing weary travellers into the arrivals hall. When she finally spots us, her face crumples. Mine does too, of course. I’ve lost count of the litres of my tears this airport has seen. I’m sure you could plumb a reservoir with them. We pile out to the car park en masse, jabbering and crying and catching up and none of it quite feels real and then, in what seems like minutes, we’re suddenly merging onto State Highway 1 and heading north.

I grew up in Herne Bay, a leafy suburb in central Auckland. Over the pandemic years, my parents found themselves as empty nesters, sold up our family home, and moved to a small coastal enclave called Sandspit, best known as the gateway to Kawau Island. Still technically within the confines of greater Auckland, it is less a village or a town and more a smattering of houses set on a peninsula between Mahurangi Harbour and Matakana River. On a good day, when the traffic is flowing, it takes around an hour to get there from the house I grew up in, but it may as well be a million miles. It’s surprising how quickly Auckland City retreats in the rear view mirror, the sky tower and harbour bridge glittering in the distance as you continue north. The houses get sparser and the scenery whipping past gets steadily greener as the motorway condenses from four lanes to three, to two, to one until suddenly the country’s primary highway is just a one-in, one-out road you might expect to find in a rural region, not as the main traffic artery running the length of the country, from Cape Reinga to Bluff.

I wasn’t too happy the first time I came to the house in Sandspit, for no good reason other than sentimentalism. The building itself is beautiful, a sprawling clapboard villa built in the 1880s as the original harbourmaster’s home for the region, and extended on either side by subsequent owners. Surrounded by native trees with uninterrupted views of the point where the Matakana River meets Kawau Bay and entirely hidden from the road below, the house genuinely feels like a little oasis where you can sit and watch the tides ebb and flow and the sky steadily turn shades of ochre and pink, the only disruption the grunt of an incoming boat and the gust of a kererū flying past. It is, to put it simply, paradise. The only issue is that it wasn’t my home.

Life there is deliciously free range. There are just six baches on our snippet of land, and no fences. Kids run amok from dawn til dusk

Somehow, though, over the course of that first trip in 2022, it came to wheedle its way into my bones with a lingering sense of comfort. There was the dining table I grew up eating around; that’s the painting I used to stare at when eating breakfast, and, more importantly, my family were all in it, filling it with their familiar voices and laughter. This time, weaving our way down Sandspit Road, it felt like coming home. Hiking the routes painstakingly blazed through the surrounding hills felt as familiar as walking around Victoria Park, the nearest green space to my flat in London. Trotting down the hill to the end of the jetty for an afternoon swim felt as natural in my bones as nipping around the corner to my local coffee shop. This might not be where I grew up, but it feels no less familiar.

There is something of an architectural phenomenon in New Zealand, known as the bach. For all intents and purposes a beach house or a second property, a bach is about as far from what you might expect from the wealth indicators of someone owning a holiday home. Usually passed down through generations of families, baches are small, modest dwellings specifically designed for you to spend as little time in them as possible, instead focusing on exploring outside whenever you can. We have had ours since I was six months old. While houses in Auckland have come and gone and then, eventually, made their way to Sandspit, our bach at Matapouri has remained resolutely unchanged. It is, in my opinion at least, the most incredible place in the world. Nestled on a sandy peninsula at the far end of Matapouri Bay, it is bookended by the estuary to the rear and the ocean to the front. Everywhere you stand, you can hear the ocean. Everywhere you look, you can see the iridescent water.

Life there is deliciously free range. There are just six baches on our snippet of land, and no fences. Kids run amok from dawn until dusk, cartwheeling down the grass, running endlessly across decks and through living rooms in search of amusement during the day, and darting up trees and behind bushes in games of spotlight that continue long after the sun has set. We would spend our entire summer break there learning to surf, fishing for snapper and running in and out of the water like selkies, going to bed salty and sandy and beautifully exhausted. As an adult, days tend to follow a similar flow, starting with a walk along the headland track with views across to Whananaki in one direction and the Poor Knights in the other, and then continuing onto a bean bag with a book, moving only to cool off in the water below or cobble together lunch, and ending on those same beanbags, drink in hand, taking in the milky way in all its glory and competing for who can spot the most shooting stars and satellites.

This is how we spent three blissful weeks over Christmas. It was an incredible reminder that no matter how many years pass and how much life might change, at Matapouri things seem to remain eternally the same. Sure, a few new houses might crop up here and there, and the dairy might start selling pizzas out the back (a huge leap for modernity in Matapouri, trust me). However, kids will still run around freely, days will still slip by in one endless, sunblock-scented mirage, and the Pōhutukawa tree that hangs over the sand from the corner of our property will still bloom for just ten days, erupting almost overnight into a tangle of shocking red blooms and then shedding itself all over your car as soon as the new year ticks in. The only thing that’s different now is that where once I was moving around the sandspit in a pack of other kids, I’m now the one sipping a Corona and watching with bemusement as they all slink past on their bikes, heading to the dairy for their daily sugar fix. The twenty-somethings who used to keep us up at night blasting the Red Hot Chilli Peppers from bonfires on the beach are all now in their 40s with kids going into middle school. I suppose one day soon I’ll be the one chasing a toddler down to the sand and sitting in the shallows creating castles out of thousands of years of pulverised rock. The bay and the bach will have a front-row seat to all of it, stoically watching as generations come and go, hairs turn grey and families grow larger.

Eventually, that will be my everyday life. But, for now, I am still a visitor. Maybe it’s this transient nature of my time here that makes the greens seem so green and the peace almost palpable, but I truly think it’s more the idea that you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone. I’m sure New Zealand was probably always this beautiful, I just needed to leave it for grey London to fully appreciate it. If I could pop across to Waiheke Island for lunch at Mudbrick Vineyard every weekend, I might not realise how lucky Aucklanders are to have a miniature, ocean-bordered Tuscany on their doorstep. If it didn’t take eight hours to get to Cornwall from London, I might not realise how incredible it is that you can leave the office in downtown Auckland at 5pm on a Friday and be at Matapouri by dinnertime. But, more importantly, if I didn’t live a 24-hour plane ride away from my parents, I might never have learned to stop taking them for granted. Whether it’s a house in Herne Bay, a historic villa in Sandspit or a tumbling down bach in Northland, coming home means coming back to them.