For 23 years she was the Sunday morning voice of Village Radio, a friend to the city’s elderly and lonely. They loved her company, they loved her music and they loved her.
Then, almost a year ago to the day, Bonnie Leonard switched off her microphone, packed her life into some cartons and drove out of town.
She had done her homework. She’d been on a road trip around the country looking for somewhere she might want to live.
The road trip stopped abruptly in eastern Southland, 1500 kilometers away in the depths of the South Island where they roll their “Rs”, where they eat cheese rolls, where they made bootleg whisky and where they dry fly angle for brown trout in a river at the bottom of the street.
Why does a 70-something-year-old up and leave Tauranga – the new Kiwi mecca? When people are flocking to Tauranga, why does an established and respected figure renounce her citizenship and swim off against the flow.
The Weekend Sun asked Bonnie Leonard why? Why would you forsake Tauranga for Gore? This is Bonnie’s story:
“Tauranga had been my home for years, and I miss my friends and family and Village Radio, but not the traffic or the sky-rocketing costs of living there. Gone are the days when you could pop to the beach on a hot day in your lunch hour for a quick cool off swim; the cost of rapid growth means you would spend that time finding a parking space!
“My decision to move came when I spent an hour or more waiting for the Wairoa Bridge to be cleared after an accident there, and then hit Bethlehem at five o’clock! Give me a place where peace reigns and there’s no traffic chaos. And here it is – in Gore.
“After reading A Year in Provence and A Year in Tuscany, 11 months in Gore sounds like wallowing in the remains of a bullfight! In actuality, it is a delightful little rural town bisected by the mighty Mataura River, but doomed to obscurity by its boring name, thanks to a former Gov of NZ, Thomas Gore Brown. “It was formerly known in the mid-1800s as Long Ford Crossing, and was the safest place for wagons to cross the river. The settlement grew around that. The town has 12,000 residents now, and like so many South Island towns, it is very proud of its roots and heritage.
“Within a one-hour drive, you can be on ski fields, on the water jet boating or fishing, on the beach, by lakes, under the bright city lights or in the rugged wild beauty of the Catlins.
“Invercargill is the closest city, where Tim Shadbolt has swapped his Auckland “Bullshit and Jellybeans” persona for cheese rolls and blue cod and has made a model city with every imaginable facility.
“In a mad world run by men with weird hairstyles, it has been a delight for me to discover ‘grass roots’ NZ again. Common sense prevails here, a ‘can do’ attitude from people with pride in their community and a quality of life that is enviable.
“Major decisions locally are made by referendum. For example, locals voted against selling liquor in the local supermarkets in order to support their local licensing trust, which, in turn, supports them generously in return.
“This little town boasts an Olympic-sized pool adjacent to an ice skating rink – the rink heats the pools – as well as a Pioneer Historic Village, Gore Museum, an art gallery proudly featuring Ralph Hotere and John Money collections, beautiful botanic gardens and town gardens and every sporting or recreational club you need.
“American tourists arrive annually to trout fish in the river and stay with locals, forming lasting friendships. I have found the people here so friendly and generous and it has been an easy transition.
“My favourite story, which illustrates the prevalent attitudes here, involves the local Gore Hospital. The government closed the hospital here, which upset the community.
“The mayor was not having a situation where people could die by having to travel to Dunedin or Invercargill, so the community raised funds here to build their own hospital facility, and it operates under Southland Health but is run by a board locally.
“It is clean, efficient and such a happy place - helped, of course, by the fact that this is an ‘everyone knows everyone’ kind of place! And the nurses have probably docked 100 sheep before coming on duty, so they are so capable. It is an inspiration.
“The local pub cooks the meals, volunteers from St Johns make teas, fluff up the flowers and do messages, and apart from two resident doctors, specialists are rostered on. The town is very proud of this and rightly so.
“The town clock is chiming the hour as I write - a comforting sound which can be heard throughout the village telling me that it’s another day in this town which honours the past daily, respects old values, has all the modern facilities but ignores the nonsense in today’s world.
“They don’t believe in child poverty here. Everyone in NZ receives money, it’s what is done with it! Planting spuds is more important than legalising marijuana, homeless people could be housed in Mataura where you can buy a house for $75,000.
“And finally, a local visited Auckland during the election circus and met Jacinda, who asked him where you could buy the best cheese rolls when she comes to Gore.
“On his return, he told the cafe owner that he had given her this plug and the reply was just what you would expect from a staunch Southlander. ‘She had better not come in here, I vote for Bill English!’ That’s Gore, and I love it!”