Humans of Aura
Valerie Merwood: A traveller who has adventure all sewn up
I am the youngest of four children from a sheep farming family in New Zealand who came as pioneers to their selected bush-covered area on a government land scheme. My father was one of the first Pakeha babies born in the district.
My town of Taihape is right in the middle of the North Island, formed when the rail line was laid although now it is merely a whistle-stop. It is 40km from the ski fields of Mt Ruapehu but we didn’t have time for that sort of thing as there was always work to be done on the farm. My childhood was spent on the back of horses and being the youngest, the horses always came down the line to me. I rode through the Pony Club lifestyle that my dad instructed and at New Zealand Championship Eventing where, at 17, I achieved a fifth placing.
My brother had a friend called Noel, who has now been my partner for 56 years. Noel’s family story and mine align quite closely, though we were raised on farms on either side of Taihape. I was only 20 when we married and after a couple of years, with an infant in our arms, we took over Noel’s family farm. So, I like to say that I’ve come further in life than my husband as I had to cross the 12km to his side of town!
Like everyone else, I went away to boarding school. All through my schooling everybody told me that I had to be a teacher. I heard it so often I’d say ‘No I’m not going to be a teacher, anything but’. While at boarding school I applied to study and became a radiographer but later worked as a teacher’s aide! While raising four children I found myself always helping out at the local schools. Then when in my early 40s I enrolled at a distance learning university to take a Bachelor of Arts degree, with a history major and minors in philosophy and economics, eventually becoming a teacher of economics at our local college.
From the time I first met Noel he talked about showing me the world. He got a taste for travel after visiting France on a Catholic pilgrimage tour, turning 17 on the ship going over. So, in 1996 when we were in our early and mid-50s and our children were older and living their own lives, we packed up and leased out the farm and homestead for two years. Our decision to go off travelling quite upset our small conservative town as people didn’t do things like running away from home in their 50s to travel the world.
Noel and I were great mates then – still are – so are very compatible in our travelling together. We made our way through North America, Canada and Alaska to London where we worked during the winter. With me teaching and Noel with an industrial job, we earned enough to drive around Europe for the rest of the year. During the second winter we lived and worked in Oxford. In the UK we became both locals and travellers, it was a very special time.
Valerie and Noel at the Geirangerfjord, Norway, and ready to board the Trans-Siberian railway.
After two years we headed home, diverting through Turkey to safari down through Africa. When we returned home we were quite unsettled and by then our children were in partnerships, getting married, buying homes and having babies. Three of them were in Queensland and only one remained in New Zealand. We were making regular visits across the Tasman and had always said we didn’t want to spend our old age in a small, cold rural town. We agreed somewhere warm in New Zealand would be lovely … or Australia. By 2004 the Sunshine Coast and the climate here had won us over. We really have put our feet down in Australia and happily claim allegiance to two countries.
Travel has been a major part of our lives. We travelled pretty much every year after moving to Australia - we were always up for adventure and going somewhere interesting and exciting. We did the Silk Road and travelled on the Siberian Express. Never city folk, we love to explore the land, whether it be in mountain or desert wilderness, or in agriculture. I believe the number of countries we have visited would be in the 90s.
Noel, always the farmer, likes to know what crops are growing. And I love the history. I look at the ancient castles and their ramparts, the marble streets worn down by all the feet that have crossed them. One of the most valuable things we have learned from travel is in carrying the awareness of what is ‘our normal’ and then entering a foreign country to discover the ‘normal’ of the locals means something else and we are the ones who are different. This is what I love most about travelling: witnessing and being part of other peoples ‘normal’. These things are very humbling.
When you travel with a large group in a tour bus, the locals are likely to back away. But when you travel small, as we like to do, you are more able to get closer into their lives. One of the friendliest countries we have been to is Iran. We were two couples out walking, had our heads covered and were comfortable in their culture when a group of local women surrounded us and the next thing hundreds of photos were being taken of us holding their babies. The trick is to walk down their streets with an open-faced smile. Then they smile and the next thing you are being gifted by some extraordinary acceptance of your presence. That is so amazingly special.
When you go to places like Machu Picchu or the Taj Mahal, you already know what it is going to look like but that doesn’t prepare you for the immensity of that feeling of standing in such a special place. It’s the same experience in the big geography places like the Grand Canyon, Atlas Mountains, the Himalayas and the Andes, or crossing the vast deserts of Central Asia.
Our most recent trip was in May 2021 when we travelled 16,500km across the heart of Australia in our own vehicle to see this big land and drive the deserts. We spent two months travelling to Birdsville, from Uluru through the Great Central Road, exploring the gorgeous gorges of Karijini in the Pilbara, the Kimberley and Katherine, and coming home over The Top End. We had no idea that it would be so big, so colourful, so beautiful, so special.
We’re often asked where our next adventure will take us. We have said ‘Enough of the long hauls, we are getting on a bit’. The way we like to travel is not a holiday: we prefer to make our own way and take the adventure line. But when we say we probably won’t do any more, the family just laughs … I don’t understand why! I think we are better people for our travel experiences which have helped us look beyond ourselves with humility and an openness and acceptance of different ways.
I am a storyteller by nature so when Covid came along in 2020 and we were in lockdown one of my daughters said ‘Mum this is the time to write your stories … I want one story a day.’ She didn’t quite get that but through those months I produced a book of short stories based on my early life, my horses, our homeland and the people we met along the way. I called it The 2020 Collection. It was an adventure in itself to write it and it has had a much wider spread than I expected with family and friends suggesting it to other Kiwis who might be interested. I am very proud to have done it.
There are several interesting people mentioned in my book. Our farm in New Zealand was on the National Main Road and one day in about 1973 I was at home with our youngest, then a toddler, and my husband up the back of the farm. It was an exceptionally beautiful day and a big wagon pulled in, overloaded with men, equipment and a puppy that they had nearly run over. We were the first house they saw and came in to ask if it was our puppy - it wasn’t. They asked if they could stretch their legs and I sent them down to the beautiful little willow covered river, telling them to come back for coffee. They loved it all and as they started to pile back into the van to leave the guy with a whiskery smiley face asked ‘What are you doing tonight?’ We lived about an hour and half from the next major town and he said ‘We have a gig tonight and if you can come tell them to bring you backstage’. I glanced at the promotion for Kenny Rogers and The First Edition performing at Palmerston North. So did we go to concert? No we didn’t. We had four young children, were living the farm life and had no clue who this visitor was. As the years went by, and he had hit the big time, we realised that I’d had Kenny Rogers for coffee.
After my book I got a bit of notice taken of my writing and some friends asked me to write their life stories or family histories under their direction. People do have stories worth telling so I am very involved with that at the moment. Writing is a service I can do for people that can make a significant contribution to their lives. It is a good challenge but it is really special to listen to their stories. I’d like to keep writing and see where it goes.
My mother, who lived to be 100, was a highly skilled seamstress who was taken out of school at 13 to be an apprentice to a dressmaker. She was a tyrant in teaching her dressmaking but I did my best not to learn anything of it as I only wanted to be out with my horses, my dad and my brother. But apparently I had learned enough as I was soon able to add to the family’s pocket money with dressmaking, curtain making and upholstery. Since coming over to Australia I started to pursue finer needlecraft and free-range counted cross stitching, and my home is full of the stitched artwork I have created from photos of our travels (above right, Kizhi Island, northern Russia). I particularly enjoy doing needlecraft with a personal and somewhat sentimental focus which can be quite cathartic.
Our life here at The Avenue Maroochydore is good living. We have a comfortable open apartment to come and go from, easily mixing our own time with that of family and friends. It’s very healthy living. We live a modest life and don’t want for more. Travel has helped with that - you can’t be loaded up with things when you’re living out the back of a car or a backpack.
And now, with our first great grandchild arriving soon, our next generation is coming. We reckon we have lived in a very fortunate period of history – and quite frankly, I am very glad to be the age I am and living at The Avenue with my best mate!
At Aura Holdings we feel very privileged to have so many wonderful residents living in our villages. A very sincere thank you to Val Merwood, a resident of our Sunshine Coast community, The Avenue Maroochydore, for sharing her story of her life and her love of travel.