Life after lockdown in New Zealand: a night out in Wanaka

After a strict seven weeks of confinement, the atmosphere in the resort town’s reopened bars varies from restrained to raucous

Wanaka lakefront is a tourism wonderland; a buzzy, bar-filled strip with a 180-degree view of the Southern Alps. At the height of the season, the town is defined by its epic parties. Alongside a love of snow and action sports, there is an equal love of decadence; locally brewed beer, top-shelf pinot noir and late, luscious nights.

In 2014, I was working as a librarian in town and the Trout bar became my local. Through then-permitted social mingling, I appeared in a country music video filmed at the bar, met a boyfriend there, and buddied up with a locum doctor who became a close friend.

Late last week, Jacinda Ardern, the prime minister, permitted bars and clubs to open after a strict seven-week lockdown. Rigorous social-distancing measures have been stipulated, including keeping tables two metres apart and no “mingling” between the tables. The “bar” of the bar is off-limits (“high-risk”, health officials say) and there is table service only.

For Trout owners Moana and Brent MacKenzie, former dairy farmers from Southland, the lockdown couldn’t have come at a worse time: they had only taken over seven weeks before. The couple accessed the wage-subsidy scheme for their employees, and say strong local support should mean they can stay afloat – but adjusting to the more-restrained atmosphere and the strict health guidelines has been a challenge.

“My wife, Moana, cuddles everyone and she’s had to rein that in, which she’s found very difficult,” says Brent.

Moana and Brent MacKenzie, owners of the Trout bar.
Moana and Brent MacKenzie, owners of the Trout bar. Photograph: Andy Zhang/Paul Roy

On Saturday night, Moana buzzes around the bar, leaning into customers with a big smile, trying to put everyone at ease as some struggle with nerves; the requirement to sign in, use hand sanitiser, and remain at their tables. People keep wandering up to the bar for a chat or another pint – forgetting – and are gently ushered back to their tables.

“That’s probably the hardest thing for me because I’m a warm person,” says Moana. “I get banished to stand behind the bar a bit because my natural urge is to touch. I miss that interaction with our locals, especially when they’re supporting us.”

Trout does a good trade on Saturday night, but the atmosphere – like many bars and restaurants in town – is a little stiff. There’s no raucous laughter and conversations are subdued, and somewhat earnest.

“It’s definitely a different vibe,” says Kay Scott, 47, who’s out for a birthday drink with her husband, Stu, and on their first social adventure beyond their own home in months.

“It’s a lot quieter than it would be, usually the rugby would be on, which gives things a kick along. I miss that. Yeah, it just feels like everyone’s being kind of cautious,” says Kay.

Drinkers at the Trout bar.
Drinkers at the Trout bar. Photograph: Andy Zhang/Paul Roy

Since opening, Wanaka police have done a number of random patrols of the bar, including on Trout’s opening night.

“We had the police walk in, there were eight wives in the corner, and eight husbands on the opposite side of the room,” says Moana, chuckling.

“The police panicked, thinking they were singles and would start mingling. I said to the police, ‘They’re husbands and wives, look what you’ve done, you’re creating chaos in homes around Wanaka.’”

Two hundred metres down the lakefront and up a flight of stairs is the dark and moody La La Land, a cocktail bar that is empty at 9pm. My partner and I order drinks and – being introverted – don’t mind having the DJ to ourselves. Within the hour though, the place is heaving, and social-distancing rules are open-slather ignored as drunk (or drugged) patrons loll over the bar, sidle up to strangers and unleash energy that feels barbed and slightly dangerous.

A policeman, older, does a cursory patrol that takes less than a minute. As soon as he leaves, the party kicks off again, and the atmosphere is charged with late-night promise. The two staff, employed to serve 40, are overwhelmed.

By midnight, any pretension of social-distancing is yesterday’s news at Rove in Post Office Lane. New couples kiss by outdoor braziers, tourists are invited to join large tables of locals, and staff look – mostly – pissed off about table service.

After so many weeks at home, reading our books and making homemade soups from garden vegetables, it’s a relief to see faces that are not each other, and not familiar in any way. While we stick together, soberly at our table, the mob of glossy strangers and the fizz of where the night could lead swirl around us like an elixir of youth, hunger and a total disregard for the rules.


Eleanor Ainge Roy

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
New Zealand Rugby World Cup cities: Dunedin

The countdown has begun: it's less than 100 days until the Rugby World Cup kicks off in New Zealand. Launching a series of guides to the three major host cities, Rachel Dixon gets the inside scoop on where to stay and what to see and do between games in Dunedin. Tomorrow: Wellington

Rachel Dixon

06, Jun, 2011 @11:08 AM

Article image
Wellington without Bilbo: hobbit-free New Zealand haunts

New Zealand's capital city has hotels, bars, coffee shops and galleries to enjoy without any sign of orcs, elves or the Shire

Nicholas Churchouse

16, Nov, 2012 @1:43 PM

Article image
Jacinda Ardern asks why New Zealand is left off world maps in new tourism campaign
Video shows the prime minister and NZ comedian Rhys Darby questioning why the nation has been omitted from so many maps

Eleanor Ainge Roy in Dunedin

02, May, 2018 @5:26 AM

Article image
Kākano, the Christchurch cafe reintroducing Maori people to their own cuisine
In New Zealand, a community cafe serving traditional Maori food is building a strong following across all communities

Nicola Trup

07, May, 2017 @11:30 AM

Article image
New Zealand Rugby World Cup city guide: Wellington

New Zealand's capital is hosting group matches for Wales and Scotland. Blogger Nick Churchouse shows Rachel Dixon where to find the best food, drink and beaches between games. Tomorrow: Auckland

Rachel Dixon

07, Jun, 2011 @10:27 AM

Article image
A local's guide to Australia's Gold Coast: 10 top tips
As the Commonwealth Games get under way in this sunny Queensland city, an insider offers tips on what to see and do – and where to eat and drink – away from the sporting action

Sarah Reid

04, Apr, 2018 @5:30 AM

Article image
New Zealand Rugby World Cup city guide: Auckland

Auckland will be the hub of the World Cup, hosting two quarter-finals, both semis and the final – plus the England v Scotland group game. Food writer Simon Farrell-Green is our tour guide

Rachel Dixon

08, Jun, 2011 @10:58 AM

Article image
Mystic river: Canoeing a living entity in New Zealand
The Whanganui is so important in Maori culture it has the legal rights of a person. A canoe trip along its forested valley proves a great way of getting to know it

Peter Carty

26, Feb, 2019 @6:30 AM

Article image
Six New Zealand chardonnays you should be drinking now
It’s got a bad rep for being a ‘common’ wine – but it’s time to rethink chardonnay with these sublime bottles from across the Tasman

Daniel Honan

28, May, 2015 @3:53 AM

Article image
Hunt for the wilder side of New Zealand
Enjoy your own close-up with the wild landscapes seen in new film Hunt for the Wilderpeople on these adventure tours and activities in the North Island’s Auckland region

Anna Smith

11, Sep, 2016 @9:00 AM