When Janika ter Ellen visited the Netherlands for the first time, the Prime News presenter and Newshub reporter had the rare honour of interviewing the king inside his lavish palace in The Hague.
Joining Woman’s Day to chat with His Majesty Willem-Alexander over coffee and biscuits was a privilege, says the bubbly blonde, who is one-quarter Dutch, but when it came to meeting the locals, she was more excited to see a 92-year-old pensioner from the little-known city of Breda.
During her work trip, Janika took the opportunity to squeeze in an emotional visit to her great-aunt Ria ter Ellen, the sister of her beloved late grandfather Arnold, who emigrated from the Netherlands to Kawerau in the 1950s and died five years ago at 86.
“She’s the last link I have to my opa and I’d never met her before, so it was incredibly special to me,” tells Janika, 30. “He was my hero when I was a kid. He’d take us camping in the bush for a week at a time and tell the most amazing stories about growing up during World War II. I miss him so much and still think of him all the time.
“When he died, he left a massive hole, but then I met Ria and it was like he came back to life. She spoke perfect English, with the same accent and mannerisms, and she was so funny, smart and blunt, just like him. It was such a joy!
“I’ve always been curious about my Dutch heritage and I still had a lot of questions for my opa, but Ria was able to answer a lot of them. We talked and talked for almost six hours, eating the best Dutch cheese and chocolate. Afterwards, I got quite teary-eyed. I didn’t want to leave.”
As well as meeting Ria and the “charming, chilled-out” king – who recognised Janika on his recent tour of New Zealand – other highlights from her trip were seeing Rembrandt van Rijn’s famous painting The Night Watch in Amsterdam and cycling through the historic city of Utrecht.
Touch of home
Another special moment was visiting a cultural museum that is home to the only Maori ceremonial waka outside of Aotearoa. There, a university rowing club performed a special haka, sang songs in te reo and invited Janika for a paddle down the windmill-studded canals of Leiden.
“It was like my two cultures colliding,” the former Paul Henry Show co-presenter recalls.
“It was so weird seeing our traditions transplanted to the other side of the world, but cool that they had so much respect for it. Although I’m not sure how special they realised it was – they asked if I paddle around in a waka back home!”
Now, after her whirlwind week-long visit, Janika is planning a two-month return trip to the Netherlands for 2017 – and this time, she’ll take her new husband, Newshub rugby reporter Ross Karl, 34, who she married in the Coromandel in April.
“He’s been away a lot with the All Blacks this year, which has been hard, but I can’t wait to introduce him to Holland,” Janika smiles. “We want to go to the country’s highest point, which is only 323m above sea level! And we’ll watch people, wander around and eat Dutch cheese. But most of all, I want to spend time with Ria. She’s 92 now, but she promised she’d hold on for one more year!”
Speaking of age, this week, on December 18, Janika celebrated an important milestone – her 30th birthday. “It crept up on me really fast and I was a bit stunned, but I’ve gotten used to the idea,” laughs the TV beauty.
“I’m looking forward to being taken more seriously and I’ve never been a party animal, anyway. My hobbies are all old-person things like taking walks, drinking tea, sewing cushions and making candles.”
This begs the very same question that Ria asked her: Will we be hearing the pitter-patter of tiny feet any time soon?
“Oh, gosh!” exclaims Janika.
“I met so many cute babies in Holland and we definitely will have kids at some point – probably after Ross returns from the next Rugby World Cup. But at the moment, it seems like such a huge challenge. I’m in awe of anyone who balances their job and children. I still have to understand how people manage to cope!”