Travels in New Zealand, part I (working title)

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Me, somewhere in Takapuna, New Zealand, late 1999

February 2000

While not actually getting colder, there is a new mildness to the February air, like a plateau of indifference after the summer honeymoon. I am getting a peculiar feeling at the sudden influx of English visitors. It’s not the end of summer – a popular time for bargain flights – that feels so odd; rather that the English, coming from a country with the kind of weather that although unpredictable, is rarely scorching hot, are homing in to New Zealand at a time when the climate feels more like an English tea-party afternoon.

At Farmers, the Kiwi chain department store where I work as a temporary shop assistant, I have been swiping more Visa cards with familiar British retail and banking names than lately: Tesco, Barclays Bank, Marks & Spencer, First Direct, the Bank of Scotland. The first time this happened – with a Sainsbury’s card – I was thrilled. “You’re British?” I exclaimed to the woman who had just bought a formal cream shirt-blouse. “Oh, yes,” she said – and at this she grabbed her handbag and began to back off, smiling nervously – “of course.” And she left before I could talk further. Such is the nature of English reserve: as someone once wrote, “Being an Englishman who did not want to meet another Englishman on holiday, I retired to my room.”

*****

When others don’t recognise the Englishwoman in me, I am always surprised, because I always think of myself as through-and-through English. It has only been four months since I left the UK. Recently, catching up with a friend of my sister’s for the first time in years, she stared hard at me in the disbelief that this was the Melissa she knew.

Later that day, I had a coffee and a chat with Tracey Strange, editor of STYLE, about contributing to her magazine. Just as I launched into an idea about Auckland fashion from a Londoner’s perspective, she cut me short with the question, “Are you really English?” This left me wondering whether she had picked up my voice. Had NZ transformed me without my knowing it, or had the deaf in me persevered?

April 2000

Christchurch is a city of misplaced culture. From the music-box Edwardian feel of the Groom Room for Gentlemen on New Regent Street, the faded Victoriana decorating the window of Forget-Me-Not antique shop, to the Portobello Road-style cafe next door, Christchurch could not feel less like a NZ town. Indeed, the town is more like Oxford in September, with its reddening leaves falling on doily-lace bridges, weeping willows, punts and the river Avon, which meanders past the quaintly striped Antiqua boat-sheds.

This is probably deliberate. After all, Christchurch was founded in the 1840s by the Canterbury Association, made up of members of Christ’s Church College, Oxford, and headed by the Archbishop of Canterbury. Even now it retains its antiqued, oddly closeted Victorian character, with every restaurant catering almost exclusively to English tastes and even an Old Worlde English pub called the Bard.

As with every pretty-picture town, however, Christchurch has an undercurrent as dark as that which runs under its bridges. The town’s population is predominantly white. In comparison to Auckland, the rate of unemployment is also predominantly high.

Go south of Hagley Park below the city, down the Lincoln Road past the Canterbury Rugby Park – where the Inter-Zonal Deaf Rugby Championships is being held – and you come across a thick white wall, about 4ft high. The other day, reportedly, two deaf people loitered too close to the wall and found themselves the focal point of a man holding a cocked rifle from the top of that wall.

Behind the wall reside the headquarters of NZ’s Nazis. As far away as Auckland, that same white wall is a constant feature on the news, commonly the subject of dispute between the Government and the NZ Nazis as the latter campaign fervently to have it raised to 6ft.

More ominously, there are Nazi connotations within the confines of Christchurch Cathedral itself. Upon entry of the Anglican cathedral – the centrepiece of the pivotal Cathedral Square – you will see to your left a piece of wall tilework that exploits the swastika repetitively. Apparently its use was allowed here because of earlier association with the 2nd and 3rd century Christians, who used it as their symbol and called it the Fylfot Cross. Once the Christians turned to the better-known crucifixation symbol, it fell into disuse until Hitler’s time, 17,000 years later.

This would seem appropriate, given Hitler’s Catholic background and his well-documented admiration of the Church for its powerful sway over its disciples. However, the information stand makes one notable omission. Building of the Cathedral began in 1851; it does not explain when the tilework was actually erected.

Once we left Christchurch, the scenery changed. No longer did I see tidy little houses with tidy little gardens and tidy little fences – imitations of Middle England. Gone were the maincured lawns and the neat, insular lines of local Christchurch architecture.

In their place were sheep. Hundreds and thousands of them, grazing insouciantly on grass seemingly unaccompanied by houses: wild, desolate hills-into-mountains and sheep and huge logging trucks and sheep and chunky rednecks in lumberjack shirts in old Datsun Sunnys and sheep: pure, unadulterated rural Pakeha (white) life. It struck me how little I saw those woolly creatures in cosmopolitan Auckland.

For Kiwi scenery of breaktaking variety, nothing could compare to the West Coast route. As the tour-bus crossed Hamner Springs and then the Doubtful River Valley, we witnessed a huge variety of Broom, spiky Matagouri, Manuka and Kanuka, as rhythmically diverse as house/garage remixes, all of which engulfed rusty farm shacks that lay like the empty shells their tractors had also become, long ago. Just as night fell – at about 5pm – the scene changed again, this time to Southern Alp country, best exemplified by the Buller Gorge, whose gargantuan rocks fell away to the river breathtakingly close from the curving roadside, and the Lewis Pass, distinguished by the high (and again startlingly close) sides of the rock into which the pass burrowed.

This was also where I had my first encounter with NZ local life outside the metropolis. A few heart-stopping turns on treacherous hill-roads in the dark took us to Springs Junction, a settlement justified only by an almost lone building advertised as a motel/cafe/bar/shop for a break. Almost, I said: next to it was a petrol station. And no, not a single house around, just miles and miles of forest and pastures green.

In the shop getting some crisps, I sensed a scrawny, youngish man at the counter following my moves with his eyes, but I didn’t want to return the look. Coming up to the counter with my own eyes averted, I then looked up – and started.

He was blind in one eye. Behind his malnourished face and that terrifying, blank, milky-blue eye was a thin fringe of long hair at the nape of his neck that hung superfluously below a equally thin, close-shaven head. With his seeing eye, he gave me a stare that made me feel naked.

The walkway at Tauranga Bay – renamed Cape Foulwind by Captain Cook in 1770 – meandered through bush up to the headlands, yielding uninhabitable islands like Wall Island, really little more than a rock sharp as a flint knife in the sea mist. As we reached the pinnacle of the walkway the air grew more fetid: a nauseous mix of salt and sulphur. And once we turned a corner, we knew why.

Amidst the crashing pearl-grey surf way below was a kekeno (fur seal) colony. As it was pup season, this was the closest we could get to these seals without disturbing them: from that distance, they looked disappointingly like slugs.

Up, round and over the hill-roads, the bush-country provided vegetation so varied, wild, and unfamilar that I have not names but descriptions for them: spiky, frosted, frothy, desolate, windswept, fluffy, leafy, curly, feathery. And the greens, a whole palette of verdant shades that off-set each other in perfect harmony: grassy, acid, emerald, sage, Hooker’s, bush green, shades of pale mint and tourmaline, greens tinged with chrome yellow and cinammon and scarlet and Vandyke brown.

After the lush tranquillity of the bush, our next stop, the Truman Track, was an extraordinary departure. Still on the West Coast, the track cut briefly through forest before abruptly switching to a dramatic, windswept beach the colour of damp sand, with wave-sculpted rock platforms that seemed to be in mid-operatic curtainfall. There, driftwood lay brittle as dinosaurs’ bones, the bleak visual aria intensified by occasional huge, black squids of seaweed.

After Hokitika, we drove down the West Coast and through the Taharoa Forest and finally found ourselves in the Southern Alps. For the first time we saw glacier lakes, ice-grey as the newly visible glaciers, and rivers as pale as the chalk-beige pebbles over which they ran.

Eventually we reached Lake Mahinapua Scenic Reserve. Accommodation for the night was virtually the only resident building there: the Lake Mahinapua Hotel Museum, where the exhibits were the locals themselves, their life-stories etched all over their faces.

Cliched though this sounds, there was the spluttering log fire, the two men in lumberjack shirts and their beers, and the tiny old man – the owner of this place – behind the bar with bandy legs and a grey beard as long as his torso. Covering the walls in their entirety were faded Polaroids of Kiwi Experience parties past, a small glass cabinet next to the fire holding a selection of hand-crafted greenstone and bone pendants, and on the ceiling, a multitude of signed baseball caps. You needed no stuffed animals to appreciate the history of the place.

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The pub at Lake Mahinapua Scenic Reserve, 2000

I wanted to take time absorbing the local atmosphere, but Kiwi Experience wasn’t having it. Twenty of us were trundled into an ice-cold garage round the back for an enormous dinner of vegetables, pasta, chicken, ham, jacket potatoes and salad, where we shivered and ate for warmth.

The old man came in holding a cooked pink carcass the colour of ham. “Anyone fancy some possum?” he said. We all turned back to our food and continued eating. We had in our group a mixture of Germans, Swiss, English, and Scandinavians. Who would have the guts to eat possum? The old man went out.

Then there was a shout. We all looked up to find someone guzzling the possum. A cocky Frenchman had decided to tackle the challenge. I looked at my ham and decided against finishing it.

Early the next morning, I rose and took a lone stroll around the reserve before our departure at nine. I went round the back of our sleeping quarters behind the pub/museum and garage – which were basically like those mobile offices foremen use on construction sites – to farmland also owned by the old man.

Tall tufts of grasses whistled in the wind as I followed the dried tractor-marks to the beach. As I went along deer watched me serenely with Mickey Mouse ears, yet upon inching closer they turned and leapt away, their tails mocking me symbolically like Maori tongues.

The drive lifted and then fell away. I found myself smelling sea-air, saw an ice-cold beach, dune grasses stiff as frost, the rest of my senses numbed like winter. The scene dazzled me like snow so much I put on my sunglasses. Before me the sea came, crashed and clawed away.

I had no hearing aid on: in the silence the music came from watching the sea.
Returning to my bunk bed, for a moment I thought I would be surrounded by said imaginary music for the rest of the trip. Pulling off my ear-mould to wash it, I broke the connecting tube – it had got so hard from the cold.

I went back to the pub to ask the old man for Sellotape. He couldn’t find it in the bar, so he took me round the back where he lived. There, I glimpsed his home life: a tiny kitchen with red-and-white gingham curtains, little wooden Van Gogh chairs and an old-fashioned mint-green cooking stove. I took it all in with my eyes while he rummaged round in his drawers.

Leaving Lake Mahinapua on the coach, I already had a souvenir the others could never have: a tube of Sellotape that had melted into a telescope in the sun. “You can have it, “ the old man had said. “You’ll need it.”

(c) Melissa Mostyn 2000

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