Un-Usual New Zealand, or, the Regression of the Drive to be Ultra-Modern

I relate to New Zealand with a strange disjuncture, since the place is – for someone coming from Australia – at one level so utterly familiar and yet deeply different. Urban fabric, cultural assumptions, ways of speaking and carrying the body – these factors make it seem as though I have travelled nowhere at all. Yet the human history – first Maori settlers in their rafts and outriggers in about 1300 CE in the North Island and then later on the South Island – is so vastly different from the oldest culture in the world, with Australian Aboriginal history stretching back ten of thousands of years.

So too with the geographical history. It took me quite a while to come up with a term that captures the jagged thrown-together-yesterday feel of the place: lumpy. The angular hills, chunky mountains, plunging gorges and impossibly twisted rivers all give me the impression of a child who has just finished playing with lumps of clay. They have fallen from the child’s hands as she squeezed them through her fingers, tossed them around and shaped as she saw fit for the moment before rearranging them again. And on those lumps the sheep look like they have been placed there at the whim of the child. Often they stand on impossibly steep slopes intently chomping on some hidden delight that can be found only at this point in the huge sheet of green.

I find it odd that my parents did not visit here while my father was alive, for the land is even more deeply identified with England than Australia – one of the main reasons he immigrated to Australia in the first place. An inverse ratio? The further away, the stronger the ties, although here in the south of the south island it must be with Scotland too. Captain Cook seemed to like New Zealand, more so than Australia. I wonder whether it was the surprise of finding, so far from ‘home’, a land that was remarkably similar in climate and landform to the British Isles: small, accessible (internally), cognitively mappable, less foreign and harsh and dry than Australia.

But above all New Zealand straddles a curious paradox, which I can express only as the paradox of the desire to be ultra-modern. A mouthful, I know, but it is the best way to capture what goes on on those two islands (plus a heap of smaller ones). In its very striving to be a very modern, up-to-date place, New Zealand brings to the surface on older way of living and doing things; the harder it pushes at the former, the more does that latter emerge. The paradox shows up for me in the way people get about the place and in the nature of that curious reverse image of Edinburgh known as Dunedin.

On the Open Crowded Road

With little economic drivers beyond primary industry and few minerals, New Zealand relies heavily on tourism. With the dubious claim to have some of the least rail in the world, everyone tells me that ‘only way’ to travel around the country is by road. Dreaming of an open road, just me and the stillness of wilderness, I eye eagerly the noticeboard in the backpacker hostel where tattered and overlapping notices advertise campervans that need to be sold before someone’s imminent departure. Wary of facing a similar desperate sale, I speak to a travel agent and she pushes me to take a deal with a campervan that sounds so cheap you think you can’t lose – until you pull up at the first service station and see the cost of petrol.

Out on the road at last and what do I see? Campervans in front, campervans behind and a never-ending stream of campervans coming at me from the other side. At one spectacular resort after another, you meet them in droves. At any spot with a postcard-like panorama – Fox Glacier, Bay of Islands, Franz Josef, Milford Sound or Queenstown – you find the convoys. And when, weary from those endlessly twisting roads, you pull up in a secluded spot to commune in peace with nature you will find a few score campervans all with the same thing in mind.

With a range of natural beauty, all of it contained within the imaginable space of two large (and many small) islands – unlike Australia, which is difficult to imagine in its vastness – the whole place is geared for the tourist experience, ranging all the way from heart-stopping adrenalin rushes to mind-numbing banality. You can bungy jump off any bridge or helicopter, jet-boat in any puddle, parachute off any plane or helicopter. Even on the occasional commuter bus that plies the roads between the major towns, the bus driver morphs into a tour guide, pointing out the most banal titbits.

That monument over to the left of Palmerston commemorates John Campbell, who arranged the first shipment of frozen meat to England. In that first shipment was a package of New Zealand cheeses. After four months, the refrigerated cheese arrived at its destination in perfect condition. This was in 1896.

No stories of savage blood lust, hacked-up bodies of generals mailed in parcels to England (unfrozen), the seedy exploits of upstanding citizens, major drug busts, venal clergy …

Fast, adrenalized, tourist oriented, committed to cars on a network of twisting roads – all of these give an image of a country on the move, modern, slick, hip and incredibly beautiful to boot. I could point out that already these seem tired and weary approaches, that China and the USA are pushing ahead with fast-rail networks – following Europe’s lead – since they know the halcyon days of the automobile are already past. But that would not get to the heart of the paradox.

Rattling Throwbacks

Instead, I prefer to focus on the clacking and rattling passenger trains, whose very lack of modernisation is fast becoming their great appeal. Apart from suburban trains in Auckland and Wellington, I have travelled on all the available long-distance lines in New Zealand. Once there were more, but in the dim and distant past of 1990 the passenger services were either cut entirely – the Southerner from Christchurch to Dunedin and then to Invercargill – or curtailed – the Overland between Auckland and Wellington and the Seasider between Picton and Christchurch. All of this took place in a forward-looking moment of privatisation of the rail services, which of course did not work, so the government has gradually had to take them over again.

In all this shuffling and scuffling, selling and rebuying, there has been little in the way of modernisation. The blue carriages of the regular passenger trains that still exist make you feel as though you have stepped back in time. On any other train in the world on which I have travelled – even in Bulgaria – once the train is on its way, the doors are locked and you can get outside for some fresh air or a cigarette only by smashing a window or activating an emergency exit.

Not in New Zealand. In 2008 I crossed the Alps of the South Island on the Tranzalpine, from Christchurch to Greymouth and back again. At the end of each carriage was to be found not a wimpy covered passage, but a full and open vestibule. To get to the next carriage I needed to brave a rattling, jumping drawbridge about the width of a foot. And that was just the introduction to the world outside, for this train boasted a full open carriage. A tar floor, roof and some handgrips were the only comforts. A sign told us not to lean out too far given the frequent tunnels, rocks and signals on the way.

But that was it. Apart from bitter wind, diesel exhaust, watering eyes, yawning gorges, sooty tunnels, waving pedestrians, alpine flood plains, ridiculously steep Alps and a clacking, rocking train at full speed – all of these come to you raw and fresh if you brave the open carriage, especially in winter. I was hooked, preferring a corner where I had a view on two sides. From this perch I guided and coaxed the train for much of the journey through the Southern Alps and back again. One or two would join me and soon we had established a quiet camaraderie marked by a silent nod, a squint into the wind and grim look out over frozen lands.

On those journeys, as I recall them now, I spent much time thinking about my father, who had just been diagnosed with cancer, the job I had turned down, and the book I was writing (on John Calvin, of all people).

Less than two years later I was back on the trains and back outside, but with one difference. Now I was travelling on the services of the Taieri Gorge Railway based in Dunedin. Bought up by the city of Dunedin when the national passenger services were privatised in 1990 and established as a purely tourist venture, the trains of the Taieri Gorge Railway have expanded in frequency and in service, for now they carry more and more who use them for transport rather than as a tourist experience. One line runs up to the Central Otago Plateau to Middlemarch or Pukerangi, while the other goes up the coast to Palmerston.

But now I felt in a real time warp. These services are meant to be vintage trains with carriages restored from earlier use. One or two were very old, but the rest were almost exactly the same as the blue passenger services I had taken in 2008 – except that now they were painted yellow. But were these ‘newer’ carriages of the Taieri Gorge Railway vintage? Yes, if one thinks of the 1940s and 1950s. Does that not mean that the carriages of the national carrier – Tranz something or other (-Overland, -Scenic, -Alpine) – were also vintage? Of course.

But that is precisely my point: their appeal lies in harking back to an older age, an appeal that seems to grow stronger the more New Zealand tries to be ultra-modern. Here is the sharp point of the paradox I have been tracing. In this day and age of speedy, air-conditioned travel in sleek trains, of concerns for safety, litigation and hygiene, how could relics of older rail travel be dusted off, greased up and put back into service with increasing appeal? In the neglect of rail in the desire to modernise, New Zealand seems to have preserved a way of travelling that in many other places has been consigned to the age of grandparents and great grandparents.

On these journeys too, in 2010, I was outside as soon as I could be, roaming the open ends of each carriage, especially of the last with a sweeping view out the back. Initially I had this spot to myself, but it was really a place to meet people, many people. Soon enough a man from Singapore joined me, enjoying many clove cigarettes as he pondered the scene rattling past. A moustached American with a large gut and phallic camera followed, as did two beefy Germans with scaly skin, with whom I engaged in a tense dance for the most strategic space without quite pushing the other over the edge. Behind them crushed many slightly pissed-off passengers who had no hope but to look out over the backs of those already wedged into the platform.


One other glaring manifestation of the paradox of the desire to be ultra-modern was to reveal itself: Dunedin, or devious Dunedin as I like to call it. Dunedin, or so I am told, is the old Scottish name for Edinburgh. The early settlers, in their search for a Scottish Free Church Utopia, looked for somewhere as far as possible from their tormentors and persecutors back ‘home’. And what better place than the South Island of New Zealand? Even today, it is one of the highest concentrations of Scottish Calvinists outside Scotland, except perhaps for Nova Scotia in Canada. In any town, there are multiple Presbyterian Churches – First, Knox, St. Aiden’s, St Columba … And every second street has a Presbyterian opportunity shop, help centre, retirement home or church.

As for Dunedin, these settlers did what any responsible Scottish settler would do: map the template of Edinburgh onto Dunedin. The catch is that landforms of the two places are somewhat different, so much so that you will be walking along a street that might have been perfectly flat in Edinburgh; here it suddenly leaps up before you to become one of the steepest streets in the entire world.

The fit is never quite right; something is skewed. Yet the mirror image of old Scotland becomes warped in curious ways at this other extremity of the globe. So much like Scotland, but somehow not quite right. In short, it is an uncanny town. Go past an alley one day and it is gone by the next, the houses closing up as though nothing had happened. An aberrant street, turning up here and there unpredictably.

These Scottish heirs can give you the evil eye, ear or elbow and the rest of your day will seem disjointed. Or are they merely heirs? Is there a more direct passage between these two end points of the world? Soon enough, persuaded by the deviant and uncanny feel of the streets, one begins to suspect that much goes on beneath the cool, calm and slightly intoxicated exterior of Dunedin. Isn’t that sign by the railway station – Edinburgh 18,889 km – really a diversion? Aren’t there occult tunnels for rapid transit between these two twin towns? Perhaps it is no coincidence that there are so many Scots and Presbyterians down here, for they travel rapidly along these tunnels, appearing now here, now there.

Or at least Dunedin does that to you. After a while you get the feeling that beneath its glittering modernity, the town is not quite here, slipping into another zone. Or rather, beneath the glittering modernity of the rest of New Zealand, there is always an archaic, mythical and alternative Dunedin.


2 thoughts on “Un-Usual New Zealand, or, the Regression of the Drive to be Ultra-Modern

  1. Thanks for a really interesting perspective on my hometown.

    I have always loved the ‘lumpiness’ of the New Zealand landscape, especially the South Island – whose contours emerge (as in the legend of the fish that Maui pulled from the Pacific) out a dynamic geomophological past – full of volcanoes and glaciers. Colin McCahon’s landscape paintings of the Otago peninsular are probably as valid a cultural memory of this lumpy place as phenomenological experiences of the landscapes themselves, as is Cilla McQueen’s description of New Zealand as a small green spine, sticking out of the ocean. We are constantly reminded, as NZers, of the fact that we are entirely surrounded by water and there is not much between the East and West coasts. As Allan Curnow expresses this uneasy relationship that we have with our own landscapes, ‘everything is backing away’.

    Driving through Otago/Canterbury with my Australian partner in February, we decided to do the ‘infrastructure tour’ of Otago and visit all the 1950s hydroelectric power stations staggered up the Waitaki River. We stopped to set up a photo that my partner wanted to take with a large format film camera – giant concrete wall melding into the scrub hills above the lake – and just as light levels were taken, the shot was focussed and the film was inserted into the camera back and the shutter is ready to be opened, and what happens but 3 campervans drive up in convoy and park right in the middle of the shot – just to sit (hermetically sealed) in the front seats of their vans, stare at the view as they ate their lunch. I have to say, I’m really fed up with Campervan tourists in the South Island. They just don’t add anything to my experience of the landscape, nor their own. With that cold air and all that grey and teal water and the falcons flying overhead, they should be out in it all… in order to really understand it.

    (as an antidote to all those campervans, you might like this photo series of small New Zealand Towns by Derek Henderson, The Terrible Boredom of Paradise: http://www.derekhenderson.net/paradise/paradise.html)

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