A Place is never the Same

A place never the same on the next visit, for you have changed. The place in question was a backpacker’s hostel in Dunedin, New Zealand. But it could have any of the many places in which I have tarried for a while over long years of travel.

On my first visit to this particular hostel, many years ago, it was a glorious relief. We had travelled the length and (admittedly limited) breadth of New Zealand, working our way slowly towards the south of the south island. With one place after another offering adrenalin tourism for people a good deal younger than me, this place offered some reflective peace. Here we found no bungie jumping, no parachuting, no base jumping, no white-water canoeing, no jet-boat leaping, not even alcohol-fuelled and heaving nightclubs. Instead, it was happy being itself. So we stayed longer than planned, soaking up some winter sun, long sleeps and restful days.

On my next visit, after a long day of travel, the hostel was a welcome sight – evoking old memories. It beckoned to me with its deep red bricks, quirky structure, layers of windows and balconies. My room was a cosy corner, with plenty of windows and views over the harbour and town. I seemed to be taken yet again, relishing being in a place that seemed the same.

But it was not the same. Now paint was peeling on sagging balcony rails. No-one seemed to use the kitchen any more. The chairs were stained and rickety. The windows had trouble staying attached to their framed. There was no buzz in the common spaces. At reception, I had to press the call button repeatedly before a surly woman emerged from a back room and showed distinct disinterest in being helpful. To be sure, most of the signs around the place were the same, but they had faded, with the occasional irrelevant word scratched out.

There was one new sign, a tell-tale sign: ‘No refund after you have paid for room’. Initially the sign seemed unremarkable, so I ignored it. But later I realised: it meant that people had been requesting refunds, in order to go to a better place. If they could find one. At the time I was there, it was actually difficult to find accommodation at all, for a university graduation had filled the town to overflowing with visitors from afar. So people seemed to stay here only because they could not find a bed for the night elsewhere. Even so, the fact that it was half-empty spoke volumes.

Had the place really changed? Initially, I thought the place itself had changed and I could find the magic once again somewhere else. But then it struck that it had not changed all that much, for it was largely the same, albeit a little faded and worn. A few touches here and there would easily have restored its former feel.

Instead, I had changed over the years. My thoughts dwelt long on what had once attracted me to the place, about its magic and peace and relief while journeying. That may have been the case then, but things change, don’t they? I realised that I was simply not drawn to the place any more.

2014 December 057 (240x320)


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.