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Horizons: New Zealand - South Island 2012

The trials and tribulations of my flight from Doha to Christchurch, via Melbourne, will be left for another blog, but in short I was upgraded to business class by Qatar Airways, which was very nice, but then Jetstar, the Qantas subsidiary, managed to mislay my baggage for five days, which was quite nasty! My first few days in New Zealand were thus spent in a sort of clothes-less and smelly state.

Gollum, Weta Caves, Wellington

Nobody visiting New Zealand in the last few years can have missed the fact that the Lord of Rings trilogy and now the Hobbit were filmed there; in fact the country has taken to calling itself “Middle Earth” with gusto. As Tolkien actually wrote a large part of these novels in Birmingham, England, I find this branding a little confusing and during my visit tried, for the most part, to ignore the walk on appearances of hobbits, wizards, elves and ents. I will confess I also deliberately avoided establishments involved in the purveyance of rings, with or without inscribed runes.

Air New Zealand have even shot a new pre-flight safety film in which the passengers of the aircraft are comprised largely of characters from Lord of the Rings and the pilot appears to be Gandalf the Grey, who also makes a second cameo appearance at the rear of the aircraft wielding an unlit pipe! I’ve put the link to this video, which has now of course gone viral, on the last page of this blog. In fact down at the bottom end of the piece there are links to all the transport, hotels, activities I used or undertook in New Zealand and, more interestingly, to all the sites I used in plucking random pieces of information from the Internet, either to confirm things I’d learned or, in the case of the moa’s sexual dimorphism for example, that were genuinely surprising.

Of course the reason New Zealand was picked as a location for Lord of the Rings was not simply due to the nationality of the director, Peter Jackson; if he had been Qatari the staged battle for Middle Earth would not have taken place in Al-Jumayliyah. Neither was the choice made solely as a result of the availability of startling scenery at every turn; in fact somewhere possessing the idyllic thirties rural quaintness of The Shire was also required. However hard New Zealand tries to rid itself of its “Olde English” label it comes back to haunt it; Hobbiton is simply the last example. It is genuinely hard to believe the fantastic range of scenery in New Zealand and the fact that it can cope with portraying both Mordor and The Shire and still leave room for the Plains of Rohan only goes part of the way to describing it.

English, Welsh and Scots are all likely to find elements of the country to remind them of their own home lands, it is often stated that there is nowhere on Earth to compete with Britain for such a variety of vistas packed into such a small area, but I disagree. Both Norweigans and Hawaiians would find environments in New Zealand they recognised immediately also. I know I’ll not succeed, particularly with Christchurch, but I’ll try to minimise International comparisons, for New Zealand is unique.

Banks Peninsula, Christchurch, Lyttleton Harbour, CanterburyLet’s draw a line under Tolkien’s parables and return to the unreal world of Christchurch, subject to the destructive power of the February 2011 earthquake, which, significantly, was only an aftershock of the September 2010 Canterbury earthquake. In fact there are thought to have been 11,000 earthquakes since the Canterbury earthquake and they are still continuing today.

The shot to the left is of the Bank’s Peninsula, the area to the East of Christchurch that sticks out into the Pacific Ocean like a malevolent wart. It is in fact volcanic in origin, being two island dome volcanoes that have been connected to the mainland mass by the spread of deposition forming the Canterbury Plains. It could be argued that it is the biggest tombolo on the planet. The distinctive shape of the headland has been created by the erosion of the lava fields by streams on the sides and wave’s at the base. I visited straight from the airport, having just found out about my lost bag and having six hours to kill before my motel room was available. These were the scenes that greeted me; a far cry from the rocky desert that is Qatar.

Banks Peninsula, Christchurch, Lyttleton Harbour, Canterbury, New Zealand

It has to be said that hiring a little car for 24 hours proved cheaper than the taxi ride to and from the airport and it gave me the flexibility needed should my bag turn up. The luggage did not and I got to know Christchurch Airport intimately before moving on, witnessing an arrest as well as hundreds of inappropriately dressed people; naked flesh and South Island weather are uncomfortable companions.

My family asked what I had thought of the condition of Christchurch, they had all been considerably upset by the extensive damage, having lived there for many years after their arrival in New Zealand. I will confess that the destruction I observed was minimal, construction dominated, as did huge numbers of car parking areas. Quite evidently the latter were the result of the demolition of buildings severely damaged by the earthquake, but having now lived my last nine years in construction zones it all seemed pretty normal to me; a city being rebuilt looks much like a city being built and as I had no memories of Christchurch before the earthquake I had nothing to gauge the change.

Hi Viz, Christchurch, reconstruction, earthquake, New Zealand, 2011

I looked at a city where things had gone missing, but they were not things I missed. I can imagine it would be heart rending to lose well-loved iconic buildings and even worse to gaze across pancaked vistas where loved ones once lived, now dead, injured or displaced, but this scenario was not one I could imagine, let alone see.

Conversation with local people did bring it home harder; earthquake related discussions were everywhere and everyone had a story they wanted to tell. Bizarrely, the clearest evidence of an “incident” having happened, were the number of people dress in “Hi Viz” jackets; this was quite startling. At a guess I’d say that, with the exception of the parks, over 50% of the people I saw in Christchurch were wearing them.

Hagley Park, Avon River, Christchurch, Canterbury, New ZealandChristchurch was famous for being the most English of New Zealand cities, best epitomised perhaps by Hagley Park and the Avon River. Many areas of New Zealand recall an England of yesteryear, tea shops and churches, town pubs and zebra crossings, although the Kiwis have replaced the orange flashing globe with a “Hi Viz” (it had to be, didn’t it!) cardboard cut out.

Although Auckland, and to a lesser extent Wellington, have already internationalised, it now seems that the rebuilding of Christchurch will also rebrand it and perhaps take a giant stride away from its earlier Englishness. Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing I’m not sure but there were certainly louder voices leading the conservative charge than there were for rampant modernisation. It is a sad fact that, whatever choice is made, there will be another earthquake at some time in the future and a different direction could be taken next time.

croquet, club, Hagley Park, Christchurch, Canterbury, New Zealand

Looking across at the cricket matches, I was struck by the fact that the youngsters not only no longer wore whites, coloured one-day pyjamas sufficed instead, but that the teams were all female. Change is inevitable, unavoidable, it cannot be stopped and is often a very good thing, but it can be pushed in preferred directions, it can be directed. My own country is a fine example of a country that has lost its way and has no clue as to where it is going; Norway is probably the polar opposite, a determined approach to their resources, environment and social services resulting in one of the richest, fairest and cleanest countries in the world, although perhaps the whales don’t agree! New Zealand shares more than fjords with the Scandinavian state but it remains to be seen if their predominantly Anglo-Saxon population will tie itself in knots like its former “Mother” country or plan for its strengths as its sub-Arctic cousin has done.

I left Christchurch having ascertained how much beer, underwear and deodorant cost but still without my bag. The Air NZ flight to Queenstown is fascinating, the Southern Alps to starboard and the Canterbury Plain, the Kakanui Mountains, the Maniototo Plain and the coastline to port; effectively ice covered mountain to the right providing the water supply for the near desert to the left. The Southern Alps are to the South Island what the Cascades are to Oregon; although possibly not quite as photogenic as their North American counterparts, they are nevertheless very pretty. The landing at Queenstown Airport is quite exhilarating as the aircraft wings seem close to touching the surrounding slopes as it descends.