Cartography of a Country

New Zealand is routinely cut off the right hand edge of maps of the world, cast adrift in the space outside the frame that is usually home to Antarctica, occasionally Tasmania, and not much else. Sure, it irks, but it’s not only illustrators in faraway countries that make such erasures. To see why, we need only look a little closer to home.

Ask the average New Zealander on the street how many islands New Zealand is made up of and they’re likely to say two – North and South. Press a little further, and Stewart Island might just nudge in as the third, depending on how much attention the person paid to school geography lessons, and whether or not they have ever actually travelled south of the Bombay hills. And yet, there is so much more to our shores than just the big three (or big two-and-a-half – sorry Rakiura).

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Take the Chatham Islands, for instance. Marooned 800km to the east of mainland New Zealand, they are mostly spared a thought only at the end of the national weather forecast (and, of course, the forecast is almost invariably for rain). They may be in their own timezone 45 minutes ahead of the rest of us, but they support the All Blacks just as fervently. Then there are the many sub-Antarctic islands to the south that are home to a host of Southern Ocean wildlife and not much else. Still, their frigid peaks and windswept shores belong on our maps, even if they do account for less than 1% of New Zealand’s total area and most commonly appear as obstacles on maritime charts.

Many mid Cantabrians are familiar with maps of another sort, namely the topographical variety that are routinely packed for hunting and hiking trips up into the hills. That’s another side of the country that is often overlooked – quite literally, in the case of international travellers flying out of Christchurch. The deep valleys and towering peaks, the glacier faces and steep slopes of scree all gather neatly to order beneath the orange lines and ordered type of a Mercator Projection rendering. How many other people will summit that mountain or camp out beneath that ridge? The further into the backcountry you get, the more select the numbers become. For those who make the effort, it’s something pretty special.

Originally Published in The Ashburton Guardian

Human experiences, narratives and histories are what make a place, but our selective cropping also makes certain places invisible. Next time you’re considering an overseas holiday because you’ve “seen it all” back home, it might pay to think twice. That, and buy a more detailed map.

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Tourism Under The Radar

Skippers Canyon

What do a record-breaking fleece, up-cycled wardrobes and Paradise have in common? All featured on the off-the-beaten-track itinerary when my mother and I headed out on a South Island road trip last week to explore some little-known Otago gems. Domestic tourism is often underrated – when Hawaiian sunshine beckons, the rain of the west coast or the sandflies of the Routeburn track find it hard to compete. Persevere with New Zealand though, and it’s surprising what kinds of unique oddities are waiting just to make your day.

The highlight of our trip had to be Tarras, home of the most famous sheep in New Zealand. After being discovered encased in a recSHrekord-breaking 24kg fleece, Shrek was received by the Prime Minister, toured around A&P Shows, authored a book, and even visited Antarctica (sort of). Visit the ‘House of Shrek’ and you’ll find a giant display that pays homage to the sheep that was shorn on an iceberg. There are shots of the sheepy crampons, newspaper clippings about the berg itself, and even the fleece that was clipped on the icy hunk. Shrek passed away in 2011, and his taxidermied fleece is due to go on display in Wellington’s Te Papa at the end of this month. Still, the two picture books and full-length illustrated biography of the sheep that weighed down my luggage on the way home mean his story will stay alive in our household for years to come.

This was a road trip, so having scoped out Tarras we hit the tarmac and headed for Wanaka. No visit to the resort town would be complete without a stop at the inland cousin of our own local centre for pre-loved bric-a-brac: Wastebusters. While we had no pressing need for doors or a pre-loved exercycle, we did spend hours perusing the books, and came away with both strange looks and some real treasures.

When you go on tour with a librarian, books feature highly on the agenda. My excitement at the Shrek displays and ‘wasties’ was rivalled only by my mum’s delight at finding a collection of children’s books by boutique NZ publisher Gecko Press in Glenorchy, on the very border to Paradise. They even had a title about a sheep: the sale was inevitable, but also for a good cause. Mum’s running ‘sheep week’ at her Auckland library to bring a taste of Tarras to the townies.

New Zealand’s an exciting place to explore, but staying at a hostel we became attractions in our own right: in the sea of foreign voices it was a novelty to meet a real life kiwi. We had great fun plotting local out-of-the-way treasures onto torn out pages of tourist maps and sending the visitors off for a taste of real New Zealand, the way we’ve come to know it – Shrek and all. Next time your annual leave beckons, don’t forget there are always more obscure sheep museums and second-hand bookstores to discover in your own (national) back yard!

Originally Published in The Ashburton Guardian

A Merry Mainland Christmas

‘Tis the season to be jolly, bake Christmas cookies and prepare for an influx of visitors from the North Island. This year my parents and sisters are all coming down to Canterbury for Christmas, so as well as having to leave a reminder note for Santa in our letterbox, I’ll have a chance to show my family around this part of the country. Putting together the itinerary for our first southern family Christmas, I realised how many amazing places I’ve visited over the course of the past year: Hills, rivers, ski runs, and all manner of shows. Ten days suddenly seemed short in the face of all the activity possibilities.

While my nearest and dearest will miss the annual A&P festivities, my certificate for third place tomatoes in the Methven Show still has pride of place in the middle of the fridge some 9 months later.  Complemented with a good helping of salad greens from my garden, that should reinforce to them the agricultural nature of my new abode. If not, there’s always the agricultural centre in Methven, and plenty of machinery out in the paddocks so my visitors can practice their newfound ability to distinguish a spreader from a windrower.

Once outside, it makes sense to head for the hills. Given that one of my sisters has only ever been to Ashburton and Invercargill, a little high country hiking couldn’t hurt her perceptions of all the delights the Mainland entails. Then there’s always a visit to Erewhon, home of work horses and southern-man vistas. The last time the streets of Auckland saw horse drawn carriages was back in the days when the world was black and white, so heading up in the hills for a wagon ride, free from the scourge of honking horns and endless traffic lights, is sure to be something new.

Then there’s Mt Hutt, where many a weekend was spent this winter, learning to defy gravity and remain upright on the slopes of snow. Thanks to the hemisphere and the season, skiing is not an option right now, but mountain biking could provide a similar summer thrill if my family are daring enough. Alternatively, there are the rivers to explore. We dared to take a ride up the gorge in the Rakaia jet gorge earlier in the year, and the sights it yielded were the stuff of geologists’ dreams, rich with sediment layers and glacial moraine. They also convinced me for the first time that the postcards at the local Four Square are not photoshopped after all, despite the luminous turquoise of the water.

This part of New Zealand has expanded my vocabulary of blues significantly, thanks both to the natural environment, and to the range of exhibitions at the Ashburton Art Gallery that have captured that environment from so many different perspectives. My mother is a children’s librarian, so a visit to the gallery’s David Elliot exhibition, complete with all the original illustrations from the picture book ‘Henry’s Map,’ is sure to make her day.

There will be no beaches and no malls with crowds to throng through come yuletide eve, but I have a feeling this southern Christmas will really be one for my whole family to remember. Season’s Greetings, everyone!

Originally Published in The Ashburton Guardian