Our trip down South was a decade in the planning, an idea we routinely abandoned each year around the month of October once we realised that the all-devouring needs of family would foil us again. So this time we just booked five one-way plane tickets to Christchurch as a way of making the trip non-refundable, therefore definitely happening. The kindness of a friend and some fortunate last-minute bookings made sure we had somewhere to stay and the beginnings of an itinerary.
The trip involved a great deal of driving – 2,200 kilometres by my rough reckoning – which fell entirely upon my partner, so I was able to take some pictures. As I shared them on Twitter over the past week (if you’ve seen them, you’ve read this post), a couple of people suggested I check out Robin Morrison’s The South Island of New Zealand From the Road, a relatively recent (1981) but emphatically out-of-print book that I was able to study today at the Turnbull Library. And a catalogue of beautiful pictures it is, without doubt, yet also oddly skewed. There is not a single image of Christchurch, save for the interior of a restaurant. Nothing from urban Dunedin, either. Its favourite subjects are windswept landscapes and quirky buildings, remote cottages and farmhouses, aging workers and retired couples. It’s a South Island cast by its unique light in stark loneliness, tied to old industries – like mining or crop farming – while progress may be presumed to happen elsewhere. Blasphemously, I took a picture of one of Morrison’s pictures. It’s indicative of their somewhat bleak geometry.
Our own impression was warmer, less angular. There was of course the quiet shock of Christchurch, more so for Justine who had never been there. And here I didn’t allow myself to take photographs – like Morrison, though for different reasons – save for this stunning remedial trompe-l'œil in Manchester Street. I’m told it’s by Mike Hewson. (When trying to locate the exact spot on Google, I discovered the Street View shots are still pre-earthquake.)
Discretion aside, taking pictures of Christchurch for the tourist is pointless because in no way it captures the experience of moving within the city – which may be why the images from Christchurch communicate little to the rest of us, until we’re actually there. When I visited last August I got lost one evening and stumbled, alone, into Cathedral Square. The giant ruined building seemed in no proportion to anywhere or anything else. Had I been inclined to take its picture, I would have simply lacked the vantage point.
Elsewhere it was Summer and almost everything was new to us. We experienced Te Waipounamu as Morrison did, from the road. For if taking pictures is a way of seeing, so is looking out of a car window.
We crossed Arthur’s Pass into this view of the West Coast.
Poorly photographed rata on the way to Punakaiki. Trust me when I say they were beautiful.
Paroa school, established 1876.
At the Carnegie Building in Hokitika they sell copies of The Luminaries especially stamped for local authenticity.
(To find out what came of the other 17 Carnegie Libraries erected in New Zealand, see here.)
At Greymouth Museum, these chairs in which Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip sat in 1954, and then no-one else. Okay, so maybe I did.
At Moeraki. This photo may seem unexceptional but I had to wait two hours and kill a busload of Hungarians to take it. The unusual spherical concretions are made of a glue that is irresistible to tourists.
This lonely penguin. I thought it was a blue one but no, says Twitter: it’s a yellow-eyed.
Oamaru is old stone buildings and a Victorian precinct that – aside from the Steampunk Museum – is in more than reasonable taste. I liked this bookshop.
They love the locally quarried stone so much they use it to wall up doors and windows. (I thought this building was disused: it’s in fact the arse end of a squash club.)
Inside the altogether more garish Steampunk HQ. The museum now features an ‘Infinity Portal’ which is identical to Yayoi Kusama’s mirrored room but with incense.
Meanwhile, farmers in South Canterbury are building fortifications.
The Rainbow Confectionery Shop, Oamaru.
We really enjoyed our brief time in Dunedin, especially the visit to Purakaunui Bay thanks to lovely and knowledgeable friends who moved there not long ago. Pictured, the loot.
Inside the Railway Station.
Bottled Sunshine, Tiger Tea.
Towards a comprehensive catalogue of New Zealand motel art.
Above the Clyde Dam, what I assumed at first to be the secret base where Bill English keeps his robot army. But no, it’s actually a device to channel stormwater and prevent the hill from collapsing into the reservoir and flooding the village below.
Dunstan Lodge, Clyde.
What you see if you turn around after taking the previous picture.
The sunset in Kaikoura.
Then back in the car, one last time.
It has a lot of road, the South Island of New Zealand, and a tremendous amount of sky. We hope to be back soon.