This is Wellington as we left it, heat-bathed, postcard-perfect. Our short holidays often coincide with the city being at its most superficially desirable, the small yearly window in which it becomes a seaside destination. Driving up North, as we did, at least as far as Ruapehu (in Winter) or lake Taupo (year-round), the balance shifts from the conventionally attractive to the quirk charm of small provincial centres in various stages of economic decline, sometimes wearing that decline on their sleeve: none more so perhaps than the small Horowhenua town of Foxton, of which I wrote before.
This is not the New Zealand of the tourist brochures for the international visitor. Like Maurice Shadbolt’s Shell Guide, it speaks instead to the domestic traveller, in the form of what it has chosen or managed to preserve. Its dominant feature is the undulated rural countryside remade in the image of England’s green and pleasant land, playing like a long film outside the car window. You could take a million of these pictures, flip them in quick succession and save a lot of money on gas.
We are drawn to a handful of small towns on this route, and to equally small and occasionally surprising sights. Like a suspension bridge with annexed lone smoke stack, what remains of an early 20th century flax mill on State Highway 56, near Opiki.
These places are like small flags on a historical map, while so many more have fallen off. The overall sense is that of an incomplete picture. What did this monotonous pastoral landscape look and feel like, before colonisation? How did it get to be this way? And what parts of the story are omitted?
'Official' historic places are few and far between, or semi-hidden. At the site of the Battle of Ōrākau, near the monument that commemorates both Rewi Maniapoto and Lieutenant General Duncan Alexander Cameron, somebody removed one of the explanatory plaques, leaving a literal gap in the story.
We stop along the road, take pictures, visit small museums if we are lucky enough to find them open. It’s our way of making interesting a route that is so very familiar and worn.
This New Zealand tries to immortalise itself, to hold on to its concrete past. Sometimes the nostalgia takes a melancholy turn, like at the former site of the Flaxville ‘model town’, in Shannon, improbably boasting the world’s biggest teddy bear. (The collection has been shifted to a pub on state highway 57.)
Or in the neglected but still quite beautiful building that once housed the Cascade Brewery in Taihape.
Stretched along these flag pins, and impossible to convey through pictures, is the time it takes to cover the distance. Yet it is a key to understanding how the pictures and the places fit together. It was not until I took the day train from Te Awamutu to Wellington, in late 1998, that I realised just how sparsely populated New Zealand is, how rural, and that I glimpsed how long it might take me to get used to this fact and begin to understand for myself its human and historical shape.
In no particular order, then, and more for my benefit than yours, some more images from this latest trip.
On the Arapuni School standard, referencing the nearby hydroelectric power station.
Fires destroy, Tokoroa.
The Putaruru Hotel..
The Pukeatua War-Memorial Church.
A dutiful vista of Mount Ruapehu.
Upstairs door, Taihape.
Outside Saint Michael’s Chapel, Tokoroa.
Who do I think I am, Jane Ussher? Inside St Michael’s.
Former Veterinary Clinic sign, Shannon.
The Shannon Post Office.
Outside The Majestic, Taihape.
Vintage Tip Top poster at Te Manawa, Palmerston North.
That’s Numberwang!, Palmerston North.
Outside the Te Awamutu Town Hall.
The Kihikihi War Memorial.
Heavily discounted grandmas, Shannon.
Oh: I never found out what the story was with the world’s biggest teddy.