Saturday, July 5, 2014

New Zealand: Literary Landscapes

Mount Ngauruhoe, also known as Mount Doom
Back in February, between leaving Geneva and starting freelance work in Edinburgh, I set off on a three-month trip around Australasia and Southeast Asia. My first stop was the mighty New Zealand, a country of which I had a very favourable impression, despite the fact I had never been there and actually knew very little about it. Well, I knew the obvious, clichéd stuff: New Zealand was the home of the haka, the bungee jump, and far more sheep than people; it had landscapes many claim are ‘like Scotland, but better!’ (seriously, a lot of people say this); and, thanks to Peter Jackson, it was a place inextricably linked in my mind with The Lord of the Rings.

Like so many, I grew up with Tolkien’s world: as a child, I was read The Hobbit at bedtime; as a young teenager, I tackled The Lord of the Rings books on my own; as a sixth former, my friends and I obsessed over the films. Although there are aspects of the saga on which I’m not so keen (the endless songs, the [lack of] female characters, The Hobbit films…), I have always found Tolkien’s world irresistible, its originality and scale marking it out from the rest.

To return to 2001, when we were devouring advanced publicity for The Fellowship of the Ring in the sixth form common room, I remember all the media focus was concerned with the same thing: New Zealand. I didn’t get it at the time - as far as I was concerned, Middle Earth was a fantasy version of olde worlde Britain - but then I watched the film and, of course, I understood. And now I've been there, I understand even more: New Zealand is a magical place.

Hobbiton: view from the party field up to Bag End

The most genuinely 'Middle Earth' experience I had on my trip was undoubtedly my visit to Hobbiton, also known as Alexander Farm on the North Island. Used as a filming location for The Lord of the Rings trilogy and recently rebuilt for The Hobbit films, the site has since been preserved as a tourist attraction. There, you can wander past the iconic round doors of the hobbit houses, all the way up to Bag End at the top of the hill, before finishing up in the Green Dragon pub for a drink and perhaps some second breakfast.

What particularly struck me about Hobbiton was that it didn’t feel like a film set. There are no lighting rigs or tyre tracks or wires spoiling the view. Almost everything is authentic, from the vegetables in the gardens, oversized in comparison to the little trowels and rakes, to the shirts and trousers hanging over the gates, which look as though they've been shrunk in the wash. Walking around that place was not just like walking into a story, it was like walking into that story - the one bound up with my childhood - and so was somehow completely joyful and hauntingly nostalgic at the same time.

Anyone for second breakfast?

But to talk about New Zealand only in terms of The Lord of the Rings would do the country, and my time there, a great injustice. For starters, it has a rich literary history of its own, from the folktales of its indigenous people to its current contributions to the bestseller charts. While in the country, I was fortunate to connect with stories from both ends of this scale. In Rotorua, I visited the Tamaki Maori Village where, aside from watching the famous – and frankly terrifying – haka, I was enthralled by our hosts' storytelling, their tales having been passed down in the oral tradition over countless generations. Then conversely, during much of February, I was absorbed in The Luminaries, a historical novel set in New Zealand that, among its other accolades, won last year’s Man Booker Prize (its Kiwi author, Eleanor Catton, is the youngest writer ever to win the award). Speaking, once more, of walking into stories, it was great fun to spend long bus journeys lost in Catton’s fictional chronicle of New Zealand’s gold rush era, only to look up and find we were driving through the very places mentioned in the book.

Rainforest near Franz Josef glacier
Incidentally, the bus I’m referring to here is the big green Kiwi Experience bus, a ‘hop-on, hop-off’ mode of travel that allows tourists to cover a surprising amount of land. And what land it is. New Zealand’s topography is unbelievably diverse; on the Kiwi Bus we would set off from a surfers’ paradise in the morning and end up in a rainforest next to a glacier just a few hours later. The country has it all: picturesque, snow-topped mountains; lakes so flat they perfectly mirror the scenery around them; tangled, fairy tale forests; gorges that disappear into menacing mist; craggy coastlines packed with chubby seals… and so much more. While the Scottish half of me is reluctant to confirm that it is truly ‘like Scotland, but better!’* there must be few places in the world where you can find such a variety of scenery without crossing a border.

I’ve written before how, as an outdoorsy sort of person, I find the natural world very inspiring, so strangely enough one of the aspects of the trip that I enjoyed the most was the long journeys. During my time on the Kiwi Bus (and when I wasn’t tackling The Luminaries) I would gaze out of the window at whatever spectacular scenery we were driving through that day and allow my mind to wander off where it liked. I reflected on what I had written, I thought about stories I wanted to tell, and I even began to sort out the plot of my novel-to-be. Because of this, New Zealand was probably the most creatively productive time of the whole trip.

As I said at the start, I had had high expectations for my Kiwi experience, all of which were totally surpassed by the country itself and the wonderful people I met there. But what I hadn’t anticipated were the moments that didn’t feature on any bucket lists, or that I couldn’t capture on camera: the feeling of stepping into Hobbiton, for example, or a eureka moment while mulling over something make-believe on a bus. In this way, New Zealand gave me even more than the adventures I had sought out there, and in terms of stories it was - like that of Bilbo Baggins – an unexpected journey.

Mirror Lake reflecting Mount Cook

*The English half of me has no such qualms

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