Who turned out the lights?

March 23, 2008 / Travel, Writing / 0 Comments /

When I booked my flight to New Zealand, almost a year ago, it was with several purposes in mind. I wanted to explore the country and family history further, to set time aside to do some work of my own, and to catch up with family and friends. My timing for the trip was driven by a very English motive – the weather.

The thought of another British winter made me twitch. It’s not the cold. I can take the mild extremes of London temperature quite happily. It’s not even the day length – at least not that alone. It’s the quality of light in British winters that drives me nuts.

I know this sounds ridiculously obvious, but I simply cannot see in the dark.

Pure darkness is not the problem. Then at least, artificial lighting has some relative effect. It is that half-light that no artificial lighting touches, the perpetual twilight that fills winter days when the sun is too weak to break through heavy cloud that gets stuck in the London bowl. It is a light that leaches colour from the world, a shadowless light that weakens the contrast of one object against another.

After more than a couple of short grey days, I am compelled to prise my eyes wide open with matchsticks – to burn my retinas staring at light bulbs – anything that will get enough light into my brain.

Bars and restaurants that dim the lights by increments over the course of an evening, determined to foist their notions of ‘atmosphere’ onto their customers, just make me grumpy. Or fall asleep. Maybe I’m just not a romantic. And yes, I know it’s hypocritical for a conservationist to use high energy incandescent light bulbs, but dammit, I can’t see! I’ll put the low energy ones back when the clocks go forward.

I am beginning to have sympathy with my grandfather. On childhood trips to New Zealand, I was enthralled by my grandparents’ brass candlesticks – such glamour! – and insisted on using them, compelling my family to eat by candlelight every night. My grandfather, even less of a romantic than I, made no attempt to disguise his displeasure at the arrangement, stabbing at his food with his fork:

“What’s’is? What am I eating? Can’t see a damn thing.”

Grandpa, I’m sorry.

The thing is, I would still be happy to eat by candlelight in New Zealand. By the end of a New Zealand day, I have filled my light quota and am happy to stumble about in the dark for a bit.

The quality of light in New Zealand is quite different to that in Britain. At midday, he light is hard and clear, so bright that it flattens the sculpted hills to single shades of brown and green. At the beginning and end of the day, when the sun catches the edges of the world, it draws out the bones of the land – folding volcanic hills, casting trees and shrubs into sharp relief.

And each part of the country is different, reflecting the light in a different way. It is an extreme landscape, seemingly too infinitely variable, on too grand a scale, to be contained within two small islands.

The thing is, I cannot never pinpoint the moment when one extreme of landscape shifts to another. Lose attention for a moment and you miss the change. Evidently, I spend too much time watching the road ahead of me. Or not.

Just north of Wairoa, the Hawkes Bay town from where my mother hails, diminutive hills, cloaked instead in hazy, shifting beige and green grass deadened by a century of grazing, wrap themselves slowly around you, making your head spin with each back and forth coil of the road. Each turn opens new twisting upthrusts of rock, steep-sided hills marked by tier upon tier of sheep tracks that ripple down and around the hills. Yet, just a few miles further south, closer to the town, dense bush disguises the shape of hills, shrouding them in the darkest dust-blue green – a colour that occurs I know not where else.

And a few miles beyond Wairoa, open plains covered in grapevines and edged by Lombardy poplars caused me to wonder whether I had slipped through a gap in the Earth and into the South of France. I mean – Lombardy poplars?! Practical though – the wind can get a bit bitey in the flatlands.

The last time I was in Wairoa, only three years ago, I could swear that the sheep outnumbered the grapes. Not so now. Vineyards have happily marched their way across field after field, devouring what was once pastoral land. Which reminds me of my uncle, who once farmed sheep in Martinborough – a couple of hours north and east of Wellington – explaining that he had made the switch from sheep to grapes because; “the sheep ate all the profits”. Now it seems, the vines have eaten the sheep. Tasty wine-producing Triffids though, eh. And now I’ve just opened myself up to a month of killer-plant-based nightmares. Bugger.

Another sheep-based aside; given what practical, no-nonsense types the kiwis tend to be, why do they chose to refer to slaughterhouses as ‘freezing works’? Okay – freezing is an important part of the process, but you have to admit, it’s kind of secondary. The don’t freeze the poor buggers live. Answers on a postcard, please …

On the South Island, the road to Hokitika from Nelson, encompasses expansive spaces that would be more at home in a country the size of Canada. Broad river valleys, edged by mountains and containing wide near-empty stony-bedded rives. They should go on forever, one broad, flat valley after mountain range after valley. Yes, each plain goes on for mile on mile, but they pretty quickly shift to the next design.

Where the coast road, between Hokitika to the Haast Pass, hugs the edge of the island devastating views of ice blue sea on one side are countered by steep vegetated banks on the other. Vegetation which someone well described as ‘primordial’; punga, rimu, tree ferns, and vertical rock walls, many metres high, plastered with ferns and ne’er a scrap of bare rock or earth. One of the advantages of having an extra driver in the South Island, in the shape of my father, was that I could indulge in a little drive-by-shooting – photographing trees at speed. The results are bloody awful, but it was fun trying.

Proper stops were limited, by time and by sandflies. Every time we did stop, we were pretty quickly driven back into the car by the pesky critters. And by the time we hit the road – windows closed, air-con off – closing all entry points, we found that several of the little blighters had already taken up residence, biting my feet as I drove. I have never known anything to itch so badly. No wonder no one lives on the West Coast. I will never complain about mosquitoes again. Don’t hold me to that. I have an alarmingly short memory.

I have a new theory about British conservation; that it is centred on walking to a view. Walking through true wilderness is bloody hard work. Brits generally expect their paths clear, a metre wide and to provide regular ‘scenes’ as reward for their intrepidness.

Intrepid? Fiddlesticks.

New Zealand and the States, places with similar political and social histories to Britain, but which still have areas that more closely resemble true wilderness, may be expected to produce similar attitudes to walking; unlike countries with more recently turbulent social histories such as Lithuania or Greece, where walking is seen as a peculiar affectation – a sign of eccentricity, or poverty.

“You need a lift?”
“No thanks, we’re walking.”
“Why?”
“Ummm. Because we’re English?”

But, in New Zealand, you have a choice of ‘bush walks’, defined routes through dense virgin or regenerating growth, or brief scampers alongside state highways that demand a quick sideways leap into a ditch at the 110km/hr approach of slightly startled passing traffic. The gentle country walks o’er gentle rolling hills, between hedgerows and frequent, pleasant views, simply do not exist here. Or, not so far as I have discovered. Yet, the views when you do glimpse them, after several hours hard up and downward slog, are spectacular. Just need to knock down a few trees to get the full benefit.

Agriculture in New Zealand never developed alongside and between settlements. Concerns over land rights were more brutal and all-enveloping than Britain’s relatively gentlemanly access movement. There was no gradual clearance of woodland over millennia of agricultural and industrial development. No enclosure acts, no widespread and long-term feudal or subsistence farming that gradually turned to a commercial scale alongside demands for protection and recreational access in a crowded country.

In much of New Zealand, forest covering has been denuded by a century and a half of intensive logging and agriculture. The clearance was brutal and swift. And my ancestors were there. Making shoes for kauri loggers. Photos from the period when my great-great grandparents were there, show the vast Kaipara Harbour near full of massive logs. And I mean – massive. Trees that size, some of them thousands of years old, have gone and will not be seen again in our lifetimes. Farming has since taken over acres upon acres of land without a hedge or a bush between to break up the monotony of grazing land, or more lately, extensive kiwifruit, avocado and vineyards.

The result, as you drive across the country, is obvious. Between the still not insignificant areas of remaining or reviving bush, the shape of the extraordinary carved volcanic landscape can be seen without interruption. It is stark, dramatic, a geologist’s and film-maker’s dream. But it is not what would be commonly called beautiful. There is no softness here. Even the buildings are rough-edged. Low, square, peeling-painted wood. Rural New Zealand houses are functional, but rarely graceful. Nevertheless, it is a landscape that eats into my heart. I’m not sure that I want to love it as I do – it takes too much time, too much energy, to absorb it. I never feel so perched on the world as I do here.

The early February departure and late March return were supposed to allow time for spring to catch up with Britain. Sitting coatless outside the terminal at Heathrow, it seemed that spring had already sprung. I was sorry to miss it. But also relieved to find that I was sorry to miss it – if you get my drift. I would rather leave home knowing that I want to come back, than not.

Incidentally, that was also the first time in my life that I have stepped out of a building into the open-air fug of a thousand cigarette smokers. Weird.

Booking a ticket for a six week trip is easily done. A phone call or two, and the daydream solidifies, the theory has a deadline. But, at that stage it is still just an idea – something that will happen at some point in the future – distant enough to cause less concern than it does gentle anticipation. It’s a long way from the reality of the trip itself.

And once you return, there is that gradual shift from holding fast to the sense of that other place, to slipping slowly back into the every day, where the lack of mountains in London is unremarkable, where you blunder through life barely noticing that the bin men have once again scattered as much rubbish as they have collected.

I’m not ready to let go yet. I knew when I left that I’d have to remind myself how much I like my home town and Britain as a whole. Now, I just need to convince myself. I must have left a key to it somewhere. Meanwhile, here I am with my feet unhappily squeezed back into proper shoes, watching snow fall outside my window and wondering where the buggering hell spring has gone.

Still, the clocks go forward next weekend. Time to change the light bulbs?



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