December 2012


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England’s Lake District is justifiably renowned. For those who have not had the privilege of touring through its gentle slopes and pristine waters, the recent biopic on Beatrix Potter has some gorgeous backdrops from the region. I first visited the area when I was eleven and have been back many times since. It features prominently as the subject of two lovely wedding gifts from my sister.

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I have also had the good fortune to see Lake Titicaca in Guatemala, with its sole volcanic mountain as guardian silhouetted against the setting sun. Pam and I have driven around Lake Como and Lago Magiori in northern Italy, and Loch Lomond and Loch Ness in southern Scotland. We have camped beside the Thuner Sea at Interlaken and swam in the oceanic waters of Lake Huron. Great lakes, all of them, and a joy to see. But the ones we have seen in the last two days have been perhaps the most beautiful  in our experience.

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We had driven from Punakaiki to Haast on Boxing Day, covering most of the West Coast that has a highway. Our target was Queenstown in the heart of the South Island’s Lake District. We were prepared for a stiff drive, having seen what some of these roads are like. What we were not prepared for was the knockout beauty of the trip. The pictures here do not do the views justice. The roads were not a problem. Traffic was light and the roads are well constructed and maintained. Given how tight the space was between mountain and lake there were few safe places to pull over, but we took advantage of the ones that offered a few feet of gravel with a view of the surroundings. The amazing thing to us was how few people are in this part of the world. Villages were non-existent and even farmhouses were extremely rare.

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The next day we headed up from Queenstown to Glenorchy, reputed to be one of the ten most scenic drives in the world. We wouldn’t dispute that, having driven both there and back; the vistas were breathtaking. At Glenorchy we took a gravel drive past the hamlet called Paradise to as far as we could go before timidity and the depth of water in the fords we had been crossing caused us to pull over. And there, right where we stopped, was the forest of Lothlorien! I recognized it immediately, without the aid of the guide book; but again, pictures don’t do it justice. We also caught a glimpse of the Misty Mountains used by Peter Jackson in his film.

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In has been a fun couple of days in the South Island. Tomorrow we make for the coast at Dunedin before heading up to Christchurch for New Year’s. The weather has held the entire time so far; warm and dry during the day, cool at night. The size of the river beds we crossed over indicate this is not the case during the rainy season; some river gorges are a kilometer wide. That would be a terrifying amount of water crashing down off the mountains!

Birthday

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Punakaiki seemed like an odd choice for Christmas Day when we first planned this trip. But then so much about this trip seemed odd. We have talked about seeing New Zealand for many years now. Pam has a friend from high school who lives in Christchurch that she has kept in touch with for donkey’s years. But given its distance and its cost, we never really thought we would make it. When one of our children backed out of coming to Malaysia and left us facing the prospect of Christmas alone, we decided to throw caution to the wind and take what might well be our last Christmas holiday in Asia. With New Year’s in Christchurch a certainty, we planned backwards seven days and that left us practically in the middle of nowhere on the west coast of the South Island. The midpoint was Punakaiki; that is how we got here. And here turns out to be a very nice place to be.

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We spent the night in Westport, at a passable campsite with a martinet for an owner who liked to order his guests about. After dressing down our neighbor for his litter he condemned our tent heater as being “dangerously unsafe” and forbade its use. Fortunately for us the night was warm for a change so Pam slept in for a bit and we took our time getting up and going in the morning. Just down the road was a place called Seal Colony Point, and we decided it was worth a look. It has been our experience that many such places are either misnamed or exorbitantly expensive. This was neither. After a very pleasant walk on a well maintained path we arrived at a lookout point from which many seals could be seen frolicking in the waves (there is no other explanation for their behavior: they were simply body surfing) or sunbathing on the rocks, at which time they are practically invisible.

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We moseyed down a pretty coastal road, stopping often for the views until we arrived at our destination for the night, the Punakaiki Resort; as pleasant a spot as you are likely to find on this wild coast. After dropping our stuff in a spacious and well equipped room we headed up the road to an area called The Pancakes, an appropriately named spot as it turns out for the stacked layers of sedimentary rock being eroded by wind and wave. After far more pictures that we could ever use of blowholes and surges, headlands and cormorants we wandered our way a little further up the road for a Christmas meal of fish and chips and some chatter with fellow Christians from Texas.

Pam

Sunset was cloudy and basically nondescript. But Moonset! Have I ever seen Moonset over the ocean before? I think not; indeed I’m not even sure there is a term. But I certainly saw it last night, and it was beautiful! The moon was full and almost completely orange. It sailed through the clouds towards the ocean like the sun itself, only with a ghostlier gleam. It coloured the clouds with an awesome and eerie glow. I watched in wonder for about an hour; unable to sleep, and unable to take my eyes away from the celestial show. What a marvel that a rational God would want us to see how perfectly He has constructed the world to have the moon the same apparent size as the sun (only from the eath!). What a stimulus to rational and scientific inquiry this has brought about. I marvel in the reason and the rationality of our God! And His beauty. Gosh this is a beautiful world!

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From Santa and his two aging elves, now cooling their hooves in New Zealand, we wish all of our family and friends a very Merry Christmas. Hope you get some snow!

Wellington

Wellington is New Zealand’s capital city, and with a population of 395,000 is only slightly larger than our hometown of London, Ontario. That is where the similarity ends. London has done to itself what many towns and cities in North America have done: it has sold itself to the highest bidder, usually Walmart, and abandoned any pretext of urban planning in order to line its greedy little pockets. The result is a dangerous downtown of shuttered offices and stores, and sidewalks lined with refuse, both material and human. Sporadic attempts to “revitalize” the core are often inconsistent. Bell Canada was encouraged to locate downtown, but then permitted to build a barricade between itself and the street, blocking any public access or social discourse with the street. Where is the civic vision, you may well ask?

Well it is alive and well in Wellington! The core of the city is packed with pubs, cafes, restaurants and nightspots. The streets are jammed with people strolling easily down the avenues wandering in and out of the countless stores and shops. The waterfront has live bands and skateboard parks, museums and art galleries. The parks are spacious and well kept, lanes and paths are lit and swept. Buildings have been artfully preserved and renovated. We particularly liked our little hotel, the Comfort and Quality Inn, not only for its location on the lively Cuba Street, but for its wide staircases and deep, enamel tubs.

Cook Strait

We caught the morning ferry (having missed the one the afternoon before; an almost unheard of mental lapse!) to Picton, and enjoyed the cruise across a very placid Cook Strait and up Queen Charlotte Sound. About New Zealand car rentals had our vehicle ready for us and we were on our way in no time, driving through the pleasant vineyards of Marlborough to Nelson and our campsite. After pitching the tent we grabbed our ‘coussies’ and headed to the beach for a swim in the delightfully warm waters of Tasman Bay. Supper back at the site was all we could afford in this very expensive country.

Tasman Bay

After another fairly cool night which required many applications of blasts of heat from our little appliance, we decided to look in Nelson for some warmer sleeping bags. In the tiny town of Nelson there were four outdoor stores, a testament to the popularity of nature in this beautiful part of the world. We saw lots of sleeping bags; we couldn’t afford any of them. A ‘fly’ for the tent to keep off the rain and keep in the heat cost $300. Just the ‘fly’! After a quick trip to the library (gosh how I miss those things in Southeast Asia) to get caught up on the internet, we hit the road again, this time to the west coast.

River

Our road began gently, but soon started to climb up into the hills with the switchbacks that have become routine in this part of the world. At the top we stopped for some pictures before beginning the long descent to the coast. This time the road ran through the valley of a river that was a deep aquamarine in colour and absolutely gorgeous. The road was dangerously narrow and down to one lane in part as it hugged the narrow gorge through which the river would occasionally run before widening out again. I loved the drive myself, but I did notice that Pam’s fingernails were pretty much buried in the fabric of the seat beside me. To her credit she let out only a few gasps on some of the trickier sections.

We arrived in Westport in time to pick up a few groceries and set up our tent before heading down to the beach. This time the water was like ice; clear and beautiful but bone numbingly cold. The sand is volcanic in nature, grey-black in colour, and with the white, sun-bleached driftwood logs looked beautiful. Pictures don’t capture it. We splurged on some steaks for supper, it being Christmas Eve and all, but tomorrow it will be back to canned tuna and salad. We have however, booked ourselves a hotel for the coming night to celebrate our Lord’s birthday, and we want to take this opportunity to wish all of our readers a very blessed Christmas Day. May it be a time of warmth and celebration to lighten your hearts.

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There’s not much to say about this film that hasn’t already been said (http://shotguncritic.com/2012/12/20/review-the-hobbit/?_r=true) and perhaps with better insight. My own take is admittedly literary; I love Tolkien’s books and place them among Moby Dick, Don Quixote and The Divine Comedy, as among the best I’ve ever read. I also admire Peter Jackson’s careful attention to detail. Hobbiton is a masterpiece; a present day Oz as wondrous and fully realized as anything on screen.

That said I must take issue with certain liberties; again with literature in mind. Let’s start with this. After whom is the archetypical hero named? Some candidates for your consideration: Hercules? Achilles? Neither, nor more than a dozen others. It is Ulysses; the Greek Odysseus, hero of the Trojan War and protagonist of Homer’s second greatest epic. But why? Was he stronger? Braver?  Did he kill more people? No; none of the above, although in today’s degenerate age you can be forgiven such Ramboesques thoughts.

No; he was more clever. It was Odysseus who came up with the idea of the Trojan Horse. It was Odysseus who defied the gods and found his way home again. It was Odysseus who remained faithful to Penelope and the ideals of hearth and home that not only the Greeks but generations of Westerners have found so appealing, and so pivotal to their understanding of masculinity. In literature brutal, revenge-seeking male clods are mocked, as Shakespeare dismantled the bloody Macbeth and elevated Malcolm and Macduff.

Tolkien, the Oxford don, understood and employed the Odyssean archetype in Bilbo Baggins, an unlikely hero who succeeds not on the strength of arms, but by wit and common (Christian) decency. It is this characterization which has propelled The Hobbit, and its darker sequel, The Lord of the Rings, to the status of ‘greatest novel of the twentieth century.’ Why then does Jackson slander this hugely appealing character by making him into a common half-wit hero? In the novel, Bert and the other trolls are not defeated in battle; they are outwitted by the timid and careful Bilbo who gets them arguing among themselves (in Tolkien’s respectful nod to a contest with Homer’s hero). In the novel, Bilbo would never come running down the tree to stand over the fallen body of Thorin and stab at wargs as he does in the film. But neither would he meekly accept a sword from Gandalf unnamed as he does in the film; the literary Bilbo has more stuff in him than that. It is Bilbo who seizes and names the sword that will help define him. In fact the only contest which is faithfully rendered is that with Gollum, where wit and nerve are equally matched with life or freedom on the line. Jackson wisely does not mess with this eternal scene.

However, to give Jackson his due, the film in 48 frames per second and 3D was sparkling in clarity and breathtaking in scope of imagination. I loved the cinematic experience of it. It was especially poignant having seen the real Hobbiton just a few days earlier. New Zealand makes the perfect backdrop for Middle Earth, and travelling through some of the terrain pictured in the film has a double resonance for me. I will remain a fan and look forward to seeing the concluding two episodes. If Jackson wanted to slow down and film each chapter, I would still watch. But I do wish he would let my beloved Bilbo be the hero that Tolkien created.

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Driving is one of life’s great pleasures. For me it is right up there with sex. Which is why I am always astounded when people say they don’t drive, or that they used to drive, but that don’t any longer. Me: “You don’t have sex!!” Them: “Well I used to but it got too expensive. Now I just take public transit.” Me: “Public sex!! Eeyewgh!” Okay, my analogy breaks down around there.

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I learned my love of driving from my Dad, who was a fabulous driver. Long before there were computers he could tell you how many miles per gallon he was getting, how many revs his engine was doing and how far from optimum his tire pressure was for the road conditions on that particular day. He could tell you the specs for every car we passed and its history from the day it rolled off the assembly line. Sitting in the passenger seat with him was like reading a living encyclopedia of the automobile. His peripherals were like Gretsky’s; he could see everything on the road for miles around and track and predict its movement for minutes ahead. He never had even close shave, let alone an accident, and he drove every mining road in Ontario in the fifties when he was carving out a sales career in diesel engines. He sits on my shoulder every mile I drive; I enjoy his company and his advice.

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He would have loved New Zealand. We have been driving her for the past four days, and every road has been an absolute delight. I think I might have been on an expressway for about a minute and a half coming out of Auckland, and again for about three minutes coming into Wellington. But that was it. All the rest has been rolling green hills and breathtaking coastal roads looking out over majestic oceans or mountain valleys. Straight stretches of road could be numbered on the fingers of one hand. And all along the road have been stately cypress and towering pine trees; russet-red flowing bottlebrushes and shrubs so silvery green they are almost grey. And of course the sheep, like breadcrumbs sprinkled on a rumpled green tablecloth.

I rarely listen to the radio when I drive; it takes away the enjoyment of the road. I prefer to listen to the wind and the birds; to chatter with Pam about other places we have seen, or just take in the view. The views today have been worth taking in, as have been the views on the last three days as well. The South Island promises to be even more spectacular, but that is for another day. Today we are just happy to be in Wellington. We surrendered the car and the GPS at the rental place, picking up an agent as we drove by on our way to the hotel; a local fellow who was good enough to help us with the luggage as well as give us some friendly advice about places to eat.

We are staying at the Comfort and Quality Hotel on Cuba Street, which thanks to Pam’s good planning happens to be the liveliest street in town. After supper at the friendly Southern Cross with its hearty comfort food, our first walk was down to Courtenay Place at the end of Dixon Street, to the Embassy Theatre where the world premiere of The Hobbit took place. We booked two seats at the front of the balcony, middle of the screen, for tonight’s nine o’clock showing. We then came back to our room to cop a wee nap before the show. Yes, I’m hopeless; don’t even bother.

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