Mucking in, Bill Sewell

Travelling to New Zealand 
ed Lydia Wevers
Oxford University Press, $59.95,
ISBN 0195584112

 

It was literally the sort of pub where the conversation stops when a stranger walks in. Only there were just three customers, plus the proprietor, in the bar on that rainy West Coast afternoon in the late 1980s, and the proprietor was already drunk. We had been intending to camp at Punakaiki, but the torrential rain had put paid to that, and the nearest accommodation under shelter was at the optimistically named All Nations Hotel at Barrytown, on the way to Greymouth. Certainly there was accommodation to be had, the proprietor slurred, after eyeing us with a mixture of suspicion and amusement, and he led us out the back to the rooms, telling us to take our pick. The first room smelled of vomit (we were beginning to see what the real purpose of the accommodation was); the second had a door that didn’t close; the third had only single beds with slumping centres, but what the hell, it was getting late in the day and the rain showed no sign of easing. So we bunked down for the night, after cooking our own meal in the communal kitchen (and carefully wedging a chair under the doorknob). Meals, as you might expect, were not part of the service. I think we got some sleep.

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Looking back on it now, the All Nations Hotel seems to me a rather endearing relic of earlier days of accommodation in New Zealand. Was this the reason why there was such a delightful familiarity about much of Lydia Wevers’ fascinating and painstakingly researched anthology, Travelling to New Zealand – which selects from the diaries, letters, and travel books of many travellers to, within and out of New Zealand? Accommodation is of course one of the traveller’s main preoccupations, particularly in a wild and sparsely populated land, and Wevers has picked out a number of pieces that reflect this all too acutely.

There’s Alexander Marjoribanks in 1840, for instance, being given “the best accommodation” in a Wellington hotel, which nevertheless has “neither door nor window, and admit[s] both wind and rain, and native dogs”. Or George Augustus Sala in 1885, reminding the reader that “[i]n Australasia the major portion of the waiting must be done by yourself if you wish it done at all”.  Or James Mackintosh Bell writing in 1909-10 of the “Travellers’ Rest” at Waipapakauri, where he and his companions are given “a far from ceremonious welcome” by the inn-keeper, “an evil-looking, one-eyed old man”, before being led “up a narrow, almost vertical, flight of stairs to a single damp apartment”. Here it is the dining-room that is open to the elements, because of alterations in progress, although at least there is a dining-room.

Travellers have habitually bitched about the standard of New Zealand accommodation and service, and the availability of transport connections, but this anthology also makes the reader marvel at the extent of the infrastructure, and how quickly it developed. The tourist industry did not by any means lag much behind the pioneer settlers. As Wevers writes in her scholarly but immensely readable introduction, “At the end of the 1860s, when the Land Wars were over and steam succeeded sail as a mode of transport, travel changed its focus from immigration to recreation.”

Transport was always going to be a problem in this angular, unstable landscape, and yet it was a problem that did not long daunt the settlers. Edward Wilson might still complain in 1850 that “[t]here are few facilities of communication through the interior”, having to travel from Auckland to Napier “in a little schooner of 40 tons”, “whose cabin was little better than a cupboard”. But by the 1870s there was a network of coach-routes, although David Kennedy Jnr’s account of fording the Waitaki shows that coach travel was not necessarily any more comfortable or safer than travel by sea. Railways were not slow to extend their feelers either, and by 1888 E W Payton was describing a picnic outing to the Hunuas, which involved a railway journey from Auckland – although the 20-mile trip was still regarded as “a considerable distance for a New Zealand railway to accomplish all at once”.

By the 1880s, too, a number of what Wevers calls “‘hot’ travel locations” had become well established: “the Cold Lakes, the Hot Lakes, the West Coast Sounds, including Milford”. Of these the jewel in the crown was the now lost Pink and White Terraces. Wevers includes several travellers’ reactions to these extraordinary spectacles, and she features, for instance, J Kerry Nicholls’ lyrical description of Te Tarata, the White Terrace, “as a throne” for the gods “to recline upon”. But more interesting perhaps is Anthony Trollope’s description of the elaborate separate bathing arrangements at the Pink Terraces, and the accounts of the interaction with local Maori. Maori were said by the anonymous “German Lady” to be indifferent to “these wonderful natural curiosities”. But what they were not indifferent to was the opportunity the curiosities afforded for earning revenue. They supplied transport by canoe across Lake Tarawera to the Terraces, and they provided guides such as the well-known Kate and Sophia. They also had an early appreciation of their own “copyright” in the natural environment. Constance Gordon Cumming, an accomplished artist who later exhibited in London, went to great lengths to avoid having to pay the not inconsiderable fee of £5 for the privilege of sketching the Terraces.

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At least Constance Cumming makes a mercenary rather than a racist response to the tangata whenua. For, sadly, racism is one of the recurring themes of 19th century travellers’ accounts, and, rightly, Wevers does not flinch from showing this up. Master Smiles, who visited New Zealand in his late teens in 1871, was less than impressed by the Maori he encountered in Auckland: “I cannot say I like the look of the men; they look very ugly customers indeed – beetle-browed and down-looking, ‘with foreheads villanous low’”. He adds, “Their appearance is all the more revolting by reason of the large blue circles of tattoo on their faces.”  Indeed, tattoos in particular offended the sensibilities of a number of observers, perhaps because they were especially alien to European taste.

But by no means everyone agreed. William Senior had a much more sophisticated appreciation of the position of Maori. He seems to have liked the fact that Maori “are very tenacious of their rights” and have learnt to seek legal remedies for settling land disputes. He also does not condemn them for being lazy, since “[t]hey work enough to live”; he suspects that the reason some colonists dislike the Maori so intensely is that “the Maori were too acute for them”; and, all in all, he considers them “a fine and interesting race”. Of course, his opinions are hedged about with the sort of qualifications one might expect from a person of his demographic, but they do contradict two kinds of stereotype: the one of the Maori at the time and today’s one of the bigoted 19th century European traveller.

A good proportion of the selections in Travelling to New Zealand are by women, and not because of some innate bias on the part of the editor. It seems that many of the early travellers were women, and intrepid ones at that. The anthology gives a wonderful insight into what the raw New Zealand experience meant for them. Some, extraordinarily, travelled on their own. There was the “German Lady”, who published her Notes of a Tour in 1877 in order to prove a point: to show “how a lady may perfectly well travel by herself, provided she be healthy, strong, good-tempered and ready to put up with some hardships.” So resourceful was she that she determined to walk the 10 miles from Rotorua to Wairoa (near Lake Rotomahana), rather than pay the £3 to hire transport. But “foolhardy”, rather than “resourceful”, is the word to describe Lucy Broad’s decision to attempt a solo crossing of the Mararoa River in Southland in 1905. In heavy skirts, she is washed off her feet, but makes it to the other side as unfazed as anyone can be after nearly drowning.

But these women were simply adapting to the ethos of the new land. Colonial women were different, as more than one traveller noticed. They tended to be more independent, more capable; and, crucially, they mucked in. Henry Brown noted in 1872, “Ladies do all sorts of household duties and work in the Colonies”, something which, according to John Ferguson in 1901, explained why they were so “healthy-looking and finely-built”. As the 20th century progressed, and tramping became established as a recreation, “mucking in” also meant sharing remote mountain huts with the opposite sex. There are two accounts of mixed parties having to dry off in a hut after one of those habitual soakings on the Milford Track. There was no place for “false modesty” here. As Mary Hall wrote – somewhat racily, even (dare one say it) erotically – in 1914:

we sat brazen-faced watching our clothes drying on a line drawn across the open fire-place. The unmentionables of a strange gentleman might have been seen in close proximity to the corsets of a lady unknown to him, and an interesting contrast was created by the hobnobbing of something white and lace-trimmed with a pair of weather-beaten gaiters.

 

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It is exquisite detail such as this that allows Travelling to New Zealand to achieve its purpose – to try “to give the flavour of travel and travel writing in New Zealand for almost two centuries” – so well.  For travel is as much as anything else a quest for detail. Often it is the exotic or quirky detail; but just as often, as Wevers makes very clear, it is detail as seemingly mundane as the bill of fare on an ocean liner or a description from 1930 of the facilities in the newly opened St George Hotel in Wellington. Most of us are intensely curious about the minutiae of everyday life in other places and other times, and get a particular frisson when we find our own lives reflected there.

Although the book reaches into the 1990s to include writers such as Paul Theroux, its “focus is on the boom years of the last three decades of the nineteenth century and the early decades of the twentieth”. While this might seem a strange decision, given the material that must have been generated since then, it does make good sense. The period of focus was one in which the greatest amount of amateur travel writing about New Zealand is likely to have been done, and also preserved; and it is more satisfying, somehow, to get a complete picture of a single era, rather than merely a patchy one of the whole history. Besides, the late 19th century isn’t always so very far away from us in spirit – as my own experience in that West Coast hotel in the late 20th century goes to show.

 

Bill Sewell is co-editor of New Zealand Books

 

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Posted in Essays, History, Non-fiction, Review and Sociology
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