Awestruck at Otira, Neville Bennett

At Home on the Road
Jill Malcolm
New Holland, $24.95,
ISBN 1877246658

Southern Journeys: South Island People and Places
Roy Sinclair
Random House, $34.95,
ISBN 186941439X

There is a kea in my garden. When I hang out the washing, a kea, and sometimes his mates too, give me a dramatic scolding. As I lift my eyes, I often see half-a-dozen kereru in flight. A falcon perches on a lamp-post all day long, intently surveying the scene. Dense virgin rain forest starts at the end of the garden, climbing the steep glaciated rocks. Its diversity is amazing. No wonder that the great botanist Cockaigne built his home two miles away. My eyes are also drawn to the superb Temple Basin ski-field. The location is Otira, on the West Coast side of Arthurs Pass, South Island. It’s my piece of paradise.

Otira figures very prominently in both of the books under review. The authors share the view that the road through the Otira Gorge is the most awesome and fear-inspiring in the country. Like all observers, they marvel that a road could have been cut there in the 1860s, and, despite the superb new viaduct, they still treat it with respect.

Otira, and these books, raise for me an important theme in New Zealand life. I will call it transiency, to express our restless mobility. It features in the way people move to get education, migrate for OE and work, or move house at the retirement threshold. But it’s broader than that: it encompasses the deep love of mountains, rivers and beaches that draws so many into extended travel. New Zealanders must be among the most mobile people on earth.

Some aspects of transiency are a problem. There are many people who do not reside very long in one place. The problem shows up in children who might attend a dozen primary schools, aggravating any learning difficulties they may have. Otira has much rental accommodation (it was a railway and construction town), and its population is constantly shifting. Many of these people, whom I enjoy meeting, have unmarketable skills or no skills, and are not coping well. But Otira also attracts hunters, craftspeople and artists, and is reviving.


Jill Malcolm takes transiency to the extreme. For complex reasons, she and her partner decided to get out of the Auckland rat race. Their children were off their hands, their pets found surrogate parents, and they decided to grab their last chance of living an unfettered life. They were not free in the sense that money was not a problem. But they dealt with that by engaging in periods of frugality and spells of work. He painted houses and did seasonal work in the field; her contribution was mostly in writing. They did not live in the caravan all the time, but sometimes minded houses, even a winery. They toured the South Island, but had very extended stays in some locations. They enjoyed Nelson, Marlborough and Canterbury of course, but their inclination was to get off the beaten track and really enjoy the remote treasures of the Catlins in Southland, for instance, and the amazing wonders of the West Coast spread along the littoral from Jackson’s Bay to Karamea.

As an armchair nomad, I particularly enjoyed some of the practical hints that implicitly emerged on how to organise a nomad’s life. Cut down your possessions, keep tidy, and accept a life with a slower rhythm. Campsites are interesting places for encounters with others who have brought a twinkle to their life by breaking free. There are grades of social status. The “permies”(permanents) are on top. They have roped-off areas, and mark their own patch with gardens, even sail cloth and barbecues. Sometimes the Malcolms were “semis” (semi-permanent) at sites where there was work or food for the soul. The etiquette was not to visit other people but to meet at another place, like the kitchen. Conversation on people’s backgrounds was taboo. Best to go without farewells, ceremony or lingering glances. There were some wonderful people there, and also a meaningful encounter with Atchintan, a mobile village of 50 vehicles.

The Malcolms went to Otira without their caravan (caravans are not permitted there) because Jill’s forebears had been there in the 1860s on a Cobb & Co coach. “My feelings of awe and apprehension as we wound around the narrow, steep, avalanche-prone switchback” were to be the same as her great-grandfather’s.

Jill Malcolm does not write a travel book, but illustrates her own quest for meaning in life by making an extended journey. Her descriptions of natural phenomena are laconic but very apt. The conversations with the people encountered are handled in a sensitive and penetrating manner. It is a delightful read; it might also inspire others to gaze more thoughtfully at the sea, the mountains and even the lichens in the forest.


Roy Sinclair has less literary ability than Jill Malcolm, even though he has written before, on topics like railways and aviation. There are some tedious passages in Southern Journeys, such as the “Seven Wonders of Hokitika”, which turn out to include a swimming bath attendant, a man good at sums, a traffic officer mounted only on a bike, a harbour master who never went to sea, and a garage owner who could not drive. But Sinclair does find some worthy identities. For instance, we meet the owner of the Blackball pub, once the Hilton, now “Formerly the Hilton”. A coalminer explains the appalling conditions of his life: “We had to pay for every-thing, even the explosives we used.” There is also a fine portrait of Austen Deans, the painter.

Railways fascinate Sinclair. He spent holidays in his youth at Arthurs Pass and fell in love with the steam locos, five of which were necessary to slow the descent through the Otira tunnel. The tunnel was the longest in the Empire when constructed. Cobb & Co in the 1920s, the last regular stagecoach line in New Zealand, crossed the pass. Near the summit was a roadman’s hut, later inhabited by one of my favourite artists, Grace Butler. Sinclair brilliantly portrays Grace Adams, Butler’s daughter, who still strides purposefully in the mountains. Like Jill Malcolm, Roy Sinclair is awed by the place (and survived a descent of it by bicycle). And to underline his respect, he quotes a ballad by the Rev. Tremayne Curnow, Allen’s father: “The road’s a ledge along a cliff. / The wheels go near it, heavens if / They make a deviation …”


Neville Bennett is a Christchurch historian.


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Posted in Memoir, Non-fiction, Review
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