People had told me that New Zealand’s South Island is like Scotland on steroids; the mountains are that bit higher and the lakes are that much bigger. After visiting, I realised that small, skinny Scotland would need Ben Johnson’s doctor to get us in the same race as New Zealand’s South Island. But there was a Scottishness that Australia has never evoked.
In Melbourne, people hear my accent and know that I’m not English, but often assume that I’m Irish or ask me which part of Ireland I’m from. An Australian boy with a Scottish flag on his t-shirt told me that he was Scottish, or rather that his Mum was, and when I asked which part she was from, he answered “Ireland”. But New Zealanders immediately know that I am Scottish and ask me which part I am from. They also didn’t exclaim surprise that Scotland also has a place called Perth in some inexplicable coincidence along with Australia.
Scotland has many towns that have deliberately retained an old-fashioned quaintness that are full of little tea-rooms and intriguing curio shops that you think have interesting things but have nothing worth buying. New Zealand’s South Island has similar sorts of towns except it appears that this is not because they are deliberately paused in time, but that they are running a little behind the times and are in no rush to catch up.
Another similarity is the smallness of the towns of the South Island with many having between 10,000 and 20,000, and only a couple of bigger cities above 50,000. Whilst places like Queenstown are overrun by tourists, other places remain relatively undisturbed and you can get a sense of what life is like for those living there.
Whilst the South Island is where much of Lords of the Rings was filmed, it was other films that came to my mind when touring around. I began to imagine films that inspired romantic notions of what community feels like. I could imagine towns of the South Island having a James Stewart character running through it wishing everybody Merry Christmas like in It’s a Wonderful Life. I could sense towns having such collective joy as when all ages of London town come out to fly a kite in Mary Poppins. Whatever the magic dust is that old-time Hollywood sprinkled, some of it fell on the little town of Te Anau on Hogmanay 2015.
For Hogmanay (New Year’s Eve), there were two obvious choices; we could either go party in Queenstown or lose ourselves in Fiordland National Park with wildflowers, a small river, Milford Sound and a cathedral of peaks. We went with the third choice which was to go somewhere in the middle and that place was Te Anau, a small town of 2000 people. Walking into town about 10:30pm, we were pointed, by some friendly police people, in the direction of the town’s main park and found a bonfire, some live music and the townspeople of all ages out to celebrate.
Near midnight, after some secret or telepathic communication, everybody began leaving the music stage and wandering towards the lake. Fearing some ritual dip in the freezing lake or a Pied Piper hypnotic escapade, we decided to follow at a safe distance. Thankfully, the mass migration (150 yards) was only because this little town was going to put on a ooh-aagh inspiring firework show from the lake.
After the fireworks and some New Year greetings, we all went back to the live band for more partying in the park. Daughters danced with dads; you bought a hotdog from your neighbour volunteering at the food stall; slightly inebriated teens chatted to former teachers and everybody loved the local band who played songs that garnered huge cheers but were wholly unknown to Claire and I.
It wasn’t just Te Anau that had the the magic dust sprinkled on it, even poor Christchurch, still suffering from multiple earthquakes, had a park full of families on Christmas Day picnicking, paddling in the pool and playing games together. Whilst we may not have expected to see a group of Indians playing cricket in Christchurch, we were even more surprised to see a series of rodeos happening throughout the South Island over Christmas and New Year. I never saw one rugby ball being kicked the whole time we were there, but I did see a wild horse kick a cowboy off their back. We also saw hundreds of cars rock up to a field outside of Wanaka to cheer on men and women attempting to ride huge bucking bulls, lasso cows and tame wild horses.
We got around, as many tourists do, with a campervan that allowed us to stop where and when we wanted. Before going to the South Island, a friend told me that everywhere takes longer to get to than you think. This is not just down to the single lane roads but because you will want to stop to take a picture every time you turn a corner. The lakes were a turquoise blue, caused by high calcium levels, that I had never seen before, added to the breathtaking contrast of blue skies and green mountains.
It was about 10 years ago that I first saw a picture of Milford Sound and was blown away by it. When we sailed and kayaked in it with, we were even treated to a school of dolphins swimming and jumping. However, the South Island then went and trumped that by taking us on a walk up to the Key Summit above Milford Sound that gave us views across the mountain ranges, lakes and sea. We sat, looked out and took a deep breath of wonder.
It’s at times like those that it’s best not to say anything. It’s best to let the beauty speak for itself. In that spirit, I’ll leave you with a few places to wonder about.