New Zealand. It looks fairly small on the map. At a glance it’s a wobbly, malformed pair of boulders drifting slowly away from the Australian coast, into the Pacific Ocean.
Look closer. A mishmash of place names. Etymologically, New Zealand sounds like a country discovered and named with Tolkienesque enthusiasm, but with a lot less linguistic consistency. Scottish labels dot the landscape like peppercorns on wrinkled cloth. They form a strange mix alongside Maori and American English. Glentanner, Glenorchy and Invercargill contrast with Waipara, Kaikoura and Hokitika. Shingle Creek, Mount Huxley and Hanmer Springs sound like they come straight from the States.
New Zealand is lonely and beautiful, the South Island especially so. The land east of the Alpine divide is free of human habitation for vast, numbing expanses of scrubby wilderness. The mountainous west is even emptier. The scale is both impressive and humbling. Driving through the South Island from Mount Cook village to Wanaka, New Zealand from the inside of a car feels like a bastard hybrid of Scotland and the USA. The rolling matted grass hills and barren slopes, parched by the summer sun, weirdly resemble a drought-stricken Caledonia. At the same time the vast irrigated fields and jagged Alpine ridges lining the western horizon bring to mind Dakota or Montana.
Just like America, here in New Zealand the car is king. Without one you’d better be prepared to hitchhike or do a serious amount of walking. Towns sprawl unimpeded for miles, their inhabitants unconstrained and unconcerned by any need to economise on space. With so much of it to fill, the indifference seems almost wilful; a sharp contrast to the space-scrimping mindset forced on us Europeans.
The towns, when you reach them in the car, feel like border towns. Islands of civilisation – petrol stations, McDonalds, hardware stores, maybe a hunting store – they’re a chance to restock and grab a coffee before the next push.
Take Twizel for example. Population: 1,200 sunburned Kiwis. The first you see of it is the airfield by the road, a fat red biplane squatting on the tarmac. Further on, the Musterer’s Hut looks and feels like a Mid-West saloon, a coffee machine standing in for beer taps. A souvenir shop tagged on to the café flogs thermos flasks and postcards of kiwis, sheep and mountain vistas. It’s an island in the desert.
Heading further west on smooth tarmacked roads, the mountains solidify and then loom overhead. Soon you are amongst them on winding Alpine roads. The Southern Alps are the crumbling spine of the South Island. And they are crumbling. The rain seeps into them, freezing and shattering the brittle rock, reducing rocky tenements to jumbled spoil. The mountains in the west create their own, new, New Zealand; still wild but wet and lush where the east is arid.
New Zealand feels like a young country, still settling into its own sense of identity. It feels somehow incomplete and yet to fill out, like a designer-made country for whom the market suddenly dried up. A Magrathean customer contract. The mixed-up place names only add to this sense of exciting, confusing emergence. The country is still forging an identity, mashing traditional Maori together with its newer Scottish-English Caucasian legacy to create something new.
Note: at the time of posting, New Zealanders are voting on a new flag. They have the option to replace the traditional Union Jack-based flag with a new silver fern-dominated design. Current polls indicate that the old flag will be retained; an interesting and perhaps unexpected choice in a young and growing country.