From Kalmykia to Huntly
In an interview with the Guardian, Kalder elaborated the idea behind his book:
"Me and Joe [his companion for two of the trips] had been living in Moscow for quite a while, and he had a map of Russia on his wall. We used to sit and look for places that we'd not only never heard of but had no mental image of either. And then we'd go...
I found out Kalmykia itself was just an empty wasteland, and I became fascinated by its nothingness. No one in Russia knew where it was: Joe spent two hours phoning travel agents, and they kept telling him it was in another country. When we did go, we had to tell people we were journalists, because they were just baffled by the idea of people coming to visit. The only way to get there was to fly in this really crappy little plane, that looked like a waiting room for death. And when we got there, physically, it was just this endless, empty land. There was nobody there; nothing. It was an absolute void, which is what we were both looking for...
I chose in the end to visit Udmurtia [the final stop on his tour] because the Udmurts basically no longer exist - they're already assimilated. I put that passage in because I didn't want people to be able to think 'I'm not like these folk. They're losers'. The whole point of the book was to try to bring those people close. I'm from Fife, which is another nothing zone, and a friend said to me when he read the Udmurt section that it sounded like I was a long-lost Udmurt coming to meet his brothers. And I felt pleased that he thought that: I didn't want to have this fake distance, this fake ... " he hestitates," ... exoticism, that travel-writing can produce."
It's an open question, though, whether Kalder manages to convince his readers of the ordinariness of the places he visits. Take Kalmykia, for instance: this republic in the Caucasus is inhabited by descendants of central Asian nomads who have retained their Buddhist religion and look more like Koreans than Russians. Their President, Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, is also the head of the World Chess Federation, and spends most of his time attending chess tournaments far from his homeland. Back in the '90s he built a 'chess city' on the barren steppe of Kalmykia for an international tournament in the country. During the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003 Ilyumzhinov declared that he supported both Saddam Hussein and George Bush! All in all, Kalmykia doesn't sound quite like Fife.
It's also worth asking how original Kalder's 'anti-travel' writing is. Since the birth of modernism, at least, writers and artists have frequently been drawn to unglamorous, ugly or boring subject matter. Duchamp's 'readymades' made bicycle wheels and urinals into art objects; James Joyce delighted in the provincial mundanity and ugliness of turn of the century Dublin; Frank Sargeson heard poetry in the bar room talk of shearers in Te Kuiti...
If anyone ever writes an 'anti-travel' book set in New Zealand, then the region loosely known as the 'lower Waikato' deserves a chapter. Over the past few years I've fallen in love with this outwardly rather unloveable area, which most Aucklanders know only as a corridor between their city and Hamilton. Huntly, the gritty mining town that is 'capital' of the region, is the butt of jokes in the rest of the country in much the same way that Hull is the butt of jokes in Britain. In the '90s Auckland's student radio station even produced a mock-tribute song called 'What's wrong with Huntly?' The track, whose lyrics consisted mostly of quotes from the Huntly County Council's PR, ended up making the national charts.
Despite the best efforts of the County Council, the lower Waikato remains off the tourist radar: it has none of the snow-capped mountains, luxuriant forests, tumbling waterfalls, and crystal clear lakes that fill the heads of most visitors to New Zealand. What the lower Waikato does have is a big brown river, a big brown power station, a dozen or so very muddy riverine lakes, big stretches of swamp, dozens of abandoned coal mines, a couple of functioning mines at Huntly West and Maramarua, a few abandoned factories, mostly related to the coal industry, and several layers of fascinating history. This area was the home of one of the most militant sections of the New Zealand working class - of miners and dairy factory workers who developed an intense sense of solidarity living in small settlements dominated by single employers. They played rugby league, not rugby - an almost seditious act in the Waikato - and made formidable opponents in a string of famous industrial disputes.
In 1913 Huntly and surrounding townships were subject to occupation by 'Massey's Cossacks', the farmers on horseback who brutally defeated the general strike called that year by the 'Red' Federation of Labour; in 1932, in the aftermath of the famous Queen St riot, rumours flew around Auckland claiming that the miners of the lower Waikato had formed a red army and were marching on the city. (In the event, the out of work and hungry miners restricted themselves to ransacking the shops of Huntly.) During the 1951 waterfront dispute, National Prime Minister and wannabe dictator Sid Holland was able to declare the existence of a 'communist conspiracy' to create civil war in New Zealand after explosives were planted under a railway bridge near Huntly. Holland sent the army into the area to protect the trains carrying coal dug by scab labour.
Today in the lower Waikato the era of working class militancy is over, and seemingly almost forgotten; in the Huntly Coal Museum one can find records of the members of the town's croquet team in 1951, but nothing about the epic struggle of that year.
But there is another, earlier layer of lower Waikato history which has gained increased prominence in recent years. The most important phase of the 'New Zealand Wars' began when thousands of British troops and a few rag-tag colonial volunteers crossed the Mangatawhiri Stream, a small tributary of the Waikato River, just south of the frontier town of Mercer. The Mangatwhiri had been declared an 'aukati', or border, by the Ngaruawahia-based government of the Waikato Kingdown, and the intrusion of the British army sparked a series of battles which ended in the defeat of the Kingdom and the retreat of its leadership and army into the 'Rohe Potae' in the rough country south of Te Awamutu.
The 'Maori renaissance' of recent decades has increased awareness of the importance of the Waikato War, and today busloads of schoolkids troop obediently in and out of the small but fascinating tea shop-cum-museum run by a history buff in Rangiriri, site of the biggest battle of the war. But the earthworks of both Maori musket pa and European redoubts which litter the lower Waikato still go as unregarded as the remains of the area's coal industry.
Last Thursday Muzzlehatch and I drove through the mist and rain to try to find the spot where the British army crossed the 'aukati' and began the Waikato War. There were no tourist brochures to help us, only James Cowan's 1924 History of the Maori Wars, and when we found the spot it was marked not with a plaque but with the corpse of a cow, dozens of empty beer bottles, and scores of bullet shells. They're a wild bunch down in the Waikato.
Here's a shot of me on the northern side of the aukati (it's slightly blurry, on account of the mist):
And here's a view across the aukati, into the former territory of the Waikato Kingdom:
Later we drove to Rangiriri, and took this photo of the graveyard which sits on part of the battle site:
The Maori who died defending their pa site between the Waikato River and Lake Waikare were buried in a mass grave, whereas the Brits got individual spots marked by blank stones.
At the back of Meremere, the village built south of Mercer for the workforce of a now-derelict power station, there's a little-known area called Island Block which somehow manages to sum up the feel of the lower Waikato. Island Block is a thin strip of dairy farmland almost completely surrounded by the sprawling Whangamarino swamp. The Block seems to be permanently enveloped in mist; green rot marks the walls of its farmhouses. Here's a photo taking looking south from the block, out over the swamp:
Eat your heart out Daniel Kalder.