Brett's radical travels
Fearing that Jack's charges might doubt the value of the literary expeditions I'd been making to places like the Hauraki Plains and Huntly, I assured them that I had merely been jumping on a literary bandwagon that had gained impressive momentum overseas. The name of this bandwagon was, I announced, anti-travel writing. The term might be new to Kiwi ears, but it was, I insisted, tripping off the tongues of northern hemisphere scribblers. Iain Sinclair's walks through the slowly gentrifying wastes of greater London, JG Ballard's paeans to abandoned airports in the Nevada Desert, and Robert Macfarlane's fossickings in the sodden, ghost-thronged margins of East Anglia were all examples of anti-travel literature.
Partly out of obduracy, and partly for want of an alternative, I've continued to use the term anti-travel to justify the reports I've posted, on this blog and elsewhere, from unloved suburban parks, the fringes of motorways, and little-visited pa. A few other bloggers have started to throw the term 'anti-travel' about, and Paul Janman has used it to describe his proposed film about the Great South Road.
One or two of the readers who have encountered the term 'anti-travel' have decided that it stands for the cessation of all human movement. One blogger, for instance, thought that I wanted to force people to remain permanently in their native villages and suburbs. Worryingly, he seemed to approve of such an idea.
Of course, 'anti-travel' isn't about staying put, but about travelling to unusual places, and thinking in unusual ways whilst exploring these places.
Some readers have claimed that I and those like me favour visiting unfashionable places because we love ugliness and boredom. They charge us with perversity and nihilism, and suggest that, if only we were honest with ourselves, we would admit that we'd prefer an hour lying on the beach at Pauanui to a week exploring Northland gumfields or the industrial ruins of Huntly.
Industrial Revolution Heritage tours of England's Midlands? For most Aucklanders the Hauraki Plains, with its vast painterly skies and intricate and ingenious canal system, represents merely a half-hour they must spend on their drive to the beaches of the Coromandel. But how many of the snobs who speed through the countryside around Ngatea and Kerepehi would fail to celebrate the coastal plains of the Netherlands, which have very similar attributes?
Gianni Vattimo uses the term 'constellation' to describe the set of economic, political and cultural conditions which create the acceptable reality of a particular society at a particular time. Fifty years ago, at the apex of the postwar economic boom, the reigning 'constellation' defined New Zealand as a hypermodern, hyperproductive nation, where farmers armed with heavy tractors, tonnes of fertiliser and heroic physiques turned out huge quantities of milk, mutton, and grain. Important visitors were taken to hydroelectric dams and dairy factories, so that they could admire man's mastery of nature in the country that billed itself as a 'new' and 'better' Britain.
In the late eighties and the nineties, though, New Zealand was deindustrialised and globalised, the needs of the finance and tourism sectors of the economy were prioritised, and a new national image was created. The hypermodern paradise became an arcadia inhabited by laidback hobbits. Industrial heritage has become an oxymoron, and tour buses steer resolutely for profitable wildernesses like Fiordland and the Ureweras. The reigning constellation has changed.
To say all this is not to deny the shortcomings of the term I coined back in 2008. The excellent everywhere all the time blog, which recently reproduced my post about the history of the countryside around Hobbiton, uses the term 'radical travel' to describe its enthusiasms. I think that phrase easily beats out 'anti-travel', because it lacks all connotations of stasis and negativity. Why didn't I think of anything half as good?
Brett Cross is an inveterate exponent of anti- or radical travel. The boss of Titus Books tired of international journeying years ago, and now devotes himself to explorations of the New Zealand countryside which are both languorous and intense. He likes to move from one rural location to another, getting to know the terrain and culture of each place he lives in super-intimate detail. Brett spent 2011 and 2012 in an isolated area of the Kaipara, canoeing down turbid streams that were once highways for missionaries and Nga Puhi taua and fossicking at the bottom of disused wells. Recently he moved with his family to an area south of Auckland, and began a series of forays into the rough edges of the Waikato region and across the Hauraki Plains.
Brett sent me this account of an expedition to the central section of the Plains:
we went to the huge 'lake' south of ngatea a couple of days back, drove up a remote gravel farm road, saw a farmer on a 4-wheel and asked him if this was the way to the 'lake' - he looked at us quizzically, then said, 'you mean the swamp?' we said, 'nah, on the map, there's supposed to be a huge lake around here' - he goes, 'mmmmm, yeah ... there's a huge swamp, duck hunters use the next road down, gravel road winds through it, you can go there' - and looked at us like we were very strange folk indeed whilst the rest of the xmas holiday-makers roared past in the distance on state highway 2 looking for pauanui and the mt ... anyways, we went to the gravel road but lost our bottle as a very narrow gravel track headed into dense swamp, would like to go back sometime though if we could ever get hold of a 4-wheel drive. The swamps in the Hauraki District are very cool and fascinating - and the plains pretty much the highlight of the area...
When James Cook steered up the Waihou at the end of 1769 he found kahikatea rising seventy feet out of the swampland on either side of the river, and noticed the local people steering slender waka tiwai between the great white columns. The Hauraki people lived on islands they had created amidst the marshes, and harvested the eels and birds which thrived in its depths and heights. Their carvings, which are still occasionally discovered by the Pakeha dairy farmers who have drained blocks of swampland, are unique in the canon of Maori art, because the Gods and ancestors they depict often have webbed fingers and toes.
During World War Two the marshes of Hauraki became a graveyard for the craft of the fledgling New Zealand Air Force, as trainee pilot after trainee pilot beached his corsair or tiger moth in their rushes and ooze. No reason for the persistent crashes could be discovered. Historians of aviation still hunt wrecks in the swamps, and occasionally drag out wing-fragments and propeller blades, relics which resemble the bones of giant extinct creatures.
Those Christmas holiday-makers roaring past on their way to Pauanui didn't know what they were missing.
[Posted by Scott Hamilton]