Monday, April 04, 2011

Breaking down in Huntly, and related delights

I have to apologise for the lack of action on this blog over the past few days, and for the backlog of unread messages in my e mail account. Skyler and I have been away from civilisation, and our return has not been hastened by a couple of incidents. First our 1994 Honda Integra broke down beside the old cemetery on the northern outskirts of Huntly; later, after our vehicle was revived, I locked our keys inside it, leaving us marooned on the drizzly Hauraki Plains.

I'm wondering whether I was subconsciously trying to extend our stay on the Plains, which have become, despite or because of the fact of their unpopularity with most tourists, one of my favourite pieces of New Zealand. I certainly didn't feel in any great panic, as I wandered away through the mist to search for some discarded fence-wire with which to jammy open our door. Skyler was less enthusiastic about the prospect of an indefinite stay amidst the sodden dairy farms, torpid rivers and unvisited wetlands reserves of the Plains, and summouned a mechanic from the nearby town of Ngatea with her cellphone. I didn't feel any great worry, either, when our ageing machine staged its mutiny outside Huntly, and we had to pull onto the strip of gravel and weeds which separates the incorrigible traffic of State Highway One from the broad deserted Waikato River. I decided that we must have run out of petrol - my complete innocence of mechanical matters precludes me from making any other diagnosis, when car engines suddenly stop working - and headed for the station at the other end of Huntly. Walking through the beginnings of a rainshower in the dusk, with diesel fumes and smoke from the coal power station across the river in my nostrils, I pitied the occupants of the flash vehicles which rushed past me on their way towards Auckland.

I was walking on hollow and hallowed ground, over the winding coal shafts which miners dug a hundred years ago, and beside a river had once carried scores of waka at a time, as well as the ironclads of an invading British army and the paddlesteamers of the early twentieth century. I was walking towards the site of the Huntly riot of 1932, when the people of the town laid siege to the mining company's store and sent shivers up the spines of the bourgeoisie of Auckland, who believed that a 'red army' might be preparing to march on their city from the coalfields of the lower Waikato.

As I pressed on into Huntly I noted, with considerable satisfaction, that there was a liquor store and a pub between me and the gas station.

Further away through the dusk was Taupiri, the sacred mountain of the Tainui people, the resting place of Princess Te Puea and Tawhiao and other heroes of the anti-colonial cause, and the site of legendary Labour Party leader Harry Holland's dramatic and perhaps symbolic death at the beginning of the '30s. Did the Aucklanders floating past me in their SUVs, thinking about the TV dinners they'd eat when they got home to Howick or Takapuna and the facebook gossip they might have missed during their sojourns from civilisation, have any inkling of the delights and insights they might be missing, because they hadn't broken down in the little town of Huntly? I wouldn't mind breaking down there again.


Blogger Sandra said...

You haven't mentioned what you actually did in Huntly though. You just looked at the liquor store and pub, or you actually went in? In my mind it is raining as well, but that is because the weather here doesn't quite allow for imagining any other reality.

3:55 pm  
Blogger Sandra said...

Not to mention that you referred twice to it raining...

6:04 pm  
Anonymous Raymond a Francis said...

Talk about making the best of a bad situation X 2
Love it
Excellent, ever thought about a job with a political spin machine, your are a natural

6:47 pm  
Blogger maps said...

Hi Sandra,

nothing much happened in Huntly: I decided it would be rather ungentlemanly to sit in a warm pub consuming beer whilst my wife sat a few kilometres north in a cold broken-down car beside state highway one in the rain and dark.

I really just enjoyed the opportunity to spend some time in a town I've gotten to know reasonably well over the last decade. There's a tendency for motorists heading through the Waikato to treat highway one as a sort of doorless passageway between Hamilton and Auckland. It's extraordinary how many people have travelled dozens of times between the cities and yet never pulled off the highway to visit unfashionable towns like Huntly, let alone the sparsely populated regions - Limestone Country and North Raglan in the west, and the swamps of Island Block and scruffy low hills of the Hapuakohes in the east - beyond the towns.

I talked at possibly boring length about my love affair with Huntly in a lecture on anti-travel given a couple of years ago:

7:15 pm  
Anonymous andy's lump said...

Get out an atlas.
Huntly is only a short way from Orkland.
It's not the North Pole.
Anyone here can go there if they want.
They choose not to because...


7:29 pm  
Blogger maps said...

'Get out an atlas. Huntly is only a short way from Orkland.'

That is true in a strictly objective sense. Huntly isn't far away, and can easily be reached by road. But space has a subjective dimension, too. Distances exist in our minds as well as in the world.

How far is it from, say, the upper middle class mostly Pakeha and Asian Auckland suburb of Botany Downs to the poor mostly Polynesian suburb of Otara? In an objective sense, the places are only a kilometre or less from each other. They practically border each other. In a subjective sense, though - in the minds of many of their residents - they are far apart.

It is not hard to meet Botany Downs residents who have travelled to the other side of the world, yet never visited Otara, which they see as an alien and perhaps dangerous place.

Marx famously said that capitalism and modern technology turn space into time. Places which are far away are brought near by modern transport and communications. But because capitalism develops wildly unevenly, and has periodically to destroy part of what it has created in order to renew itself, it can create isolation as well as connection.

Even forty years ago Huntly and the other coal and power towns of the lower Waikato - Meremere, Rotowaro, Pukemiro, Glen Afton, and so on - occupied a much more important place in our economy and society than they do now. As the economy was ruthlessly restructured by neoliberalism in the late '80s and '90s, though, they became backwaters, in a subjective and - sometimes - objective sense.

Huntly remains on the main trunk line and one Highway One, but the decline of mining has made parts of the town, especially on the western side of the Waikato, seem semi-derelict. With its tough miners and combative union, the town was once a byword for staunchness, but it is now the butt of jokes - the Slough of New Zealand. Huntly has become a place Aucklanders and international tourists alike pass through on their way to more pleasant locations, like the western Bay of Plenty or Taupo.

Some of the mining towns in the hill country west of Huntly have actually become more objectively as well as subjectively remote, as the railway which serviced them has been allowed to fall into disuse, and services like banks and post offices have disappeared.

I would argue, then, that Huntly and its environs are actually quite remote from Auckland, despite the brute physical facts of geography.

10:29 pm  
Anonymous andy's lump said...

oh fuck off maps

10:47 pm  
Anonymous andy's lump said...

Huntly is a SHITHOLE

10:48 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, leaving aside Huntly, I loved this idea of people who have travelled to, say, New York or London, but have never been a few km into Otara.

One reason I love the West Coast is because of all the abandoned mining towns. Sometimes just a spot on the map and a small cemetery full of seasick head stones.

6:40 am  
Blogger maps said...

Getting back to the notion of subjective space, and to the difficulties of pulling off physical and mental highways, there's a poem by Bertolt Brecht which I was meaning to quote
(probably innaccurately):

'I wait by the side of the road
as my car is repaired.

I do not like the place I have come from.

I do not like the place where I am going.

Why then do I wait with such impatience?'

5:07 pm  
Blogger maps said...

'Seasick head stones' is a fine phrase.

Gordon Ell has done a two volume guide to New Zealand's 'ghost towns', which I think includes a few West Coast locations.

Ell only looks at Pakeha settlements: it'd take many more volumes to cover the Maori settlements which no longer exist. I think there are probably more 'ghost' villages and towns than 'living' settlements in New Zealand...

5:09 pm  
Blogger Sandra said...

I've been back and had a read of your anti travel lecture post Maps. Much of interest as is your trademark - thanks for the link.

You mention the classic Botany Downs vs Otara worlds in one of your comments. I do agree. But there is so much more to the isolation of Auckland life than money vs no money. When I was in Auckland last December, we stayed with relatives in law in Albany Heights. Totally beautiful house with the seclusion of the country tied to the amenities of a big city. Only city life (indeed most life) means something less closed off than that and the nearest approximation to a 'suburb' was Albany. How to experience any kind of community in such a place? Roundabouts and ring roads which are large enough to house small farms (no doubt they did just that not long ago) and no space to walk anywhere. We had a night without the children and asked for a recommendation for a Thai restaurant, as when we were beginning our relationship in Auckland a decade ago, we loved Thai restaurants (the one in Kingsland where I got pissed because the waitress never stayed long enough for a food order after the gin, the Ponsonby one tucked away in an unfashionable mall, others we also loved). We were sent to one in the conglomeration of architectural and spatial hell which is Albany megacentre and ate our nice food looking at the carpark and the wall of the next ugly large building. Everyone drove there and there were no houses within reasonable walking distance. It was like anti-community. Better words to encompass that concept very welcome.

That is something that our small towns are mercifully free of. Maybe you should have gone into that pub in Huntly and they would have collected Skyler in their courtesy van...

8:16 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

For years I have made a point of stopping at Huntly. I used to stop for sausages tea / and or coffee, tomato and eggs.

I like places such as Huntly. I like the broad streets and wide footpaths of those rural towns, the yoked mix of beauty, stupidity and desolation, history (not that History is clear or specific in my mind more a kind of feeling of time) I used to like them the more "old time" they were. I recall in the 60s being envious of my sister who went to see the Huntly coal mines.

I also loved going on the Limited (train between Wellington and Auckland it was steam when I was young, but it changed to diesel-electric) at night and stopping for tea and sandwiches at Mercer but I know that was not liked by others. I loved it.

But I prefer tea rooms to pubs. There is a greater feeling of isolation sitting and pondering in a tea room or a coffee bar.

It is de rigueur for me to eat alone in such simple places. And yet...

Alone one can realize the joys of being in a vast corrupt but intense city such as Auckland with all its ideas. As one eats, and tries to think, one is near but alienated form the simple beings who are the naive unread locals of such out of place out-posts of desolation and decay where nothing is or has or ever will happen.

People charge around the country going to places. (As if there was ever any meaning in anything or urgency for getting to places. Death comes soon enough.) Also no one (or not so many these days) seems to walk.

The infinite loneliness of beauty.

11:42 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

I have lived in both Otara (about 2 ks South from about 1975 to 1985) and Howick (Cockle Bay).

I went to NY in 1993 and Fiji in 1974. Otherwise I have never traveled outside of NZ.

There are no good places or bad. Places are just places.

11:48 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I undoubtedly read it somewhere. "Seasick headstones" that is.

Is the Ell book any good because that sounds awesome?

I once spent a weekend walking and driving around Wellington to the top of various hills and standing on old pa sites. It changed how I looked at the geography of this place.

Richard - I like Dunedin because it has feeling of a grand disuse, and I particularly always visit the railway station there and stand on the huge platform which seems so folorn.

8:35 pm  
Anonymous Keri H said...

Maps, thanks again for yet another evocative post about areas in the North I will never make them real to me-

and I'll be searching out that Gordon Ell Book.

On the subject of ghost kaika: there are *so* many in the South.

Manoferrors - so with you on the Dunedin Railway Station! I want WANT steamtrains back! The place so needs them, and I am sure we could invent non-coal-generated steam-

9:38 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

But I love and hate almost wherever I go. I like e.g The Pakuranga shopping centre (I don't beleive there are any bad places I love Albany and huge supermarkets excite (and sometimes frighten) me); as much as I deeply love My Mongolia, and my England and cities as much as deserts or Arctic wastes (imagined or not...not that I want to BE in an arctic waste...but I did read Mawson's book of his terrible but fascinating journey...)

I liked Gerard Murnane's 'The Plains'.

Smithyman is great on all this, he could go anywhere and still be interested. Alan Sondheim q.v. said in an interview that he was interested in everything.

It would be wonderful (and terrible) to be inside the middle of nuclear explosion, or to be one. But violets are still violet.

1:05 am  
Blogger Richard said...

" manoferrors ........

Richard - I like Dunedin because it has feeling of a grand disuse, and I particularly always visit the railway station there and stand on the huge platform which seems so folorn.

....... "

I have a poem that has me stopping at the Central Railway Station in Auckland. It has almost a sepulchral aspect, beautiful in its own echoing way (it is modelled, or was; on some famous building, forget what). Dunedin I was in once about 1971. Quite cold. Steep hills. I understand about desolate though. But without its opposite the other things would not be interesting. We need all kinds of things. Moods (and circumstances) change also. I sometimes have great, almost Van Goghian, moments in "landscape", nothing like it happens say in Auckland (not that there is no "rural" here, there is and there are some magical places, and magical moments (perhaps they are more [name a modernist to a postmodernist artist] moments!; here also, but being "outside the walls" can be quite exhilarating). It is the change that casuees or can casue the frisson.

There is also the historical aspect and the ghost towns.
I remember learning a poem at Primary School by Dennis Glover about 'Arrowtown'. In my anthology the line I liked:

'I open the doors and the flies swarm in,
I shut the doors and I'm sweatin' agin '

Those lines are ommitted...! C'est la vie...

On Maungarei or near Mokoioa near my place I never forget that Maori once lived around here...(they still do of course but not as they did..hmm...

1:30 am  
Blogger maps said...

Hi Sandra,

I agree that Albany can be a bleak place - apparently some people south of the bridge call it 'Albania' - but, perhaps partly because Auckland is so large (in terms of the area it covers, if not the population it covers that area with) it does contain a number of suburbs which resemble, in their isolation and comparative insularity, small towns.

Te Atatu, where I currently live, sits on a peninsula, and has a compact and definite commercial and civic centre, to which most residents can walk without trouble. There seems to be no shortage of community organisations and events (my favourite is probably the Te Atatu Cat Show, which is - if I remember rightly - coming up next weekend). Although it has become quite gentrified, Point Chevailer is another peninsula-suburb with the feel of a small town.

One of the reasons the Supercity was resisted by Aucklanders was a fear of the loss of local autonomy and identity. Resistance was particularly strong in Papakura, which had its own mayor and councillors. Many of the residents of that suburb, and of others in the south and west, don't bother to travel often into central Auckland: they see it was an alien place, and feel they have everything they need at hand.

Although I sometimes generalise grossly about 'Aucklanders', I tend to see the place as a collection of regions, rather than as a unified city. You should have come this side of the bridge for a drink with us back in December!

10:12 am  
Blogger maps said...

I enjoyed your comment on Huntly and on tea rooms, Richard. You don't feel like posting the poem of yours which refers to a visit to Huntly and a meal of bacon and eggs, do you? I remember quite a few lines from the piece, but not its title.

Gordon Ell's books on ghost towns are aimed at the general reader who wants to take a road trip, and so they include maps, photos, and a relatively short (but nevertheless informative) text on each destination. Ell also did a book on 'ghost railways', which followed a similar format.

I was all at sea looking for pa sites in Wellington: I couldn't observe any earthworks! Is there terracing on (say) Mount Victoria/Tangi-te-keo?

I'd like to visit Somes Island, partly for the twentieth century history, but partly because it was apparently the spot from which Ngati Mutunga and Ngati Tama set out for Rekohu/the Chathams/Wharekauri in the fateful year of 1835...

11:11 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Huntly is quite important because it gives you a solid foundation in life.

I would quite like some more Huntly.

I must have a look for it sometime.

1:17 pm  
Blogger paul scott said...

he says
"First our 1994 Honda Integra broke down beside the old cemetery on the northern outskirts of Huntly; later, after our vehicle was revived, I locked our keys inside it, leaving us marooned on the drizzly Hauraki Plains."

there are things that are good for you, and things that are not:
One doesn't drive an Integra dude, and one doesn't go any where near Huntly.
Try to pull your life together,

7:15 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Maps - Yes. Thanks. Good to poeticise and philosophise or muse on these things. Interesting that we are both fans of Huntly!

Do you want me to "comment" 'Lookout'?

On another subject - on Jack's blog (lastest post I think) he talks about the very good review he got on Landfall for 'The Kingdom of Alt'. I must read his book. Feel a bit bad I haven't read it all yet.

9:53 pm  
Anonymous Weheka said...

"Two guys get out of a car
they stand beside it
there is nothing else to do"

Richard Brautigan.

6:47 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree that Huntly occupies a very necessary piece of real estate amongst the architecture of the universe as we know it, it has a reason to exist and a purpose.

That purpose however is much like a slap in the face in some seedy bar, it reminds us of where we should not be when we are there.

7:42 pm  
Anonymous Android TV Player said...

I think it's extraordinary how many people have traveled dozens of times between the cities and yet never pulled off the highway to visit unfashionable towns like Huntley, let alone the sparsely populated regions - Limestone Country and North Raglan in the west, and the swamps of Island Block and scruffy low hills of the Hapuakohes in the east and more that Even forty years ago Huntly and the other coal and power towns of the lower Waikato - Meremere, Rotowaro, Pukemiro, Glen Afton, and so on - occupied a much more important place in our economy and society than they do now...

2:04 am  

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