[At Akenside and Spence’s we frequently entertain the tales of travellers. It lifts the heart. Why, only recently, a fellow came in to tell us of his marches around the Border Marches (see our last post). But Allan Ingram takes us far further afield: to New Zealand!]
The Lion has been flying south, mane-numbingly, mind-tanglingly south, hour after hour, day after seeming day, time zone after time zone, across countries and continents, seas and gulfs, meal-tray after meal-tray, Europe, Middle East, Dubai, Singapore, India, Australia, day, night, day, night until morning at last in Melbourne, there to linger a while in a departure lounge the size of a cupboard, squeezed behind a Chinese takeaway, before finally boarding a flight to Wellington and the end – or beginning – of it all: to meet with our Canadian Correspondent, herself fresh from an eternity of travel across the Pacific, and gnaw happily together over a bone or two in one of the bars on Cuba Street. The purpose of this upheaval? A conference of the Romantic Studies Association of Australasia (Leonine Branch). The Lion has always enjoyed flirting with Romanticism, and does so again in these southern climes: we mumble over Keats, worry at Shelley, growl gently around Godwin, eat the highly agreeable conference food, share affability over the local wine. Lions from the Pacific ring – Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong, the Philippines, and the big reserves of Australia and New Zealand – are every bit as dedicated to good things (including the coffee – though not, of course, up to our normal Akenside and Spence expectations) as their Northern counterparts, and a pleasurable level of pride enthusiasm is soon established. A wonderful welcome at Victoria University’s Maori Lodge – Te Herenga Waka Marae: such elegance, such presence, such artwork, such traditional rubbing together of noses! And then we confer, we laugh, we Roar – some with our unfamiliar northern hemisphere accents – we exchange business cards, we leave, and at last, the real prize of this long-haul visit, we tour!
‘A Maori View of the Sea’
There are three official languages in New Zealand: English, Maori and Sign, but a fourth is also readily recognised and applauded: Roaring. We are welcomed wherever we go, whether our Roars are made with English or Canadian intonation: hotels, motels, restaurants, bars, all accommodate us with pleasure, meeting our particular needs, our distinctive taste in cuisine and our regal ways. A curious thing: beyond our Leonine conference, there are no Lions in New Zealand! Wildlife there is aplenty, of the most extraordinary kind, but the Lion is a real novelty – hence the kind reception to Roaring. It is applauded because, poor people, they so rarely get to hear it!
‘Not a Lion’
Geologically speaking (which the Lion, fortunately, is able to do), New Zealand’s two main islands are rather different nowadays, as different as chalk and cheese, as antelope and gnu, as Newcastle and Sunderland! The North Island is volcanic, with hot mud, geysers, landscape with holes and mountains that stand solitary. The South, in contrast, was largely glacial, leaving long lakes, carved valleys, mountains in ranges, the Southern Alps, and, to the east, wide open plains. It is apparent to the Lion that these twins have little in common, were probably never twins at all. They separated off with the ages from some continental elsewhere (doubtless from Oz, thinks the Lion, sagely), rising under different tectonic pressures, almost to one, never quite joining, finally (as final as geology ever gets) becoming a single political body, but with very distinct physical identities. Extraordinary, thinks the Lion – how very affable.
Being creatures that like to lounge and stretch, rather than bubble and gush, the Lions head south.
Apart from two species of bat, New Zealand had no native land mammals. Hardly a diet for a Lion! Wherever those islands came from, they left before mammals were around. Sea mammals there were, and now introduced mammals of various kinds, both with the Maoris and then the Europeans, most of them damaging – to indigenous species (hungry weasels, hungry stoats), and to the landscape (pesky rabbits, pesky sheep). But the birdlife! The Lions look on enraptured as colourful, exotic, engaging, noisy, unique spirits occupy the air, the forests, the seashores, and, increasingly, the bird reserves and the wildlife parks. ‘The isle is full of noises’, think the Lions, restraining their Roaring for a while to enjoy the life around them. Such variety: the white-bobbed tui, with its bewildering range of sounds, from the sweetest melodiousness to weird cackles and gurgles; the antique, flightless takahe, looking like a self-possessed chicken; the noisy intelligent kaka, with a sure eye for food; the nocturnal and, frankly, antisocial kiwi; yellow-eyed penguins, tottering inebriates, gulping down fish like seasoned drinkers; and the world’s only alpine parrot, the kea, the most inquisitive, shameless, mischievous, kleptomaniacal, inquisitorial, intrusively in-your-face and appealing rogue in the entire cosmos, assailing travellers at higher level lay-bys and attempting to relieve them of their sandwiches, footwear, headgear, luggage, window seals, tyre tread, windscreen wipers and anything else remotely edible or glittery! (The Lions have none – none now, at least!)
‘An inoffensive Kea being molested by a passing Hooligan’
And then there are the sandflies! As the Lions wait for their long-anticipated cruise on Milford Sound, out to the Tasman Sea, they slap, contort, growl and curse, while cloud upon cloud of the creatures assaults every hair on their bodies. Finally, desperate, they purchase the highly aromatic spray, thoughtfully available at the ticket office, and are content to wait again, reeking and damp, while they watch the queues of tourists slapping and contorting among the relentless waves. Noah made a whole arkful of mistakes, thinks the Lion, but letting two sandflies on board was surely the greatest blunder in the whole Bible!
Happily, sandflies dislike straying far from land: the cruise is magnificent! The Lions bask in vistas of towering rock faces, waterfalls cascading from skyscraper heights, turn after turn of seaways, and at last the open skies of the ocean, where successive captains – Cook, Grono – took views of the Sound, Cook, in despair of making a safe entry, choosing to pass by for friendlier-looking havens. Nor do sandflies like mountains. Queenstown, with its white water and its antique lake cruises, is largely spared. The Lions stroll the sidewalks, browse the shops, beaming beneficently at the crowded lakeside beach, everywhere greeted with awe and gratitude by the non-leonine inhabitants, as if in thanks for their dropping by, for gracing their town and for bringing a touch of the exotic north to such far southern climes. The Lions move on, to Aoraki/Mount Cook: no sandflies there, either, but glaciers, ice cold rivers and stunning turquoise lakes. The mountains shrug their shoulders among the low clouds. The Lions shiver in the sun. They put the kettle on.
‘Sandflies at Milford Sound’
Pause for leonine thought: we travel, think the Lions, thousands of miles to the south, away from our northern habitats, across the equator, across the southern oceans, down towards the Antarctic, almost to the very end of the earth, and what do we find? We find a near-paradise of landscape, of creatures, of climate, of unpolluted beauty; we find a pace of life, an aspect on the world, that our northern homes have long left behind; we find breathing-space! We find, in short, our own selves as we have forgotten we once were.
Shame about the tourists!
It is time to move on: the Lions growl their sad farewells. Early airport, back across the Pacific, Vancouver, February, the snow on the plains, home. A later plane for the Lion himself, heading north, north, north: Melbourne, India, Dubai, the Gulf, mountains, war zones, eurozones, Eurovision zone (the Lion manages to keep his breakfast down – or was it supper?), grey skies, grey airport: Grey Street – Akenside and Spence!
Photographs: Michelle Faubert