A long time ago, I worked alongside a reporter named Leslie Walters.
Les got into journalism after a stint in the army. He was a likeable character with an idiosyncratic view of the world.
It soon became apparent that Les wasn’t exactly suited to the role of hack reporter, writing formulaic news stories about car accidents and council meetings.
His career might have gone nowhere had it not been for the late Frank Haden, editor of what was then the Sunday Times. Frank appreciated Les’s offbeat sense of humour and had the good sense to give him some stylistic freedom.
The result was a mad, anarchic weekly feature that combined elements of Monty Python, Spike Milligan and Private Eye. Les seemed to inhabit a parallel universe. It wasn’t journalism, but it was funny and original and it attracted something of a cult following.
Perhaps inevitably, it also attracted the attention of a recruiter from an advertising agency, which brings me to the point of this column.
It was in advertising that Les found his niche. And if his name means nothing to most New Zealanders, those of a certain age will certainly remember the slogan he was credited with creating for the tourism industry in the 1980s. “Don’t leave town till you’ve seen the country” was aimed at encouraging people to experience New Zealand rather than book plane tickets to foreign destinations.
It’s a phrase that has insinuated itself into the national consciousness, rather like “The drink you have when you’re not having a drink”, which came from roughly the same era and is remembered long after the brand it advertised (Claytons) vanished.
I thought about Les’s slogan while on a recent caravan trip with my wife around the top half of the South Island. His advice remains as true now as it was three decades ago.
At Ashley Gorge in North Canterbury, we had one of the country’s most exquisite camping grounds to ourselves (although to be fair, it was fully booked the following weekend, which was Canterbury’s Anniversary Weekend).
At remote Lake Coleridge, we marvelled at the grit of the engineers and workers who created one of the country’s earliest hydro-electric power stations in a beautiful but inhospitable landscape. My father, who was an engineer with the State Hydro-Electric Department, would have been fascinated.
On the return drive, the view over the vast, braided bed of the Rakaia River against its mountain backdrop almost literally stopped us in our tracks. You can see why the Canterbury high country captivated artists like Rita Angus and Bill Sutton.
We drove through charming little North Canterbury towns with Tolkienesque names like Windwhistle and Glentunnel, the latter with its fabulously eccentric gazebo-shaped brick post office (still in use).
On the road across Arthur’s Pass, we played vehicular leap-frog with rental camper vans that were constantly pulling off to the side of the highway so their goggle-eyed occupants could take pictures.
We roamed in the chilly, swirling mists at the top of the Denniston Incline, where a hardy community of 1400 people once eked a living from coal. It’s an extraordinary place that all New Zealanders should make the effort to visit.
Quirky takeaway fact: it was said that the local football team had an advantage against visiting sides because the Denniston players were able to locate the ball by ear in the thick fog. They were also known to take advantage of the poor visibility by sneaking extra players onto the field.
At Runanga, we admired the famous old miners’ hall (c. 1908) with its faded socialist slogan “The World’s Wealth for the World’s Workers”. It remains true that more than any other part of New Zealand, the Coast has a culture all its own.
We did some of the standard touristy things: Punakaiki, Farewell Spit, the celebrated Mussel Inn in Golden Bay (greatly over-rated, if you ask me, with a menu that wouldn’t require much more culinary skill than KFC).
But here’s the thing: Almost everywhere we went, our fellow travellers were from overseas. At lonely Lake Coleridge, at the end of a rough and dusty road that would deter a lot of drivers, we met an adventurous Scandinavian woman touring alone on a motorbike.
In a camping ground at Greymouth, we shared the kitchen with a big group of Israelis. At Denniston, we shared the mist with tourists from Australia.
On the long, winding road to French Pass, surely one of New Zealand’s most spectacular drives, most of the vehicles we passed were rentals of the type that overseas visitors hire. I was impressed to see an intrepid Asian woman tackling the route alone.
Not for the first time, I marvelled at the number of foreign tourists who find their way to beautiful, out-of-the-way places that most New Zealanders never see. Outsiders seem to appreciate our country in a way that not all New Zealanders do.
Okay, it wasn’t the holiday season, so we probably weren’t seeing a typical sample. Still, I couldn’t help thinking of Les Walters and his advertising slogan.