My wife and I have been on a two-week journey of rediscovery around the South Island/Te Wai Pounamu.
I say rediscovery because none of the places we visited were new to us, though it was a few years since we’d been to some of them and I was curious to see whether they’d changed and if so, whether the changes were for the better.
We took our time, which meant we were able to detour to places of interest that we’d skipped before – for example, the memorial at the scene of the seven fatal shootings perpetrated by Stanley Graham in 1941 at Kowhitirangi, near Hokitika, and the Hokitika Gorge, which is conveniently located at the end of the same road.
Mist hung low over the bush-clad Doughboy Hill where the manhunt for Graham was centred, creating a suitably spooky atmosphere. Graham was dropped by a single shot from a police rifle as he emerged from cover. He died in Hokitika Hospital.
The memorial, erected in 2008, stands in front of the site of Graham’s home, where the mayhem started when the police tried to confiscate his rifles. The house was deliberately burned down soon after the event but the district hall, where the manhunt was based, still stands across the road and the sleepy farming district is little changed from when Graham (who is buried in the Hokitika cemetery under a headstone that simply says “Stanley”) went on his rampage*.
A much longer detour took us to Jackson Bay, which is as far as you can drive on the West Coast. We had lunch at the Cray Pot, a café that operates out of a shipping container on the water’s edge. I ordered whitebait and my wife had blue cod and chips, two dishes that travel writers would probably describe as iconic in this part of the world.
The West Coast towns presented a mixed picture. Some that we might have expected to be on their last legs – Reefton and Hokitika, for example – gave the impression of thriving, or at least doing okay. Both make the most of their colourful histories and are lively little places with loads of character.
Greymouth, on the other hand, was a dismal sight. It looked drab, tired and in desperate need of resuscitation. Whatever elixir Reefton and Hokitika have ingested, Greymouth could do with some of it.
Franz Josef seemed to be holding on, but barely. The revival of international tourism can’t come too soon for towns full of motels displaying vacancy signs.
On the eastern side of the Haast Pass, it was a very different story. The Lakes District, encompassing Wanaka and Queenstown, is an area of rampant, runaway growth. I was staggered by the extent of the Five Mile development near Queenstown, very little of which existed the last time I was there only seven years ago.
Sadly but perhaps inevitably, developers appear to have done their best to eradicate any trace of New Zealandness around Queenstown. If you didn’t occasionally glance up at the Remarkables or Coronet Peak, you could be in almost any congested international resort town.
Te Anau was much more to our liking. There’s been a lot of growth there too, but the town is essentially unchanged. Long may it remain that way.
Our homeward leg took us through Dunedin (looking rundown, but still full of appealing southern character), Timaru (deathly quiet on a Thursday morning) and Christchurch (also eerily quiet in the CBD and still not fully recovered from the earthquakes, but with several funky eating and drinking precincts that were humming on a Friday night).
What else to report? For one thing, mile after mile after mile of jaw-droppingly scenic roads that were mostly empty (great for drivers, not so good for the tourist trade). Oh, and bikes everywhere. There’s a new demographic cohort that I call oobs: oldies on bikes. Every second vehicle had a bike rack on the back or the roof and I’d hazard a guess that the owners were rediscovering the pleasure of cycling after a break of several decades. Most of the bikes were battery-assisted and their riders were accessoried up the wazoo (whatever that expression might mean).
Of course, one other great benefit of being on the road for a couple of weeks is that you can delude yourself that you’re insulated against all the vexatious things that confront you at home. But even on holiday you can’t completely escape the culture wars.
To take one tiny example, I heard RNZ’s early-morning host Nathan Rarere, whom I normally quite like (a statement that could be the kiss of death to his career), sneering at the use of the word “woke”. According to Rarere, “woke” has taken over where the phrase “political correctness gone mad” left off. In other words, anyone using the term can safely be derided as just another angry old man shouting at clouds.
I happen to agree that “woke” is a wholly inadequate word for the wide range of noxious and divisive neo-Marxist ideologies that it seeks to capture, but until someone comes up with something better we’re stuck with it.
More to the point, it’s a classic tactic of the new Left, having vigorously (and so far, with media backing, very successfully) pushed ideas and policies that many New Zealanders find fundamentally repugnant, to then ridicule their opponents for adopting terminology – whatever terminology that might be – which attempts to alert people to the reality of what’s happening.
Language is central in the culture wars and if you invalidate the words that enable people to articulate their concerns, you strip them of an essential weapon. By characterising users of terms such as “woke” and “political correctness” as alarmist, out of touch and jumping at their own shadows, the neo-Marxist Left seeks to minimise the implications of its radical agenda. The perception that New Zealand democracy is being systematically dismantled as part of a grand ideological project can then be presented as a figment of fevered right-wing imaginations.
Conservative New Zealanders tend to be reticent at the best of times, and are even more likely to keep their views to themselves if they fear being ridiculed for using the wrong words. Some of these people may even listen to RNZ in the quaint misbelief that it exists for all New Zealanders. Does Nathan Rarere realise this? I’m sure he does.
*Manhunt: The Story of Stanley Graham, by Howard Willis (published in 1979) is an excellent account of the tragedy.