It's love. Let's make no mistake. I love New Zealand.
From the moment I landed in Auckland with my bride on our honeymoon, twenty-something years back, I have been intoxicated by the land, the beauty, the people, the history.
For two weeks we roamed the two islands from top to bottom, pausing in our campervan at scenic beauty points, admiring the raw and rugged mountains, tramping up to glaciers, boating along underground rivers lit only by millions of glow-worms, and simply enjoying the land, each other and happiness.
And for the next twenty years, as we raised a family and settled down, we dreamed of returning.
Which at last we did, retracing our steps, this time staying with friends or in motels, swapping the campervan for a rental car with a couple of teenagers in the back seat.
The magic was there, as strong as ever. For our two kids, it was their first overseas trip, and while I can no longer think of New Zealand as quite the exotic destination it seemed at the time, it was still a suitably foreign land.
Twin manias marked our return visit. Lord of the Rings and BookCrossing.BookCrossing
first. I'll write more about it one day, but basically this crazy American idea is that you go to a website, get an identification number for a label which you stick in a book, which you then leave - on a park bench, in a coffee shop, dangling in a plastic bag from a tree, or, as I did one sunny afternoon, under the snout of a New Zealand glacier. People find the book - after all, a book is a valuable and useful object - read the label which directs them to the BookCrossing.com site, enter the ID number and read about the book. Who registered it, what travels it has had, where it was "released into the wild". And if they want, they may make their own entry in the book's journal.
The stories build and continue, but though the books have tales to tell, by far the most interesting element of the operation is the half million or so BookCrossers around the world. Well-read, clever, generous and quirky people, they are such a delight to be with that for the past few years of my life I have devoted myself to meeting as many of them as I can, at various meetings around the world. Which is how I found myself sitting at Discoverylover's smiling feet, one evening in Wellington.
I left a trail of books around New Zealand. On beaches, in parks, on the interisland ferry, on hostel swapshelves and by pools of boiling mud. And I got to meet some of the most amazing BookCrossers in the world, people who had released thousands
of books.The Lord of the Rings
was the second madness. Peter Jackson had just finished filming his trilogy of movies and the whole country was Lord of the Rings crazy.
In Wellington huge figures of orcs and elves, trolls and Nazgul decorated the buildings, every restaurant seemed to have a themed menu, the Post Office had issued Lord of the Rings stamps, and you could not turn a corner without a billboard proclaiming the premiere of the third and final movie, The Return of the King
And I must say that New Zealand landscapes lend themselves to the flavour of Tolkien's Middle-Earth. The mountain ranges are tall and snowcapped, the hills are green and rolling, the forests dark and impressive. As we drove through the land, we could almost sense the hobbits in the rural hills and groves, the orcs in the wild places, the trolls in the mountains and the mighty armies marching over the long plains.
I enjoyed my second honeymoon as much as the first, taking such pleasure in the experience that I wrote a book about the two trips, called Bookcrossing through Middle-Earth
. Self-published on Lulu, it has seen a modest success, and while it is little more than a peek at this small country and proud history, I enjoyed writing it, and there are some patches of humour in it.*
Since that trip. I've been back once or twice each year. Sometimes, a roadtrip, sometimes a week, sometimes a night in an airport hotel. But one thing's for sure - if the New Zealanders are holding a BookCrossing convention, I am there!
The scenery is stunning. I like to say that it leans in the window and says "Hello!", and compared to Australia's largely horizontal vistas, that's what strikes me. The mountains tower overhead, one looks down over glittering lakes, blinding white glaciers, convoluted shorelines of capes and inlets, and everywhere you look, the eye is thrilled by something.
Queenstown is possibly the most beautiful place I've seen on this planet. Looking down over placid Lake Wakitipu from Bob's Peak, the tourist town is a quiet green gem surrounded by water, with the stunning backdrop of the snow-capped Remarkables beyond. It is the sort of place where overseas film stars maintain holiday homes, and may occasionally be seen walking amongst the backpackers.
Dunedin, southernmost of the four big cities, has a quaint Scottish charm to it. Chill and dour in winter, the grey stone buildings of this university town evoke the Scots capital. Robbie Burns looks down on the central square and Highland Pipe bands compete each year, marching and skirling through the streets.
Christchurch probably has my heart most of all. This comfortable city has the beautiful River Avon winding through the middle, parkland to one side, old stone buildings and modern office blocks on the other. Boatered punters take tourists out on the shallow river. In Autumn, the leaves are a riot of colour.
Wellington on the North Island is the capital, reminiscent of San Francisco overlooking a harbour with wooden houses perched on hillsides. The city itself is cramped between mountains and sea, and it hosts one of the best national museums in the world. Te Papa holds the soul of the nation, Māori and Pākehā history and heroes in great galleries, the unique flora and fauna beautifully presented.
And, northernmost of the four, Auckland is the largest. Fought over for centuries by the Māori for its strategic position, it occupies a narrow land between two harbours. Aptly named the City of Sails for the yachts that crowd its waters, it has the population and the feel of a great city. For myself, I love the ferry ride across the harbour to Devonport, home to a library of second-hand bookshops and quaint cafes.
Or a meal I once had, of exquisitely tender lamb shanks washed down with Monteith Golden Ale, beside the Viaduct Wharf where the America's Cup competition was held, a gay waiter outrageously camp for us.
New Zealand holds so many wonderful memories for me. I can't do the land justice in a blog post - I should write a book.
Oh wait, I did!
* Mostly in the footnotes.