I spent the final few months of last year gradually working my way through my negatives from late 1997, when I was a visiting scholar at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand—one of the happiest periods of my life, which made revisiting it in 2021 a poignant exercise. J. and I spent our weekends exploring the city and its South Island surrounds, making trips west to Greymouth, south to Dunedin and north to Hanmer Springs and the Marlborough Sounds, discovering for ourselves one of the most beautiful places on earth a few years before Peter Jackson showed it off to the world in The Fellowship of the Ring.
This first gallery of Canterbury captures most of those trips, as winter turned to spring. As well as the city of Christchurch itself, years before the 2010–11 earthquakes changed it forever, it features the Southern Alps on the TranzAlpine train route west, the town of Kaikoura where the Alps meet the Pacific Ocean, the gorse-covered Rakaia Gorge in springtime, and the start of our longer trip at the end of my three-month fellowship, when we headed first to Mount Cook for more alpine scenery. I’ve tweaked the timeline of the photos slightly, moving the clay cliffs of Omarama before Mount Cook, to end on two of my favourite shots of the latter on a sunny spring day.
During our months in Christchurch we stayed in a colonial house on the edge of the university campus, which had been turned into a pair of flats for visiting academics. Our neighbours were an affable American mathematician and his twelve-year-old son, who accompanied us to the beach one weekend and came over a couple of times for a meal. I remember the father, Jeff, being amused by roadside signs advertising “Swedes, 50¢” (they were from Minnesota, where Swedes were their neighbours, not rutabagas). I looked them up to see how they’re doing, and was sad to see that Jeff died a few years ago and, even sadder, his son David died in a car accident only seven years after we knew them.
After several weeks in Christchurch we rented a car and drove south to Dunedin, to take in such sights as the Moeraki boulders, the world’s steepest street, albatrosses and penguins. They begin this second gallery of Otago and Southland, which then moves to the next part of our round-island trip travelling south from Omarama to the Catlins on the south coast, the city of Invercargill, the spectacular fiords of Milford Sound, and the region around Queenstown in central Otago.
From there it was over the Haast Pass to the South Island’s rugged and remote West Coast, where we spotted wild penguins on an empty beach, trekked to glaciers—missing the last helicopter of the day that would have taken us to the top of one of them—and saw the pancake rocks of Punakaiki, which isn’t the Maori word for pancake. From there we cut across old faultlines to Nelson (home of the memorable ice-cream cafe Penguino, which is still there) and the Marlborough Sounds, where we caught the ferry to the North Island. Also included in this gallery are some earlier photos of Greymouth from our TranzAlpine journey in August, and a few of the Marlborough Sounds from our first visit in October.
From Wellington we cut up through the middle of the North Island, first to Mount Ruapehu the year after its 1996 eruption, then via Lake Taupo to Rotorua and its pools of boiling mud, and finally to New Zealand’s capital city of Auckland. It was my second time in Auckland, after first visiting as a student in January 1995 for a conference; this gallery ends with my earlier photos of the city. (The Canterbury gallery also features a few photos of Christchurch from late 1998, when I was back for the launch of the book I completed there.)
As well as the above, I’ve included a gallery of New Zealand Panoramas, many from a weekend spent visiting the Banks Peninsula and Rakaia Gorge with a borrowed APS camera, a format briefly touted as the successor to 35mm before digital photography took over. The format cropped its full negatives to produce 4”x6”, 4”x7” and 4”x11” prints, with the ratio recorded on a magnetic strip alongside the negative; the negatives themselves were smaller than 35mm, which meant that panoramic prints were enlarged from a strip less than a centimetre high. As a result they were far grainier than would have been ideal, but it’s not like I can travel back to 1997 and take them again with a better camera. I’ve rounded out the gallery with a few panoramas cropped from 35mm photos and a couple stitched together in Photoshop.
Working on these photos through some tough months was a useful distraction, and reminded me how much I loved New Zealand; I’ll always be glad of the time we spent there. Beyond its obvious physical beauty, the people we met were warm and welcoming, and the culture of the place was fascinating for someone from an out-of-the-way part of Australia with an interest in the Pacific. I’ve enjoyed reconnecting with it from a distance through TV comedy, books, music and—of course—film, and hope I’ll get there again. Kia ora, Aotearoa.
Some other random memories: chocolate fish, “good as gold”, pictures of kiwis on everything, everything coming in plastic jars rather than glass jars, Pak’nSave, Hubbards Bugs ’n’ Mud cereal with a newsletter from the founder in each pack, Alison’s Choice muesli, earthquake advice on fridge magnets (now on our fridge in Edinburgh), the earthquake-proofing underneath Parliament in Wellington, the House of Pain pub in Christchurch advertising meals of Stew on Toast, Wonder Dogs, Take in the Sun, seeing Once Were Warriors in an Auckland cinema on my 1995 visit, sandflies, cheeky keas, the Big Carrot, Puzzling World, Slightly Foxed Secondhand Books in Oamaru, the smell of coal smoke in the air in Westport, and watching a falcon hanging in the wind for minutes on the Catlins coast as it scanned the ground for prey.
Aussies like to make fun of Kiwi accents, which to our ears sound like “eksunts”, but I soon got used to them… until a woman in an Akaroa takeaway asked me at the end of my order, “Thetsut?” It took me an awkwardly long moment to reply, “Oh, right. Yes, that’s everything.”