I am always moved by the grand sweeping landscape and subtle colours when driving over the Lindis Pass on a journey north. The gaunt beauty of those moody tussocky hills is as powerful now as it was in the early seventies when I first passed this way. But lest we forget those among us who resent our appreciation of natural beauty, graffiti vandals have left their mark on a shed close to the road.
For once I risk the madness of Christmas holiday traffic. The Lindis, for the first time in my experience, is relatively busy. Fortunately the traffic is all coming towards me heading for Wanaka and Queenstown and all points Central. Only two mad drivers. One overtaking on a blind bend and another shooting out of a concealed side-track a few minutes later.
At the foot of the Lindis, Omarama is also undergoing its yearly influx. Tents sprouting everywhere and vehicles jerking in and out of look-alike service stations. Omarama is not pretty. It is what it is; a junction servicing travellers. At other times of year it has a spacious, almost empty slow-moving rural charm but at holiday time, forget it.
On to the Mackenzie Country on a road so straight and easy-riding you could be excused for thinking any speed limit is unreasonable. At the Omarama end, giant irrigation machines are a disquieting reminder that dairy conglomerates have a predatory eye on the stark beauty of this basin. Further on young wilding pines are creeping over the landscape. Greed and neglect combine to threaten what once seemed immutable. But for the time being the majestic sweep of open country nestled between ever-changing mountains continues to be a source of inspiration.
And then Tekapo. It is inconceivable that this magnificent basin could contain such a cramped, shabby little money-grabbing tourist trap but sadly, it does. And it’s getting worse by the year. Overflowing litter bins, scruffy toilets, souvenirs ad nauseam, an unkempt mini-golf course and, desecration upon desecration in this land of mighty mountains, large fake rocks for the puzzled gaze of tourists. A little further away parked cars and camper vans disfigure the once solitary Church of the Good Shepherd. Is it too much to ask tourists to walk a hundred yards?
The final insult reduces visitors to walking with elbows tucked in. The footpath fronting the line of devouring business premises is like a third world alleyway, squashed between advertising boards and cars parked a few feet from shop fronts. It is oppressive. Tekapo Township is a blot on the landscape, a lucrative cash cow. And so long as the milk is flowing no one cares how ugly the cow has become.
On past Burkes Pass and Kimble, a little township that is homely, civilised and discrete. The absence of crass commerce is a relief. Then Fairlie which also retains the sense and deportment of an old New Zealand rural township. Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your point of view, the busses pass it by.
Geraldine alas, has been captured by the passing tour-bus dollar. The country is now littered with look-alike refreshment places that suck you in take your money and spit you out without eye contact. Where food has the look and taste of produce manufactured deep in the old soviet empire before being shipped on an old tramp steamer to Auckland then rumbled, eventually, down to the South Island.
A Darfield cafe restores my confidence. Competent yet friendly service, good Darfield food, comfortable and tasteful surroundings. A spacious, leisurely township where you think of lingering before getting back behind the wheel.
Why would anyone pass through Christchurch unless they had to? Most of the space in that city is given over to selling, repairing and elevating motor vehicles to icon status. But not only motor vehicles. Big signs everywhere defile a beaten landscape. Buy! buy! buy! is the blatant cry. Wherever the eye turns the head is pummelled by migraine-inducing advertising graffiti. Only Hagley Park, and to a lesser extent the old cultural centre of the city, retains the aesthetic values bestowed by Christchurch’s visionary founders.
Finally, Kaipoi. A first time visit for me. I am surprised to find an Egyptian restaurant, an Indian restaurant and an excellent Working Man’s Club in this small Canterbury town. Something of pre dollar-hungry New Zealand hangs in the slow-moving air.
My biggest surprise is a visit to the Picture House. A modern place with a comfortable lounge where tea, coffee, food and alcohol is served. The pleasant atmosphere suggests excessive consumption will be frowned on. The owner provides friendly service. The auditorium is furnished with astonishingly comfortable couches. Lots of leg room.
The film is Five Minutes of Heaven, which proves to be a powerful, intense, intelligent drama. The lights dim on time. No adverts. Straight into the film. No intermission to sell stuff. No distractions. Now, if only this was the new New Zealand.