'Not all those who wander are lost.' JRR Tolkein in The Fellowship of The Ring. © Donald Iain Smith

A book at hand: reading your way around New Zealand


You never know who you will meet when reading a book.

When I met the man I would marry, travelling in Canada, he was reading a novel by Collette and I was reading Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry.  It was clear we would get on . . . By the books they read ye shall judge them.

As the Greyhound bus lumbered east across the prairies I wonder now why hadn’t I been reading something about Canada, instead of a book about an out-of-control alcoholic on a bender in Mexico? Well, the Lowry was a brief diversion, a book picked up in a bookshop in Winnipeg where I’d taken a few hours’ respite from the seemingly never-ending trip on the Trans-Canada Highway. I’d already read Robertson Davies and Margaret Atwood, and Canada glimpsed through their eyes appeared very interesting indeed.

I’ve been thinking about the New Zealand literary companions I’d take with me on a trip here, about what I could learn from them, the hidden New Zealand I might discover, the reading ahead that I might do so that arrival — anywhere in the country — would be much more full of meaning and knowledge.

I might imagine that I am arriving here for the very first time, full of wonder, like all of those arrivals hundreds of years before.

I’d have in my mind the Allen Curnow poem, Landfall in Unknown Seas, in which the poet imagines the arrival of Abel Tasman’s crew in Aotearoa in 1642: ‘Simply by sailing in a new direction, You could enlarge the world’.

Here the ship comes, on and on, sails billow, men crowd the rigging. Maori watch from the shore. Worlds will collide.

There will be lacuna before those worlds meet again; Anne Salmond’s The Trial of the Cannibal Dog will explain how it was when James Cook came, three times: in 1769 on the Endeavour, 1773 on the Resolution and in 1777, again on the Resolution.


I’d then reach for Michael King’s marvellous The Penguin History of New Zealand, the incredibly successful account of this country by one of its finest writers and historians. In fact, I wouldn’t book a single ticket or plan a single route until I’d read it from cover to cover and could apprehend just what this place, Aotearoa New Zealand, might be all about. And then the novelist, memoirists and poets would fill in the emotional gaps.

I’d begin in the deep south and I would go back in time as far as there are Pakeha memories of it. Were I to join other travellers and tourists on the memorable boat trip along Doubtful Sound, I’d have with me Charlotte Randall’s The Bright Side of My Condition. Based on the true story of four convicts put ashore early in the 1800s on the subantarctic Snares Islands — a further 200km off the coast from this remote sound — one can imagine how things became pretty desperate fairly quickly.

I would think then to read about the early settlers, Maori having been so conveniently separated from their land so that resourceful and well-resourced run holders could secure vast tracts of the South Island and set up in style. Lady Barker’s Station Life in New Zealand, first published in 1870, would put me in the picture.

Lady Mary Anne Barker and her second husband, Frederick Broome, a nephew of Jane Austen, had a sheep station in North Canterbury, which they named Steventon. Here she describes a hunting trip in 1867:

Ever since we left the clearing from which the start was made, we had turned our backs on the river, but about three o'clock in the afternoon we came suddenly on it again, and stood on the most beautiful spot I ever saw in my life. We were on the top of a high precipice, densely wooded to the water’s edge. Some explorers in bygone days must have camped here, for half-a-dozen trees were felled, and the thick brush-wood had been burnt for a few yards, just enough to let us take in the magnificent view before and around us. Below roared and foamed, among great boulders washed down from the cliff, the Waimakiriri; in the middle of it lay a long narrow strip of white shingle, covered with water in the winter floods, but now shining like snow in the bright sunlight. Beyond this the river flowed as placidly as a lake, in cool green depths, reflecting every leaf of the forest on the high bank or cliff opposite. To our right it stretched away, with round headlands covered with timber running down in soft curves to the water. But on our left was the most perfect composition for a picture in the foreground a great reach of smooth water, except just under the bank we stood on, where the current was strong and rapid; a little sparkling beach, and a vast forest rising up from its narrow border, extending over chain after chain of hills, till they rose to the glacial region, and then the splendid peaks of the snowy range broke the deep blue sky line with their grand outlines. 

Still in the south, I might have James McNeish’s Mackenzie, first published in 1970, to inform me about the infamous sheep stealer and folk hero James Mackenzie, who was arrested in the sere Mackenzie Country in 1855, with 1000 sheep from The Levels station, before being tried and incarcerated in Lyttelton jail, only to escape and be reapprehended before his pardon a year later.


Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries would take me to the gold rush of the 1870s which Lady Barker foresaw. Jenny Pattrick’s The Denniston Rose would tell me about the coal miners who followed them.

Owen Marshall’s The Larnachs would expand on the tragedy that surrounded Larnach Castle, which I would surely visit were I to go to Dunedin. Janet Frame’s Owls Do Cry would remind me of the mental asylum Seacliff, where she was a patient and which stood north of Dunedin, on the coast.

I’d keep Brian Turner’s poems with me all the way through Otago. I would think of his Elegy in the Clutha Valley as I stood on its banks somewhere near Roxburgh.

. . .

and my heart leapt

to the blind mountain

from where scree flaked

and water bled all day long

to the downy valley floor

where, in the evening


I took my rod and my heart

to the river’s east side

and cast and cast

while water

ran purple and gold

in the quickening dusk,


and the sedges

fleeing the river

were like ash

at my face and throat

and all the world seemed to be timeless.

 In the Marlborough Sounds I’d be reading Fiona Kidman’s The Captive Wife, based on the true story of whaling ship captain’s wife Betty Guard, who was captured by Taranaki Maori in 1834 after her husband’s ship was wrecked in a storm, and was recaptured four months later following a controversial rescue mission mounted from Sydney. She spent the rest of her years living near Port Underwood.


 To the North Island. Maurice Shadbolt’s Season of the Jew, published in 1987, would explain to me the great North Island guerrilla war of the late 1860s, when Te Kooti Arikirangi Te Turuki defied the British Crown and the colonial government which would have all Maori land passed to European settlers so that New Zealand might speedily become Britain’s farm.

Not all of those farms would deliver settlers a privileged life, and here I would turn to Katherine Mansfield, who visited Te Urewera in 1907 on a camping trip and glimpsed the tough life eked out here in the short story The Woman at the Store, published in 1912.

All that day the heat was terrible. The wind blew close to the ground; it rooted among the tussock grass, slithered along the road, so that the white pumice dust swirled in our faces, settled and sifted over us and was like a dry-skin itching for growth on our bodies. The horses stumbled along, coughing and chuffing. The pack horse was sick—with a big, open sore rubbed under the belly. Now and again she stopped short, threw back her head, looked at us as though she were going to cry, and whinnied. Hundreds of larks shrilled; the sky was slate colour, and the sound of the larks reminded me of slate pencils scraping over its surface. There was nothing to be seen but wave after wave of tussock grass, patched with purple orchids and manuka bushes covered with thick spider webs.

Mansfield is in a sunnier mood when describing early morning at Day’s Bay, across the harbour from Wellington and where her family had a summer residence, in her famous story At The Bay, published in 1921, two years before her death:

Very early morning. The sun was not yet risen, and the whole of Crescent Bay was hidden under a white sea-mist. The big bush-covered hills at the back were smothered. You could not see where they ended and the paddocks and bungalows began. The sandy road was gone and the paddocks and bungalows the other side of it; there were no white dunes covered with reddish grass beyond them; there was nothing to mark which was beach and where was the sea. A heavy dew had fallen. The grass was blue. Big drops hung on the bushes and just did not fall; the silvery, fluffy toi-toi was limp on its long stalks, and all the marigolds and the pinks in the bungalow gardens were bowed to the earth with wetness. Drenched were the cold fuchsias, round pearls of dew lay on the flat nasturtium leaves. It looked as though the sea had beaten up softly in the darkness, as though one immense wave had come rippling, rippling–how far? Perhaps if you had waked up in the middle of the night you might have seen a big fish flicking in at the window and gone again. . . .

Ah-Aah! sounded the sleepy sea. And from the bush there came the sound of little streams flowing, quickly, lightly, slipping between the smooth stones, gushing into ferny basins and out again; and there was the splashing of big drops on large leaves, and something else–what was it?–a faint stirring and shaking, the snapping of a twig and then such silence that it seemed some one was listening.

John Mulgan’s Man Alone, published in 1939, would remind me of the desperation of the North Island’s labour camp during the Depression.


I’d have Elizabeth Knox’s Glamour and the Sea with me to explain Wellington during the second world war, when American Marines were stationed at bases at Paekakaraiki and Pauatahanui and disrupted Wellington’s buttoned-down social order each time they came into town.

Landings, Jenny Pattrick’s novel about the Whanganui River in the era of the paddle steamers that travelled as far up the river as Pipiriki would be essential reading in that part of the world.


And for New Zealand’s Maori writers I would have read, at the very least, Witi Ihimaera’s Pounamu Pounamu and The Whale Rider, Patricia Grace’s Potiki and Tu, and Paula Morris’s Rangatira.


Away from fiction there are two other essential guides to keep close at hand: Nature Guide to the New Zealand Forest by Rob Lucas and John Dawson, and Historic Churches by Linda Burgess.

So much to read. Such richness.  And alongside the books, something sweet for the journey . . . Another book can assist.


Mix together flour, sugar, coconut and rolled oats. Melt butter and golden syrup. Dissolve bicarb in boiling water and add to butter and golden syrup. Make a well in the centre of flour and stir in the liquid. Place in spoonfuls on cold, greased trays. Bake 15 to 20 minutes at 180 degrees C.

Anzac biscuits . . . You’ll find that in the Edmonds Cookery Book.



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