journey to the center of the country.

“Katie thought Shantaram was the guest who rode away on a bicycle,” Dalia says in her London accent before bursting into a hearty laugh, holding the phone away from her face. I stop reading for a moment, a collection of Lonely Planet travel writing I’d recently bought to celebrate my acceptance into graduate school, and look up from my place on one of the three couches in the room, head propped up on one armrest, legs on the other end. Dalia, manager of the Innlet hostel, purveyor of the eco-friendly lifestyle, in search of her novel, Shantaram. Katie, another hostel guest, already in her room for the night, apparently unable to locate aforementioned novel. And me, unacquainted with this mysterious bike-riding guest, but eager to assist in the hunt, offering up a recollection of having seen the book earlier. “Are you sure it wasn’t Sharam?” Dalia asks. “Are you willing to bet your life on that?” Another guest, an older English woman, asks, jesting. Fortunately I wasn’t, as Dalia pointed to a pile of books on the table, one of which being the copy of Rushdie’s Sharam I’d seen earlier.

But I wanted to help if only because I wanted to belong. I wanted to feel a part of this little world Elise and I had stumbled into late Wednesday evening. Earlier that morning, a man named Nick at our hostel in Nelson, the Shortbread Cottage – named appropriately after the little biscuit left on each pillow – had recommended the Innlet to us. It had been a long day’s journey to reach it, the place itself not even our intended destination for the evening, but we arrived nonetheless. The sun was setting as we finally walked into the main house, an old converted villa in the middle of nowhere, only to find the eight or so other guests all sitting down to dinner together – fresh salad, potatoes, and baked fish they’d caught earlier in the day.

Dalia introduced us to the lovely mix of Brits and Germans, Londoner Dan the only bloke of the bunch. “We’re a little female-dominate at the moment,” Dalia says. The crowd was older as well, a welcome change from the usual backpacker crowd, and as we got to know them, it seemed they’d all settled in for the long haul. Many had been there for weeks, and planned on staying for more. When asked how long Elise and I were staying for, I found myself almost embarrassed to admit to only one night. It was the first place I wouldn’t have minded staying a second night.

While at first put off by its designation as an “eco-tourist” site – the very prefix “eco” bringing images of compost piles and unshaven hippies to mind – what I soon found was a warm feeling of home hidden away even beyond the reach of State Highway 6. The highway ends in Collingwood, a town of 250 quiet souls whose name has quite the romantic ring to it.  It didn’t take long in Collingwood to realize I’m either a big city girl, on the scale of millions, or a tiny township kind of girl. None of this in between business, cities with 50,000ish populations and their own share of banks, supermarkets, shops and suburbs, but no metropolitan magic. This town, tucked away at the end of the line, so to speak, was perfect.

I immediately decided the Innlet – the name itself a pun I can appreciate – was exactly the kind of hostel I would design. There was no TV, a large black woodburning stove the centerpiece of the lounge instead. Dan retired early, leaving the various women scattered around the lounge with books. Elise sat at the thick wooden kitchen table and talked with another German. It was the perfect soundtrack to read to, the soft lulls of their conversation in a language I couldn’t understand and thus not able to be distracted by, tempted as I would have been to listen or join in. The bedrooms had paper lanterns hanging from the ceiling and sturdy wooden bunks, with interesting and oddly-shaped artwork hanging from the walls.  As I settled into bed that night, I thought of a line by Paul Theroux: “If bliss can be described as an exalted state of not wishing to be anywhere else, then this had been bliss.”

“Night, Elise,” I said from across the room, “What a day.”

“Good night. Looks like the Innlet was our destiny after all,” she says, turning out the light. Looks like it was.

                                                                   *     *     *

It had been an early morning in Nelson, a town of about 45,000 situated in the far north of the South Island, on the shores of the Tasman Bay. Our first order of the day had been a visit to the Nelson Provincial Museum, where the fact that we were the only ones in the museum failed to escape our notice. Elise and I were immediately overwhelmed. This museum had most likely been conceived and constructed from an entirely nonsensical approach. Juxtaposed to a placard on the Rakaihautu Legend, the story of the first man to visit Nelson in 850 AD, was a brief history of Newman’s Coach Lines, apparently still in operation. All it took was trying to decipher the connection between the two stories to realize this museum would be tough waters to wade through. Elise and I couldn’t fathom what exactly we were supposed to gather from the reckless amount of information. “Museums in Germany have one specific subject,” she says, wandering from display board to display board. “That way, you know what you’re looking for.” Here, though, history mixed with Maori culture which mixed with wildlife, settler life, information on trade and even video presentations. There was no lack of information, but what it needed was cohesion.

Before I let the utter schizophrenia of the place get the best of me, I decided there had to be something basic to learn I could walk away with. The city’s namesake, for instance, was Horatio, Admiral Lord Nelson, famous for his victory – and subsequent death – in the Battle of Trafalgar against Napoleon. The city is also one of few in New Zealand to have adopted its own civic flag, which besides a bishop’s mitre and the arms of Lord Nelson, features blue and white waves showing its relationship with the sea. A particularly macabre exhibit caught my attention, one titled “The New Zealand Death.” As the placard read, “New Zealand’s long coastline, high rainfall, and mountainous terrain led to many deaths by drowning. European settlers were quick to name this the “New Zealand death.” Why the fact that 1,115 New Zealanders had drowned by 1870 was worthy enough for inclusion in the museum was beyond me, but I suppose therein laid its mystery.

Indeed, as we walked out, a Japanese samurai armor caught my attention – I believe the exact phrase to pass through my mind was, what the heck?! As if in answer, a small card near the glass read, “Why do we have samurai armor on display?” The armor was apparently part of their early collections of foreign objects which had been “donated as part of the fashion of collecting for ‘worldly knowledge.’” Almost certainly unknowingly, the Nelson Provincial Museum had chosen the most fitting of displays to end their exhibits with. Nothing beats random in a New Zealand museum than a tribute to Japanese samurai.

From the museum, it was to the home of the Anglican Diocese of Nelson, Christ Church Cathedral, a neo-gothic creation whose foundation stone was laid in 1925 but not consecrated until 1975. Inside the sanctuary, we viewed two wooden chairs and prayer desks on display, used by Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip on the 17th of January, 1954, as part of their royal tour of New Zealand. This tour had been featured in the museum as well, the first time an English reigning monarch had actually stepped foot on Kiwi soil, perhaps explaining why two simple chairs could be so incredibly noteworthy.

Another German in the Shortbread Cottage, a guy named Nicholas, had told Elise we should visit the Center of New Zealand. There was nothing out of the ordinary on my map about it, so my brain assumed ‘center’ as in a building or government department. It wasn’t until we started walking across a park and a large rugby field that I realized, “Ooh, the center of the country.” Up a steep, zigzagging path we climbed from the bottom of the Botanic Reserve to the geographical center of the country, where a giant microscope-looking statue marked the spot. Of course, as these things usually go, this was merely the “supposed” spot, the true location lying thirty-five kilometers outside Nelson. The coordinates, though – 41°30S 172°50E – will lead you only to a “path of unremarkable dense scrub in a forest,” as Wikipedia describes it, which I suppose is the reason for the slightly more accessible location in Nelson. As we climbed back down the path and walked across a wide field, even more plaques informed us that the Botanic Reserves are incidentally the site of New Zealand’s first rugby match, which took place on Saturday, May 14, 1870. Charles Munro, now known as the “Father of New Zealand Rugby,” had gone to study in England and brought the game and the country’s first oval balls back to New Zealand.

It was at this point and hour that I officially deemed this day a day of commemoration. So far in our stops along the way, it seemed we couldn’t so much as cross a field without running into yet another plaque or display board and learning about yet another significant moment in the history of New Zealand. But I suppose that the beauty of such a young country is that this kind of commemoration is possible; that it is feasible to trace so many moments to so many exact dates and names. There are no vague recollections or oral histories. What you get are precise moments, something you can’t always find elsewhere in the world.

                                                                    *     *     *

Just as we left the center of Nelson, we passed the Tahuna Beach Reserve where Elise pulled off for a few more photos of the Tasman Bay. Heading back towards the car, though, I noticed a statue in the parking lot and said rather flippantly, “Oh, a statue! Wonder who that could be.” I almost became reverent, however, upon discovering the bronze man I stood before was none other than Abel Janzoon Tasman himself. If there’s one thing to remember about Tasman, perhaps this analogy will help:

Christopher Columbus : America :: Abel Tasman : New Zealand

Tasman, a Dutch explorer and navigator who lived from 1603 to 1659, sailed extensively with the Dutch East India Company. His travels took him to Mauritius, Sumatra, Fiji, New Guinea, and Australia, where he had ultimately been sent to determine just how far east the new continent stretched. The 13th of December, 1642, is the date officially recorded as Tasman’s first sighting of New Zealand, a sight he described as “a large land, uplifted high.” And as the plaque we viewed read, he and his crew were the first Europeans to have contact with the Maoris, although their run-in with them unfortunately led to his giving the name “Murderers Bay” to what is now Golden Bay. While in the eyes of his company, his travels may not have been the success they hoped for, uncovering neither new areas of trade nor new shipping routes, in my opinion he got luckier than Columbus. Not only does Tasman have a sea, glacier, river and mountain named after him, but also a highway, two marsupial species and even an entire Australian state, Tasmania. Yet again, there’s no Tasman Day here in New Zealand, so maybe Columbus has the higher ground in that respect.

Driving away from Nelson, we passed through towns like Motueka, population 11,000, known for its fruitgrowers, which grew smaller and smaller the nearer we drove to the national park. At one particular intersection, the highway we were following to Collingwood continued to the left, but a sign pointing in the other direction led towards Kaiteriteri, a well-known beach I’d been told by friends to visit. It wasn’t hard to see why, either, as we left the car and walked onto the sand. Any question as to where the name for Golden Bay originated from was instantly cleared up. Not to sound like an idiot, but the sand really was the color of gold, not that washed-out shade of taupe so many beaches are, but with a real depth to it like honey or a sunset. A word I’ve loved for a while is pavonine, “irisdescent,” like a peacock’s tail, the perfect word for the aquamarine waters of Kaiteriteri Beach. The shades of that scene were so much more alive and richer than the beach we’d walked on in Nelson, where the blues and yellows and browns were muted like the colors in a faded photograph from your parents’ childhood.

We drove further to Split Apple Rock, about a fifteen-minute walk from the carpark, a walk that led us to our own piece of paradise. A small yet secluded bay, with a network of caves and boulders alongside it, including Split Apple Rock, a boulder that looked as if it’d been split right down the middle, like one of Terry’s Chocolate Oranges that’d been whacked and unwrapped. While postcards I saw later showed people standing in the rock, their legs propped spread-eagle-like against each side, the tides weren’t so favorable on our visit and we had to content ourselves with the view from the shore.

With our Kaiteriteri-detour having already set us back over an hour – not that we had a schedule, but still – I was hesitant to ask Elise if she’d mind stopping to view what was marked on my map as “First Settlers Landing” and “Historic Plaque.” Nothing grabs my attention like an opportunity to see yet another historic description immortalized in dull bronze. We pulled off at signs pointing to the Settlers Memorial Cairn and – as you do – started walking. And walking. And growing more and more annoyed at having to keep walking. Just where was this cairn located? We would grow closer and closer to what seemed like a summit, a view seemingly about to open up and the trees give way to open sky, only to see the path carried on even further to another elusive summit. Soon the path was leading us in another direction altogether. Whereas for the first ten minutes or so we’d been hiking up a small mountain, we were then walking away from the car and along a path that looked down on the tree-covered slope we’d just covered. It finally got to the point where to turn back was unthinkable. If I’d come this far, I was going to see this thing, whatever it was.

I wasn’t sure Elise was so convinced. It wasn’t that I felt her growing tense, only that I began to think about how I might feel in her situation, with a crazed passenger determined to see every little last point marked on her map and I could imagine how exasperated I would be. Thankfully Elise gave no sign of such emotions and soon the little cairn presented itself. As the path descended further and further, it became apparent we’d gone the completely wrong way around. Down at the foot of the hill, was a gravel road wide enough to fit a car leading directly from the carpark. Unbelievable. If the old adage goes something like, “We went around our elbow to get to our thumb,” it’s safe to say we did a full tour of arms, legs, and feet before coming back up to any finger.

And was the memorial’s honoree worth such effort? The grey cairn, maybe a meter and a half tall and shaped like a pyramid, had been erected to “record the coming of Riwaka’s first pioneers who landed 2 May 1842,” led by Captain Arthur Wakefield who landed in October of 1841 to found Nelson. The captain’s brother, Edward Gibbon Wakefield, was the founder of the New Zealand Company and had recruited Arthur to lead and supervise the new settlement of Nelson. The 1966 Encyclopedia of New Zealand describes Arthur as a “fine naval officer and a capable, energetic colonial administrator,” one who, when assigned to the Nelson settlement, threw “himself whole-heartedly into its planning and equipment.” Edward quickly got his brother into trouble, however, when his guarantees of land to each settler didn’t match up with the actual amount of land available from what had been purchased earlier from the regional Maori chief, Te Rauparaha. It was the classic story of promising to give what wasn’t yours to take. Who ultimately owned the rights to these lands? To the British, in all their imperialistic touting of manifest destiny, it was theirs for the taking, but the Maori fought fiercely when it came to their land. When Arthur Wakefield and a group of about fifty men went to issue a warrant for the Maori chiefs, on the grounds that they’d stood in the way of surveyors trying to sort out the disputed land, things didn’t end well. The Wairau Massacre marked the deaths of 24 British colonists, including that of Captain Arthur Wakefield. Nelson, in all its sunshine and beach life and general placid existence, shows little today to evidence this rocky start.

And that’s often what I’m coming to find on these little sideroad sojourns. Behind seemingly random stones and cairns and memorials, are whole lives. Whole stories. Whole histories. Arthur Wakefield died a bachelor on the 17th of June, 1843, for reasons entirely unrelated to him. Although he had treated all fairly, Maori and Europeans (Pakeha) alike, he still died at the hands of the Maori. I find it remarkable stories like these exist; they point to a greater history and to an amazing series of entire stories entirely forgotten.

Finally, though, there comes a point in a day spent on the road when enough is enough and all that really becomes important is finding a place to call home for the night. A look in my travel guide and we decided to try for a bed in the Boutique Backpackers, charmingly described as being set in an old post office in “downtown” Collingwood. We park the car across the street and walk up to the building; the view through the windows reveals a clean house furnished in a historic style. There’s no sign of any backpackers, but then again, there are only eight beds available which could easily be concealed upstairs. A knock on one door brings no one, so we try another side. We can hear movement and soon a grey-haired woman appears. I ask about availability. “What?” she asks, a strange look on her face. “Do you have any space?” I repeat.

“You know, I’ve taken that sign down as best as I could, but I had the trees trimmed a little while ago” – and just before you begin to wonder what this has to do with anything, she gets to the point – “It’s no longer open.” Right. That explains the sign then – “Boutique Packp c    .” That’s the last time I consult my 2005 guide I’d bought on sale from $5 from Whitcoull’s. I suppose at one point, accuracy does outweigh thriftiness. “You can try the Innlet, it’s a little ways out of town,” our would’ve-been-hostel-manager tells us, “Or the Somerset House just up the hill.”

At the Somerset House, though, a lovely Asian woman advises there are no dorm beds available for the night, but to “try the Innlet, it’s not far from town.”

                                                                         *     *     *

Well, the Innlet it was to be. Maybe, as Elise said, it was our destiny. As we made our way there, eleven kilometers out of Collingwood, we passed a sign for Hawke Lookout, 300m. Elise looked at me, her eyes saying, “Should we? Dare we risk exploring yet another supposed point of interest?” I sighed, why not. We crossed the parking lot towards the path and started walking. “How much farther can it be?” Elise asked, a recurring question for the day, and thankfully, it wasn’t much. From the lookout, we could see across the Tasman Bay all the way to Nelson. It’s not every day you have the chance to mark your day’s journey in such a literal way. To stand in one spot and see across an entire bay the track you’d made. 

We’d commemorated places of geographical significance, places of cultural significance, people of importance, people slightly more forgotten, random geological features, and vistas of striking beauty. In many ways, the day had been haphazard, comprised of whatever came across us on our path. Points of interest from the map, points of interest from word-of-mouth. It seemed thrown together, like a meal made from leftovers, but in another way the day made perfect sense. We’d covered some serious ground, at least in New Zealand terms. In a place where locals consider half an hour a long drive, we didn’t mess around – and struck closer and closer to the heart of this place we’re calling home for a short while.

Sometimes it’s not about the big things. Travel’s more than seeing the Eiffel Towers and pyramids of the world. Sometimes it’s about the additive process of discovering small piece after small piece. You know those photo mosaics, where an image, maybe one person’s face, has been constructed from hundreds or thousands of composite images or photographs? I often think that’s how my overall perception of New Zealand will be when I leave. When I think of England, my entire experience is defined by London; not only was it the only place I lived, it was one of only two cities I actually visited. In New Zealand, it isn’t so much about the one city you have to see, the one experience you have to have. It’s about the small things, the small towns, the small moments, and the way in which they all add up and add on to each other as you grow in your understanding of the country.


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