Monday, 30 January 2012

A Tale of Two Towns

Gotta get this New Zealand experience out of my head so I can move on. My head has been asking to move on since I returned on January 25 but returning to "normal life" has proved a little challenging. I returned to rain and humidity, an unemployed wife and a routine and a rythym from 2011 that I'd lost. It's slowly returning, as is the drive to write. The following posts will be a truncated version of my final week in New Zealand. First a short version of being taken by surprise by unassuming villages in remore places.

Hokitika and Oamaru

Two things caught my attention as I drove into Hokitika on the west coast of New Zealand's South Island. The first was the wide deserted streets, a great setting for a western; the second was the billboard advertising the Whitebait Exhibition at the local museum, extended by popular demand! Let's face it, on first encounter Hokitika was charmless. I was happy we'd only booked one nights accomodation.

On the other side of the island ten days later I had a similar experience. Oamaru had one wide main street running dead straight for about two kilometres flanked by nondescript shops and motels hired in from "allthesameland". I was devastated; I had booked us here for two nights and what had been hyped as New Zealand's largest intact Victorian Precinct looked as if it had the potential to flip me into an instant and deep state of depression. My spirits, buoyed by three weeks of New Zealand delights, were going to be tested.
Hokitika and Oamaru shared a similar history though divided by an inpenetrable set of glacial ranges.

In both cases I was guilty of being victim to my instant emotional responses, first impressionism. If they were people I had met for the first time I was making a judgement based on the shallowest of evidence. One meeting, no conversation and on a day when we were both a little tired. My response: Boring, gormless, stupid, a waste of space; Don't want to get to know you; I'll be gone in the morning. I counsel my children on the need to give people a little space. Spend some time with them, let their personality and values emerge. I had committed this very offence.

Hokitika was born of gold fever, Oamaru of a massivly fertile hinterland suitable for grain and sheep production. Each town, ,being completely in love with itself, built a series of public buildings of beauty and grandeur. Hokitika was a little less ambitious than its sister and was satisfied with a couple of buildings in the British public building style constructed from local granite. The rest of the town consisted largely of buildings in local timber and being a gold mining community they concentrated on building pubs - 102 in fact, 84 of them in a mile long street serving a thirsty population of five thousand. And then the gold ran out.

In Oamaru the bounty seemed endless. Grain and sheep don't deplete themselves so the investors were confident of their future. In addition, the nearby cliffs contained readily available building material and so to display confidence in their wealth they built an impressive precinct of beautiful classical sandstone buildings.

Here's a list of the highlights. Remember this is 1870/80 in the back blocks of an emerging colonial country: a five story administrative centre, a giant two story grain warehouse, three two story bank buildings fronted by soaring Greek columns, a massive wool store and to top it all off, an opera house with seating for five hundred. And then came the 1890 downturn in grain prices and the emergence of deeper draft steam ships as the preferred mode of transport. Almost overnight the shallow harbour was abandoned and the export trade deserted Oamaru; the town, in an attempt to block out the pain turned its back on the sandstone precinct and moved its centre half a kilometre north and survived as a secondary regional centre humbled by its experience. The buildings cover two town blocks and due to neglect and their sturdy construction are largely intact. All these first impressions took a mere two hours in each place.

The next day dawned fine in each town and having committed to two nights in Oamaru I decided to give the place a second chance. Surely there must be more than a deep sense of decay here. Hokitika was only two hours drive from our next destination so with some trepidation we checked out of our motel and set off to walk the town and visit the intruiging and self proclaimed blockbuster 'White Bait Exhibition'.

I am pleased to report that in both cases my first impressions were confounded. The secret in Hokitika was the people and the Whitebait. The people, because the locals loved the place and had a strong sense of purpose and confidence in their future. After gold came jade and the town now sports more jade outlets than Beijing. We met a woman who runs a shop called 'sock world'.

She has collected and restored a collection of 100 year old sock making machines and when we were there she had her local mechanic tweaking a tension-screw here and giving a gentle oiling to ancient parts there, and she was happy as a pig in mud. 'Do you make many sales?' I asked knowing the answer was going to be 'no, its a hobby'. I was wrong. She ships socks all over New Zealand and sells them at $35 a pair. 'And people buy them?' 'Too right'.

Another couple, she a born and bred local, he, a blow-in artist, gold miner and whitebaiter had bought one of the pubs and lived and worked in it complete with the original 1880 counter and strong room. They're survivors, digging, panning, whitebaiting in between commissions for his quite sophisticated copper art.

And the whitebait? That's a whole story in itself but, as with gold it's a boom and bust business. Once there was a lot of fish and everyone wanted a piece of the action and pretty quickly they fished out the original northern alpine rivers. So they moved on to the next river and so on. Luckily the southern rivers were so remote that before the hunters could ruin the whole industry the government had begun to regulate things. An example: these days you have to buy a licence; you can only fish by hand - scoop nets of a regulated size and you can't be more than 10 metres from your net at any time. Also outlawed are the building of groynes out into the river to force the fish into the nets. They only run each year for a short time and it's on for young and old. Its not a season without a few fights over bank space. Its an obsession for the committed. And an identity for Hokitika.

Meanwhile back in Oamaru I've read the brochures in my motel room and we venture out. Everything isn't cheap and tacky Victoriana it turns out. There is an excellent Regional Gallery in one of the restored bank buildings; the 10 million dollar refurbishment of the Opera House has created a sumptuous modern facility - new life to a sadly neglected first lady of the town; the local botanical gardens are delightful and the shock of the day - Oamaru turns out to have a thriving underground art movement - post punk combined with 19th Century aesthetics. Oamaru claims to be the "Steam Punk Capital of New Zealand". It's an international art movement and it's thriving in a faded heritage town in the backblocks of the southern hemisphere. I was gobsmacked.

The moral. Well it's a cliche. Behind every door; Every cloud has a ....; Don't judge a book by ....;

I celebrated by getting a haircut in the new end of town - $15 NZ. A southern hemisphere bargain.

Once a five story building. Now the three story HQ of the Oamaru Steam Punk movement. What's that train doing?

Saturday, 14 January 2012

Playing with Fire

Barry Lopez has a story in his book "About This Life" which recounts his year experiencing the community of potters in the wilds of Oregon who use an ancient firing technique called 'anagama'. It's a Japanese wood firing process which takes between three and six days. The Japanese seek to make the process as controlled as possible while the lead potter in Lopez's story values the wildness and unnpredictability of the same fire.

I was reading this as we made our way north from Christchurch . In Picton I picked up a brochure on the potters of the Nelson area, our next stopping point. There were more than twenty listed. I was aware that the Nelson area was home to numerous craftsmen and women.

My interest was ceramics. My partner was more inclined to the jewellers. So it was no surprise that when we saw a sign on the Picton-Nelson road telling us a potter and a jeweller were located on a local back road we took the turn-off.

The pottery was closed but a short distance further we pulled up outside a charming house overlooking one of the waterways, part of the Marlborough Sounds, the shoreline of which the road was following.

We stepped from the car and were met by Verena. She was Swiss, having arrived in NZ some twenty years previously. she'd met a Kiwi and stayed. An eighty's backpacker who never went home. Today she would be politely but firmly asked to leave - no job, no skills, no future.

Her jewellery was simple but had the hallmarks of craft made with love rather than driven by the market.

Andrea browsed, I talked, and the more interest Andrea showed in the jewellery the more the conversation flowed. 'What other artists would you recommend in the Nelson area?' I asked. 'What are you interested in?' she replied. It was then I remembered the brochure in the car. 'We have quite different tastes, Andrea likes fine work , I like chunky tough stuff'.'

She looked through the brohure and circled three or four studios and galleries one, in particular, she drew my attention to. 'This might interest you, Darryl Frost, he fires his raku ware in a wood fired kiln. An anagama kiln' she added.

Ninety dollars and a quirky pearl necklace laterVerena bad us farewell reminding us to say hi to Darryl if we looked him up. I was hooked. Andrea was less enthusiastic. She thought his work looked like he'd thrown it at the wall and let fate decide the outcome. 'I would not want that in my house'. She was adamant.

In Nelson I found that his studio was an hour out of town on a peninsula off the main road. It was out of the way, Andrea was the navigator, and I resigned myself to reality. quietly storing Darryl as an opportunity missed in my mental journal.

Maybe Verena was on my shoulder guiding me because I was unconsciously being lead step by step closer to Darryl's lair. That afternoon we took a drive to Rabbit Island - neither the wild beach nor the bird filled forest the guidebook enthused about; rather, a windswept muddy beach backed by an ugly pine plantation. Andrea, still navigating, suggested we travel a few ks further to Mapua, a small seaside village with a wharf area, a former cold store and fish maket, an apple store and a harbourmaster's building converted into cafes and gallery spaces.

Darryl's work was at the far end of the "Cool Store Gallery". There were only a few pieces and the proprietor seemed bemused when I asked if she had any more. When I asked about him she was not flattering. 'He'll give you an interesting time if you find him' she said dismissing me. Andrea was even less impressed when confronted by these rough pieces in the flesh. I hinted that his studio was only twenty minutes up the road but to no avail.

Barry Lopez used the anagama story to explore the idea of community and humanity in its simplest and most grounded form. I was beginning to think that my anagama experience was the opposite. The anagama was not bringing people together but generating tension and distress. I needed to be a little more zen and let my desires go; allow my experience to be in the moment, not find every opportunity to feel thwarted.

Relaxed I can be; zen I am struggling with. Later the next day, after a nine hour day of driving, walking a ten kilometre section of the Abel Tasman (National Park) track and three hours at sea, some in a strong northerly swell aboard a small boat (Andrea suffers from sea sickness), we headed home to Nelson.

A sign that Andrea had regained her land legs came half way on the return journey when she suggested we stop briefly at a local art and craft shop. It was pretty awful but it did give me an opportunity to have a quick glance at the map to discover that serendipity was on my side. Kina Beach, Darryl's hideaway, was close by.

'Do you mind if we just do a quick side trip to Kina Beach?' I asked gently. Andrea was exhausted. I was in luck. Her energy for resistance had expended itself.

Darryl's byline is "Playing with Fire". I pulled into his entrance drive and followed it fifty metres to a point where it petered out in a scattering of junk and the remains of old machinery and timber offcuts. Andrea setttled into her seat for a snooze. 'Won't be long.' I said.

A piece of ceramic art slumped over a metal frame formed a letterbox and signage to the entrance. Twenty metres beyond that I entered an open space. On the left was a door to a studio crammed with art pieces. Straight ahead was a series of large sculptures. and behind all this lay the mysterious ten metre long 'anagama' kiln. Darryl was nowhere to be seen. The door to the studio was open. I entered to find myself surrounded by a hundred ceramic sculptures, some two dimentional, most three and all apparemntly inspired by nature and organic forms. Each one exhibited the furious energy of a man possessed of a will to wrestle with his medium in the most physical way imaginable; a series of giant pieces of ceramic art, many of them combined with recycled timber or steel or boulders were located around a large area where pathways wound through a wild garden.

About half an hour later I re-entered the studio. I was intent on a purchase. I selected a semi-functional piece hoping that it might find a comfortable place in the household. Still, there was no sign of Darryl. I gave a blast on his air-horn as suggested at the door; I considered leaving sixty dollars but was unsure of my ability to make a reasonable estimate of its value. Eventually I wrote a note leaving my email address and headed for the car empty handed.

Andrea groaned and surfaced as I opened the door. My ten minutes had turned into an hour. At that moment a tractor roared up the drive and a balding man jumped from the saddle. I met him mid-stride and followed him. I pointed to the piece I had chosen and, to my embarrassment, discovered it was one of only half a dozen in the room which was not Darryl's. He was happy to sell it for his anagama colleague for fifty bucks but I was determined to possess part of Darryl. It was an awkward moment. I had hoped that my anagama connection with the artist would flow; that we would click; that he would invite me to inspect his kiln; that we would discuss the finer points of his artistic vision and that the communal experience of the anagama firing; of spending six days and nights together stoking the kiln with small mountains of forest timber and driftwood would somehow be seamlessly imparted to me through some mysterious and magical process.

I chose a Darryl piece, a mashed up vase form with lumps and cuts and furrows and unexpected colourings intending to buy both his and his mate's as a package; Sadly, when I put them side by side his mate's looked like a poor cousin. I put the cousin aside. 'A hundred dollars for my piece' said Darryl. And that was that.

or some reason I slid it behind the back seat as I got back into the car, out of Andrea's sight.

'Did you buy something?' Andrea asked when we got back to our motel. I looked sheepish and began to unwrap my monster.

Franz Josef Glacier

Franz Josef from a distance (left) and closeup (right)


Falling from a precipitous sky
Hurtling headlong towards a fragile me
Frothing tumbling popping splashing
A milkshake poured from an almighty tumbler
Flowing nowhere

Destructive urge suspended
In crystalline blue
Awaiting another ice age.

(c) Steve Capelin

Blue ice (left), ice tunnel (right)

Fox Glacier - neighbour to Frans Josef

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I'm sitting on the side of my bed at 4 in the afternoon at the Mt Cook YHA looking in the direction of MT Cook (New Zealand's highest peak).

It's raining cool January rain and the mountain is hiding. A Korean man I spoke to last night said as he stood at the door of the Hostel "I just want to see her". He had such yearning in his voice.

He left this morning unsatisfied.


South Korean gentleman
Peers into the mist
A vigil for his lost love
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Never quite there.

Mt Cook

Sunday, 8 January 2012

Picton and Queen Charlotte Sound

Queen Charlotte Sound - almost impossible to capture on film. The vistas and secluded coves go on and on and on. When we departed Picton it took an hours driving to escape the inlets which seemed to keep pursuing us.

So much water pounding through the valleys and repleninsing the already fat waterways.

And a clue to my great grandfather Lorenzo and his family's shipboard experience on their journey in 1881. The Edwin Fox was built in 1853 and travelled between Europe, Australia and New Zealand as a cargo and passenger ship (later a coal haulage vessel in New Zealand). It was the last ship to transport convicts to Australia (Western Australia) and carried 180 passengers in steerage class, 20 first class and a crew of 40.

Robert Louis Stevenson's wrote a vivid account of the life of the 'steerage class'passengers during his trip from Britain to Canada in the late 19th century. It was hell.


A sliver of coastal lowland

A line of impresive peaks (snow capped in winter)

Fur seals lazing on the point

Orcas playing lazily in the shallows

Vans with makeshift kitchens on the foreshore

Selling fresh whitebait and mussels

And kelp, as thick as leather in greens and yellows

Decaying, stinking.

Thursday, 5 January 2012


In the queue to check my bags in at Brisbane airport a young lad from New Zealand turned to me looking confused. In his clipped New Zealand vowels he said' Um I un the right pluce?' 'I wus supposed to be un thus flight bet the numbers don't mutch.' I was able to help. In our modern competitive world Air New Zealand was the carrier for the discount Pacific Blue mob. 'in my broad Australiain vowels I reassured him 'Yer in the roight place mate. No worries.' 'Where're you frum?' 'Christchurch' he replied. 'Jest been vusiting sum mates fur a wik.'

'How did you fare in the earthquake?' I asked observing that the city had just been hit by another big one on christmas eve as I was thinking about packing. 'Yeah, alright eh? My house is looking a bit the worse for weir but it'll be alright eh? I'll hafta move inta a motel for a while but the govenmentuis paying for the wirk.' He seemed very philosophical. I discovered that by worse for wear he meant that his house was sitting at a 45 degree angle having been tipped off its stumps. 'Sum people got hut real bad though eh?. On the coast there's houses where half is at the top and half at the buttom of the cluff eh?' 'I was lucky.''

We chatted on as the line inched forward. 'You jest get on wuth it eh? We get a few shudders now und then but mostly it's alrighteh.' I discovered later that Christchurch has had more than 7000 tremors in the past twelve months since the first big one in November 2010.

'How long are you in christchurch?' One night was our answer. We had planned to get out of the earthquake zone as quickly as possible. He seemed disappointed. 'You should have a wee look before you go. I could drive you around if you like.' Reluctantly we declined. We'd booked all
our accomodation in advance and would need to head off first thing next morning for Kaikoura. 'Too bad,' he said.'It's worth a look to see what it's like now. They've set up a new shopping precinct using shupping containers. It's not too bad.'

Next morning, after a fitful night's sleep at the Airport Motel where every plane landing or taking off woke us alert to the posibility of the need to evacuate at short notice we did go for a drive to the city centre. It was New year's Day so the traffic was light but even so there was an air of absence, of people of traffic of vitality. Everyone in the centre was a tourist come to look. the heart of the city was locked down. wire fences blocked what woulod normally have been main entrance points; vacant lots were more common than standing structures; the me3ss had been cleaned up but the effect was to create a ghostly environment whre everything seemed to be on hold, waiting.

Strangely, while the heart of the physical centre had been destroyed the resilience of the locals seemed to live on. People were carrying on about their normal lives; dogs barked, kids rode their bikes the suburbs, largely untouched, hummed with quiet life. Later on we begin to meet refugees from the stress; people who had taken a weeks holiday to escape the ongoping trembles, the daily expectation that the next one could be the really big one; three major earthquakes in 12 months and over seven thousand minor quakes in one year - the nights are the worst.

Last night we went to see a documentary at the Picton Cinema, "The Fall of a City", which captures the past 12 months in Christchurch. It's quite beautiful in a strange way; full of hope and wisdom and community spirit. I left the cinema both exhausted and exhilarated.