New Zealand diaries

"I took my harp to New Zealand" - a travel tale by Asni

This series of articles was originally published in "Harpa" magazine throughout 2004

The Marlborough Sounds - going into Picton

The Marlborough Sounds - going into Picton

III. The South Island: Traveling to Dunedin

My first recital in New Zealand was going to take place in Dunedin – a venerable and, for New Zealand, old university town in the far South, which had been founded by Scottish settlers. As I did not want to take the plane, I had to take the boat from Wellington to Picton – the only ferry connection that connects New Zealand’s two main islands. From Picton, it is a seven hundred something kilometer drive along the East Coast. I had scheduled two days for the trip – after all, I wanted to see a few things along the road!

Keith had been very helpful in finding an affordable car hire in Picton – this allowed me to save on the expensive fees for taking a car on the ferry. It did mean, however, that I had to bring my harp and my luggage on board the boat "on foot", as it were. The ferry company did offer a luggage service for foot passengers, but unfortunately my harp was too big for their luggage trolley! And so I had my first taste of the proverbial laid-back and helpful Kiwi attitude. Without much fuss, a strong man came along and carried my harp on board, disregarding several security regulations in the process.

In Picton, I found the lady from the car hire waiting for me at the ferry landing. She loaded me into her car and drove me back to her office, where we settled the hiring arrangements. She did seem slightly put out, however, by the several worried phonecalls Keith had made in the meantime, to see if I had arrived safely yet.

Moeraki boulders - alien stones on a beach north of Dunedin

Moeraki boulders - alien stones on a beach north of Dunedin

New Zealand’s South Island is as yet unspoilt by overpopulation or mass tourism – and it is home to some of the most spectacular shooting locations for Peter Jackson’s "Lord of the Rings" trilogy. A visit to your nearest cinema is strongly recommended! As we entered the sounds that surround Picton, it instantly became clear to me why New Zealand has proven such a convincing image of Tolkien’s Middle Earth.

There had been no place on the morning boat, and so I did not arrive in Picton until 6 pm.But I had to try and cover some kilometers before bedtime – not an easy task when the landscape hits you like a fist between the eyes. As I was driving out of Picton, the outcrops of the Southern Alps appeared in the distance, and I had to step on the brakes in order not to be swept off the road.

Originally, I had planned to stay the night in Christchurch, approximately half way to Dunedin. But darkness caught up with me already in Kaikoura, and after a short struggle with myself I decided to make for the nearest camping ground and sleep in the car. A car that is big enough for my harp is, after all, usually big enough for me. I did have a sleeping bag, but no matress – fortunately, the foam-padded harp bag served that purpose admirably well.

The next morning, I was glad I had not been tempted to drive on in the dark. Due to the scanty traffic, roads in New Zealand are usually narrow and winding, and behing Kaikoura the road climbs in serpentines over a mountain ridge. As I was still getting used to sitting on the wrong side of the car as well, my average speed that morning was 40 km/h. I was also getting worried that I might run out of petrol somewhere in the middle of nowhere: even on this main road, there are stretches of some hundred kilometres without sign of human habitation – let alone a gas station! But I quickly got used to watching my petrol needle, and filling up whenever the opportunity offered.

Even though I had had an early morning start, I did not have much time for stopping – and I did not arrive in Dunedin until 6 pm. The evening was my only chance to do some sightseeing, and even though the weather was grey and drizzly, I went to do a round of the city and find some food. Dunedin is famous for its bands – and when I found a Pub that had some live music, I was very tempted to hit the night life. But my sense of duty prevailed, and I went back to the motel to go over tomorrow’s pieces before having an early sleep.

New Zealanders have a passion for lunchtime concerts – the recital in Dunedin, and most of the other recitals on my tour, took place at 1 pm. For European standards, that is a somewhat unusual time, although I have to admit it is a great idea to give people the opportunity to attend a concert in their lunch break! I played excerpts from the "700 years of pop" programme I had recorded on cd before my trip. And so there I was, in front of my first New Zealand audience, playing an arrangement from the Lord of the Rings soundtrack – the movie that everything had started with. I had been a little worried about how people in New Zealand would react to it – but in the end, it was this piece that went to people’s hearts everywhere. Kiwis are justifiably proud of their movies, and they regarded my arrangement as a compliment.

"Edoras" - full South Island splendour

"Edoras" - full South Island splendour

Unfortunately, I had to leave for Christchurch straight after the recital – the next lunchtime concert was scheduled on the following day. This time, I took the time to stop and take in a few tourist attractions on the way. I regretted not having more time in Oamaru – the harbour halfway between Dunedin and Christchurch is birthplace to Janet Frame, one of New Zealand’s foremost writers. It also features in her Autobiography, which had left a deep impression on me. The movie adaptation "An Angel at my Table" by Jane Campion, was one of the first New Zealand films that garnered international attention and acclaim, back in the 80’s – even before the worldwide success of "The Piano".

In Christchurch, I was going to stay with friends of Helen Webby’s. Helen, sister of harp builder Kim Webby, had spent many years in Germany and the Netherlands, but although I had heard much about her through common acquaintances, I had never met her personally. Whenever I had mentioned my plans to go to New Zealand, someone was sure to say: "Do you know Helen Webby?". Some years ago, she had convinced the Christchurch Symphonia to create a position for a harpist, and this gave her the opportunity to return to New Zealand. Besides her work with the orchestra, Helen also plays Irish harp, and her duo programme with guitar player Davy Stuart is among the best things I have heard in that genre. I was very much looking forward to making her acquaintance at last.

After a long drive, I arrived in Christchurch late in the evening. Margaret and her family extended the most cordial hospitality to me – Margaret was also one of the first people who encouraged me to try and stay permanently in New Zealand! For after spending two weeks on the South Island, it became clear to me that I should have to try – otherwise, when would I be able to afford to travel to New Zealand again? But more of this in my next instalment.

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