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

Morning mists in "Rohan"

Morning mists in "Rohan"

IV. The South Island: Christchurch and beyond

In Christchurch, it was easy to forget that I had travelled half way around the world from Europe. It’s a city built by homesick English people – the streets and places carry the names of familiar places in London, and there are European trees in the streets and parks and the botanical garden, grown to enormous size in the fertile New Zealand soil despite their moderate age of some 150 years.

There even is a Brighton Beach, complete with pier. But driving out there, I become aware again that I am, after all, in the South Pacific. Barely 20 car minutes from the center of the third largest city in New Zealand, the wide, white sand beach stretches empty for miles, all the way to the feet of the steep hills that separate Christchurch from its harbour, Lyttelton. I’m almost relieved to discover another pair of people walking towards me from the lonely Victorian pier that pretends vainly to be "just like home".

The first European settlers to come to Christchurch had to cross a ridge of steep hills on a stony footpath, from the harbour to the swampy plains where the city was founded. The path is still there to be walked today, and my admiration for the hardiness and determination of those first settlers grows with every steep serpentine I climb upwards, panting – and then downwards again. Imagine having to drag all your belongings over those hills, furniture and all!

My work in Christchurch included two lunchtime concerts, one at the University and one at the prestigious Arts Center, an imposing neo-Gothic building complex with a concert hall that manages to evoke a fairly authentic European Renaissance feel – quite different from the more sanitized fake-historical buildings I had known in the United States. On the afternoon after the second concert, I taught a workshop on Continuo at the University, with only a few attendees, who did, however, make up by their keenness and curiosity. The following day, Helen Webby had organized a harp workshop for her students at a private home.

I had finally met Helen after my concert at the Arts Center. Not surprizingly, we had a lot to talk about, from common acquaintances in Germany to the hardships of sustaining an income as a freelance harpist. On returning to New Zealand, Helen had managed to talk McDonald’s into sponsoring her harp position with the Christchurch Symphonia, which the orchestra would otherwise not have been able to pay for. Although Helen does not play historical harps herself, during her time in Europe she had developed an interest in the instrument, and was quite keen to introduce me and my instruments to her students. The same night, she invited me to hear her orchestra perform. I thoroughly enjoyed the concert and the refreshing, no-frills attitude of the musicians – Diedre Irons, one of New Zealand’s foremost pianists, presented an excellent interpretation of Beethoven’s second piano concerto, with a complete absence of diva-ism.

The following day, I was shown around the city by Edith Salzmann, a German cellist who had taken up a teaching position at Canterbury University two years earlier. Edith plays both the modern and the baroque cello, and she told me that she and her husband were going to organize a baroque music festival later in the year – if I was still around at the time, she said, she would be quite happy to involve me.

View across Lake Tekapo near Twizel

View across Lake Tekapo near Twizel

There was an entire free week between my engagements in Christchurch and the next workshop in Wellington, and so I left my instruments at Margaret’s place, borrowed some warm blankets and went off into the blue to explore the South Island.

As a rabid fan of Peter Jackson’s "Lord of the Rings" movies, I was keen to visit some of the filming locations, and I had armed myself with the official locations guide and a set of detailed maps. A nerve-racking 40 km drive over a badly kept shingle road brought me to the site where the Edoras set had been build, on the evening of my first day’s trip. The journey proved well worth the while – took me away from the beaten tourist tracks and straight into the empty, uninhabited, grandiose heart of the central South Island.

The next day saw me driving across the plains around Twizel that will serve as the Pelennor fields in the third instalment of the movie, and brought me all the way to Fjordland, New Zealand’s southernmost province, which still sports vast expanses of untouched, primeval native bush. I spent the day in a rowing boat on Lake Manapuri, then proceeded to the Mavora Lakes, where the final scenes of the first movie had been filmed. Set in a broad valley between imposing mountain ranges clad by native southern beech forest, it was probably here that I realized I would have to try and stay in New Zealand – for if I went back to Europe, when would I ever see a southern beech tree again?

A frosty morning at the Mavora Lakes

A frosty morning at the Mavora Lakes

From there I went back to Queenstown, the adventure tourism capital of New Zealand. - founded during the gold rush in the late 19th century, Queenstown possesses a lot of charm, perhaps because it is so ostentatiously a tourist trap. I took a detour to visit Paradise, beyond Glenorchy – I had always suspected that Paradise was a cover name, to keep Tolkien tourists from trampling around the woodlands that served as Lothlorien, but it is a real place, and aptly named, too.

Since I did not feel like spending too much time in Queenstown, I took the steep and scary mountain road to Arrowtown – another gold digger town – and then on to Lake Hawea. The next day, I descended to the West Coast via the Haast pass, praying that my brakes would not give way. New Zealand’s nature is singularly benign – there are no snakes or other dangerous animals that could put people at risk in the outdoors, and there is a conspicuous absence of mosquitoes and other biting insects.

The only exception are the sand flies – and nobody had thought to warn me against those tiny bloodsuckers, which inhabit shorelines and the forest floor, and specialize in making a feast of naked feet in sandals. By the time I realized that insect repellent would be a good investment, my feet were so swollen that I had to walk around barefoot. So for the next day, I restricted myself mainly to driving - but perhaps it was a good thing that I could not be tempted into too many detours, after all I had to get back to Christchurch in time! I did, however, take the time to limp across a strange moonscape to the imposing foot of Fox Glacier, which in its slow retirement had left behind that waste.

Finally back in Christchurch, I picked up my harps and went on to Kaikoura. The coast off Kaikoura is famous for its sea life, and I had thoughts of joining a whale watching cruise the next morning, but was put off by the outrageous prices. So I contented myself with visiting the seal colony nearby, where the seals, devoid of all shyness, cavort among the tourists and occasionally chase off someone who annoys them by taking too many photos.

Back in Picton, the friendly lady from the car hire dropped me off at the ferry where in the meanwhile, they had a luggage trolley big enough to fit my harp – to the day, I have not found out if this has got anything to do with me! Steering out of the Marlborough Sounds, I promised myself that I would be back before long – and despite a slight nostalgia, I was looking forward to seeing Keith and his family again. When the ferry turned into Wellington harbour late in the evening, and I saw the downtown lights glimmer across the dark water, I already felt as if I was coming home.

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