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

Maunga Taranaki

Maunga Taranaki

VI. Going north: Auckland, Hamilton and Hobbiton

Wellington is New Zealand’s capital, but Auckland, situated in the north of the country and boosting some 1.3 million inhabitants, is the closest New Zealand has to a large city. In terms of cultural life, the two cities vie with each other, and the decision to settle in Auckland or Wellington is of rather fundamental importance for any musician.

Having been to the South Island twice, I was looking forward to drive around the North Island as well – so far, I had hardly been beyond Wellington. I had two days to drive the 900 kilometres to Auckland, and so I took my time. I drove past Mount Taranaki, a volcano that rises in almost perfect, imposing symmetry out of the flat coastal plain surrounding it. A short while ago, it served as backdrop for a major film production – not "Lord of the Rings" this time, but Tom Cruise’s latest movie, a samurai epic taking place in old Japan. Mount Taranaki was chosen because of its similarity to Japan’s most famous mountain, the Fujijama.

Sunset on the Coromandel peninsula

Sunset on the Coromandel peninsula

After many stops and detours, I arrived in Auckland late on the second evening. Robyn Sutherland, a local harp player, had offered me to stay at her house in return for some harp lessons. The house turned out to be a spacious colonial villa on the outskirts of the city, surrounded by gardens and subtropical vegetation. Robyn has been a bass player with rock and pop bands for many years, and has recently picked up the harp. She is fascinated by medieval music, and writes her own material, which shows that influence. She was delighted when I told her I was planning to put op some medieval music classes at some stage!

But first I had to deliver a lecture at the University of Auckland: the topic was "harp and continuo playing", and it was quite surprizing how many people considered that to be a matter of interest! Although I suspected that many of the local harp people had come in hopes to hear me play – unfortunately I hadn’t succeeded in organizing a concert proper in Auckland, despite the energetic and enthusiastic help I had from Anna Dunwoodie, another of the Auckland harp professionals.

I first met Anna personally at my university lecture, and she instantly took me under her wing. "Enthusiasm" is a mild expression for the energy she puts into promoting the harp. She invited me to meet her students during their lessons the next day, and managed to sell a copy of my cd to each and every one of them! She also offered me help dealing with immigration – in fact, she suggested that I move to Auckland and start teaching harp there, since there were more people interested in learning the harp than the local teachers could cope with. Anna herself has just had her first child and could not accept new students at the moment. It definitely seemed something worth considering!

Meanwhile, Robyn had decided to organize a harp seminar at her place, at very short notice. So I gave up on my plans to explore the far north of the island – the prospect of paid teaching and a chance to sell my cds was more attractive after all. Not that I minded hanging out at Robyn’s place anyway – we had quickly become friends and spent the evenings brainstorming about ways to make money out of playing the harp.

The harp seminar, combined with a picnic on Robyn’s sunny veranda, turned out to be a great success. And I did get to go north after all: Kim Webby, brother of Helen, whom I had met in Christchurch, has a harp workshop in Whangarei, about two hours drive north of Auckland. I had met Kim many years ago at the World Harp Congress in Paris, where he had been exhibiting his instruments. His harp has always stayed in my memory as the most beautiful pedal harp I ever laid my hands on – not only for its elegant, exotic looks, but especially for its beautiful, lush tone. By now, Kim is selling his harps throughout the world, and has become something of a harp making legend. He has essentially taught himself. The first harp he built was for his sister Helen – the family had no money to get her an instrument from overseas, and so – the legend goes – Kim went into a library and got out a book on harp making. I had been writing to Kim before my trip, and he had responded with a whole range of contact addresses and good advice. No question that I was going to visit him, now that I was in the neighbourhood.

Anna and her small son joined me for the trip, and on a very rainy day we drove up to Whangarei. Kim seemed a somewhat shy character, but he was very interested in my two harps, which I had brought along, and we spent quite some time comparing their sound and that of his two harps – a pedal harp and a small lever harp with a beautiful clear tone. Then he showed me round his workshop and his collection of ancient wood- and metalworking machines that would be the pride of many a museum. No digital high tech for Kim – he believes in handcraft and tends his old machines with the same love and care he shows for his harps. Perhaps some day someone will be grateful that Kim has preserved the knowledge how to operate some of those old-fashioned mechanical precision tools.

Sitting on Bilbo's doorstep

Sitting on Bilbo's doorstep

The next stop on my tour was Hamilton – a town south of Auckland, and home to the University of the Waikato. I arrived there after a detour round the famed bag peninsula, with its rugged coastline and ancient Kauri forest. Hamilton, rather surprizingly, houses one of the largest and most state-of-the-art stage and theater complexes in New Zealand, and here the last of my university lunchtime concerts was taking place. I played "700 years of Pop" again to a well-filled auditorium, and to my own judgement at least, this was the best concert of my tour.

Perhaps it was the knowledge that I was now not far from the Shire, which inspired me. On the previous day, I had already stopped by in nearby Matamata, the small town that proudly calls itself "Hobbiton" ever since Peter Jackson built the set for Bilbo’s and Frodo’s home town (from the Lord of the Rings movies) in the proximity. And lo – one of the stage hands at my concert turned out to be a former hobbit, having participated in Bilbo’s birthday party as an extra. Unfortunately, he could not give me clear directions to the movie set, which is situated on private property on a sheep farm south of Matamata. So there was nothing left for me to do but to drive back to Matamata and spend the night, on a camp site next to a volcanic hot spring – use of the volcanically heated swimming pool included in the overnight fee! The next morning, I joined the official Hobbiton tour to the movie set. At NZ $ 50, this was not exactly cheap, but to spend two leisurely hours on the former Hobbiton set with an expert guide, it was certainly worth the price.

View out of the front door at Bag End

View out of the front door at Bag End

Those who expect to find the set in the same condition as shown in the movie will of course be disappointed. According to their contract, the farm owners should have destroyed the hobbit holes after completion of filming – it is only thanks to a spell of rain and bad weather that Bag End and most of the other hobbit homes survive, albeit without makeup, and without the gardens, fields and plantations that were created with so much love and care just for the movie. The owners of the farm, kiwi sheep farmers with little respect or interest in the glitz world of the film business, only slowly realized what it was they had on their property. Luckily, they eventually obtained the permission not only to keep the structures, but also to preserve them, and make them accessible to the public in limited measure. Bag End is clearly recognizable and towers over the set, the Party tree has lost none of its glory, and the view from Bilbo’s doorstep is still very much the same as ever. And finding myself standing on Bag End’s doorstep was certainly the high point of my entire trip.

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