A day in Hobbitton is a great time to talk a little about the illusion that is New Zealand. I mean first off let’s consider the undeniable reality that is forty-odd permanent hobbit holes in a dale in the middle of the North Island of a modern, developed, twenty-first century country. And look, the art department was *astonishingly* detailed: each fencepost was bathed in vinegar to look aged, then painted with a concoction of lichen, moss spores, and glue to give it accurate color and texture. At the Green Dragon Inn there is a real carved green dragon! And the nice tree Bilbo Baggins does his thinking under in the Hobbit is fake but the sixty-years-later one from Lord of the Rings was 100% real until it died from having been transplanted at the irresistable whim of Sir Peter Jackson. So I don’t want to come across as complaining, or trying to diminish it in any way. But superficially the Tourism Board portrays the archipelago as this unspoilt Utopia where kiwi frolic in native vegetation and, don’t worry, the Canterbury Plains have always been pastureland. But it is so interesting because almost nothing is how it was pre-1850, particularly in the lowlands but further west as well. It’s green, no doubt, but what grazing grasses would have been there before the introduction of sheep? Think about all the willows and poplars planted as wind cover for the stock animals. WIllows are from Assyria, for crying out loud, and poplars are 100% European. Those stands of white pine trees? Yeah, not a separate species. They were introduced and have since been killed as part of a back-to-nature campaign, the extent of which they hardly admit to themselves. Um, trout fishing in Lake Rotorua? Nice hobby; English introduction. Deer hunting and venison farming? No less delicious for being an English introduction. So I totally appreciate making the best of things, and making a bad situation your own, but just the *scale* of the changes are so astonishing that it boggles me. Again: is it pretty? Indubitably. Is it massively terraformed? Yeah, kind of. It’s not even almost pristine; it’s somewhere between brainwashing and a revisionist myth. It might have the same motivation as what manifests as compulsion to be hyperbolically unique to the point of absurdity: this building is “the most efficient milk powder production facility on the South Island”, and so on, which originally I had interpreted as a small-country inferiority complex but now I think is just finding facts to relieve the cognitive dissonance.
On the theme of revisionism: maybe you have been paying attention in the world news and maybe you haven’t, but New Zealand is currently undergoing a bit of an internal struggle about whether to change the national flag from a defaced Blue Ensign (Union Jack in the corner & Southern Cross on the field) to something else, maybe a fern or a map or some extra stars. Which is fine and it’s a free nation (*ahem* of the Commonwealth *ahem*) but if they’re going to try and erase their links with the Empire they’re going to need to, at minimum, (a) stop calling their capital city Wellington, ffs, and (b) stop sending all their teenagers to Britain for their gap year. After that do whatever you want. Look, it is great to acknowledge that the forces in your country’s past were not all white and male, that’s cool. But it seems like a big link to break. Anyway, not my business.
We spent our final 24 hours in Auckland, eating Indian food at Raviz near the Sky Tower, walking around the beautiful harbour in the sunny morning light, and eventually making our way up Wellesley Street past Albert Park to the campus of the University of Auckland and the Winter Garden with its Cool House and Tropical House. The thing that depressed me most about Albert Park was the slackliners and the thing I loved most was the butter chicken. We got upgraded to a SkyCouch row on the flight home, returning without incident to celebrate my birthday with saved wedding cake and leftover champagne.
In summary: I misread the itinerary so I brought the wrong guidebook, was a pair of socks short and overpacked my Tshirts, but the whole trip was otherwise A-OK except for a microscopic kerfuffle with the rental car company for the second leg. This is great because it means I still pack like a champion in less than an hour even post-wedding with a pregnant lady sleeping in my bedroom and the rest of the bridesmaids chilling downstairs. I did not see a real kiwi bird, nor did I purchase a jingly kiwi Christmas ornament, but I did get a greenstone necklace. I have what looks like about 700 pictures to whittle down to make these entries, after deleting the backs of people’s heads and the random plastic bags and so on. Overall a great trip, a fun country, a lot to do, a lot to like. Worth a visit.