Mountains, Mines and Middle Earth – Travels in New Zealand Part 2 – Picton to Queenstown

(You can read Part 1 here.)

Part 2 – in which we cross the Cook Straits to the South Island, visit a ghost town and find our travel plans disrupted by a landslide.

A ferry connects north and south of the country, sailing sedately out of Wellington and navigating the islands and inlets of Charlotte Sound. In Picton, where the ferry docks, we’d booked a luxury flat for a few nights, and were all agreed we’d have happily stayed longer. If our son really does become a millionaire, I’ll credit staying here gave him that taste of high life that spurred him on. The sun shone, the sky was blue. The only cloud was a gentle enquiry from a friend, via Facebook, asking whether we were OK. White Island had erupted, and a boatload of tourists were missing. We were many miles away, across the Cook Straits, but the news that unfolded each day was sobering.

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The Cook Straits
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Picton, view from our balcony
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Charlotte Sound
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Picton
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Charlotte Sound

It was time to head West, the road crossing and re-crossing the Buller River. Deep turquoise, it runs through rocky chasms and under wide bridges, and dawdles in wide beds between pebble pastures.

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The Buller River and a lost shoe

Our destination this time was the ghost town of Denniston.

I’ve mentioned Jenny Pattrick before. Her first novel, the one I bought on our previous visit, is ‘The Denniston Rose.’ I’d read it as we journeyed round, and when I’d finished it, I told Mr W about it.

“Oh, Denniston’s a real place,” he said. “We weren’t far from it last week.”

So Denniston was a must-visit this time.

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Deniston

A half hour drive out of Westport, it thrived on the coal industry between 1880 and 1967. Up on the Rochfort Plateau coal was loaded into wagons that then slid almost vertically down an incline of 518 metres to the bottom, where it was taken by train to the coast. It was illegal for people to ride it, but many risked it anyway.

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Deniston, abandoned machinery

A community formed round the miners. You could say life was bleak. On the rocky ground it was hard to grow fruit, vegetables or flowers. Coffins needed to be lowered on top of coal mines to be buried on lower, softer ground. Furniture had to be brought up via the coal wagons. But it’s interesting what their priorities were. Before a proper road was built, they’d established a hotel, a school, a police station and the School of Mines and Working Men’s Club. There was a strong ethos of education and socialism, and though girls were expected to look after the home, they were also encouraged to excel at school.

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A bit of brickwork is all that is left of a home in Deniston

It always amazes me how quickly nature reclaims the ground. An earthquake a year after the closure covered part of the upper incline. Iron wheels and wagons litter the site, but of the homes there, little remains – half a wall here, a flight of angled steps there with nothing at the top. There are two homes further up the hill, set so far back from the historical area that they are quite out of sight unless you drive further up the mountain road.

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The wild West Coast

From Westport we were headed for Wanaka. The coastal road winds through wild forests, dipping down to wet, empty beaches, where scattered homes watch the sea spray. Storms had brought down a landslip, blocking the second half of coastal road and sending us back east for a long detour that took us over Arthur’s Pass and the wonderful South Island Alps.

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On the road to Wanaka
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Lupins

The hills of Otago look bleak and barren, but when you get up close you’ll see they’re covered in grassy tussocks, green in the centre, gold-tipped. Wanaka, our destination for the night, sparkled with light and lake. The journey had taken us twelve hours, and every twist of the road brought us a new vista of glory.

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Wanaka

Wanaka is famous for a museum and a tree. The museum is Puzzle World, full of optical illusions 2D and 3D. Being a wordy woman, I was particularly intrigued by the ambigrams – to quote the museum information itself, “a typographical creation that presents two or more separate words within the same physical space.

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Which word do you see first in this ambigram?

 

Next stop, Queenstown.

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Approaching Queenstown

The first time we visited this tourist destination, we’d travelled the coastal route. After days of tiny towns where Saturday lunchtime marked the start of the weekend and everything closed until Monday, Queenstown – full of bars and restaurants, lights and laughter – was a welcome break. It’s probably more a mark of my age than a change in the town, that now I found it loud and touristy. You can also spend a small fortune here on extreme sports. Most of the activity on offer involves throwing yourself off something – high wire, hang gliding, bunjee…Fortunately, there are also walking opportunities, whether up the mountain track (who needs a gondola?!) or round the lake.

 

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Walking up Ben Lomond
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Views across Lake Wakatipu, Queenstown
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Walking on Kelvin Heights
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Walking on Kelvin Heights
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Walking on Kelvin Heights
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Walking on Kelvin Heights
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Walking on Kelvin Heights

You can also escape to Arrowtown, because this delightful little place a short drive away preserves many buildings from the Gold Rush era, including the tiny homes of Chinese gold miners.

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The spot where Jack Tewa first found gold
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Delightful Arrowtown
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Arrowtown
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Chinese miners’ home, Arrowtown

When Jack Tewa, a Maori shearer, discovered gold in the Arrow River at the spot that became Arrowtown, his employer, William Rees, asked him to keep it a secret: Rees was keen to complete his shearing without the drama of a gold rush. Tewa kept his word but others made a similar discover and the news spread. By the end of the year 1,500 miners camped by the Arrow River, flooding in from all over the world. Men and women also flocked to offer services: the miners lived hard lives, but they needed to eat and they liked to drink.

One of the women was Julia Eichardt, born in Ireland, taken to Australia by her mother. Starting as a barmaid at the Queen’s Arms hotel, she married the owner and continued to run it after his death as Eichardt’s. A no-nonsense woman like many female New Zealanders, she seems to have been equally famous for throwing drunken customers into the ‘stone jug’ (a room, mercifully, not a receptacle for beer) and opening an extension fitted with electric lights – the first commercial premises in the world to do so – by hijacking the town’s water supply and running it through a pelton wheel. It makes sense to me that New Zealand was the first country to allow women to vote for Parliamentary elections.

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Julia Eichardt
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Julia Eichardt’s grave

The next stage of our journey took us east once more, with scenic stops. Kawarau Bridge is THE place to bungee, but today the one person who’d paid up stood shivering and crying on the edge, and we felt like voyeurs watching, so we moved on. Roaring Meg is a stream that drives a hydroelectric power station as it merges into the Kawarau River. Pines on the slope above it have been condemned as wildings, like various other swathes of non-native timber. Once they were planted by colonials to remind themselves of home and provide materials for building or burning, but the birds and small creatures that had thrived on the local flora began falling in number. Sprayed with chemicals, the pines stand dead, waiting to fall and rot away – a ghost forest. The sun was out as we reached Lake Tekapo, with its photogenic chapel and fields of lupins.

 

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Church of the Good Shepherd, Lake Tekapo
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Lake Tekapo, reflected: me trying to be arty

We were bound now for Christchurch, our home in the 90s. As a couple, we’d arrived with two rucksacks and a lot of hope. Living in a former motel, a unit with shower, galley kitchen, living area and bedroom, we’d worked a variety of jobs to pay the rent. We were looked after by lovely friends from the church we went to on Sundays, and I was welcomed by the local writers group. Christchurch was designed to be the perfect English town, with its roads named after bishops and its gorgeous Gothic architecture. We were both fond of lingering in the town square, with the cathedral as backdrop. If you were lucky, the bagpiper, in full tartan regalia, was away. If you were really lucky, you could hear the famous Wizard with his soap-box oratories, proving that shopping causes wars or selling his maps of the world from the Kiwi point of view. Then it would be time to find coffee or lunch, maybe in the old university, converted into an arts centre. Here, Ernest Rutherford, first person in history to split the atom, experimented for his masters in the former cloakroom, because there was no formal physics laboratory.

If we needed to stretch our legs (and Mr W always needs to stretch his legs) we’d head the other way for the Port Hills, that brood over the town. At the start of the 20th century Harry Ell, aware of the declining population of native flora and fauna in the country, designed a series of resting places here to encourage others to explore and appreciate the area. As with many big projects, only a part was realised, but the houses that were built are splendid. At the foot of the hills sits the Sign of the Takahe, a Gothic wonder with stained glass windows, offering a restaurant and coffees. Higher up is the Sign of the Kiwi, a café with Tip-Top ice-cream, the best in the world. The Sign of the Bellbird and the Sign of the Packhorse offer simple shelter with no refreshments.

We’d been back since then, with our children, and spent a week revisiting all these wonders, though the Wizard and the bagpiper had retired. Not long after that the city was devastated by two earthquakes. We’d seen pictures on the news, and heard from our friends of the psychological impact. We weren’t sure what to expect on our return this time.

 

Tune in to Part 3 to read about post-earthquake Christchurch and Auckland’s night markets!

 

Writing Historical Fiction – an interview with David Neilson, author of the Sophie Rathenau mysteries

 

Serene Cover

 

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about historical fiction. My childhood reading included the inspired works of Henry Treece, Leon Garfield, Geoffrey Trease and Rosemary Sutcliff, and my teens were filled with the swashbuckling tales of Georgette Heyer and Baroness Orczy. I’ve found adult HF a different matter; the weighty volumes that linger on pillage and destruction are not for me at all, and I shy away from those that dwell bleakly on the injustices of our ancestors. (Maybe this makes me a lightweight. But one of the joys of reading is the escape from the grievances and chores of my everyday world.) The historical fiction I’ve enjoyed lately has been mixed genre: blended with mystery, suspense, romance or fantasy. A wonderful find was the Sophie Rathenau series, where thriller meets Rococo meets romance meets quite a bit of swashbuckling, and not all of it by the men.

So I’m delighted to be able to welcome onto my blog David Neilson, author of the Sophie Rathenau series, which currently stands as The Prussian Dispatch, Lay Brothers and newly-released Serene.

Here is the blurb for The Prussian Dispatch.

With nothing in her purse, Sophie Rathenau can’t refuse work, even from a down-at-heel pimp. But tracing the woman who’s gone off with his document is a chancy business. A gang of Prussian maniacs are hunting for it too, as well as thugs from the shadowy Versailles Club, and a Polish countess desperate to preserve her country.


Caught up in an international conspiracy, Sophie’s only weapons are her sardonic tongue and an old cavalry pistol. But it’ll take more than those to find the dispatch, keep a vengeful Chancellor at bay, and deal with a past that threatens to engulf her.

 

As well as being the creator of one of my favourite fictional characters, David is very supportive of other writers. We met on the writers’ forum Scribophile (also highly recommended) and I’ve really appreciated his feedback on my own writing, particularly on structure and on elegantly balanced sentences.

David, can you tell us a little about yourself first?

I’m retired from teaching in a Glasgow college, live nowadays on the Rhine, and haven’t so much come late to writing as to actually getting books finished. I found this pretty tough years ago, with work and life such a terrible distraction, and I couldn’t stick with anything. It wasn’t until a distinctive setting occurred to me, the Vienna of the later eighteenth century –with Sophie announcing herself as the main character a moment later – that I could get things moving.

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One of David’s distractions? Typical Central European cuisine, apricot dumpling

Sophie is such a wonderful, rounded character – brave, sharp-tongued, warm-hearted with a vulnerable underbelly. Have you drawn on anyone, alive, dead, real or fictional, to develop her?

Sophie isn’t consciously based on anyone, though every so often I’ll catch in her an intonation, a reaction, that seems familiar from somewhere. I know that her sheer relentlessness owes something to the woman I’ve been married to for over thirty years. Sophie is an active component in my psyche, in that I sense her presence whether I’m writing about her or not, and, once the historical differences are taken away, our perceptions of the world, even our tone of voice, are the same. Mind you, I don’t imagine that her virtues are mine. Her resolution, her constancy, all of her suppressed romanticism, are surely telling me that I’d be a better person if I shared that side of her nature instead of her faults, such as her quickness to judge and her impetuousness.

She’s very active for a woman of the 18c. How would you defend arguments that she’s an anachronism?

Certainly, there’s anachronism in the series, mostly linguistic, usually there to support the criminal milieu surrounding Sophie. The age of Mozart didn’t really rejoice in such developed and connected rogues, but Sophie wanted to be part of a noir series without giving up her Rococo world, so there you are: who was I to argue? In terms of what’s permitted to women in her time, I’m not sure that the books are as tendentious as they may seem. Sophie, as a widow, is entitled to handle her own affairs. Two centuries earlier, Katharina von Bora fought and won a struggle to control the business founded by her deceased husband, Martin Luther. Another strikingly relevant career is that of Aphra Behn, the Restoration playwright who spied in Antwerp for the court of Charles II. The traveller and adventuress Lady Hester Stanhope, who was born around the time of the Sophie series, did more or less as she pleased.

Sophie sounds in good company then! You dropped some tantalizing hints in your interview with Sue Seabury, saying that Sophie will in time adopt a child and take a regular lover. I’m holding on to this as a promise because Sophie’s had a pretty rough ride so far. Are you prepared to drop any more breadcrumbs?

The main thing is that Sophie is headed from the utter isolation of the first few pages of The Prussian Dispatch to powerful social involvement, even entanglement. The final line of the seventh book, if I ever get there, ought to show how far she’s come and how hard it’ll be for her to assess everything that’s happened in her life. In Serene she meets a character who seems quite incidental but who’ll change her life profoundly, a character who was present in chapter 3 of The Prussian Dispatch, except that no-one else knew she was there – herself included.

That is so cryptic. I’ve re-read Chapter 3 and I’m still mystified. No ‘if I ever get there,’ please!

Your covers are gorgeous. Who did them, and how, or is it a trade secret?

Thank you! I often wonder how they come across, and whether they might not be a little too sombre. The titling, which I like for its clarity, is a present from a designer who bailed out early, whereafter I started to run them up myself. All of the objects are from my toybox, carefully arranged and lit, shot on an iPad, and worked up on Photoshop. At the moment I’m looking for a good visual reference for the eighteenth-century baby shoes that should appear on the next cover – and not finding the task easy.

There’s another breadcrumb! Now, some historical questions. You say you feel very much at home in the era of Maria Theresia and Mozart. What attracts you to it? Mozart is well-loved, but the name Hapsburg means little to most of your English-speaking audience. Added to that, Maria Theresia doesn’t come over to me as very sympathetic in The Prussian Dispatch where she instigates a harsh ‘clean-up’ for Vienna that oppresses prostitutes. Is a dead Empire relevant to today’s audience?

Central European atmsphere, Linz an der Donau
Central European atmosphere, Linz an der Donau 

I wouldn’t have liked to live then (thinking mostly of dentistry and medical progress) but I do feel an affinity with Central Europe: its food, its music, its traditional architecture, its whole atmosphere. The first time I heard Act II of Figaro I had a deep sense that this actually wasn’t for the first time, though of course it must have been. The world in which works like that arose, the Habsburg empire, is as worthy a subject for historical fiction as the English Civil War or the Georgian era, even if these periods are much more congenial to British readers. Sophie is active at a time when the balance of power is changing rapidly in Germany (to speak of Germany as a geographical area, that is, rather than as a state). It’s then that Prussian militarism and discipline as a way of life are being established, and that, needless to say, has been an important component in our global conflicts. Habsburg rule profoundly influenced European culture and history. Anyone who exults in Beethoven’s Fifth might consider that its final hymn to freedom reflects impatience with the grim Habsburg determination to keep everything battened down after the French Revolution. Maria Theresia represents a much more human side than that, however. The tale of the six-year-old Mozart climbing on a ruler’s knee is often recalled, the knee in question being that of Maria Theresia. She’s by no means forgotten in Central Europe, where her portrait can turn up in unexpected corners. I was in Bratislava last year for the first time in decades and came across a life-sized figure of the Empress, sitting in a café window.

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Frederick II, Maria Theresia’s enemy, portrayed by Hugo Ungewitter, public domain

That must have been a surreal event! Joking aside, I admit to a typical British ignorance about the history of Europe.

Although your books are set firmly in a specific period, you have deliberate historical errors in the Sophie books, and point them out in the glossary. Am I right in thinking it’s a long-running joke with the readers?

I hope so! The books are stuffed with jokes and allusions. Any opera-goer, for instance, will recognise “the general’s wife and the pretty boy she hung around with” glimpsed in a café in The Prussian Dispatch. Nor is it a coincidence that a child transfixed by the sight of Sophie holding bad guys at pistol-point goes on to write the libretto of Fidelio. There’s a sense that various hands have interposed themselves in her memoirs, and the glossary assists readers in finding where this may have taken place. I have my limits, though. A café across the river from me offers its German customers “Early Grey” tea, and while I’d love to bring that in, the warping of history implied is simply too great.

That’s a shame! What’s your philosophy on historical dialogue, and has it evolved over the years since you first started writing? It’s impossible to make it completely authentic if the original was in another language, of course.

I love authentic eighteenth-century dialogue, as long as it’s in eighteenth-century texts, be they from Goldsmith, Kleist, or Goldoni. Any characters using that style in mine tend to the shifty: that tone of voice generally arouses Sophie’s suspicions. Eighteenth-century pastiche forms but part of an overall texture which is aiming for a certain breadth and richness of its own, and at all events keeping away from a style of dialogue owing more to BBC costume dramas than the recorded discourse of the time. The approach of Richard Strauss in Der Rosenkavalier, set in Sophie’s time and acknowledging the heritage, but using tonalities quite impossible for that era, has made much greater impact on me than any historical novel. Not that it would make any difference what I think; Sophie just talks the way she wants anyhow.

It works for me.

Thank you so much for visiting my blog, David.

Thank you, rather, for the opportunity!

I do hope I’ve inspired my readers to investigate further. As some extra incentives, click here for the trailer for Serene, Sophie’s latest adventure, and here for a free Sophie story.

 

You can find David on

http://sophierathenau.weebly.com

and Sophie on Amazon.

The paperbacks are very reasonably priced, while each e-book costs less than a medium latte, or they are free to read on Kindle Unlimited.