Thursday, January 10, 2013

Little Scotland

If Christchurch and the surrounding Canterbury plain were founded and settled by Englishmen trying to create a home away from home, then the Otago and Southland regions at the bottom of the South Island were unmistakably colonised by Scots. Not only is Dunedin, the main city in the south, obviously named after Scotland's capital Edinburgh, but it was also designed in its layout and architecture to mirror the austere, neo-Gothic cities of the north (in all my travels I have not seen a place that so closely reminded me of my hometown Aberdeen). But it's not just the city but the whole landscape which evokes images of Alba: the rolling hills battered by the unrelenting wind, enemy of tall trees but friend of the hardy, golden tussock grass that carpets much of the landscape. Perfect sheep country, for which New Zealand is famous.

No Scottish city is complete without a statue of the national poet, Robert Burns, and so it is with Dunedin too.

I remember growing up that my image of New Zealand was a country full to bursting with sheep, having absorbed the priceless nugget of information that there are 20 sheep in New Zealand for every person*. That is almost certainly no longer the reality. Not because of increasing population (although it has been steadily rising) but because many sheep (and beef) farms have been converted to dairy. Over the past few years in particular the lure of greater profits, fuelled by an insatiable demand from China (where the people don't trust locally produced milk, to the point where the most popular souvenir for Chinese tourists visiting New Zealand is packs of milk powder) has changed the agricultural landscape tremendously. This is particularly evident in the drier, eastern half of the island where giant irrigators straddle vast fields to simply water the grass. The extraction of water for irrigation and effluent pollution (primarily) from the high concentration of shitting cows is exacting a high toll on New Zealand's environment. Not that it's immediately apparent to the casual observer, but whilst I was hitching around the South Island several of my rides who work in the farming sector told me about dairy's negative effects. (The problem being not so much with dairy farming per se, but its spread to areas that are not suited to it that then require the use of fertilisers and irrigation.) It is hard, though, to see a reversal in the trend, as the only thing that speaks louder than money is even more money. And the dairy cooperatives of New Zealand, headed by Fonterra, have plenty of it. Despite being unique amongst developed nations by getting rid of farm subsidies years ago, Kiwi farmers are very successful. Fonterra is the country's largest company with earnings in excess of £10bn and accounting for roughly 30% of global dairy exports. With little in the way of mineral resources like its neighbour across the Tasman Sea New Zealand sees milk as its very own "white gold". This is a world away from the green, nature-loving, image that New Zealand likes to project abroad. But the damage is far from prying eyes and hard to spot in such a sparsely populated country and so will likely continue for the foreseeable future.

But back to Dunedin, the Jewel of the South. Even on a sunny day the city betrays its Presbyterian Scottish roots and is a rather dour place. Though the lack of atmosphere may also be attributed to the summer holidays - the city boasts the highest relative student population in the country and their absence was certainly felt. As well as being home to New Zealand's oldest university and a top notch museum, Dunedin also has some more unusual sights, such as the only mainland colony of albatross (these majestic birds, whose wings can span almost 4m, are usually only found on remote islands in the Southern Ocean) as well as colonies of sea lions, penguins and other Antarctic fauna, and the world's steepest residential street.

A house on Baldwin Street, acknowledged to be the steepest residential street in the world, and Dunedin's primary tourist attraction.

Dunedin also happened to be the first town for a long time where, in a developed country, I had no contact with whom to stay, either old friends, Couchsurfing contacts, friends of friends, or any other tenuous connections. I have, however, become increasingly jaded with backpacker hostels; the youths from eclectic nationalities who hop from one hostel to another, getting drunk, trying to get lucky with other guests, having the same inane conversations over and over again, following the same clich├ęd route as everybody else, and having as little to do with the local people as possible. Yes, yes, I know, I have become a travel snob. But I'm too miserly to spend that much money just to sleep in a dorm where I'm going to be woken up in the middle of the night by drunk co-dormers. Much more of an adventure is sleeping rough (when you have the luxury of it being a choice - I imagine when there is no other option then it's not much fun). Surreptitiously scoping out a place for slumbering possibilities makes you feel like a top secret agent; taking into account factors such as protection from the elements, comfort, and (most important) undetectability. My first night in town was in a central park under a tree whose branches dropped flush with the ground and my second one was under a warehouse near the docks. Both were surprisingly comfy. But I hadn't come to New Zealand for its urban culture, instead it was the natural treasures that were calling me...

A Streetmap view of my second night's accommodation in Dunedin. Once it got dark I borrowed a couple of collapsed cardboard boxes from a supermarket to lie on and then slid into one of the low channels under this warehouse.

*I have an insatiable appetite for useless trivia and feckless facts. I find they give colour and a splash of frivolity to the world. If a piece of information is pointless then I'm likely to remember it, whilst conversely I will immediately forget anything that is useful or pertinent. I'd love to jot down all these random factoids in a book, but fear that that would give them undue importance.

Taling about the trivial and random, about 40m north of Dunedin, the beach is home to a collection of almost perfectly spherical stones. One of Nature's pointless oddities.

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