The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 11, Issue 4 (July 1, 1936)
On The Road To Anywhere
Snow-Men and Tussock Country.
I Notice that one of the latest travel books about this country—Alan Mulgan's beautifully writen and produced “Pilgrim's Way in New Zealand” —draws attention to the difference between the smell of North and South: the leafy, ferny, bush-mould fragrance of the Far North, and the clean, windy fragrance that blows from the tussock acres in the South Island.
The real poet of that grand South country has not arisen yet: but any writer whose chariot wheels happen to cross the Canterbury Plains will feel in the air the keen savour of a new inspiration. Plain and plain and plain, they sweep out from the little chocolate-and-green parallelograms drawn with quaint precision around lovely Christchurch; twenty miles from the city, they lose their decorous wellwatered green for the sunburnt, windburnt complexion of leagues where nothing whatever breaks the horizon except some square two-storeyed wooden “pub” —one can't possibly use the word “hotel” —in which the sole subjects of conversation are the price of wool, and what won the chief events at the Addington or Riccarton courses. The people here are very much alive, and tremendously interested in the world around them. Their eyes and their tongues are as sharp as needles. Their drawling voices pass many a shrewd comment when the tourist isn't supposed to be listening. Less than half a day's march from a city, they have won independence and salt. Some day the New Zealand parallel to Olive Schreiner's “Story of a South African Farm” will be written here. In the meantime, a field of corn sends a shimmering golden ripple over its full length: and the acres of the tussock country, tawny gold, with thousands of dustybrown sheep mobbing patiently along the roads, beckon to the seeker.
When I first saw little Hanmer Springs, which lies about one hundred miles to the North of Christchurch, deep down in a valley-basin with Canterbury Plains on one side and minor Alps on the other, I thought that the Alps above it looked like threatening giants. After the goldenbrown of the tussocks, they were both black-visaged and forbidding: not tame mountains at all. In a brief while, the stranger grows to love them with that respectful and rather romantic devotion which a good mountain should inspire in the pious: Mount Isabel, with your irregular massive peaks snow-crowned, and further guarded by those deceptive slopes of shale which ruin the boots and massacre the ankles… “Baldy,” with a flaming terra-cotta sunset of unbelievable beauty pouring like brandy-flames around your smooth white pate… do you still surprise the eye of the beholder as much as ever? Do people still look up, from those tiny interlacing streets which are all rusty, russet-needled pine-boughs and white Orpingtons running wild, and think. “Mine eyes have seen the glory?” Does the ancient Irish washer-lady still keep in a wicker cage a magpie whose oaths date back to the real old droving days? And the silver birch trees, the larches, planted delicately slender on the outskirts of the great forestry plantations… do they still stand naked as so many arboreal Phrynes each winter-time, necklaced and zoned with a million sparkling drops of dew? I remember the soft old voice of an artist who walked among those trees, just as they were returning to a springtime life. He couldn't get over the colour of the new willow-twigs. “Madder rose,” he said incredulously, “they're really madder rose.”
But this is a bad way to draw a ground-plan of little Hanmer—what is it, where is it, why is it? Before its mineral springs, which are the soporific rather than the smelly sort, achieved much renown at all, it was a tiny self-contained community, with the Canterbury Plains sweeping on the other side of its hill-basin, and Jack's Pass and Jolly's Pass leading out like two dark portcullis gates among the mountains. Some of the sheep-farmers in the district were large and wealthy and hospitable; others were just little folk, whose fragmentary orchards are ghostly still on the hillsides.
The sanatoria at Hanmer are Government responsibilities; and, personally, I think them one of the best and most valuable pieces of work, in every possible respect, to which any New Zealand Government can lay claim. True, the surroundings exceptionally favoured the idea of a place of rest and quietness, and the mineral baths, where you soak in sodium and other useful friends to the shattered nerve, were something of a godsend. But the hospitals are so very unhospital-like in their appearance, and so restful in their general procedure. The returned soldiers who still remain in quiet Hanmer—or who, from time to time, come back to “take it easy” for a holiday—are not at all tragical figures. One sees, in beautiful grounds, a public tea-kiosk where men and lightly-frocked women drift in from the tennis courts, and sit themselves down to devour scones and tea, with occasional attentions to a handsome golden collie, which sits hard by, cupboard love written all over him, from his coffin-shaped head to his splendid, plumed tail. The women gossip… women always do… the men seem happy and enthusiastic about the state of the tennis courts. The stranger might ask “Where are Hanmer's sick people?” The answer is, “Those are Hanmer's sick people.” Of course, there are hundreds who come to this beautiful spot in the South Island seriously, even desperately ill, or thoroughly worn out. But as convalescence approaches, there is so much of “free life and fresh air” introduced into the hospital regime that no aura of sickness hangs over Hanmer. The tennis courts and golf links, by the way, are more than mere local centres of attraction. People come up all the way from Christchurch, week-end after week-end, to play there in surroundings which cannot be found in a more urban retreat. And, if they choose late winter for their golfing sprees, they may pass through grounds where a myriad of little flame-blue and golden crocuses and whole colonies of wild daffodils lift their gay heads through the grass. For here Hanmer has followed the English pattern, and allowed its spring flowers to run wild.
The hospital side of Hanmer existence is only one aspect: the lean and rangy band of forestry workers provide another. Then there is one of the most enchanting camps motor-gipsy every sighed for—Hanmer's log-cabin. But, picturesque though this new haunt may be, the credit for the logcabin inspiration should go to the pretty girls who owned and ran Hanmer Spring's first little cabin. Built of rough-hewn logs, and in winter-time thatched and eaved with heavy snow, this looked exactly like a Father Christmas hut out of a fairy tale. Its quaintness appealed to the foresters more than the comparative formality of the Tea Kiosk in the hospital gardens, and, on snowy days, wild men out of the wild, wet woods would march in with kea feathers in their hats and enormous gum-boots on their legs, and sit dripping cheerfully over the queer old oil-heaters, tall enamelled relics of an older day. Snow falls in Hanmer to a depth of feet, and the building of snow-men is an established occupation—not merely among the urchins of the settlement, either. I shall never quite forget “Sorrow,” the snow-woman whom we found one day at the top of Conical Hill. Everyone, on coming to Hanmer, almost instantly climbs Conical Hill. It is a good little hill, a sharper pull than one would think, and surmounted by a huge, challenging boulder. Its only inhabitants are rabbits and birds, and in autumn, its grove of English trees flames in portwine and amber colours. In winter its snow-mantle is crisp and lacy: and there on its peak, looking out towards wild and dark Mount Isabel and benign old “Baldy,” stood the snow-woman called “Sorrow.” Nobody knew who had made her, but she was a clearfeatured and noble creature. Her portrait appeared in a Christchurch paper… some little survival of a crystal beauty which all too easily melted away.
For me, Hanmer Springs will always be a winter resort, because of the dark beauty of its winter hills, the slenderness of its naked trees, fringing the borders of the great, dark pines which press so closely together that, in their clearings, the sunlight, by contrast, looks as yellow as honey. And then, for a New Zealander and a North Islander, snow is something out of a fairy tale. Curiously enough, the climate there in winter is not piercingly cold, and the rainfall by no means abnormal. Before the snow falls, one certainly feels an affinity for the huge resinous pine-logs carted in for firewood from the forestry roads: then suddenly the air is filled with a flight of millions and millions of little crystal doves. The branches outside are first white-crusted, then weighed down to the earth. The moon rises, silver over a silver world. And the next morning, a blackbird pipes high and hearty, and irreverent village infants sneak up behind and go “Plosh” with snowballs as tough as cannonballs.
Hanmer Springs, at all events, will always be a place for the cultivation and encouragement of wild men. I knew in Christchurch some respectable college youths. In Hanmer, one summer, I met them, burnt black and with kea feathers in slouch hats. Their trousers had diminished to shorts, and their shorts required patching. There was something different about them—the happy look of outlawry which dates back to Robin Hood and his Sherwood forces. What were they doing? They were just about to set out, these sophisticates, over the mountains on a three days’ journey to hunt, and possibly even to bring down, the red deer.
If you were shut within a cage—
A stint of food to eat each day—
Would you not fret and waste in rage,
To see the wired-out, blue-clad way—
No longer thine to beat about
And echo round a careless shout?