TEXT review

Transporting the reader to another place

review by Gail Pittaway


Graeme Lay (ed)
Home and Away: Award-winning Travel Stories by New Zealand Writers
Holland, Auckland, NZ 2012
ISBN 9781869663735
Pb 224pp NZD 34.99


Graeme Lay is well chosen to be the editor of this collection; as a writer of fiction for children and adults, he has also written or edited other books of travel writing and been the editor of five collections of New Zealand short stories, at last count. The contents for Home and Away were selected from submissions invited from award winning writers of articles over twenty years of writing and awards presented by the Travel Com organisation. All were originally published in a wide range of journals – from travel trade magazines such as Destinations and Traveltrade, to daily newspapers as dispersed as the New York Newsday, The Australian Weekend and the Timaru Herald, to magazines, in particular the New Zealand Listener, Auckland-based Metro and North and South. Incidentally the group, Travel Communicators or Travel Com was established in 1992 after one of the founders attended a conference of the Australian Society of Travel Writers in 1991, ‘with the aim of promoting higher standards of travel writing by New Zealanders’ (7).

As Lay states in his excellent introductory essay: ‘New Zealanders are born to travel’(6). The OE or overseas experience is a rite of passage for most young New Zealanders, and is considered a significant qualification for them to acquire, regardless of their education or heritage. Well written and enjoyable as these stories are, the ‘envy factor’ must be taken into account. Not every reader wants to sit and read a smorgasbord of other people’s adventures, and a collection of thirty-five very different pieces about the same number of different places is not easily read in one sitting, by even the most supportive and indulgent of readers. Best then for each story to be read as a nightcap, or aperitif, or for the more serious delve, to read as a selection, by geographic grouping. There are eight such sections, generally evenly distributed between travels in Asia, America, Europe, Britain and Ireland, Australia, the Pacific, and Africa. The section, New Zealand and Antarctica (as one group) is the largest collection, with nine articles, for the most part about remote or unusual treks in the hinterland of each island or that vast white continent.

Lay’s introduction sets the ground for some of the questions the critical reader might ask, such as what is travel writing? Is it all commercial or personal? Does it have to be positive, or picturesque, or exotic? Is it appropriate to be a tourist and make political observations? Lay sensibly identifies the parameters of his selection for this edition: each piece needed to have a good story, be well written, and give an interesting view on the subject: ‘[A] successful travel story is quite different to a travel guide, which is merely a manual of: “where to go, what to see, how much it costs”’(8). As in fiction, strong characters make a travel story interesting, as does a well-evoked setting, which need not be exotic. What distinguishes the collection is the diversity of subjects and the quality of the writing; this fits Lay’s prerequisite that, ‘[a] good travel story illuminates as well as describes’ (9).

There is reflection and information aplenty in Home and Away. Lay’s own piece, Looking for Gaugin informs on art and history as well as Gauguin’s legacy in the Pacific. Graham Reid’s description of the tragedy that is the Solomon Islands prefaces the later fictional work of Lloyd Jones in Mr Pip; ‘So this is where our clothes come to die’ being his first sentence in Teetering on the Brink. There’s an honest account of a visit by James Frankham, with a first nation chief, Buffalo Tiger, in Florida’s Everglades National Park: ‘I feel more than a little conspicuous; one skinny white guy with a boatload of Indians who have spent the great portion of their lives campaigning for the return of land from people my colour’ (River of Grass 39).

In the Asia section, Karen Goa’s account of her visit to Goa is charming for its humour and self- deprecation over her unusual (Scandinavian) surname, culminating when the airport official says as they are departing; ‘You like Goa so much that you changed your name?’ (14). Paul Bush’s story of a literary walk in Dublin seen through the bottom of at least five glasses of Guinness is pure comedy. As with Michele Hewitson, who tries to resist London but falls in love, Bush captures the phrasing of the locals as in this window sign, ‘Live every day as if it were your last and one day you’ll be right’ (138).

Interestingly it is the stories set nearer to home, in the Pacific (including New Zealand), Antarctic and Australian sections which resonate in my memory. Michele A’Court is well known as a stand-up comedian and television personality in New Zealand but also a fine writer whose columns used to add whimsy to Your Weekend, the magazine section of the Dominion, and the Waikato Times and The Press newspapers. Her account of being sent to cruise on the liner QE2 is a very positive view of the elderly and wealthy classes at play: ‘It’s … the sense that whatever you want, you can have: meet Graham Kerr, have a massage, see a dentist, chat to a psychologist, … free yourself from unsightly cellulite, listen to a harpist, help yourself to three kilos of smoked salmon, … improve your computer skills and celebrate mass. And that was just Friday’ (82).

I was already familiar with Steve Braunias’ eulogy to the train from Auckland to Hamilton that brought him to my hometown and workplace, Wintec, each Tuesday when he was Editor in Residence for our Journalism stream in 2010. Subject to repeated budget cuts, train travel is almost defunct in New Zealand tourism today so this piece reads as even more valedictory in 2012. Furthermore, Hamilton is rediscovered as a dreamy destination – not the usual viewpoint for those who endure its northern highway with a stream of motels and used car yards. Braunias’ sequences of language evoke the rhythm of the train and something of the expansive way that rail can follow a river and softly enter a township. The Waikato River, he muses, ‘did something to the landscape – opened it out, and somehow relaxed it’ (210).

There are only two Australian stories. Perhaps a little predictably but nonetheless most enjoyably, one is about the great red continent and the other about some ‘fair dinkum’ characters. Both, of course, offer deeper insights into each place and the way people walk upon it. In The Big Somewhere, Greg Dixon describes the literal ups and downs of a seven-day trek on the Larapinta Trail, including a walk up Mt Sonder at dawn. Through the eyes of a New Zealander accustomed to temperate climates, green lands and snow capped mountains, the extremes of rock, sand, and sun hit hard upon the senses, and the land itself is a vast geology lesson. In complete contrast, in Doing a Wharfie, Fergus Blakiston spends time in Cooktown, Cape York, alternating his days between the wharf and the pub, where ‘an assemblage of beards lines the bar’ and where he falls into conversation with a couple of blokes called Daveo and Simmo who find out he is a Kiwi. I laughed out loud to read, ‘“They’re a very patriotic people, the Kiwis,” opined Daveo, rolling a smoke with calloused fingers. “They’ll do anything for their country except live in it”’ (103).

Perhaps the most impressive tale is Mike White’s Wide White Land, which follows Sir Edmund Hillary’s last trip to Scott Base in Antarctica and explores his dealings with that continent. White recounts how Hillary set up a base for New Zealand there in 1956 – the first person to achieve that goal since Amundsen in 1912 – after beating the British team led by Fuchs to the South Pole. White manages to capture history, controversy, landscape and invention, evoking wonder at both the land and the modest octogenarian: ‘Story after story is delivered in his low rumble, like a V8 idling at the lights, tales from a life overflowing with adventure and endeavour with countless moments worth reliving’ (202).

It’s reassuring to know that the twenty years of promoting travel writing in New Zealand have been so rewarding and successful as to bring about this fine collection. 




Gail Pittaway is Senior Lecturer in the School of Media Arts, the Waikato Institute of Technology, in Hamilton, New Zealand. A member of the New Zealand Communication Association, The Tertiary Writing Network, and the New Zealand Society of Authors, Gail has been an executive member of the Australian Association of Writing Programmes since 2004. She has also been the curator for the Readers and Writers section of the Hamilton Gardens Festival of the Arts since 2010.


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Vol 16 No 2 October 2012
Editors: Nigel Krauth, Kevin Brophy & Enza Gandolfo