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A very odd journey...
on 19 August 2005
This book certainly looks good... the idea of hitch-hiking as a way of exploring a country and its society is clever - you meet a lot of different people and get to see parts that are not always up there on the "must see" list of tourist destinations - and, on top of that, Joe Bennett is a skilled and entertaining writer. But despite such promising credentials, it really doesn't work in the way it should.
The problems start with the sequencing of his journey, which is very strange. The first half of the book finds him shooting off from his home in Christchurch to the increasingly bleak far south of the South Island, before heading up the island's equally remote West Coast. Hitch-hiking through these areas, which are notorious for their sparse habitation and bad weather, is a pretty daunting task and, not surprisingly, he gets fed-up with it two thirds of the way round and heads back home. Problem is that, by doing so, he misses out the whole of the north of the South Island which is not only stunningly pretty (with often glorious weather) but which is also one of the most interesting areas of the country. His journey round the North Island is at least more logical, taking in most of the "important" areas. But by now he's clearly getting very bored with hitching (so much so that he rents a car for large sections of the journey), a problem that's then compounded by his hitting some pretty appalling late Autumn weather, begging the obvious question of why choose to hitch at this time of year?
Next up, the people he chooses to meet are pretty strange. Not everyone picks up hitch-hikers and those who do are, as he finds, often slightly odd and usually want to talk a lot about their slightly odd lives. Off the road, he clearly likes a beer or two and, as a result, spends huge amounts of the journey chatting to bar-proppers in small pubs and hotels. Nothing wrong with either activity, but as an insight into New Zealand society it's a limited and far from representative cross-section of people.
Finally, Joe's either a pretty morose kind of guy or the boredom & banality of standing by endless roads for hours on end waiting for a lift, followed by a booze-up with some fairly lonely people in a small town pub gets to him. Whatever the reason, he spends increasing parts of the book reflecting on the less attractive aspects of New Zealand life while describing uninteresting parts of the country in bad weather. Not unexpectedly, by the end of it, his & your bottle are most definitely in "half empty" mode.
Which is all very unfair. I've visited New Zealand many times and lived in Christchurch. Sure, it's small country that's a long way from anywhere and its people are continually grappling with an inferiority complex that comes from being small and remote. But it's also stunningly beautiful with, at the right times of the year, quite excellent weather and a population that must rank amongst the most friendly and interesting anywhere. It's a superb holiday destination and, for the right type of person, a quite wonderful place to live. All aspects of New Zealand that our increasingly road-weary and often downright gloomy guide fails to capture and which, as a result, leads to a very unbalanced insight into both the country and its people.
Bad news then? Well not quite, because he can write and his stories are not only enjoyable and often quite funny, but his wet & windy journey becomes, in itself, an entertaining exercise in personal endurance. And, on the way, he experiences a side of New Zealand that most miss which, in turn, stimulates him to ruminate on a number of interesting and important social issues facing the country. Just don't get fooled into believing that it's really like this because, unless you too are mad enough to decide to hitch around the place at the wrong time of the year, it's most certainly not.