There are some great wilderness areas in New Zealand, but the Canterbury Plains are not among them. This is a totally man-made landscape, geology aside – and even the geology has had some fiddling with: land reclamation et cetera. Beginning as a Wakefield colony, centred on Christchurch, farmland stretched from the foothills of the Southern Alps to the coast.
Driving through last week I was struck by a subtle change in the landscape. This was once quintessential NZ sheep country, but now it’s all cows. Dairy, traditionally, is a North Island industry, but no longer. This is a further-reaching transformation than it sounds because cattle are much more resource intensive than sheep, and because dairy is a higher-value output on the world market. Lakes and rivers have been drained for irrigation, and effluent and fertiliser-enhanced run-off given in exchange.
An enormous Fonterra milk powder factory opened a few years ago in Clandeboye, near Timaru, and rejuvenated Timaru’s port, which has long played second fiddle to Lyttleton (which is really part of Christchurch).
I doubt any of this is exciting to you, but it is to me. Timaru, you see, is my birthplace. Grandparents and cousins live on the clifftop above the port and every time I’ve visited since I was a kid I’ve loved to sit there and watch the port tick over. Thanks to growing Chinese and Japanese appetites for dairy, nowadays it’s busier than I remember it, and all futuristic with electromagnetic cranes and robot dockworkers.
I only lived in Timaru for the first five weeks of my life, before Mum and Dad took me to California. When we went there on holidays as a little American kid I remember thinking it was just like Coronation Street. Of course, Timaru looks nothing like Coronation Street, and I guess to the impartial observer it looks just like any other provincial New Zealand town.
To me, though, there’s always something a bit magic about Timaru. This is a little embarrassing because Timaru is often something of a joke among New Zealanders, much like New Zealand itself is among Australians. Timaru even achieved international joke status in 1993 when Guardian travel writer Mark Lawson included a chapter on it in his book on the world’s most boring places, The Battle for Room Service. (Note, though, that Richard Gott wrote in the New Statesman that Lawson himself exemplifies the “prevalence of the bland and obsequious” in the Guardian. Also the average Amazon rating for the book is two stars. Ha.)
Whatever may happen to its port traffic and tourism, Timaru’s immortality is truly assured, though, by this single and video by New Zealand’s own Spinal Tap, Deja Voodoo. (“They’re my favourite band, they’re your favourite band. Who do? You do… they’re Deja Voodoo!”)