by Raffaella Toncelli -- Summer 2001
It wouldn't come to an end but in Auckland, this journey. It began about a month ago, in the North Island but, thinking of it, it seems to me that much more than a month has passed since I left: possibly because of the vast number of different places I have seen -images impressed in my memory-, because of the incredible variety of people I have met along my path. The landscape here changes fast: the wilderness of the South Island, its snowy mountains reflected on the sea in the background while you are watching -a lump in your throat- the whales tails delving into deep, leaving you in the boundless empty space of the sky, burrowed by clouds and cries of seagulls and albatrosses (is there a more deserted place than Kaikoura in winter?); the hills, spotted with sheep, the landscape from the bus window, rice grains on a green table cloth; the smell of sulphur of the fog, leaking from the depths of the Earth, up North, in Rotorua; the amazing geysers forcing their way to the sky, defeating -great admiration in the crowd of tourists- gravity force. It doesn't surprise me at all that this place is the site chosen for shooting the film "The Lord of the Rings", I am looking forward to seeing it when it's out in Italy. This land really is a spell made real. It is a spell made real to all young people of my generation, who have spent many evenings in their teens to set up adventures, to impersonate elves, to feel as agile as a thief or as powerful as a wizard of the 7th level. A magical place where it's surprising not to see the odd walk of an ogre or the thin dark shadow of a roaming man on the horizon. The Middle Earth. And in the middle of this land, in the middle of the boundless prairies, of the deserts, of the mountains, of the forests, the cities appear suddenly, as oases, as spellbound feuds.
Take Christchurch, for example. Christchurch is a small world apart, a corner of Europe to the traveller lost in so much nature, roaming on the South Island, mislaid. Gardens with flowers even in winter (flowers look like they are confused themselves, as they want to dive in so much beauty), red telephone boxes, old fashioned trolleys, the river cutting across town, with its green and shadowy banks named -it's not so strange- "Cambridge" and "Oxford". Everything here speaks of the UK. As Alice in the Wonderland, you step over the threshold of town and you find yourself on the other end of the Globe, into Old England. But a look around and the mixture of people that are walking by you, grazing you - Maoris, Asians, Irishmen - brings you back to where you actually are. Where East meets West with no clash. At the Origin.
For a moment I am tempted to continue to the South, to arrive at the very tip of the Island and then go back through the west coast, the wildest and amazing area, as I hear. But there isn't enough time, my holidays, alas, are just a month long and I had already decided to spend my last days of them in Auckland, I have to start my trip to the North. My journey will be long and slow, trains here are scarce and not fast, for you might have the time to enjoy the landscape you pass through, for you might gaze at the Earth setting itself up killingly, showing off all of its power, to surprise you. It will be a challenge, almost, to and by Nature. That is why this travel must end in Auckland. Because Auckland is a challenge, a challenge to Nature -its roads stretched between the sea and the top part of town, where the city turns into a big park- a challenge to the intelligence and to the progress -buildings and boats, fast, made out of new materials, fanciful and bold- and, most of all, a challenge to the rest of the world, to whoever doubts the brave of these men in black with the silver fern. They are surly ready to enter the arena, to sing their war song, to dance in order to scare the enemy off. This thin border, the perfect equilibrium of this town, strikes me: where games look serious and important but where -we are lucky- war is only a game. Where the result is not so important -it couldn't be different for an inveterate gambler- but what matters is the challenge, the adrenaline kick that comes with the uncertainty of the outcome.
If you want to see Auckland all and in one go, with its apparent contradictions, with its steep slopes turning into climbs at the bottom of the hill, you need to climb up to the Sky Tower. It doesn't matter if the sign on wall says that the glass is thick enough to hold your weight, your brain seems to understand and yet be hesitant to give the legs orders to stand on that glass floor, the transparent membrane that separates you from an emptiness of 300 meters. The Sky Tower is the third tallest tower in the world and, once more, it is the only one that challenges your courage, in the mind, at least. On the Sky Tower I linger for a long time, watching the day sliding slowly into the night -a fantastic explosion of colours strikes me- while a thousand tiny lights are turning on in the town. The light in New Zealand is different from the European one, it is stronger, neater, direct like this land's people, as warm as they are. It hits your heart, becoming part of you, as does the peoples hospitality, the kind, cheerful presence of these curious people who know -better than some others- that they belong to the world, that they are citizens of the only, global planet.
As I wait at a traffic light for it to turn green, a man kindly ask me
where am I from. I turn with surprise, wondering if it's me who he asked, realizing that I
haven't seen -I am deeply lost in my thoughts- the man standing next to me. I keep on
forgetting that, as closed as I am to Mount Doom, I can't wear The Ring, I am visible to
everyone. Two blue eyes, as thin as two chinks in a wall behind which a curious soul is
peeping, lurking, are staring at me kindly, awaiting a reply, patiently. He is a
middle-aged man, tall, snowy hair gathered in a pony-tail, he looks amused. I wonder if
it's so evident that I am an European tourist on holidays and, for a moment, I deceive
myself thinking the map of the town in my hand -closed, anyway- could betray me. "I
am Italian", I tell him with my accent that wouldnt have left any doubts
anyway. His face lights up: "Ah, Italy, a lot of tears at the airport and on the dock
when the Italians left Auckland, after the America's Cup, a lot of hearts broke
down..." "On both sides", he adds just a little bit maliciously, after a
He speaks slowly, walking at a sluggish pace -..his long and spindly legs..- he tells me of his time in Europe, he has been also in Italy, he says, he would like to go back there next summer. But Europe is too expensive, you have to pay up to 60-70$NZ for a bed in a hostel, while in New Zealand there are some just for about 15$NZ. He improvises himself as my guide for the short stretch of road we are travelling together, he explains about a building nearby and its history full of French spies and international mysteries. He asks me how long I am staying in Auckland, how long I will be in New Zealand, what I do in my life, if I have a bed for the night. He would look even too much tactless, intrusive, in the eyes of a diffident European, who is not used to trust unknown people, met by chance. But I have been around since about a month and in the past few days I travelled always by myself, I am used to the cordiality I would have treated with diffidence -I blush thinking of it- if I was in my country, always suspecting bad intentions.
We walk as we chat, till we arrive at another cross-roads; we can see the jetty and the sea, a lot of sails shimmering in the sun like gems set in the bay. His house, he says, is there down by the jetty -it's a beautiful area, bubbling over with vitality, he says- he has to turn here. We greet one another as I have known him since I was a child, he beckons to me and smiles, while I am doing the same, as if he expects to meet me once again tomorrow at the supermarket or in five years in another country, in Europe, why not. He wouldn't be surprised, I think while he is going along the street downhill -..his swinging walk..- without his turning round. He vaguely reminds me of a character of an oriental novel, his calm temper, as a Buddhist monk, his wisdom, he reminds me these improbable meetings approaching you to the Enlightenment. And, once more, I have the strong sensation I am walking on a borderland, in the most oriental place between occidental countries, where East and West are like two tectonics clods meeting, growing wrinkled, originating these islands, spread in the sea.
Some hearts will break once again tomorrow, when my airplane will take off to Italy. My heart, without a doubt. But no regrets, there's no room for regrets in New Zealand, the land that belong to people who left everything to face the unknown and the dangers, who left without knowing what there was on their arrival, probably without knowing if there was anything on their arrival. However -and that is what I have learned, what was revealed to me, I am tempted to say- this land is not the dreamed arrival, the destination we finally reach. New Zealand, to the inhabitants and to whoever wants to conquer it and is conquered, is the origin.
I keep on turning the necklace I am wearing in my hands, a spiral trinket, a carved bone craftily made by maori. I bought it in Picton, having just arrived by ferry after a journey through the Cook's Strait, after I had spent an unforgettable day in Wellington and before starting my adventure in the South Island. Contrary to Frodo, I started my journey to Mount Doom wearing nothing around my neck and I am going back home wearing a jewel, symbolizing a land that has bewitched me, "has bound me". The maori meaning of this spiral is "the beginning".