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New Zealand is a country that I´ve found really interesting for a long time, and in this book the author travels around the North and South Islands by hitch-hiking.
Joe Bennett is an Englishman who settled in New Zealand and ended up staying, and in this book he travels around the country trying to better understand his adopted land. He visits a variety of places, some well-known, others off the beaten track, and he describes the people and places in quite an amusing way.
Bill Bryson is always the obvious comparison for this type of book, and it´s probably not a fair one - this book isn´t of the same quality, and Bennett isn´t a great author, but it´s funny enough. He´s quite a cynical character, and sometimes this works but it can also be a bit annoying and you wish he´d lighten up a bit.
The book is put together from a series of newspaper columns and sometimes this shows, as there´s no real story behind what´s happening and often there´s no real relation between one chapter and the next. Because of this, this is one to read on short trips, like commutes - if you read it in one go, it´s a bit uneven.
Overall, this is an average travel book - Bennett tells some good stories, and has quite a good style of writing that makes his trip easy to follow, but it´s not great and the humour is quite inconsistent. I would recommend it if you´re interested in New Zealand, but it´s not a must-read.
Before my visit to New Zealand last year, my sister bought me this book as she thought it'd be appropriate reading for my trip. As it happens, I prefer to read travelogues after I've visited somewhere, so that I don't go in with any preconceived ideas from writers' opinions. Now that I'm back I thought it was time to read it, though.
THE HITCHHIKERS GUIDE TO THE PHALLACY
The book follows the author as he attempts to hitch hike around New Zealand, travelling basically where he can get a lift, setting off on the South Island near to his home just outside Christchurch and going wherever the lifts take him. We follow the various trials and tribulations as he attempts to get from one place to the other, and gain an insight into both the places he visits and the characters who are prepared to give him a lift. This at times can be quite interesting, as many of the drivers treat this as some sort of confessional, spilling details of their lives to the stranger in the car who they will probably never see again. You also get to see his opinions on various tourist attractions such as Franz Josef Glacier and Queenstown. But most of all he scratches away at some stereotypes and preconceptions about kiwis to see if they're really valid in the remotest of outposts.
NOW FOR THE BAD NEWS
The thing is, you don't really learn much about New Zealand that might interest you as a casual visitor. The author is from the UK but has lived there for 16 years, and hence has no interest in going anywhere he considers too touristy. Actually even if he'd been a tourist he still wouldn't, as he doesn't attempt to hide his disdain for typical tourist attractions and activities and his efforts to eschew them. Perhaps if I was a kiwi or lived there, I might find many of his observations about the people and the country more pertinent but I found most of them irrelevant.
Unfortunately I found the style of this book, quite frankly, tedious almost all of the time. There are writing styles which move some of us and bore others. I found the writers style, although humorous, quite difficult to read, because it just seems to be a list of things he saw and did. Maybe it shows my lack of refinement, but I don't really care about him describing all the flora and fauna around in great detail. I want to hear about something interesting happening.
In fact for the most part I found it very boring and very difficult to follow, to the point that I had to re-read each sentence just to make sure I actually understood it. I found no flow to the story; it was just list after list following this basic pattern; saw this, talked to this guy who gave me a lift, got off to stay in some godforsaken backwater town for a night, got drunk with some people he met in the pub.
Here is an extract I've totally randomly picked to illustrate my point:
"Away to the left the town itself huddles round the northern end of the lake. Mountains climb straight from the water, forested or sparsely grassed on the lower slopes but rising to rock, their jagged tops like the crest on a tuatura's spine"
In addition, particularly in the South Island, I found several of his lift benefactors very ignorant and unapologetically racist. There is no hint that the author shares these views in any way, but it's an unsavoury read nonetheless. Although this isn't anything I wouldn't guess for myself in such rural areas, and so not really surprising, it's not something I'd pay for to read. I for one take great lengths to avoid rural areas in any country for exactly these reasons and it's really not nice to be reminded. In contrast to the South Island, the North Island shows encounters with friendly, open drivers, many of them Maori. One highlight is bumping into an ex All Black rugby player in the pub and the subsequent trip he takes with his, which is a rare case of being both memorable and heartwarming.
Overall, I just didn't find the author, as the main protagonist, to be much of a sympathetic character. You learn a little of his life as a former teacher and present journalist and love of dogs (who I get the impression he prefers to people, which personally I can't relate to at all, although I'm sure many of you can. Now if we were talking about cats ...). In fact I thought he came across as a bit of a sad loner, though as the book is purely on the road it's hard to say whether this is a true reflection of the man. Although I agreed for the most part with his conclusions of the people he met, I didn't like the way he mocked them in print. Idiots they may well have been, but it seems churlish to accept their hospitality and then slag them off for being boring or stupid in print, while at the time going along with them. He just shows what a coward he really is. In mitigation, at one point he does wonder how much longer he would have had to wait for lifts were he not white European and comes to a quite depressing conclusion. He also isn't slow to praise the decent people that he meets, which is to his credit. And he's also a big fan on the aquarium in Queenstown which I also found a highlight.
I guess this book just wasn't for me. Endless descriptions of country scenes punctuated by some moronic drivers, without much really happening doesn't interest me at all. If you want to mug up for a trip to New Zealand, don't bother. If you want to see the authentic underbelly of New Zealand society, and what the forests look like to the tiniest detail, this is the book for you. It's certainly an in depth study of the sociology of rural New Zealand; not a place I would like to visit by the sounds of it.