PO Box 2 Blackball

Paul Maunder's blog



A strange evening

I was called to a person said to be having a heart episode at the camping ground in the small coastal settlement of Rapahoe, north of Runanga. But upon arrival, the elderly couple who manage the site knew nothing about it and there were no obvious candidates in sight. It’s a small camping ground nestled in bush. I went down to the beach, a rock strewn part of the Coast but one of the few spots safe for swimming. People were dotted along the shore but no one in trouble. A couple crouched over a small driftwood fire, forming a primitive image in the fading light.

Searching for a foreign person having a possible heart attack is a strange activity. I went to the motel and the manager was excited by the possible drama but had no guests in difficulty. I tried the pub but it was deserted apart from two elderly  locals. The puzzle remained. I went to the other end of the beach, across the river and the place where I occasionally go for a summer swim. No sign of life. Or death for that matter.

But meanwhile I had become aware of the small clusters of tourists dotted through the settlement for the night, like a band of nomads, off hunting and gathering in family groups during the day and then coming together as a band, that most primitive of human social structures, at night, for protection and sharing of food.

Rapahoe is vulnerable to climate change and the consequent rising seas and extreme weather events. It was recently inundated by Cyclone Gita and the erosion is serious. A sea wall might provide a temporary respite but is expensive and the few ratepayers can’t afford it. It could well disappear.


As night fell, wandering through the vulnerable settlement searching for a tourist in need, I could imagine the future chaos of climate change, of people returning to a much less structured existence, of disparate bands wandering the Coast in an eco-fiction world where nature is teaching the human species (and unfortunately other species as well), a drastic lesson.

Ironic that the locals in this small community have erected a monument celebrating its coal mining past, a display that features two of the machines that used to operate at the now flooded Spring Creek mine, digging out the coal, the fossil fuel that enabled the industrial revolution but which has  helped cause the planet’s eco systems to become volatile once more.


I never found the tourist in need. A work of fiction might have them lying in a cave, or washed out to sea, but most probably they recovered and drove off to Greymouth. All that remains is the digital trace of a phone call to the emergency services.

The wind blew strongly as night fell and I headed home.


Rain, rain and more rain

Back from a wet bike trip: Blackball-Reefton-Westport-Charleston-Punakaiki-home. It rained every day. Biking in a soft drizzle is pleasant, but as it becomes heavier, one is torn between donning the rain gear which makes one sweat and suffering the drenching. The Lower Buller Gorge seemed particularly malevolent and I felt for Thomas Brunner on his dreadful journey. And then there’s the business of a wet tent, which inevitably leads to a damp sleeping bag. It was one of those weeks when the rain refuses to budge, like a dementia patient. The sky almost lightens, a patch of blue, but then another shower arrives.

Nevertheless, cycling, as well as massaging the cardio-vascular system, unclogs the thought patterns.

Visiting these tourist spots gave me a chance to think about tourism and tourist towns (or visitor towns – an interesting difference perhaps?). Reefton does the visitor town well – it’s on a good scale and it has managed to dramatise itself tastefully.  The shopfronts are all painted, each with a flag above the veranda. There are good cafes, a quality art gallery run by a co-op of artists and splendid second hand shops spread among the more functional day to day shops for the locals. There’s heritage in the mining school and the Blacks Point Museum. What do visitors need?  To pass the time by eating, drinking, looking at interesting things and sometimes  venturing on a walk or a cycle. Hokitika has a similar culture, with locals taking advantage of the increased market that visitors provide. There’s no singular attraction in either place and this is, I suspect, an advantage.

Westport tries, but lacks the artists and the second hand shops, so the visitor is stuck with the everyday (other than a couple of art nouveau buildings) and an awareness of marginality. Charleston is a potpourri: limestone caves and a fine bay, the business headquarters for a national company, a camp ground and the smallest club in New Zealand, which made me feel at home when I popped in for a beer. Wet through, I hired a cabin, the tiniest of rooms but absolute luxury, especially as there was access to a drier.

Punakaiki is a tourist spot, cursed with the Pancake Rocks attracting thousands for the photo op, before  most move on. There’s immense infrastructure pressure for sixty rate payers and a confusing array of councils and DOC to deal with. The water has to be boiled, the accommodation is booked out and there’s no space for expansion. The glacier towns are the same. There’s not a lot of point in this meeting between nature and capital, the photos have all been taken and a gormlessness sets in. But cycling along the Coast Road I appreciated the attraction for those life-stylers tucked away in the bush with a resplendent empty ocean in the foreground.

Greymouth lacks just about everything: there’s a couple of decent craft shops, but little art, no second hand shops, nothing to look at other than Shantytown which is on the outskirts, some tolerable cafes, but hard to kill time in a place locked into franchises and suburbia, with an inability to dramatise itself. To do so, it would have to adopt a tangatawhenua/turangawaewae framework, but instead holds on grittily and determinedly to a 1950s settler culture.

Where is Blackball in this? Puzzled I suspect. It’s possible, but difficult to dramatise an activist past – it requires  cultural and historical understanding and an ongoing political sympathy for the progressive (participatory democracy, co-operatives and the like), which is asking a lot of a small West Coast village. There’s  some craft, an excellent salami company, an iconic pub, a working men’s club that survives, a museum that does dramatise the activist past on a shoe string budget, and now a suburban infrastructure (a car park and a dunny) being overlaid to provide for the walk. There will be some local opportunism around the edges, but coherence?

The racks of bikes will pass through, someone might build a motel – maybe, as in Punakaiki, staff will come from Greymouth. In the past it has been a discreet visitor town, now it will become a minor tourist town.  Locals will keep to the back streets and wait for winter. Or am I being overly pessimistic?

As I write, the sun has come out – briefly.

Changing Cultures

I was on a jury recently, for a sexual assault case in one of the glacier towns. The trial revealed a tawdry lifestyle: precarious work, transient population, the only belonging to be found in the smartphone screen, the dvd, the facebook message, the porn… Identity is a series of uniforms- the hotel, the bar, the Warehouse clothes, the rugby league shirt, the All Black scarf… They eat a diet of takeaway or bar food. Somewhere in there is a desire for affection, even love and it all goes wrong. Meanwhile the tourists pass through in their thousands, for there is a natural wonder here which they all must photograph.

All pretty grubby and a long way from the culture of the mining towns in their heyday, the Labour-voting, union-belonging, men and women with their sports teams, the camaraderie of the bathhouse, the need for trust, the stories of past struggles for economic and social justice, some of them church goers, a few of them communists, providing their own infrastructure when necessary. Of course I mustn’t idealise the culture – there was a lot of booze involved and it was patriarchal, but compared with the tourist town it had considerable integrity…

Mawhera/Greymouth is in transition, slowly becoming a tourist town. As I hung around for a few days, that was the impression – tourists were probably outnumbering locals. There are signs of greater liveliness. The town square is happening. Stewart Nimmo’s was busy (and he deserves that, after hanging in there for so many years as a local gallery), the Chinese restaurant was full of Chinese – a nice image, a young woman was playing the ukulele outside the library as she learned a new song, there seemed to be more posters advertising shows, and I could sit and have a conversation with a UK couple about Brexit.

The question becomes one of maintaining the local, and not becoming tawdry and transient. This is where there are crucial things to be quickly learned and I’m not confident of this happening. To maintain that integrity while changing requires trusting the local values, building with local materials, involving the community not just to provide feedback but in doing the work, and thus to respect local skills and local craftspeople. So far, that hasn’t happened. The Miners’ Memorial has been literally made in China, and it shows – when the money could have generated half a dozen local sculptures along the flood wall. The start of the cycle trail is boring mock heritage. The town square could have been made locally, with roof supports and furniture made by local artists and craftspeople, the tiles made via community workshops as has been done in Harihari. It could have been beautiful. Instead I’m betting it will all be brought in from outside. Behind this, unfortunately, is a sort of mid Californian aesthetic accepted by councillors and officers as ‘the norm’. It’s the design aesthetic of shopping barns, fast food outlets, sporting complexes, used car lots, prisons and airports.  And it is expensive.

The issue, really, is one of culture. There needs to be a design committee made up of locals with art skills and knowledge of cultural processes, and this committee needs to be led by tangatawhenua. But how is that going to happen? There’s the rub, as Shakespeare might say.


An Israeli man came along to a workshop I ran recently at the Nelson Fringe Festival. The workshop centred on Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed techniques and the Israeli has been working with a mixed Israeli/Palestinian group who use Boal to generate their performances. He was  walking in Abel Tasman and seen the workshop advertised.

He was interesting to talk to. He’s an academic on sabbatical leave in Melbourne and his specialty is the sociology of tourism. That sounded fascinating so I recently searched and found a paper on the subject. Here’s some snippets to share.

There’s the organised tourist (signed up to a tour where everything’s planned), there’s the explorer (campervan hirer) and the drifter (backpacker/cyclist).

The Western tourist used to be searching for the authentic (pre-capitalist life or preserved natural site) which was often performed for them (Maori concert parties/hangi etc), but of late, things have got more fluid: there’s the arrival of the Asian tourist; members of the many diaspora communities (including Kiwis) going home for a visit, or their children and grandchildren ‘discovering home’; there are volunteers, sports teams, students studying overseas, retired nomads, disaster tourism, and the fact that people, when away, are also at home (via social media).

There’s the tourist gaze –usually through photo taking. But also the fact that most attractions (Pancake Rocks/glaciers etc.) have already been experienced digitally, so that the taking of the photo and the gaze is highly mediatized; a seeing through a media screen and adding to that screen by posting one’s own image on facebook etc.

The hosts in tourist destinations are often themselves guests, outsiders in the local community. There is the host’s performance for the tourist and the tourist’s performance for the host, constantly repeated (homestay hosts complain of having the same conversation night after night). There is the Shantytown type performance where hosts, guests, buildings, objects and machines are brought together to perform. There can be the feeling of disempowerment and even rage by local people as the tourist behaves ‘abnormally’ (driving dangerously) or leaves rubbish behind. There can be the inequality between rich tourists and poor locals.

There’s the balance between interacting socially with fellow travellers and interacting with the locals, between experiencing strangeness and the comfort of the familiar.

There are the issues of heritage sites, either embodying ‘a romantic nostalgia for a lost past’ or ‘markers of continuity in a fluctuating world’. They can often embody a ‘rhetoric of nationalism’ (or the Coast version of this).

Is it possible for there to be ‘social justice’ tourism?

There are the contradictions of eco-tourism (called by some, ego-tourism) and the carbon footprint that has been created getting to the spot in question.

I was struck by how complex the field is, and how little analysis there is locally of the field. Also how we’re expecting a lot for a Coast worker, used to doing things to the physical world, to transfer to this particular industry with its fluid perceptions and its unrealities. This is not patronising – it doesn’t altogether take my fancy as a field in which to be fully immersed.

Finally, I saw how Israel could well be a centre of this sort of research, as it hosts visitors with very complex agendas, both religious and ‘homecoming’, with complex gazes, in a country which is existentially questionable(made up of visitors), in an area of great fluidity -the Palestinian ‘at home’ in a place which has been captured by ‘the guest’ with heritage links to the area.

Finally I remembered reading how the Mexican government used every possible tool to try and destroy the Zapatista movement: military attack, use of contras, bribery, and as a last resort- the introduction of tourism to the Zapatista-controlled regions.

If you want to read the paper go to:

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