Another country

<strong>Going As Far As I Can: the Ultimate Travel Book</strong>

Duncan Fallowell <em>Profile Boo

Duncan Fallowell's publisher recommends that he goes to see "the largest hole in the southern hemisphere". It's a New Zealand trope, that. Victoria Law School in Wellington is the largest wooden building in the southern hemisphere. Taupo has the largest freshwater lake in the southern hemisphere. The fact is, there actually isn't much in the southern hemisphere. But the largest hole? They're a peculiar people, New Zealanders, and the publisher might have been joking. Or not; that's equally likely.

Fallowell went to New Zealand and kept a travel diary, which he has published under the title Going As Far As I Can. True, it's as far as you can go before you start coming back. Is that enough of a reason to go? I doubt you notice you're at the end of the world, when you get there. Better, he gave himself a purpose, a project. That's a good idea, to have something to do when you get to where you're going.

He knew that Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh had toured the country in the very year he was born, 1948. He tracked down the theatres they played in, lamenting the condition they have fallen into, the demolition of the main cities. He met people connected with the tour, and others. An old student of Karl Popper, for goodness sake. Fallowell senses the loneliness of intellectuals down there at the end of the earth, and the aggressive excitement they feel at meeting an educated alien. Resentful admiration is one of the commoner New Zealand emotions. All good.

He captures surfaces, and sometimes he does it brilliantly. The quality of the light there really is very unusual. He sees the "exaggerated clarity" and likens the effect to a pre-Raphaelite painting where the foreground and background are equally sharp. I have been struggling for years to put words to that feeling. He hears expressions he's never heard before: "Trolley! (expression of surprise, ie, truly)." That accent isn't easy for writers to catch (normally they make it sound like Australian).

Some things he cleverly overlooks. "Are you interested in Maoris?" someone asks him and he replies, "Not much." That's more attractive than it sounds. Official Maori culture is more political than cultural, and it is easy to feel operated on. The wife of one of his contacts, Mrs Cochrane, tells him: "I got into terrible trouble the other day because I had a Maori bag which I used for shopping and somebody thought I wasn't treating it with enough respect." They can be annoying like that.

When Fallowell goes to the national museum in Wellington he is told by the curator that it isn't allowed to display its early-20th-century European art. Even the portrait of Katherine Mansfield. Very annoying indeed.

Relations between white New Zealand and Maoridom are so intricate, ancestral and personal that it is impossible for outsiders to penetrate them. I lived over there off and on for a decade and left knowing that, in the end, I had no chance of ever getting to the bottom of it - because I'd never had that little Maori boy come up to me on my first day of primary school, put his arm round my neck and say, "I'm going to be your mate."

New-world cityscapes look so similar round the world. The unlovely present built in the rubble of the past. "Suddenly one saw the underbelly, that this nation too is fucked like every other, that the whole world has surrendered to the suppurating, copulating mob." Ye-ee-esss, maybe. But that's the problem with travel, of course. Residents can screen out the scabrous banalities of their home cities.

Fallowell discerns how hard it is to get below New Zealanders' cheerfulness; it can take years for individuals. They can be pathologically reserved. But - or so - they have the highest sex crime figures in the world. The national behaviour is likewise bipolar. In 1980, they were the most regulated country in the world, five years later the least regulated. There are many examples of such swings.

I would recommend a non-metropolitan project if you want to go to New Zealand with something to do. Living in cities isn't their forte. Out in the country they make more sense. In the old farmhouse on a square mile of land, that's their natural environment. Astonishingly hardy, uncomplaining, inventive, adventurous, funny, and as hedonistic as any people in the world. You'll need a research project such as Tabulating the Different Physical Injuries Suffered by Agricultural Workers ("A comic masterpiece").

A caution: you may need to steel yourself to take in certain details of the author's sex life. Or has some of the country's pathological reserve rubbed off on me?

This article first appeared in the 10 March 2008 issue of the New Statesman, How Hillary did it