Joining the hordes

I decided to visit my daughter in Christchurch via the Haast and Arthur’s Passes. Not the easiest route on a bike, even with my friend (electric motor) to help me up the hills. But assisted pedalling means just that; if you stop pedalling you stop moving. A couple of pointers for other folk around my age tempted to go pedalling off into the sunset: If you’re reduced to a tent for accommodation, fit a pillow on your bike. Difficult I know but so is a sleepless night and a stiff neck. Better still, shell out and stay in places that have beds to sleep in, and I don’t mean backpackers.

Take it from one with recent experience, no matter how fit and up with the times you think you are for your age, you’re too old to share a dorm. Still, you do meet  a variety of interesting and pleasant young tourists.

YHA kitchens are ringing with Scottish, Spanish, American, French, all kinds of accents and languages and especially German. The Germans are here in numbers and seem particularly keen on tramping and biking.

It’s just as well the tourists on this journey were interesting and the scenery sublime because the townships on the way were depressing. I don’t mean the relatively boring places like Harihari, Whataroa or Ross, which stay the same year after year with their Sunday quiet main streets complete with church, pub and  cafe.

They have a place, a history and an identity. When you ride out the next morning before the sun burns off the mist to the smell of steaming cows, faeces and paddock swamp you know you are not just in the country but West Coast country.

But Haast, Fox, Franz Joseph and Arthur’s Pass townships are disconnected from their surroundings. They stand alone as superficial communities bent only on collecting tourist dollars. They share the money-grubbing cultural identity of casinos and cruise liners. Franz Joseph epitomised this for me.

The Four Square supermarket was so packed with people parting from their money it was hard to pass through the aisles. Yet on the counters of this latter-day goldmine customers were invited to put two dollars into a jar to help with the township’s ‘community development.’

Franz has a resident population of less than five hundred. While talking to a couple of young South East Asian women workers in the pub I learned that, as well as imports from most other points of the compass, there are currently 40 women from the Philippines working in the township. Pleasant and helpful young people, I might add, like all the young travellers I met on my journey.

Perhaps I should not have been surprised by this development in the booming tourist industry. But the golden goose is losing feathers. As one young German cyclist said to me: I know I’m a tourist myself but sometimes I hate tourists. There are too many of us.

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Chris Horan

Chris is a former social worker, probation officer and Family Court counsellor, living in Hawea in the South Island.