45 South: A journey across southern New Zealand, by Laurence Fearnley with photographs by Arno Gasteiger, (Penguin, 2013), 191 pp., $65.00
Our journey in this book begins at Hilderthorpe, where a large boulder marks an invisible line laid down by map-makers: 45 degrees south, halfway between the equator and the south pole. 45 South documents a strong sense of place and time as author Laurence Fearnley, avid kayaker and lover of solitude, takes to the road. Through a dry blustery nor-wester that stirs dust and stings the eyes, past barren hills and valleys punctuated by fresh, green spring growth, and alongside the author, we make camp to gaze at the Orion constellation. Before long we tour on to marvel at the jagged peaks of the Remarkables; kayak down the Eglinton River; and eventually arrive in Fiordland, where we are told a tale of two Te Anau locals who made an unexpected discovery in the caves of Lee Island. The invisibility and yet navigational dependability of the line of the 45th parallel is echoed in Fearnley’s travels as she recounts stories and histories that have left their own ineradicable traces.
Auckland-based photographer Arno Gasteiger documents the diversity of the landscape and its people, from white-fronted terns on the south bank of the Waitaki River mouth to the lush, dense green bush surrounding Caswell Sound. In contrast to Fearnley, Gasteiger’s images speak of the present and largely reference the sublime and idyllic landscape, untouched and relatively unaffected by human occupation. It is difficult to decipher a premise around which photographs were selected as a number of images of people appear randomly peppered throughout the predominately landscape-orientated survey, yet we are not enlightened further in the text as to who these characters are or why their images feature. For those of us who live in the vicinity of the 45th parallel, the picturesque and fair-weather photographic depictions may serve to negate the inherent climatic contrasts and therefore the true beauty of the South – the harshness of winter’s short dark days, the smell of rain-drenched autumn leaves, hail on corrugated-iron rooftops, frozen sheets on clothes-lines, landscapes blanketed white with snow.
Fearnley does not attempt to describe every locale situated within the range of the 45th parallel, but rather presents a journey that seems unpredictable so as to give the impression her thoughts are unfolding organically in response to what she encounters. It is as if she is in conversation with the places that simultaneously invoke feelings of nostalgia and vulnerability. The evident threat, according to Fearnley, is that of being a bystander to the inevitable passing of time that gradually erodes and transforms the places and people we thought we once knew, leaving behind often nothing more than the ghostly traces of habitation. This sense of the inevitability of loss associated with evolution and times past is revealed in many of the stories that emerge through Fearnely’s travels: a seasonal moa-hunting camp around the mouth of the Waitaki River, whose ovens may have ‘processed’ up to 90,000 moa, evident in the unearthing of burnt bones in ‘middens and pits’; limestone caves which gradually expose the remnants of marine life that once swam in shallow ocean waters formerly stretching 70 km inland from the current coastline.
In Danseys Pass, having wrestled with the gale-force wind and rugged ground, Fearnley pitches her tent. A hawk gliding overhead inspires an imaginary narrative in which darkness descends on her in the form of the enormous Haast’s eagle, leaving little more of the author than the remnants of her camp – ‘an upturned billy, a tiny remnant of cloth – a fragment torn from my shirt – and my empty tent, flapping in the wind’. At Lake Manuherikia, we are taken back millions of years to when the lake’s surrounds were characterised by ‘gently rolling’ landforms and a warmer environment supporting vegetation such as ‘eucalypti, palms, ferns, kauri-like conifers and two now-extinct species of southern beech’. As time passes and the landscape changes, so too do the stories of its people. The narratives that once defined us, Fearnley seems to suggest – from Hilderthorpe’s Frederick Riley Dennison’s design and construction of the first car in 1900, to Theodore Roosevelt’s 1905 donation of wapiti released into George Sound to facilitate a game-hunting population – are all equally at risk of fading into distant memory and thence to oblivion.
The relationship between Gasteiger’s photography and Fearnley’s text is somewhat unclear: apart from images that document some of the 45th parallel sign-posts Fearnley briefly mentions, the approach of each feels distinct. While there are commonalities that can be identified if actively sought, it was with some level of frustration that I found the search for images to illustrate Fearnley’s writing or further information relating to Gasteiger’s images fruitless. In this respect, 45 South would have been far more satisfying had the relationship between the two mediums of writing and photography, and between the two collaborators, been further developed and explored. The two instead highlight the particularity of their individual ways of seeing and conveying the subjective experience of travelling through the spaces and places drawn together by the invisible line of the 45th parallel. What does come across as consistent is the way in which these places are treated by both Fearnley and Gasteiger as precious and unique. This thematic approach in the way they respond and record their responses serves to deliver the message that although the 45th parallel will always be there, gridded in place on the planet’s maps, the experience of place and of people are subject to the passage of time, which is constantly transforming ‘45 south’, adding archeological layer upon layer to traces of the geological. So here, writing and photographing are acts of remembering.
KATHRYN MITCHELL is programme manager of Visual Art, Film & Animation at the Southern Institute of Technology, Invercargill, and is currently studying towards a PhD in Fine Art at the College of Fine Arts, University of New South Wales.