Finding inspiration in Canterbury

18:57, Jan 01 2014

John Stanley is my hero. When I grow up I want to be him.

In his 70s now, he still has the bounce in his step that younger men eventually lose and the keenness of mind that is appealing whatever age a person may be.

Years ago, John and his lovely wife, Zelma, took my father under their wing when he was just a young rabble-rouser from Palmie, fresh in Christchurch with nothing but big ideas and a skinful of piss.

These days it's generally around the Christmas period that John and Zel arrive in their campervan. They've spent the years since retirement buying smaller houses and bigger campervans and spending more time on the road.

I've had some really significant conversations with John over the years as he has taught me about right and wrong, justice and public rights. This time when we chatted I had another light-bulb moment.

They'd arrived into town after some time in Banks Peninsula.


"And I'll tell you what Johnny, it's as nice as any spot in the country."

"C'mon John, I know you spend time in the Coromandel, Golden Bay and in Central Otago. Surely you don't expect me to believe that Banks Peninsula stacks up against these world-class locations."

What appeals to John is how undisturbed the landscape has been over the past decades.

"Everywhere else is much more developed. Over there it feels like a step back in time."

I know what he means. I have lived in Christchurch for more years than I care to remember and I'm still discovering parts of Banks Peninsula that take my breath away.

So I started asking people of my parent's generation about their memories of the area and I was amazed by the flood of nostalgia that came rushing in.

Most memories were of blissful summer holidays spent in the isolated townships:

"The milkman used to bring the milk on his horse and cart and we'd run out to the front gate with the billy . . ."

"There used to be a changing shed out in the water. I assume so that women could get changed in the water and preserve their modesty by not having to walk to the water in their togs."

So my wife and I decided that, while I don't get a holiday at this time of the year, we would spend our spare time walking and driving the area and trying to find new places that inspired us. After all, the area has been inspiring poets and painters since the first whaling ships arrived to disrupt the local Maori lifestyle.

Sadly the weather was so crappy over the Christmas period that we ended up driving about in fog with only small adventures from the car, scurrying about in raincoats and telling one another that we were having fun. All that I was inspired to do was to buy a better raincoat at another horrific Boxing Day sale.

That darned weather. It's been ruining holidays all over the country. Soon people will be discussing whether we should move school holidays to February/ March again.

We did have a charming gap in the weather at Port Levy one afternoon. The wee settlement is like visiting New Zealand in the 1950s. Absolutely beguiling. It's no wonder somebody is shooting a post-apocalypse film there soon.

But at Port Levy, you're still close to the townies. Once you keep moving around the bays you feel more and more removed from life in the city.

I'm not sure what Captain Cook thought of Banks Peninsula when he sailed past almost 250 years ago and (mis)named the landmass Banks Island, after the botanist that was travelling on his ship with his staff of four servants, two artists, a secretary and two dogs. But I'm sure his advice would have been similar to that given by John Stanley: "If you don't get out there and enjoy a place like that, it'll be gone before you know it."

The Press