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The International Writers Magazine: New Zealand

A stumble through fantasyland
(or, How Not to Attract Business)
• John Enaeda

When my Australian wife and I re-visited the north of New Zealand’s South Island in January, it was intended to be something of a nostalgia trip: the area where I had grown up, and where Barb and I had lived for a few years early in our marriage. Well, as is oft’ quoth, “Never go back; places are never as you remember them.” Sadly true.

© Markus Koljonen
Picton used to be a pretty little seaside village with all the potential in the world for being a true tourist Mecca. The town once boasted, in my gay childhood memories of annual school picnics, a lovely grassy foreshore and quaint main street with roll-top verandas, but all that’s been paved in a characterless and tacky imitation representing someone’s idea of something vaguely Mediterranean. If you’re travelling with a tour party, your guide will be up to the usual high standard that those knowledgeable and entertaining gentlemen maintain, but should you be wandering Picton as a “free-and-independent” traveller, be warned - the Visitor Information Centre is not one at all. It is simply a booking agency for launch charters, motels and the Cook Strait ferry. Ask at the Centre what’s the population of Picton, how was Mabel Island named or the reason for the giant cross on the hillside and you’ll be giggled at to your face, then hit with a facile retort such as “Pass” or “I give up, what’s the answer?” The “information centre” in this backwater lists only one of its outside lines in the phone book (it does have at least one other, plus a direct line to management) and - imagine this if you can - a phone call at 11 o’clock Thursday morning 4th January, right in the heart of the centre’s busiest period of the year, elicits the recorded message that their mail box is full and perhaps you’d like to try later! To cap it all, the centre unbelievably has no 0800 number.

Try instead the foreshore museum, and you’ll find it has no faxs or e-mail, so you must phone or call personally, but only, mind, between the hours of 10 and 4, strictly Monday to Friday.

If you’re used to paying from one to three dollars for a hot meaty pie as we are in Australia, you won’t be impressed at being asked by a girl with a brisk plastic smile for $4.50 – that rockets to $8 if you’d like salad and chips with it. Expect it in Picton. The pie, incidentally, is micro-waved to attain its rubbery worst. I asked her for pistachio ice cream, and she looked at me (duh! Pist-what?) as if I’d just said a rude word or sprouted a third ear.

There is a supermarket at the top end of Picton’s High Street – but it offers no customer off-street parking. As a rule, Pictonians drive on through to Blenheim, where shopping’s markedly cheaper.

Never anywhere else in our travels abroad, either, had my wife and I found a pub with a crudely scrawled blackboard message outside the entrance informing visitors that they’re not welcome to use the toilets there unless they’re patronising the bar. No – you’re quite right – the prospect of attracting fresh patronage to the bar from someone walking through and liking what he sees has not yet registered. Public foreshore toilets in Picton, incidentally, are a disgrace; the only filthier conveniences we had ever known were in Cairo.
The most bizarre encounter I had in that town was shortly before Barb and I left to head for Nelson. We got talking to a bloke doing a thriving trade selling fresh cut flowers on London Quay. Turned out he’d been the reporter for the town’s small independent newspaper, the Picton Gazette, and because he would not mould his editorial policy to suit the commercial convenience of the town’s business leaders, those magnates-in-their-own-minds ordered all local businesses to boycott the paper and advertise with the daily Marlborough Express from Blenheim, notwithstanding that the Gazette was only a third of the price for advertising rates and reached only Picton businessmen’s realistic market - instead of going all the way to the province’s southern extremity and readers who would never in a fit drive three hours to Picton just to buy discounted lamb chops. The Express, part of the Fairfax empire, could afford to undercut the Gazette for as long as it took, which it did, and so the Gazette went under. That reporter, by the way, is now a successful freelance journalist and travel writer on the Gold Coast.

Credit where it’s due, though, and acknowledgement must be made of the fine contribution to Picton public relations by Tim and Denise Dare, who live aboard the old Auxiliary Scow Echo beached on the harbour’s eastern shore, and operated by the couple as a maritime museum and coffee shop. Admission price is ridiculously modest, and the couple, gregarious and personable, are a fount of information. The visit takes 30 minutes to an hour – easily longer if you’re a history buff – and Denise boasts one out-of-this-world recipe for cheese scones!

Eric Collins, too, at The Barn in High Street, is an attractive and entertaining host who knocks out a unique pizza, along with cappuccino to die for.

As well, if you’d like to enjoy a day down the Sounds, chat to Crystal and Graeme at Compass Charters ... they’re Dutch and Aussie respectively, and know what customer service is about. They provide a fabulous lobster and salad lunch – and real fishing grounds, not just where the greenie operators take you with excuses about “quotas” and “fisheries protection.”

This was one of the few free independent traveller holidays that Barb and I have taken, and it made, embarrassingly for New Zealand, a great advertisement for organised package tours. We’ve done many of the latter around the world, and have been deeply appreciative of tour guides’ inside knowledge. Guided package tours help avoid the waste of time and money that are epitomised by sojourns in places such as Picton.

The Pictons of this world may amuse, but they don’t enthuse.

© John Enaeda May 2013
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