I am writing this essay during my ninth trip to New Zealand, a country that I love dearly and that is also trying to kill me. The first time I nearly died here was 21 years ago, and it’s been happening with a fair degree of regularity ever since. In 2001 my Kiwi spouse was required, by the terms of his student visa, to return home for two years, so we relocated to Aotearoa for what we thought would be a lengthy sojourn. We arrived at his mum’s house in the middle of the North Island in the middle of the night and in the middle of the winter, emotionally battered, drained from 24 hours of plane travel, and with a crippling case of jet lag. For days my lovely mother-in-law took great and tender care of us, refusing to let us to go to sleep at 5:00 p.m. when our bodies were screaming for bed—unfortunately, she tried to keep us awake with episodes of “Monarch of the Glen” and “Coronation Street,” literally the two most soporific television programs ever devised by the mind of man. So many solicitous cups of tea! So many somnambulist games of Scrabble! So many furzy Scottish landscapes melting drowsily into cobblestoned Mancunian streets! Her ministrations were kindly meant, if largely inefficacious.
But that is not how I almost died. Just a couple of days into our sleep-deprivation program, my sister-in-law M. decided it would be an excellent idea to take us caving. Clearly my brain was not working properly from lack of rest, so I agreed to this plan and a day later we all piled into her car for the first, and not least hazardous, part of the expedition: the trip from the Bay of Plenty to Waitomo, which was my first experience of cross-country travel in my newly adopted homeland. For Americans used to interstate highway travel, the process of getting from Point A to Point B in New Zealand by car can seem daunting and even surreal. Read more »
As an expatriate Brit who has lived in North America for many years, I have sometimes been asked what I miss most about the old country. There's plenty to miss, of course: draught bitter; prime minister's question time; red phone boxes; racist tabloid newspapers; Henderson's Yorkshire Relish; gray rainy afternoons, especially at the seaside in July. But my answer is always the same: I miss the footpaths.
I was reminded of this once again this summer when I made my biennial trip back to Blighty. For one week of the trip a small family group rented a house in Derbyshire (my home county) and spent most days hiking around various parts of the Peak District, the marvelously varied and beautiful national park that sits inside a great horseshoe of urban sprawl running South from metropolitan Manchester in the West, through the Potteries in Staffordshire towards the Birmingham, East towards Derby and Nottingham, and then back up North towards Sheffield.
The weather wasn't always great–no surprise there: we are, after all, talking about England in July–but for hiking it was fine: not too hot, and with the occasional shower to freshen things up. But there are two things that make walking in the British countryside so enjoyable: the infinitely interesting landscape; and the great network of footpaths that allow you to walk from anywhere to anywhere by a dozen different routes. Plus the fact that if you plan things right you can end your walk at a tea shop where you can get a pot of tea with a scone, raspberry jam, and clotted cream. (OK, that's three things.) Or at a pub. (four)
Two thousand years ago most of Britain was covered with trees. Over time the land was deforested as people used wood for fuel and construction and opened up land for grazing cattle and sheep. As a result the rural landscape today in places like Derbyshire has an open character, a combination of fields, small woods, grassy hills, and heather-covered moorland. This means that the topography of the region is more revealed, and revealing, than in places where forest dominates the landscape: the rocks, cliffs, streams, gullies, and ground vegetation are not hidden behind or beneath a dense covering of trees.