You’ve just been in NZ for the launch of the latest Lonely Planet guide on the country. I hear it’s a pretty big deal? Yeah they take it very seriously. Perhaps more so than any other Lonely Planet book. New Zealand relies so heavily on tourism for its sense of place in the world. They get their noses out of joint quite easily. They’re all desperate to be in the book.
And how about travellers? Do you think people use the guides too closely? Even with a country as relatively small and underpopulated as New Zealand, there are places that we just cannot fit into the book. It really should be a starting point, and something to fall back on. I don’t think there’s any harm in travellers just turning down some road and seeing what they can find without using the book as a bible.
You’ve put more emphasis on environmentally-thinking businesses… It’s been a response largely to travellers themselves. We’ve tried to just evaluate each operation in terms of sustainability and ethical and cultural sensitivity.
In the book you suggest Kiwis are successfully promoting Maori culture… Absolutely. In contrast to Australia – perhaps that’s an easy comparison to make and perhaps a bit dangerous – but certainly in New Zealand, Maori culture is very mainstream. It’s integral to the identity of the place. Maori tourism is therefore also very prevalent. It’s really a fabulous part of NZ and something that we’ve actively tried to research on the ground.
Your picture was in the previous edition. Did you get recognised when doing the research? That hasn’t happened. I guess I don’t have a distinctive face! Sometimes it’s more expedient to tell them who you are. If you’re just finding out opening times there’s no harm. But generally we have to have a subjective opinion on the place. We try to stay undercover. For businesses, accommodation etc. we try to fly under the radar. If you front up to a hostel and tell them who you are, you’re obviously going to get a glowing positive response, not an accurate assessment of how they treat the average traveller who’s arriving.
North or South Island? They are very different and they both have a distinct appeal. The south has far less people, so if you’re looking for wild outdoors and mountains and abandoned coastline and fjords and a real wilderness experience, then I would say South Island. If you’re looking for a more urban experience, you’ve got Wellington or Auckland on the North Island which are superbly vibrant cities for different reasons. If you’re looking for easily accessible Maori experiences, the North Island is definitely the place to go.
Do you have a favourite spot? I really like the Marlborough Region. The wine is fantastic. In terms of cities, I’m a big fan of Wellington and also Dunedin, which is a student town with a great live music scene and great cafÃ©s. Wellington is a fairly remote city by world standards and like anywhere a bit isolated it looks inwards for its inspiration.
Is travel writing as good as it sounds? Yeah, we’re getting paid to travel, it’s pretty much the dream job, there’s no denying it. It can be a grind but it’s pretty good.
How did you get into it? I kind of had a circuitous path. I studied architecture and worked on and off in that profession for six years, but as a hippy guy from Tasmania I didn’t really fit in. I ended up writing a book about my travels to the States – still unpublished! Then a job came up in the LP office in Melbourne drawing maps. I worked in the office [doing various jobs] for about seven years. After a while I felt the travel itch again and decided to write for them. You have to sit a test, which is quite rigorous. If you pass, you then have to become a freelance writer. It’s competitive, you have to pitch your case and really sell yourself. I’d encourage anybody if they feel they’ve got the physical energy and the creative energy to write with a bit of flair and have the attention to detail. It’s a fantastic job no doubt.
New Zealand (14th Edition) is out now, published by Lonely Planet.