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The wolves are coming

45 South: A Journey Across Southern New Zealand Photography by Arno Gasteiger; essays by Laurence Fearnley (Penguin, $65)
Review by Richard Thomson

imageStuck for a present? Picture books have been a fixture of gift-giving pretty much since the invention of the modern Christmas in 19th-century North America. And the scenic pictorial book of colour photographs has been a staple of New Zealand coffee-table book publishing since AH & AW Reed brought the first copies of New Zealand in Colour back from Japan, where they had been printed, late in 1961. That book matched colour images of town, country and wilderness (or as much of the wilderness that could be accessed with a Landrover), taken by Kenneth and Jean Bigwood, with extended captions written by James K Baxter. Over the next 15 or so years, Reeds sold around 150,000 copies.

Publishers today can only dream of that degree of success. But the formula has proved durable. 45 South matches the pictures of New Zealand Geographic photographer Arno Gasteiger with short essays by Dunedin writer Laurence Fearnley. The modern book focuses more narrowly, drawing a line from the Waitaki rivermouth in North Otago, due west through Central Otago and Queenstown to Caswell Sound in Fiordland. The line marks the quartering of the globe, a division well suited to our orderly culture and one that offers up a geography more insular than that of earlier, more celestial latitudes such as the Tropic of Capricorn and the Antarctic Circle. Regular reminders of the 45th parallel act as signposts to the reader’s progress through the book – written on AA signs and on river stones.

Gasteiger and Fearnley travel independently of each other: one cause, you might think, of the book’s somewhat detached character. But there’s more to it. Fearnley’s historical vignettes follow the imaginary westward line – it happened right here! – even as the very arbitrariness of the selections emphasise that her journey takes place as much at home on her laptop as it does on the road or river. Gasteiger’s images are clear, simple and direct. They document, as the dust jacket promises, dramatic landscapes and interesting characters. They show something else, too, that isn’t promised and has to be hunted out. Amid the flat planes of summer colour I found myself asking: how did I get here? But that question isn’t part of the geography of 45 South. The old stable at the Kyeburn Diggings is well tended and clean. The grass is cut and potted flowers decorate the base of the drystone wall.

Fearnley pauses to look at the rock art in caves now managed by the Ngāi Tahu Māori Rock Art Trust. I spent a long time looking at the photograph of Liu Ruowang’s cast-iron sculpture ‘The Wolves are Coming’, which now occupies a field on Sir Michael Hill’s property in Arrowtown. In another few hundred years, this will likely have survived more intact than any other evidence of human occupation along the invisible line. What will people make of it then, I wonder?