Volunteers have been neglected by the media for a while now. There is the old adage that good news isn’t news – that worthy can’t be sexy. Graeme Purches, TrustPower’s community relations manager, had regularly invited me to be a judge at the national finals of its annual Community Awards. But this always managed to fall on a Mucking In weekend, so we reorganised the shooting schedule. I envisaged a roomful of surf lifesavers, firefighters and paramedics. Then the judging booklet arrived. The traditional service groups were represented, yes, but so were stupendous projects such as the Te Puna Quarry Park (32ha of old quarry transformed into gardens), and Sharon Thorburn’s Kotuku Music Academy (the children of diplomats and bankers singing with young ex-gangsters to break through the silence around abuse and violence). The winner that year was the Wairoa Community Development Trust with its Cactus programme instilling discipline in at-risk youth through outdoors activities. In Wairoa, the results of have been impressive, with significant reductions in crime.
Each year, organisations like this win regional finals and come together to compete for the TrustPower Community Award. Who wins isn’t important. They meet, renew their sense of resolve and swap ideas. You look around the room and realise no amount of Government funding can begin to achieve what they do for nothing.
So this winter I set off with a film crew to record some of the most original and appealing projects for a series of tele-vision shorts called Volunteer Power (currently screening on TVNZ 6). The South Island leg was amazing – but cold!
It’s freezing in Queenstown as I hop into a rental car for the trip through the Kawarau Gorge to Cromwell. (The woman on the Navman insists on pronouncing “Molyneux” as “Molynooks”, but she’s Australian.) Our first shoot is with the Cromwell & Districts Promotions Group, which has won the Central Otago TrustPower Community Award. It organises six major sporting events every summer – biking, running, walking and swimming. The idea, to attract competitors to Central Otago, has succeeded spectacularly, and more than 2000 register.
We meet everyone in Cromwell’s sports complex hall for lunch, and there’s a
discussion of what I’ll be wearing on the mountain bike. On the what? Julia, our producer, has volunteered me to ride around town with a local family. “It’ll make a nice shot,” she says cheerfully. Only the day before, I plunged (well, flopped) into the Hauraki Gulf for a winter swim, but the water was 18°C. I’m now back in an Otago winter and the outside temperature has gone into minus territory. Bill Godsall, a rugged local athlete, will lend me his bike and lycra. No one mentions the disparity between Bill’s lean and angular frame and, um, mine. I vow to resume the no-carbs-after-4.00pm diet that has served me well on the odd occasion I have summoned the willpower to stay on it for longer than bedtime on the first day.
We film keen mountain bikers and
kayakers and, at day’s end, retire to a meal at the Victoria Hotel in Old Cromwell, a recreated precinct from the days of the gold rush.
Tourism and viticulture don’t by themselves make communities in a place like Cromwell. There is always a core group of citizens who dedicate themselves to where they live. Sometimes they’re landed gentry or the well-heeled with a philanthropic impulse. More often they’re not. There is a lot more pride than money keeping this town looking so good.
Next morning we head for Oamaru via the Lindis Pass. In the town’s gorgeous Victorian precinct we meet the League of Victorian Imagineers. They have won the Waitaki District final by adding steampunk to Victoriana.
Steampunk is difficult to define. Think of the Lamson tubes that once delivered cash and dockets pneumatically around our larger department stores, then
imagine if that technology had been enhanced with the advent of electronics. The Imagineers carry ray guns, design rocket-powered cloaks and use ornate USB memory sticks. It is described by the Forrester Gallery’s Warwick Smith as “Monty Python meets Jules Verne”: a vibrant attempt to make a Victorian heritage rele-vant to the 21st century by inventing a future for it, as well as admiring a past. The townsfolk respond enthusiastically to balls and fancy-dress contests, and instead of playing video games the young are encouraged to dream with their
hands and invent devices and gizmos.
Our trip continues into the Canterbury high country, where the McClimont’s Green Development Committee has won the Ashburton district final, in the little village of Mt Somers. It’s the gateway to a cluster of famous high country stations with names like Mesopotamia and Erewhon. But downturns don’t respect tradition. Four years ago the local school was threatened with closure, and the locals got together to revive the town. Between the school and the store was a paddock used for grazing. It was decided this would make a fine park, with a bridge, big boulders and outdoor seating. It’s succeeded beautifully. A small army pitched in to do the landscaping, farmers sold cattle to cover costs, and you can own a piece in return for a donation. But the news is good and bad when we arrive. There’s been significant snow and our outdoors shoot is a grim prospect so we postpone filming until spring.
Stronechrubie, where we eat that night, is Gaelic for “crooked nose”. Scot George McRae used the name for his new farm in 1878 when he saw a proboscis-like outcrop on it. His land was eventually swallowed up by Samuel Butler’s Erewhon because McRae was unlucky. One year he lost the money from his entire wool clip when his agents went bankrupt. The big snow of 1889 claimed all his sheep. His wife, who hadn’t seen another woman in six years, tried to drown herself in the river, then went insane. We townies assume if you live on a high-country station you’re rolling in Range Rovers and cash, but it was never like that, and still isn’t. There is money in the land itself, far less in farming it. But turangawaewae is evident wherever we go. These Kiwis are compelled to obey the volunteering dictum – plant a tree under whose shade you do not expect to sit.
Travelling to Christchurch we stop at a rest area above the Rakaia Gorge to film a two-way interview with 45 South Television, describing our journey and the reason for it. I’m not sure there’s a more spectacular rest area in New Zealand, but it’s sullied with late-night litter. I pick up a smashed rum bottle. It’s only a little volunteering moment, but we can all start somewhere.