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Books: Book of the Week – Wild Roads by Bruce Ansley

Wild Roads: A New Zealand Journey by Bruce Ansley

We live in a mad landscape linked to each other by mad roads. Ask any tourist upside-down in a drainage ditch. For us, though, those roads are simply local wonders, and that’s just what Bruce Ansley suggests pretty much all the way through his excellent new book, Wild Roads.

Despite its rather shouty cover, I couldn’t put it down, nibbling at its bite-sized bits about 60 of the country’s great tyre-to-the-tarmac experiences – and not always tarmac, sometimes little more than tracks.

And sometimes not road trips at all. There are three slightly odd exceptions to the road rule, none of them drives – Central Auckland’s faded flower, Karangahape Road, Cook Strait by ferry and a road that doesn’t exist yet, Transmission Gully, planned for north of Wellington.

Otherwise this is a book of impeccable guiding and writing from a master whose descriptive powers are wondrous on almost every page.

In Chapter One Ansley’s straight off up one of the country’s real roughies, the Rimutaka Hill Road, cutting his prose like a sculptor:

Only Wellington has a road like the Rimutaka Hill highway so close to the city, even if Dunedin comes close. It’s one of those idiosyncrasies which, like mad winds and politics, make the capital so dramatic. With their steep zigzagging streets, houses cleaving to the angles of their wedged city, you’d expect main roads to be eccentric. The Rimutaka Hill Road certainly is.

I don’t know which I like more, the houses cleaving or the wedged city, but it’s just a first taste in a book filled with stylish short road essays, at least half of which might make you want to jump in the car and go chasing the nearest mad road.

Like the Blue Highway, which unwinds where ‘the top right-hand corner of the South Island frays into the Marlborough Sounds’. It’s a road, says Ansley,  ‘that has a feeling of intruding into country where roads just do not fit’.

He divides his roads into types, like the Feral, the High and the Slow. Two thirds of them are in the South Island, but Ansley’s a South Islander and, when it comes to challenging New Zealand roads, that’s probably just the way of it balances up anyway.

There are lashings of photos in this big-format book drawn from various sources, most of them so relentlessly roadish that, after a few chapters, you might feel like the road does, indeed, go on forever. But many of them are outstanding and even soulful.

A single eye might have given Wild Roads a stronger look and maybe a bit more people and place. And, while I’m niggling – and that’s all it is – the title, splashed in garish yellow on the cover, gives a bit of a low-value vibe to a top quality collection of writing.

Like Ansley on the Old Dunstan Road:

Passing through the lovely old village of Outram early in the morning is not the last near-mystical experience travellers can expect from the Old Dunstan Road, but it is a promising start. Early-morning mist steals through the town, sneaking up the hills, covering the horizon like a show about to start…

It’s a marvellous book, and a perfect Christmas present for anyone with a car and a hankering.


Wild Roads: A New Zealand Journey by Bruce Ansley (Random House, $50) is available at Unity Books.

 

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