Tash Hopkins on New Zealand's South Island

1. For those who don't know much about New Zealand, how does the South Island differ from the North Island?

The South Island is defined by different districts and is the larger and more sparsely populated of the three islands and feels different to the North. You can easily find places with no one else around which a lot of what I love about it. In some places in the South Island you have the feeling of being dwarfed in the universe and that time doesn’t exist there in the way we measure it.

When I photograph landscapes there, I see it as all tone and line, some of the colours of the ocean and the dry land in places are so beautiful for that.

The geography is really varied from the East to the West, the East is made up largely of the plains stretching down the island and often gets a Nor Wester (North West wind) which travels across the plains hot and dry and the rumour is that the crime rate goes up in Christchurch when it blows. It creates a unique cloud formation like a huge bridge across the land.

The West Coast has the opposite geography, its wild and is covered with bush and rains a lot. Its history stems from the gold rush days of the late 1800’s and a lot of the industry of the Coast is still based around mining. The towns are tiny and many of them are struggling to survive with a lot of younger people leaving for the cities.

2. Does anywhere else on the planet feel like it? Why?

When I was in the highlands in Scotland it felt similar to the Southern part of the South Island, they both have that wide empty feeling with rocks and bracken and no one else around for miles. I guess some of the farmland in the UK could compare to farmland around the top of the island. But aside from that its not like anywhere else I’ve travelled. I think you can feel the personality of places generated from their histories and experiences in a similar way that you get impressions of people.

3. How has your relationship with the South Island changed over time?

I’ve always felt like the South Island is home, but when I was in my early twenties I desperately wanted to get out of Christchurch and experience something bigger so I went to London, and I haven’t lived there since. I would say my relationship has changed mostly because I only go there for holidays (or sometimes jobs ) so it feels both like home and a holiday to me now.

I have a different awareness of it than when I was young, I see it with more of an overview now, but I always had a deep appreciation for times such as when I’d be driving out to the place I used to ride horses (about an hour and a half’s drive West toward the mountains) and I’d stop and sit for while on the bonnet of the car in the sun just soaking up the feeling of the land.

Although I never thought about it then, I think that being out in the land has helped to form the way I see images now.

4. What spots are you drawn back to over time?

I’m drawn back to many places in the South. Parts of it, like Queenstown are almost unrecognisable from what they were like when I was young, but a lot of the island hasn’t changed. I love going to Castle Hill which is near one of the passes (Arthur’s) through the mountains and is where hundreds of mammoth limestone boulders were pushed up from the sea when the two plates of the South Island collided to form the Southern Alps. There’s this incredible stillness and when I’m sitting up there I feel like history is gathered underneath me. There are lots of underground caves so the ground feels light when you walk on it because its hollow underneath.

I also love a tiny settlement at a stony beach near Christchurch which is raw and powerful and too dangerous too swim at. The community is made up of a handful of small houses (bachs) and without having asked anyone living there, I would guess they either live off the land or they commute an hour and a half to Christchurch. There’s always a few people fishing on the beach but otherwise you don’t see anyone around. It’s magic and I’m really keen to do a project about their community.

The West Coast is captivating for its ringing green hillsides and the fact it hasn’t changed a lot, there is more tourism there now like all of New Zealand but it’s confined to certain places.

I’ve been really lucky and have travelled around a lot of the South on shoots so I’ve seen some pretty incredible, out of the way places, like staying in an A frame cabin at the top of Mount Aspiring in the National Park. There were no curtains and I woke up around 4am and saw the snow covered in light from the full moon.

The top of the South Island is beautiful in a different way. It’s more hospitable and has golden beaches and easier terrain. Lots of fruit and tobacco and wine get grown there because of the climate and there’s a lot of dairy farming as well. I spent almost every holiday of my childhood around Ruby Bay, my parents and grandparents had enduring friendships with families there and we would stay with them for weeks in the summer holidays having picnic's and getting sunburnt.

The Port Hills in Christchurch are beautiful as well, I love going for a run along the tussocky ridge-line and looking down the hills into the blue-green harbour.

5. How did your family end up in the South Island?

My mother was born in Christchurch and my father in Temuka. His father was a third generation New Zealander and a vicar and moved to Addington in Christchurch after he came back from the war, and my father, his brother and sister grew up there.

My mother’s grandmother on her paternal side came to New Zealand from the UK with her sister when she was 16. The ship was marooned on an island off the coast of South America and they lived there for six months before another ship came to collect the passengers.

Once they got to the South Island, she and her sister got a job with a wealthy family and the pay (apart from food and board) was one dress a year which seems so archaic.

When they didn’t pay them the dresses and it was Christmas Eve and their employers had planned a party, they walked out which was pretty unheard of for those days.

My mother’s maternal side came out from Wales directly to Christchurch several generations ago.

6. What was it like growing up there? What was it like leaving?

It was a lovely place to grow up. I think this might be the same for lots of people when they look back but I remember it being sunny all the time and spending loads of time outside with bare feet. Our parents wouldn’t have known where we were half the time.

Our family home in Christchurch was in the city but was next to a farm and had a ‘forest’ at the bottom of our property so we spent lots of time roaming around in there when we were kids. It was an innocent and uncomplicated place to grow up, you could just be kids without trying to grow up quickly and without the pressure from things like social media etc today.

7. Under-rated location/city/town in the South Island?

I’m not sure if it’s underrated generally but I don’t think a lot of New Zealanders have discovered Golden Bay. It’s a real summer destination for many South Islanders and part of it forms the end of the Abel Tasman walk which is rammed with tourists but I don’t think a lot of them travel around the rest of the bay.

There are beautiful walks and deep fresh water springs and craft beer- at the Mussell Inn who must have been one of the first places in New Zealand to do craft beer, they’ve around for twenty eight years.

It’s always been a bit of a hippy place and there’s a lot of house-trucks and organic fruit growers and one beach which is always empty except for a few naked people from the commune down the road.

8. What about the people of the South Island - what defines them (if anything)?

I think the people are friendlier than in Auckland on the whole, nearly everyone says hello when I go for a run in Christchurch which doesn’t happen much here. There are differences between the West Coasters and the farmers and the city people. The Coasters have been bred from mining stock so I’d say they’re a tough lot and they’re quite patriotic about their wild part of the country. The farmers I’ve met are incredibly hard working, jovial sort of people who like a beer and maybe a more simple lifestyle. They share a dislike of cities in general but they help each other out and would help strangers too.

9. Where do you go to get a great meal? What do you order?

I had some great food in Arrowtown (near Queenstown) on a trip recently. The Blue Door is a tiny old bar leftover from the mining days with metre thick stone walls and leather armchairs and it’s slightly smokey from open fire. The restaurant next door makes the food and brings it over. I had a vegetarian gado-gado.

Christchurch is a bit harder for food at the moment because so many of the good places closed down after the earthquakes. There used to be a great little Burmese place called the Bodhi Tree but I think it’s gone now. I don’t go out for dinner much in Christchurch because my family are all into cooking and they’re really good at it.