This has always been my dream holiday: a long train journey during which I sit alone, talking to no one, simply watching out the window as the world passes me by. For several reasons (surprisingly expensive, what if it's actually bad and I hate it?) I haven't quite got around to it yet, and maybe now I don't have to. Thanks to the eternal generosity of television, there's now a way to get an approximate experience for free while slumped on my couch.
I'm talking about Go South, the three-hour special that screened on Prime last weekend, and is now available (along with the 12-hour Director's Cut) on their website. The premise was alluring, unusual: a scenic journey from Auckland to Milford Sound via road, sea and rail, all without a word of narration or a bar of music. Slow TV, New Zealand-style.
The niche genre originated in Norway, where classics like National Firewood Night and the seven-hour Train Ride Bergen to Oslo proved inexplicably successful (these titles, and more, can be found on Netflix). It's designed to be calming and contemplative, to relax and to soothe – in other words, to be the complete opposite to most other television.
As I began the voyage, I felt anything but calm; the main thing I found myself contemplating was how bad it is that New Zealand's prestige rail journey has to embark from that decrepit station out the back of Parnell with weeds growing on the platform. Other things that annoyed me: the train itself (not as long as I'd hoped), the on-screen graphics (bit difficult to read).
These are both aspects of Go South which have potential to alienate Slow TV purists. The fact that it's edited at all seems controversial: there are cameras at the front, back and above the vehicles, others pointing out the windows. Basically just cameras galore.
I'm in favour of all these different views, the more the merrier, but not sure about the graphics. Sometimes they were useful or interesting (maps, place names), other times it felt a bit like a well-meaning gent kept leaning over the back of my seat, intruding on the serenity with facts about transport corridors.
Hurtling towards the Whangaehu River Bridge, I found it extremely unrelaxing to read a caption saying how in 1953 it collapsed and 151 people died.
But by Tongariro National Park, less than half an hour into the three-hour version, most of these petty gripes and grievances began to give way to a rare feeling of contentment. Lulled by the low chug of the train's engine, soothed by the slowly evolving scenery, I was finally in the Slow TV zone. It was like a warm shower on a cold day: I never wanted to get out.
What a trip – maybe I should do the real thing one day. I looked up how much it would all cost during Go South's serene early morning Interislander crossing, added it up, factoring in the risk of it raining the whole time or there being rowdy tourists on my carriage...
Hmm. All things considered, this free TV version really does offer unbeatable value.