Go NZ: A detour through Dunedin's literary past

NZ Herald
By Mary de Ruyter
Not for sale

Gather round, readers, and let me tell you a story about Dunedin. Actually, would you rather hear one by Janet Frame? Hone Tuwhare? Perhaps Laurence Fearnley?

James K Baxter had some choice words to say about the University of Otago in 1967, when it made the misguided (and short-lived) decision to ban mixed flatting. Baxter was the university's Robert Burns Fellow at the time, and promptly bit the hand that was feeding him by writing A Small Ode On Mixed Flatting.

One sunny afternoon I stand on Castle St, in the heart of the university. It's all paved streets, grand brick buildings and immaculately restored villas – light-years away from the cold student flats and battered sofas evoked by Baxter's poems, read aloud through the dtour app.

Villas on Dunedin's Castle Street. Photo / Mary de Ruyter
Villas on Dunedin's Castle Street. Photo / Mary de Ruyter

Launched in December 2018, dtour was developed by Dunedin Unesco City of Literature and the University of Otago's department of English and linguistics. The app helps people explore Dunedin and its literary culture through the work of Kiwi writers who have lived in or written about the city.

It covers well-known tourist spots – the Octagon, museums, Otago Peninsula, St Clair Beach – and many less-obvious locations (a creek, a foodcourt, suburban streets). All are brought alive by an entertaining mix of stories, history and flights of imagination. It doesn't matter if you aren't an avid reader: curious travellers will find much to enjoy in it too.

There's Fiona Farrell writing in The Broken Book about Baldwin St, describing the stream of tourists up and down the street from a resident's viewpoint. Musician and poet Bill Direen on the streets of Port Chalmers; Archibald Baxter on his protest against conscription at the Kensington Army Barracks. J.C. Sturm, Keri Hulme, Bill Manhire, Emma Neale and many more.

Up on Maori Hill, with its elegant homes nestled among the green belt, Witi Ihimaera wrote in 1975 to a friend: "Greetings… from the only Māori on Maori Hill." Joking aside, the app goes on to explain that some of the suburb's stone embankments were built by Māori prisoners, transported from Parihaka in the 1860s after peacefully protesting against land confiscation. History sitting in plain sight, yet easy to miss if you don't know what to look for.

Zipping around the city to dtour locations on an e-bike, as I did, is like a treasure hunt with minimal exertion. You can cover a satisfying amount of ground with whizzing, gliding ease, and cycling connects you to the city in a way that driving can't.

Ebikes are a useful and fun way to see the sites of Dunedin, on a tour inspired by the city's literary past. Photo / Mary de Ruyter
Ebikes are a useful and fun way to see the sites of Dunedin, on a tour inspired by the city's literary past. Photo / Mary de Ruyter

A Janet Frame excerpt lures you to the university library's top floor, for views across Dunedin. At Dunedin Public Library, home to the Alfred and Isabel Reed Collection, you hear how publisher and long-distance walker A.H. Reed "ascribed his long life and fitness to clean living, cold showers and plain food". It did the trick – he walked the length of New Zealand at the age of 85, and died at 99.

The app introduces you to places you wouldn't think of visiting, and writers you may not have heard of. I discover Peter Olds and his 2011 poem Under the Dundas Street Bridge.

"They can't see how cosy we can be/with just a fire, our faggots of sticks, our sandwiches/our coffee cups and books. They don't know we/have candles and blankets and problems with the/doormat like everyone else."

At the southern entrance to the Botanic Gardens, beside the Water of Leith (a small river named for its Edinburgh equivalent), crime writer Vanda Symon kicks off her novel The Ringmaster by leaving a dead university student by the water for trainee detective Sam Shephard to puzzle over. It's an absurdly picturesque place, and Symon cleverly contrasts this serenity with the story's fictional violence.

"Today the site seemed innocent, even cheerful, with sunlight glinting off the water's surface and the soft murmuring of the Water of Leigh. The exuberant warbles of a bellbird, which would on any other day elicit a smile, seemed to add to the injustice."

Dunedin's Water of Leith. Photo / Mary de Ruyter
Dunedin's Water of Leith. Photo / Mary de Ruyter

You can read dtour's stories in English and Māori, or listen to voiceovers by Dougal Stevenson, local poet Sue Wootton and other voice actors. There's something quite calming about being read to. A throwback to childhood, perhaps, or that it sidesteps the need to stare at a screen yet again. Far nicer to gaze around, imagining the scenes these writers describe.

The next morning, perched on a balcony looking over slate roofs to the sea, I listen to Vincent O'Sullivan. "The sky declares its blueness, the sea / completes it, darkly," he wrote in the poem And so it is.

Just as the sky, declaring its greyness that morning, is completed by the sea, Dunedin's past completes its present. What sets this city apart is its visible mix of stories and places, old and new. Far too many to discover in one trip – but it's worth a try.


Air New Zealand and Jetstar fly direct from Auckland to Dunedin.

Magnum Peak e-bikes are available to hire from Electrify NZ Dunedin. electrify.nz/dunedin