A travel writer explores New Zealand through rugby, wine and wandering.
KA MATE is an in-depth exploration of New Zealand, a country that does not feature in very many travel memoirs. Coxon's journey takes him around the north and south islands of New Zealand, mostly by car and camper. He records his observations along the way, introducing the reader to a friendly country with a strange mix of Western and Pacific Island cultures and a fascinating history.
The three topics that attract Coxon's attention in this adventure are wine, rugby and the Maori people. He seems the most passionate about exploring the wineries, revealing an industry that has become increasingly important to the island nation. He also attended several rugby matches, giving a firsthand account of the mass enthusiasm that accompanies the sport in New Zealand. The Maori were more elusive, and although he relates their history most of his experiences with them were through choreographed attractions. New Zealand is also an extreme sports destination, and he describes his experiences with several of the adrenalin fueled activities.
Travel memoirs these days seem to fall into two categories: personal discovery and place discovery. Most of the travel books I've read lately fall into the personal discovery category, but this one is all about the place. At times I wanted to know more about the author and his motivations (which are very interesting if you read the interview below). However, if you enjoy travelogues that are focussed on comprehensive observations about the place then this book is for you.
Dan Coxon's website
I received a free copy of this ebook in exchange for an honest review. It is $3.99 for the Kindle edition.
When you travel do you focus on a specific aspect of a new place, such as the food, history or activities, or do you prefer to get a general survey?
Dan was kind enough to answer some questions about his book. I hope you find his responses as interesting as I did!
|I don't usually include book covers in my reviews,|
but this is the most striking one I've seen in a while.
My New Zealand trip was actually part of a larger journey, a year spent travelling around Asia and Australasia. I'd just reached that point in my life where I really had to either settle down to a full time job and raising a family, or go out there and explore the world. I basically spent a year doing the latter. Stops along the way included Tokyo, Hong Kong, Thailand, Australia, Fiji... and, of course, New Zealand. It's the kind of trip that many people do as a gap year, either before or after college, but I highly recommend doing it later in life. Not only do you appreciated what you're seeing a little more, but you have the money to really get out there and make the most of it too.
As for why New Zealand wound up being the subject of the book, it seemed to me that there wasn't much good, interesting material available on it - and it's a fascinating country. In particular the history of colonisation fascinated me, especially the way in which both the Maori and the Europeans were settlers on what was essentially a lonely rock in the middle of nowhere. I tried to get some of that history into KA MATE, without making it too dry or academic. History is always at its most interesting when it's still affecting the way we live today, and it seemed to me that this was definitely the case in New Zealand. The wonderful scenery and excellent wines may have influenced my decision too, though - and the sport! My wife and I are both rugby fans, and New Zealand has always been its spiritual home.
You spent some time doing touristy things and some time with local families. How did each experience influence your impressions of the country?
To be honest, the time spent with people who lived and worked there was much more illuminating than the time spent on the tourist trail. If you want to really get to know a country, then you have to talk to the people who call it home. They gave me some valuable insights into the political situation, as well as the current controversies over race and nationality. Plus they knew all the really great places to visit! My time enjoying the tourist diversions was fun too though, and much closer to many people's experience of New Zealand. I'd highly recommend trying the extreme sports, or caving in Waitomo, even if you're not normally that adventurous. And if you can't face throwing yourself off a mountain, there are always the wine regions!
What are some of your favorite travelogues or travel memoirs?
I should confess that I probably haven't read as many as I'd have liked recently. The travel literature industry seems to be in a state of flux right now, and publishers aren't always willing to take the chances that they might have a few years ago. Plus Bill Bryson's popularity has turned it into a genre dominated by humor, and that's not what interests me. I think humorous travel memoirs can be fun, but they also sometimes miss out on some wonderful opportunities to learn about other cultures, and to explore the lessons of history. The best travel literature manages to do all that, but it's something that's becoming increasingly rare.
Having said all that, I still love Rory MacLean's books - if you haven't had a chance to read them yet, you should. THE OATMEAL ARK was where I started, and I immediately wanted to read everything he's written! Colin Thubron is a master of the genre too, while Patrick Leigh Fermor's A TIME OF GIFTS deserves a much larger readership than it has.
How did you determine how much of yourself to put into your travel memoir?
It can be a tough balancing act. On the one hand, you want to create something that's unique to you, and that illuminates the country through your own observations and experiences. But on the other hand, you also want to convey some basic truths about the place you're visiting, and a sense of history and context. It's difficult to achieve at times, but I think that's part of what makes the travel memoir so intriguing. It's more than just a history book, or a cultural study - it tells a story, and draws heavily upon personal experience, so that the information almost sneaks in unnoticed. Hopefully I managed to keep that balance in KA MATE.
Do you have any advice for people who are interested in writing travel memoir?
There are two obvious bits of advice: travel, and write. I've met people who say that they want to be travel writers, but have barely set foot outside their back yard; and others who have travelled a lot, but never written a word. The same advice holds true for most writers: if you want to write, then make sure you write every day, even if it's only a little at a time. Make sure you read too, because it's the only way to keep improving. As for more specific advice, I'd also recommend keeping a daily diary or journal while you're on the road. Even if you don't have much time, or you're sleeping in cramped conditions, you can still hopefully find ten minutes to jot down your experiences and impressions from the day. Then, when you get back to your desk and start to write, you have to abandon the journal format and gradually craft it into something new.
What are your strongest lasting impressions of New Zealand since your trip? Have you been back since you took the trip for this book?
I haven't returned to New Zealand yet, although I'd have loved to - especially during the recent Rugby World Cup! I'm still in touch with some of the people I met out there, and it would be great to catch up with them again. But the honest truth is that travel is expensive, and if you're a struggling writer - especially a travel writer - it's hard to justify spending large amounts on visiting somewhere you've already been. If someone offered me a free flight I'd be there tomorrow, but in the real world it takes a little more planning. As for lasting impressions, those would definitely be the friendships I made, and the people I met. The scenery was amazing too, and the wine, and the open, carefree Kiwi spirit... but the friends will always come first.
Where are you going next?
I'm actually living in the USA right now (having spent the rest of my life in Britain), so every day is almost like being overseas! I've been here for four years, but I'm still discovering new things, meeting new people, and changing my view of both America and my home here in the Pacific Northwest. It's a culture that we're all used to seeing on TV and in the movies, but in reality this is still a foreign land to many of us. Maybe there's a book in that...
Thank you again for answering my questions Dan!