Singing the Trail: The Story of Mapping in Aotearoa New Zealand. Image: Supplied

Review: Singing the trail: The Story of Mapping in Aotearoa New Zealand

An illustrated history tells of the explorers and cartographers who first put our country “on the map”, even if it occasionally drops off the bottom right-hand corner.

Nō whea koe? It’s a simple enough question. Yet, as New Zealanders, it’s sometimes not so simple.
Even before questions of identity, it seems that, despite global satellite mapping, New Zealand’s location remains something of a mystery, as evidenced by the 77,000 members of the Reddit group r/MapsWithoutNZ, the 34,000 people on the Facebook group “Does New Zealand exist?” who have responded that they are 0% certain that it actually does, and Rhys Darby and Jacinda Ardern’s appearance in last year’s Tourism New Zealand campaign to #GetNZontheMap. It seems that, without maps, we’re nowhere.

In Singing the Trail: The Story of Mapping Aotearoa New Zealand, John McCrystal maps out how New Zealand came to find its place in our visual conception of the world, largely following a somewhat conventional New Zealand historical narrative starting with an acknowledgement of initial Māori habitation and the titular reference to waiata, mōteatea, and oriori, before moving through Tasman, Cook, the New Zealand Company, the New Zealand Wars, and raupatu, then a detour overseas to Gallipoli and other Anzac “Places in the Heart”; it’s a Pākehā-centric narrative, but that is almost inevitable with New Zealand’s physical cartographic history being what it is.

This handsome coffee-table book is equally suited for both thumbing and poring. While detailed, the text is free from intrusive endnotes and bibliographic references, taking on instead the light conversational air of an excited, chatty uncle, replete with puns — “Sealing the Deal” and “Scrutiny on the Bounty” as chapter headings for the fur-seal trade and charts of New Zealand’s natural resources — and dad-joke-tastic asides like “Spring Rice was not, as you might suppose, an exotic takeaway dish, but the Secretary of State for the Colonies in 1839”.

Alongside more familiar images, such as Crane’s 1886 Map of the British Empire and Tupaia’s map of the Pacific, there’s many a delightful surprise in McCrystal’s collection. While one might know Tasman originally dubbed Golden Bay Murderers Bay, it’s a different experience seeing it labelled not only as Mordenaer Baÿ but also Baia degli Assassini on a 17th-century Italian map, the very first to refer to this place as New Zealand (or, rather, Nuova Zealandia/Niew Zelandt).

Here in Auckland, one’s imagination is set alight by the fascinating plan for a “Trafalgar Circus” in the style of the Circus in Bath on what is now the Wellesley St offramp between AUT and the University of Auckland.

In the end, of course, books and maps can’t really answer for us that old question of where we come from or where we are. As McCrystal acknowledges alongside an image of New Zealand from space, “It’s a beautiful but also cold and inhuman perspective on our country. We don’t live this map ... Our lives are trails across this map, lines that only we can see completely ... [t]he place we were born, went to school; the places where we fell in love ... We can grasp this image in the same way we grasp the concept of our own deaths: it makes theoretical sense, but has limited existential meaning for us. New Zealand is the sum of the trails of New Zealanders, and the songs of those trails.”

Singing the Trail: The Story of Mapping Aotearoa New Zealand
John McCrystal
Allen & Unwin, $60

This piece originally appeared in the November-December 2019 issue of Metro magazine, with the headline 'Out of nowhere'.

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