Palmerston North, New Zealand
John Cleese thought so little of Palmerston North that he suggested in 2005 “If you wish to kill yourself but lack the courage to, I think a visit to Palmerston North will do the trick.”. The theatre was apparently also a “nasty shape” – looked like one of his ex wives, presumably. The city responded by naming a rubbish dump after him.
I think on balance I’m on Cleese’s side. The place seemed bright enough in the sun that lasted long enough for me to walk from the bus to the hostel on Sunday, and long enough to convince me the weather was better here, 2 hours North of Wellington, than it had been in the drizzly capital. But the drizzle caught up with me, and without sunshine there isn’t much going on. Plenty of artsy places, cafes and educational establishments, but also plenty of concrete blocks, empty lots and unlovely gaps in between them that make it hard to find where the life is after hours. I suspect it just isn’t there.
That said, there is plenty of great scenery in the vicinity. Massey University is a long walk out of town, over the river, and set it glorious grounds which seemed to befit an agricultural university. Though agriculture is about growing and rearing things rather than fabulous parks but, you know, poetic licence. On Sunday evening I walked down Fitzherbert Street, passing motel after motel, so many that it seemed the town would never be short of a room to stay in even if every occupant had a guest to put up. Over the river and a hill loomed in front of me; from the map, the university was either up there or behind it, but I was cut off from it by a main road and fencing. To the right, cows of several varieties looked curiously as I passed – part of the university dairy. After another kilometre or so, though, a path to a park opened up on the left, and suddenly the view was all rainforest rather than roads and potential green pathways. Pausing to allow the two girls walking up ahead to get out of the ‘I’m stalking you’ box I had virtually lit up ahead of me, I realised I was on the Te Araroa route, not for the first time. Known as ‘The Long Pathway’, it stretches all the way from Cape Reinga on the Northern tip of the North Island to Bluff in the South.
At least I’ve walked parts of it. I stumbled upon the university and found it deserted. Exploring the centre, with its institutional buildings and tiny lake, I didn’t see another living soul, and only found anyone around when I passed the sports centre on the outskirts. No one was using the rugby pitches, but inside they were playing table tennis. Convinced that I might like to work here, dealing with students who had chosen between this or England’s Canterbury as the most boring places for 18 year olds, I wandered past the equestrian centre – curious horses, no people – to the Manawatu community athletics track. It was deserted, but with decent facilities, space for javelin, hammer, discus, shot and some sign that those areas were used, if only for the varying events covered in three Pentathlon events the Harriers club runs. Changing rooms are round the back of a large structure, which has large garage doors opening on to the track. Room for an awful lot of equipment in there.
I decided not to retrace my steps as I was now much nearer the South exit than the North where I had come in, and headed towards the main road. A little time walking on the verge was rewarded by finding the Turitea walkway, beautifully maintained even if a stretching-then-driving-off jogger was the only sign of it being used on a quiet Sunday. The path skirting the university is undulating and picturesque, particularly on this day at sunset, with dramatic colours appearing over the trees. Fantastic. I turned back onto the main road when the sun had died off enough to make it a bit dark in a part of the walkway with tree cover and was back in town too late to use the hostel kitchen, stopping instead at the Burger King I had really wanted all day.
The hostel owner had recommended a walk along the river, so I had that saved for the Monday. In the event the day was drizzly, so I passed the morning in the library. It’s an interesting building, built into an old department store, and with creative use of the space; a large open area right at the bottom holds chairs and a piano, upstairs has reception, the internet cafe and newspapers and then books are upstairs on a pleasingly crowded room, while the central area is left open above escalators and stairs, reminding me of the void in the middle of the Edward Boyle at Leeds, if less rectangular. I had thought it brightened up, but I emerged to rain and hit the Rugby museum, which is one of several museum sections within the Te Manawa museum complex. The rugby part is just a large room, really, but the guide was incredibly welcoming (“Nice to see you”, as if I were an old friend) and the exhibits laid out with love and care, if not always perfect English. All Black successes are venerated, the world cups they didn’t win not given quite so much importance, though one cabinet does have in black and white that they played like champions after their first Cup win (1991) …until the next World Cup.
Worth a visit if you’re a fan. With drizzle continuing, I opted to run out West of the city, gradually working my way towards the river, through the suburbs. I figured I was lost at one point but then came across the racecourse, which is a few miles out. Looping it, I found no river access until I’d come back towards the city, but the start of the Manawatu river navigation is almost in line with the city-side edge of the racecourse so I hadn’t missed anything and ended up with nearly 22km run. Perfect to ensure my calf was tight and painful for a physio appointment the next day.
Reading: Nick Hornby, A Long Way Down