Sonic Travel: South Island, NZ – part 1

Nathan, who hosts the excellent Noise Jockey blog DM’d me on twitter the other day to say he is spending 3 weeks in New Zealand’s South Island & did I have any reccomendations as to essential recording locations? I sure as hell do!!! And voice them I shall, but any locals reading this feel free to add your own favorites….

So first something that isn’t maybe immediately apparent about New Zealand is that its a small country. Sure there aren’t many people living here, especially if you ignore Auckland (like most of the South Island prefer to) but more specifically its a physically small country – you can drive from the East coast to the West Coast in maybe five or six hours, and from the top of each island to the bottom in ten hours. What I’m saying is you can see a lot of country in a small amount of time, but (and its not a small but) not if you want to stop every half hour to take photos & record sounds…. suddenly an easy 8 hour trip turns into an 11 hour mission! Plan accordingly… but its food for thought – having transport & being independent makes NZ a different place to visit than for the poor people who buy into the bus trip version of NZ tourism…. I’ve heard horror stories of people who spend most of the day asleep on the bus missing the scenery because they had to have their bags packed by 6.30am etc…. Iggy says it best & accordingly I cheer every time I pass a free ranging campervan of tourists off on a mission exploring…. hint: you can probably circum-navigate the whole South Island in 2-4 weeks & see a lot of amazing territory that no bus will every go near…

Another aspect of NZ that will be foreign to some people is that NZ is an island nation – almost everyone lives within sight or at worst a few hours drive from the sea. But OMG how that sea changes!!!! What on one coast is an idyllic summer swimming beach, on another coast will drown people within the blink of an eye, regardless of how good a swimmer you might think you are…. Be warned!

I would say the two sonic aspects of NZ that are the most beautiful to experience are the sea & the wildlife. So rather than try & generalise I’ll instead give you some specifics of the places in the South island I most rate (& its based on equal amounts of growing up in the South & also going through the same process, of how to show my GF the best parts of the South Island in less than a week, while she was over from Osaka on holiday last year) But rather than try & write the ultimate post all in one hit, I’ll do it as a series, starting with the most important….

1. BEST SONIC SITE in the South Island? PUNIKAIKI (pronc: Poon – a – kai – key)
What makes Punikaiki, or Pancake Rocks as they are known, so great is the blowholes. Go there on a lame day (flat sea, tides out) and they are ‘just’ scenically stunning, but go there during a storm when the tides in & you will fear for your life! For this reason it is pointless to go there for a quick visit, you need to go & stay there for a night or two. You also need to find out about the tides when you arrive & visit a few times. Luckily there are a few places to stay right near there, so you can check in, unpack, relax & walk to Pancake Rock at any time of the day or night… A good example; I did a road trip with two friends half a decade ago, spent a week in the general area but stayed one night at a cheap-ish motel nearby. We all visited Pancake Rocks late afternoon & nothing much was happening. Went back to the motel, had dinner, drinks… more drinks…. one of us passes out, it gets to midnight, full moon, theres a storm brewing…. me & the other conscious traveller wander off to Pancake Rocks & far out! I have never experienced anything like it! Let me explain….
During the day its touristy; buses stop, tourists get out & follow the well marked track to the Blowholes. But at night, the track is still clear & safe… If you are lucky a daytime visit will coincide with serious wave action but if it doesnt, revisit at night! (hint: bring a torch!) As we got within 300m of the sea we started to hear a very subby erratic pounding, once every 20 or 30 seconds…. slowly we got closer to it… Now every time the sub booms we also heard flax moving… We slowly came to a fenced off area which was an air vent to one of the blowholes – the sea is crashing in 300m away & forcing air into tunnels, which vent beside the track… AWESOME!!! We kept following the track & eventually come to an open area where the sea is 200m below, but there are bridges & a fenced in track across the rocks… & now the sea is crashing into contained spaces & sending spray 20m into the air above… time to put a jacket on & protect your mics! This is the kind of sea where, were you to fall in I’d suspect you’d only survive 5 minutes or so…. heres a few photos:





And a few recordings I’ve made there back in the day, using my dear old steam powered Tascam DAP1 DAT machine & a pair of 416 mics…

First, the wind coming out of a blowhole (you hear a sub hit of the wave impacting, then the air travels down the tunnels & exits by where I’m recording)

The waves impacting & sending spray flying:

Waves in the inlets:

The rumble of the sea pounding the rocks:

In terms of where it is, Punakaiki is about 45 minutes drive north of Greymouth. If you are arriving directly into NZ via the South Island then you will be flying into Christchurch airport. So presuming you are driving it would be maybe 4 or 5 hours drive from Christchurch on the East Coast across the Southern Alps to the West Coast to Greymouth….

The road from Christchurch to Greymouth is a dramatic road to drive (& equally the train ride is rated as one of the best in Australiasia) – it used to be arduous & slow but thanks to some serious engineering its now mostly breath taking… Heres a few photos taken on the trip across the Alps:




Heres a link to info and places to stay – budget will dictate what suits best, with a couple of drinking buddies we stayed somewhere cheap & cheerful, which was fine… with my GF we stayed in the Eco Resort which was very beautiful & comparatively expensive….

Heres what the blowholes don’t sound like:

Also while on the West Coast, definitely aim to try some whitebait – a tasty seafood that looks a bit like worms & is usually eaten in a patty…. delicious!!

Nobody Dies

A friend/fellow sound editor & I were discussing the other day about how pleasant it is to be working on a film where nobody dies. Its funny that having worked in the film industry for a dozen years or more I’ve never really thought about it, but when I go through all the films that I have worked on probably three quarters of them involve people dieing… Why is death such a common narrative device in film?

Of course someone has tracked the body count in films over the years, and the current ‘winner’?

1. LotR: Return of the King: 836
2. Kingdom of Heaven: 610
3. 300: 600
4. Troy: 572
5. The Last Samurai: 558

I’m stating the obvious, but its not about size: one virtual death that you really care about & have emotionally invested in, will always have far more impact than a whole army of CG characters…. But wait; theres a website for that as well: Best Deaths in Film although in a way I don’t think art is any substitute for the real thing; there are any number of sites listing famous last words – a few I enjoyed (although somehow that doesn’t feel like the right word)

“I must go in, the fog is rising.”
Emily Dickinson, died 1886, a poet

“I see black light.”
Victor Hugo, died May 22, 1885, a writer

“Codeine . . . bourbon.”
Tallulah Bankhead, died December 12, 1968, an actress who had such power as to have Marlon Brando fired from a film for rejecting her advances!

One film I love where death features large is Jim Jarmuschs Ghost Dog, eg this scene:

And one final thought about death – I don’t remember where I found it online, it was literally years ago, but this gravestone has the most beautiful inscription I have ever read.
Update – the inscription is from a poem by Mary Elizabeth Frye

Why is death such a common narrative device in film?

Automatic Glassware

Automatic Glassware from Jesse Stiles on Vimeo.

“Automatic Glassware” is an electronic installation work by Jesse Stiles, consisting of hundreds of autonomous light and sound generators that collectively produce an evolving field of audiovisual polyrhythms. Inside glass jars a simple circuit fires an led and actuator at one of three musical intervals. As time passes and batteries slowly die, the individual generators align and drift from their neighboring generators creating semi-random shapes of light and sound that course throughout the installation.