Singing the Trail – book review

The Story of Mapping Aotearoa New Zealand, by John McCrystal

Singing the trail by John McCrystal

I think this is the nicest book anyone has ever given me. Thanks Davie. GOD! I love old maps and here, for the first time, is a whole, beautiful book of them. They’re not of the ancient European world, either. These are New Zealand maps and they tell our (mostly colonial) history through the contemporaneous pens of the early cartographers. I love all the cartographers, too.

John McCrystal must have had a wonderful time rummaging around the archives. I’m so glad he did. I’ve been digging around old maps for years looking for stories; to find this collection is a bit overwhelming. McCrystal has unearthed such treasures and made these extraordinary resources accessible. Some of the maps are old friends, newly annotated, some are rare finds. You could spark a million stories from Singing the Trail.

The collection’s range of maps is wide. It includes the 1793 parochial sketch of New Zealand drawn by the abducted Tuki, and Tupaia’s 1770 map of the Pacific. Pre-dating these, McCrystal explains how maps were kept in stories. Walter Mantell produced ‘kōrero maps’ of tangata whenua in Southland and others, directed by Te Wharekorari, show places along the Waitaki river and the time it took to walk between them.

This kind of knowledge would have been transmitted from one person to another much as it was to Mantell, in a recitation of the place names, the ‘singing of the trail’.

There are single interest maps: of mineral resources, forestry (we had a conservator of forests as early as 1872), native lands, wrecks and lighthouses. There are maps that show our place in the world and maps of NZ abroad, in the Dardenelles, Gallapoli, Le Quesnoy.

The detail in all of these maps is lovely. An 1837 sketched chart of Ahuriri by the skipper of a passing ship includes, as well as water depths and notes on ship manoeuvers, a detailed drawing of the pā on an island in the lagoon like an illustration from a picture book. In the 1841 plan for Wanganui, surveyor Carrington seems to have reserved many prime acres for himself, with the Church Society getting a good chunk, and if you look closely (I did use a magnifying glass), Mr Wicksteed, agent to the New Zealand Company, also picks up many acres of choice land. An unknown soldier draws his scouting track around Gate Pā in 1864, bloodily red crossed swords showing the fighting.

Plenty of maps show the early plans or maps of New Zealand towns, some very optimistically, like the hilarious one of Wellington where some noddy in England sent the surveyors out with basically a map of London to recreate over Wellington’s hills. Matthew’s plan of Auckland in 1841 includes ‘Trafalgar Circus’ in what became Albert park. “It would have been a circus all right,” comments McCrystal. I’ve never met Mr McCrystal, but he sounds like a man with a wry humour.

The text accompanying the maps is very accessible and offers neat snippets of information around the time, place and people concerned with the map.  Each section of the book, which is roughly divided into chunks of time, also has background text to put the era in context. This isn’t a geography or history textbook, but absolutely the best introduction to both disciplines.

Reading history while looking at old maps makes it come alive. Tuckett’s Plan of Nelson, 1842, for example, includes the explanation that William Wakefield directed surveyor Tuckett to lay out the town where he was told, despite Tuckett’s objections that there was little flat land for the vexing ‘country’ plots to go with the ‘town’ plots. The pretty ink-and-wash plan is the result, though McCrystal remarks that Tuckett’s search for country plots ended in the Wairau Valley where he was confronted with Te Rauparaha and Ngati Toa “although Tuckett kept himself well out of the confrontation out of religious conviction”. Through maps, we open the door to history. I can imagine how much more interesting school would be if geography and history were combined and based on this book. Though it does need an index!

Singing the Trail has place, time and people; is gracefully written and the maps are reproduced to exceptional quality. They are extraordinary records of a pioneering time.  I absolutely adore this book.

Below are some little thumbnail teasers. Go to your bookshop for their full glory. Singing the trail MAPS





Author: Cristina Sanders Blog

Novelist, trail runner, book reviewer and blogger.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: