Ill-starred initiation to country

Associate Prof Peter Schwartz with his book, A NZ Odd-yssey or Hank's Revenge. Photo: Linda Robertson
Associate Prof Peter Schwartz with his book, A NZ Odd-yssey or Hank's Revenge. Photo: Linda Robertson
In 2003, US-born Associate  Prof Peter Schwartz, of the  University of Otago pathology department, won  the Prime Minister’s Supreme Award for tertiary teaching. 

After completing his medical studies in the United States in the 1960s, Prof Schwartz  took a university job in Australia and in 1967 made an ill-starred visit to New Zealand.  

Fifty years later, reporter John Gibb read a small book Prof Schwartz wrote about that trip, and spoke to him about his experiences.

Call it the trip where almost everything went wrong.

After completing his medical studies at Washington University in St Louis, Missouri, in the United States, in the 1960s, US-born Associate Prof Peter Schwartz had long hoped to work in New Zealand and particularly at the University of Otago, in Dunedin.

When no work in clinical biochemistry was initially available at Otago, he had been working at Monash University, in Melbourne, when he and his wife, Arleen, made their most extensive and ''eagerly-awaited'' trip to New Zealand in 1967.

They visited both North and South Islands and eventually reached Dunedin via Fiordland.

The story of everything that went wrong is charmingly captured in a 24-page book devoted to the trip, and published 15 years later in Dunedin, in 1982.

The title is A New Zealand 'Odd'-Yssey or Hank's Revenge, with the telling explanatory note: ''Being a brief account of a tour of New Zealand which amply confirms Murphy's Law: if anything CAN go wrong, it WILL''.

''When I think about everything that happened to us during that trip I'm a bit surprised that we ever decided to come back to New Zealand at all, let alone to live here,'' he said in the book.

Prof Schwartz had booked an extensive, self-selected itinerary through a branch of the New Zealand Government Tourist Bureau in Melbourne, but when he and his wife arrived at Auckland Airport, expecting to pick up their full tickets for the trip, it became apparent that tourism officials had booked his travel on the wrong day.

They eventually received their tickets, but the booking woes continued at their first touring stop - a lodge at Lake Okataina, about 30km from Rotorua - and beyond.

The lodge manageress informed them they were not expected until the next day; the lodge was fully booked and there was nowhere else to stay in the area.

But, in the end, a satisfactory bed was provided ''in the cellar of the lodge''.

They enjoyed their visit to the lake, and then flew south to Christchurch by DC3, before heading to the West Coast.

In Christchurch, Prof Schwartz had wanted to get a photograph of Christchurch Cathedral, and, after checking for traffic, stepped into the street.

But he had not realised a passing station wagon ''hadn't made it all the way past us''.

A high part at the ''very rear of the car caught the edge of my sunglasses''.

''There was a nasty, crunching, scraping sound and the fun began.''

The station wagon stopped, the driver came back to check and was concerned that the nose-piece of the sunglasses had been punched through the bridge of Prof Schwartz's nose, and ''blood was streaming from the wound and running down my face''.

The driver insisted on taking him to the emergency department at nearby Christchurch Hospital.

''So my wife and I next found ourselves in the car with this chap and his shell-shocked-looking wife, speeding to the hospital, while I tried not to bleed on the upholstery.''

Prof Schwartz was pretty sure his nose was broken, but assured the hospital doctor it was all right, because he was keen to catch the bus.

After the nose injury, and another booking mix-up in which he had been booked for a non-existent bus, he and his wife narrowly missed the 10am railcar to the West Coast.

''At this point, the difference between being in a small, friendly, accommodating country like New Zealand and a larger, more impersonal one, where the machine must go on regardless, became obvious.''

In the United States, the outcome could well have been different, but in Christchurch, the Road Services traffic manager simply told them not to worry, picked up the telephone and arranged with Rail Traffic Control to hold the railcar at Rolleston until they could be driven there.

And they were driven to Rolleston by the helpful station wagon driver.

When Prof Schwartz and his wife reached Milford Sound, they had a tough encounter with sandflies, and were stranded at a hotel by highway slips for three days.

But while some of the tourists there, including some of his American compatriots, became increasingly frustrated and blamed the management for their predicament, Prof Schwartz continued to enjoy the trip and took the situation in his stride.

''Those of us with more sense felt truly sorry for the management and staff, who were doing a superb job in very adverse conditions.''

Perhaps the biggest question to be asked about Prof Schwartz's early visit to New Zealand was why, after all that, he remained keen to live in New Zealand.

To read his delightful little book is to realise that he travelled not only hopefully, but also with compassion and good humour, and with an enjoyment of being in a smaller, scenic and friendly place.

And they ''liked New Zealand so much'' they have continued to live here since 1971.


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