Tranquil at world's end
There are occasions in the life of a travelling journalist when the novelty of a new destination socks you clean between the eyes. The fearsome Punjabi heat bubbling up from the tarmac of Lahore airport, for instance, or the seething mass of humanity in the arrivals hall in Dhaka. The last-ditch swoop across the sand and hills of Antigua, or the throb of minibus-taxis lining up to whisk you away in Johannesburg. Despite the ease and ubiquity of long-haul flights, these are the culture-shock moments that underline just how far you've travelled from the life you've left home.
But then, at the furthest extremity of the globe, there's Dunedin - a one-town confirmation that the more things change, the more they stay exactly the same.
The memories of my visit are mostly hazy, drizzly, grey, and yet discombobulatingly familiar. I arrived in a crumpled, jet-lagged heap in February 2008 after a journey of ever-decreasing distances, like a skimming stone running out of steam on its voyage across a millpond. My fling into the unknown took me from Heathrow to Singapore, from Singapore to Sydney, from Sydney to Auckland, and ultimately from Auckland to Dunedin, a destination from which only albatrosses head further east with anything resembling conviction.
It's the end of the world as we know it, for maps alone cannot do justice to the remoteness of New Zealand's south-easternmost city. Before I'd ever set foot in the Land of the Long White Cloud, I'd been aware, thanks to the joys of overnight coverage of England's tour in 2002, of its otherworldly time zone. In an era when so many sports bend their schedules to fit TV audiences, Test matches in New Zealand still begin at 9.30pm GMT and end before dawn, turning anyone who attempts to pay attention into the sort of lopsided zombie that no Ashes series has yet managed to replicate.
That sense of dislocation was especially acute in 2008, for reasons cricketing as well as geographical. England's tour coincided with the formative months of the Indian Premier League, and if Michael Vaughan's men were finding it hard to focus on the challenge of a three-day warm-up against a Major Association XI, Dunedin's time-warp attractions - including the gloriously bucolic University Oval - exacerbated that sense that the real world was an event taking place in another dimension.
But as England discovered in what turned out to be a thrilling tour, at moments such as these there's no option but to go with the flow, and in New Zealand that flow tends to be little more than a trickle (unless, of course, you venture into South Island's interior for a spot of white-water rafting). With its rich Scottish heritage and sense of unruffled purpose, Dunedin is not a city that has felt obliged to move with the times. The Victorian flourish with which it was founded in the 1840s remains its cultural touchstone, from the resplendent turrets of the University of Otago to the Edinburgh-inspired Octagon, with its statue of Robbie Burns in the centre.
The city's Scottish heritage is plain for all to see, down to the climatic similarities. After leading the charge across the globe during Britain's days of Empire, it is fitting that their final port of call turned out to be a land as temperate as the one they left long behind. Dunedin's name even derives from the Gaelic for Edinburgh, and was conferred on the settlement by Scottish writer William Chambers in a letter to the New Zealand Journal in 1843. With admirable foresight, he guarded his ex-compatriots against their preferred name of "New Edinburgh", branding the proliferation of such "New towns" in the Americas as an "utter abomination".
Might New Edinburgh have gone the way of New York but for Chambers' intervention? Er, probably not. But nominative determinism is a powerful thing. As many other Antipodean cities have demonstrated, once you develop that modernist taste for steel and glass CBDs, there's no looking back.
With that in mind, it is in the sporting scene that Dunedin's most dramatic revamp has occurred in recent years, with the construction of the formidable Forsyth Barr stadium in time for the Rugby World Cup in 2011. Known as the "Glasshouse" for its all-encompassing glass exoskeleton, this futuristic project replaced the former home of Otago rugby, the legendary "House of Pain" in downtown Carisbrook. There, the raucous student population, often inclement weather and a near impregnable All Black Test record combined to give visiting teams a taste of a hell frozen over.
The cricket scene, suffice to say, is somewhat removed from such extremes of passion but when the sun shines (and that happens more often than one might assume), the city's charms are distilled into the Oval's grassy banks and laid-back attitude.
New Zealand is one of the few nations on earth that continues to recognise the distinction between a cricket ground and a stadium. Dunedin's University Oval offers room to roam: space to spread out one's rug and doze between overs, to conduct your own games of cricket on the concourse or just wander unhindered around the perimeter. The mixture of families, students and curious visitors that make up the ground's average attendance add to the sense that this is a venue that is good for the game's soul.
Some visitors might find Dunedin too sleepy, particularly when term-time is over and the students have vacated the premises. The allure of the world's most southerly stretch of motorway, or Baldwin Street, the world's steepest residential road, or Larnach, New Zealand's only castle, may be too quaint for some. For others, though, it will come as a comfort to know that the land at the end of the rainbow is among the most tranquil in the world.
Andrew Miller is a former editor of the Cricketer