Stop the clock

​Is Te Anau ahead of its time?

IN SEPTEMBER OF 2021, A MEDIA FURORE ERUPTED AROUND THE TOWN OF TE ANAU. SEEMS THE PLACE HAD ANNOUNCED THEY WOULD NOT BE JOINING THE REST OF THE COUNTRY IN TURNING THEIR CLOCKS BACK THE FOLLOWING APRIL. TE ANAU WAS MOVING TO DAYLIGHT SAVING TIME FOR GOOD.

One of these things is not like the other. Te Anau pops against Auckland’s early-evening darkness.

​The response was immediate, and polarising. It ranged from slightly baffled to delighted to confused. Who the hell did Te Anau think they were? How would the logistics even work? And what time is it, exactly, down there?The same time as it is in Auckland, actually.

The whole thing was a hoax, dreamed up and executed by the strategic team at the Great South Regional Development Agency, which manages Southland’s regional tourism organisations. “The media were here on the doorstep interviewing people within seventy-two hours,” says Visit Fiordland Tourism and Marketing Executive Gemma Heaney, who was understandably thrilled with the press response, especially the much-coveted exposure on prime-time television.

But it’s the spreading of the sentiment behind the fake news that’s been of real and lasting value: the idea of “Te Anau time”. As Gemma explains, “it’s about giving people the message to slow down and spend some time here, highlighting Te Anau as the basecamp for Fiordland.” The stunt was a clever way to get the idea across that there’s so much to do in Te Anau, you’ll need an extra hour of daylight to cram it all in. And then some. Instead of charging through from Queenstown to Milford Sound, Te Anau asks, maybe pause to enjoy the lingering light, soul-searing views and abundance of nature. You know, take your time.

What’s on offer in Te Anau? Where to start. It’s much more than a coffee stop. The Kepler Track, one of Fiordland’s Great Walks, starts on the edge of town, and there’s a lively community market, foodie and arts scene. Its cinema is home to Ata Whenua: Shadowland, a short film shot entirely by helicopter, an ode to the rugged wilderness of the national park next door. There are scenic flights, glow worm caves, guided hikes, lake cruises and more. Neighbouring Manapōuri boasts the deepest lake on the South Island as well as Ruth Shaw’s famous Two Wee Bookshops, as documented in the bestselling The Bookseller at the End of the World. Also, there are takahē.

The “Te Anau time” message sure stuck. Te Anau townsfolk venturing to other parts of the country still face a barrage of questions upon revealing where they’ve come from. Is it true? Are you guys serious? Have you actually turned the clocks back, though? Show me your watch!

The tongue-in-cheek tricksters at Great South were rewarded by the industry too. The campaign won a Design & Art Direction Wood Pencil (an award called a “career knighthood” by one marketing insider) for Creative Use of Budget and was a finalist in the Designers Institute of New Zealand Best Design Awards, the international MAD STARS awards (they’re a festival of Marketing Advertising and Digital content – see what they did there?) and the TVNZ Marketing Awards.

Te Anau isn’t the first place to march, or ostensibly march, to the tick of its own clock. Take Saint Pierre and Miquelon, an archipelago off the Newfoundland coastline. Though only twenty-five kilometres away from the Canadian mainland, hopping over the water to the islands requires you not only to change currency (it’s actually part of France), but also to set your watch half an hour forward – this despite travelling West – making it the first place in North America to ring in the New Year.

Did we say takahē? Yes we did. PHOTO: Sara Litchfield

​Closer to home, more than one person has been caught out crossing the New South Wales- Queensland border in Australia. It’s worth checking the time with a local on arrival before dipping into what you think is a bar’s happy hour, only to be reminded when you get the bill that Queensland doesn’t observe daylight saving and you’re an hour and more than a few dollars out. Even worse, the runway of the Gold Coast Airport is bisected by the border between the two states, technically meaning that you taxi away from the terminal in one time zone and take off in another. Rather sensibly, the airport has elected to stick to one time, Queensland’s.

In China, everyone in the country operates on the same time, despite the fact that it technically crosses five time zones. Which seems differently messy. It’s almost like time is a construct in service of the organisation of life. Which, of course, it is. The point of daylight saving time was originally to maximise the hours of sunlight. It was, in fact, first introduced during World War I in order to save power and fuel by extending the day’s natural illumination, and it was brought back in for a rerun during World War II as “war time”.

If success means having the most sunlight hours in the day, here again Te Anau is winning at life; thanks to its location south of the 45th parallel, its days are longer, by about an hour, than its neighbours in the far north of Aotearoa. The “Te Anau time” billboards in Auckland play on this, emphasising the stark difference between a dark 7pm stuck in city traffic and a golden-hour cruise on Lake Te Anau’s sparkling waters.

So, while the clocks and watches of Te Anau are not actually always on “summer time”, they kind of are. What time is it in Te Anau? Who cares.

SARA LITCHFIELD