NEW ZEALAND, MAY 2010
This trip took place just a few months before the earthquake that destroyed much of Christchurch in February 2011.
Wellington, New Zealand, is one of the windiest cities anywhere, and to get an idea of the experience of landing there, type “scary landings Wellington” into YouTube. Our Friday night arrival in May 2010 wasn’t quite as sideways, but you definitely knew when you hit the ground. The catering on the Air New Zealand flight from Sydney over the Ditch (Tasman Sea) into Windy Welly was interesting – a beef pie. Only later did I realise that the pie, in all its many guises, is a central part of the Kiwi cuisine (kwisine?), even if it sat a little heavy on a three hour flight.
I always like any trip to be a bit of a quest, and on this trip my quest was not pies: it was to find the mythical hokey pokey.
Wellington is the Kiwi capital but is hardly the most rip-roaring of places. Top treat is a gentle ride on a funicular railway to the Botanic Gardens that overlook the city.
Neither is it an architecture Mecca. The annex to the national parliament building is a modern structure known locally as The Beehive. It was the last major commission for Sir Basil Spence (who designed Coventry Cathedral) and divides opinion. Many people love it, but to me it looks like the wooden spoon entry in some competition to design a civic centre in North Korea.
However, Wellington has one absolute gem, and that is Te Papa, the national museum – set in a beautiful modern building right on the harbour side. Among its many treats it tells you all about volcanoes, earthquakes and extreme weather and makes you realise New Zealand is still a rapidly evolving land. There is even an earthquake simulator you can stand in, a bungalow that shakes while books and vases fly off the shelves every five minutes.
We took the ferry for the three hour trip from the North Island to the South Island via the Cook Strait, the latter part of which involves quite a large ship forging full steam ahead through an alarmingly narrow channel to the little town of Picton.
The ferry was called the ‘Kaitaki’, but through the new paintwork it was easy to see that it had a previous career as ‘The Pride of Cherbourg’, plying the English Channel – a fact reinforced by the pictures of Paris cafes dotted about the ship along with photographs of huge waves dashing against remote Brittany lighthouses.
Can you imagine what an exciting trip it would be to take a cross channel car ferry half way round the world? I wonder if anyone’s ever thought of claiming the fastest circumnavigation of the world in one? That’s got to be an idea for a reality TV show.
Awe-inspiring, astounding, astonishing, amazing – New Zealand’s South Island is a land of superlatives, and that’s just some of the A’s. From picking up the car onwards, every mile included surroundings that even the most passionate advocate of Scotland or the Lake District would have to concede are in a different class.
To come to terms with this magnificence our first stop was in the wine region of the north east, where a little tasting and a decent lunch outdoors put us at ease. The distances we had to cover were huge. Picton to Greymouth 220 miles; Greymouth to Queenstown 330 miles; and so on.
The roads are all single carriageway, with a 100 km/h speed limit and very little traffic (at least in May, i.e. late autumn). Bridges tend to be single track affairs, the most extreme example of which involved sharing the narrow roadway with a main railway line. Arrangements for giving way to the train seemed decidedly casual – i.e. look round.
As we worked our way south we stayed in or passed through a number of little towns and villages on the west coast with tidy bungalows that seemed to explore every possible variation of the pre-fab, since few looked like they were built from scratch on site. People who went to the South Island a few years ago told me they found it quite poor, but my impression was that – although it’s hardly millionaires’ row – most people don’t seem too badly off as long as they like living miles from anywhere.
The towns are all grid-like in plan, and buildings seem to have been put up, done up or torn down in a pretty haphazard way, with streets often resembling rows of broken teeth.
A good example is Hokitika. We pulled in for breakfast and headed for the implausibly named Cafe de Paris, which it turned out had been there for a hundred years. I thought the crepes with coffee would be an appropriate choice. What arrived were two hefty pancakes, a decent dollop of maple syrup, six rashers of bacon and a massive chopped banana. I could scarcely stand afterwards and had to walk round the town centre twice to shake it all down.
In the course of these perambulations we fell upon ‘Sock World’, a charming little shop specialising in the sale of socks. The lady there took me round her extensive collection of hand operated sock knitting machines (about forty of them). Alongside the construction of massive steam locomotives and dynamos, I had not realised until then that in the early twentieth century Manchester was the hub of the world hand-operated sock knitting machine industry. My chest swelled with pride.
Further down the west coast we pulled over to catch a view of Mount Cook and noticed a helicopter parked in a field. With the kind of bravado that only occurs on holidays, ten minutes later we were enjoying a breath-taking flight over Mount Cook and the great Fox and Franz Josef glaciers that flow from the high snowfields of the Southern Alps.
Looking down you saw how the snow breaks up into slices that begin moving downhill as glaciers, dragging thousands of tons of rock and gravel with them. Mineral deposits give the snow a blueish sugary look, and some of the formations look just like gigantic marshmallows. These qualities were recognised by one of the early settlers, who erected a small factory at the base of Fox Glacier that cuts and shapes clear fragments into the mints that are such a feature of life at home. Honestly.
Another stop along the coastline introduced us to one of the west coast’s less attractive features, the sand fly. Within moments of opening the car door hordes of these tiny vampires set upon me, leaving my hands covered in itchy red lumps that looked so angry at one stage I wondered whether I might get hauled into quarantine when I got back to Australia. Even Sir Ian McKellen complained about them when he was making the Lord of the Rings films.
Eventually we arrived in Queenstown – a true tourist honey pot and self-proclaimed adrenalin capital of the country. It’s what Keswick would be like if we didn’t have sensible planning regulations and a highly vigilant National Park authority.
Still, it’s loads of fun. Some of it was vicarious – you won’t get me leaping off a bridge on the end of a rubber band – but I do recommend the Shotover River jet boat – charging and bouncing down a raging river inches from jagged rocks at 50 mph and doing 360 degree spins.
The Alpine cable car up to the Skyline pavilion above the town is also a good ride. At the top we stared in awe at little Indian children being strapped to burly Kiwis who hurled themselves off the mountain side on paragliders.
All this gung-ho fun reveals a refreshing side to life down under. New Zealand is a ‘keep your wits about you, mind where you’re going’ culture where you are trusted to use your common sense.
A little example was that Alpine cable car. At home entry and exit from the moving gondolas would be rigidly policed by harassed and frowning customer service operatives, the whole area plastered with hatched yellow lines and fierce warning notices. Here there was nothing and nobody. You were expected to be able to step into the car at the bottom and out at the top without getting yourself tangled up in the machinery or twisting your ankle. And guess what – it worked.
The big trip was a ride over to Milford Sound, one of the most remarkable fjords anywhere in the world. Owing to a lack of a direct road, you have to take a roundabout 180 mile trip each way from Queenstown.
We chose to let a coach driver do this, and we joined forty other keen tourists to be driven by Skip (not a kangaroo!) in the most extraordinary coach I have ever ridden on. It had three axles but was quite short, with a body whose floor line was tilted up so each row could see over the heads of the people in front (if you weren’t sat behind a basketball player like I was). Vast side windows met up with large windows in the roof. And each seat was angled slightly outwards to point towards the passing scenery. Enthusiasts will want to know it was a Volvo B12B chassis with locally produced Designline bodywork.
We headed south to a junction in the middle of nowhere, then west to a junction in the middle of a little village called Mossburn, then north to Milford Sound. And that junction in Mossburn is highly significant for me as it’s the furthest south I am ever likely to get – 45 degrees 40 minutes to be precise – although only equivalent to somewhere like Bordeaux in northern hemisphere terms.
Mossburn is an important centre for raising venison and Skip recounted the story of how this came about. In 1905 Theodore Roosevelt gave New Zealand a herd of 65 American deer as a goodwill gesture. They were released into the wild and rapidly became a major nuisance to the point where the government offered a bounty to anyone who killed one.
In around 1965 some bright chap thought a more sensible approach would be to catch them alive then breed them for meat and leather. The first ruse was to chase a deer with a helicopter to the point that it was so exhausted it could be enveloped in a net and carried off. The trouble was only about 15% of the deer survived this experience.
The next scheme was ‘bulldogging’, where a man would perch on the side of the helicopter and at the right moment leap off it and bring the deer down by grabbing it round the neck. This proved about as dangerous to the leapers as the first method was to the deer.
Only after several years of this carry-on did someone realise that tranquiliser darts might do the trick – probably after a Eureka moment watching ‘Daktari’ on TV. So venison is now a regular option, particularly in pies.
The road towards the sound featured increasingly stunning surroundings as we progressed through huge dramatic valleys with mountains looming thousands of feet above. Waterfalls crash down, and boulders attest to an alarming frequency of landslides. At one point we stopped to refill our water bottles direct from a cascading stream – Monkey Creek water is the sweetest I have ever tasted.
Eventually the climbing stopped and we went through the Homer tunnel, a single track affair with a 1 in 10 slope that punctures a mountain to emerge at the head of a steep valley above Milford Sound. This whole incredible road was started in the 1930s as a work creation project and wasn’t finished until the 1950s.
After lots of Alpine style zigging and zagging down, we came into the tiny village of Milford Sound. It rains two days out of three, but our day was blue skies and light clouds. A cruise along the sound to the sea took us through scenery it’s almost impossible to describe: vertical walls of rock rising hundreds of feet; waterfalls gushing over ledges; deep water of the brightest blue.
And then the guide said we should be there on a wet day, because hundreds more waterfalls spring into life sending cascades into the sound, giving it a completely different atmosphere.
The next day we decided to try a bit of hiking (or ‘tramping’ as the Kiwis prefer – perhaps unfortunately – to call it). Despite the stunning scenery, New Zealand is not into hill walking in the way we understand it. Properly marked paths are few and far between, even in apparently perfect walking country like that around Queenstown. However we got hold of a little map that took us up from the shore of Lake Wakatipu into a dense deciduous forest, then out to a view of a quiet lake set in a perfect valley.
Walking through the forest we saw evidence of a local phenomenon called the tree-lanche. The soil is so poor and the ground so steep in places that the only plants that can get established are mosses. Over time they create a thick carpet in which seeds find a nutritious home. The seeds grow into trees which cling on through a tangled network of roots that interlock with the moss carpet and with the roots of neighbouring trees.
Then one night there is a gale or a thunderstorm. One of the trees gets toppled. As it comes down it inevitably drags down surrounding ones and within seconds ten, twenty or more large trees are tumbling down the valley side in a tree-lanche. What is left is a naked area of rock that takes perhaps fifty years to become reforested and a big pile of rotting tree trunks below. Not a problem that thankfully occurs very often in the Lake District.
This lack of facilities for low carbon impact pursuits like hiking, versus the huge business in environmentally questionable ones like jet boating, pleasure flights and so on, got me to think about New Zealand’s credentials as a climate sensitive nation. The will and intent seem to be there but their devotion to big gas guzzling automatics like our Ford Falcon, and the piles of plastic bags that get thrown at you in supermarkets, as well as high octane tourism, suggest they have a bit of a way to go to walk the talk.
From Queenstown we headed up the middle of the South Island to a large area of flat scrubby land with snowy mountains in the distance. At its heart, Lake Tekapo – permanent population 315. In the summer it attracts water-skiers and boaters to its lake, in the winter it’s a Mecca for snow skiers heading for the slopes of the nearby Southern Alps.
We caught it in the brief off-season where everything was open but empty. In perfect weather we hiked (tramped) up to the top of Mount John, a thousand feet above the village and the place with the clearest skies in New Zealand. Its lack of light pollution means it has a cluster of world class telescopes, and also means that Lake Tekapo is alarmingly short of street lamps.
In the afternoon we hired bikes and pedalled off round part of the lake following arguably the most useless map ever – taking us into flooded fields and forcing us to lug the bikes over stiles and wire fences, until we got to an outlook over the village and then enjoyed a hair raising (well not so much hair to raise in my case) descent through forests back to metropolitan downtown Lake T.
Looking down at the lake you are struck, as you are with all the lakes in this region, by the extraordinary colour of the water. It’s as if one of those artists who used to touch up the colour of the sea on old postcards had been put to work on a massive scale. The lake is such a disturbing shade of turquoise it looks chemical. The truth is the action of the glaciers grinds up mineral deposits into tiny grains that sit in suspension in the water and give it such a strange hue.
Despite the amazing outdoors, Lake Tekapo bizarrely boasts a clutch of really excellent (and cheap) restaurants. The first night we had an impeccable Thai curry and on the second an outstanding Japanese bento box – including excellent raw fish.
A quiet night in the motel provided an opportunity to sample Kiwi telly. Two things stood out. First the complete lack of any subtlety in the adverts – e.g. “Don’t be a bloody idiot! Buy your new dishwasher from us!” (A radio advert heard in the car earlier cried “Ladies, make sure your get your hands on a quality tool today!”).
Then the programme content: New Zealand claims to produce 2% of the world’s food with 0.06% of its population, a fact amply reflected in the amount of agriculture discussed on the box. I now know more about how to use snow melt to generate electricity and provide irrigation than I decently ought to.
Eventually it was time to drive away from the hilly and mountainous centre of the island across the flat eastern plains. There are more towns, but most are not that remarkable. However, superficially unprepossessing Ashburton (with a dreary line of tractor dealerships on the way in through the suburbs) boasted a superb coffee shop for a mid-morning break.
This side of the world is the home of the flat white – a truly sublime cup of coffee that makes a Starbucks latte seem dull and pointless. Indeed Australia and New Zealand bow only to Italy in my opinion in the consistent excellence of their coffee.
The final leg was into Christchurch – the South Island’s biggest city, and the one that claims to be most English in character. That was belied by the strips of American style retail sheds on the way in, although the big green park close to the centre was crowded with hundreds of girls evidently involved in a netball tournament across dozens of courts. And later we saw varsity style young men in boaters valiantly punting oversized tourists along the Avon River that flows through the centre.
We stayed right in the middle on St Andrew’s square, next to the small cathedral. In truth Christchurch was about as rip-roaring as Wellington, without the kudos of being the capital. Even after existing for 150 years it still had the air of a pioneer town, with lines of shops sporting canopies over the pavements and looking as if two gun slingers would pop out from behind opposite retailers and shoot it out in the street.
For a rather buttoned up society the city seemed to boast a surprising number of sex shops. Thankfully I saw no evidence of latex sheep costumes (at least in the windows anyway!). Neither did I find the mythical hokey pokey, as I had also failed to do in all the other places we had visited. The objective of the trip was surely in jeopardy.
Sunday came and after a quiet stroll around the centre and a decent coffee it was time to head to the airport. The New Zealand flight back to Sydney was packed, and of course a pie was on the menu.
Afterwards a little tub of ice cream was served to everyone. When I started to peel back the lid I realised what I had in my hand – a creamy blend of delicious vanilla and crunchy toffee chunks – the mythical hokey pokey! I had found my nirvana.
Such was my effusive delight the flight attendant brought me a second helping – almost too much of a good thing. As I trooped off the plane in Sydney I said, “Thanks for the hokey pokey experience”. The smile she gave me made me think I might fly Air New Zealand again.
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