Thursday, November 11, 2004

Bottom of the Bottom of the...

I left Brisbane on Saturday after having a rain-threatened walk of the City Botanical Garden. It did start to drizzle at the Café right into my decaf latte (!) just after 10:30, so I hustled back to the motel to check out and head for the airport.

The Air New Zealand flight was filled with Aussies going on holiday in New Zealand. I was a little surprised as I had the impression, from those I had met, that few of them had ever been to New Zealand. Most of them said something about Australia itself being so large that, if they are holidaying in the Region, the tendency is to stay around Oz. In addition, the fares used to be quite prohibitive compared with, say, going to Bali or somewhere else in the region.

I sat next to a Queensland lady who was on her first trip to New Zealand. She had booked a 16 day guided coach tour on the spur of the moment, which had her imagining being marooned among crowds of persons older – in some cases a lot older – than herself. Mr. Independent Traveller tried to be reassuring – and failed, although I think it was the baby in the row behind us who ruined our conversation during the descent as it decided to try out different methods of screaming and yelping…

One thing that happens when you’re travelling like this is that you lose track of time – I mean time relative to where everyone else is. You also have to adjust your rhythms of contacting people and getting e-mails. For example, there’s no point in logging in at an internet café at 17:00 to get e-mails if you’ve already done so at 09:00 – the European day hasn’t even started yet, and won’t for another 4 hours. I’ve advised my rellies in Canada that I am now a whopping 17 hours ahead – or, 7 hours behind if you prefer!!! What it means is that there are narrow windows of opportunity at the margins in which to we might have a few problems getting in touch!!! Allied to which, as I am now truly on holiday (and not working), reading few newspapers and hearing little news, and not paying much attention to dates, except those of travel and accommodation…

I arrived at about 21:00 in Christchurch, my first stop in the country. I only had two nights in town before escaping – a product of poor preparation back in June. Descriptions of the city and the opinions of 2 or 3 friends had convinced me to come to Christchurch, but make it a short stopover. It sounded too much like a twee replica of an English town in the Southern Hemisphere, so I did not anticipate a long stay there.

Naturally, I was wrong – it is a lot like an English town in the Southern Hemisphere, mainly because it was designed that way! However, there is a lot to see in and around Christchurch, not least the port of Lyttelton, the French town of Akaroa (the French were dallying with the idea of settling New Zealand and sent out some boatloads of settlers before Britain decided to assert its sovereignty, leaving a French-influenced village), the Banks Peninsula, and the inevitable wine-tasting, getting-completely-smashed, excursions. It’s also the departure point for the Tranz-Alpine express, the train which traverses the midriff of the South Island with spectacular scenery along the way. When I heard about that, I wanted to do it, but it’s really best done from Christchurch, as a day return to Greymouth on the West Coast.

So in my (for once, sunny) Sunday in Christchurch, I managed to do quite a few things: I went on a guided walk of the town centre in the morning to hear about the history and the background to the city. I went to the Christchurch Art Gallery. I visited the Canterbury Museum. I took a late afternoon walk through the Botanical Gardens and Hagley Park back to my motel. And, in the evening, I went out to some jazz (Simon and Brad, a guitar/bass duo, very good) and dinner at Sammy’s Jazz Review in Bedford Row. It would be pretty amazing to do that in London on Sunday night – especially in Bedford Row! – let alone Christchurch, a city of about 300,000.

The area around Christchurch was first settled by Europeans in the 1830s, whalers and sealers and flax traders, but it wasn’t until later that it took its current form. An ordered and orderly colonial settlement was planned in 1850 – must keep out those damned French! – led by the Church of England, who, amazingly, wanted to establish a model of the class-structured homeland in the South Pacific! So, of course, the gentry got all the best farmland, and became rich off the wool. Churches and great civic and municipal buildings were built, not bars and pubs. A grid system was established for the core, centred on a square with an Anglican Cathedral, with street names imported from you-know-where. It has a River Avon running through it. In 1862 it was incorporated as a City, and its Gothic Christ Church Cathedral was consecrated in 1881.

Annette, our guide, took myself and two Mancunians around town in the morning. The Canterbury plains run along the East Coast and are very flat and, at that time, swampy, and were felt unsuitable for permanent settlement. However, the coastline was rocky and there was limited space, so on the plains the new city was placed, with the Port Hills in the background, rising steeply at the edges of the plains. Thus Christchurch is quite flat, but with a beautiful background, and coastal areas on the Banks Peninsula that are rocky and picturesque. We went into the Cathedral, all of which was made from local materials, except the stained glass and the stone arch over the entrance, both made in England. We also saw the Provincial Council Buildings, beautifully planned in stone and painted timber for the new colonial settlement. The River Avon unfortunately disturbs the planner’s grid as it winds through the town, and you can go punting on the River, which seems a nice Sunday thing to do – it’s pretty shallow, and punting is hard, specialised work (you need a stick with different implements to grapple with different riverbeds, such as pebbles or clay). The river is, naturally, clear and clean as a whistle.

The arts scene in Christchurch seems very lively: aside from the aforementioned jazz club, there is one other club (the Blue Note), a jazz concert that evening in the Cathedral, a new, funky Art Gallery, a ballet company and symphony orchestra, and an Arts Centre based in the Gothic Revival buildings of the former University of Canterbury. The University is famous for being the home of Ernest Rutherford, who discovered the structure of the atom, for which he won the Nobel. Painters exhibited pictures outside the Centre, while inside there were performances, meetings, galleries, and a cheery Sunday market outside.

I rounded off my day in the Canterbury Museum, which had a fascinating collection of Maori artifacts which I wanted to see to give me some grounding in the local history, and an excellent Antarctic section with details and artifacts of exhibitions. The Museum is next to the Botanic Gardens and Hagley Park – everything is very close – so I walked through the Gardens and across the river on my way back to my motel.

The motel owners are from Delhi!!! So I told them about what I had done there and my impressions of the city. They came to Christchurch 3 years ago, and are just about to go back on holiday. They used to live in Defence Colony – oooooh, very swish – and are looking forward to returning on holiday and seeing friends and family. I told them that they would find the air cleaner, the crises greater, the population higher, and the city just as wonderful as it ever was…but absolutely nothing like the neat, tidy, clean and scrubbed Christchurch, nothing like it whatsoever!!!

I left Christchurch on Monday for Queenstown, in the heart of Southland, the southern lakes and mountains region in the South Island, and had a flight down with spectacular views of the Canterbury plain leading up to the mountain ranges that bisect the island – if you click here you can just about see something in my photos, taken through the usual murk of airplane windows.

I’m in a motel just outside of town. When I mentioned the name of it to the tourist office guide, she sniffed, “that’s very much the bottom of the bottom rung of the motels”, but I like it. It’s an older clapboard style construction from the 60s, hanging off the side of the ridge. It’s very comfy and friendly, and I have a fantastic view of the mountain range called the Remarkables, (7,000 feet at their highest point) capped by soft, slow-moving clouds. The clouds are dappled by shadowy patterns on the mountainsides, like finger exercises on a white movie screen. Lake Wakatipu (the name means “hollow of the giant”) and the point of land called the Kelvin Peninsula which frames a reach called the Frankton Arm, with the village of that name below, complete the scene outside my window.

Out of the other window I can see a mountain…of dirt and slurry, as I’m next to a construction site, complete with gigantic crane, concrete pre-fab blocks, and people that arrive early and work until late in the evening!!!

Travelling like this inevitably involves a lot of time sightseeing, moving around, and what I call ‘maintenance’ or ‘admin’, so I spent the afternoon on that necessary function, writing e-mails, booking excursions to Milford Sound and Doubtful Sound, checking out the locale and the walks, and planning my transport and accommodation for next week, a good half day well spent.

I’m here for 4 days, which started with some drizzle and grey skies, against which the mountains are merely wonderful, rather than spectacular. However, just before sundown, the clouds broke briefly, making a needle-like aperture through which the setting sun blazed for a few glorious minutes. It was a good omen, for my next two days of excursions were blessed by glorious weather.

Queenstown was founded by gold originally, and is now mining tourist dollars. Gold was also discovered in Arrowtown and in Wakatipu Basin and fuelled the growth of some other towns in the area, and it eventually became the second largest gold mining area in world after the Yukon. I took a cruise on Lake Wakatipu on an old steamer called the TSS Earnshaw, and got some close-up views of Cecil Peak and Walter Peak, which I can see from my side window (next to slurry peak, which is why I haven’t taken any photos from my window!).

In all, I’ve taken over 200 pictures this week, of Christchurch, my cruise on Lake Wakatipu, and my excursions to the magnificent and spectacular scenery of Milford Sound and Doubtful Sound, so I’ve had to edit those down to the usual small number that you can see. To a very great extent, the pictures speak for themselves, and it would be superfluous to provide extensive commentary. There is a tendency, especially with the make-a-mistake-and-just-delete-it digital camera, to take pictures all the time, so you end up with lots and lots of images to choose from, far too many!

The first of the excursions took us to Te Anau, a village on the shores of Lake Te Anau, and from there through spectacular mountain scenery (the Murchisons, the Darrans, the Snowdon Range, and the Livingston Mountains), forests of red and silver beech, and some rolling flatlands with the inevitable sheep, framed by soaring mountains. We were right in the midst of Fjordland National Park, the largest national park in the world, and now a World Heritage Area as well. On the way to Milford Sound, we passed several beautiful spots, such as the Mirror Lakes, but essentially followed the line of the Southern Alps, the mountain range that describes a fault line from the north of the South Island near Christchurch all the way to the Sound. The Southern Alps are the route followed by planes from Christchurch to Queenstown, which you can see in some photos.

Only a few days before, the road we were travelling on had had the avalanche risk warning lifted!!! The road finds the spaces between the enormous mountain peaks, such that as the crow flies, it was only 36 km. from Queenstown, over the Livingston Mountains (and the ambitious or healthy can follow the Routeburn Track), but 200 km. by road. At one point, we passed latitude 45 degrees south, which is the ½ way point between the Equator and the South Pole.

The area gets about 200 days of rain on average per annum. The distribution differs between the coasts, though: on the West Coast, the average annual rainfall is 7,000 mm., on the east about 1,700. The reason is that the Westerlies from Australia cross the Tasman Sea and dump the rain on the West Coast, which is most spent by the time it cross the Southern Alps to get to the East.

All the mountains have at any time 100s of waterfalls cascading down their sides from the melting snow, streaking them like tears. When you look at them from above, as I returned by plane from Milford Sound, you can see other streaks on them, this time ski-markings, from ambitious climbers.

There are 4 sounds on the west coast of the South Island, and Milford Sound is 22 km. long to the Tasman Sea – they are actually misnamed (Captain Cook, step forward!) as they are not actually sounds (i.e. river valleys) but more fjords (deep valleys cut by glaciers).

On both the Milford Sound and Doubtful Sound excursions, we saw a great variety of wildlife, and you can see pictures of dolphins, seals and penguins in my picture gallery. The land-based mammals are not as interesting for, other than 2 species of bat, all others have been introduced by various settlers at various times, sometimes with disastrous consequences. For example, the introduction of deer at the turn of the century and their subsequent population explosion resulted in the forests being denuded of vegetation, and meant that they had to be culled by hunters in the 1940s.

Birds and other animals are another matter, of course, and we saw all sorts of different birds that are found nowhere else in the world.

Doubtful Sound is a bit more wild and untamed than Milford Sound, which is a bit more accessible and touristy, but not too much. To get to Doubtful Sound, we had to go by coach to Manipouri, cross Lake Manipouri on our first cruise of the day, then take another coach down the Wilmot Pass Road to the point of our second cruise on the Sound. Along the Wilmot Pass Road, naked, gnarled trees stand like sentinels by the roadside: these trees get ‘blasted’ by avalanches, ice and snow and lose branches, which makes them look dead, then get waterlogged by the melting ice which pours water down the mountains. The weight is too much for their roots, and they end up falling off the mountains.

We took a boat called the Commander Peak into Doubtful Sound, and I went up top to take pictures of the magnificent scenery. The only problems were that there was a gale blowing, and it was freezing cold. Only one other mad photographer – who looked remarkably like those century-old pictures of grizzled Antarctic explorers – was up there to share the unwindowed views of the mountains towering above. You couldn’t hear a thing up there, and your main aim is to keep yourself – or anything else – from being blown off the boat. He said to me, “blash gash m’josh gosh. Flaxen g’jash m’plob. Blagga flagga flappa gjimmin weddergrate”. I nodded sagely, finished taking my pictures, and headed for the warmth of the cabins below..


Blogger Crazy_Sister said...

Your photographs are extraordinaire. You
look so relaxed..Miss you

November 12, 2004 8:45 PM  
Blogger Big Mama said...

Me too !

November 15, 2004 4:34 AM  

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