Thursday, November 25, 2004

Kia Ora

I was fed up with the west coast of New Zealand and, despite its wild and wonderful scenery, with being rained on every 10 minutes, with thunderstorms and snowstorms following each other in quick succession, and with waiting 3 days for helicopter flights that never happen. So I decided to head north and inland, toward Nelson, which is not only the geographical centre of the country, but also its sunniest place. I’ve essentially done a U-shaped tour of the South Island, starting in Christchurch, going south to Queenstown, then heading north through Wanaka to the Wet, er, sorry, West Coast. And now to Nelson, a necessary precursor to Picton and a ferry ride next Sunday on the Interislander to Wellington in the North Island, where I will spend 6 days.

Tom’s Travel Tip on the We – West Coast is to overnight in Fox or Franz, and then probably Hokitika. Going up the coast in 4 or 5 days by car, allowing plenty of time to stop over and explore the glaciers, the paths in Paparoa, and Punakaiki, is the way to do the Wet – sorry, West Coast. Not stopping in Fox for 3 days, and not stopping in Greymouth at all…

The coach heads north from Greymouth on the coast road, stopping at Punakaiki for a good long time to see the Pancake Rocks (one of the demented passengers wanted to have pancakes at the pancake rocks…did she think that she was having rock pancakes? rock cakes? who knows…) and the blowholes. They’re great. You stop at a series of small towns on the coast which could be bases for touring the area. Westport we stopped at, and it was okay. After that, you begin moving inland. We started another gradual twisty-turny coach ride along coiled roads blasted out of the mountains, with a short stop at Murchison.

During that time, you travel through 2 National Parks and a National Forest. After 2 weeks of scenery, only a Loch Ness Monster or The Biggest Mountain in the Universe can stimulate any comment or excitement in this wonderful country, because you’ve already seen so much so far. That is probably the reason that it’s best not to ‘do’ New Zealand all in one 6 week visit, as it wears better if you are selective and come back 3 or 4 times for different looks at different parts of the country.

We end up over 600m high at one point, with mountain peaks towering to the east of us, the Southern Alps seen this time from the west, as opposed to the eastern view when I flew from Christchurch. The landscape is mountainous, then rolling and hilly. Dense green forests cover both sides of the roadway – Nelson in particular is noted for its production of timber, and en route we pass through New Zealand’s largest man-made forest. Sheep and cows start to appear as we descend out of the mountains toward Nelson, farmland that has yet to be taken over by the vineyards or by other developments (the wineries are beginning to push out traditional dairy farming).

Finally we wind down the road to Nelson. The names of the villages we went through on the way were Belgrove, Wai-iti, Wakefield, Brightwater (Ernest Rutherford’s birthplace), Hope, and Richmond. The Tasman District, which encompasses Nelson, is one of the fastest growing areas of New Zealand, and the recipient of a fair number of UK immigrants. It’s not hard to see why. The city is booming economically, with forestry/timber, fisheries (largest fishing fleet in Australasia), hops, vineyards, olives, horticulture, all playing a big part. The climate is super, it’s on the coast and has great beaches (the town beach is known as Tahunanui, and I snapped a photo of it as we drove in) and National Parks close by – Abel Tasman among them. And, it’s got good connections to the North Island and along the coast.

It also has a small jazz scene, which I found out when I went out my first night and ended up in a wine bar called In Vino Fides. Always a good sign!!!

Nelson was the first European settlement in the South Island, so has been here since the 1840s. It’s a very pleasant place with plenty of cafes, bars and restaurants, and has a pleasant aspect, which you can see in this week’s pictures by clicking here.

It’s the second largest city in the South Island, manages to combine a busy life as a port and a fishing centre with being a tourist centre and having interesting things of its own, and is the centre of a number of things such as vineyards which are riding the wave of a boom.

The Maori only began to migrate to the South Island in the 16th century. Several tribes fought out a battle for supremacy amongst themselves until the Europeans arrived. However, economic hardships were rife while the settlements, amazing as it may seem now, were struggling to exist on their own.

Nelson has an interesting Art Deco Cathedral, and was made a cathedral city long before the controversial building was consecrated in 1972 (work began in 1925!). It has some preserved colonial houses and streets that are of interest (e.g. South Street, a cul-de-sac in the centre preserved as it was 140 years ago). And it’s an arts centre, as well as everything I’ve mentioned above.

I’d not been on a wine tour yet in New Zealand, and had been saving myself for this region, adjacent to the famous Marlborough. So I booked myself for one on Friday afternoon – I prefer ½ day wine tours as my constitution is so weak that I find that after 3 or 4 wineries, either (a) you’re so pissed you don’t want to drink anymore, or (b) you can’t remember what you’ve tasted, and all the varieties start to meld together. Perhaps I’m an exception in that regard!!!

So our driver of the local wine tour company sets out, gives us a proper primer on tasting wine and what to expect, then we zip to our first stop – an organic brewery – and then the second, a complex where two different wines are cellared. The scenery is stunning – we sit outside at all 3 wine stops, and behind us stretch row after row of grape vines right up to the beginnings of the mountains which soar out of the plain.

Our guide explains to us about New Zealand sauvignon blanc. Apparently, it’s the best in the world because of the conditions in this area which produce the intense, pungent fruitiness particular to the type. Cool nights during the ripening period – think of the comparable weather in France during the summer – are what apparently produces this difference.

The six of us – 4 from the UK, one from Holland, and one from the U.S. – have a wonderful afternoon together, tasting and testing the different wines, and the reactions of each person were almost as interesting as the wines themselves. On some of them, your reaction chimes with someone else’s – on others, you’re out on your own (as I was on riesling and gewürztraminers – apparently Germans don’t like New Zealand’s rieslings as they feel that they don’t taste right!). We have a good day together and have fun, chatting and swapping travel stories. We’ve all had enough wine, though, and everything else that we get to taste (beer, liqueurs, olive oils, etc.) by the time that we finish!

The next day I get up early to get a bus out to Abel Tasman National Park. We change at Motueka for Kaiteriteri, starting point for my day there. I’ve eschewed cruises, jet boats, and the jet boat/sea kayaking combo, in favour of going for a sail – on a real sail boat. I figure that on numbers of people – thinking of the 100s on a cruise at Milford Sound – and on pace of enjoyment, sailing has to win, hands down. It’s also my first time on a sailboat!!!

We set off from Kaiteriteri – ‘kai’ means “food” and ‘teri’ means “fast”, so our guide translated it as “fast food place” – about 9, and sailed up the coast by Honeymoon Bay and Split Apple Rock. The coastline is wonderful, and has a large number of bays, coves and islands to explore, which makes the sea kayaks good, if you have the time. It also has a number of well-marked walking trails, and a network of hiking huts, in which you can book basic accommodation. We get a view across to the hills in the distance, in which nestles Nelson, from which we’ve come for the day.

Our captain was a bluff Kiwi who had sailed up and down this coast and worked alongside it for years, and he loved his job – couldn’t think of anything better than being out in a boat and on the water all day, meeting different people. In the winter, he was a carpenter, and also did other fill-in jobs, such as working at ski resorts. He had his daughters on board to help out – if you were an experienced sailor you could ‘participate’ in the few tasks to be performed on board, if you wanted, but there was no obligation to do so. Certainly if you really wanted to get involved, he would be helpful – but most of us elected to loaf, sightsee, and sunbathe.

Split Apple Rock used to be known as Split Rock, but got renamed, perhaps for commercial reasons. The captain would turn on the motor when it was required, but unfurl the sails and use wind power where possible, which was very occasionally on the way up the coast, but coming back down was mandatory as we had a powerful westerly driving us at this time, as usually happens. We saw some seals, some cormorants, terns, shags (little black birds with large beaks). It was a beautiful sunny day and only clouded over in the afternoon. We went to Fisherman’s Island and circumnavigated it – 300 blue penguins live there, in the nooks and crannies and caves of the rock, but they didn’t feel like coming out to see us! As we continued up the coast to Watering Cove, we met some sea kayakers. They had come out by motor boat, with half a dozen kayaks strung together on the back, then disembarked, kayaked around, and got a pick up later. There was a kind of informal transit system along the coast with boats checking in at certain bays at certain times, which makes it very accessible.

So accessible that you can spend over a week on several of the walking tracks, all of which offer spectacular scenery (such as the Heaphy Track, which “traverses a range of landscapes from vast alpine tussock downs to the lush Nikau forests and roaring seas of the West Coast – 4 – 6 days, 82 km.), or you can do short walks or rambles, which some of us did from Watering Cove. A number had decided on a two hour walk back, and left the sailboat with real regret, as they wanted to stay on the water. I had gone for a less strenuous option, and our captain left me at the Cove with a wry warning, “don’t fall asleep under any trees, okay? And we’ll see you at Anchorage in half an hour.” I then walked to Anchorage Bay across the peninsula, getting some wonderful views after clambering up the steep hill.

We managed to rendez-vous – I got there first!!! – and then went north to Torrent Bay before turning around, unfurling the sail, and speeding back, such were the winds. We got back just after 4, after a marvellous trip, and I decided to have 2 Mac’s Blondes in The Shoreline Café in Kaiteriteri, a perfect way to end a perfect day.

The next morning, I left Nelson on the early bus for Picton, from where I got the Interislander Ferry to Wellington. We went through the usual hilly and rolling and mountainous landscape, climbing first through the farmed forests that provide Nelson with its timber, then through bosky hillsides towards Marlborough, where we descended into vast acres of wine estates. Picton is a pleasant, small seaside town, whose principal reason for being seems to be the ferry. I walked around it for an hour to kill time, then got the 13:30 sailing, which arrives at Wellington at 16:30.

I was saying farewell to the South Island, where I had spent over 2 weeks. The scenery in the Marlborough Sounds was, of course, spectacular, something that I’ve come to accept in New Zealand. The ferry ride is well worth doing, but it’s a lot like a cross-channel ferry but with the addition, of course, of rolling hills, mountains, and unending seas. Interestingly, for a service that travels from South to North Islands, it actually sails east to west, as the southern tip of the North Island is south of the northern tip of the South Island. Try saying that when you’ve had a bottle of sauvignon blanc from Marlborough!!!

It still seemed like no time before we had arrived in the enormous natural bay that constitutes Wellington Harbour, a wonderful setting for the small city that is the country’s capital. It was settled in the 1840s, initially along the lines of a plan drawn up in London, then abandoned when the settlers found the original location too marshy (it was at the mouth of a river – but is today’s suburb of Thorndon!). By the bay, the city centre is built on flat land that is a prelude to the hillsides which quickly appear as you move away from the water – in this respect it has been compared to San Francisco. The early settlers found that, quite apart from some Colonial Office underling getting things wrong, they also had the problem of insufficient flat land on which to build the city, and very soon started to reclaim land. The main shopping street, Lambton Quay, is thus about ½ mile in from the waterfront, all land reclaimed since the early days.

Because of the premium on flat land, houses tended to be built very close together, which made it problematic when earthquakes occurred – as they did with distressing frequency (200 a year, big and small) on this fault line. One of the worst ones at least had the effect of increasing the amount of flat land!!! Still, it wasn’t long before the gentry started to push up into the hills, where Kelburn became the swish suburb. Wooden buildings were favoured for a long time as they were less vulnerable to earthquakes. Since techniques improved for isolating stone and concrete buildings, these have been employed ever since, but Wellington still has very few tall buildings, which gives its downtown core a distinctive character.

Wellington Harbour has, like many things in New Zealand, a Maori name, and was also in 1839 named Port Nicholson. Another Colonial Office Bright Idea was to call it Brittania (producing an alphabetical symmetry in that the four principal settlements would be Auckland, Brittania, Christchurch, and Dunedin), but luckily, it was instead named after the Duke of Wellington.

As in Christchurch, I went on a tour of the town in the morning, which hit most of the major government buildings – the Parliament and Beehive (executive block), and the Government Buildings, which is the largest wooden building in the Southern Hemisphere, built in the form of a stone building and so amazingly undetectable as wooden on the outside. I went up to it and knocked on some of the pillars in front – nope, hollowed out trees for sure. It’s stunning inside, really worth a look, as is Old St. Paul’s, an all-wooden cathedral. We had a look at most of the major sites of the city, including the Botanical Gardens, which extend from a lookout on one of the hills that is a terminus for the Cable Car down the hill to meet the city coming halfway up. From Mount Victoria you can get panoramic shots of the city and harbour, and out beyond Oriental Bay to near the airport, from where you can just about see Mount Kaikoura on the South Island!

I then visited Te Papa, the New Zealand national museum on the waterfront. I was somewhat cynical about the claims made about it, as I’ve seen a lot of hyper-modern museums which I felt were less than successful. Well, this was just wonderful. It really tries to encompass everything in the country – geology, natural history, social history – on a single site, and it does so very well. Each year they invite a new ‘iwi’, or Maori tribe, to tell their story, and an immigrant group to do the same. The natural history section replicates a microcosm outside of the natural landscape of New Zealand. There is a gallery devoted to New Zealand art, and even an amusing exhibition of New Zealand in the 1970s, which was interesting as its contents mirror those elsewhere, but also enlightening, as it was a decade of increasing Maori protest.

Rounding off a too-short visit of Wellington, I rode the Cable Car to the Botanic Gardens one morning, walking back to the City, and in the afternoon went on a walk around the Cuba and Courtenay Quarters, funky and trendy with bars, cafes, drinking places, and music venues – and bookshops, hundreds of them!!! However, I had to take refuge in a café for part of an afternoon, drinking wonderful coffee, as the famous Wellington weather (‘windy Wellington’) decided to get gusty and rainy all at once. So I’m afraid that for Wellington, too, a return visit is a must, if only to see the rest of Te Papa.

As I’ve already written a longer-than-usual entry this week, I’m going to post this early and save anything from my two final stops in New Zealand – Napier and Auckland – until next week, when I will be in Hong Kong…

Thanks for the Maoris for the title this week – for those in the UK, it’s not a naff fruit drink! – which means Hello/Good Luck/Good Health!!!


Blogger Crazy_Sister said...

I want to see New Zealand. Your
writings make it so enticing.

November 27, 2004 2:40 AM  

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