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!!!

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Way Out West

The sky contains varied, different shades of grey, the mountains are obscured by layer upon layer of mist so that they almost look like big inverted clouds, dark grey silhouettes looming in the background, the rain light, but incessant: we are now on the west coast of the South Island. It is rumoured to rain here a lot, the storms coming in from Australia (of course, another reason for plucky Kiwis to look askance at their bigger neighbour), crossing the Tasman Sea, and dumping most of their water on the coast before migrating across the Southern Alps. In fact, it Rains Here A Helluva Lot. It begins raining as soon as we get to the coast, at Haast, and it precipitates on and off until we get to Fox Glacier.

The first thing I do is find my hotel. Speaking of rain, their plumbing is on the fritz, and so they’ve had to transfer me somewhere else. I find the alternative motel. No plumbing on the blink. I check in. I go out. It’s horrible. However, at least, unlike India and Australia, there’s no likelihood of any water crisis!!!

The setting is just stupendous. The tourist village of Fox Glacier is situated on the narrow coastal shelf that hugs the mountain ranges between the Tasman Sea and the Southern Alps, and the high mountains – amongst them New Zealand’s highest, Mount Cook, at over 10,000 feet - spawn enormous glaciers, 40 or 50 of them, but prominent amongst them Fox and Franz Josef, that slowly swirl and switch down to a rainforest below. There must be countless microclimates in a very small area around the glaciers. Nowhere else in the world outside of the polar regions are glaciers found extending to such low altitudes – from a height of nearly 1,000 meters above sea level they flow down to less than 300. The settings of Fox and Franz (as the locals call them – making them sound like brothers in a Grimm fairy tale!) are wondrous, hugging the bottoms of dreamy, cloud-covered mountains. In only 3 places in the world – Franz and Fox and some place in Patagonia – are glaciers adjacent to an area of rainforest.

Click here to see the scenery and the other pictures from this week. Fox is the smaller, and probably the least commercialised of the two, so I decided to base myself there.

We arrived in the late afternoon from Queenstown after a spectacular drive through some of the South Island’s wildest and most beautiful country, much of it near or in National Parks, Fjordland or Mount Aspiring or Tai Poutini/Westland. We left early in the morning, about 07:40, and our well-filled coach wended north through small pretty villages or towns such as Arrowtown (a gold-rush village), Wanaka (at the south end of Lake Wanaka), and Makarora, with some picturesque scenery in between, and plenty of grapes on vines in the fields beyond. Our coach wound back and forth on the twisty-turny roads that hugged the mountains, first climbing up the sides as if seeking the fastest way through the range, then descending just as quickly as the roadbed found its natural way back to earth. We emerged from the Southern Alps area into the coastal plain at the small town of Haast, which seemed quite suddenly flat compared to what we’d been going through, and not very interesting. The plain varies in width along the coast, sometimes being very wide, sometimes incorporating a coastal range of hills different from the Southern Alps – apparently two plates of the earth’s crust meet in this area, which explains the earthquakes – and often being very narrow, a strip really, with the road blasted out of a mountainside.

Visits to the various shops and tourist offices yield a few brochures but precious little information. I decide to book for the next helicopter ride around the glaciers at 11 the next morning. Or, it might not be, depending on…the weather. The advice? “You’re better off booking tomorrow because you’re here Monday, so if it’s not possible to fly tomorrow, you can at least postpone for Monday.” And if it’s not possible to fly on Monday???

This turns out to be excellent advice as it pelts down all night long, subsiding somewhat in the morning, but still raining intermittently as I make my way to the helicopter ride office. Glum, morose heli-guide sits behind the desk, asks my name as I walk in, then advises me that flights are off – visibility is too low. He concedes that it might get better and be possible to fly later – anything is possible – but warns of the ‘flying trap’, where it improves enough to fly, but the clouds close in again and snuff out the visibility, making it impossible to get back down. That doesn’t sound too good. So he reschedules me for tomorrow morning at 09:00. I then try to think of alternatives for the morning, including the Lake Matheson walk – another reason that I stayed in Fox, as it’s a short walk down the road from me – which is supposed to be excellent, according to someone I met in Queenstown. It’s one of the most oft-photographed lakes in New Zealand, as it has mirror views of Mount Cook. Glum, Morose was not impressed – “not a great day to go to Lake Matheson, either, really. That’s the problem – when the weather’s no good, there’s not a lot to do around here.”

So I decide on a half-day glacier walk on Fox Glacier, starting after lunch, which at least is not weather-dependent. As far as I know. Our band of 23 sets off just before 2 and climb on an old coach to the starting point for the walk. The first hour consists of a walk along a public track (fairly easy), then a steep ascent through rainforest (on a maintained track, but in about an hour we go up about 300m). Just after 3:30 we finally strap on our crampons and walk on the glacier for the next hour. At every stage the top of the glacier looms into view and dominates the landscape around us, tumbling from its highest point about 3,000m above sea level to the rainforest area beneath, pouring its melted ice into a silty stream below.

The glacier carves its way through the steep, rain-forested valley. After years of receding, about a decade ago it started advancing a metre a day. It then started receding again, and is now felt to be advancing again, but not at the previous hectic rate. It gets fed by snow from the incredible amount of moisture that dumps on the West Coast – according to one source, in isolated areas, 7 – 8 metres per year, but concentrated on relatively few days, among them the ones that I’m in Fox!!! Franz Josef is steeper than Fox, but Fox is longer and in several sections – we walk on one of the lower sections, as a round trip to one of the higher ones can take over 18 hours. The ice that we’re walking on could be 50, or possibly several hundred, years old.

Apart from the sounds of people walking around and talking, it’s perfectly silent, the stillness only punctuated by the occasional rock fall – suddenly a load of rocks will just crash down from on high, and you can’t tell from below exactly where!

After walking around the glacier with Jason, our guide, we begin to make our way down. Jase is a cool dude, not flashy with his knowledge and even, when asked a question, seemingly hesitant or offhand about some of his facts, but he always comes up with a plausible answer. Around us the clouds gird the peaks, thick and gauzy, clinging to the mountainsides and drifting slowly around, over and past them. It begins to rain as we find the public walking track at the glacier’s terminal moraine, the first rain of the afternoon. We get the old bus back to the office in Fox, all of us exhausted and sweaty and wet, and ready for showers and a glass of wine.

The next day, I get up early and survey the weather – it appears pretty clear, with one mountain peak in clear view. In an hour’s time, however, the frothy clouds have closed in and enveloped the mountains. Although I already know that my chopper ride will not be possible, I optimistically report to the office…where Glum, Morose tells me it’s a big nocando. I could try again later today at 3, but he’s not optimistic about the cloud lifting. So I decide on a 14km. walk to and from Lake Matheson, including a trail partly around the lake. The renowned scenery is surrounded by vaporous cumulus, but the forest walk around the lake is certainly enjoyable. The lake is full of clear, brown water, but never fear: it’s kanhui, a tree that bleeds tannin into the surroundings. And at least the rain holds off…

On my return to Fox, the chopper ride is, of course, a big nix, and Glum, Morose apologises. It starts to rain again, pretty hard this time, so I have some lunch and mooch back to my motel to write this and caption pictures for the afternoon. As I leave in the morning, I have missed the helicopter view of the glaciers and Mount Cook – oh, well, another to save for next time…

The next morning I take the coach to Greymouth. It is comforting to see the cloud still prevalent in the mountains, meaning that no chopper ride would have gone this morning. There was rain last night – of course – and thunder, and there is some snow dusting the mountain tops as well. The road to Franz is the most winding and twisting yet, first going south, then going north, next south, then north. We loaf by a couple of picturesque lakes – Lake Mapourika and Lake Ianthe – skirted by the road on the way north. The scenery is mountainous, perhaps not quite as spectacular as around Fox and Franz. We go thorough a village called Harihari – or ‘happy happy’ – and then finally have our morning break in the village of Pukekura.

Pukekura has the West Coast’s smallest town population – 2 – both of which I guess run the Pukekura tourist complex, a slice of rural weirdness on the west coast, consisting of a Bushman’s Centre, accommodation, craftshop, museum, café, wild game restaurant, and the Puke Pub. Our driver warned us about what we would find in the café – apparently the possum was introduced to New Zealand from Australia with disastrous results, going from 0 to 70m in a few decades, in the process destroying whole swaths of forest, birdlife in the form of eggs, etc. In its own small way, to counteract this, the café serves possum pies, and other, more conventional fare with eccentric names – a ham & egg sandwich is called ‘unborn chicken and compressed pig’!!! I didn’t get to find out if the Puke Pub serves possum piss, or whatever…but I did get some pictures!

The west coast has a mining past and present. We went through Ross, a gold town that is said to have $100m of gold still residing underneath it. People in Ross apparently do things like dig new toilets and come up with enormous gold nuggets, for example. But gold is not mined there anymore. The Government banned mining on public land and also stopped the timber trade on government land around Greymouth 5 years ago. Result: more 500 year old trees saved, less timber trade, but more tourism and more nature preserved.

We stopped in Hokitika, which was settled in the 1860s, also after the discovery of gold. Now, it’s a centre for the production of jade out of the greenstone native to the area. We then continued to follow the mountains and hills that follow the coastal shelf, at times hewing to a rough seashore, which in Fox Glacier was a whole 20 km. away. The west coast is still a sparsely populated and relatively wild area, in which the soaring mountains of the Southern Alps are the background, and the beaches are not sandy but covered in rock and pebbles and stone. On more than one occasion we cross one of the single-lane road bridges (two of them share the road with a single-line train track), which are common in the South Island, but also show how few traffic jams there are.

We finally arrive in Greymouth after midday. Most passengers alight to take the Tranz Alpine train to Christchurch, whereas I was making the town a base for the next two nights. I had an introductory walk around the town, another gold town, which now produces coal and timber and is the largest town on the coast. It’s therefore a centre for regional-distribution-of-this and local-representatives-of-that, so of less than surpassing interest. It seems to mainly consist of undifferentiated low-level non-descript sprawl around the harbour, which is enclosed by a high wall as it frequently floods. Lots of shops for sale or rent or burned down, and plenty of sheds, or warehouses, claiming to be things such as “Super Liquor” or “the west’s centre for vistanice aluminium joinery” and, I can tell you, I was longing for nice vistas by the time I’d walked around it. There are apparently a lot of short walks out of town worth doing. Rather, I can see that, despite scanning the west coast part of the Lonely Planet guide, I’d chosen to break my journey to Nelson at the wrong place. Never mind – I booked a couple of tours for the morrow, one to the Monteiths West Coast brewery, the first of my boozy tours (the next will be in Nelson), and the other to Punakaiki, up the coast road toward Westport, which has some spectacular coastal scenery. Apparently.

The brewery turns out to be a real delight, unpretentious and straightforward. You’re guided by one of the 10 ‘multi-tasking’ staff, in this case Tyra and, of course, given a beer sampling afterwards. The beers are all good, and even unusual in a couple of cases (lemon & lime? ginger & honey?). Luckily, I have a couple of hours break before the next tour…

Which is a trip up the coast, to see some of the most rugged coastline that I’ve seen so far. The road goes into and out of the valleys along the way, climbing steadily out of Greymouth. The place names were all named by gold rushing miners, who were the first to brave the wildness of the coast. Maoris named things after a feature, or a story, whereas the miners came up with names such as 10 Mile Creek. This creek was the first one to feature both a gold and a coal mine, both having been found in the area. Our guide said that there was lots of gold still around in the rivers and creeks.

We level out at a place called the Barrytown flats before starting to climb again quite steeply, passing regenerated bushland (either the Maoris or the miners cleared it, and it’s grown back lush and green, as you’d expect where the rainfall is so high) en route to Punakaiki., which is in Paparoa National Park. ‘Puna’ means ‘spring’, ‘kaiki’ ‘piles of rocks’. It’s famous for the strange rock formations spawned by the incessant crash of the surf called ‘pancake rocks’. These limestone rocks have formed into what looks like stacks of pancakes through a layering and weathering process. When there is a good tide and the surf is high, the water surges into caverns below the rocks and shoots up in geyser-like blowholes. Have a look at the pictures – they’re spectacular!!! The tour then finished in some coastal forest called the Truman Track, verdant rainforest leading down to a small beach where the cross-currents are so strong and the surf so violent that it’s not safe to swim. We went to the beach, and the incessant waves crash over the pebbles, then retreat quickly, sounding like the rattling of chains.

It then started to rain, a sign to bring the tour to an end. I highly recommend Punakaiki, and even spending some time around here walking or other activities in the park – just don’t make Greymouth your base for the coast!!!

This week, I’m a day early posting this, as I travel on Thursday to Nelson, which seems a convenient starting point for next week.

Thanks to Sonny Rollins, the Saxophone Colossus, for the title this week, fitting for my journey up the West Coast!

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..

Wednesday, November 03, 2004

Hobo of the South Pacific

‘Hobo’ might be pushing it a bit far, but not as far as ‘boho’! The next 4 weeks, other than a couple of contacts that I will be making in Brisbane and Auckland, are on the road, with a somewhat improvised itinerary. There are two dates to concentrate the mind: my departure for Hong Kong (27 Nov), and my arrival in New Zealand (6 Nov). In between, I plan on 2 weeks in the South Island, and one week in the North (as counselled by my Kiwi adviser).

This week begins with my last two days in Melbourne last weekend, then goes on to my arrival in Brisbane and tours of the city, a couple of coastal excursions (as advised by my Aussie adviser, Dr. No) to Byron Bay (south of Brisbane) and Noosa (north of Brisbane).

My last two days in Melbourne weren’t spent there! My hosts have relations north-west of Melbourne in a place called Ballarat, which sounded to me as if it was the name of an old card game (Fan-Tan, that sort of thing) and, being generous and kind hosts, they kindly invited me to accompany them on their family weekend to visit their relations up there and, while doing that, see a bit of the country and visit some middle Victoria wineries. It sounded an excellent idea.

The area was known to the Watha Warrung aboriginals as ‘Ballaarat’ or “resting place”. The original European settlers first came in 1837 but when gold was discovered in 1851 at nearby Buninyong, their peace was disturbed when thousands poured into the area to prospect for the precious metal. There’s still a lot of gold around, and some Ballarat residents still have some gold nuggets secreted away to prove it. You can still buy metal detectors and other prospecting paraphernalia, but the mines themselves died out after World War I. The result of the gold rush was that Ballarat, as opposed to the gold rush towns in the Klondike (probably because of the climate), is now a town of over 70,000, with a lot of surviving buildings from its heyday. Gold was also key to the development of the nearby Melbourne. The first 12 years of the gold rush resulted in population growth of nearly 8 times in Victoria, and drove Melbourne to become the largest city and financial centre in Australia, for over half a century.

But that’s not all that there is to Ballarat – no slouch on civic development, it has an Art Gallery, an artificial lake, and Botanical Gardens, and various other attractions. It even had a rebellion, the Eureka Rebellion, when miners wanted to protest against unfair licensing conditions. It seemed an interesting place to spend a weekend.

We set out early on Saturday and enjoyed a pretty easy drive up country. Once we had arrived in Ballarat, we dropped our bags and, accompanied by our local guide, one of my hosts relations, we set off for a place called the Tuki Trout Fishing Complex, which is near Smeaton north of Ballarat. Tuki is named after the Tukidale stud sheep, bred for their specialty carpet wool, that abound in the area. They grow about an inch of wool every month and are shorn twice a year!

The trip up there showed how different the scenery could be, changing it seemed every few miles, from lunar landscapes to rolling green hills. Click here to look at this week's photos, to see how the landscape can change within a very short distance. Tuki is a big place, with accommodation, gardens, barns, outbuildings, and these enormous pools which constitute the trout farm, all against the background of stunning scenery.

So it was on this trip that, after making a ridiculous spectacle of myself playing football, I did something else that I hadn’t done for 35 years – fish. Well, if you could call what I did fishing. The idea is that you fish for your lunch in their stocked pools, where even the worst angler in the world would catch something. So we baited hooks with sweetcorn and cautiously dipped our lures in the water of one of the pools. About 15 minutes and several tangled lines later, I had nothing. However, neither had anyone else, other than a bite. After another 10 minutes, during which I set up the rod like Huck Finn, lodged between two rocks, and sat down, we still had caught nothing and asked for some assistance!!!

With some advice on how to fish, we then managed to bag sufficient fish to make the whole expedition a respectable success, as you can see in the picture. Not before my Huck Finn-like maneuver with the rod had rendered it completely tangled and unusable, though. The Tuki staff just smiled and gently told me how to do it correctly, for next time – darn citified dozos who don’t even know how to use a fishing rod!!!

We then adjourned to the dining room, where our fish were cooked and served up with trout pate, salad, potatoes, and local wine – this one called Dulcinea, a drinkable, fresh wine. So beginning a theme of the weekend…

Next, we drove across some lovely country through some beautiful villages or towns. The two that we stopped in were Daylesford and Hepburn Springs, spending a bit of time in each, although there are other very pretty, but more modest contenders for lovers of scenery. They are known as the “spa centre of Victoria” for their status as spa towns, dating from the 1870s. Daylesford has Lake Daylesford, which seemed a convivial place to stop at the Boat House Café and sit and look at the lake. We then went into the middle of town and walked around the shoppes before going on to Hepburn Springs, which has nature trails through the forests that surround the springs, and a large centre at the springs themselves with treatments on offer, heated spas, plunge pools, flotation tanks, beauty treatments, massages, and saunas. There are mineral springs on the trails if you want to try the water – be warned that it’s full of iron, and an acquired taste!!!

We returned to Ballarat later that afternoon having seen and done a lot for one day – and went out in the evening to the Europa Café, to bolster ourselves against Sunday, a wine-tasting day…

To prepare for the rigours of continuous wine consumption, tasting, and purchase, we took the air around Lake Wendouree, the artificial lake in the middle of Ballarat, a 7km. early morning walk. Or, at least it is if you do it in the early morning. I took some pictures of Black Swans in the lake there, if you have a look at the gallery.

Then, again with our local tour guide and vinophile leading the way, we managed to hit 4 wineries on Sunday. We tried not to rush our tastings, tried to get to know as much about the winemakers, their philosophies, and the peculiarities of their climate, situation, etc. We still only managed 4, though, out of 36 wineries on the Great Grape Road, a tourist route through the wine regions of Ballarat, the Pyrenees and Grampians. That’s out of 350 wineries and countless more vineyards just in the state of Victoria, which has 22 different wine regions in it. I read a statistic that a winery is started in Australia once ever 60 hours or so. It’s probably the most dynamic industry in the country. Of course, despite the popularity of Australian wine in the UK, we only see a fraction of the labels, quantity and quality of the wines – even in Australia itself, it is difficult to get to know about them all. Except by going on a winery-by-winery inspection, good for detailed knowledge but probably bad for overall liver health!

We started out at Eastern Peake on Clunes Road in Coghill’s Creek and had some of their Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, and then moved on to something I hadn’t seen before, the Pinot Rose, which is going to be marketed as a light drink to urban, sophisticated females tired of Ready-To-Drinks. We met the winemaker and his wife and had a long chat with them about their firm objectives of producing more quality, upmarket wines. After buying some of the wine (the new Chardonnay was the best white), we consulted our timetable and found that going to another 6 wineries, as we had planned, was not going to be feasible, even if it was liver-friendly.

Cue a sudden change of plan – we then visited quickly two wineries named Pyrenees Ridge (very nice Special Merlot) and Blue Pyrenees. The interesting thing was how different they were in scale. Eastern Peake and Pyrenees Ridge were one- and two-person businesses, with no pretensions to visitor centres, accommodation, restaurants. Blue Pyrenees was a large winery with lots of different wines (including a sparkling Merlot, very unusual, which was excellent!), a big shop, and a sprawling business.

By this time of the afternoon, the time that most wineries close was approaching, and we had yet to have any lunch. So we rushed to Warrenmang and had a selection of cheese and bread with our final winery bottle of the day, another marvellous wine. I think that I could easily get used to this life…

If you have a look at the pictures of Warrenmang, you’ll see an extra long one in there, a panorama of that gorgeous landscape. I’ve been taking pictures on this trip with the Digital Camera that I bought before coming, a Canon Digital Ixus 500 that I highly recommend. However, as with all modern fandangled oodjimiflip bloody over-specced techno-stuff, I’m only just coming to grips with it. I recently found out it can take small films – don’t worry, I’m not about to subject you to my film director side – as if taking still photographs were just, well, crazy golf for the darn thing.

It also has a Photo-Stitch facility as well, which I have tried before. The only problem that I didn’t surmount, however, was my own incompetence – of course, you have to have some overlapping feature for the photos to stitch together, right? I missed that part…so my first photo-stitch, of the Red Fort, failed – it’s as if I took a photograph of my head, and then my leg: the Photo-Stitcher joins them together in the best way possible, so I look like some alien mutant. In the case of the Red Fort, it looked like a quaint little red cottage instead of the sprawling, impressive monument that it is…

However, the wine didn’t make me waver around any more than usual, so you have a view of Warrenmang that gives you an idea of what a special, beautiful place it is – it’s called a ‘vineyard resort’ in the brochure – preserving the best of the small winery while still being able to offer spa facilities, accommodation, and food.

On our return, we took the two pictures in Moonambel which our guide insisted that I take, as they were typical of Australian country scenes. So I include them both. The second has a tiny sign on it on which can be just about made out the words, “as this building is ‘still lived in’ please respect our bloody privacy – thank you.” Sorry…!!!

We then went back and my host’s relations had prepared an enormous barbecue out of the fish left over from the previous day, and some of the wine that we had brought helped us consume the feast, and we went to bed ready for an early rise the next morning – as I had to get to Melbourne airport to check in for my 11:00 flight to Brisbane, or ‘Bris-Vegas’ as it is apparently called (by whom? The Lonely Planet guide and, so I’m told, one other person.).

‘Bris-Vegas’ is apparently nicknamed because of the opportunities to gamble, not because of a propensity to build replicas of great monuments. It offers the casinos usual to any sizeable Australian city, as well as the ubiquitous ‘pokies’ (I have been here too short a time to comment on Australian English, but one thing that puzzled me was the frequent signs for “Tatt’s Pokies” and “Joker’s Wild Pokies”, until it was gently explained to me that the first stands for “Tattersall’s Poker Machines”!).

Gambling was the theme of my first full day in Brisbane, Melbourne Cup Day. I queued up for a City Sights Tour in the morning and watched a steady stream of office workers walking around with clinking bags and oodles of prepared food. Melbourne Cup is big all over Australia. Cup Day really started in earnest about 12:00 as people adjourned from work (in Melbourne everyone has Cup Day off and some even have Monday) to place their bets (A$126m was placed) and then begin their liquid lunches. Nearly all the women were decked out in the most amazing, sumptuous and expensive costumes and hats, and many men (but not as many as the women) were in their best dinner jackets.

Throughout the day, the condition of most of those so dressed declined noticeably so that by 18:00, when I was having a salad al fresco in the pedestrian mall in Queen Street, people were swirling and careering around the city centre in an alarming fashion, noticeably crapulous and continuing to booze well into the evening, to get their heads nice and sore for the next morning’s haze.

Brisbane Tour 1 was a short bus tour around the highlights of the city centre or, as it’s always referred to in Australia, the Central Business District (CBD for short). The commentary was continuous and lovingly concentrated on the major historical events and places in the city. It was the only capital city in Australia that started out as a fully-fledged convict colony – all the others had convicts as well as settlers. It’s not on the ocean, but has a spectacular setting on the Brisbane River, a cityscape of CBD skyscrapers on one side, the south bank arts complex, formerly an Expo, on the other. It’s a sprawling city with few older buildings – they’re either restored or destroyed – and no natural centre. Despite this, it’s an agreeable setting and city, with the usual attractive outdoor lifestyle. We stopped at Kangaroo Point to get a bird’s eye view of the cityscape, and our guide pointed out the electric barbecues that Brisbane City Council had provided in the park there – so that people could barbecue and watch the sun go down over the inland hills, then watch the skyscrapers light up the dusky sky.

I then went on a walking tour of the centre and got some more views of the historic buildings and riverside settings, strolling through one of the two botanical gardens in the city. Each Australian city seems to have substantial botanical gardens, to show off their tropical and subtropical climate at its best. Spring sees splendid colours appear here, and the purple jacaranda and bright red bougainvillea trees abounded. The day was rounded off by my third tour of the centre, this time using the City Cat, a two hour river journey upriver to Bretts Wharf and down to the University of Queensland, passing by the central cityscape on the way.

The weather is warmer and sunnier here on the east coast – the Gold Coast south of the city gets about 240 days of sunshine a year, the Sunshine Coast north about 280, with wet seasons in mid-summer with lots of rain – so I decided it was safe to book a couple of tours, and Dr. No had advised me to head for Byron Bay on the former, Noosa on the latter. Byron Bay was named by Captain Cook for Lord Byron, and there’s a lighthouse at Cape Byron just above the easternmost point of land on the continent. The journey down to Byron Bay was fascinating, as we passed the dormant volcano at Mount Warning, called by the natives the ‘sleeping giant’ because of the startling silhouette of a Gulliver-like head. Mt. Warning is the centre of a 28m year old volcano, and at one time spewed volcanic ash several hundred kilometres over the area, making its soils rich and fertile. Our coach hugged the coast, all sandy beaches, and in the hinterland was the dark blue outline of undulating hills and mountains. Sadly, most of the Gold Coast is now marred by high-rise hotels and apartments. One of these is allegedly the tallest residential complex in the world in the town of Surfer’s Paradise, at over 85 storeys. There’s also a wealth of tourist attractions, or tacky tourist tat, depending on your viewpoint.

Byron Bay itself was beautiful and attractive because the planners had moved in before the developers and ensured that no high rises could take place. Byron Bay had thus developed in a different direction, and was even more relaxed and laid-back than usual in Australia. ‘Alternative lifestyles’, funky therapies and belief systems (the PrayerHouse invites all comers “meet with your maker”!!!) are rampant in the town, and the hippies and the surfers seem to be in charge. We came back by the Tweed River, where we had a nature cruise during which we fed the funny-looking pelicans, with their great plastic looking eyes and chalky appearance (see photos), and had a lecture on mud crabs.

Noosa was quite different. The Sunshine Coast has much less development than the Gold Coast (despite the greater number of days of sunshine). Noosa is one of the few Aussie beaches that faces north. It’s an expensive area (a studio apartment in one of the most desirable locations, Noosa Heads, went for A$1.3m 3 weeks ago), with a beautiful beach. It was an ideal place to lunch on fish and chips at an upmarket beach restaurant a step or two from the sands. As I had just eaten, I didn’t want to have a swim yet, but finally got a chance when we returned by Mooloolaba, which has a gorgeous harbour at the mouth of the Mooloolah River, and a beach on the ocean. I asked at the tourist office if there were public lockers on the beach, and was told that the town council was doing its bit in the fight against terrorism by not providing such a service. Terrorism in Mooloolaba!!! It seemed hard to believe. So I left my possessions with the lifeguard and went gambolling into the surf, and was immediately knocked back by a breaker…