Friday, February 26, 2016

NZ Roadtrip: Verdict

So. Three weeks on the road, from Auckland south all the way to Milford Sound, and back again, hitting all the main tourist spots in New Zealand. Would I recommend it?

Absolutely. I so much enjoyed being reminded again of what we tend to take for granted: that this is a truly beautiful country, with an incredible range of scenery in such a small area, that the people are so nice, the history is interesting, and the food and wine are mostly world-class. We were lucky with the weather most of the way around, the roads were good, the Airbnb experiment worked pretty well, and the route was great, as far as it went.

Which was, not as far as I would have liked it to go. Ideally, you'd have the time and opportunity to explore properly, to go down those side roads, stop to stay not just visit, have a go at connecting rather than skimming. I realise that's an impossible ideal for most travellers - but surely not for us residents, in bits if not all at once.

What I wouldn't do is sign up again for such a claustrophobic experience with people who were once - 25 years ago - good pub-type friends but not necessarily on the same wave-length. Stuck together for day after day in a confined space, personal habits can become intensely irritating and I'm sorry to say I'm not able to rise above that sort of thing. For me, it didn't work: sad but true. 

But the places we went, the things we saw? Fabulous, just fabulous. Do it!

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

NZ Roadtrip Waitomo: Disaster 1, disaster 2, disaster 3

Because we'd taken a wrong turn on our way down, we didn't take the more obvious route north today out of Wellington, but headed eastish, over the Rimutakas to the 
Wairarapa. So first there was steep climbing up green and bushy hills, to stop at the top to view the Rimutaka Memorial. It was only erected last year, to commemorate the 60,000 soldiers who marched this way to war from 1915-18, from the army camp at Featherstone. Look they're breaking their march to have a cup of tea! Sweet. Shame about what came next...
Then we were down onto the plains, in Peter Jackson/James Cameron country, and stopped in pretty little Greytown for breakfast at the French Bakery. It wasn't really French, but it was the best pain au raisin that I've had for a really long time, so I recommend the bakery highly. We had a bit of a wander along the street: picket fences, neat gardens, heritage houses, museum, owner-operated shops, chocolate, collectibles... Small-town New Zealand at its best. It was a pity we had to press on, but it was a 522 km-journey today.
Back in the lumpy green country typical of the North Island, we stopped again in Eketahuna, which takes a perverse pride in being national shorthand for backwoods-type unsophisticated clunky country living. You can - and one of us did - buy tshirts with the slogan 'London, Paris, New York, Eketahuna'. I was more taken by the idiosyncratic numbering of these post boxes.
And so we pressed on, stopping next for a visit to the Tangiwai Memorial - marking the terrible night of Christmas Eve 1953 when a train heading for Auckland full of passengers heading home for Christmas plunged off the Tangiwai Bridge killing 151 people. The crater lake on Ruapehu had broken through its wall and a lahar, a 6m high tsunami, swept down the river, weakening the bridge supports. Though the driver braked as soon as he saw what had happened, the engine and five carriages were swept into the river. The sixth teetered terrifyingly and then fell too, but amazingly most of those passengers survived; as did those in the last three carriages left up on the tracks. It was a disaster. It escaped no-one's notice that 'Tangiwai' means 'weeping waters'.
The mountains were clearly visible as we drove towards Waitomo, Tongariro and Ngauruhoe in their summer brown but  Ruapehu still with Indian snow (ie, a patchy here and a patchy there - yes, old joke) - and all unmistakably volcanoes. We carried on through Taumarunui and Ohakune, through lush farming country, green and neat, populated by contented-looking sheep, cows and alpacas.
Waitomo was to be our last night of the road trip, so those of us in charge of organising accommodation (ie not the Poms, for whom we functioned as guides) thought it might be a jolly surprise for them to stay at Woodlyn Park. It's novelty accommodation: years ago we spent the night here in an old Bristol freighter; and this time we plumped for the train. It's an actual NZR railway carriage, converted as a sort of motel, with sitting room, two bedrooms, kitchen and bathroom out the back. Not flash, but fun. They have boat on a pond, and hobbit holes, too.
Unfortunately, it was also a bit cramped, and very hot and stuffy, having been shut up all the sunny day, so it fell a bit flat on arrival. Then we had to have three goes at finding somewhere acceptable to everyone for dinner in town that night, ending up at Huhu, which was new, friendly, busy and served excellent food. That smoothed things over, so when we returned to the now pleasantly cool carriage, the menfolk decided to sit outside on the little low deck for a nightcap. Or two. Or three.
The next thing that happened was that I was woken from my sleep to be told by one Pom that the other had fallen off the deck onto the wooden fence beside it, had injured his chest, and was in great pain. So, for the first time in my life, I rang 111 for an ambulance and waited with a torch in the dark for it to arrive from town. We were lucky that the sole-charge ambulance person was the wonderful Irene: short, sturdy, humorous, imperturbable and, most important, experienced, capable and efficient.

She'd seen it all before. "Alcohol, eh. It's ok if you can stay innocent through the night..." She did the examination and the tests, recorded it all on her iPad, uploaded it, dished out the painkillers and plenty of reassurance and advice, and then disappeared into the dark again, leaving us with an injured party (two broken ribs) and our final day in disarray.

NZ Roadtrip Wellington (again): Galleries, gravitas and good eating

After a hiccup of a start, which had us returning from almost-Picton to Nelson for a forgotten phone, and then hurtling back to Picton to be the last vehicle loaded onto the car ferry - and yes, it was as fraught and stressful as it sounds - we had another gloriously smooth crossing of Cook Strait. This time we were on the classic Interislander which, I have to say, I like better than BlueBridge. It's much more spacious, and there was no queuing for our breakfast.
I was sorry to see the South Island slip away in a palette of silver, blue and purple, the Kaikouras distant but still magnificent: it's so beautiful, the scenery is magnificent, and it's full of interest. It should be the lynchpin of any tourist's visit; and it's a national scandal that, even now, there are North Islanders who have been overseas multiple times but never to the south. 
So, Wellington again. This time we're in town at a soulless but perfectly adequate apartment off Willis Street (it would be hard to beat that Te Aro Airbnb from before), which is handy to the waterfront. I struck out on my own today, to gather some material for a commission I've just received. First stop was the City Gallery in Civic Square with its iconic metal nikau palms. It was, to be honest, a bit meh - it's focused on contemporary art, the exhibitions change all the time, and there seemed to be more space this time than actual art. Good thing it was free (as were all today's galleries).
Then I walked along the waterfront past waka teams chanting in their boats, the public piano being played, smartly dressed ladies walking dogs, people cycling, stretching, and strolling, to the Portrait Gallery, which had lots more to look at.
It's right next to the Wellington Museum of City and Sea, which is an absolute must-see: really comprehensive but not overwhelming, covering what is a very lively history. I spent a lot of time in the well-presented Wahine exhibit - all about the interisland ferry that sank in a storm in 1968, with 53 deaths. It was a huge and tragic event that I remember very well - even down in Christchurch, the weather was so bad that my school was closed for the day. 
I walked back along the waterfront, enjoying the vibe of people making the most of the sunshine, the sea, the restaurants and parks, and joined the others at Te Papa, where this time, with no cruise ships in port, the Gallipoli exhibition was a walk-in, and as impressive and sombre an experience as ever. 
Somewhat unimaginatively, we ended up back at Shed 5 for dinner again - but it was good, and busy, and fun to have the same waiter as before, as obsequious as Basil Fawlty, but more sophisticated. Well done, Wellington.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

NZ Roadtrip Nelson: Costumes, cars and the Cotswolds

Our last full day in the South Island, and we passed through a bit of the Mainland I don't know very well since I've always done what we did today - head straight for Nelson. After the rough-hewn and perpetually weather-challenged West Coast, the inland route up through Reefton and Murchison is cushy and comfortable: good farming country with sheep, cows and deer, surrounded by green hills and cut through by the Buller River. Every so often there would be tempting roads off to right and left that it would have been fun to explore, and at one point we went past an intriguing barn/house affair with a big rotating wheel towards which an out-of-place man in a white business shirt was walking - another of life's unsolved mysteries.
We pushed on to Nelson, bathed in its habitual sunshine, cathedral on its hill at the top of Trafalgar Street, which is lined with appealing pubs, heritage buildings, cafes, restaurants and an excellent bookshop. I liked the public piano on the footpath, too. It's a pretty place, and deservedly popular.
The thing to do here is to visit the World of Wearable Arts museum, which celebrates the origins of WOW, now an international event which has been shamelessly stolen by Wellington. But the museum traces the story from its beginning - told in a leisurely and interesting video centred on the 2015 show - and has enough of the costumes/artworks on display to satisfy anyone. It's amazing to see them up close, and to be able to appreciate the artistry and cleverness of the construction.
It's a clever move, too, to have an adjoining classic car museum for those other halves who (foolishly) think dramatic costuming is not their thing. I was quietly delighted to find a couple of vintage Renaults there, very similar to the 1912 model I had an acquaintance with in my teens, and did a rally in over the Port Hills from Christchurch.
The others enjoyed a bit of Englishness that evening at the Honest Lawyer pub, which would fit easily into any Cotswold village you care to name - but I am still sick and went, unfed, early to bed.

Monday, February 22, 2016

NZ Roadtrip Greymouth: Green, gold and grey

It was a rough night but there was sufficient splendour today to distract me from feeling unwell. The Coast is another country: long and narrow, bounded by sea and mountains, and cram-full of nature. Lush green bush, big trees, wide rivers spanned by one-lane bridges - even, to the Poms' wonderment, a road/rail bridge - and every so often small, slightly hunched-looking towns. Life can be hard here, at times, with the glory days of gold and coal behind them, and the rest of the country focused elsewhere; but tourists find plenty to enjoy.
A couple of us made a moderately token effort to get close to the Franz Josef Glacier, which meant following a stony track up the valley from the car park towards the tongue of the glacier. It's retreated a lot since I was last here, so it was a longish walk to the actual ice and though I would have done it myself, majority ruled. The scenery was pretty magnificent where we were - orange lichen-encrusted boulders, the braided river, mountain peaks, jagged icefall where the glacier flowed into the valley, its white surface encrusted with stone and gravel. People periodically get killed here, and at nearby Fox Glacier, by ignoring safety signs and trying to get too close for selfies and such frivolities. I thought the signs were (literally) graphic.
And so we continued north, through Ross and past quirky little houses, classically paint-peeled in typical Coast fashion, until we got to Hokitika, which has the wide streets of a much larger town. 
The remains of a driftwood sculpture competition were still strung out along the pebbly beach, which was a gift, as was the lovely weather that made the Tasman look almost believably the same body of water as the luminous blue delight you see on its other side in Tasmania.


The town is full of souvenir shops - art, greenstone, hand-blown glass, warm outdoor clothing - and is well worth a wander. Buying yourself a piece of greenstone (nephrite jade to you foreigners) is practically obligatory - if, unlike me, you didn't once step outside the van where you'd been studying for an exam while on a rockhound trip with your mother, with them all out fossicking vainly for ages, and find a beautiful, smooth piece of it right there at your feet.
Shantytown is obligatory too, artificial and self-consciously touristy though it is. There's a Wild West-type main street to wander along, including a doctor's surgery with some horrifying instruments in glass cases; and a train through the bush; and chance to pan for some (sneakily seeded) gold flakes. 
Still under the weather, and having done all that a couple of times already, I took it easy; but did come across this case of gold nuggets which seemed remarkably cheap, considering. Maybe there are jobs even worse paid than being a travel writer...
Then we pressed on to Greymouth, named for being at the mouth of the Grey River, but never in my mind quite able to escape the suggestion of dullness. That's probably unfair, and on a sunny day it was pleasant and bustling, and certainly the girl at the iSite was very helpful and efficient in finding us beds for the night at the Top10 Holiday Park - a well-equipped motel (including, of course, the inevitable slow-cooker, which is always a bit of a mystery. Really? All-day stews fit the holiday-maker lifestyle?)

We went to Buccleuch's for dinner - a big pub-type restaurant again low on ambiance, but friendly. Especially the local man sitting alone at a table for four, who kindly surrendered it to us saying, "I could feel my old mother clouting me over the back of the head if I didn't." 

Sunday, February 21, 2016

NZ Roadtrip Haast: Lakes, river, rock

It's a sad fact of life that we (I) very quickly come to take things for granted: like today's soaring scenery of mountains, alpine rivers, pristine blue lakes, lush bush. Did we perhaps use up the day's awedness by tripping along again to #thatwanakatree to capture another of its photogenic faces? It was pretty gorgeous, and no wonder there was a virtual queue there of people all wanting to stand on the identical spot to frame the tree perfectly against the mountains beyond, this morning set off by a delicate wisp of cloud.
So, we left town and drove along the shores of Lake Hawea and then past the top of Lake Wanaka before diving into the mountains and along Highway 6 through the low Haast Pass to the West Coast. I hadn't been this way since 1980, when the road was unpaved and we'd forgotten to fix down our caravan's floor pump for the water. Amazing how much dust will filter up through a hole in the floor, and settle itself everywhere. Worth it, though, for all the waterfalls, fast-flowing river, cyclists, bush, tree ferns, one-lane bridges... and it was the same today. Just a bit more populous.
We stopped at the Blue Pools at Makarora, which were luminously aqua and clear but sadly with no trout to be seen. We also unfortunately arrived at the same time as two big coaches, so it was pretty crowded - made the Poms feel at home, anyway. Just like the Lake District!
We made another couple of stops to breathe the fresh mountain air, get up close to a waterfall and wonder about the compulsion some people have to build little pebble towers wherever they go: much better than old-time tagging the rocks, of course, but getting a little out of control in some places.
The Gates of Haast are pretty impressive, the Makarora River roaring and foaming down a narrow pass, past tumbles of huge boulders that clearly get shifted around periodically.
And then we were at Haast, at our Airbnb which this time was part of a hangar which housed a couple of small planes. Not fancy - bunks - but good enough for a night. We ate at the Hard Antler, not recommended for its ambiance but cheerful and friendly, and unsurprisingly very sporty (though the tahr and deer heads on the wall looked on disapprovingly). Good whitebait patty, even better lamb shanks.
This was my low point of the road trip: too much time closeted in the car, regretting having agreed to have constant company, and then, finally, getting sick. Cough, headache, shivers, sore throat, nausea. Flu? Possibly. Definitely no fun.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

NZ Roadtrip Wanaka: Shiny, sunny, sparkling and silver

You're spoiled for choice in Wanaka, truly - especially if the weather's good. Which, I'm relieved to report after Milford's thorough dampening of everyone's spirits, it is. So glorious, in fact, that I made an early dash for That Wanaka Tree so beloved of Instagram. Honestly, it's a star, and that literally is its hashtag: #thatwanakatree. Check it out.
Perversely, though, we spent much of today indoors. We began at the Transport and Toy Museum, which is a glorious, deliberate jumble of - surprise! - vehicles and toys, so that there's something for everyone, all the way around. From teaspoons to a tank, by way of an Air NZ plane, a solar-powered racing car, a "Greedy Nigger" (sorry) money box, Meccano "For Boys", scooters, sewing machines and so much else. It's a huge collection, begun 50 years ago, and now that the hangar is full, there are plans to expand into another.
Next came the nearby Warbirds and Wheels Museum, a much more professionally-presented affair, with fewer exhibits but all of them in beautiful condition and well supported with storyboards. The most glamorous was a 1934 Model J Duesenberg that once belonged to Carole Lombard - a symphony in shiny chrome, red paintwork and sparkling whitewall tyres. 
There are planes too, some of which feature in the biennial Warbirds over Wanaka air show which I would love to see one day. It also features an admirably candid biography of local hero Sir Tim Wallis, who pioneered live deer capture from helicopters and was known for his "not always endearing characteristics". Well, actually, who isn't?
Then we got a bit playful and went to Puzzling World, which has been there for ages and just keeps adding stuff. It's famous for its 3D outdoor maze which really can be challenging; and which we skipped on the excuse that it was too hot outside. There was so much else indoors to entertain us: the Tilt Room where a seat slides uphill, you can stand at 45 degrees on a ladder, in another room your kid in the corner looks taller than you. There are optical illusions galore, even in the loo; and puzzles on all the tables in the cafe. Lots of fun. They've had a challenge going since 1994 for any visiting psychic to find a hidden IOU for $50,000 but no-one's succeeded yet. Funny that.
And then we did go outside to enjoy all that spectacular beauty that Wanaka has in spades. The lake was warm enough for people to be swimming, as well as kayaking and SUPing, but we just strolled the pebbly shore and sat and gazed across that clear blue water to the mountains and a glistening glacier. It was gorgeous. How I do love the South Island!
The early evening activity was to go to Ruby's Cinema, on the edge of town with an unexpected climbing wall attached. The cinema itself is intimate, cosy, plush - lots of red and gold, and soft seats, and framed photos of Hollywood stars. There were reclining chairs and sofas to sit on, and we were served drinks and nibbles throughout - very civilised, though I have to say the crisps were a bad idea. I had to suck them till they went soft because they were too noisy to chew otherwise. We saw The Belier Family which was good and very sweet.
We had dessert afterwards back in town at the Lake Bar which I can't recommend for its menu, but the live music was good, and the view over a lake now turning silver, and the peaks purple? Just fabulous.

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