Thursday, February 18, 2016

NZ Roadtrip Milford Sound: rain, more rain, and running.

The takahe pictured in the last post is one of New Zealand's endemic flightless birds, a knee-high, sturdy, slightly ridiculous creature that was thought for a long time to be extinct. Then, excitingly, in 1948 it was rediscovered near Lake Te Anau, in Fiordland, a part of the country so steep and remote that to this day there are bits no-one has laid eyes on. It was a cheerful thought that didn't sustain us long as we drove away from the threatening rainbow laid across the lake towards Milford Sound, famous for having the country's highest annual rainfall, at around 6.4 metres. It was about my sixth visit there, each time previously in bright sunshine, but today was clearly going to be much more typical, to the Poms' dismay.
Instead of being blue, white and gold, the palette was green, silver, blue and black - sombre, but still striking, especially with the steep-peaked mountains and the dense native bush. As always on the drive there, we were conscious of staying ahead of the hordes of tourist buses streaming in from Queenstown; but we did still stop at Mirror Lakes, to discover that someone at the Department of Conservation had been having a bit of fun.

Sadly, by the time we got through the mountains and the Homer Tunnel to Milford Sound (actually a fiord), the rain had properly set in and, apart from the odd gleam of sunshine, didn't stop for hours. It didn't help that the boat terminal had no café, just a vending machine, and not much comfort for people waiting for their cruises to depart. Ours was with Mitre Peak Cruises, in a smaller vessel that supplied tea and coffee but no biscuits. The Poms stayed in the cabin, near the tea, watching the scenery through rain-streaked windows, never stirring from their seats.
I, meanwhile, along with some damp but enthusiastic French tourists, was up on the top deck being stirred by a multitude of quite spectacular waterfalls, the like of which I'd never seen before on my previous sunny visits. The rain was simply gushing off the bare rock of the mountains, thundering, pouring, hosing, foaming, in huge torrents or clusters of trails, white against the black, spray going everywhere. It was amazing.
The drive back to Te Anau was also dramatic, with tumbling rivers as well as the waterfalls. Waiting for our turn to go through the (one-way) Homer Tunnel, we saw that the kea - alpine parrots - were not as lively as usual, looking distinctly bedraggled as they hung around hopeful for some (frowned upon) food to be thrown their way. It was probably just as well that they were feeling less mischievous - they can wreak real havoc on cars when they're in the mood. There's a persistent story about their pulling away the rubber windscreen seal on one so that the glass fell out - they certainly like to attack wipers with their fearsome beaks.
The sun was out again by the time we got to Te Anau (though still raining at Milford, according to the phone) and it was a pretty drive back to Queenstown and then on through the steep gorge of the Gibbston Valley with its incongruous vineyards to Cromwell, famous for its slightly suggestive cluster of big fruit. After dinner there, we were into the Golden Hour and the best place for it - real Grahame Sydney country. Unfortunately, the Pom who was driving was unable to remove his foot from the accelerator, so there are no photos of all that beauty. (You'll have to go and see it for yourself.)
Finally, we got to Wanaka and our roomy but rather bare Airbnb in a suburb back from the lake. The sun was setting behind the mountains as the last Ironman contestants ran gamely towards the finish line, spurred on by generous applause from the spectators along the route, and the thought of rest, food and fireworks just ahead.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

NZ Roadtrip Te Anau: scenery, spaghetti and sainted stirrers

It wouldn't be a roadtrip without a bit of petrol angst, and accordingly we got a bit low on our way to Te Anau but the scenery was good enough (read: great) to distract us from the tension. This four-hour drive from Queenstown to Te Anau is, on the map, three sides of a square, necessary because there is no direct route. Every so often someone proposes a tunnel, or a monorail or some other such abomination desecrating the scenery just so foreign tourists don't have to waste their time driving through the sort of country as above, and can go straight from one hotspot to the next (ie Milford Sound). I mean, what sort of penance is that? I'm glad to say that no-one so far has got very far with their proposals, but constant vigilance is required.
There was another cheese roll en route, at Athol - a specialty of the south, it's white bread rolled up around some kind of cheesy concoction, and grilled. They're all a bit different, leading to local loyalties. This one had added onion and sweetcorn but was a touch on the dry side - not that any cheese roll is a waste of time, though. After we'd got to our motel at Te Anau, we made a visit to Lake Manapouri, once the subject of nationwide protests and the decades-long 'Save Manapouri' campaign. It might have been the first national environmental campaign in New Zealand - certainly it's the first I can remember. The baddies were Comalco, who wanted the lake level raised 30 metres to generate power for their aluminium smelter, and the weak National government was going to ignore the 10% of the population that signed the petition against it. Luckily, there was a general election in 1973, Norman Kirk's Labour government listened to the people, and the lake was saved, look:
Te Anau's lake is also lovely, just a bit less wild and spectacular. The town is dependent on the tourist traffic to Milford Sound, and in the Fiordland Cinema there are regular showings of the Ata Whenua/Shadowland movie showcasing the area's spectacular beauty. Our enjoyment of the film was subsequently enhanced by our realising that we should in fact have paid $10 each to get in, but we'd thought it was a tourism freebie and simply walked in and taken seats. Nobody said we'd gone the...
(This nearby sign has been a local joke for ages but now it's not so funny, after so many incidents of Chinese tourists causing accidents by driving on the wrong side of the road - however, even I am getting tired of my anti-Chinese comments, so that's the last you'll hear of them on this roadtrip.) 

We're into greenstone country now - nephrite jade to you foreigners - and there's a 3.2 tonne boulder in one of the souvenir shops, that's a really impressive sight. The lady in the shop said yes, it was insured for some fabulous sum - but that anyone who could steal something that size really deserved to keep it. Dinner was an unusual, but delicious, combination of crayfish and spaghetti at the equally unexpected genuinely Italian Dolce Vita restaurant; after which we hung a left at the giant takahe and went to our beds in the long southern dusk.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

NZ Roadtrip Queenstown: rain, rabbits and financial ruin

In the spirit of the English philosophy about weather, today we paid for the sunshine we've had so far, with low cloud and even some rain. Despite that, three of us took the obligatory sail across the lake in the cute though smoke-belching TSS Earnslaw to Walter Peak station for morning tea in the homestead (scones and tea) and a demonstration of sheepdog skills and shearing in the woolshed. Some things are non-negotiable. This is New Zealand, after all.
Bravely, we made a run for (literal) Paradise but only got as far as Glenorchy at the head of the lake before the weather closed in, so what with the dull sky, the hair in someone's lunch there and the failure of the view from Bob's Bluff to live up to hype, it was a bit disappointing. We went to watch people step into the void at AJ Hackett's bungy operation over the Kawarau River - judging by the size and architectural novelty of the building, there's a lot of money in "Throwing people off bridges since 1988". The Poms, to their only moderate disappointment - it costs $145 each - weren't able to try the other iconic adventure activity, the Shotover Jetboat ride. Unexpectedly, they halted operations soon after we got there because there was too much water for the jetboats, which famously (and invented here in NZ I'll have you know) need a draught of only 4 inches.
We stayed at a very nice Airbnb outside town, tucked away down a country road on the way to Arrowtown. Kristen was almost exhaustingly chatty and friendly, welcoming us into her children's bedrooms upstairs which were perfectly comfortable and looked out over the tennis court and lots of rabbits. "Don't be startled if you hear a shot," we were told. She recommended a restaurant in Arrowtown, so we foolishly didn't get to sample the famous Chef's Choice at Amisfield, which I shall live to regret (especially when I have to write about it without ever having tasted it). Instead, we went to The Stables - in a typical Arrowtown old main street building, upstairs, lots of wood and stone, friendly fellow diners, and the cheeriest waitress ever. Good food, too, so really there's no cause for complaint.
The museum is well done there - extensive, thorough, interesting, museum guilt guaranteed - and, a novelty for this bit of the blog, giving a sympathetic view of the Chinese. Today they are everyone's (= my) unfavourite tourists because of their selfish and unpleasant (and sometimes dangerous) behaviour; but back in the goldrush days, they worked hard in great discomfort, were harshly discriminated against, and led tough lives, sending most of their earnings back home. Oh for a happy medium...

Arrowtown's Dorothy Brown's cinema is a lovely place: boutique, cosy, arty, with a fireplace, a bar and a bookshop. Very civilised, and named after a local character who may - or may not - have run an opium den. We saw The Big Short: I'm blaming the wine for my not following the financial intricacies of the plot.

Monday, February 15, 2016

NZ Roadtrip Otago: clay, Cardrona and Crown Range

I can’t imagine ever getting tired of the Lindis Pass. It hasn’t happened yet, despite having driven through there many times already. Those bare, brown rounded hills, that golden tussock, that invariably blue sky… it’s gorgeous. And it was just one of several quite different sorts of scenery on today’s route from the unarguably ugly little town of Twizel (built to house workers on the Benmore Dam back in the 60s and saved from demolition afterwards by the inexplicable enthusiasm of the residents).
First stop was near Omarama at the Clay Cliffs – such a typically factual NZ name – which are high, fluted, wind- and weather-shaped columns of silt and gravel, two million years in the making and every bit as good as anything Utah has to offer, if on a somewhat smaller scale. Then came Lake Wanaka, the town much bigger now than on my last visit, but nicely done, and the lake is still fringed by its iconic willow trees, a fabulous yellow foil in autumn for the deep blue of the lake and the snow on the surrounding mountains. We didn't stop: we'll be coming back for a proper look later.
Next was Cardrona, with its old wooden pub, still authentically weathered-looking, and welcoming inside with good food. Outside, three horses were tethered: now, that would be the way to explore this area, like the girls leading their packhorse back near the Clay Cliffs. Outdoors, connected, but not having to expend as much energy as the many cyclists (the Baby included in their number) toiling along these roads and trails.
The big novelty here is of course the Bra Fence. It changes all the time, sometimes the lingerie completely cleared away, but always soon replaced by more colourful bras. It’s a bit of a mystery, in its small (but sometimes double-D) way, but fun, too.
The Crown Range summit is higher than the Lindis, and gives southern-bound travellers their first glimpse of the tourist hub that is Queenstown. There are some sharp bends to negotiate first, though, and then a gentle drive past vineyards, willows and poplars, and Lake Hayes.
After all that open country, it’s a bit of a shock to get to Queenstown, with its wide roads, roundabouts, signs, chain stores and people. So many people! There’s a huge Chinese element these days, very noticeable not just because of their obvious ethnicity, but also their jostling and noisiness - and, disgustingly, the hoiking and spitting. It very soon becomes quite wearing, so it was a relief when the doors slid shut on the gondola up to Bob’s Peak, when all we could hear was “the gentle fraying of the cable” (joke).
The view from the top is always spectacular (“It’s like Windermere, except more stunning” conceded the Poms) and, even when forced to go down the nursery slope by the jobsworth operator, the Luge is always fun. Tip: just ignore the big yellow signs and don’t use your brakes at all. It all builds appetite for The Cow’s excellent pizzas and pasta, tucked away down its little lane and relatively peaceful, unlike the rest of the town, which was truly buzzing.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

NZ Roadtrip Akaroa: cat, dog and dolphin (not)

There was a 5.7 earthquake in Christchurch today, at lunchtime. It collapsed, fairly dramatically, part of the cliffs at Sumner, and no doubt opened up a lot of cracks around the city. Did we feel it? No, to the Poms' disappointment: we were in the car, and never noticed - though they did at Akaroa, where things fell off shelves. I was just quite glad we weren't in the gondola hanging off the Port Hills - or facing a tsunami along the Avon, in our punt.

Akaroa, on the other side of Banks Peninsula, was founded by Captain Jean Langlois, who missed out claiming the rest of the country for France by a matter of months. Ever since then, the settlement has clung to its Frenchness, which is now of course a wonderful tourism advantage, on top of its prime position alongside a sheltered harbour in a drowned volcanic crater. It's a pretty place, the streets all named Rue this and that, the buildings cute, the Tricouleur flying on the seafront, and an eager Town Crier in a tricorn hat called Steve Leli
èvre, who genuinely is of French descent - and whose ancestor, François, was the man who planted the cutting that Christchurch's willows are descended from.
As you would expect, food is of great importance, and our lunchtime cheese platter on the pavement in the sun was beautifully presented (by a French waiter), with pork belly, potato salad and toasted sunflower bread. We couldn't linger too long though: we had dolphins to find. Akaroa is home to the world's smallest and rarest dolphin, Hector's dolphin, which is cute and easily identified by its Mickey Mouse-shaped dorsal fin. 
We set off in Akaroa Dolphin's little catamaran, with dolphin-spotting dog Hector on board, togged up in his life-jacket (with its spoilsport Do Not Feed label). Apparently he is the real deal, and we were looking forward to seeing him do his thing - but, sadly, the dolphins were a no-show today, possibly because of the earthquake, since they had been seen that morning. (So, don't tell the others, it was just as well I've been up close to them in the Catlins.) But it wasn't a disaster: it was a lovely day, we saw fur seals and fairy penguins instead, impressive cliffs and salmon farms, went outside the heads, heard history and geology, and had a glass of wine. And afterwards, I even persuaded the Poms to eat fish and chips by the sea as the sun began to set: so, win!

Friday, February 12, 2016

NZ Roadtrip Christchurch: cracks, cones and cathedral

It's a bit odd, coming to your home town as a tourist. In the case of Christchurch, that's somewhat less the case since the city is superficially so very much changed, post-earthquakes, from the place I grew up in - though still itself, underneath. Well, not literally underneath - that's where all the fault lines and lurking liquefaction lie - but in the parts that weren't so much affected by the shakes. So that's not my side of the city, where I was astonished to see entire suburbs completely gone, just the road network and garden trees remaining: so disorientating that I got lost just blocks from where my former home still (fortunately) stands, apparently unharmed.

The roads are still bumpy, there are still ranks of cones everywhere, and the Cathedral is still its sad self, crumbling, open to the elements and the depredations of pigeons, its future still, after five years, undecided. But. There's a lot that's new too, and exciting, and fun. The clanking old trams are running frequently, their drivers maintaining an impressive level of enthusiasm in their continuous commentaries, the re:START mall of converted container shops is colourful and buzzing (and serving excellent food - pulled pork and beans taco, yum!), and there's lots to do.


The Christchurch Pass ($80) bought us entry to first of all the gondola up the Port Hills, the easy way up to a view (though I watched a man hiking up the Bridle Path with a toddler on his back) over the city to the mountains, and over Lyttelton Harbour. There's a Time Tunnel thing included, which is slightly naff, but ends with a rather touching message about the future from a young girl.

The second element is a punt ride along the Avon through the Botanic Gardens: half an hour of - well, not peace, there were too many people enjoying the river for that - but interest and colour, and fun. Our punter (?) was full of information  - I never knew the the city's weeping willows are all descendants of the tree that grew over Napoleon's grave on St Helena - and skilled at propelling the punt (unlike the *cough* Chinese trio in the canoe ahead of us, doggedly zigzagging from bank to bank). I liked that two ladies sitting on a park bench called out to us, "Are you enjoying our city?"

The third part of the Pass was the tram ride. There is a dining tram for what I imagine would be a pretty bumpy - but very good, I'm told - dinner; but we tried several other places during our stay. Casa Publica in pretty, restored Little Regent Street does a fabulous made-at-the-table guacamole; the Friday Food Trucks are less elegant, but the vibe was reminiscent of my youth's Friday nights in the city when the shops were open till 9pm! Best of all was Protocol, at the end of Colombo Street: pulled beef cheek on mash. Delicious.

We were up that end because our Airbnb place was up in Dyer's Pass Road, a grand old dame that the owners had bought as an insurance write-off, and were restoring. They have some way to go, but are full of the determined enthusiasm that kind of defines Christchurch now (if you overlook the worn-down depression that's resulted for many from insurance disputes and painfully slow progress).

But let's not finish on a low note: Christchurch is still a lovely city with much to offer and enjoy - Museum, Botanic Gardens, lively restaurant scene, shops, exciting renovations underway along the river, at the Arts Centre, Town Hall, pop-ups... It's a city just full of splendid sights.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

NZ Roadtrip Kaikoura: seals, seafood and spectacle

Right, so now the proper scenery begins. We took the ferry today to the South Island (not the InterIslander, above - Blue Bridge, which isn't quite as good, I have to say. It's old, crowded, and the café service should be better). We were blessed with a calm crossing of Cook Strait - which can challenge the strongest of stomachs, on a bad day - and had a superb glide through the Marlborough Sounds, through radiantly blue waters, past salmon pens and enviably isolated houses, into Picton.

We shot straight off (sorry Picton - but my! Haven't you grown!) and made a bit of a detour to one of our favourite Marlborough vineyards for spot of lunch: Cloudy Bay. As it happened, the tasting plates that we had with our wine were very accurately named that, and I came away still peckish - but the wine was excellent, and it was very pleasant to sit in the garden and look out over the hills that feature on their label.

We got into the scenery proper as we drove south down the coast to Kaikoura, mountains to the right, ocean to the left, and in between a ribbon of road edged with sandy beaches and rocky outcrops. Though it was the wrong time of year to see the pup crèche up the stream at Ohau Point (which we proved by going up there to look anyway), there were plenty of seals sunning themselves all along the coast - as well as some (sigh) Chinese tourists getting much too close to them.
Of course we'd been skiting to the Poms about Kaikoura crayfish, and so we stopped at Nin's Bin, which is an institution, the old roadside caravan predating the food truck phenomenon by years, to buy one. I remember paying soemthing like $13 back in 1980, but these days you have to cough up at least $50 for a taste of that delicate flesh - never mind, worth it. Now, what we should have done, authentically, was to sit down straight away at the picnic table right there by the shore, and rip into the cray. I mean, sunshine, fresh air, seagulls screeching, the cray still warm and coming with lemons supplied - not to mention stomachs still complaining after the short commons at Cloudy Bay... That's the proper way to eat a Kaikoura crayfish, up to your elbows in it. But it was too basic for the Poms, who wanted chips (chips!) and salad, and, especially wine and cutlery - so we ended up eating it indoors, in the formica glory of a 1960s motel. What a waste.
Whale-watching was suggested, as the other Kaikoura classic - there's the Hikurangi Trench close to shore that's hugely deep and brings nutrient-rich cold water welling up to the surface, so there are resident sperm whales here as well as frequent visiting humpbacks. But the Poms decided against it - and were rewarded, as we carried on driving south, by our spotting, and being thrilled by, a marvellous display close to shore by an enormous pod - 200, easy - of dusky dolphins, leaping, somersaulting and generally showing off, for ages. 

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

NZ Roadtrip Wellington: cruisers, cable cars and chowder

One thing about booking in a rush through Airbnb is that you’re never quite sure what you’re going to get, so it was an absolute delight to delve into an inner-city suburb and find that our home for the next two nights would be a perfect, pretty, classic Wellington villa. Two-storey, narrow, painted red outside and full of varnished old wood, books and comfortable beds inside, this Aro Street property is just charming. Everything we wanted was provided, and the central city was just a downhill wander away.
Chief amongst the attractions of course is Te Papa, the national museum – but here’s a word of warning to potential visitors: before you plan your day, google Wellington + cruise ships. Because today there were two in port, and the queues for the big exhibitions were horrendous. So instead we took advantage of the wonderful (and atypical) calm, sunny weather to stroll along the interesting waterfront, lined with plaques, artworks, pop-up shops in mini-shipping containers, parks, poetry and people – skateboarding, jumping into the water (how many capital city ports could you do that in, and not catch some horrible lurgy?), strolling and sunbathing and selfie-snapping.
Stepping into Shed 5 for lunch was a happy chance: the seafood chowder here is the best ever, and the waiter was so proprietorially enthusiastic that we ate much more than we’d intended, and had no regrets.
It’s a requirement, when you visit Wellington, to go up the old cable car to the top for the view; and also for a trail through the botanic gardens; and, most interestingly, to visit the cable car museum where there’s a really good video about the private cable cars that abound in Wellington’s steep suburbs – about 400 of them. One couple, endearingly, built theirs because their Labradors were getting too elderly to cope with their steps; another man got run away with in his and he and his dog had to bail out. 

Monday, February 8, 2016

NZ Roadtrip Napier: Packard, prison, priests

There’s something pretty special about being picked up from the door by a shiny green and black 1926 Packard complete with running boards and hat-friendly headroom. Cherrie, our Art Deco Trust guide, resplendent in a 1930s frock and shoes, was friendly and full of information about Napier before and after the massive 1931 earthquake (and subsequent fire) that destroyed the city, in one stroke snatching away the past, along with 286 lives, and delivering a bright new future on the land that rose from the sea.
It turns out Art Deco, the style of the day, is perfect earthquake-proof architecture: reinforced concrete boxes with no overhanging bits, but plenty of embossed decoration to raise the spirits both then and now. Napier is the world’s most complete Art Deco city (sorry, Miami) and it’s really worth a visit for a good poke around its streets. There’s even a Glasgow connection in the form of Charles Rennie Macintosh stained glass roses in the bronze lamps outside the National Tobacco Company’s beautiful building.
It’s not all colourful elegance, though: the prison up on the hill is a grim and depressing place, full of dark poky cells and equally dark stories. New Zealand’s oldest, it’s small, but there’s plenty of information packed into the audio tour and on the walls, much of it chirpily presented. Even so, there’s no getting past that it was a ghastly place to be incarcerated in, that it penned people up from 1862 right up to 1993, and that four people were hanged in its yard.
How nice to be able to let ourselves out through the big heavy gate and balance all that horror with the classy elegance of the Mission Estate vineyard nearby, again the country’s oldest, founded in 1851 by French missionaries. It’s in a beautiful old villa, the gardens neat and colourful, with a view over the vines. The food is excellent: perfect seafood chowder, and I recommend the Black Doris mille feuille, even if it’s nothing like the French version. Oh, and the wine’s pretty good, too.
Today’s last extreme were the heights of Te Mata Peak: steep, rocky and brown, where paragliders circled effortlessly overhead and joggers and cyclists sweated with rather more effort up the winding road and trails. Their reward was extensive views from the top of sea, beach, plains, hills, river – and the road, which will take us south tomorrow.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

NZ Roadtrip Taupo: Power and water

The Aratiatia Rapids not far from the town of Taupo are all about power. Not just hydro-electric, with the dam above the 28m drop being the first built on the mighty Waikato River, back in 1960; but also people power. The rapids were a popular tourist attraction, and the dam killed them stone dead, to the public's vocal dismay. Happily, the power company then agreed to open the gates three times a day for half an hour or so, in order that everyone could thrill again to the surge of water through the narrow, one kilometre-long spillway. It's an impressive display as the black rocks are gradually drowned by surging, foaming clear turquoise water - and, naturally, it was a gratefully exploited location for The Hobbit movie.
There's more turquoise water at Wairakei Terraces down the road, made milky this time by a silica suspension which includes lots of other reputedly therapeutic minerals. It's certainly a civilised place, restricted to age 14 and over (mostly well over), tastefully landscaped and planted with native bush. Scalding hot water streams over stalagmited terraces into four pools of different temperatures, warm to sweatily hot, and there can be few things more relaxing than lolling on a shelf, turning into a human prune while the steam rises above the manuka and tree ferns. Retreating under the hump-backed bridge to play troll when a passing shower plinks into the pools is as lively as it gets.
Out on a cruise on the lake, on the dinky little pretend-steamer the Ernest Kemp with its moderately crabby captain, you can see the much more elegant Barbary in action, taking guests on the standard tour of the town end of this vast lake (biggest crater lake in the world, they saw evidence of the eruption that caused it in ancient Rome and Greece, back in AD180). The Barbary was involved with power of a different sort, when she was one of the Greenpeace fleet to sail to Mururoa in 1973 to protest against French nuclear testing on the atoll. Now she takes it easy on the lake, cruising to the modern Maori rock carvings a couple of bays around.
They make a useful focus for the cruises, and a turning point, but the main joy of the outing is simply being on the water, looking (in vain, today, alas) for the mountains - Tongariro, Ngauruhoe, Ruapehu - at the end of the lake, and feeling mild envy for the owners of the flash holiday homes tucked into the bush; but, really, even on a cloudy afternoon, most jealous of the carefree boys having such fun plunging off a little island into the lake's clear, drinkable water.

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