Friday 12 October 2018

Stuff Readers Rail Tour - IMHO

Today I parted company from the Stuff Readers' Rail Tour, which still has five days to run. It's nothing personal: the route from here visits places most of which I've been to fairly recently, and the six days I've been with it have given me enough experience to be able to write my story about it. It was all arranged beforehand.

Am I a fan of the tour? Well, yes, I can definitely see the appeal for people, especially if they haven't been to the places on the route for a while - or even at all. There were some who were in Dunedin for their first time ever! Considering the group was pretty much all Kiwi Baby Boomers and above, I think that was a bit shameful. And others, who had already been, still enjoyed seeing them again - and not having to do the driving themselves this time.

Dale and Philip, plus the hostess (who changed halfway through) all did their best to make sure everyone had a good time. The guys were an especially good double act, friends since school and very laid-back and practical, as well as enthusiastic about the route they had chosen for us.

The hotels were all (apart from Greymouth) high quality, and the food, though buffets can get a bit samey, was ruinously good. The arrangements were seamless, the coaches comfortable, the drivers (especially Steve) excellent, and the trains were fun.

In Dunedin, after I left, some people chose to ride the Taieri Gorge Railway, then the coaches headed off to Te Anau, stopping in Mandeville to visit the air museum there (but sadly the weather would be too windy for anyone to do the biplane flight). The next day, from Te Anau they did a trip to Lake Manapouri, crossing on a boat to take another coach to Doubtful Sound for a cruise. Then it was off to Queenstown, for lunch at the Skyline, then via Arrowtown to overnight at Wanaka. Next day, they drove to Omarama to visit a salmon farm and then on to Mt Cook to stay at the Hermitage (where, I hope, the Greymouth dipper-outerers got the best rooms). There was a day of varied activities, like helicopter and ski plane adventures, hiking and so on, and then the next and final day there was a long drive via Tekapo and the Church of the Good Shepherd back through Geraldine to Christchurch.

My only reservation about the tour was the number of OWMs on board, and that's really a personal prejudice (born of oh! so many grim encounters) - and of course, that is a variable element. But on this particular tour there were a lot of very boring old men who droned on and on, and talked over everyone else (ie the women) and were just so insufferably self-important that the only answer, bar leaping off the train, was earplugs and Bohemian Rhapsody at high volume. Think I'm being super-sensitive? Then here's your proof:
Of course, if you're an OWM yourself, you'll be in your element!

Thursday 11 October 2018

Stuff Readers Rail Tour, Day 6 - Stone and silver

With thanks to Stuff Readers Rail Tour
It is a bit of a challenge, organising a rail tour in a country that has so few scheduled passenger trains, so today they laid on a special option: a chartered trip in the Silver Fern railcar from Christchurch down to Dunedin. It used to be a regular service, and maybe it will be again some day, but today we had the two carriages all to ourselves, as the train slid out of Addington station and headed south on a dullish, dampish morning.
We trundled further south, holding our breaths as we crossed the long Rakaia River bridge, and being served morning tea from a trolley by cheerful Cathy - "Which way do you prefer your tea stirred?" Honking enthusiastically at the slightest excuse, the driver took us down through farming country, past Timaru-by-the-sea to our first stop in Oamaru. I hadn't been here for ages, and was very taken with its famous local white stone heritage buildings, all very stately and with interesting occupants these days. There are cafés, restaurants, art galleries and craft and junk shops of course, but the star is Steampunk HQ.
The souped-up steam engine outside was a big Instagram focus for the many tourists, but inside it was cold, dark and spotlit, full of weird contraptions heavy on the rusted metal. To be honest, it was a bit strange and creepy, and what I liked best was the mirror room with coloured lights changing to the music. It's an odd idea, but Oamaru does very well out of it, especially at its Steampunk Festival in June when practically everyone dresses up in modified Victoriana.
From here we were taken by coach to Moeraki, to see the famous boulders on the beach. They are pretty amazing, so round, so old (120,000 years!) and so many of them, some still emerging from the cliff to fall onto the beach. Of course they are Instagram gold too, and there was a lot of posing going on. 
Up beside the café there was a remarkably relaxed deer in a paddock, perfectly happy to be stroked - my second cervine encounter of the trip. They took us then by coach to Palmerston to re-board the railcar for a trip along the coast past beaches, horses, cows, sheep, ducks and swans. We cruised around a headland, through four tunnels, past Port Chalmers and finally reached the Dunedin Railway Station.
The coaches took us to our hotel - the Scenic Southern, my second time there this year, yawn - where a piper in full kit was busy welcoming another group, so we eavesdropped on that (can you eavesdrop on bagpipes?) before heading to our rooms to gird our loins for yet another hard-to-resist buffet dinner - which tonight climaxed in blackcurrant cobbler with custard.

Wednesday 10 October 2018

Stuff Readers Rail Tour, Day 5 - Air and water

With thanks to Stuff Readers Rail Tour
Naturally, having been to the real thing, the activity offer this morning of the Antarctic Centre held no appeal, so instead I went to do something I'd never done before, despite growing up in Christchurch - kayaking along the Avon River. I went to Hagley Park to meet KT, who set up and runs ChCh Sea Kayaking. She's a real character, and the 3.5 hours I spent with her doing The Big Three tour were great fun. I should say Te Toru Nui, because she is proud of her Maori heritage and there was a Maori element running throughout, beginning with a karakia as we glided along the edge of the Botanic Gardens.
We'd clambered into the double kayak from a step she'd built herself opposite Christ's College, and which she protected from goose poo - "goose bombs" are a hazard on this activity. She'd done the safety briefing (try-hard Air NZ could learn a thing or two from her laid-back humour) and the guys in the other kayak and I felt perfectly at ease. It helps, of course, that the Avon is such a doddle, and we were going downstream on an outgoing tide - but there were distractions.
There were all the neat flowers, shrubs and trees of the Gardens, a bit of a hive of activity at the Boatshed, the tiny thrill of an even tinier set of rapids where the weir used to be, and then the sobering moment we drew alongside the Earthquake Memorial Wall. This marked our entry into the second sector of the Big Three - the city, and new territory for me since I had been punted through the Gardens before. It was really interesting to get a new angle on the city, to slide under the bridges (KT was big on testing echoes with loud cooees), look at the new and the old, the reconstructed and the still propped up, and to discover that there are eels right in the city centre.
We passed a Kate Shepherd memorial I'd never seen before ("That'll teach you guys to go to war and let us learn we can do stuff ourselves") and watched ducks with ducklings scooting across in front of us. We stopped when we got to the Margaret Mahy Playground, and got ourselves a good cup of coffee from the van there before heading off towards the third sector: the Red Zone. Here it got quieter, away from the traffic, and greener, as we passed through the suburbs that were so badly damaged in the earthquakes that the area has been completely cleared and won't be built on again. The gardens remain, though, so there are still trees and flowers, and bee hives, and walking/cycling tracks, and there are heartening plans for a recreational future.
It all looks so different that we passed the site of my school without my even noticing and before long at all were approaching the end of the tour at Kerr's Reach. There had been ducks, geese, swans, shags, eels, whitebaiters and whitebait; history, politics and opinion; some really great stories, and a lot of laughs. I thoroughly recommend a kayak with KT.
Returned by car to Hagley Park, I Ubered then out to the excellent Air Force Museum at Wigram, which was the official tour afternoon activity, and whisked around the professional displays inside the hangars. I especially enjoyed the Captured! section, which recreates the experience of a POW and includes lots of references to Stalag Luft III, with which regular readers 😀 will know I have a personal connection. And then that was it for today - good day. Thanks, Christchurch.

Tuesday 9 October 2018

Stuff Readers Rail Tour, Day 4 - Green and silver, blue and gold

With thanks to Stuff Readers Rail Tour

There was some barely-concealed envy this morning, when those of us who had been consigned to what was clearly, to us, the inferior hotel, came to breakfast with the others. They thought they too had been somewhat hard done by - but there was no comparison. Not that our hotel was bad, just very ordinary, cramped and basic (that's Greymouth for you) - but we were already used to finer things. Spoiler alert: there would be compensation once the tour reached Mt Cook.
Back on the bus, we headed south, across the new bridge that replaces the country's last road and rail bridge (which must have astonished and horrified foreign tourists over the years) and came to Hokitika. We cruised through the town, past the driftwood name-sculpture on the beach, the clocktower roundabout, all the paua and greenstone shops, and along the river which was busy with dedicated whitebaiters.
Our destination was the Mahinapua Treetop Walk, a relatively new operation that is pretty flash. It's the usual elevated walkway, but it's 450m long with a 40m high (or 116 step) tower giving views from the mountains to the sea, and over Lake Mahinapua. It's well done and, from the lack of vibrations, well-built too - though I was glad they provided one cantilevered section for people who like a bit of movement (me) to feel a small thrill. There was lots of birdlife and song, some very tall rimu trees and, back at the cafê, good coffee.
Then we drove back to Greymouth to fill in some time before our next train trip. I have to say, it's a depressing place, tatty and unkempt, with its loveliest things the art and souvenirs inside the shops and galleries. The Grey River would be an asset, if it weren't necessary to hide it behind a high stop-bank. I walked along the top, spotting yet more hopeful whitebaiters, and was quite moved by the excellent memorial to mining deaths, more than a century of them, covered in names from the various disasters, and ending (I hope) with Pike River.
And then it was time to board the TranzAlpine train for our ride across the narrowest bit of the Mainland, through the Southern Alps to Christchurch. It was my second time aboard, the first a few years ago in summer, and I was hoping that this time there might be snow to enjoy - but not really, as it turned out. No matter: it's always a spectacular trip. First of all there's the subdued green and silver of the Coast, with misty Lake Brunner, and an area of untouched virgin bush that's so high and dense that calling it 'bush' is a real insult. The commentary is interesting - in 1908 the Blackball miners went on strike for a half-hour lunch break, an improvement on the fifteen minutes they'd been allowed in their ten-hour day
Then came the Otira tunnel, where a row of peeling houses looked dreary enough without our being told that in winter they get only two hours of sunshine a day - and 5m of rain a year. For the next 15 minutes we sat in the dark as we went through the 8.5km tunnel - 15 years to build, on a 1:33 incline - to emerge into glorious sunshine. 
We stopped briefly at Arthur's Pass, where this time there was no kea perching on the sign, and then continued through the golden tussock country to the dramatic Waimakariri Gorge, the blue of the river far below as we crossed a series of bridges and viaducts. 
The contrast with the other side of the Alps was stunning, and we chugged smugly across the farmland of the Canterbury Plains into Christchurch, my home town, where we were to spend two nights at the Commodore Hotel.

Monday 8 October 2018

Stuff Readers Rail Tour, Day 3 - Larks up, ponies down

With thanks to Stuff Readers Rail Tour
As is usual with this sort of tour, it pays to be a lark, rather than an owl. Which I am, fortunately - bags out by 7.15am is no problem for me though others of my acquaintance would be still in their pit for hours after that time, given half a chance. Tough! We set off at 8am for the Coast, stopping for morning tea in little Murchison. It's a pretty low-profile sort of place, famous really just for its 7.3 earthquake in 1929 which killed 17 people. But it's cute, and has some quirkily interesting shops - one an old stable full of quaint arty junk, another a still-original general store with high shelves and a ladder on wheels for accessing them, and the last a very well-endowed thrift shop with everything from old milk bottles to sets of antlers. Well worth a couple of hours' browsing - but of course we had none of that, pressing onwards to our first proper stop, Westport.
I'm ashamed to say that despite having been to the West Coast many times, I never quite got up to Westport - and that was missing out, because it's a cute little place. Our main focus there was the Coaltown Museum - but first I had another duty to fulfil. The Coast is famous for its whitebait, and it was lunchtime so I had a nice big brown bread fritter sandwich. Delicious!
Then the museum - it's surprisingly flash and professional. Sorry, Westport, that's a bit patronising - but you're a little fishing town right out of the way, and there's been some real money spent here. Mind, Westport has generated plenty of that in its time, which no doubt funded the impressive Town Hall next door, and which the museum told me all about - some gold, but mainly coal, and lots of it. And of course, along with the coal, much hardship and suffering and death, none of which the museum glosses over. (I might have preferred not to know just how horrible life was for the pit ponies.)
But it was interesting stuff - as well as canaries, they used mice in boxes to monitor air quality - and the mock-up of the steeply-angled cart from the Denniston Incline was astonishing. There were videos to watch inside a mine, and the guide was keen to share information and personal experience. Speaking of which, I was really glad to be in Steve's bus today, because he was a miner for a while, and he had some graphic and very personal stories to tell that kept us all agog on the drive down to Greymouth. That was a real bonus, and I appreciated his honesty, especially about Pike River, which is currently in the news. It's a terrible job. 
We stopped at the Kilkenny Lookout over Hawk Crag, which is a quite spectacular bit of engineering - or maybe just plain hard work, hewing a roadway across the stony cliff face. And then we got to Punakaiki, where nature shows us what real engineering looks like, with the sculpted stacks of rock and the surge pool that was scarily impressive even without much of a wind today. 
Not that that stopped the person who ignored the warning signs and stood on top of the wall on the very edge of the drop for a selfie. I was waiting for Darwin to strike, but they were lucky this time.
You'll be glad to learn that the busy café across the road hasn't missed a marketing opportunity. And I have to report that Greymouth doesn't seem to have changed much in the five years or so since I was here. Or, in fact, the forty-odd years since I first visited...

Sunday 7 October 2018

Stuff Readers Rail Tour, Day 2 - Admiring Nelson

With thanks to Stuff Readers Rail Tours
Ah, how prescient! At breakfast a boring and bossy OWM (double that, since he's from Yorkshire) showed his true colours by dissing the World of Wearable Arts museum which was one of today's optional activities for the tour. So it was a matter of honour for me, although I have been to it before and had other made other plans, to make a point of going there to enjoy (again) its fabulously arty offerings. 
First, though, I had another task: to walk to the Centre of New Zealand. Although it's actually a lot more accessible than that sounds, my time was now short so it was more of a route march that I took through about four blocks of suburbs, across a park and up Botanical Hill on a zigzag path through the bush. Arriving, panting and sweaty (it's not that I'm so very unfit - it was a warm morning) at the top, I found an oversized surveyor's instrument pointing down at a plaque claiming that this is the very centre of the country. It's all nonsense, of course - the reasoning was, back in 1877, that Nelson is the central province of the twelve in the country, and on this hill is where the surveyors decided, entirely arbitrarily it seems, to begin all their triangulations. But never mind - it has a lovely and extensive 360 view of sea, city and mountains, and no-one can be much bothered disputing the claim.
I hurtled back to the hotel and boarded the bus to WOW, which was as sophisticated, imaginative and arty as I remembered it, the costumes quite phenomenally detailed and impressively engineered. Pft, OWM! And then, of course, there were the classic cars right next door, a whole heap of them, shiny and elegant, and a surprising number of them with personal connections: a blue Vauxhall Velox, a Morris 8, a Wolseley, and even a 1908 Renault (I once went on a rally in a beautiful 1912 model). Plus there was a duck in the pond outside with a remarkable 13 fluffy ducklings.
The rest of the day was free so I spent it wandering around pretty Queen's Gardens, with its serpentine lake, water wheel, ducks and eels; and then mooching around the nearby Suter Art Gallery (which is free). Usual story - some lovely stuff, some dumb, just as it should be - plus a popular café beside the lake. The Nelson Museum, on the other hand, cost a whole $5 to enter, so it was just as well it was good, and full of interesting facts: Maori dogs didn't bark; the Farewell Spit gannets began with 9 individuals in 1981 and now number 3,000 pairs; the country's first rugby game was played in that park I walked through, in 1870 (teams of 18 each side, and no referee); and Nelson has its own flag.
It was a lovely sunny afternoon for wandering, Nelson's heritage buildings looking pretty, and we were all relaxed at our group dinner where Dale and Philip did the first of a humorous regular double act briefing us about tomorrow's route to the West Coast.

Saturday 6 October 2018

Mainland tour, Day 10 - Joining the Stuff Readers Rail Tour

With thanks to Stuff Readers Rail Tour
Today we finished with our own private famil, set up to generate material for my World Famous in NZ column, and joined the main reason (as if anyone ever needs one) for coming down to the Mainland (aka South Island). Available to readers of the Stuff newspapers, this is nominally a train tour - but, given that there aren't that many passenger trains in NZ any more, it also includes a big coach element - that takes place in each island every year, and has done for about 20 years. The routes vary a bit, Dale and Philip who currently organise it having a great time researching new things to see each time, but inevitably cover roughly the same destinations. 
This one began in Wellington yesterday, and we were to join it in Picton when everyone arrived on the Interislander. That left me with a bit of spare time this morning, which I spent in the Picton Museum being horrified by their comprehensive whaling exhibit. It was a relief to escape to the railway station to check in with Dale and board, with the others, the Marlborough Flyer's fabulous 1915 Passchendaele steam engine waiting there in all its red, black and brass glory.
The carriages were authentically wooden and spartan by modern day standards, but it wasn't a long journey - just under an hour to Blenheim, including an unscheduled stop due to an entanglement with a fence (yes, very odd). No-one minded; and we were soon literally steaming along again, people waving and taking photos, the wheels rattling over the rail joints, the whistle blowing at every crossing, the staff friendly and chatty. 
Then we piled onto two coaches for the drive to Nelson via a stop at Pelorus Bridge, which crosses high above the river and is famously scenic (though perhaps not so much in today's dull weather). I swam in that river as a child but I think I'm too soft now to cope with that fabulously clear, but chillingly cold, water.
Arriving finally in Nelson, we checked into the Rutherford Hotel, now part of a group of about 80 people, ranging in age from 60 to 90, a mixture of couples and singles from both islands, quite a few of them repeaters on the tour. Though we missed last night's meet and greet, today they all seem jolly and cheerful, even the OWMs. Time will tell, she said darkly.

Friday 5 October 2018

Mainland tour, Day 9 - Pelorus pigs

With thanks to Destination Marlborough
I'd been really looking forward to today, and it felt like a gift that we opened the curtains to classic sunny Marlborough weather. The Vintner's Hotel supplied us with a very promising-looking (and large) picnic lunch hamper to take with us, and we drove very happily back towards Havelock for our day out on a Pelorus Mail Boat Cruise.
The route varies according to the day of the week and today, Friday, we were headed along Pelorus Sound on the outer route, which would take us via many stops right to the mouth of the sound. No day is the same, depending on who has mail, or groceries, or goods, or people - even, sometimes, livestock - to be either delivered or collected. I was expecting it to be scenic - it's the Marlborough Sounds! - but I was very pleasantly surprised to find it was much more than that.
Captain James and his two crew mates were relaxed and friendly, happy to share information about their bit of the world via a droll commentary and answers to questions. We got history (the mailboat run began in 1922), mussel farms, forestry, farming - but also characters and an unexpected animal element. It seemed that everyone on the route, whose homes were hours and hours by dodgy road from town, and sometimes not accessible by road at all, looked forward to their weekly contact and were keen to show off to their visitors. 
So while mailbags, gas bottles, boxes of groceries, lengths of timber and so on were being handed over, we passengers were introduced to tame sheep, dogs, and even pigs. Their owners were chatty, let some kids feed a big fat lamb, told us about the animals - Boris, Ruby, Paul, Buddy... - and were clearly pleased to see us all. 
The pigs were amazing - HUGE, some of them spotted, and one incredibly slobbery. Of course part of that was because the boat crew had trained them to expect biscuits or pellets. At one jetty we didn't see any people at all, just two pigs and a Labrador; but mostly our visit was a highlight of the day - especially to chirpy old Bill, 93 years old and living on his own in a neat little house with his latest boat project hauled up on the beach in front of it. 
At Forsyth Lodge, they proudly pulled a basket up from below the jetty filled with big crayfish for their guests' dinner that night. Further on, Brian, obviously happy to be a bit of a hermit, waved a handful of notes at the crew when he handed over a parcel to be posted; "$15? $50? Take it, it's no use to me here".
And then there were the dusky dolphins riding the bow wave and jumping as we sped away; seals sunning themselves on buoys; passengers happily steering the boat; and our delicious picnic hamper to work through as we sailed through consistently gorgeous scenery. We got back to Havelock after 185km and seven very happy hours; and drove back to the hotel to have dinner in a noisy pub nearby, the Cork and Keg, which served ok food but a very nice rhubarb cider.


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