Back in a few days!

I’m writing this post in the business class (!) lounge at Singapore airport, and will schedule it to be published while we’re at 10,000 metres over Central Asia on our way back to the UK.

Lyrics from Pink Floyd’s ‘Wish you were here’ on a vehicle in the car park at the Frans Joseph glacier

I’m almost two weeks behind with my posts thanks to a surfeit of stuff to write about and some flaky internet connections in parts of rural New Zealand. When I’m back in the UK I’ll need to take a few days off from the blog to recover from jet lag and get myself sorted for Christmas.

But I’m determined to report back on the rest of our trip, and hope to start posting again around the middle of December. I’ll aim to wrap things up in early to mid-January.

There’s lots of good stuff on the way, including more fabulous scenery and some enormous sea lions, as well as penguins, parrots, albatrosses, Maori culture, crazy modern art … and, finally, some glorious weather. Don’t you wish you were here?

Watch this space!

Midnight kiwi capers

15 November 2019

The kiwi, New Zealand’s iconic bird, is nocturnal, secretive and rare. The chances of us ever tracking one down without help are remote, so we’ve hired a local expert to help us out. Stewart Island (Rakiura) boasts several experienced birders selling their guiding services, but Ulva’s reputation surpasses all the rest. If anybody’s going to find us a kiwi it’s Ulva, and we’re lucky she’s available.

Darkness has fallen as we make our way to Ulva’s offices at around 10pm, where she issues us with torches that shine red light. Being nocturnal, kiwis operate primarily by smell. Their eyesight is poor, but a normal white torchlight may scare them off. However they can’t see red light at all. This is a great help for spotting kiwis, but not so good for taking photos of them. Using flash is totally forbidden; at best it will alarm them, and at worst blind them.

We clamber into Ulva’s 4×4, and she proceeds to drive us around Stewart Island’s road network in search of the elusive bird. “Road network” is maybe overstating it a bit; only 3% of the island is open for settlement, the rest being either a nature reserve or in the ownership of the Rakiura Maori Lands Trust. In total the public highway extends to no more than 25 kilometres.

Ulva knows every metre of Stewart Island roads intimately, and also knows where kiwi are most likely to be seen. As the rain falls steadily we check out all her favourite haunts, but there’s no sign of a kiwi at any of them. We do however spot several other search parties shining torches beneath bushes and into dark rocky corners, all on a similar quest to ours. It’s evident from their body language that they’re having no more luck than us.

Ulva decides to try a different approach, checking out a stretch of beach where kiwis are know to feed, and a fence-line where they sometimes forage, but again to no avail. The rain is getting heavier, and our morale is sinking fast. It’s now approaching midnight, and Ulva decides to retrace our journey of earlier in the evening to see if the situation has changed.

We’re driving along a narrow, dark road that’s lit only by the car headlights when we spot movement on the roadside to our left. Ulva slams on the brakes, and for maybe five seconds we have a great view of a Little Blue Penguin. Even in the difficult light we can clearly pick out his brilliant white waistcoat and the hint of blue in the feathers on his back, before he scuttles off into the bush. Unfortunately there’s no time to get a photo, but the image below (taken in Tasmania) shows the bird’s key features.

The Little Blue is the world’s smallest penguin. It nest in small numbers all around the coast of New Zealand, and in parts of Australia too where it’s called the Fairy Penguin. They nest in burrows some distance inland, staying out at sea during daylight and returning to their chicks with food in the dark of night.

A penguin wasn’t what he had in mind for tonight’s expedition, but at least we’ve seen something. We carry on driving the roads. I’m sitting upfront, next to Ulva, scanning the road hopefully. I spot some movement and shout “stop.” Ulva pulls up sharply, and as she does so a smallish, brown/grey bird flies up from the ground where it’s been feeding on roadkill. It’s a tiny owl called a Morepork, named after its distinctive call.

PHOTO CREDIT: Mosborne01 [CC0]

We leap out of the car and scan the tree into which it flew. It takes off again and circles the trees for maybe a minute, before disappearing for good. Again it’s impossible to take a photo, but finally catching sight of a bird we’ve heard a few times previously is an unexpected bonus. The image above from Creative Commons shows what a Morepork looks like in daylight, although the bird’s tiny size is difficult to appreciate.

It’s now approaching 1.00am, and despite the penguin and the owl we’re feeling miserable. Our best chance of seeing a kiwi seems to have passed us by. Ulva decides to take one final drive along a road where she’s had success recently. She drives slowly, and we’re all scanning ahead and to the side of the car.

Suddenly Mrs P shouts “There! There! There!”. We look ahead and to the left, and spot the unmistakable shape of a kiwi. Ulva stops and kills the headlights, and we all leap from the car brandishing our red-light torches. The kiwi is a few metres from us, apparently unaware of us, or at least untroubled by our presence.

We watch, transfixed, for a couple of minutes until, amazingly, a second kiwi appears. It’s much bigger than the first bird, with a longer beak, and must therefore be a female. She chases him into the bush and seconds later a deafening screech comes from his direction. It’s not clear what she’s done to provoke such a response, but it is an unearthly noise and if we didn’t know the cause a supernatural explanation would have appeared plausible.

As if to mark the success of our kiwi search the rain has stopped, and the sky is now crystal clear. Stewart Island is an acclaimed ‘dark sky area’, and in the darkness we can see countless stars shining their light upon us. From a gloomy start the night has turned magical, and without doubt will remain one of the highlights of our visit to New Zealand.

We assume that the show’s over, but amazingly a third kiwi has appeared from the bush and is working his way calmly along the roadside verge, plunging his beak deep into the grass in search of food. Being flightless he can’t take to the wing to get away, but in any case he seems happy where he is, completely ignoring his entranced admirers.

We watch for maybe 15 minutes, getting unforgettable views of a magnificent, iconic bird. The red light makes photography very difficult, but it doesn’t really matter: this memory will stay with us forever.

To the end of New Zealand: Stewart Island

15 November 2019

We’re on our way to Stewart Island, New Zealand’s third largest island. It lies 30 kilometres south of the South Island, across the Foveaux Strait. There’s no car ferry to Stewart, so we have the choice of flying in an eight-seater aircraft or taking a passenger ferry that has room for a few dozen victims.

I use the word “victims” advisedly as this crossing is notoriously rough. But the plane journey is also infamous, and the locals – who know about these things – say that if you want to visit Stewart Island you have a choice between 20 minutes of terror and 60 minutes of horror. We’ve opted for the latter, but first we’ve got a drive of several hours to get to Bluff harbour at the southern tip of South Island.

On the way we drop in at the Clifden Suspension Bridge. It’s trumpeted as a historic landmark, but one thing we’ve learned since coming here is New Zealand is so lacking in old stuff that anything that’s been around for more than a century attracts a lot of interest.

If I were being churlish I would say that it’s not a patch on the similarly named Clifton Suspension Bridge in the UK, but at 112 metres it represents a decent piece of civil engineering for a remote part of New Zealand in 1898/99. A single lane bridge, it was originally used by horse and cart traffic and later by motor vehicles, and remained in operation until 1978.

We make one more stop before parking up for our trip to Stewart Island, when we call in at the Invercargill Water Tower. It’s one of several water towers we’ve visited on this trip, and although it doesn’t sound at all interesting in our view it’s a bit of an architectural gem. The New Zealand History website says that it combines utility and beauty, which sums it up nicely.

It’s time to park the car at the harbour and board the ferry to Stewart Island. Our luggage is place into bins and loaded on to the back the boat by crane, and a few minutes later we’re ready to set off.

Luckily the sea is relatively calm, but the crossing is ruined by some of our fellow passengers, a large group of rowdy young men evidently on their way to a stag party on the island. The beer flows freely, and the young men behave boorishly and shout a lot as the alcohol kicks in. Oh, such nostalgia, we could be back in the UK! …

… Until we arrive at Stewart Island, that is. The island policeman has been tipped off about the yobs’ arrival, and is there at the quayside to welcome them. He takes them aside and gives them a stern lecture on what is and is not acceptable on this island whose resident population is 380 civilians plus one policeman.

Stewart is a law-abiding island. We’re told that there’s only ever been one murder here, in the 1840’s. Nobody was arrested, but we’re reassured that investigations are ongoing and an announcement is expected soon. I think I’m going to like this place.

But for now there’s no time to explore. We need to get to our accommodation and sort ourselves out as soon as possible, because at 10pm tonight we’re booked on to a kiwi-spotting expedition. This will be our best opportunity to meet up with New Zealand’s most iconic bird, and we’re on high alert.

Will we or won’t we see a wild kiwi for first and probably the only time in our lives? Check out my next post to find the answer.

Hello campers!

15 November 2019

Visitors to New Zealand are promised “the open road”, in other words lots of tarmac and not much traffic driving on it. And in places it’s true that other vehicles are thin on the ground, just the occasional logging truck hurtling towards you recklessly, or the odd 4×4 overtaking with scant regard for either the speed limit or basic common sense.

However, as we’ve headed into the tourist hotspots of the south-west, we’ve encountered busier roads. The buses taking tourists to and from their Milford Sound cruises seemed to come along every minute or two, and down at the harbour they had a whole car park to themselves. Definitely not what we expected, or wanted to come across in a remote corner of New Zealand’s South Island..

More common and more annoying still are the motor homes, and their irritating little cousins, the camper vans. They’re all over the place down here, buzzing around frantically like wasps round a jam sandwich. Whole sections of car parks are made over to these monsters, but that doesn’t stop them encroaching on to the space set aside for ordinary car drivers like me.

However I will admit we have fallen slightly in love with the Jucy camper vans. Their lime green livery and cheeky decals of a mini-skirted young lady blowing a kiss stand out amongst the white vehicles that dominate New Zealand’s roads (I would guess that at least 80% of cars and vans here are white, including ours – BORING!).

As well as the image of the flirtatious young lady, Jucy camper vans are emblazoned with pithy aphorisms and slogans, like “The glass is half full … and the other half was delicious” and “Always take the scenic route … especially if you’re lost.”

Not exactly worthy of a Pulitzer Prize, and it makes you think doesn’t it – locked away in an office somewhere is a young marketing executive who’s getting paid to think up stuff like that. But never mind, it’s simple, harmless fun, and god knows we could all do with some of that right now.

Jucy camper vans (or Jucy Lucy vans as we call them) are plainly targeted at a specific demographic: young, hip and adventurous, so you’ll never see me and Mrs P inside one. And anyway, at my time of life I relish sleeping in a bed with a decent mattress located within stumbling distance of a sanitary, flushing toilet. If only we were 40 years younger!

The magic of Doubtful Sound

14 / 15 November 2019

We’re off on another cruise down one of the fiords that grace the coastline of this part of New Zealand, and this time we’re staying on board overnight. But Doubtful Sound is more remote than its cousin Milford, which we visited a couple of days ago. It’s about 50 kilometres (31 miles) from the nearest inhabited place, the small town of Manapouri, and is surrounded by mountainous terrain with peaks typically reaching 1,300–1,600 metres (4,300–5,200 ft). Along the coast, there are no settlements for about 200 kilometres (120 miles) in either direction.

Crossing Lake Manapouri

To reach Doubtful Sound we must first take a 45 minute boat ride to the far end of Lake Manapouri. When we disembark squadrons of murderous sandflies circle around us. Not many people come here, so when these wretched mini-Draculas catch our scent they swarm all over us in their thousands, all hoping for a blood-fest.

Waterfall and rainforest at the Wilmot Pass

Our specially commissioned minibus arrives to rescue us from our sandfly misery, and soon we’re off on the next leg of our trip. We travel for around 60 minutes on a gravel road, climbing up a mountainside to cross over the Wilmot Pass through Fiordland’s rainforest, and then descending on the other side to the wharf at Milford.

The gravel road does not connect with South Island’s main network of highways. It and the wharf only exist courtesy of the hydro-electric company that generates power on Lake Manapouri. The outlet pipe for the power station discharges into Doubtful Sound, and its construction and maintenance has resulted in the limited developments that has made tourism possible here.

Our first view of Doubtful Sound, viewed from the Wilmot Pass

This cruise is billed as an exclusive, luxury experience so there are just 10 passengers, plus the skipper and a chef who will attend to our every culinary need for the next 24 hours.

Of course “luxury” is difficult to achieve on such a small boat, but at least Mrs P and I are staying in the relatively spacious master cabin at the bow (or the sharp, pointy end, as Mrs P likes to call it.) We can feel the eyes of our fellow passengers boring into us as we make our way forward, past their lowly cabins to our own floating palace.

Our ‘palace’ at the ‘sharp pointy end’ of the boat.

Do we feel slightly awkward or embarrassed? No, not a bit. In life you win some and lose some, and this time we won big. Thank you to our agents, New Zealand in Depth, for being on the ball and making sure our name was at the top of the list.

By the time we’ve got ourselves sorted out in our cabin, a welcome lunch is being served upstairs on the main passenger deck. The skipper casts off and sets sail up Doubtful Sound, passing towering waterfalls along the way, while we dine like royalty.

Our cruise along Milford Sound took place on a glorious, sunny day. We thought that was great, but old Milford hands told us that the place has more atmosphere in gloomy weather. We visit Doubtful Sound on just such a day: grey, dull, and misty, and the place does indeed have a brooding, slightly eerie atmosphere.

A perch for our supper

One of the advantages of being on such a small boat is that it allows passengers to get closer to the water than was possible on the Milford Sound trip. Some of our fellow passengers enjoy a spot of kayaking, and there’s an opportunity to fish for our supper.

This handsome dogfish was released after the obligatory trophy photos

Personally I’m uncomfortable with the taking of any life for sport, so am delighted that the handsome dogfish is released from the hook and put back continue his life in the Sound. However perch make good eating, so I have no objections when it is despatched quickly and humanely, and served up to us a couple of hours later.

A rainbow stretches from side to side across the Sound

After a peaceful night’s sleep anchored in a sheltered cove we set off along the Sound again. Rain has set in, but it brings an unexpected bonus in the form of a bright, iridescent rainbow.

One of the very few other boats on Doubtful Sound

While in Milford Sound there were large numbers of tourist boats, here on Doubtful there are only a couple of others and although we see them briefly they are soon out of sight and forgotten. It feels as if we have the Sound to ourselves.

A shag in search of a late breakfast … or maybe an early lunch?

Except for the birds, that is. Mrs P is delighted to take this photo of a shag in flight, its head thrust forward as it makes its way along the water, presumably in search of a late breakfast or an early lunch.

Fiordland Crested Penguins

Bur pride of place must go to the Fiordland Crested Penguins. These birds are very rare, but this is now the third or fourth good sighting we have enjoyed in recent days.

Finally, after almost 24 hours on board, our Doubtful Sound cruise comes to an end. It’s been a magical experience, with majestic scenery, some great wildlife and superb hospitality from the crew. Definitely one of the main highlights so far of our visit to New Zealand.

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On Milford Sound

12 November 2019

We open the curtains at our lodge accommodation with some trepidation. Milford Sound gets an average of 641 centimetres (252 inches) of rain a year, and is the wettest inhabited place in New Zealand, and one of the wettest in the world. Given our bad luck with the weather so far this trip, we could be in for another deluge here.

But, joy of joys, the sun’s out and the sky’s blue, so we make our way down to the harbour with a spring in our steps. We board our gleaming catamaran with a few dozen other fellow travellers and prepare to head out along the Sound.

Here’s a little question for you: when is a sound not a sound. Answer: when it’s a fiord (fjord). Sounds are carved out of the landscape by rivers, while fiords are scraped and scoured out of the bedrock by glaciers. Milford Sound was formed by the process of glaciation over several million years and should therefore more properly be called Milford Fiord. But what’s in a name? However it was created, Milford Sound is pretty damned impressive, with sheer rock faces on either side that rise as high as 1,200 metres (3,900 feet).

Within a few minutes of leaving the harbour we are alongside one of the Sound’s most spectacular features, the Lady Bowen Falls. As one of only two permanent waterfalls in Milford Sound, the falls provide electricity for the Milford Sound settlement by feeding a small hydroelectric scheme. It’s also the source of their fresh water.

As well as the two permanent waterfalls there are many others that appear after heavy rain. Because there’s been so much rain recently there are plenty of falls along the length of the Sound for us to admire. Our boat noses underneath one of them to give the passengers a closer look.

A plucky crew member, kitted out in waterproofs and wearing a long-suffering expression, is despatched to collect water as it cascades on to the bow of the boat. Glasses are then passed round, so we can all try mountain fresh, ice cold water. It’s a kind offer, but one I find I can resist without too much trouble.

The boat ploughs on, and we continue to enjoy the scenery. Rudyard Kipling came here, and reportedly described this place as the 8th Wonder of the World. That’s probably overdoing it a bit, but it’s easy to see why Milford Sound inspired him.

But it’s not just the scenery. The wildlife here is special too, and we are pleased to meet up once again with our friend from earlier in this trip, the Fiordland Crested Penguin. At first we encounter one paddling past our catamaran, seemingly unperturbed by our presence.

A little later on, close to the mouth of the Sound, the skipper edges close to the rocks where these penguins have been seen on previous trips, and we’re pleased to see one. The waves are crashing into the rock on which he sits. He looks uncomfortable, but I guess it’s all in a day’s work to a bird that’s adapted to live most of its life in the ocean.

Having reached the end of the Sound we turn, and edge our way back towards the harbour, passing waterfalls large and small. Stirling Falls is a massive 151 metres high.

We’ve opted for the super-deluxe trip, so we break our journey at the Harrison Cove Underwater Observatory, for a glimpse of life beneath the surface of Milford Sound. Here’s how they describe their operation:

You’ll descend 64 steps (10 metres) underwater into a large, fully air-conditioned viewing area where windows with excellent clarity open your eyes to this underwater haven. Unlike an aquarium, the fish are free to come and go; it’s the people who are contained.

SOURCE: Southern Discoveries website, retrieved 24 November 2019

The Observatory certainly adds a whole new dimension to the Milford Sound experience. The “black coral” – which is actually white until it dies – is delicate and beautiful. Occasionally a fish swims past, and we are told that if you’re lucky – we aren’t, sadly – you may even catch a glimpse of a penguin or a seal.

Milford Sound is regarded by many as New Zealand’s most famous tourist destination. It’s certainly big business. During our morning on the water we spot a number of other vessels undertaking similar cruises. But the Sound is huge and can easily accommodate the numbers, and I’m sure that all the visitors leave happy with the experience they’ve had. Milford Sound is a very special place.

Scenery overload: the road to Milford Sound

11 November 2019

We’re off to Fiordland on the south-western coast of South Island. This is one of New Zealand’s main tourist hotspots on account of the majestic scenery, but before we get there we drop off at a little known tourist attraction, the Kingston Flyer.

It’s sad to see a vintage steam train parked up in the sidings, plainly going nowhere any time soon. It’s been here, gathering dust and growing rust, since 2013 when tourist excursions on the 14 kilometres line were suspended only two years after they were launched. A report in the Otago Times from December 2018 said that the owners hoped to have the line up and running by November 2019, so that deadline’s been missed.

Meanwhile the café on Kingston station platform looks forlorn. No trains means no tourists, and no tourists means no mocha for me, and no hot chocolate for Mrs P. Time to move on.

The drive to Milford Sound takes, a few hours, partly because it’s a long, steep, and twisty road. But mainly because it’s so scenic, and we keep stopping for photos.

Many of the peaks are still dusted with snow, adding to their visual appeal.

This place gets a lot of rain, so we get to cross lots of rivers. We do a couple of short walks, and one of these takes us across a swing bridge that lives up to its name, swaying lustily to the stamp of our feet.

There are views of the mountains around every corner, and as we wend our way towards the Sound those views get steadily more impressive.

The key landmark on the road to Milford Sound is the Homer Tunnel. It’s 1.2 kilometres long and took around 20 years to build, World War 2 and a major avalanche both greatly interfering with the project.

Either side of the Homer Tunnel are stern warnings not to stop, as avalanches are frequent. We do as we’re told, and are pleased to get through without a problem. Others aren’t so lucky, and a few days after we leave the area the road is closed for three days by a massive avalanche.

The road down to Milford is surprisingly busy, mostly with tourist buses conveying groups to meet up with the ships that will take them for a cruise along the Sound. It’s apparent from the bus traffic that these cruises are a large and lucrative part of the local tourist market.

We are fortunate that after days of indifferent weather things are looking up. The sky is blue and the sun sparkles off the water cascading down the countless falls, from raging torrents to tiny trickles.

The scenery is breath-taking. Milford Sound itself has a superb reputation, but I hadn’t expected the approach road to be so spectacular.

At last we’re nearing the end of the road. We’re staying the night in a Lodge next to the Sound, and tomorrow join a cruise to enjoy this magical landscape from a different angle. And I won’t even have to drive!

New Zealand’s most photographed tree

10 November 2019

We were passing, and simply had to drop in to see New Zealand’s most photographed tree. It’s a willow and started life as a fencepost, simply a branch hacked off a nearby tree 80 years ago with a wire attached to it to keep someone’s sheep in … or out, depending on which side of the fence you’re on.

But in the manner of some willow branches it took root, and whereas all its fencepost buddies have rotted away our hero has gone from strength to strength, sitting with his feet in the shallow water at the edge of Lake Wanaka. Not only that, our Willy’s become a celebrity.

The story goes that around 2011 local Wanaka photographers and writers began flooding social media sites with images of the tree as a bit of a joke. It plainly touched a chord, and two or three years later Lake Wanaka Tourism put Willy on its photo trail. Around the same time Christchurch photographer Dennis Radermacher took Willy’s photo on a misty June day, and won the 2014 New Zealand Geographic photograph of the year.

Willy had made the big time, and continues to go from strength to strength. Blogging apart I don’t do social media, but I have it on good authority that the tree has its own Facebook page and Twitter account (#ThatWanakaTree) and is big on Instagram too. Call me a miserable old curmudgeon (many people do, even Mrs P when I go off on one) but I can’t help wondering if the whole world isn’t completely out to lunch!

Mrs P enjoys photography, and snapped away merrily for 20 minutes, relishing the warm afternoon light on Willy’s tender green leaves. You can see a couple of her efforts on this page.

Meanwhile I was people watching. Men and women of all ages and apparently from all over the world were recording their encounter with Willy. Some were plainly amateurs, doing it with cheap cell phones and selfie sticks, but at the other end of the spectrum there were serious looking guys with enormous tripods and cameras that must have cost a king’s ransom.

At least one professional photoshoot took place while we were there, a pretty young lady flouncing and posing and pouting in front of the lens as if her very future depended on it. But on the other hand, pretty young models are about as common as blowflies at a barbecue these days, so it probably did.

And all the while Willy sat there contentedly, with the waters of Lake Wanaka lapping gently over his roots and caressing his wrinkly bark. He’s seen it all before, and no doubt will see it all again tomorrow … and the day after too.

The fencepost done good.

Mrs P lets it all hang out for a good cause

10 November 2019

You know what it’s like: you’re concentrating so hard on the driving that you don’t see interesting stuff by the side of the road until it’s too late. And although you catch a glimpse of something intriguing as you sail on by, you can’t stop and turn around because there’s an idiotic speed junkie in a 4×4 on your tail, threatening to ram you into the nearest ditch if you drop even slightly below the speed limit.

That, dear reader, is how come I didn’t break yesterday’s journey from Moeraki to Queenstown to examine all the ladies’ underwear hanging on a fence line somewhere just outside Cardrona.

Let me clarify “underwear”: it wasn’t knickers you’ll be relieved to know, only bras, but there were hundreds of them. Yes, that’s right, hundreds of bras blowing in the wind for no apparent reason whatsoever. Now that’s not a sight you see every day.

When we got to our destination I told Mrs P what I thought I’d seen and asked if she thought I was going mad.

“No madder than usual, dearest,” she replied, which I took to mean that I was on to something. We agreed that there was nothing else for it, we’d have to re-trace our journey to check it out.

*

There they are, all those bras. I was right: there are hundreds of them. I’ve never seen so many bras in my life, and am baffled. What a waste of good underwear; has New Zealand gone crazy?

But then we read the pink sign, and all becomes clear: this is an innovative way to raise money for the New Zealand Breast Cancer Foundation. What a brilliant idea, a fun way to raise awareness and give folk a chance to show solidarity.

Mrs P is pleased to get into the spirit of this initiative by dropping some cash into the collection, and then donating her own bra to the fence, singing a few lines from Chris de Burgh’s Patricia the Stripper as she does so.

I’m very proud of her: we’ve lost friends and family to the disease, and parting with some cash and (in Mrs P’s case) clothing is the least we can do in their memory. Well done, Mrs P, for letting it all hang out for a good cause.

After the goldrush

10 November 2019

It’s been surprising to discover how much of colonial New Zealand was opened up by gold miners. I’ve always associated the term goldrush with California in the 1840’s and the Klondike at the very end of the 19th century, but here in New Zealand they had a goldrush all of their own. Yesterday we stopped off at Cardrona, which grew up in the days of the New Zealand goldrush, and today we’re in Arrowtown – just outside Queenstown – which also began life as a goldminer’s settlement.

The first Europeans to visit this area established farms, but things changed dramatically in 1862 when gold was found. By the end of the year, fifteen hundred miners were camped noisily beside the Arrow River. In January 1863 the first major consignment of gold to leave the camp weighed a massive 340 kilograms.

The General Store: the only substantial building in the Chinese village

Goldminers are nothing if not greedy, and when new goldfields opened on New Zealand’s west coast many European miners legged it from Arrowtown and across the Southern Alps in favour of gold that was easier to mine. Suddenly Arrowtown was facing a crisis: without lots of miners the fledgling local economy would pretty soon be dead in the water, so the Provincial Government invited Chinese miners to come and work.

Reconstructed dwelling in the Chinese village

The Chinese miners lived in their own village on the edge of Arrowtown; some remained until as late as 1928. A few dwellings and the Chinese general store have been restored or reconstructed, and it’s evident from walking around them that these men lived hard lives a very long way from their loved ones.

Reconstructed shack and storage area in the Chinese village

Meanwhile a more permanent town emerged for the European settlers. A number of miners’ cottages remain from the later nineteenth century, and this picturesque row of buildings is said to be one of New Zealand’s most photographed sites. There’s no clue here to how the other half lived, and the stark contrast between these comfortable dwellings and the miserable shacks in which the Chinese miners lived are testimony to a deeply divided society.

Late 19th century miners’ cottages from the main town

When the gold finally ran out Arrowtown went into decline, and the majority of its population of 7,000 moved away. The town was forced to re-invent itself, first a service centre for the local farming communities and then as a holiday destination.

A number of the buildings on the main street retain their historic facades, giving the town a rather quaint, chocolate-box appeal. It’s plainly doing well, as the place is busy with day visitors who are happily splashing the cash in the local shops that cater for every tourist whim.

Arrowtown today

I suspect that Arrowtown’s history, and in particular the story of the Chinese village, has gone unnoticed by most in the scramble to buy souvenirs and trinkets. The place has an interesting story to tell, but I wonder how many visitor are actually listening. With a rueful shake of the head we agree it’s time to move on.

We head on up to Glenorchy, taking a spectacular scenic drive along Lake Wakatipu. At times I’m reminded of the drive along the banks of Scotland’s Loch Ness: high praise indeed,

Although we’re beginning to discover that this country has an interesting history and are pleased to be learning more about it, that’s not why we came here. It’s places like Lake Wakatipu Lake and Glenorchy that lift the spirits and justify the horrendous journey from London to New Zealand.

Soon we’ll be heading for Milford Sound, one of New Zealand’s most scenic destinations. It promises to be spectacular, if we can see it through the mist and rain!