Where east meets west: Arthur’s Pass

24 / 25 November 2019

At around 920 metres (3,000 feet) above sea level the Arthur’s Pass Road is reckoned to be the most spectacular highway to cross the rugged Southern Alps of New Zealand’s South Island. It was known to the Maori, who used it as a west-east trade route for pounamu (jade), but it was the goldrush of the 1860s that first drew it to the attention of European colonists.

Arthur’s Pass cuts through the Southern Alps

At the time when gold was discovered to the west of the Southern Alps most of South Island’s population was to their east. A practical way of transporting the gold to market was needed, and in 1865 a committee of businessmen offered £200 (equivalent to $NZ 22,000 in 2016) to the discoverer of the best route. The track that was later to become Arthur’s Pass was recognised to be the most suitable for a direct crossing. Construction soon began in earnest, and the road opened to coach traffic in July 1866.

The Arthur’s Pass Road opened in 1866, and although much upgraded it remains a significant engineering feat

Over 50 years later, 1923 saw the completion of a railway that followed the line of the Arthur’s Pass road. The railway and road through Arthur’s Pass were considered to be major accomplishments in opening up the west coast of New Zealand to settlement, and were also a catalyst for the creation of Arthur’s Pass National Park in 1929.

Wide, braided rivers are features of the eastern side of Arthur’s Pass National Park

The eastern side of Arthur’s Pass National Park is typically drier and consists of beech forest and wide riverbeds, while the western side contains dense rainforest. We’ve had our fill of rain on this road trip, so we stick to the east and on a day like this, when the sun’s shining and the sky is blue, it’s easy to see why the Park is a major tourist attraction.

Arthur’s Pass National Park

The Park is popular with what the New Zealanders like to call ‘trampers’ (hikers or walkers to you and me), and I’m sure it’s great to get off the beaten track and into the bush. But Mrs P and I have neither the time nor the knees for such exertions, so our sightseeing is limited to what can be done from a few scattered pull-ins off the highway.

Devil’s Punchbowl Falls

Unfortunately, therefore, we can only enjoy the Devil’s Punchbowl Falls from a distance. Water crashes 131 metres to the base of the falls, sending clouds of spray swirling and billowing into the air. Even from where we’re standing, looking pretty much directly into the sun, we can see and hear why this is regarded as one of the country’s most spectacular waterfalls.

Bealy Chasm falls

Above all, it seems to me, New Zealand is a land of water. Spectacular coastlines, magnificent waterfalls, powerful rivers and tumbling cascades. And rain, more rain than we ever believed possible. But not here and not now. Today we are blessed by the sun, and we lap it up while we can because it’s time to bid farewell to the mountains and head back to the coast once more.

Broom and gorse (“noxious weeds” to some) add a splash of extra colour

Akaroa is our destination, and on the way we stop off at the Sheffield Pie Shop. Although Sheffield is just a tiny village, the place is rammed. All the tables are occupied with people like us eating-in, while truckers, campervan travellers and sundry motorists drop in for a pie-to-go. There’s plenty of pies to choose from, including traditional favourites like Steak Pie and more experimental fare such as Mexican Nachos Pie.

The Famous Sheffield Pie Shop: You couldn’t make it up

I’m tempted to say you couldn’t make it up, but plainly someone has and Mexican Nachos Pie appears to be selling well. As for me, I wrap myself around a Moroccan Beef and Mango Chutney Pie. I can safely say I’ve never eaten anything like it before, and am pretty sure I’ll never have the pleasure again. But it is a pleasure, a pleasure to eat and a pleasure also to see this innovative small business defying culinary convention and building a massive reputation simply by making people happy.

I love this country.

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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A glass or two of red

9 November 2019

When we came to New Zealand we expected to see plenty of evidence of wine production, and we haven’t been disappointed. This is hardly surprising: wine is big business here, supporting 16,500 full-time jobs and earning NZ$1.5 billion a year from exports.

New Zealand is best known internationally for Sauvignon Blanc, and also has a growing international reputation for Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Riesling, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and methode traditionelle wines.

We’re staying a couple of nights in Gibbstown – on the outskirts of Queenstown – where we’re told they produce award winning Pinot Noir. And, joy of joys, our package includes an hour of wine tasting each evening.

I’ve never been to a wine tasting before, so this promises to be a novel experience. A dozen of us are standing around the main man, a lad who tells us all sorts of stuff about how special the wine from around here is, thanks to the climate and the soil and …. and what else? Sorry, don’t know, wasn’t listening at all, I was just thinking, for god’s sake man, shut up talking and give us some bloody wine.

He’s a young lad, nice enough I suppose but obviously wet behind the ears, and he makes the fatal mistake of asking if anyone has any questions. Silly boy!

There’s two Aussies amongst our group. They tell us they come from a wine producing region in the outback – Kowabunga or Buggeroola or some such place that no-one’s ever heard of – and they plainly think they’re the dog’s bollocks when it comes to wine.

The Aussies start asking all sorts of nerdy questions, not because they care about the answers but so the rest of us will worship at their altar. But it fails miserably because we’ve all seen through them, and nobody really cares about production techniques or sunshine amounts or bee proliferation or whatever, all we really care about is when are we going to get some bloody wine?

Finally the Aussies shut up, and laddo dishes out the first of the samples. It’s a Riesling, and to my palate about as rough as an unsealed mountain road after an earthquake. The only way is up, as they say.

Laddo moves on to the reds, and we work our way through four or five. I know that in a proper tasting your supposed to swirl it around in the glass, stick your snout in and sniff the bouquet, and then swill the wine around in your mouth before spitting it out. Spit it out? No way, we paid good money for this wine tasting experience so we’re bloody well going to swallow.

As the tasting continues the wines improve, or perhaps I’m becoming more relaxed and less judgemental? A couple are really quite pleasant, although a bit pricey for someone whose palate is as unrefined as mine. Laddo thanks us for attending, and looks a bit crestfallen when nobody offers to take a case or two off his hands.

Feeling warm and mellow we retire to the winery’s adjacent bistro, where there’s a special deal on dishes paired with wines from the tasting. Well why not? we ask ourselves, and settle down to order dishes that are paired with our chosen favourites from half an hour earlier. The food is rather good, and of course the wine tastes even better when accompanied by a meal.

By the time we leave I’m feeling as mellow as a newt. I’m happy to admit that there’s lots I don’t know about wine tasting. Fortunately we’re here for two nights and so we can have another free go tomorrow. Why not? After all, practice makes perfect.

I am not a number, I am a human being

10 October 2019

In recent years Economy Class air travel has become a nightmare, more like Cattle Class. It feels like the airline industry regards me not as a human being but simply as a number, albeit a number that never comes up on the Lottery. Small wonder therefore, that with our personal finances currently in good order, we have decided to fly Business Class on our current trip Down Under.

We’ve paid handsomely for the privilege and expect to be pampered. The fun begins with priority check-in, conducted by a friendly lady who chats amiably while she does the business. When she’s done she directs us to a fast-track security line where our documents and luggage are checked swiftly and efficiently. We Brits are the queuing champions of the world, but it looks like today Mrs P and I won’t have the opportunity to show off our prowess.

Then it’s off to the secret pleasure garden that is Singapore Airlines’ executive lounge. Here comfy seats, free food and drink, and even the chance to take a relaxing shower all await us. Above all, the joy is in the calm atmosphere that pervades the lounge, in stark contrast to the frenetic mayhem that is the lot of the poor sods in Cattle.

Finally our flight is called, but by the time we get to our gate there are at least 50 people ahead of us in the line to board the plane. We’re disappointed as it looks like we’ll have to queue this time, but out of the mist our guardian angel appears, a sparkling steward from Singapore Airlines asking if anyone in line is travelling First or Business Class.

I raise my hand and we are immediately whisked to the front of the queue. We know the Cattle Class mob are staring at us malevolently as we pass, hissing quietly, which only serves to increase the pleasure of the experience.

I make my way to my seat, acknowledging the polite and fulsome greetings of the cabin crew as I pass. Yes, in name it’s a seat, but in reality it’s more like an adjustable throne, snug in its own spacious pod designed to ensure my privacy, and surrounded by a plethora of buttons and gizmos all intended to make my journey more comfortable.

I’m standing there, taking in the magnificence of my pod and admiring the enormous seat-back screen in front of my throne, when a steward appears at my elbow and offers me champagne. He is young and beautiful, and it would be rude to deny him… so I don’t.

Shortly afterwards, as I’m settling into my domain a stewardess greets me and asks if I would care for a second glass of champagne when we take off. She too is young and beautiful, and to avoid causing offence or any awkwardness between her and her male colleague, I graciously accept her kind offer.

And anyway, who wouldn’t want to celebrate getting out of the UK for a while, considering the mess we’re in?

Not long after take-off the food begins to appear, This is not one of those frantic feeding frenzies you get in Cattle, but rather a gentile dining experience that lasts over two hours. The courses just keep on coming, and damned good they are too, particularly when washed down with a glass or two of Shiraz.

But even before the first course is served there’s the small matter of the table cloth, snow white and immaculately starched, which the attendant spreads oh-so-carefully across my ample foldaway table. Bloody hell, is this some parallel universe in which I find myself? I mean, at home the only time the table cloth ever sees the light is Christmas Day.

I can honestly say that this Business Class travel is extraordinary. OK, I confess, I’ve spent the last 40 years silently cursing as I’ve trekked through Business Class to the hell-hole that is Cattle. All the time, I will cheerfully admit, I was dreaming of a socialist utopia in which everyone would fly First Class, which would – logic tells me – ensure that all classes would henceforth cease to exist.

Age does, of course, lend a new perspective to the dreams of youth, and while I still look forward to a classless society, for now I’m content to park my principles in pursuit of some harmless pampering.

I mean, the premium price I’m paying for Business Class bliss is helping to keep those wonderful, beautiful flight attendants in a job. And I never claimed not to be a hypocrite, did I?

But most important of all, I am not a number, I am a human being.