The end of the road

28 / 29 November 2019

We’ve come to the end of the road. After 46 days touring New Zealand it’s time for us to go home. Since arriving here on 14th October we’ve driven 6,701 kilometres (4,164 miles), and seen some wonderful scenery and great wildlife. I love those parrots … almost as much as I love the penguins. To say nothing of the fur seals and the kiwi and the albatross. And the tui … fabulous bird, the tui.

Our favourite New Zealand bird (although by no means the rarest): the Tui

We hand back our rental Toyota Camry at Christchurch Airport: a boringly white but otherwise thoroughly decent car, with amazing fuel economy. It’s the first time I’ve driven a hybrid, but it won’t be the last. We fall into conversation with the guy collecting the keys. He’s friendly, cheerful and helpful, a typical New Zealander.

Now we have the small matter of a 32 hour journey back to the UK, including a layover of over seven hours at Singapore. But at least business class softens the pain … I find champagne is great at numbing the senses, if consumed in sufficient quantity.

white Singapore Airlines airplane

Flying home with Singapore Airlines. PHOTO CREDIT: Josh Methven via Unsplash

Back in the UK it’s cold and miserable. And filthy. As we drive north up the M1 the roadside is strewn with trash, like nobody gives a damn any more. Maybe they don’t. New Zealanders seemed to care; I wouldn’t say the place was spotlessly clean, but it’s in a different league to the UK.

It’s only when you’ve been away for a while and then come back that you are sufficiently sensitised to what we have become in this country. We should be ashamed of how low we have fallen, of how little pride we have in the place we live, of how little respect we have for our land, our environment and our fellows.

Obviously it’s good that we’ll be able to catch up with family and friends. But other than that, am I pleased to be back? No, not really.

Missing you already!

Writing this, I’m thinking back wistfully to the people and the places and birds and the animals we’ve encountered on our travels in New Zealand, and one thought dominates my mind, crowding out all others: “New Zealand … Missing you already!”

Down Dunedin way: A stunning station and a gorgeous gorge

21 November 2019

I’ve already driven several thousand kilometres since arriving in New Zealand, and although the car is comfortable and the traffic mostly light there are days when I feel the need for time off from behind the wheel. So today, having battled hard to find somewhere to park in central Dunedin, it’s time to let the train take the strain while we spend the afternoon on the Taieri Gorge Scenic Railway.

Dunedin station, built in the first decade of the 20th century

But before we set off there’s time to explore Dunedin station. And what a stunner it is. Built in the first decade of the 20th century, it’s said to be the most photographed building in New Zealand. Well, I’m not sure about that – how the hell would you prove it? – but it’s definitely worth a snap or two.

The booking hall, a celebration of the tiler’s craft

Wikipedia describes the style as “eclectic revived Flemish renaissance,” and who am I to argue? Externally, the distinctive light and dark patterning is common to many of the grander buildings of Dunedin. Internally, although no longer used for its original purpose the booking hall is a celebration of the tiler’s craft, including a mosaic floor of almost 750,000 Minton tiles.

File:Dunedin Railway Station Foyer.jpg

PHOTO CREDIT: User Grutness on en.wikipedia [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons(http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D

Once, when Dunedin was one of New Zealand’s busiest stations handling over 100 trains a day, the booking hall would have bustled with the coming and goings of passengers. Today it’s just tourists like us who come, admiring the architecture before joining a train excursion to explore the countryside beyond Dunedin.

The Taieri Gorge Railway was built in the late 19th century, after the goldrush. The get-rich-quick days of prospecting were over, and new, longer term strategies were required to generate wealth. One of the country’s greatest assets was the agricultural and pastoral potential of the land. To make use of it the interior of the country had to be opened up, but in some areas road transport was impossibly difficult. Railways seemed to offer the way ahead.

Not that it was easy to drive a railway through this landscape. In a country that was just a few decades old it was a major feat of engineering to build here. To enable the laying of a track through the Taieri Gorge, ten tunnels had to be hacked out of the bedrock, and 16 bridges constructed. One of those bridges, the Wingatui Viaduct, remains the second largest wrought iron structure in operation in the world.

The gorge is spectacularly scenic, and also very, very yellow, thanks to the gorse and broom that’s flowering at present. But it wasn’t always like this. Neither the gorse nor the broom is native to New Zealand, and like so many other introduced plants they’ve made themselves at home here. We’ve heard them described as noxious weeds, but although clearly not popular with everyone they’re here to stay.

It’s worth pointing out that the grass that is the staple diet of the country’s (introduced!) sheep, cattle and deer isn’t native to this country either. The fact is that New Zealand’s landscape has been changed out of all recognition by the plants and animals that Europeans introduced in the 19th century, and although from one point of view this may be a matter for regret it’s also a fact of life and isn’t going to change.

Humpty Dumpty has fallen from his wall and lies shattered on New Zealand’s ancient bedrock, and however much some well-meaning but impossibly romantic folk might wish it were otherwise, nobody can put him back together again.

Postscript: Dunedin Station. In January 2020 Ms Liz, who blogs out of Tapanui in West Otago, posted a number of photographs which show in more detail the glories of Dunedin Station. You can see her posts here and here. And earlier in January Liz posted about her own trip on the Taieri Gorge Railway, travelling further than us – all the way to the end of the line at Middlemarch. All of Liz’s posts are definitely worth a look!

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!

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!

Waterfall wonders and hairpin horrors

9 November 2019

We’ve enjoyed our stay at Wilderness Lodge, and were thrilled to get within a few metres of the amazing Fiordland Crested Penguin. But this place is horrendously wet. Hereabouts they get 3.5 metres of rain every year; that’s around 10 feet for Brits and Americans who haven’t got to grips with the metric system yet! So, as we continue our journey south, the waterfalls along the Haast River are working overtime.

Roaring Billy Falls

New Zealanders have named their waterfalls thoughtfully, so you’re left in absolutely no doubt what to expect if you visit one. Take the Roaring Billy Falls, for example. Now I haven’t got a clue who Billy was, but “roaring” tells you all you need to know. Even viewed from a distance through the mist and rain it’s a spectacular sight.

Thundercreek Falls

And what about Thundercreek Falls, just a few miles down the road? Again the name leaves little to the imagination, and at 28 metres high it’s hugely impressive.

Fantail Falls

The name Fantail Falls alludes to shape, rather than the volume of water that cascades down into the Haast River. Again, a magnificent sight after all this rain.

To be honest we’re getting a bit fed up with the rain, and would be glad of a couple of days of dry, sunny weather. But Mrs P phoned home this morning and learned that our area of the UK has been hit by unprecedented floods, so we’re probably better off here … after all you don’t see too many penguins in the English Midlands.

We’ve turned our backs on the coast and are heading inland in the direction of Queenstown. On the way we pass the historic Cardrona Hotel. Dating from 1863 it’s one of New Zealand’s oldest hotels.

This area’s heyday was during the mid-nineteenth century goldrush, when Cardrona town was a prosperous settlement and a significant commercial hub for the area. How things have changed … the town has since all but vanished, and only the historic hotel facade remains to remind visitors like us of the glory days.

We’ve chosen to take the scenic, more challenging route towards Queenstown, along the Crown Range Road. It’s the highest main road in New Zealand, reaching an altitude on 1,121 metres. The road is steep and twisty, with a series of eye-watering hairpin bends. At times it’s a bit of a white-knuckle ride, but the landscape is adequate compensation for the stress of the journey. The landscape is simply stunning, and at times reminds us of the Scottish Highlands.

We’ve seen a few vintage cars on the road today, and as we pull into a scenic overlook we find ourselves confronted by a splendid Austin 8. The driver tells us that there’s a vintage rally in progress to celebrate the opening of the Haast Pass in 1965, when the first car to travel the newly opened road was a 1930 Austin 7.

The pass was the final stretch of State Highway 6 – one of New Zealand’s major roads – to be built, and was not fully sealed with tarmac until 1995. A salutary reminder, I think, that much of New Zealand’s infrastructure was built relatively recently.

Having admired the Austin 8, and the dusting of snow on the mountains behind, we set off on the final stretch of our journey. Gibbston, our final destination, lies on the outskirts of Queenstown. For the next two nights we’ll be staying at a winery, which sounds like the perfect way to wind down after the challenge of all those horrible hairpin bends!

The long and winding road to Golden Bay

1 November 2019

It’s time to leave Picton and head way out west.  Before long we arrive at the tiny town of Havelock, on the outskirts of which lies an area of wetland that looks perfect for birds.  We’re not wrong, and are pleased to see a gang of Royal Spoonbills sunning themselves on the branches of some dead trees. 

Suddenly a flash of blue and white catches our eye as a New Zealand Kingfisher whizzes past.  Like others of his species he’s prone to vanity and lands on a distant, fallen tree trunk so we can admire him in all his multi-coloured glory.

But there’s no time to waste, we have to move on and start driving the long and winding mountain road that will take us to our destination in Golden Bay.  From time to time there are good views of the coastline, but I rarely have time to admire it as I’m focussing all my attention on the road.

This road is steep, quite narrow, and twists and turns alarmingly in places.  It’s not what I’m used to, and is therefore a bit of a challenge. And just to remind me that this isn’t a playground, we pass a couple of smashed up vehicles whose drivers obviously weren’t up to it.

Or maybe they were just playing silly buggers?  Although the standard of driving here in New Zealand generally seems reasonable, there are some local motorists who seem to have a qualification in advanced recklessness.  One of these miserable bastards tries to run me off the road, horn blaring and lights flashing, apparently because I’m not driving down a precipitous slope towards a 90 degrees bend – with no crash barriers, I might add – at quite the break-neck speed he thinks is desirable. 

I pull over and let him go, sharing with him my knowledge of Anglo-Saxon curses as he passes.   If he carries on like that he’ll be dead before too long and, although it sounds callous to say it, the rest of us road users will be a damn sight safer for his passing.  Sad, but undoubtedly true.

The journey continues through the mountains, past conifer plantations, livestock farms and occasional sea views until we’re brought to a halt by traffic lights.  A helpful piece of digital technology tells us the light will turn green in 12 minutes. After 60 seconds it changes its mind and tells us the road will be ours in 11 minutes.  We’re getting the hang of this now, so it therefore comes as no surprise to learn a minute later that it’s only 10 minutes until we’ll be on our way.

My god, time passes slowly here.

We learn later that Takaka Hill was devastated two years ago by violent storms dragged into this part of New Zealand by the tail-end of a typhoon.  Several sections of road were washed away, at points where seams of “rotten granite” were unable to resist the extraordinary amount of water cascading down the mountainside.

This is the only road into the north-western tip of South Island, and for several days that area was totally cut off by land.  Ultimately the road re-opened, but with alternating single lane at a number of places where damage was most severe. Two years and $2m dollars later, there are still three major sections of road to be repaired, at a cost estimated at a further $20m.

Finally we ease our way through the last set of roadworks and make it to our destination.  In all sorts of ways the drive here has been more challenging than I’d anticipated, but I’m not complaining.  Since arriving in New Zealand we’ve developed a taste for Tui beer, and we’ve invested in a dozen bottles for moments just like this! With a view like the one from our cottage, and beer in hand, I’ll soon wind down.

But I do hope we remembered to pack a bottle opener.

Farewell North Island, g’day South Island

27 October 2019

After 3 days in Auckland and a further 11 days on the road, during which period we drove 1,913 kilometres, it’s time for us to leave North Island. From our boutique hotel accommodation at Bushy Park we drive for about 90 minutes to the airport at Palmerston North.

On the way we pass through the town of Bulls, which boasts several life size representations of the animal in question modelled out of resin or bronze or whatever. And there’s also a large sign bearing the legend: “Bulls, there’s no udder place like it!” I’m easily amused, so that pun makes my day.

The flight to Christchurch in the South Island takes about an hour. The weather is fine and visibility is good, so Mrs P takes full advantage of her window seat and snaps away merrily at the snow clad mountains and rugged coastline, and the distinctively shaped Kaikoura peninsula.

Christchurch airport is remarkably efficient, and within a few minutes of landing we’ve picked up the second Toyota Camry of our trip, and head north towards Kaikoura, the very place over which we were flying less than an hour ago.

The outskirts of Christchurch have little to recommend them, but as we move further north the traffic thins out and the landscape gets more interesting. The weather is almost perfect, and the gales and torrential rain of North Island already seem like a distant memory.

The black sandy beaches are alien to our eyes, but strangely atmospheric. Not an obvious choice for a beach holiday, but that’s not why Mrs P and I are here.

The late afternoon light illuminates the towering Cathedral Cliffs at Gore Bay, on the approach to Kaikoura. Unusually these are inland cliffs, facing away from the sea, and the rock columns remind us of the pipes of a monstrous church organ.

On the outskirts of Kaikoura we call in at Peninsula Point. Rocks of all shapes and sizes rise out of the sea. Behind, we can see the snow-capped mountains over which we were flying just a few hours ago. This place is so picturesque; all it needs is a fur seal or two and it would be perfect.

And there he is, our first fur seal, lounging lazily on the rocks. Wild mammals were thin on the ground in North Island, and we’re hoping for better things on South Island. If Peninsula Point is anything to go by, we won’t be disappointed.

I think I’m going to like this place.

It’s a washout

24 October 2019

Shortly after checking out of our accommodation we stop for petrol. “Where are you folks off to today?” asks the friendly Maori lady at the filling station.

“We’re going to drive the Forgotten Highway down to Stratford. We might even get our passports stamped in the Republic of Whangamomona, where goats get to be president” says Mrs P proudly.

“Forget it,” she comes back, shaking her head sadly, “the road’s been washed out.”

So, not for the first time on this trip we must revert to Plan B. On this occasion Plan B is a detour via the coast road, which adds around 100km and more than an hour to our journey. Not ideal, but we have no choice, so we grit our teeth and set out on a different long and winding road.

As it happens the Plan B route isn’t at all bad, particularly once we hit the coast and start travelling south along the Tasman Sea. The black sand littered with driftwood is more appealing than it sounds, and we have a birdie treat when a Royal Spoonbill puts in an appearance.

At last we arrive at our accommodation for the next two nights. Dawson Falls Mountain Lodge sits on the slopes of Mount Taranaki, 905 metres above sea level. Mount Taranaki is a must-see volcano which, at 2,514 metres, dominates the surrounding landscape.

However, must-see isn’t the same as can-see, and we are denied a proper sighting by the low cloud that clings to the summit. But never mind, the Lodge has a piece of modern stained glass that bears an image of the volcano, as well and a waterfall and a native bird, so at least we know what we’re missing.

New Zealand is a young country and historic buildings are a bit thin on the ground, so it’s a rare pleasure to stay somewhere originally built in the nineteenth century – 1896 to be precise – in the style of a traditional European mountain lodge.

It’s a quirky place, but cosy and full of character, with staff to match. And, for reasons that are none too clear, we get to stay in the Honeymoon Suite. Now Mrs P and I have been married for 35 years, but in a place like this who can possibly believe that romance is dead?

A Kiwi bloke called Barry

17 October 2019

We pick up our rental car from Auckland airport and hit the open road.   The greater Auckland area is busier than I’d anticipated, but as we press on things quieten down. 

In many ways the driving experience is very familiar.  Although New Zealand works in kilometres rather than miles, most of the road signs are pretty much the same as back in the UK.  Also New Zealanders drive on the right side of the road, by which I mean the left side … one of the few positive legacies of the late, not-at-all-great and totally unlamented British empire.

And there are roadworks all over the place, so it really does feel like home from home.

The highway is a possum’s graveyard.  Introduced from Australia many decades ago to be farmed for their fur, some inevitably escaped and bred like crazy.  They are now regarded as an invasive pest species that has murderous intent with regard to native birds.  The New Zealand government has vowed to eradicate them, but judging by the number of squashed possums on the road there’s a hell of a lot of eradicating still to be done.

The landscape is verdant, green and lumpy-bumpy, with plenty of evidence of volcanic activity in times past.  In the fields there are more cattle and fewer sheep than I’d anticipated.  There’s no apparent cereal or vegetable production – too early in the growing season maybe? – but plenty of evidence for wine production and the cultivation of kiwi fruit.

*

Our first stop is at Katikati (which, bizarrely, is pronounced kitty-kitty).  It’s a town that has used public art to help build communities and attract visitors, a bit like Sheffield in Tasmania which we visited about three years ago.

Katikati describes itself as a town of murals. The murals represent aspects of local and natural history, and the New Zealand landscape.  It may not be great art but it brightens the place up, and attracts people like us to spend a few dollars in local shops when we visit.

As well as dozens of murals Katikati also has a sculpture trail.  We don’t have time to explore much of this, but one sculpture in particular catches our imagination.  Barry – a Kiwi Bloke was fashioned from resin, fibre glass and copper in 1999. He sits on a bench seat outside the Art Centre.  A dog lies on the ground to Barry’s right, and at hound’s feet is a ball.  The dog looks up at Barry, hoping he’ll play, but Barry is engrossed in his newspaper and having none of it.

Again, this is not high art, but who cares?  It’s humorous and well crafted, and lifts the spirit.  Isn’t that what public art should be all about?

*

Our final stop of the day is at Okere Falls. The power and roar of the water is stunning, and the ground seems to tremble beneath our feet as we admire the view. Put a foot wrong and slip into the water here, and you’d be dead inside five seconds.

And of course, this being New Zealand, wherever there’s a chance of imminent death, a few mad fools are prepared to take the risk. We watch as a canary yellow inflatable full of thrill seekers tumbles down the white water, its occupants screaming inanely. Nobody died.

And while there are notices everywhere proclaiming the dangers of falling into the raging torrent, there’s a rope suspended above it that positively invites people to launch themselves into the thundering waters.

Based on my limited experience to date the Kiwis seem like decent folk, warm, friendly, interested and interesting. But clearly as mad as a box of frogs.

First impressions of New Zealand

14 October 2019

We’re sitting in the Tower Café, on the 50th floor of the tallest building in the Southern Hemisphere, sipping mochas and admiring the view of the Auckland waterfront when a body plummets past the window.  He’s out of sight again in a flash and, horrified, we assume he’s hurtling toward a grisly death until we spot the wires that will arrest his descent just in the nick of time.  

So he’s a Sky Jumper, who’s paid $225 (NZD) for the dubious pleasure of plunging 53 floors in 11 seconds, at a speed of 85 kph. I make that $20 per second of sheer, unmitigated terror. 

New Zealanders have a bit of a reputation as adrenaline junkies, always on the lookout for a tall structure from which they can launch themselves into freefall.  If you ask me they’re completely out to lunch. 

But putting to one side this inexplicable obsession with dangerous sports, the Kiwis we’ve met so far seem like decent people.  Our onward flight from Singapore to Auckland was with Air New Zealand, so we got to know a bunch of them for a short while.  

The Kiwi cabin crew were great: welcoming, friendly and chatty.  One of them – Debs, her name was – even took time out to write some tips to help us make the most of our time here.  Such personalised service must be a long way above and beyond her job role, and appeared to be motivated simply by kindness.  If all New Zealanders are like this we’ll have a fine time over the next six weeks.

As for Auckland itself, the jury’s out. Although the waterfront area looks impressive from our vantage point in the Sky Tower café and the city is dotted with parks and other areas of greenery, the built environment appears unremarkable and perhaps even a little dull.  

OK, I’m probably doing it a dis-service.  How can I possibly come to any conclusions based on a short walk through a small area of Downtown and the view from several hundred feet up a communications tower?  And to put the contrary view, Auckland’s been ranked third in a list of the world’s most liveable cities, so there must be an up-side somewhere. 

I’m obviously missing something, but I’m going to struggle to find out what it is  We have two more days here before we start our road trip, but both of them will be taken up with visits to nearby islands. We’re not going to have time to get to know the city itself any better than we do now

What is already obvious is that some things here are very familiar.  Pizza Hut, McDonalds, Starbucks, Denny’s and Nando’s to name just a few.  

And then there are Eurasian sparrows (aka “cockney sparras”), which are all over the place and apparently much more common than in the UK, from where their ancestors hailed.  It’s strangely comforting to know that if sparrows are ever in danger of becoming extinct in the UK we can always ask the New Zealanders to repatriate a few to their mother country.

Auckland’s sparrows may be a welcome sight, but the rough sleepers are not.  Perhaps I’m just hopelessly naive, but I’d not expected this. Or maybe the area we walk through is untypical of the rest of the city?  The massage parlour and the striptease joint suggest as much.

And finally, another depressingly familiar feature of  Auckland today is the rain, which is slashing down in torrents. It makes me feel nostalgic for the UK, though not in a good way.  Let’s hope it dries up before tomorrow, when we’re off to visit the nearby island of Rangitoto, which we can see through the rain from our vantage point in the Sky Tower. Rangitoto is a volcano that emerged from the sea in an explosion of fire and fury just 600 years ago, and sounds like it’s well worth a visit.