Another outstanding museum in “the middle of nowhere”

27 November 2019

We head out from Akaroa further around Banks Peninsula towards the tiny village of Okains Bay. On the way we call in at the Akaroa lighthouse. The six-sided wooded structure dates from 1878-79, and originally stood at the entrance to Akaroa harbour. In 1977 it was replaced by an automated lighthouse, and the following year a Lighthouse Preservation Society was formed in Akaroa. The Society arranged for the original lighthouse to be dismantled and re-assembled on its present site. It’s possibly the most impressive of all the lighthouses we’ve seen in New Zealand, even if it is in the “wrong place”.

The main purpose of our drive this morning is to visit the Okains Bay Māori and Colonial Museum. The museum incorporates a range of replica and relocated heritage buildings, the most striking of which is the whare whakairo, or carved meeting house. According to the Culture Trip website the whare whakairo is probably the most iconic building of all native Maori architecture, playing a pivotal role in the day to day life of a tribe’s village.

The whare whakiro (meeting house)

The whare whakairo at the museum is very impressive, and it’s easy to believe that we are looking at something that is deeply embedded in Maori history. But don’t be fooled. As with so much on this trip, things aren’t quite what they seem:

These meeting houses weren’t really a part of Maori village life until after the arrival of European settlers. The mid-19th century was a time of social, political and spiritual change. There was much selling of land to the settlers coming over from Great Britain, and the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi and Christianity all created a need for discussions within and between communities …

The whare whakairo is a larger and more elaborate version of earlier house designs such as the wharepuni (sleeping house) and pātaka (storehouse). It is not an ancient form of architecture, but seems to have first appeared after contact with Europeans in the mid-19th century.

SOURCE: Culture Tip website, retrieved 9 January 2020

Whare whakairo are usually elaborately decorated, both inside and out, with images of ancestors, gods and other figures, and with more abstract designs

The whare whakairo at the museum was built on site in accordance with tikanga Maori (Maori custom). The rafters came from an old meeting house in Tokomaru Bay on North Island, in keeping with the tradition that each new house should have something within it from an old one.

Cottage built in 1883 from totara slabs and shingles

As well as Maori buildings the museum boasts a number of others built by Europeans. The totara slab cottage was built in 1883. Totara wood is hard, straight-grained and very resistant to rot. Such cottages were common in early colonial times, but very few have survived to the present day. The cottage at the museum was destroyed by a storm at its original location in 1968, after which the pieces were salvaged, relocated and rebuilt on the museum site.

The historic Okains Bay Store. Dating from 1883, it is believed to be the oldest continuously operated shop in New Zealand

Next to the museum on the main street – indeed, just about the only street in Okains Bay – is the historic Okains Bay Store, which dates from 1883. Owned by the museum and let to the tenants who run the business, it is believed to be the oldest continuously operated shop in New Zealand.

Replica of a traditional Maori waka (canoe)

The museum’s treasures are spread all over Okains Bay. On the opposite side of the road from the main site is the Riverside Waka Shed. Waka (canoes) are integral to Maori culture, and it’s good to be able to get up close to a full size replica.

Okains Bay is not the obvious site for a museum. Plainly the Banks Peninsula attracts a good number of tourists, but surely not in sufficient numbers to maintain a museum on the scale and to the standard of the Okains Bay Maori and Colonial Museum? The museum must attract a good deal of dedicated support from the local community. It reinforces the impression that’s been growing on us throughout our travels, that although New Zealand is a young country it takes its history and culture – both Maori and European – seriously. New Zealand “does museums” very well indeed.

Outwitting the French? – the Akaroa story

25 / 26 November 2019

Akaroa has a lot to live up to. We’ve been on South Island for around a month, and during that time loads of fellow tourists have asked us if we’ve been to Akaroa. When we’ve responded that it will be the last place we stop off at before flying back to the UK they have – without exception – uttered words to the effect of “Great. You’ll LOVE Akaroa“.

OK, confession time, I’d never even heard of Akaroa until New Zealand in Depth suggested the itinerary for our trip. I now know it’s situated on Banks Peninsula, the most prominent volcanic feature of the South Island. The peninsula is made up of the eroded remnants of two large shield volcanoes, and Akaroa harbour is formed from the crater of one these volcanoes. The name Akaroa is derived from southern Maori dialect words meaning “long harbour”.

The story of Akaroa’s foundation is fascinating, at least to the nerds like me. The first Europeans to visit Akaroa Harbour regularly were whalers and deserters from whaling ships. The European town of Akaroa owes its origins to Akaroa Harbour’s being a favourite port of call for whaling ships, although it never developed as a whaling station.

It was a French whaler – Captain Jean François Langlois – who first decided that this would be a great place to establish a French colony. In pursuit of his vision, in 1838 he made a down payment in commodities to the value of £6 to 12 local Maori chiefs, with the promise of a further £234 worth of commodities to be paid at a later date.

Having done the deal, Langlois hot-footed it back to France to advertise for settlers to return with him to the other side of the world. However the Brits got wind of his plans, and inevitably were not best pleased by the turn of events. They’d lost Calais to the French in 1558 and were still sore about it. They were definitely not about to let the garlic brigade snatch the South Island of New Zealand from under their noses as well. Swift action was needed, so the Lieutenant-Governor of New Zealand despatched the ship HMS Britomart to formally claim the area for Great Britain.

Arriving on 16 August 1840, Captain Stanley of the Britomart raised the British flag, and held a court at each of the occupied settlements in the area to further make the point. Job done. When Langlois and 57 fellow countrymen arrived two days later they discovered the Brits were well and truly in charge, and that – as has so often happened in the history of those two great nations – the French had been royally shafted by perfidious albion.

No one would have blamed the thwarted colonists for turning round and going straight back to France, muttering profane Gallic curses as they left. But instead they stuck around and founded the town of Akaroa, although in a fit of pique they named the place Port Louis-Philippe, after the reigning King of France.

And although the name of the town later changed, the founders are said to have left an indelible mark on it. No lesser authority than the government’s official 100% Pure New Zealand website names Akaroa the “most French town in New Zealand” on account of its “French street names and charming colonial cottages”. But even governments get things wrong (!) and a 200 page report written by a professional historian and a heritage landscape architect in 2009 suggests that – street names notwithstanding – the French influence on modern Akaroa is overstated;

The fact that Akaroa was founded by settlers sent out by a French colonising company has misled some into thinking that Akaroa today has a French character. But the 19th and early 20th century buildings that set Akaroa’s character are of a “Colonial Vernacular” style that owes more to British than to French precedents.

SOURCE: John Wilson and Louise Beaumont: Akaroa Historical Overview, 2009, p5. Retrieved 9 January 2020

It may not be very French after all, but Akaroa is undoubtedly unusual.

Akaroa has the highest density of registered historic buildings anywhere in the country, surpassing even the historic towns of Russell and Arrowtown. Even by this rather clinical measure, Akaroa is a very special place

SOURCE: Akaroa Civic Trust Newsletter, November 2008, quoted in the Akaroa Historical Overview, page 1. Retrieved 9 January 2020.

As we wander the streets on a glorious, sunny day, we can well appreciate why the tourists we met earlier on this trip were so enthusiastic about Akaroa. It oozes character, and even the presence of a lot of other holidaymakers doesn’t detract from its quaint, peaceful charm.

And yet, regardless of the academic evidence to the contrary, the French get most of the credit. If he knew, Captain Langlois would doubtless shrug his shoulders and permit himself a Gallic chuckle at the irony of it all. C’est la vie, n’est pas?

Neither a typical New Zealand town nor a Southern Hemisphere outlier of French culture, Akaroa is one of a kind. It’s a good place for us to wind down as our epic voyage around New Zealand draws to a close.

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.

Q: So, when is a castle not a castle? A: When it’s Larnach Castle

22 November 2019

We have some free time before this afternoon’s birding tour on the Otago Peninsula, so we head out to Larnach Castle to see what all the fuss is about. It grandly styles itself “New Zealand’s only castle,” which is a marketing strapline that’s both agreeably catchy and totally wrong. But that’s the nature of marketing, isn’t it?

Larnach Castle, near Dunedin, dominated by an Australian-style wrap-around iron lacework verandah

When I was a kid growing up in England castles were understood to be very old, grim and grey, bristling with battlements for defence, and towers for locking up captured enemy warriors and random passing princesses. And there’d be a moat and a portcullis, and one of those little holes through which you could pour hot oil and other nasties on to the heads of your adversaries.

On the verandah

Larnach Castle isn’t a bit like that. In the manner of Balmoral Castle in Scotland, where our fair Queen hangs her hat every summer, it’s a mansion built for boasting rather than battles.

Larnach Castle was conceived and constructed in the second half of the 19th century, not by a king or a prince or a nobleman, but by a get-rich-quick Australian banker. William Larnach arrived in New Zealand in 1867 to take up an appointment as the manager of the Bank of Otago. He did well for himself, earning so much through land speculation, farming investments, and a timber business that in 1871 he was able to start on his great building project, the mansion that would ultimately become Larnach Castle.

The dining room

The original plans for the building came from England, and were based on the Gothic Revival style of architecture. However they were substantially altered by Dunedin architect R. A. Lawson, who was born in Scotland but worked in Melbourne before crossing the Tasman Sea to New Zealand.

Lawson wrapped the core of the building in substantial but delicate iron lace work verandahs, in accordance with the Australian style. In so doing he created a new world version of old world architecture, a mansion that is either an icon or a bit of an oddball, depending on your taste.

William Larnach spared no expense in building his Castle. Materials were brought to the site from around the world. There was slate from Wales, iron, ceramics and twenty tons of glass from France, mosaics from Belgium, marble from Italy, bricks from Marseille, Huon Pine and Tasmanian Blackwood from Australia, Douglas Fir from North America and many more European and tropical woods.

The emblem and motto of clan Sutherland, from which William Larnach claimed descent

Nor could locals be trusted to deliver Larnach’s vision: they just didn’t have the skills, so he imported the necessary craftsmen including woodcarvers from England, and stonemasons from England and Scotland. The Castle’s fine plasterwork was executed by two Italians. No expense was spared.

Larnach also took the opportunity to draw attention to his Scottish ancestry. He claimed descent from clan Sutherland, which boasts a wildcat on its crest and the motto “Sans Peur” (without fear). A cat and the motto are shown on stained glass above some internal windows, although the moggie is a pale imitation of a fearless wildcat and more like a cuddly pussy cat.

Said to be the only Georgian-style hanging staircase in the Southern Hemisphere

It’s easy to be cynical (who? me?) about Larnach’s obvious attempt to show off his great wealth, but although the two stone lions guarding the steps up to the grand entrance are more than a little pretentious, I confess I like Larnach Castle a lot. And the fact that it’s here for me to enjoy is thanks to its current owners, the Barker family, who rescued it in the second half of the last century. Here’s what the visitor guide tells us about its turbulent history:

[William] Larnach lived in the Castle with three successive wives until 1898, when he took his own life in New Zealand’s House of Parliament. Larnach’s children sold the property which changed hands several times and was twice abandoned. The grounds were engulfed by second growth when we discovered Larnach Castle and the surrounding 14 hectares of wilderness in 1967. In a leap of faith we purchased this historic property, and its restoration and development became a life’s work for our family.

SOURCE: Leaflet “Larnach Castle, Dunedin, New Zealand” received on the day of our visit, 22 November 2019

View back to the Castle from the garden

Another leaflet hints at how much effort has gone into the restoration:

… when we bought the Castle in 1967 it was empty of furniture, and in a very sad state of repair, with many leaks in the roof. We would like to record our sincere thanks to all those people who have loaned or sold us original pieces.

SOURCE: Leaflet “Your guide to Larnach Castle” received on the day of our visit, 22 November 2019

As we work our way through the building, trying hard to avoid the selfie-obsessed Chinese tour group, it’s apparent that the Castle is smaller on the inside than it appears from outside, like the Tardis in reverse. This is a good thing, making the place feel less cavernous and more homely than we’d expected. I can easily imagine sitting on the verandah, sipping cocktails and watching the sun go down over the glorious garden. By no stretch of the imagination is this place a castle, but it surely is a triumph.

View from the battlements out to sea along the Otago Peninsula; the Harbour is t the left

We make our way up the narrow winding stone staircase to the fake battlements. Here we are 320 metres – around 1,000 feet – above the sea. The panoramic view down to Otago Harbour and along the Otago Peninsula is spectacular. It’s also a good place from which to appreciate the Castle gardens.

Colourful plantings

The visitor leaflet leaves us in no doubt as to the credentials of the gardens when it says:

A South Seas’ Garden between harbour and ocean, at 300 metres, Larnach Castle Garden feels close to the sky. Enclosures and spaces flow, one into another, from open colourful plantings to areas shaded and green, each with an ambience, an idea, and all leading on to the beautiful views.

SOURCE: Leaflet “Larnach Castle, Dunedin, New Zealand” received on the day of our visit, 22 November 2019

Flowery prose indeed. Sounds like hype, but to be fair the gardens really are rather good. While the Castle and its outbuildings were largely William Larnach’s creation, the gardens are mostly down to the Barkers.

An improvement in the weather (at last!) shows the gardens at their best

Having said that, a glass cupola on the lawn outside the front of the Castle dates from between 1927-39, when the property was owned by a Mr and Mrs Purdie.

Internal view of the cupola roof

There’s a bit of an Alice in Wonderland theme going on in parts of the garden, also dating from the Purdies’ time in the 1930s. The Purdies were fans of the English novelist Lewis Carroll and his young heroine, and the Barkers have maintained the tradition.

In November 2007 the Mayor of Dunedin unveiled a bronze sculpture of Alice to commemorate the 40 years of the Barker family’s guardianship of the Castle. The sculpture is by Christchurch sculptor Stephen Gleeson, and depicts the moment when Alice is about to play croquet with the Queen of Hearts, using a flamingo as a mallet and a curled up hedgehog for the ball. And they say the English are animal lovers…

Alice in Wonderland, about to be unspeakably cruel to a flamingo and a hedgehog

The garden is a fine, ongoing piece of work, and although we can see the city of Dunedin just beyond the harbour, the Castle and its gardens belong to a different world. I could happily stay longer here but we have to dash as we’re hoping to spend the afternoon in the company of penguins, and maybe the odd albatross or two.

From the garden, a view across Otago Harbour towards Dunedin

Larnach Castle is a quirky, unexpected find, but well worth a visit … as long as you’re not expecting to see a REAL castle, that is!


   

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!

A Dunedin Masterpiece: The Toitu Otago Settlers Museum

21 November 2019

We’re in Dunedin to take an afternoon train ride along the Taieri Gorge, but we have a couple of hours to kill so we pop into the Toitu Otago Settlers Museum next to the railway station.

The museum is housed, in part, in a stunning art deco building. Coming from England, where history oozes from every corner and crevice, it would be easy to fall into the trap of assuming that 20th century architecture is inferior to “proper old stuff” from earlier centuries. This, in turn, would be to condemn most New Zealand buildings as unworthy of serious consideration. The masterpiece that is the Toitu Otago Settlers Museum is proof positive that such views are seriously misguided.

The magnificent art deco exterior of the Toitu Otago Setllers Museum

The museum is

dedicated to telling the story of the people of Dunedin and the surrounding area, whose character, culture, technology, art, fashion and transport shaped New Zealand’s first great city.

SOURCE: Toitu Otago Settlers’ Museum website, retrieved 21 December 2019

Although the museum is mostly devoted to social history since the arrival of the Europeans, Maori lives are also represented. Suspended from the ceiling of one of the galleries is a Manu Tukutuku, a bird-like kite which was flown to celebrate the Maori New Year. Made from woven New Zealand flax it’s one of the Maori exhibits that catches the eye.

Manu Tukutuku

The early history of Dunedin is captured by some fine old photographs, which are strategically displayed throughout the museum. The undated image below reflects the earliest days of the city, and gives a clue to the effort needed to carve it out of the virgin bush.

Early days in Dunedin

Early Dunedin was, of course, fashioned largely from timber, and it’s no surprise therefore that the city fathers were worried about the danger of fire. A fire brigade was established in 1862, and kitted out with the latest in fire engine technology. The Pride of Dunedin was built by Shand Mason and Company of London, and brought to the other side of the world to help keep Dunedin safe.

The Pride of Dunedin fire engine, built in 1862

Dunedin’s origins lie in the wish of a group of breakaway Presbyterian Scots to create a vigorous new community, where members of the Free Church of Scotland could live out their faith and advance themselves. The first of them arrived in 1848. It’s joked that these early immigrants from Scotland were looking for somewhere cold, damp and miserable to make them feel at home, and the area they chose – which was to become Dunedin – fitted that bill perfectly.

In another acknowledgment of their Scottish heritage the early settlers wanted to call their city New Edinburgh. Soon, however, that was superseded by Dunedin, derived from Dùn Èideann, the Scots Gaelic name for Edinburgh.

The Dunedin Stationery Warehouse in the late 19th century

Dunedin grew rapidly during the central Otago goldrush, beginning in the 1860s. In the mid-1860s, and between 1878 and 1881, it was New Zealand’s largest urban area. The image above shows the Dunedin Stationery Warehouse at around this time, and reflects a local economy that was doing well.

A Dunedin tram

The development of Dunedin as a city and the wealth that it generated in due course required the creation of a public transport infrastructure, including trams.

The Automobile association of Otago’s service vehicle, built in 1924

Private car ownership began in the early 20th century, and of course with it grew also the fear of mechanical breakdown. When their members found themselves in difficulty the Automobile Association of Otago’s service vehicle – built in England in 1924 – could be called upon to help out. Notice that the yellow colour of this early vehicle reflects the branding of today’s Automobile Association (AA), both in New Zealand and the UK.

Peugeot motorcycle pictured at Waipori in 1906

As well as cars, motorcycles were an important part of the transport infrastructure. The image above shows Dunedin motor agent C. J. Fox and his Peugeot motorcycle in the Dunedin township of Waipori in 1906, while below is one of the museum’s must-see exhibits, a restored 1916 Harley-Davidson.

Harley-Davidson, built 1906

I could happily spend all day here at the Otago Settlers Museum, but we have a train to catch. It’s become evident over the last few weeks that New Zealand does museums well, and this one is no exception. It is, like the other museums we’ve visited on this trip, an excellent facility that deserves to be treasured by visitors and locals alike.

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.

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!

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!

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!