Thursday 10th – Tuesday 22nd January
I left Australia with a heavy heart, but New Zealand was just the tonic. I arrived in Christchurch, picked up a nifty little Mazda and set off to explore the South Island.
First stop – Queenstown. Thankfully, they drive on the same side as in the UK so, aside from the indicators being rudely switched around, it’s straightforward and enough and I am out on country roads faster than you can say ‘Kia ora’. The drive is stunning, and I thoroughly enjoy the road tripping element giving my iPod a good work out along the way. During a particularly anthemic track, Lake Tekapo drops into view between two mountains…and it takes my breath away.
Crystal clear blue waters surrounded by rugged snow-capped mountains. It’s the perfect place to stop for a stroll and some lunch.
I arrive in Queenstown, adventure capital of New Zealand, as the sun is setting and settle in for the night. Later, I have my first taste of Steinlager alongside some scallops on the Wharf.
The skyline cable car is the first item on the agenda the next day, taking an All Blacks branded car up the 500 metre incline for the view over the city. Of course, at this point, it would be rude not to have a glass of champagne. Every good vista deserves some bubbles.
The viewing platform is mind bogglingly beautiful in every direction. Mountains, water, ice, repeat.
Next up, it’s wine tasting! New Zealand wine is something I know little about so it was a treat to sample the Pinot Noirs, and meatier Syrah and Malbec variations. Of course, I am slightly tipsy by the time I make the decision to ship a crate of wine back to London…but I will endlessly regret not being able to take some of these gems home. I reward my hard day’s work with dinner at the Botswana Buchery before flopping happily into bed.
Milford Sound is one of the three Sounds in this region, Milford being the easiest to access. Despite bad weather in the area, I manage to get out to see it. First, a scenic flight to Milford followed by a nature cruise on the Sound itself, which has been formed from glacial activity.
Once on the boat, the rolling clouds bring real majesty to the views. Really, I think more Directors should think about filming motion pictures here in New Zealand….
We speed past gushing waterfalls, each named after the captains who discovered them. The fur seals even come to say hello.
Not long afterwards, I am back in the trusty motor (this time a Rav4) and blasting through the Crown Range en route to Franz Josef.
Once again, I am greeted by a stunning sunset…
The lovely Julie Morrison is living here for now, and after a hearty breakfast at The Landing, her brother Danny manages to get us up onto the glacier in a chopper including a snow landing… The catch? We have to go right now. No time for nerves, we’re up and away in minutes.
The view from the glacier is beautiful, the pure white snow setting off the blue of the ocean behind it. Julie is totally hardcore, on the glacier in her flip flops!
Then it is off to explore Okarito for a walk along the beach…where we stop to ponder what land we would hit first if we swam due west…(geography fans, it is Argentina!)
Then, there is time for a knees up, Franz Josef style with the Morrison’s lovely pals.
Next day, I am back on the road again to Christchurch via Arthur’s Pass and Castle Hill. The drives here are just wonderful, and the pass seems to dwarf everyone on the road. Just as Julie said it would, it makes me feel small.
This time, I spend some time driving around the city centre of Christchurch and I am shocked by how devastated the earthquake has left it. Even two years on, buildings still hang and miles of the centre are still cordoned off. Almost every restaurant I try to get to for dinner has been obliterated. It makes me sad when I think that this city is somebody’s hometown. I chose not to take any pictures as it didn’t quite feel right.
Up with the birds the next day for the 7am train to Picton where I catch the ferry to Wellington.
The ferry takes around three hours, and is made far more bearable by a screening of Argo in the cinema. Then lovely, windy, Wellington rolls into view. It’s a great city, and I easily keep myself busy over the three days. First, there is the cable car from the city centre up to the Botanic Gardens for beautiful views out over the city and the bay.
The Gardens are vast and beautifully kept, they are even setting up for a summer music festival when I happen along….
Further exploration of the city reveals the Cathedral, the Beehive (where the politicians do their dirty work) and an amazing little bookshop called Unity books. I take the opportunity to stock up for the next chapter of the trip.
Te Papa is the national museum of New Zealand, and in a very interactive way, it tells of the country’s history from the Maori settlers to the Waitangi Treaty and onwards into the present day. It is really interesting as I’ve known little about the Waitangi Treaty between NZ and England. I’ll come to know more when I head north, but the museum is a great start.
Under cover of darkness, Cuba Street is a bustling, creative, vibrant neighbourhood stuffed to the brim with music venues, thrift stores, record shops and bars. Props to Matterhorn and the Hawthorn Lounge for being amongst the fines drinking establishments I have ever frequented. And the Wellington institution Lido Cafe for providing the healing breakfasts….
When I can tear myself away from the bar-hopping, it’s time to head north for some serious sun and a history lesson. Paihia is the destination in the North Island in an area called the Bay of Islands. This is where the Waitangi Treaty itself was signed, so I head out to the grounds for a tour. The guide patiently answers my questions, and musters great diplomacy when I ask him if the treaty with England was viewed as a positive. It was a necessary evil, so the Maori people had to agree to keep trade links strong. He does concede though that they have been able to keep their culture, customs and language alive in a far stronger way than some other indigenous people worldwide. He has travelled extensively, and has seen a far more diluted situation on other continents. Either way, it is hugely interesting.
The flags above mark the exact spot, and a prayer house has been erected nearby to encourage reflection, meditation and…well, prayer. The guide explains the meaning of the welcoming sculpture and all of the carvings within.
Soon after it is time to get out on the water for adventures, so I catch the ferry to nearby Russell which was known as the hellhole of the Pacific when Australian convicts we brought here from penal institutions. Henceforth the town was brought into great disrepute until the English swooped in to clean things up and get all religious on the convicts asses. After a gander at the museum, dinner on the wharf is a giganta-pot of mussels and a ridiculously beautiful view.
In the coming days, I am all about the adventure. I swim with Bottlenose Dolphins in the bay, learning all about how randy they are…turning even to their own brethren for sex. Thankfully, they keep the incest to a dull roar whilst we’re splashing about next to them. From the three thousand photographs I took, THIS one worked out.
Then there is time for a cheeky wee paraglide across the bay (significantly calmer than it sounds) before a fond farewell to New Zealand, a stunning country full of rugged mountains, verdant countryside, ethereal fjords and glistening lakes. I’ve got a feeling I’ll be back…E noho ra NZ…or other Maori words to that effect.
And the soundtrack was:
Yeah Yeah Yeahs ‘It’s Blitz’
Youth Lagoon ‘Posters’
Yeasayer ‘Odd Blood’
Metric ‘Live It Out’
Florence + The Machine ‘Shake It Out’
Gangstarr ‘Full Clip’
TV On The Radio ‘Nine Types of Light’