A five minute walk from our overnight campsite took us to Mana railway station and 30 minutes later and a couple of $8 fares we were in Wellington – parking the van in the centre of the city would have been a nightmare so this turned out to be a really good move. If you come from Europe you probably don’t go to New Zealand to admire the country’s historic architecture, but as it happens Wellington has some real nuggets tucked away and has done a pretty good job of conserving them. First stop was the Old Government Buildings which at first sight appear to be constructed of a cream coloured stone but actually turn out to be wood – for some time it was thought to be the world’s largest wooden building, but, wouldn’t you know it, the Japanese have something bigger. (Not a lot of people know that).
A three minute trip by cable car from the heart of the central business district lifts you up a couple of hundred metres to a great viewpoint with views out over the harbour and out to the Cook Strait. It also takes you to the highest point in Wellington’s excellent Botanic Gardens which must rank as one of the most interesting and best presented of all the public spaces we’ve seen in the many cities we’ve visited over the years. An hour spent sauntering down through the gardens and back into the city was time very well spent.
The evening was spent with Jim and Heather Dryburgh, 3/5 of their lovely family and a couple of friends Paul and Tracy. Jim and I worked together in Blandford about ten years back and we last got together during my brief stay in Wellington in 2007. It was good to catch up on the missing years and to make new friends in the process – thanks Heather for a lovely meal and great West Coast hospitality.
The ferry from between the South and North Islands runs from Picton to Wellington and is pretty much like any cross channel ferry, but without the duty free and fewer French. The journey takes around 3 ½ hours and we were fortunate in having a calm, sunny day for our ‘cruise’, so for the first hour or so we sat ‘topsides’ and watched as the ship manoeuvred itself up the narrow Queen Charlotte Sound and even narrower Tory Chanel and out into the Cook Strait. The route passes dozens of isolated houses and tiny communities which appear to be completely inaccessible other than by boat; although some were obviously holiday retreats the majority were clearly homes – presumably if you live somewhere as inaccessible as that you really don’t want your neighbour to pop round for a chat or calling in to borrow a cup of sugar.
Our arrival in Wellington coincided with rush hour and a traffic jam, but once we were out of the city we had an easy journey up to the freedom campsite we’d chosen on the west coast at Mana which is about half an hour out of the city. Whether by discerning selection or sheer good fortune we once again stumbled on a nice quiet site with great views, (fairly) clean toilets and, as luck would have it, within five minutes walk of the railway station which we used the following day to pop back into Wellington for some sightseeing. The campsite was also on the edge of a large and very well organised recreational area which was evidently the focus for just about any sport and outdoor activity you care to name – everything from dog obedience classes and Sea Scouts to kayaking and cricket. All part of the New Zealand lifestyle thing and very impressive.
Denise had booked a hairdo for Monday morning so I spent the time writing up yesterday’s blog and re-packing the van ready for the second half of our New Zealand adventure. With her majesty’s barnet sorted we drove the 50 or so miles from Nelson to Blenheim to visit the aviation heritage centre at Omaka, which is definitely worth a couple of hours of anybody’s time. The museum houses a collection of twenty or so WW1 aircraft, some original and some faithful reproductions, and many of which are still airworthy. Most of the aircraft are owned by Peter Jackson (of Lord of the Rings fame) and you can see his influence in the realism of the dioramas in which most of the aircraft are set – apparently his production company did much of the work. Loads of other exhibits and lots of interesting research which is very well presented – definitely worth a visit, especially in this centenary year.
We found a quiet corner to camp on the edge of the Taylor Dam Reserve. A pretty little place which for a change was teeming with birdlife – including a family of black swans.
The last (and only other) time I was in New Zealand was as part of a round the world sailing jolly; having had a hand in the organisation I was fortunate enough to be able to take my pick of the legs and chose a 7 day jaunt across the Tasman Sea from Hobart to Nelson and then on to Wellington. On that occasion I met up with Bernard Redshaw, a Kiwi who had worked with me in Blandford for several years, and so we couldn’t pass through Nelson this time without again touching base with Bernard who now lives in the town.
Nelson is a gem of a place tucked in at the end of Tasman Bay with a wonderful mountain backdrop and a lovely benign climate. Having arrived on Saturday morning we spent an hour or so before lunch wandering around the weekly market which had a nice feel about it with genuinely local produce and nice knick-knacks – none of the mass produced tat that many ‘local’ markets in the UK seem to be full of these days.
The afternoon was spent wandering around the Museum of Wearable Art. Now, those who know me could with some justification leap to the conclusion that a display of clothing made from materials such as wire mesh, pencils and cable ties might not necessarily be my thing – but on this occasion they’d be wrong. It was simply fantastic, really well presented and well worth a visit if you’re in Nelson or want to spend a few minutes looking at the website. As a bonus the Museum also houses a collection of about 120 classic cars, most of which are in concours condition and another hour or so was spent wandering happily down memory lane drooling over the exhibits.
Yesterday (Sunday) Bernard kindly drove us out to Lake Rotoiti which is about 50 miles to the south east of Nelson and a really beautiful spot. We called in briefly at the ‘bach’ (country retreat) of one of Bernard’s friends, Pete, who very kindly gave us coffee before we popped down to look at his collection of ‘classic’ boats – as lifestyles go I’d say that the New Zealanders have got it just about right!
It rained overnight and as we drove north from Greymouth we ran into successive rain showers, which once again deprived us of the views of the Southern Alps that we’d hoped for.
We also ran into the most enormous ‘convoi exceptionnel’ coming south towards us, which forced us and all other vehicles to pull over to the side of the road to avoid being flattened by whatever it was they were moving – which looked something like a cross between a medium sized house and a Space Shuttle. As half of the road bridges in this part of the country are single track and look rickety enough to be used in a Disney theme park we couldn’t work out where it had come from or where it was going – but, believe me, it was big!
Driving in New Zealand is a fairly painless experience. With a national speed limit of 100km, which most motorists seem content to obey, both driver and navigator have time to enjoy the scenery – especially if you’re at the wheel of a clapped-out VW campervan which struggles to manage some of the climbs up through the mountains in anything greater than third gear. The other pleasurable aspect of motoring over here is the price of diesel, which at $1.50/litre is about half the cost of fuel in UK – though watch out for the sneaky tax on diesel vehicles, which I gather they levy at the end of each hire.
As we crept over the last of the passes through the mountains we left the last (hopefully) of the miserable weather behind us and dropped down into the Nelson Region which is known for wine making and fruit growing and ……. yes, you’ve guessed, more beautiful scenery. Staying at a place called Woodstock in a campervan appealed to something in the hippy side of my nature – though these days I’m more interested in free Wi-Fi than free love.
We hadn’t really planned to get up as far as the Abel Tasman National Park, but the miserable weather we experienced as we came up the west coast allowed us to get a little ahead of our schedule and so we decided to pop up to the coast to the NW of Nelson – and are we glad we did!
As I’ve now discovered, one of the problems with writing a blog on this sort of holiday is that you tend to use up all of the superlatives and hyperbole quite early on leaving a bit of a problem when you need to describe something that knocks all those other experiences into a cocked hat. The coastline up around Kaiteriteri and Marahau is quite simply stunning – I’ll let the pictures do the talking.
The journey up the west coast from Franz Joseph to Greymouth should have been spectacular (another word that’s getting a good hammering in this blog) but the weather didn’t do us any favours and such views that there were were limited to watching heavy seas beating against the coastline. Considering they get rain on at least 200 days of the year and the region’s described as a temperate rainforest we probably shouldn’t have been too surprised.
Aside from a short-lived gold rush in the mid-1800s the West Coast region hasn’t really had too many lucky breaks. Apparently there’s some coal and of course there’s logging and fishing, but the real problem is the lack of road and rail infrastructure and the consequent difficulty in gaining access to the area across the Southern Alps. As you drive along you gain the impression that this part of the country is the poor relation in comparison with some of the other, prettier and wealthier parts of South Island that we’ve visited over the past couple of weeks. They call it the Wild West, and it’s easy to see what they mean. We did, however, enjoy our brief stop at Hokitika where a wander through the Museum told us all about the history of the town and a walk along the beach will provide a great introduction to my new book – ‘101 things to do with driftwood’!
Greymouth doesn’t get a terribly good write-up in the guide books, so we took them at their word and gave the town a miss – though we did deign to stop overnight on a large open space overlooking the sea to the north of the town along with a dozen or so fellow travellers.
Although the day started bright and sunny, by the time we’d ‘broken camp’ and got on the road the clouds were shrouding the mountains – and as we were in the mountains that meant that we were in the clouds. In other words it was raining; which was a pity really because with 6,000 ft peaks all around us I’m sure that the scenery would have been spectacular on a sunny day. Scenery aside there’s not much of interest on the drive north from Wanaka towards the coast – in point of fact, with two notable exceptions there’s not much of anything between Wanaka and Hokitika (420km) where we expect to be tomorrow night. What, I hear you ask, are the two exceptions? I’ll tell you ………..sandflies and glaciers!
I’m not entirely sure why they’re called sandflies. The fact is that that they seem to be perfectly at home just about anywhere on the West Coast of New Zealand, just so long as there are people to bite. Forgive me, but I’m doing the species a bit of a disservice; the fact is that whilst the males are annoying but harmless the females are never happier than when they’re drawing blood……….any similarity to humankind is, of course, purely natural.
We stopped for our daily constitutional at the Fox Glacier. It’s really peculiar to be able to drive/walk in the space of a few minutes from what is in effect a temperate rainforest to the foot of a glacier, albeit glaciers that shrink year on year – both the Fox and Franz Joseph glaciers have receded by about 3km since they were first seen by Captain Cook in the late 18th century. As we stood at the foot of the glacier great lumps of ice about the size of a small car were being washed down the glacial river towards the sea whilst a man in an enormous, caterpillar tracked, digger was trying to move boulders around the valley bottom in an attempt to channel the river along a particular route. In terms of scale it looked like a Tonka toy trying to move the whole of Chesil Beach – I imagine he must be paid by the hour.
Today was mainly a travelling day and because of the geography it meant re-tracing our steps out of Fiordland, through Kingston again, back past Queenstown and then north to Wanaka. We paused in Kingston to take in the Kingston Flyer, which is supposed to have a classic steam engine running on 14 km of track. Sadly it looks like the Flyer’s days are numbered; the only engines and rolling stock we saw had obviously not moved for many months and according to the owner of the local coffee shop they’ve run out of cash and are looking for a buyer – fancy a business opportunity Jamie?
More spectacular scenery and wonderful views and then, in the middle of nowhere, a couple of English classic cars – an E-Type and an XK150 sat outside a bar/restaurant in the back end of nowhere looking like a million dollars. We’d come across something similar on the Otago Peninsular when we’d run into (not literally) a group of English registered Morgans looking for all the world as though they were on a day trip from Malvern. It’s obviously the thing to do to ship your classic motor out by container and then tour in the New Zealand sunshine to the admiring glances of the natives and tourists. If you’ve got it, flaunt it!
Having splashed out on posh campsites and boat trips over the past few days we’re saving a few dollars this evening by ‘wildcamping’ on a Department of Conservation site to the west of Wanaka. It might be short on amenities, but not on views …….. a 45 minute hike up past Diamond Lake brought us to yet another impressive viewpoint; unfortunately we’ve now completely run out of superlatives.
Our bus driver, Sean, was a mine of useful and interesting information. No doubt all of the nuggets that he passed on to us had been delivered to his passengers on hundreds, if not thousands, of previous occasions, but it was all new to us – so you’ll have to excuse me if I feel the need to share some of them with you too.
Unless you want to spend weeks wandering on foot through the forests, or you’ve won the pools and can afford to take a helicopter or seaplane, the only way to get to Doubtful Sound is by a 50 minute boat journey from Manapouri. The journey takes you to West Arm where, between the late 50s and early 70s the New Zealand government spent 40 million dollars burying a hydro-electric power station 230m down in the heart of a granite mountain in order to capture the force of the lake water as it rushes down into Doubtful Sound and then on towards the Tasman Sea. The result is something that looks like the set from a 1970s James Bond film whilst producing 14% of New Zealand’s electricity supply.
A 20 minute bus journey over an unmade road (according to Sean it cost $2/cm) takes you to Doubtful Sound (which it turns out is actually a fjord) and from there it’s another 90 minute boat journey out to the sea. According to Justin (who drove the boat and had almost as many nuggets to impart as Sean) the sound/fjord was named by Captain Cook who discovered the entrance but thought better of sailing in as he considered it ‘doubtful’ that he’d be able to sail out again. He would probably therefore have been a little surprised to have seen the 15 deck high cruise ship that weaved (wove?) its way between the islands just in front of us……..still, that’s 200 years of progress for you.
For once Denise’s wildlife jinx didn’t come into play and we had seals and bottlenose dolphins a plenty. Note to self: when taking picture of fast moving dolphins remember to set the shutter speed to something sensible. Ah well…… a fantastic day nonetheless.
….holiday blogs, motoring obsessions and a general account of life in the Ewbank household…..