Monday, 19 September 2011

New Zealand Week 2: Invercargill, Bluff, Manapouri, Te Anua, Doubtful Sound, back to Dunedin, on to Central Otago.

Last week I travelled from London to Christchurch, on to Dunedin to see England play Argentina, got diverted by bad weather from my plan to see The Catlins, and finished the week in Invercargill

Tuesday 13th. This week stared in Invercargill with a quiet day, some shopping, a session in the public library (using wi-fi) and a visit to the city museum.  Invercargill is certainly a quiet place: all day I kept thinking it’s quiet now, but wait till lunchtime when they’ll all come out of their offices, or wait till 4pm when school comes out. Well they didn’t – or if they did I never saw them. It is the major town for the whole of the south end of the island and I had expected more life. On the other hand its existence is really down to supporting a wide rural area, almost entirely dependent on agriculture, so I guess many residents live some way from the town. My impression is that although it tries hard to attract them, most tourists use it as a jumping-off point for flights or ferry to Stewart Island (which actually area sail from Bluff), rather than staying in Invercargill. It is also blighted by sprawling suburbs, with many businesses lining the long North Road – tractor dealers, tyre depots, liquor stores, builders yards and so on: all making for a rather unattractive approach into the town. In the town centre there is a curious style of architecture to all the shopping streets, rather a ‘wild west’ look to the store fronts. The population is around the 40,000 mark, and I’m afraid it reminded me of Inverness, around the mid-1970’s when we lived up there.

The best known man in Invercargill must be David McKilop, local estate agent. His photo and contact details are all over town, in the windows of the many shops closed and for sale. Sad.

Invercargill was also cold and of course wet; some nights the temperature was at 1 degree, which is might cold when you are in a very poorly insulated camper van (basically a tin box on wheels). I sleep badly.

I’d been advised before I came here that there is a frustrating lack of free wireless access to the internet. The places to head for in most towns are the libraries (sometimes free, more usually charged by the hour), hotels (extortionate rates) and the smaller coffee shops (low connection speeds). I did just that, getting my first week’s blog and photos posted in the public library.

The NZ press have been running with the issue of the unfair way that the small nations are treated in this tournament, some of them having just three days off between games. It is desperately tough on them. They have many fewer players than the big nations, and very limited funding. The reason of course is that the tv broadcasters want to stage the big games at weekends when viewing figures will be high, so England, France, Australia and the like all get weekend games, with six days rest in between; Georgia, Fiji and other ‘tier two’ countries have to put up with fitting around them.

Wednesday 14th Another cold and wet night. This morning I’m off to see the ‘bottom of the world’, or at least the most southerly point on New Zealand’s South Island. It is a short drive to the small town of Bluff, perhaps most famous for producing Bluff oysters. Stirling Point marks the spot, and the sign tells me I’m 19,000 kms from London, and only 4,800 from the South Pole. In the adjacent Drunken Sailor I passed, reluctantly, on the $32 Fisherman’s Catch (scallops, battered blue cod, turbot, smoked salmon, oysters, squid and mussels). I made do with battered oysters and chips: very agreeable.

The harbour at Bluff is busy: the ferry service to Stewart Island, a large fishing fleet to service, and just across the water a major aluminium smelting plant.

On the way back into Invercargill I take a short detour to Ureti Beach, a notable spot, with miles of beach, and in the summer a great many sports and other attractions. I saw just one car, one man, and one dog.

Back the site to park up the van and prepare for tonight’s game, Scotland v Georgia. I'm supporting Scotland, on behalf of my Glasgow-born family members. The forecast is rain, temperature 4 degrees, and I'll be in an open stand, so its thermals and waterproofs tonight for me. We start with a ‘sausage sizzle’ at the camp site where many fine men have turned out in kilts, and then it’s a free bus to the centre of town where we find the unofficial RWC pub. After a few rounds we are led by three pipers and a couple of policemen through the town to the rugby ground. It’s an elderly ground, which has been temporarily extended to get the capacity up to 16,000, and I’m surprised to see that two sides of the ground are simply standing spaces, with people on grass banks – quaint.
Scotland win by nine points.

If you want a brief and useful daily update on the rugby, I can recommend The Breakdown: subscribe for free and it will appear in your email each morning. It’s full of interesting snippets about referees, players, some gossip, citing and suspensions.
Thursday 15th. After another night disturbed by heavy rain, I’m up early and on the way by 0900. (No breakfast today). I rejoin the Southern Scenic route driving west out of Invercargill, around the coast to the little town of Riverton. Coffee and a roll. It is a lovely drive, on really quiet roads. I can go three or four miles and not see another vehicle. Between rain showers the sun comes out and the snowy peaks of the Longwood Range come into view, although the very tops are often in cloud.

I make quite a few stops to admire the view, take photos, and stretch my legs. However, there are several occasions on which I see something of interest but by the time I’ve stopped, parked, and got the camera out the sun has gone and the rain rolled in. It changes very quickly.

I’ve taken quite a lot of photos today to capture a flavour of this part of New Zealand, the scenery of course, but also buildings, houses and other things that caught my eye. The bus shelters are great fun, each with their individual design. The countryside is all about farming: sheep of course, cattle, some forestry and timber.

By midday the sun is strong and warm, I can dispense with my jacket, and at one point I’m searching for my sunglasses – all this is a treat after the wet and grey days earlier in the week. By lunchtime I’ve reached Lake Manapouri and the little town of the same name. Actually I’m confused by what is a town and what a mere village. In the café/shop the lady breaks off from sorting the post to serve me. She says she has to sort the mail into 103 pigeon holes, representing 103 houses: that is the entirety of Manapouri. So I class this as a village.

Some lunch, a walk by the lake, and I decide to move on north the few miles to Te Anau, my stop for the next two nights. I’m determined to not spend too much time behind the steering wheel on this trip. Today was just 125 miles, tomorrow will be none. I shall walk and possibly go on the lake.

A leisurely walk around the town takes just one hour; it is small, tidy, entirely given over to tourism but not at all tacky. It feels very like a small Swiss village, set right on the edge of the lake. I have booked to go on a cruise to Doubtful Sound tomorrow, an eight hour trip. This evening is spent in a small bar, The Black Dog, sipping a local Syrah, and chatting with two families over from Argentina, whilst watching USA play Russia.
The bar is part of a new building, a boutique cinema, which has an interesting story. A local man, Kim Hollows, has spent his working life as a local helicopter pilot, flying commercially around the Southland and Fiordland area. He was so keen that people should see the fantastic scenery that he saw every day whilst flying, that he commissioned a film, all shot from helicopters, which has been widely praised. He then built, with his own money, a small cinema, in the very centre of town, which now shows the film four times a day, with a regular commercial screening in the evening. To

Friday 16th. I’m just back from a really excellent day out. It required an early start and I was away and on the road at 0745, retracing my steps the 15 miles back to Manapouri. I’m taking a trip to and cruise on Doubtful Sound, one of the ‘sights’ of Fiordland, and have to check-in at the departure point at 0915, so there is time for a cooked breakfast at the Cathedral Café. Of course this isn’t the usual tourist season, so all 40 of us on the trip are here for te rugby, the usual collection of different nations, and we quickly fall into discussing the matches so far and our views on the likely winners.

Before going any further let me try to describe the area, and the reason for the trip. The south west ‘corner’ of New Zealand’s South Island is the Fiordland region, much of it a World Heritage site. Within the area are some significant attractions including Milford Sound, Doubtful Sound. The area is wild, remote, imposing and spectacular. I had read many guidebooks and blogs about the area and reports on the merits or otherwise of the various trips. I plumped for Doubtful Sound because it seemed the less popular than Milford, and is larger. It is an eight-hour trip and at just £100 really excellent value (I think we had an out-of-season price). The instructions given to us when we booked was to ‘bring warm clothes, wet weather gear, cameras, some lunch, and sun cream’. We didn’t need the last of those as the weather continued generally cold, overcast, and with occasional showers.

The day is divided into five parts:
First we make a 45 minute boat cruise along Lake Manapouri and we were blessed with some sun which gave us all lots of photo opportunities, although it was cold on the open deck. We landed at 10:30 at West Arm where there is a chance for a loo break and coffee.
Then we board two small coaches for the trip up Wilmot Pass Road to Deep Cove. We are all aware that the main attraction is still to come but this part itself is unusual and exciting. The road is entirely landlocked and runs 22kms. The material to build it, the coaches that run on it, all having been brought here by boat across the lake. It is a single track, well-made but nonetheless gravel road, and it rises many hundreds of metres up the Pass. We have an excellent driver, who is also a nature guide, who makes a couple of stops to allow us off to take photos. The forest is dense, rich with lichen, beech trees and many other species, and wonderful bird calls. Soon however we are into falling snow, then quite heavy snow, and then we are slowed by a snow plough working the track in front of us. Interesting to note that the plough has snow chains. And then we are over the summit, slowly dropping down the other side, a 1:5 descent “the coach is due its annual brake inspection tomorrow” says John our driver. He has a wonderfully dry humour. We are now into temperate forest, with very different life.

And now we start the third stage: we leave the coaches and board the Patea Explorer, a beautiful new catamaran, which will take us the length of Doubtful Sound, 40 kms from this point to the Tasman Sea. The scene before us is mystical: mist, low clouds, mountains appearing through the gaps, no other boats or sign of humans other than we forty or so.
Moored just a few metres from us is the boat The Fiordland Navigator a lovely looking vessel which does the same crusie as us but does it overnight. It has private en-suite cabins, a dining saloon, observation deck, and kayaks for those who wish to take to the water. It is of course much more expensive than the trip I’m on but sounds very romantic.
Our boat has an inside cabin, with little snack bar, which we have to use from time to time: it is just too cold to stay on deck when we pick up speed and the wind and rain is driving into you – even in full waterproofs. I saw a couple of people lose their caps.
After about an hour we come to this tiny little building, sitting all alone on the water’s edge. It is where the crayfish are landed and held until the helicopter comes in to pick them up and take them away to market, and on to tables around the world. Standing in the cabin, one can look through into the cockpit and follow our progress on the radar: we are nearing the end of the sound and the open sea. When we get there we don’t linger: it is rough, with visibility surprisingly short. The captain turn us round, and we start the return journey. On this leg we will detour into some of the ‘arms’, the branches that run off the main sound. We see many waterfalls, and at one point are drawn to a beautiful almost-vertical rock face covered with sphagnum and other growths. The captain takes us close, and closer, until eventually he is teasing the boat forward half a meter at a time to let us really see the plant life up close. We are so close now that you can feel the spray from the fall (see the water on my lens).

We are now in Crooked Arm, one of the long side reaches of Doubtful Sound. The captain tells us that he will close down the engines, and allow us to float. He asks us all to stand in silence, and simply listen and appreciate the sounds of nature: water falling, lapping against the boat, a few bird calls, and the occasional click of a camera shutter. It is an eerie two minutes of silence, and quite special.

A big challenge on this trip is to know what to photograph: I’ll never make this trip again, there is so much to record, but I’m already worried about the battery on my camera. I can’t possibly upload all the shots to Flickr during this trip: I’ll have to post just a few to give a flavour, and upload the rest when I’m back in the UK. We continue to sail round into another arm, Hall Arm, and we see Mount Crowfoot ahead of us, covered in snow, framed between two forested peaks, and standing 1885 metres.

Back at Deep Cove, after 3 hours on the Sound, we are back on the coaches, to start our return, but there is a diversion ahead. We make the 45 minute trip back over Wilmot Pass to West Arm and now move into the next stage of this remarkable day: a visit to the underground power house of the Manapouri Power Station, 176 metres below ground. Work started in 1963 and wasn’t completed until 1971. The purpose was to meet the power requirements of the giant aluminium smelter, 170 k away at Bluff (which I had seen just two days earlier). We travel, still in our coaches, down a 2km long spiral tunnel into the granite. Finally, we emerge into the viewing platform where we look down onto a James Bond-type scene, the huge hall holding the tops of the seven generators. In fact we are only seeing one third of the hall, the rest is out of sight below the turbines. You can read more about this project here.

The final stage is the return cruise, back up Lake Manapouri, to get us back to our starting point. It has been an amazing day, quite extraordinary. A full eight hours, with superb organization, excellent guides, unique experiences, and all of it a million miles away from rugby.

The route of the Doubtful Sound trip

More on Doubtful Sound here:
And the website of the company who organize the trip, Real Journeys, (highly recommended):

Sunset over Lake Te Anau

Saturday 17th. Today I’m heading back to Dunedin for the England v Georgia match tomorrow. It’s only about 180 miles so I have a leisurely start and even have time to look at The Guardian online during breakfast. The weather is good, the road of course very quiet, except for mini-convoys of campervans all heading in the same direction. I pass through the small town of Gore (I think I should stop saying small, all towns here are small) which has two claims to fame: “NZ’s Capital of Country Music” and “World Capital of Brown Trout Fishing” – something the Bevins side of my family doubtless know already. The next place on the road after Gore is called Clinton. The stretch of Highway 1 between them is officially called The Presidential Highway.

The first thing I do on arriving in Dunedin is head to the Kathmandu store and ask for the best sleeping bag they have. It is rated as suitable for down to minus 10 degrees: that will surely do me.

Back on the same Dunedin campsite, and with some of the same neighbours, we spend an evening watching on tv as Ireland play Australia: what a game, and what a result as Ireland outplay the second favourites to win the Cup. Result: Ireland 15 – Australia 6. The next day’s paper has a smashing colour photo of Irish winger Keith Earls going high on Kurtley Beale with the headline “Cop that Cobber!” Brilliant.

Sunday 18th. An excellent sleep, really snug. After breakfast I make a skype call to Hannah and suggest she we make it a video call. I want to hear her reaction to my beard after 11 days without shaving. Luckily Ella was asleep: she might have freaked out seeing her Pop’s face. An hour late I shaved it off.

A quiet day on the campsite dealing with domestic chores: a load in the washing machine, emptying the waste tanks on the van and filing with fresh water, some emails, and then time to don the England shirt and walk into Dunedin. It’s an early game, a 6pm kick-off, so we all get to walk to the ground in sun, stopping on the way for some refreshments. The crowd is smaller than for the previous Eng v Arg match, but all the Kiwi neutrals are rooting for Georgia, who play really well, except for one strange habit: they have more players down, injured, than I have ever seen in any match. I can only assume it’s a tactic to slow down the pace of the game, perhaps they are not as fit as the opposition. They did just the same in the game against Scotland in Invercargill. (I ought to be sympathetic, having made the point above about them having only 3 days rest between matches). It makes for a very long game, a very stop-start affair. However, that doesn’t take away from England’s dire performance (again). At least this time we didn’t get the management team saying “ it’s a win, that’s good”. It appears from martin Johnson’s post match comments that they have finally realised this is unacceptable. It was at this point in the 2007 competition that the group of senior players apparently ‘stood up’ to the management, told them that the tactics and game plan were wrong, and as they had won the Cup in 2003, they would take the lead with a new game plan. Did it work? Well England did get to the semi-final after being written off. Will th same thing happen this time? No, many of the current squad are close to Martin Johnson, having played with him. I also don’t think there are the same kind of leaders as Lawrence Dallaglio was.

High point of the evening was pre-match: the Dunedin Central Pipe Band marched onto the pitch, about 100 of them, playing some wonderful stirring music: always makes me shiver. If I can upload it, I’ll put the video on Flickr.

Odd point of the evening was post-match. Long after the game was over, and all the players and press had departed for the dressing rooms, Jonny Wilkinson spent 30 minutes training with one coach, whilst a small band of England supporters looked on, bemused. He ran, sprinted, kicked, chased, and generally worked hard. Was he wanting to avoid the post-mortem in the dressing room? Had teacher told him to stay behind for mis-behaving in Queenstown?

I walked back into town, chatting on the ‘phone with Toby, who had just watched the game on tv in Leeds. I installed myself in the spacious clubhouse of Dunedin’s Alhambra Rugby Club – the same one where the nude rugby was played last week. They have been having open house for any visiting fans and about 200 of us took up their offer: cheap drinks, hot food to order, and the Canada – France game on big screens. A good evening, chatting with a senior member of Christchurch Rugby Club, the second oldest in the world, about the trouble his city faces. I may drop in there in ten days time.

Monday 19th. A few days away from Dunedin and rugby. I drive south, then west, then north, into the region of Central Otago. I’m aiming for Bannockburn, the centre of the Otago wine region. It’s just 150 miles: strong sun to start, then rain, then dry, then wet. (Can I stop writing about the weather? It does truly change every hour or two by day, it rains, the sun is hot, and the nights are cold. That’s it). The region is the heart of New Zealand’s fruit region and the roadsides are lined with orchards growing olives, cherries, apples, pears and other fruit. It is beautiful countryside, and the blossom is just appearing.

This is the southernmost wine-growing region of New Zealand, and also the highest. Although known as one of the smallest regions, and for its relative youth, the region has become renowned for its Pinot Noir.

Doing my homework I came across this extract from an article in Decanter:
Every wine region needs a hero. Sauternes has Yquem, Central Otago has Felton Road. From its first vintage a mere decade ago Felton Road has blazed a trail for other winemakers to follow. A great vineyard site at Bannockburn, one of Central Otago’s warmest districts; a gifted winemaker called Blair Walter and an innovative owner, Nigel Greening, have proved to be a devastating combination. Felton Road achieved almost overnight success with its first vintage of a slinky, elegant Pinot Noir. That was followed a few years later by the single-vineyard Block 3 and Block 5 Pinot Noir. As the numbers rose, so did quality and price. Organic viticulture, reduced crop levels, vine age and experience have seen the quality of Felton Road Pinot Noir steadily rise. Although the winery is best known for Pinot Noir, the three Rieslings are at least as good. All boast knife-edged acidity with flavours that develop magnificently with bottle age. For the winery’s two Chardonnays, the unoaked version is remarkably Chablis-like – the country’s best unoaked Chardonnay.
I had heard of them of course but hadn’t knowingly drunk anything they produce. So my plan was to try to get there for a tasting. With them held in such high regard around the world, I imagined a car park full and a crowd of pre-booked tasters. Well, surprise, surprise. I was the only person there.

I was met by Sarah Lundon who gave me all the time in the world, talking me through the history of their business, the production process and a tour of the winery. They are a very small business, employing just 12 people, only about 12 years old, and producing at the limit of their capacity. They can’t produce any more, and don’t want to, fearing they will lose their concentration on quality.

I tasted three wines, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir Bannockburn, Pinot Noir Cornish Point, but couldn’t try the Riesling as it is sold out. I made a modest purchase, perhaps thankful that as I’m flying I couldn’t take more home: the bank wouldn’t stand it either.

As I was leaving I met Gareth King, viticulturist. I wanted to talk about his success, and wine generally. Being a Kiwi he chatted about rugby and his delight that this last week his two young sons had met the All Blacks at a visit to their school, part of a between-games exercise the AB’s are undertaking across NZ.

After the high of that afternoon, and possibly heady from the Pinot, I parked the van and went for a brisk one hour walk into the hills above the vineyards.

My pre-booked campsite was only 15 minutes away and I rolled in as dusk fell.

What a fantastic week this has been.

Week 2: Sept 13th - 19th

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