Monday, 3 October 2011

New Zealand Week 4: Christchurch, Kaikoura, Blenheim, Nelson, Wellington, Napier

Tuesday 27th September: I had a lovely evening yesterday, my second at the home of Dorenda Britten and Rob Sweeney. They are Christchurch residents, to whom I was introduced by Ross Hunter and Janice Kirkpatrick. To welcome a complete stranger into your home, give him wine, dinner and company is most generous. To do it twice, well thank you both for your hospitality. I hope I can reciprocate when you come to London.
After looking at central Christchurch yesterday, my plan today was to visit some of the city’s suburbs over to the east, which were particularly badly hit by the February earthquake.

On the short drive I came across the AMI Stadium (formerly the famous Jade Stadium) the major rugby venue here in Canterbury, and the intended venue for seven Rugby World Cup matches. It had been specially enlarged for RWC, the seating capacity increased, but had suffered damage in February to both the concrete structure of the Deans stand, and liquefaction damage to the playing surface.

The damaged stadium in Christchurch which would have been the centrepiece of the Rugby World Cup

Further on I was in the residential suburbs. I didn’t feel comfortable taking photographs of people’s homes and their misfortunes, so I have no images on Flickr from this morning. I think the biggest impression I have is of contrasts: one property ruined, the adjacent one intact and still lived in. One street looking normal and quiet; the next busy with contractors, machines and pumps running. A school looking fine, busy, everything externally intact; round the corner the local public library in a temporary home. It was a beautiful day, with a clear blue sky and strong sun, lawns being mowed, sprinklers at work, youngsters ambling to school, dog walkers and shoppers. Yet these suburbs have seen destruction and some deaths in a way we can’t really imagine.

Tuesday: Christchurch to Kaikoura

Once clear of the city I had a lovely drive, through rolling farming countryside. Very hot, windows open, country music on the radio. Stopped for lunch in the tiny village of Cheviot in the Two Rivers Café, which was a café, restaurant, art gallery, book shop and sculpture garden. Great food, and I just wish I wasn’t driving and could have had a glass of wine with it.

Two Rivers cafe, gallery, shop in Cheviot

I’d promised myself that wouldn’t keep stopping to take photographs on this journey, my account having already too many “ green field, azure lake, snowy peaks, blue sky” shots. I had to relent: a couple of wonderful scenes faced me as I rounded a corner. They are posted here.

I saw two hitchhikers today (heading in the opposite direction) the first I’ve seen over here. Does nobody hitch by more? There were scores of campervans heading south, certainly well over a hundred, nearly all identifiable as Ireland supporters. They next play Italy in Dunedin on Sunday.

I finished the drive as planned at Kaikoura, 112 miles north of Christchurch and sitting on the coast. It’s a smashing little place. Looks a bit sleepy at first, with only one main street of shops, but it has a faintly hippy air, plenty of small galleries and craft shops, and some good cafes and bars.

An email from Hannah which included the following “….Ella beautiful as always. Can now point to her nose, head & ear. And if you ask her 'where are the fish?' she looks towards the fishbowl. Clever girl! “

I sat outside in at t-shirt this evening to read the paper and drink wine: first time it’s been this warm n three weeks.

Wednesday 28th: Kaikoura. I’m staying two nights in this place because I want to spend today whale-watching. Whale Watch Kaikoura is the main company, and as I’m learning with all these NZ tour firms, very efficient and engaging. They organise three trips a day out to sea, perhaps 20 miles north-east of the town, each lasting a couple of hours, on their own catamarans. The waters off Kaikoura benefit from a combination of ocean currents and a unique continental shelf, and so are home to a variety of marine mammals such as whales and dolphins. Whale Watch guarantee you’ll spot a whale on their tour, and if you don’t you’ll get up to 80% of your fee returned to you: that is a very decent deal.

Just five minutes after leaving the dock we saw some Hector’s Dolphins and stopped to watch them play, six of them, swimming and leaping alongside the boat, just like in the documentaries.

As we headed further on we were given a useful presentation about the Sperm Whales, the variety we were looking for. Only males would be visible, the waters here being too cold for females nurturing their young. We shouldn’t expect too much, probably one or possibly two whales. The sperm whale is the largest toothed whale in the world and can reach up to 18 metres in length (59 feet). They’re huge, about the size of a 737, with a heart the size of a VW beetle. We had two professional watchers ‘up top’, and the captain was also in touch with another boat from the same firm, and a helicopter, also running whale watch flights. This pooling of information led us to one particular area, but drew a blank.

Twice a sonarsphere was lowered over the side to allow one of the crew to listen for whales. We turned back towards a land some way, and then got a report from the other WW boat that there was activity in the area. Suddenly excitement – a ‘blow’ could be seen, and it drew us over to where our chap was on the surface. We knew we wouldn’t have long to spot him and didn’t: less than a minute before he dived, for what would be about a 45 minute dive. Too long, our time was running out. Most of us got some shots, although not of the style you see in the films with the huge tail raised clear of the water. I think we were all a little downbeat on the return journey, feeling we should have seen more. However, this is nature, its live and unpredictable. Our spirits lifted when the guide announced that we would qualify for a partial refund, which seemed very decent. In fact it was 80%, which was very generous.

Our 25 second glimpse of a sperm whale

It had been another fascinating trip, and once again I would recommend it to anybody but the very young. Note that when you check-in for the trip they issue warnings about sea conditions, and offer appropriate medications. We had a few people unwell on the pitching boat.

After the turbulence, I settled myself with lunch of smashing fried fish from Coopers Catch, followed by a long walk in blazing sun to the top of the Peninsula from where I shot a short piece of video showing about 290 degrees of the local scenery.
Back at the campsite, take a shower, read the newspaper over beer, chat to neighbours about rugby, write up the blog, end. Night.

Thursday 29th. Kaikoura. I’m heading north today from Kaikoura to Blenheim. The road runs along the coast for most of the 128kms, with the railway in parallel. About 20 k north of Kaikoura is a small pull-in to the side of the road, sufficient space for about ten vehicles, and on the small strip of rocks below are seals. This is Ohau Point, and is a great place to see seals if you don’t wish to go on one of the organized tours. Just pull up, look closely at the rocks, and you’ll see them. Their shape and colouring really disguises them against the rocks and seaweed. Being highly qualified in seal spotting now, I was able to confidently point them out to a small group of Japanese tourists; it turned out they were scientists who knew exactly what they were doing.

While I was there the Tranz Scenic train pulled to a halt on the track to allow the passengers a photo-op from the open viewing coach. I’d met some people in Dunedin who’d been on this train and spoke very highly of the experience.

I want to be in Blenheim by midday – I have a date – so ‘no more stops for photos’ is the rule today, but I’m breaking it within twenty minutes. All over the South Island, as you drive round corners, or break the crest of a hill, there is always another stunning view to record.

I roll into Blenheim on the dot of midday and follow my directions to Pine Ridge. I’m visiting Di and Rod Lofthouse, two colleagues at Yorkshire TV, who I haven’t seen for almost 25 years. They have been living here since, we want to catch up, and they have kindly offered to show me some of the sights of Marlborough wine country. Hey are well qualified in this, having themselves bought a small vineyard, pulled out all the old Muller Thurgau vines and replanted thousands of Sauvignon Blanc vines. Within five years they were producing an award-winning SB, one of which went on to be chosen for serving at a Royal wedding. On their doorstep are the great names of Marlborough wines, well known in the UK this last twenty years: Montana, Villa Maria, Wither Hills and more.

Blenheim, Marlborough. Centre of the New Zealand white wine world.

They have sold up that business now and retired to their lovely new house which sits on the very top of Pine Ridge and backs directly onto the Marlborough Golf Club, of which Di is the Treasurer. They gave me a bed for the night (as well as dinner, wines, and everything else) and after three weeks on the road it was a treat to be in a bed, with carpets underfoot and a private bathroom.

Just some of the awards won by Rod and Di Lofthouse for their Sauvignon Blanc

Friday 30th September, Blenheim. This morning Rod took me to the nearby Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre, a collection of planes and associated memorabilia from WW 1. The collection has existed for some time but in recent years the film director Peter Jackson (a hero in NZ following the successes of Lord of the Rings) has joined the board, helped focus the ambition, and use some of his own creative teams to devise and enhance the displays. The lack of space currently limits them to the WW1 era, but we heard talk of plans to expand the buildings and extend the displays (they have much more they could show if they had the room).

Right beside, in a second new building, has just opened a collection of classic cars, assembled by a successful vineyard owner, who had run out of space to store his 125 cars and decided to build a display open to the public. These two collections will surely produce in time yet another well run attraction, bringing visitors to this lovely corner of the South Island. Thanks Di and Rod for a great 24 hours.

Blenheim to Nelson

In the afternoon, apart from a brief stop for lunch at Havelock, I drove due west to Nelson, 110 kms away. I arrived at about 4pm in a really busy, compact small city, with lots of street life and an arts festival underway. It was a lovely sunny afternoon so I found my site, checked in, and then unhooked the bike and set off to explore Nelson for a couple of hours. The Italian rugby team was based here for the early weeks of the RWC and I’d read that Nelsonians had really made a big effort to welcome and embrace them. The mayor, Aldo Miccio, is of Italian descent, which may have helped. I saw lots of evidence, flags and posters, wishing them well.

I found myself on the edge of a small park, just off the centre, ANZAC Park. Those of us living in the northern hemisphere may tend to forget the role played by what were then the Commonwealth countries in supporting Britain’s efforts in the two World Wars. The memorial in this park records the 244 local men who list their lives fighting in WW1. In total, about 80,000 Australian and New Zealand troops lost their lives. April 25th is ANZAC Day in both countries, marking the significant losses sustained, and is a general day of commemoration of losses in all wars.

War memorial in ANZAC Park, Nelson

Saturday October 1st, Nelson. A further wander around Nelson this morning, and a quick look inside the local museum: a really good display about the area and the development of the town. I enquired of the curator about the woolen panels I’d seen wrapped around trees and lamp posts in the main streets. “Graffiti knitting” they call it, and apparently it’s about displaying a local tradition (the use of wool as wall decoration) in an informal way, but the panels are only in place during the RWC.

I’m staying in Nelson, where the main street is Trafalgar, and this morning I walked across Victory Square.

The first game of rugby to be played in New Zealand took place right her in Nelson in May 1870, and has been recreated for the RWC. Details here.

I’m in Nelson to watch Australia play Russia, in the local ground which has been extended to 17,000 seats. In world terms it’s not a big game, but I expect the ground to be full. We are only 3 hours flying time from Oz, and I’ve seen hundreds of gold shirts around the town. It is a 13:30 kick-off, so if the weather holds I’ll be watching rugby in the sun, a rarity in these days where broadcasters seem to favour evening matches. It’s a big weekend for the RWC, the final matches of the pool stages. By tomorrow night we’ll know who is playing who in the quarters, and who is going straight home. The USA have already gone. I’ll need to find a bar to watch England / Scotland tonight. It should be a cracker.

I now know what they mean by an “All weather” stadium- it’s all open, to all the elements. The rain started precisely at 14:30 as forecast and continued and continued. After the match I abandoned plans to spend the evening in the official RWC bar in town (every town has one, always a Heineken bar) and walked home to dry out.

With some hot food and Australian shiraz, I sat down to watch the England v Scotland match, the only Englishman in a room of 14 Aussies and 2 Kiwis. It was actually a good game in that it was a close score until the final two minutes. But it wasn’t great rugby. I thought England were messy, untidy, seemed stuck with just one plan. Poor old Jonny Wilkinson had another awful night with his kicking, although his tackling was first rate. He threw himself at everybody, so no surprise that after the match he headed to hospital for a scan on his arm. Toby Flood’s appearance, along with some subs in the scrum, seemed to steady England, give it some direction, and Flood’s kicking was good. He should surely start the next game. We scraped a win, 16-12, but in none of England’s four matches so far have I seen what might be called ‘world class’ rugby.

Sunday 2nd. Nelson. Get up and go this morning, coffee and sausage roll en route. I’m heading for the port town of Picton, the place where one catches the vehicle ferry to the north island. It’s not far, about two hours drive, but about 12 kms is on a slow, windy, uphill road, with tough bends, and I’ve got to check-in for my ferry at noon. The rain has continued all night and this morning is headlights on, wipers at full type weather. I follow another camper van up the long steep mountain road, with water sloshing across the single lane road. Suddenly we both spot a car which has just gone over the edge, in the opposite direction, and manage to pull in to the only lay-by for a mile or so. By the time I’m out, in a waterproof, and across the road, the affected driver is also out and into a minibus, which had been following him. The drop is several hundred feet but he is lucky: his car was halted by trees. Reports are that he’s ok, so we both resume our journey, just a little slower than before.

It is many years since I was on a car ferry, and boarding this one, the MV Santa Regina, I’m reminded of the occasion in 1979 when Liz and I turned up at Dover for the ferry to France. Toby was only three months old, on the backseat in a carrycot. We had no idea he needed a passport so were shocked when told that we were free to leave the UK, but might well have difficulty bringing him back in. We looked at each other, thought for a moment ‘well, we’ve driven all the way down from Glasgow so we’d better go ahead’, and pressed on to the ferry. Three weeks later, arriving back at Calais, we suddenly remembered we might face a problem in two hours time. As we drove down the ramp at Dover we piled sleeping bags and clothes on top of our tiny baby, headed for the ‘nothing to declare’ channel, and were just waved through.

Picton to Wellington

It’s a three hour crossing to Wellington, New Zealand’s capital, some of the crossing is in sheltered waters, some in the rough Cook Straits. I’ve got some sea sickness tabs but as they make one drowsy, and shouldn’t be used if driving, they are not for me today as once off the ferry I have an 80km drive. In fact it’s a very smooth trip, the only discomfort is the sight of cattle on the freight deck, packed into road trucks so tightly that they can scarcely move. Those you see in my photo are on the upper level of a two-tier trailer. I can’t imagine what the conditions are like for those below.

Cattle packed double-height in this road trailer

I arrived in the South Island just over three weeks ago and am very sorry to be leaving. It is quite fantastic countryside, quiet and peaceful, and I’ve met nothing but warm, generous decent people. I know the North Island differs in parts, so look forward to new experiences.

This week the Royal New Zealand Navy marks the 70th anniversary of its founding, with parades in the centre of Wellington, and exercises off the coast. As we draw into our dock I can see half a dozen tied-up and looking very trim, including the supply ship Canterbury. Apparently the RNZN has 12 ships and ten are here in Wellington Harbour.
I’m not stopping in Wellington. It was either stay two days and explore what I’m sure is a great city, or press on northwards as I want to be in Auckland on Friday. I’m sorry to miss Te Papa (LINK) the National Museum of New Zealand, of which I have heard many good reports. Te Papa (Maori: Our Place) designed by Jasmax Architects, was opened in 1998, and regularly gets 1m visitors each year. If I ever return to New Zealand I’ll certainly start my trip in Wellington.

The departure from the port area is delayed by the departure of 37,000 fans from the rugby stadium, right beside the dock, where the All Blacks have played Canada. Although they produced a massive score the fans are downcast, indeed the whole nation appears distraught, at the loss of Dan Carter. It seems to be the only talking point on any speech radio networks.

By 7pm I’m in the sleepy town of Carterton (or at least its sleepy at this time of day) parking for the night and hoping to see Ireland v Italy. Unfortunately it’s not available on the campsite’s limited tv service, so I follow it on the Guardian’s Live Blog.
It feels like it’s been a long day.

Monday October 3rd. Thanks for all the messages from far and wide commenting on the blog; they are much appreciated. I looked at the blog stats last night for the first time in ages. There have been 647 views in the last month, which is really quite wonderful. As well as the to-be-expected views from the UK, France, USA and Australia (well known family and friends) I’m intrigued as to who my readers might be in the Ukraine (9 views) and Russia (10).

Interesting fact no 27: In New Zealand you can choose your own car number plate, made up of any combination of six letters. My photo is of Di Lofthouse’s BMW – quite unique.

So I hope everybody is now clearing their diaries for next weekend, wherever in the world they are. It will be a bumper rugby weekend as we are now into the knockout stage, and know who-plays-who in the quarter finals.
On Saturday: Ireland v Wales followed by England v France.
On Sunday: South Africa v Australia followed by New Zealand v Argentina

I’ll be at two of those games, in Auckland, and can recall the same weekend four years ago when Toby and I enjoyed a really great weekend in Marseilles - especially the game where England beat Australia.

Today’s drive north is about 225 kms, on Highway 2. It’s pretty fast, through easy countryside, except that at one point the road surface runs out and we are all driving on hardcore gravel. This is how they repair their single carriageway Highway.
I’m in Napier in time for lunch, and as I’m not driving any further, a glass of wine too. Lunch is “Squiddly Diddly” – spiced calamari.


My great new gadget: I’ve brought my iPod with me, full of music but also well loaded with podcasts in case I feel the need for some speech to listen too. However, it isn’t ideal when I’m parked and doing such things as cooking, or editing photos: I then really need to hook it up to a small loudspeaker, not wander around with the earpieces in. Surely there must be some sort of small speaker I can buy, which doesn’t drain the iPod’s battery, will slip into a suitcase, yet provide reasonable sound quality. Eureka: a shop in Nelson had just the thing. (see photo). It simply plugs into the Pod and that’s it – music. It will also work with the iPhone and iPad, recharges directly via a USB from my Mac, and comes with half a dozen connecting leads to work with other mobiles too. And all for $20 – that’s £10. Great value. The product is called iTour-30 and is made by Divoom. I have put a photo on Flickr.

I shall be in Napier for two nights and if the weather is kind to me will explore it by bicycle. It is famous for its Art Deco architecture, and for the hinterland of Hawke’s Bay, another rich wine-producing area. Much more next week.

Art Deco Napier

My travels in Week Four: starting in Christchurch, finishing in Napier

Now click on this link and see the photos which relate to the week described above: NZ Week Four.

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