Many thanks to all those who sent me messages over the seven weeks I was away, by text, email, tweets, facebook, and skype. You were wishing England well, mourning Scotland, asking the odds on Wales, complementing me on some photos, and saying nice things about this blog. I didn’t respond to any of you at the time, but I’m very grateful. You know who you are, so many thanks again.
So how to sum up the seven weeks in New Zealand? There will be two enduring memories: the places, and the people. If you haven’t been, it helps to understand this fact. The country has a landmass roughly the same size as Great Britain, but has a population of only 4.5 million (against GB’s 60 million).
The south island is a 33% larger landmass than the north, but has only 24% of the population, just 1,038,200 people. So apart from the two cities of Christchurch and Dunedin (390,000 and 116,000) the remaining 1 million are spread widely and thinly. It is a rural country, the economy largely dependent on international trade, agriculture, timber, mining, with tourism being the fourth key component.
Tending the vines, Felton Road, Otago
Tourism is big business, playing a major part in the economy. But it’s not large-scale, corporate, or ‘have a nice day’ tourism. It is calm, quiet, and very personal. Most tourism experiences I enjoyed seemed to be generally small-scale companies, usually family owned, and yet highly professional. I went on nine tourist trips (whale watching, star gazing, cruising, wine tasting, etc ) and only one was below five-star. Incidentally, some were free.
Tourists on the Doubtful Sound cruise
Mount Crowfoot seen from Doubtful Sound
Every town and village has an iSite, a tourist office, sometimes large and professionally staffed, other times just a counter and brochure rack at the side of a small café or bank. They are always staffed by knowledgeable locals, always willing to share ideas, suggest trips, who will make a booking for you, and they should be your first port of call in every new town.
The Department of Conservation has responsibility for the protection and management of the natural environment and almost every historical location will have a discreet and informative display, explaining what you are seeing, the historical or geological significance, as well as suggested walking routes and times. They have a great website, and also operate some small camping sites in 'up country' locations.
I regret not making more time early on to understand the history and heritage, and the Maori culture. It was really the two visitor experiences in my last ten days that began to make it clear: the Maritime Museum in Auckland, and the Waitangi Treaty Grounds.
Waitangi. Te Whare Runanga - Meeting House
The country and people seem exceptionally conscious of the natural environment, and the issues involved in protecting it. Of course it is stunning, so who wouldn’t want to value and preserve it. Like most other things in New Zealand, this attitude isn’t brought about by signs and notices, by authority and instruction. It seems to be cultural and behavioral, and my assumption is that people are schooled and brought up in this way.
Similarly, everybody obeys the speed limit. It is 100 kph on open roads but as soon as you reach the edge of a town or village, where the limit is 50 kph, everybody drops immediately to that lower limit. I saw no speed cameras or police cars checking or enforcing this anywhere; it seems that people understand the reason, and respect it. Driving is easy, in fact a pleasure. Apart from the last 75 miles or so approaching Auckland, the roads are very, very quiet.
People are really happy to stand and chat. The common greeting ‘how’s it going’ or ‘how you doing?’ doesn’t demand an answer, but it helps, and does lead to conversations about you, your trip, the rugby, and it all seems very genuine. I was on a path, halfway up Mt Iron, on a hot afternoon and pausing for moment, when a man coming down greeted me with a ‘how’s it going’. Thirty minutes later I resumed my climb after a long chat with Bob about the town of Wanaka, its rapid expansion in the last five years, urban development generally, the All Blacks, the London riots, and more. On another occasion I stopped for a moment at the roadside of Hway 85 to photograph the oxbow lake on the Waitaki River. It was late morning, the road was very quiet, but within two minutes a car pulled up beside me. For the next twenty or thirty minutes I chatted with a couple, she Swiss, he German, both of them resident in NZ. The river, the adjacent power station, my campervan, Scotland (they had toured there), and all manner of things. My point is that people are less rushed, can make time, and are interested.
Oxbow lake on Waitaki River
So how was the camping, or glamping as some of you called it? Well for me it was a great way to travel. I needed a vehicle to get around, I’d want somewhere to sleep, so combining the two in a campervan was ideal. You meet many more friendly people on camp sites than in a hotel. It helps too that New Zealand is a well-developed camping society, with really good sites and facilities. There are at least six firms hiring campervans vans of all sizes from two-sleepers up to six-berths. Mine had a gas and electric cooker, grill and microwave; a double bed, shower and loo, water and waste tanks. It was also really easy to drive. The biggest drawback was the lack of insulation, for the five days I was at the bottom of the South Island, where the nighttime temperature dropped to 1 degree. The early weeks of my trip were still officially wintertime in New Zealand.
My campervan, home for six weeks, on site in Oamaru
I had 42 nights in New Zealand and booked in advance 21 nights accommodation – generally the weekends when towns would be very busy with rugby fans. I had intended to do some free camping – just pulling up where I happened to be at the end of a day – but grew dependent on electricity: for heating in the first couple of weeks, but also to recharge camera, phone, laptop etc. Officially free camping is allowed almost everywhere, provided one’s vehicle is contained (the waste stays in tanks and isn’t wasted onto the ground).
Guidance on camping here: http://www.tourism.net.nz/new-zealand/about-new-zealand/free-camping.html
I rented a bike with my van (hanging on the back). I didn’t do any off-road mountain stuff but found it really useful for exploring, and if the weather had been better in the early weeks would have made even more use of it. Recommended
Of course the catalyst for my trip to the Land of the Long White Cloud was to follow the Rugby. So how was it?
New Zealand was an excellent host, with the full weight of the government and all other authorities thrown behind the RWC 2011 Ltd organization. Those elements for which they had responsibility all seemed to work really well for me. Particularly I must praise their handling of events in the aftermath of the Christchurch earthquake. That rugby-mad city was to have hosted seven matches, the quake coming just six months before kick-off. At a stroke RWC had to relocate all the matches to other cities, find new hotels and training grounds, and most difficult of all, re-issue 266,000 tickets, an enormous undertaking without precedent. For this fan, it was all very well handled.
As for the matches: England were as dull and dismal as I had expected, so I wasn’t too upset, their style and standard of play being consistent with what we have seen over the last four years. There were few really big upsets, and few games that will really live on in the memory. Perhaps Ireland v Australia in the pool stages, Australia v New Zealand, and Ireland v Wales quarter final are the stand out matches. In the ‘smaller’ nations, Japan, USA, Canada and Georgia have all improved since RWC 2007, and will continue to do so. Japan host the RWC 2019 tournament and will want to make a really good showing. The Final of course was gripping, and well done France – who I was supporting – for making the AB’s work so hard to win it.
Paul Rees, in the last of his Breakdown features, has a good summary
And Guardian writers sum up the whole tournament here.
And yet, Rugby World Cup, for all its size and scale, the presence of 100,00 fans, and world-wide tv coverage, still apparently makes a loss for its host nation. There are reports of NZ losing $40 million, which I’m sure it can’t afford, especially with Christchurch to rebuild. Something has to change – no host should make a loss of that level.
England Rugby’s problems are bigger than the players. The chaos at Twickenham hq has to be resolved quickly, with the appointment of a first class Chief Executive and the reorganization of the entire governance. There must be much greater clarity and transparency. When completed, there must be a rigorous process to select and appoint a national coach. He must then be given the freedom to appoint his own team (something denied to Martin Johnson four years ago). I hope we are mature enough to consider non-English coaches. England will host the 2015 RWC tournament and has a hard act to follow after the success of New Zealand this year. If true, the plan is to play most games at major football stadia – a great shame. Surely some matches could be played in rugby heartlands, for example, down in the south-west where Exeter Chiefs have a great following, and at Leicester’s Welford Road stadium. Refereeing of matches is a very difficult area; there must be greater consistency between refs, but the criticising of match officials by coaches and players must be banned, Warren Gatland being the worst offender.
Warren Gatland criticising the referee
TV coverage: I didn’t see any of the UK coverage provided by ITV but I’ve heard how poor it was. And the bad news: in 2015 they will provide not only the UK coverage again, but also pictures to the rest of the world.
And then there is England – an embarrassment, on and off the pitch. The charge sheet reads:
- Wearing an all-black playing strip for their opening game didn’t endear them to fans, Kiwis and neutrals: ‘Arrogant England Again’.
- Jonny Wilkinson’s kicking, only 3 out of 8 in the opening game; we didn’t like the neutrals booing him, we felt his frustration, but then we cringed at the stupidity of the captain (Tindall) and the coaches, for keeping him kicking at the posts – the corner would have been a smarter option.
- Ball switching by the England coaches, to enable Wilkinson to kick with his favoured ball – billed in the local press, reasonably in my view, as cheating.
- The whole Queenstown night out: drinking, clubbing, dwarf-throwing, and Tindall’s ‘dalliance’ with his ex. All meat for the press pack, a major distraction for the players, and an embarrassment for we fans.
- The fine by the IRB for Manu Tuillangi, wearing an ‘unofficial’ mouthguard, was a silly overreaction. A reprimand might have been sufficient, but he was dumb to do it, as was Lewis Moody two weeks later.
- The hotel chambermaid ‘alleged harassment’ incident involving three players; this felt like a re-run of a similar sex allegations about England players in Auckland in June 2008.
- Manu Tuilagi diving off the ferry into Auckland harbour – not a prank, but a really stupid and dangerous act.
That’s England. What about everything else? The most passionate and noisy fans, and the best singers – all the way through the match – were the Argentine supporters. They completely outsang England in Dunedin’s Octagon, the afternoon of the match. They then did it all over again for 90 minutes during the game.
Argentine fans inside Dunedin stadium
The most colourful, stylish, and seem-to-always-be-having-fun are the French supporters, although with such clues as berets, moustaches, striped Breton shirts, strings of onions, and red/white/blue face paint, it's easier than for some other nations.
The Kiwi fans were, as usual, quite reserved, but they had bigger things to worry about: they just couldn’t face the ignominy of not making the Final, and of not winning the cup. We were all pleased for them, but perhaps they could lighten-up a little during a match.
The International Rugby Board however, has a different set of charges laid against it – by me at least. The ticket prices were way too high, and the number of empty seats at major matches, quarter- and semi-finals, supports that claim. The IRB has to cut its cloth more astutely and remember that without fans there will be no games. Tickets to the semi-finals were $800 (£400)
Empty seats - at an All Blacks game too - suggest they were overpriced.
Their determination to protect their sponsors has reached ridiculous levels, such that fans going into stadia, having their bags searched, were prevented from taking in bottles of mineral water if they weren’t from the official sponsors. Several people told me the crisp story. A mother with four big bags of crisps was told she couldn’t take them in, as they were branded. “So it’s the bag that’s the problem?” Correct. She got her kids to rip open the bags, tipped all the contents into her rucksack, and left the offending wrapping with the security guard. If this is how it was in gentle, easy-going New Zealand, just wait for zealous England in 2015: the lawyers will have a bonanza.
There was a definite loss of the party atmosphere which surrounded the matches in the south of France in 2007. I went to many games in Marseille, Montpellier, and Toulouse, and the spirit on the streets around the stadia was fabulous. Fans mingled with street vendors, musicians played impromptu sets, there were beer tents, food stalls and loads of people in fancy dress, with the gendarmes occasionally joining in.
Fans get in the party mood in France at the 2007 Rugby World Cup
The party atmosphere at RWC 2007 in France: Australian (top) and Italian (below) fans
The atmosphere this year, albeit taking place in less Mediterranean weather, had a sterility to it that was due to the organisers’ heavy-handed legislation banning food stalls and bars within a certain distance of the stadia. You know that from here on, you’ll only get grub in the ground, at a hefty mark-up, and only Heineken, again at a steep price.
There was clearly a policy to prevent large groups of fans from the same country sitting together in large blocks. The ticket allocation seemed to have ‘randomised’ seating, which made it very hard to get anybody singing. I know we England fans had nothing to sing about, but the Welsh and Irish certainly did, and the games are poorer for not hearing them sing.
The same legislation quite specifically banned musical instruments, and if you had them they would be taken off you at the bag search. I was grateful for the lack of vuvuzuelas, thank you, but really miss the bands we had in France.
This year in Dunedin, on the day of the first England game, the Argentine drummers played and sang outside the bars in the city centre during the afternoon, whipping up a great game as we English tried to out-sing them. But the drums were not allowed into the stadium. Similarly the Scots were banned from taking pipes into their matches. In contrast, in 2007 in Toulouse there were two small bands at opposite ends of the Stade, playing all the way through the 90 minutes, to great delight. All of this is now lost. One of the bands I saw in Toulouse appeared and played in Auckland but was not allowed inside the stadium.
One of two bands inside the stadium, Toulouse, RWC 2007
The IRB, having taken away our music, turned injury to insult by playing a synthetic version of the trumpet ‘Ole’, which came from France. They have effectively corporatized and taken ownership of that which was spontaneous, and belonged to the fans. England host the 2015 RWC, and I truly hope we can correct some of these frustrations. We’ll have had the Olympics as practice in the meantime, so perhaps we’ll be good hosts – as good as the New Zealanders were. They set a very high standard indeed.
Russell Ferry, Bay of Islands
Back to the country. On the North Island I greatly enjoyed my couple of days around the Bay of Islands. Russell is worth the short ferry ride for the walk up Flagstaff Hill and a nosey around the tiny town. An interesting case of role reversal here: it used to be the main town for the whole area, with Paihia simply the ‘mainland’ ferry jetty. Now, Russell appears to have no business other than the ½ day visiors like myself, whilst Pahia is very much the centre of the area.
A visit to the nearby Waitangi Treaty Grounds is essential.
Napier is well worth a visit, and with more time I would have used it as base from which to explore more of the Hwake’s Bay region. If you want to taste wine, and eat good food too, this is a good place. Auckland I enjoyed, and I think the guide books unfairly mark it down. If you go, be sure to visit the Voyager Maritime Museum.
Napier: Ahuriri Estuary, from Perfume Point
I was disappointed by the Coromandel Peninsula, apart from the Hahei Explorer, but the weather was poor, and it was the last couple of days of my entire trip: perhaps I was fatigued. I only passed through the edge of Wellington as I drove off the ferry. I hear good things about it: perhaps another time.
On the South Island, I had an expert guide for my tour of the Marlborough wine district, where it was good to connect vineyards I saw with labels I know and have drunk.
Giffords Road, Marlborough
Christchurch was a mixed bag of emotions: two evenings of lovely hospitality, but an upsetting day looking at the devastation in the city centre. I will follow the recovery and redevelopment with great interest in the years to come.
Devastation in Christchurch
Best area: If I had time to visit just one area in New Zealand it would be Otago and South Canterbury, spreading from the Peninsula east of Dunedin, through central Otago, across to Doubtful Sound and Te Anau, and north to include the lakes of Wanaka, Hawea, Pukaki and Tekapo. Fabulous scenery, great drives, fascinating wildlife.
Best Trip and best guides: John Lockie at Doubtful Sound, and Sean McConkey at the Peninsula Wildlife tour. Both first class trips and excellent guides.
Best Food: Breakfast at River Valley, Eskdale; Lunch at Two Rivers, Cheviot; Dinner at Fox on the Quay in Napier; Fish and Chips at HMS Kings, Invercargill. And of course morning coffee and cakes – almost everywhere.
I can’t pick a single Best Campsite, but would praise these three: Amber Park in Christchurch, Leith Valley in Dunedin, and Remeura Motor Lodge in Auckland.
Everywhere, I loved the empty roads: three or four miles without seeing another vehicle, and almost every village, however small, with a great café serving real coffee and delicious home-bakes. I drove about 5,320 kms, but had plenty of days with no driving. It was all fine, helped by easy roads and very light traffic. I’d caution against trying to see every part of this fine country, because you’ll spend too much time driving. My own itinerary worked out really well (remember, it was largely dictated by the location of the rugby matches I wanted to attend). If I had to shorten it I’d probably omit Invercargill and the very ‘bottom’ of the south island.
The almost deserted Highway 1, north of Cheviot
Getting there: It took 34 hours from home in London to the terminal in Christchurch. The return from flight from Sydney to London was about 25 hours.
The flights: I went out by Air New Zealand via Los Angeles. A long and tiring flight, but excellent service and a good experience. I was in the new Premium Economy, and it’s worth knowing that ANZ have only three classes: Business, Premium Economy and Economy. My return was by BA flying from Sydney via Singapore, again in Premium Economy. BA have the additional first class cabin, and with these four classes seem to struggle to differentiate between them. Certainly my experience felt like Economy+. It was poor, in parts almost like the service on the London-Glasgow route. I can’t imagine why they might think grey plastic cutlery is appealing – grey!. The food was very poor, the wine Spanish, the cabin cold.
So I’d strongly recommend Air New Zealand over BA, but there are alternatives and I heard good reports of Emirates and Etihad. There are other ways, not involving a very long haul flight. I’m rather taken by the idea of going by sea, on a freight ship. This website has details of various operators who take a few paying passengers as well. How about departing from London Tilbury, and going via New York, Jamaica, the Panama Canal, and all the way on to Napier, on New Zealand’s north island. You will be traveling with only five other passengers, sharing a twin or double-bed cabin. Allow 84 days, and £90 per day. Sounds quite appealing.
Take a camera, a good one, and really learn before you go about all the features and how to adjust settings. The weather and the light changes very quickly, and some things you’ll only get one shot at. When a sperm whale has dived its too late to wonder about your exposure (or even the lens cap). On the day I went to Otago Peninsula to see penguins and seals, one person in the group only had an iPhone camera. I’m a big fan of the Apple device, but it isn’t good enough for capturing and recording this kind of experience. Lots of memory is essential, and a spare (and charged) battery a good idea. Finally, decide in advance how you’ll back-up your photos at several stages during the trip, ideally onto cd’s, and post them home. You won’t want to lose your pictorial memories.
Bring your camera, take my photo
It was delightful to catch up in Sydney with old friends Cass and Alison, Natalie and Tim, Ricky and Melissa, and all their children. Good too, to meet a ‘new’ member of my family, Alan Bevins. Thanks Rod and Di in Blenheim, and to meet and dine with Dorenda and Rob in Christchurch. Thanks to all of you for your hospitality.
And to the dozens of other people I met, and whose company I enjoyed, in cafes and campsites, coffee shops, bars and boozers, restaurants and rugby grounds, at tourist sites and on ferries. Thank you too. I did it all on my own, but I did have 4 million Kiwi friends, and another 80,000 rugby fans to keep me company.
Beautiful country, lovely people. Thank you all.