A side trip from Australia. Now I’m in Christchurch, the largest city in South Island (Te Waipounamu), New Zealand, about to embark on a tour of the island. Chch - as it is known here - has a river called the Avon (though they can't pronounce it properly) and punts poled by men with straw hats. It's a delightful city, ringed by mountains, with historic stone buildings, pretty craft shops and neat cafes.
The weather here has been far better than I could have hoped for and so I walk over a mountain pass (well the Port Hills) to the harbour town of Lyteltton today. It is an accident, I was just out for a stroll, but the views are glorious, almost better than the Highlands, though it is a shame about the coal tip round the corner. It's hot enough to doze on the beach at times, especially when I can find a little nook in the sand dunes. Then, off to eat scallops at the trendy café down the road from my hotel.
South Island is jokingly referred to as The Mainland by the Kiwis. It's a third bigger than North Island, but far more sparsely populated. A bus, mainly filled with Japanese tourists and commanded by Tom, the singing driver. He calls himself a steerologist. An American couple, delighted to find someone who speaks English, talk at me incessantly, even though my eyes glaze over. We cross the Canterbury Plains, with their 45 million sheep. As well as sheep, the farms boast a range of exotica: deer, elk, alpaca and ostriches. It seems odd to suddenly be launched into spring after the autumn of Japan. Lambs gambolling in the fields, bluebells, the odd surviving daffodil and lots of fluffy ducklings.
The gorse and broom are in full flower, gorgeous against the beautiful blue skies, though the Kiwis call them noxious weeds. They haven't had much luck with introduced species. Rabbits to eat grass, then stoats to eat rabbits, but the stoats prefer kiwis ( the birds that is). Then deer to hunt, gorse to keep the deer out, possums to eat the weeds. (And for fur). But possums also like kiwis and all the native trees. Kea, intelligent large parrots, who have been observed using tools, roam the roads.
Snow-capped mountains, azure glacial water. Lakes Tekapo and Pukaki. Mount Cook, at 12,000 feet, fulfils its duty and is suitably magnificent.
The bright start is deceptive and its raining in the famous fjord country, towards the tip of South Island, at Milford Sound. The other main fjord in the Fjordland National Park is Doubtful Sound - it's a good name for today. But I struggle gamely on and make the boat trip into the mist nevertheless, vainly hoping that the cloud will lift. I'm sure the views of Mitre Peak would be great if I could see them for more than a glimpse.
Queenstown, The Adventure Capital of New Zealand, with its own lake, Wakatipu, is extraordinarily beautiful. The original bungee is here, but I am not tempted. You're supposed to do the Awesome Foursome (Bungee, helicopter, jet boat and white water rafting). The ski season has also just finished, much to my disappointment.
The first of two of the great little railway journeys of the world, over the Taieri Gorge into Dunedin (the American couple buttonhole me again). The line travels through bill hillsides across a dozen dramatic viaducts and through ten tunnels. At one point lambs are running in front of the train and have to be removed from the track, before they get squished.
There are minor adventures to be had in Dunedin (Gaelic for Edinburgh and very Scottish). This is the second city on South Island, the principal city on the Otago Peninsula. It's known for its Victorian and Edwardian architecture, including Larnach 'Castle'. It's billed as New Zealand's only castle, but I'm not sure it's old enough to count. Baldwin Street here, is billed as the steepest street in the country
On the peninsula I see albatrosses flying (huge), dusky dolphins leaping, fur seals basking and rare yellow eyed penguins on their nests. All the other birds here are called shags for some reason.
I get into conversation with some of the Bay of Plenty First Division Rugby Union team, who happen to be staying in my hotel (they're playing Otago) and am invited down to the casino with them. Another first. but extremely boring. It's very quiet and and there are no women in slinky gowns, just lots of All Blacks in the bar, including the captain, Anton Oliver, being very loud. They fulfil every stereotype by having brassy blondes draped all over them. I chat to Brendan Laney who is coming to play for Edinburgh next year, but he seems to think it is in England. Oh dear - that won't go down well.
The Bay of Plenty coach, Gordon Titchens, also coaches the All Black Sevens. He sidles up to me at one point and asks for my number in England “to see me when he comes over with the New Zealand team". 'Oh brilliant', I respond naively before the penny drops that I'll be seeing him and not the New Zealand team. So I tell him all about the tabloid propensity for publishing details of the private lives of rugby coaches (he's married of course) and he sidles away again.
Then the chairman of the club offers to fly me up to North Island, for next Saturday's game. He tells me to ring him on Thursday. I think about it, but decide there is no such thing as a free lunch and stay where I am.
I do take a jet boat ride however. It is billed as a tame one, but I get the co-pilot’s seat and I end up with arms like Twizzle and a mass of bruises, after the pilot has finished demonstrating his ability to execute 360 degree turns, in four inches of water. The only other excitement has involved trying to avoid the advances of bus drivers who stand too close and ask me out for drinks. One - Dodgy Colin - sidles up close muttering, 'Are you ticklish?' He's the one driving the bus on the leg on my return journey from Queenstown on to to the Fox and Franz Joseph Glaciers and my boat ride. They're disappointingly dirty.
Another bus. Sadly, it's Colin again. More stunning mountain scenery, Here, the beach is wild and covered in driftwood and I'm playing The Piano, as I look down from the clifftops. The music also has the advantage of drowning out Colin's voice.
Hokitika, a small port, was a gold rush town, developed in 1860 in 1860, after the discovery of gold on the West Coast of the South Island. Many ships were wrecked on the notorious ‘Hokitika Bar’ – a sandbar that shifts with every tide. Today, Hokitika is known as the Cool Little Town. There's a historic walk, with a mock shanty town and pretend gold panning. (And it's been written about in The Booker winning The Luminaries.) Also, art galleries and jewellery shops, of course. The local green stone, heavily promoted, naturally, is called pounamu.
Lastly, the Tranzalpine Express, another Great Railway Journey, across the Southern Alps from Greymouth back to Christchurch. It's a four and a half hour journey, past rugged peaks, and vast beech forests. of native beech.
Back across the straits to Australia.
To read more about New Zealand click here.
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