Australia & New Zealand 2007
This is a diary of a trip to New Zealand, a place I have long fancied visiting but never quite managed to until now. The catalyst was a newsletter from Darjeeling Tours, which offered a 17-day railway tour of the country in November 2007. It looked enticing and from past experience would probably be well-run, but the cost was more than I could justify. However the lightbulb had been switched on, and dazzled by its brightness, I started some serious research on alternatives.
It's nice just occasionally to be able to justify spending time and money on a computer and its associated paraphanalia of broadband connections, wireless routers, etc., etc., and for once a reason presented itself on a plate. Everything seemed available with just a few clicks - flights, accommodation, vehicles, insurance, maps, guides, the list seemed all-embracing. A list was the first thing I did, of possible places to visit and routes between them. It quickly became apparent that, small country though it was, New Zealand was plenty big enough to absorb weeks of exploration, and the two or three I allowed myself away from the family would be adequate only for a few of the highlights. And there was that other sizeable ex-colony enticingly close, Oz. Could I go all the way to the Antipodes and visit only one Antipode?
The answer, after a lot of interrogation of airline routes, connections and costs, was a fairly-resounding no. Emirates were the clincher, they flew to New Zealand via both Dubai and Sydney. And the starting point was Manchester, which meant Heathrow could be avoided, an important factor in any route planning.
A couple of days in sunshine city could be spared, particularly if I limited myself to one of the two NZ islands. But which one? Both had strong claims in the key departments of scenery and railways. Eventually the South won out, as it had more of the former and at least as much of the latter. And doing only one half left open the possibility of returning for the second....
After some days of intense guide-reading and map-examining, the basis for an itinerary emerged.
Firstly, how long to stay in Sydney? A suitable flight arrived in the morning, so jet-lag permitting, at least part of that day could be available for sight-seeing, and a couple more could be spared to at least pretend that New South Wales had been 'done'. Sydney looked pedestrian-friendly, particularly from a central hotel, with many of the main sights within easy reach. Perhaps a day could be invested in a train trip to the Blue Mountains, there to admire a different landscape and possibly take the some of the more spectacular, not to say frightening, scenic transport options.
As for South Island, the main question was clockwise or anti-clockwise from Christchurch? And should the Tranzalpine railway be ridden in its entirety, only partially, or merely admired from a distance?
At this stage a radical re-think in the numbers department spontaneously occurred. Would it still be solo?
The Darjeeling tour was clearly going to be a multiple-manned affair, with perhaps a couple of dozen eager participants. By contrast it looked as I was going on my own, as despite touting it around possible fellow-travellers no-one took the bait - 'too many kids at university', 'would prefer North America', 'India next year would be nice', etc.
However, an innocent phrase in the annual post-Christmas letter to Scottish friends we hadn't seen for twenty years or more, produced an unexpected response. A phone call asked 'can Eric come too?'. Indeed he could, and again the information superhighway did its job in sorting out the fine details in quick time. Same flights, same hotel and same motorhome. And so the Derek and Eric double-act was born.
At the start we communicated by phone and email. Then photos were exchanged, to convince ourselves that we hadn't really changed much and recognition would be instant when we eventually met. Eric arranged an overnight stay with relatives in Manchester, for easy access to the airport, from which we were due to depart on the evening of Sunday 25th March, 2007. Assuming of course no fog, strikes or snow, all of which had affected UK airports to a greater or lesser extent in the weeks before departure. All if a sudden it was less than two weeks to go, and packing had to start in earnest.
A Google spreadsheet was set up and shared between us, recording itinerary details and the all-important packing list. The latter grew almost daily, and it soon became clear that however generous Emirates were with economy-class baggage allowances, I could exceed it. I reverted to a volumetric limit: what didn't fit in one rucsac and one carry-on bag wouldn't go. However as the bag-stuffing advanced, it soon became clear that the number of rucsacs would benefit from being increased by at least one, giving some headroom for the essential souvenir collection. Yet a third was added later, in flat-pack mode, to give some selectivity in choice of bag for the various day excursions planned
Clothes were one problem, involving finding the values for x, y and z in the equation 'Number of changes of clothes required (x) = length of trip in days (18) divided by number of days a change could be made to last (y), less number of laundry opportunities (z), plus 1'.
The arithmeticians amongst you will quickly realise that one equation with three unknowns can only be solved by trial and error. Fortunately this mode of operation has always been my favourite, or at least my most common.
Next came the technology tangle.
(In case you were wondering, the 'plus 1' avoids the need to wear only shoes during a washing cycle, in situations when x would otherwise equal 1. It also serves as insurance against being caught in an unexpected downpour.)
One of the drawbacks of the whizz-bang products of the technological age is that they come with ever-increasing quantities of cables, manuals, more cables, batteries, chargers and yet more cables. Not to mention fiddly little widgets designed to accessorise your customer experience in ways you never knew existed. A simple decision to take a small piece of technological hardware to record the holiday meant a sizeable bag of bits and pieces had to accompany it, notwithstanding that most of them were of unknown function and possibly belonged to some other item of electronic wizardry disposed of long ago.
There was also the issue of functional convergence to address. The camera could take video clips - did I need to take the video camera? On the other hand, the video took stills - so did I need the digital camera? And the phone could take photos as well - did I need all three? And if a camera was essential, did I take the big fancy Fuji, or the small pocketable Pentax? If I took both, would I have the space, and the muscle power, to take all their essential accessories? Suddenly the simply Box Brownie of my youth appeared a far more attractive option.
With all these decisions to make, it was a relief when the countdown approached zero and the departure procedures kicked in.
In pre-electronic days, it was reassuring to receive a real, printed ticket, listing all your destinations, dates and times. It gave comfort that the airline had actually done something with your booking, even if the truth was that it was just something else to lose and no guarantee that they would actually find a seat for you. Now of course, your e-ticket is safely stored on some gigabit computer in Kazahkstan or similar, easily retrievable with a 20-digit password and a security code based on the maiden name of one of your eight great-grandmothers. Which one is not indicated, and you only thought you had four anyway.
So it was with some trepidation that we (for we had successfully coalesced into the official tour party at the end of the check-in queue) approached the desk at a somewhat under-inhabited Terminal Two. Fortunately Kazahkstan was on-line for that particular moment, and we were graciously admitted to its presence, only to be told by its human support staff that the flight was two hours late. Wrong sort of fog in Dubai apparently.
Dubai is an airport. Possibly it is also something else, but lengthy tours first by Boeing taxi and then by Airbus taxi failed to find it. There was a lot of concrete apron, and in the far distance of the airport perimeter fence there were buildings, but we never got near enough to determine their status. We did find a rather upmarket airport shopping mall, but the late arrival of our flight meant there was no time to investigate further. Thirteen more hours of flying beckoned, and there was barely time to locate the departure gate for Sydney and plot the shortest route to it.
Jetlag is an acquired taste, and this intrepid traveller acquired just sufficient to feel just a little untasty. However it was poor form to let such minor concerns affect the ticking-off of the major sights of Sydney. First on the tourist menu were The Botanic Gardens and the Opera House. Neither disappointed, although I was surprised to discover the latter was not smooth and pearly-white as it appeared in photographs, but corrugated and pale cream in colour. The gardens included a large colony of fruit bats, congregated for some reason around the cafe area.
After a jetlag-busting afternoon siesta, our first proper meal in the continent was at the open-air Fountain Cafe, located in the King's Cross area and described in assorted guide books as eclectic, bohemian, vibrant, etc. Much like KC in London perhaps, but with added climate.
Darling Harbour was pencilled in for the first full day on Sydney soil.
Darling harbour is where it all happens on Sydney's waterfront, apart of course from those things that happen elsewhere. Busy and crowded it certainly was, with ferries, tourist boats, sailing boats and cruise liners all jostling for space. On the western side was the National Maritime Museum, with its oversize exhibits tied up alongside. These included a submarine and a destroyer, presumably with both live ammunition and 'press here to start World War III' buttons carefully removed. A bridge apparently built for swinging allowed easy access across to the other side of the harbour, where an ice-cream stall lay in wait, one of several to ambush us during the trip.
In the evening we ventured out of Sydney to Woy-woy, a small town about a hour's train journey to the north. There lived Eric's half-brother and his Australian wife Mary, who treated us to a meal out and a guided tour of a still-bedding-in home. Straight to bed on our return ready for another train ride, this time to the Blue Mountains.
Having exhausted Sydney's delights in a bare two days, we next turned our attention to the rest of New South Wales. The sample chosen centered around Katoomba, a small town in the Blue Mountains. Its attractions included a two-hour scenic train journey to get there, and a very similar one to get back. The founding fathers had clearly followed the estate agent's maxim 'location, location, location' and had chosen its site carefully, on the edge of an escarpment that offered views property buyers would pay handsomely for. No doubt the estate agents assisted in this process. We duly followed the tourist trail and signed up for a circular tour on a genuine replica trolley bus. The driver was also a genuine tourist guide, with fascinating facts about the date of the first power station and the size of the local golf course. The route, on a drop-you-off-and-pick-you-up-later basis took us up to the main attraction, the edge of the cliff. And some cliff it was. Huge sandstone buttresses, waterfalls, vitiginous drops and square miles of eucalyptus forest.
Not to be outdone, the locals had added three different ways of enhancing the viewing experience: going across it on a thin wire rope, going down it on a thin wire rope, and to complete the set, going down it on a pair of thin metal rails. No doubt somewhere there was a throwing yourself down it on a thin bunjee rope option as well. We took a more basic choice, going parallel with it along a series of trails connecting view points.
Another early night, this time to prepare for New Zealand.
An early start, pulling assorted luggage through a King's Cross that was either waking up to a fresh new day or going to bed after the old, rather stale, one had become time-expired. City Rail did their usual efficient people-moving to the airport and Emirates likewise to New Zealand. Another form to fill in, declaring our non-importation of food or plant products, and owning up to possession of at-risk items, namely one pair each of boots, walking for the use of. At Christchurch airport we were politely steered to one side for what looked ominously like a random strip-search session. However it turned out to be nothing more than the Official Boot Inspector, who took barely 0.75 seconds per boot to declare his happiness with their state of cleanliness. Such is the Kiwi enthusiasm for maintaining the purity of their soil.
A phone call or three sufficed to alert the camper company that we had arrived and were available for collection. Whilst waiting I tested our emergency procedures by leaving a credit card in a fairly obvious place on top of the public phone. The airport had obviously just tested theirs, for within minutes a tall local youth had located the hidden item and placed it in the hands of the information desk for safe keeping. Unfortunately I was compelled to deduct marks for an unfortunate breach of security - he actually told me he had done this instead of leaving me to find out by myself. Still, a very creditable 8 out of 10 was achieved when the card was reclaimed completely undamaged and, more importantly, unused.
Further tests were put in abeyance by the arrival of Maureen, ready to introduce us to our camper mobile home for the next twelve days.
Some people consider a camper van sufficiently cute to give it a human name, such as Angela, Cynthia or even Hamish. We firmly resisted such anthropomorphism, telling ourselves it was purely a metal box on wheels, and any pretence towards a human personality was purely coincidental. Her, sorry its, design features were explained in detail to us, along with numerous forms detailing precisely how vulnerable my newly-restored credit card was to various circumstances such as accident damage, dirt on the vehicle sides, insufficient petrol in the tank, and missing accoutrements. We were then showered with tourist maps and leaflets and pointed in the direction of the nearest camp site. Luckily this was situated barely half a mile away, just enough to provide a much-needed introduction to the art of camper-driving.
After an evening walk which proved rather extended (due to problems of scale with the available mapping) we converted both the van and ourselves into sleeping mode, ready to explore the delights of Mount Somers.
Our first complete day of trail-blazing across an unsuspecting Kiwi scenery. And impressive scenery it was, a mixture of lowland farms and mountains that were, well mountainous. Another striking feature of the New Zealand landscape is how few share it with you. Outside of Christchurch the number of vehicles dropped so dramatically that one wondered if some form of catastrophic extinction event was in progress. Only a few cars, a handful of goods vehicles and approximately zero buses. Only motorbikes seemed to flourish.
First stop was Rakaia Gorge, a large ravine cut by a fast-flowing river of deepest blue-green. A solitary boat on a portable jetty offered jet-propelled rides, but with few takers. I suspect most wanted to do as we did, just stand and look, and take many and various photos and videos of a striking scene. We then moved on to the Mount Somers walkway, whose name suggested a gentle wander through well-found pathways leading from one scenic vista to another. However we managed to select the enthusiasts' version, which led steeply upwards for a considerable distance through woodland which blotted out all views of the surrounding countryside. To add a sinister touch, many of the trees seemed to be covered with a black fungus, to smell of honey and to attract wasps. An encounter with a local couple walking the other way (for several days) indicated that this was a parasitical growth which threatened the food supply of the local bird population. They also offered the welcome news that the woods cleared just ahead and things other than timber could be seen. This turned out to be the case, and a vista of the Canterbury Plains was laid out in a decorous manner which made the ascent well worth the effort.
The nearby campsite in the town was a complete contrast to the one the night before, being a small rural enterprise in a small rural township. However all the essential facilities were present and the natives were friendly. The local pub served a mixed grill of significant proportions, amongst a flow of cultural wit and wisdom which would had allowed Crocodile Dundee himself to feel instantly at home.
After a night under a bright full moon we set off for our next railway assignment, at Pleasant Point.
According to the world wide interweb the preserved railway at Pleasant 'the name says it all' Point was operational on the first weekend of March. Imagine our surprise when a sign suggested the next working day was three weeks later. Further investigation however revealed another board with train times and a ticket office that looked suspiciously open. Apparently Board No.1 referred to steam operation and Board No.2 to running with a Model T replica. For the princely sum of $6 (about £2) we could have a return trip in the Model T, a tour of the museum and a vintage film show.
Shortly afterwards the vehicle appeared from the far end of the line, piloted by a driver possibly old enough to have at least witnessed the original model. A dozen of us squeezed into a cabin blindingly bright with polished brass and we set off on a trip which delivered the goods specified on the ticket in some style. Apart from the usual railway memorabilia the museum included a room full of vintage computer, film and telegraphic equipment, and a unique mobile wireless studio in a railway carriage. And for once the public were positively encouraged to climb on the locomotives.
After a lay-by lunch we continued on into Mount Cook territory.
Mount Cook is New Zealand's highest mountain, climbed by Sir Edmund Hillary as training for his Everest ascent. How he must have felt when he reached the top and realised Everest was twice as high, can only be imagined. From the safety of sea level it looked mighty impressive. We drove via Lake Tekapo and Lake Pukaki, both scenic masterpieces in their own right. The latter had on its shores the Church of the Good Shepherd, a small stone-built ecumenical church with a view behind the altar window that few ecclesiastical buildings could match. The single guide was in danger of being overwhelmed by the number of visitors; it was perhaps just as well that most stayed at a respectful distance, the better to focus their digital cameras and videos on the structure.
We stayed at Glentanner, a few miles short of Mt Cook village itself, at a lakeside site that boasted views of the mountains that for once justified the guide book's hyperbole. Next morning we drove up to the Hermitage, a hotel built with a considerable vertical component, the better to appreciate the scenery. In front of it stood a statue of Sir Ed himself. The inscription indicated that he had stayed at the Hermitage when climbing in the area, which meant either that it was a considerably more downmarket establishment in its youth, or that bee-keeping was a much more lucrative occupation than I had imagined.
We then drove back south to Twizel for refuelling and revitalling, and on to Wanaka.
The route was over somewhat parched farmland bounded on both sides by equally parched-looking mountains. As Eric remarked 'In Scotland at this season we would have everything covered in heather'. Wanaka was, and no doubt still is, a small town set amongst large mountainous scenery, as so much of South Island seemed to be. On the approach we passed an airport boasting a vintage aircraft museum, and the home of the annual 'Warbirds over Wanaka' air show.
Acting on local intelligence we walked down to the shore via the bar of a large lodge development which seemed to cater for a niche market several notches above that of mere campers. However they were happy to accept our cash, and in return provided an upmarket burger and a memorable ice cream sundae, complete with chocolate spoon. This was preceded by a stroll along the lake, or for Eric, a stroll in the lake. He blamed its lack of gradient for not going for a full dip.
Despite the weather forecast the mornng dawned fine and reasonably clear, so the first major clothing wash of the trip was also the first major dry overnight. Next stop was Queenstown, home of virtually every conceivable outdoor sport, and a few inconceivable ones as well.
The scenic road from Wanaka to Queenstown was also the shorter route and the more adventurous. Sweeping curves gradually steepened and sharpened until we were at the top of a high pass, the highest tarmac road in New Zealand. The views over Queenstown and Lake Wakatipu were spectacular, as was the road downhill again. Just when it appeared to have both levelled and straightened, a succession of hairpin bends suddenly appeared. However by now such things were almost routine.
Our first calling point was Arrowtown, a small historical township with a large tourist population. A pleasant couple of hours were spent wandering around the single main street, with some light shopping and ice-cream purchasing for good measure.
At Queenstown we parked up in the botanic gardens adjacent to the ice rink, on the basis that this would not be too busy just at the moment. A quick lunch and we strode off to the lake front, for a cruise on the steamship Earnslaw. Apparently this was built in 1912, the same year as the Titanic, but having served all her 95 years on the one lake, had managed to avoid attracting any icebergs. As a tourist venture the owners had clearly done their homework, with an elegant lounge bar, a comfortable promenade deck complete with sing-along pianist, and a museum and a guided tour all thrown in. The boilers and steam engines were all exposed to public view, as were the sweating stokers and the 'she canna' take it Jim' pressure gauges. They were also working the vessel pretty hard, six trips a day in spring, summer and autumn, and four in winter. Fortunately it seemed to thrive on it.
A shopping session was then called, with the party splitting up for reasons of efficiency. Towards the end of the allotted time the weather caught up with its forecast and the first spatterings of rain appeared, expanding to a full downpour as the evening progressed. The first in nine days, so we couldn't really complain. Next on the agenda was another railway, this time a full-blown main-line steam affair, the Kingston Flyer.
Kingston was a little over 20 miles from Queenstown, and due to a small oversight with the timings we set ourselves a challenging target to reach it by 10am. Fortunately the rain, having precipitated enthusiastically all night, eased off just a little, and we made it with a good ten minutes to spare. 'It' was a large US - style 4-6-2 loco coupled via a capacious tender to a set of similarly US - style gondolas. A party of young schoolchildren were boarding, so we carefully distanced ourselves in a luxurious padded-leather compartment. As soon as the train started however we braved the elements like true gricers and rode outside on the gangways, right next to the 'do not stand in the gangways' sign in fact. Only free coffee managed to tempt us in for a short period, despite the rain having regained its vigour.
After half an hour of spirited steaming the other end of the line appeared, a small station called Fairlight. Actually the station itself was called something else, having being transported from another town some distance away. Whether this was done bodily or in bits was not recorded. Here the loco was turned round by triangle whilst the passengers were permitted to browse the souvenir shop before reboarding for the return trip. A very satisfactory outing, only mildly let down by the music in the carriages being piped rather than live. Still, at least it wasn't live pipes.
With the long white raincloud still depositing apparently inexhaustible supplies of much-needed water on Southland we headed west, for a rendezvous with the gateway to Milford Sound, Te Anau.
We arrived at Te Anau fairly early, in mid-afternoon, but for the second time running the Top Ten camping ground was fully booked. A conspiracy theory might have been in order, had it not been that for the second time in a row the substitute facility was more scenic, more spacious and less busy. The walk into town was a little damp, but after 24 hours we were well used to such conditions. An early meal was voted through, followed by an early night ready for the two-hour drive to Milford Sound.
By 7.30 next morning we were on the road, with better weather not only forecast but actually beginning to appear. The scenery was also increasing up the wonderment scale, with tantalising glimpses of sunlit mountain peaks through swirling clouds, mostly white this time fortunately. The road was better than expected, and at that hour only moderately busy with tourist buses. The first hazard was Homer Tunnel, probably not named after Mr Simpson but the sought of tunnel he might have dug. Long, narrow, steep, dark and with a roadbed of varying quality, it was a test of concentration. Fortunately we hit it with the traffic lights on green, otherwise we could have had a 15-minute wait to play on the nerves. We passed the test, and that presented by the hairpin bends that followed, and coasted down the secure one of the few remaining car park spaces at Milford Sound.
We awarded ourselves breakfast at that stage, followed by a visit to the cruise terminal, where a number of competing firms vied for our affections. We chose one that had a vessel leaving in the next ten minutes, and made our way up the gangplank of the Milford Mariner.
As it happened, the Milford Mariner was one of the larger boats on the Sound, and both well-appointed and smartly turned out. How this was done was something of a mystery, for during the whole voyage we saw only the bare minimum of crew. The captain doubled as both helmsman and commentator, no doubt there was also someone down in the basement, or whatever the bowels of a ship are called, looking after the mechanical bits and pieces. Everyone else seemed to be either moving food about or selling it.
The cruise itself was well worth both the early rise and the journey. The clouds gradually lifted as we progressed, revealing towering peaks covered almost entirely with lush vegetation. Sometimes apparently this lost its footing and created a tree avalanche, from which it took 70 years to recover. The recent rain, a whole 300mm in 24 hours, had strengthened the permanent waterfalls and added new temporary ones, some of which we approached close enough to spray-wash several dozen cameras. Just how close the ship could go to the vertical cliffs had to be seen to be believed, a couple of yards at most. On one occasion a cliff overhang could be experienced merely by looking straight up. Fur seals were seen at several locations, resting after a long night's squid hunting.
At the seaward end of the Sound the captain obligingly gave us the benefit of a 'little wind chop' as he described it, before turning the ship around, past a beach where Maoris once collected greenstone and an island used by early European settlers as a post box. During the return Eric took up the aquatic option, stopping off at a marine observatory to inspect the sea and its flora and fauna from the inside, courtesy of some quite strong plastic windows. As promised he was rescued by the next boat on the cruise circuit, despite it belonging to a competitor.
After lunch we retraced our steps, dodging a low-flying helicopter that for a minute seemed to be taking the direct route through the scenery, i.e. via the tunnel. Fortunately the red light persuaded it otherwise, and we passed through with only monster tour buses for company. On the way back we stopped at other scenic delights, in particular the Chasm (which was a dramatic water-carved one) and the Mirror Lakes (which weren't). For once we had a second night at the same location, before moving on to the Catlins.
We drove back west initially from Te Anau and then more south, bypassing Invercargill and heading for Balclutha. After the dramatic scenery of the previous two days, our eyes were rested by contact with some gently undulating farmland and, once on the main Dunedin road, almost one vehicle every minute. After some more south we entered the Catlins, an area of 'scenic reserve' on the south-east coast of South Island. Our destination was the small town of Pounawea, with a motor-camp and not much else. In comparison with some of the big sites we had been on, it was a haven of peace and tranquility, the silence broken only by the distant rumble of surf and the more adjacent calling of the bird life, of which there was many and various.
Small though it was, the site was shortly graced by the arrival of two enormous motor-homes, complete with a towed 4x4, dinghy and bicycle. all of which took some little time to manouvre into the preferred parking position. From such behemoths one expected large quantities of children and assorted relatives to leap out and head noisily for the beach. Instead one driver each, no more. Perhaps they were the advance party, to set up camp ahead of the main pack. Or perhaps there had been an almighty bust-up, and most of the group had gone off home in a sulk, leaving the two dominant males to cope somehow on their own. Whatever the truth of the matter they were putting a brave face on it, and seem determined to enjoy their brief spell of freedom.
We left them to their solitude and took a walk through the nearby forest, preserved from the original before Europeans had had a chance to improve it. More birdsong, and brief glimpses of those responsible, who seemed to know to the half-second just how long it took to energise and focus assorted cameras, and moved off at the last moment. Eric then went for a swim, allegedlly anyway, as he made sure no witnesses and no recording gear were within range of the event.
He returned with some startling news - the two fishermen we had seen earlier out in the bay were two of the group of ethnic locals last seen in the pub at Mount Somers! At once all sorts of sinister conspiracies seemed possible - were they disguised members of New Zealand's MI5, gone underground to infiltrate the lobster smugglers of South Island? Were they following our every move, to report to a Mr Big somewhere in Auckland on the habits of British tourists? Or were they perhaps co-conspirators with the solo giant-campervan pilots, bent on some murky plot to take over the Catlins camping concession? The apparent truth, that it was just coincidence, was clearly a most unlikely solution to the puzzle.
Satisfied that we had at least blown their cover, and made further covert operations difficult, if not impossible, we set out for the evening's entertainment, in the land of the sealions.
Our first port of call was an eating place in Wanga. The choice seem a touch restricted, the most hopeful being the Lumberjack Cafe. Despite its unprepossessing name, it turned out to be an oasis of comfort and good food, the best so far in both the main course and sweet departments.
Suitable reinvigorated we set out for a rendezvous with the sea-lions at Sangat Bay. It was reached by an unmetalled road and a walk amongst the sand-dunes, well-marked with flourescent-painted poles. At the headland were a group of about six sea-lions, although it was difficult to be sure of the number without going closer than seemed prudent. Indeed a notice warned against going within 20m of a female with her cub, advice which we had no difficulty in following. The animals seemed totally disinterested in humans, which given their size and short-distance sprint speed we were grateful for. Baby Bear periodically sat up and had a good sniff, but Mummy Bear seemed anxious just to let sleeping humans lie.
Walking back through the gathering dusk and a red sunset was a good end to a good day. We hoped for something similar the following day, on the Taieri Gorge Railway.
Taieri Gorge Railway
We drove back via Balclutha to Dunedin, bypassing the station initially in the quest for an overnight stay, always a priority. The guidebook listed just the one, and a small one at that. Fortunately it had a space, and after a quick lunch left a marker in the form of a couple of camping chairs and headed back to the station. And some station, built when railways were a statement of achievement for a city, a status symbol to be proud of. However like most of New Zealand's passenger railways it suffered badly at the hands of the motor-car and was done to two specials a day. We joined the afternoon trip up the Taieri Gorge to Pukerangi, in the air-conditioned comfort of relatively-new rolling stock. However we soon opted for the open-window comfort of relatively old rolling stock, the better to experience the full atmosphere of the trip, and definitely not to get away from a bunch of talkative American cousins.
The trip started through Dunedin's suburbs and agricultural hinterland, but soon moved on to sterner stuff, in terms of rocky ravines and steep gradients. This was proper New Zealand hill country, with little habitation apart from the occasional sheep or cattle station. One railway cottage had been turned into a holiday home, with a long list of no's that would have appealed to a true hermit - no electricity, no TV, no phone, no mobile phone coverage, no road, etc. It was apparently very popular. A couple of stops were made, to better appreciate the scenery, whilst the train manager kept an anxious eye out for passengers straying to close to the rocky edge. No doubt he had to count them all out, and count them all back, and would not get paid his bonus if the two totals differed.
Pukerangi was a building and a small car park, but this did not stop a number of passengers getting off to explore further into the terrain. How they would survive such a hostile environment was not clear. The rest of us returned to the train and, somewhat quicker on the downhill run, returned to Dunedin, just in time for a fashion show at the station, where the in-colour seemed to be any shade of bright pink.
We stayed at a small site in a valley to the north of the town, and next morning set off for Oamaru.
The drive north was preceded by a movement east, to circumvent the Otago peninsula. This has a low round round one side and a high road round the other. Neither was built for modern traffic, but were all the more interesting for that. The views were also many and interesting, particularly over Dunedin harbour and the sea shore. We stopped at a garden open to the public, under the apprehension it was free, but in the event well worth the $3 requested for the honesty box, bus party notwithstanding. We also stopped at Taiaroa Head, by the albatross colony, although we only scored one possible and several unknown sightings.
The drive was uneventful apart from a stop at Moeraki, to view its famous boulders, formed by slow accretion of minerals around an organic nucleus, over millions of years. They looked like enormous concrete marbles, half-buried in the sand between the tide-lines. To Maoris they had cultural and religious signficance, regrettably to one group of (probably) tourists, they were just somewhere convenient to dry your towel and lean on whilst sunbathing.
At Oamaru we checked in at a site beside the botanic gardens and went in search of a meal. This took us, strangely enough, to another preserved steam railway line, running a short distance along the harbour. Unfortunately we had just missed the Sunday afternoon outings, so we added it to the ever-growing 'next time' list and we went into the Star and Garter cafe opposite. This claimed to be the oldest in New Zealand, although when questioned the waitress admitted it was only a 'probably' and some upstart premises in North Island thought they knew better. Whatever the age of the premises the food was both newly-cooked and excellent in quality, a worthy winner of the runners-up rosette for best food on trek.
We left promptly, for we had an appointment with some local penguins.
Oamaru is famed for its colonies of blue penguins. After a false start with a large colony of shags which were falsely pretending to be penguins, we booked in at the viewing centre. This turned out to be, as well as the inevitable gift shop, a viewing stand of the type which supporters of lower-league amateur football would recognise instantly. The main difference was that you sat on the bare terracing rather than stood, and any communication above a low stage whisper was positively discouraged by the lady with the microphone.
Just after dusk the penguins entered stage left, in a group, or raft, from the sea and slowly climbed up the slope towards the nesting area in an old quarry. And slowly was the word, they stopped often, to look for danger, to discuss the day's fishing with their nearest and dearest, or just because they felt like it. One by one they scrambled under the fence and were greeted by their hungry chicks, or in some cases but other penguins' hungry chicks. The latter event precipitated a maul the All Blacks would have been proud of, as the hapless female tried to evade the determined advances of one or sometimes two disenfranchised chicks. Eventually all was sorted out and everyone got fed and some serious and noisy socialising got under way. Apparently sleeping is the last thing penguins do when onshore, they have perfected the art of power-napping during the day long before it occurred to any upwardly mobile executive.
The next day we departed for our final destination, Christchurch.
The drive north was uneventful, and even perhaps a little boring, as the straights were long as well as undeviating. A little more traffic livened it up, and once a freight train was spotted. At Christchurch we navigated successfully to a site at New Brighton, beside the seaside, as is its namesake in England. Eric immediately felt the call of the sea, and requested leave to take a dip, and perform some strange ritual involving a container of otherwise perfectly usuable salt. I removed myself as far as possible from these goings-on (the Botanic Gardens on the far side of the city) and indulged in some therapeutic shopping until we were reunited for the evening meal. This was in the Bard of Avon, an unashamedly English pub which served proper beer and cider, steak and kidney and shepherd's pies, and TV screens of Italy beating Wales at rugby. We passed the extended time waiting for our meal by explaining to some North American tourists the finer points, as well as some basic ones, of Rugby Union, comparing and contrasting its simplicity and intellectual rigour with American football. A scoring draw, we thought.
Back at the site, we took turns in some determined efforts to squeeze our enlarged goods and chattels into luggage that seemd to have shrunk during the holiday, ready for our final tourist mission to the Antarctic Centre.
This was billed as the world's best antarctic attraction. Quite how strong the competition is, was not clear, but they did put on a good show. A trip in a Hagglund all-terrain vehicle was the first highlight, including an obstacle course featuring a 1 in 3 slope (tackled both upwards and downwards), a wall of death lookalike (taken both fast and slow for the full effect), the crossing of a simulated crevasse and a swim across a lake with the water up to the door handles ('on no account try to open the doors at this time').
Other exhibits included a walk-in polar environment with real snow, an ice slide and a free windstorm (protective clothing provided). The perfectionist might have asked for a good swirl of snowflakes to complete the air of realism, but that might be quibbling just a little.
To add to the blue penguins seen at Oamaru, the Centre had their own colony, mainly composed of birds that were injured or otherwise unlikely to survive in the real world. A spoilt lot they seemed too, although they did repay their luxurious lifestyle by providing some good photo oppportunities, both on and under the water.
The main exhibition area did an excellent job of describing the continent as a whole, its exploration history, the extensive science programmes in operation and what it was like to live and work there. Certainly the best antarctic attraction I have seen, out of a total count of one.
All too soon it was time to leave, and initiate Antipodean exit procedures, in sluicing rain that apparently was doing a thorough job of rinsing most of the country.
An attempt to clean what liitle dirt remained on the vehicle was thwarted by the truck-wash being closed, no doubt because the owner considered the weather was doing a better job than he ever could. We returned the vehicle to its rightful owner, who managed to conceal her relief in seeing it back again more-or-less in one piece. Back at the airport we learned of an 'incident' at Dubai airport which had closed its runway for some time, preventing our aircraft from getting in to Christchurch. Why they couldn't have just used the taxiways as a spare runway was not clear; there would have been plenty of space for a good run-up, albeit with a few sharp high-speed turns.
Our flight to Sydney was therefore on an Air New Zealand plane charted by Emirates with commendable speed, and we were assured onward connections would remain unchanged. This turned out to be true, but only just. At Sydney we transferred to the Dubai-bound plane only to be told that the it had, in the understatement of all plane captains worldwide, 'a small technical problem'. After an hour of technical tinkering the pilot divulged a little more information, namely that the fuel loaded in preparation for the flight would not go where it was supposed to. Why it wouldn't, and where it was at the moment, was not revealed. It was a clear case of brinkmanship as everybody, including the crew, the engineers, the control tower staff and no doubt the fuel also, knew that the airport closed at the rapidly-approaching hour of 11pm. The prospect of deplaning some 300 sulky passengers and finding hotel rooms and new onward connections was no doubt beginning to tax the tired mind of some hapless shift manager in a back office somewhere in the scruffy end of the airport.
However at 10.55 precisely the captain announced that the problem was solved. Hastily-summoned reinforcements, apparently in the form of a specialist fuel management psychologist, had managed to coax. persuade or perhaps threaten the fuel into the right places, wherever they were. We were clear to go, and go we did. So if any residents of Sydney are reading this who had their late-night cocoa interrupted on 13th March by four Rolls-Royce Avons with the throttles through the gate, yes it was us.
All was set for the last leg of the journey.
All now proceeded smoothly, and we were able to catch up on the sport headlines we had missed and complete some fairly complex calculations on the financial accounting side. Just how long the journey took was not clear, as three time-zone adjustments made an estimate just too brain-draining to be worth the effort. Suffice to say we got back to Manchester at about the right time and with about all our many and various belongings. We then only had to rely on the train network to get us to our respective homes before nightfall. Perhaps this was tempting fate, but we made it, in my case with the minor matter of a failed train at Bolton, just to enliven the journey.
However the holiday seemed to have used up all my fortunate-flying air-miles, as the very next day my attempt to go to Aberdeen on business was all but thwarted by the travel agent having booked the flight from Liverpool for 24 hours later than requested. So it was a hurried return to Manchester for an alternate airline, the sense of deja vu becoming stronger by the minute. To add to the sense of injustice, the tube of shaving cream which had accompanied me halfway round the world and back, was judged sufficiently large to be a terrorist risk and summarily disposed of in a waste bin. Not even an attempt to recycle it as toothpaste.
We flew on Emirates 020 from Manchester to Dubai, and on EK 412 to Sydney and also to Christchurch. The return, via the same route, was on EK 413 and EK 017.
We stayed at the Challis Lodge hotel, in Challis St, Potts Point, Sydney.
We hired the campervan, a Toyota HiAce 2/3 berth, from Motorhome Rentals NZ Ltd.
We stayed at:
Christchurch Top 10 Holiday Park
Mt Somers Holiday Park
Glentanner Park Centre
Aspiring Campervan Park, Wanaka
Queenstown LakeView Holiday Park
Te Anau Lake View Holiday Park (two nights)
Pounawea Motor Camp
Leith Valley Touring Park, Dunedin
Oamaru Top 10 Holiday Park
South Brighton Motor Camp, Christchurch