After some two years in the planning, then a 12 months postponement for a small bit of heart surgery, I can't say what a joy it was to finally set foot on the tarmac at Christchurch Airport. A whole month lay ahead for Irene & I to explore South Island – bliss.
I do not intend this narrative to simply be a litany of places we went to and things we did. Instead I'd rather take a few moments of your time to recall some of the highlights of our trip.
First and foremost, to keep Irene happy, we had to hike – or tramp, as they say in Kiwi. And boy, oh boy, did we tramp!!
First up was the Queen Charlotte Track in the Marlborough Sounds. Superb simply doesn't do it justice – it is a wonderful walk usually within sight of the sea, through lush vegetation. We arranged it all ourselves, booking the accommodation and the water taxi service direct and saving a good bit into the bargain. Our sleeping quarters ranged from the simple (a bed in a tin box) to the simply palatial (we got an upgrade on our last night!!).
Next on the agenda were 3 of the 4 sections of the Abel Tasman Coastal Walk. We did this in daily chunks, being ferried out & back by the superb water taxis – a very enjoyable part of each day's proceedings. On our twice-daily transits, it was a delight getting to know some of the drivers, all very skilled individuals and great characters too. We were fortunate in that our dates coincided with favourable tide times, permitting easy crossings of an estuary or two en-route. (Sandals essential, those shells are sharp!!).
At this juncture it would be remiss of me not to mention a piece of advice that we got from Charlie, a member of the team at Le Café in Picton – a location for splendid grub too. She told us, at the end of each day's walking, to walk into the sea far enough so that our legs were immersed and to stay in until they went numb. The next morning, no aches, no pains, legs duly refreshed. It worked every time, thanks Charlie.
Lastly we did the Routeburn Track – one of the New Zealand Classics. 3 days of stunning snow kissed mountains, clear blue skies, good humour, good food and carrying our own backpacks!! Half of our party were Japanese – my basic understanding of a few key phrases and of some of their traditions, meant that a mutual respect and friendship were soon established, despite the obvious language barrier. We took two and a half days to complete the route. At 32 kms, it can be walked in a day (Irene's going to do it!) and, in the Routeburn Classic, the winner runs it in about 3 hours!! Ever felt like a tortoise?
In amongst all this tramping, we managed to squeeze in one or two other experiences. We revelled in a tour of the magnificently eerie Farewell Spit, a long tongue of constantly shifting, wind-blown sands at the very top of South Island. It was well worth the 04.00 reveille!!
Our trip on the Taieri Gorge Railway from Dunedin to Middlemarch (truly in the middle of nowhere!) was a splendid day out. The fabulous Fleur's Place at Moeraki was one of our gastronomic highlights, amongst many it must be said, and Michael's gentle musical accompaniment completed this special experience, especially as he played a lot of Alison Krauss.
A wee secret that I, John, have is that I am an aficionado of the eclectic music of The Penguin Café Orchestra and, latterly, its offshoot simply known as The Penguin Café. When I was researching our holiday, hidden away in a paragraph of the Rough Guide to New Zealand, I discovered that we could visit, eat and drink in an establishment called The Penguin Café during our stay in Pohara. This was simply too good to miss and did not disappoint.
It is perhaps appropriate for me to say a word or two here about the Café Culture in New Zealand. Everyone knows that the Kiwis do Rugby right - we can tell you that they do Café's right too. No messing, we didn't manage to find a bad one. Great coffee for me, great home baking for Irene (I'm still on my diet!) and great ambience. Nuff said.
Of particular note was the Jester House at Tasman, which we'd have missed were it not for a mention by Alan & Elaine, guests of ours whom we met for dinner in Marahau. What sets The Jester House apart is not just the superb coffee, nor the idyllic baking, but the live eels in the stream, which runs through the lovely garden. Folk can feed these things, using a big lolly stick to dole out the special food for which they go simply barmy. It is not my cup of tea, though, not with my reptile phobia its not!!
Last, but by no means least, my Bungy Jump cannot go without mention. 8.5 seconds, 134 metres, £6000.00+ for Maggie's Cancer Care. I cannot praise the young guys & girls of A J Hackett's enough for their professionalism, attention to detail and sheer friendliness. Their skill in instilling confidence in me, overcame my inbred vertigo and helped to make the whole experience really enjoyable as well as very worthwhile.
Scanning back though my notes, I see that I have failed to mention a few other things. There's the magical experience of having a pod of 6 dolphins swim right underneath me in the azure waters of the Marlborough Sounds, the stunning scenery on the coast road between Tauamarina & Picton. So much better than doodling up the main road, this route is a series of homesteads set in lush valleys all connected by an unsurfaced roadway that hugs the cliff tops. I also fondly recall the cans of Dandelion & Burdock and the (Scottish) Cinnamon Lozenges as provided by the Remarkable Sweet Shop in Queenstown and the cream tea in the venerable Cardrona Hotel, which has served, travellers on the Queenstown to Wanaka road for well over a century. Both were naughty but nice.
To sum up, it is often said that when you land in New Zealand, you put your watch back 20 years. Not quite so. They're a bit behind the times, it must be said but that is, perhaps, no bad thing. Everyone we met was warm and welcoming, willing to help & offer advice – even the youngsters were respectful and polite. (Do you remember those days here in the UK?)
The South Island lives up to every bit of its well-deserved reputation for spectacular and varied scenery, for stunning beaches, for empty roads, for small towns & villages and for a real sense of community. With every bit of affection and respect I can muster, I'd liken New Zealand to a favourite cardigan – so very, very comfortable to wear. Be warned, Dear Kiwis, we shall be back.
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