The Top of the South

"Heaven on Earth" was how I described the South Island of New Zealand, based on our first visit there in December 1995. We'll have to revise that description, based on our recent trip...

This time we decided to tour the north end of the South Island, the part that we had missed on our first trip. Our 12 day stay would span Christmas and the Eve of the New Millennium - we had not chosen New Zealand because it would be the first country to welcome the new millennium but because we expected plenty of sunny weather, December being summer there. We realized later that December is not actually high summer though - the weather is more reliably hot and sunny around February, apparently.

After a 13 hour flight from HK to Christchurch via Auckland, we spent our first night in the Grand Chancellor Hotel in Christchurch. Was it because of the 5 hour jet lag or the claustrophobic hotel room that we slept so badly? And isn't it a crime to build hotels with windows that cannot be opened in a country that has probably the cleanest air on the planet?

Then we drove north to Marlborough Sounds, a long 7 hour drive through increasingly beautiful countryside which nevertheless often reminded us of parts of California, England, or France (the Massif Central). As you can see from the map, our route took us through the village of 'Ward' - we couldn't help noticing that the residents looked unusually healthy, handsome and smart. Coming over the last hill and down into the sounds, the scenery looked a little like Hong Kong for a moment, though the similarity was lost as we approached sea level and found ourselves surrounded by tree ferns.

This part of New Zealand is frequented more by New Zealand tourists than foreigners, but we were still amazed how many British there were there - not just tourists but also Brits that had settled there.

More than half of the visitors at our hotel, 'Raetihi Lodge' were Brits, as was the owner's wife. We appreciated the unspoiled nature and the isolation, at least in the beginning (we had to take a boat to get the lodge, to avoid a long drive round the head of the sound - this region is an incredibly complex maze of waterways, peninsulas and islands). Our first walk was to the top of a nearby hill, with beautiful views over both Pelorus/Kenepuru Sound and Queen Charlotte Sound (where the ferry leaves from Picton on its way to Wellington on the North Island). We had a few minutes of sunshine on this walk - little did we know that this would be almost the only sunshine we would enjoy on this entire vacation!

We didn't sleep well in Raetihi Lodge - first we were in a rather claustrophobic room with no view so we moved to a larger, more expensive room, only to find that the bed was smaller and much too soft (why would they put the nicer bed in the cheaper room?) We spent four nights at Raetihi Lodge watching the weather deteriorate while expecting it to improve - we were close, after all, to the wine growing region around Nelson, famous for getting more sunshine than anywhere else in New Zealand. Eventually, we got tired of waiting (there wasn't much to do anyway) so we left a day earlier than planned.

Next we drove west through the towns of Havelock (birthplace of Ernest Rutherford, discoverer of the atomic nucleus) and Nelson, arriving finally in the town of Richmond, where we spent a pleasant night, except that our B & B, the 'Mapledurham' was right next to a church building and the local youth was having a big party that night. Even when the party ended, the cleaners found that the PA system had been left running, so we had the chance to hear the cleaners singing while they worked! Anyway, we slept well for the first time and then enjoyed a fine breakfast including venison and delicious local fruits. New Zealand is blessed, of course, with bountiful fresh produce at low prices - all food in New Zealand, including restaurant meals, seems to be half the price of Hong Kong or the States.

While at Mapledurham, we became aware that there is a famous National Park called Abel Tasman N.P. not far west of Nelson, on the coast. We stopped there the next day, on our way to the west coast, and did a two hour walk into the park (photos below) - long enough for us to decide that we wanted to return to the park later in our stay for a longer walk. Unfortunately, this day was spoiled by our experience at the Park Cafe...

We had ordered quiche, salad and a milkshake at the counter and had been told they would be brought to our table. We waited for half an hour, then I went to the counter, where the milkshake had apparently been sitting for a long while. I asked how long it takes to warm up a pre-cooked quiche and the waitress asked me to repeat our order - she would not admit that they had lost the order altogether. A few minutes later a quiche was brought to our table and then, just as Catherine was about to tuck in, the same waitress reappeared and snatched the quiche away, saying it was for another table! We waited a total of 50 minutes for our quiche!

We understand that nobody is perfect, but what are the chances of THREE mistakes in the same meal (the drinks that were delivered to every table except ours, the order that was lost, the quiche that was snatched away)? It occurred to me that we might have come across someone with an above-average distaste for the French. New Zealanders have not forgotten how the French tested their nuclear weapons in the South Pacific nor how her government sent agents to sink the Greenpeace ship the "Rainbow Warrior" while it was moored in New Zealand, nor how the explosion killed an innocent photographer - were we being punished now or am I just paranoid? Before you answer, let me describe a T shirt that someone was wearing at the Park Cafe. It said "The French have stopped nuclear testing - now, which end of the frog should I kiss?"

Anyway, we made it all the way to the west coast on that day. Every place that we stayed in this vacation we had found in the Friars Guide and we were very satisfied overall, but today the guide let us down. It failed to mention that our lodge was at the end of a narrow 27 km dirt road that winds its way between mud flats and overgrown hills! After driving for 50 minutes on this dirt road, we were going crazy, wondering whether it would ever end, whether we would run out of gas or whether we were even on the right road.

Eventually we made it, and found ourselves at at a farm, 'Westhaven' (photo above right), surrounded by cows and llamas. To be fair, the isolation and the views were spectacular, more impressive than anything else we would see on this vacation, and we had a good walk to the headland the next day. But our arrival had been so nightmarish we cut short our stay here, also so that we would have time to revisit Abel Tasman National Park. Our hosts were very sympathetic.

We had looked for accommodation close to the park but by now it was December 30 and almost everywhere was full of tourists wanting to enjoy the park, or take off for a few days to celebrate the new millennium or to attend the 'happening'. The 'happening' is a musical event that happens every year in a part of Abel Tasman Park known for its sinkholes. These sinkholes, formed when the roofs of limestone caves collapsed, form natural amphitheatres, so several bands can play simultaneously in different sinkholes, giving the music lovers a choice of which band to listen to. As we drove past the park, we passed an 8km queue of stopped cars waiting to get into the park - many of the cars were empty and obviously hadn't moved for hours. Others had young hippy-types sprawled across the roofs, relaxing and enjoying the all-too-rare sunshine. Very few of the 10 thousand people waiting to get in the park could have guessed how bad the weather would become over the next few days, for dozens of them would be hospitalized with hypothermia over the next three days. And this in the middle of summer!

We spent the next two nights, then, in a charming place called Aporo Orchard, just east of the park. We had planned to do a long walk in the park but as our water taxi took us to our chosen starting point on the coast it started to rain and our relaxing walk became a hurried dash. Little did we know that it would rain almost continuously for the next four days, until our departure from New Zealand.

Our friendly hosts invited us to a fancy dress party for new year's eve (he went dressed as a genetically modified banana while she went as a bunch of grapes) but we gave that a miss as it was an outdoor party and it was raining heavily. So yes, we spent new year's eve in our room, watching the celebrations on TV and sipping champagne!

On new year's day (new millennium's day!) we headed south and inland to a town called St. Arnaud on the edge of Nelson Lakes National Park. On the way, we tried to follow the celebrations throughout the world on the radio - we were able to figure out that France had the best firework display, but boy, is New Zealand national radio disappointing! The hourly news report lasts about two minutes, most of which is sports and reports on fatal car crashes - the coverage of world news was almost non-existent - and yet this is the national radio service, the ONLY radio service that can be received in many rural areas! So what does that tell us? That the national radio station is incompetent or that New Zealanders are not interested in world events??

Anyway, when we got to St. Arnaud it was raining and we could hardly see the mountains (Mount Misery, Mount Hopeless.. they must get a lot of rain around here!) so didn't want to walk. The fact that our host had just recently had a stroke and could barely talk or walk didn't make us feel any better, especially as he seemed like a very charming, gentle man. So we just waited for the weather to get better, which it did not.

On our modest walks near the lake, we noticed that many of the trees were blackened, as if by fire. Interestingly, the black color was not caused by fire but by a fungus - the fungus feeds on the sweet 'honeydew' excreted through thin tubes (visible in the photo) by insects that have burrowed into the bark. The honeydew also attracts bees, wasps, sandflies, butterflies and insect-eating birds such as the local tuis, bellbirds and wood pigeon. The quantity and diversity of birdlife was one of the things that impressed us most on our trip to Australia, so we were disappointed that the birdlife in New Zealand was much more limited, though the wood pigeon is an impressive bird - at least twice as big as a European pigeon and with a proud white chest.

After 2 days watching the rain in St. Arnaud, we drove south east to Hanmer Springs, a little town known for its thermal pools (below) - we had visited this place back in '95 but it wasn't so appealing this time (rain!).

Anyway, we soaked our sorrows away a little before continuing the next day back to Christchurch where strong winds added to the rain and pushed us into an even darker mood - we wondered why we had spent so much money and come so far. We hadn't seen any scenery that could compare with the grandeur of our first trip, we hadn't walked much, we weren't well rested, we hadn't seen any penguins, whales or dolphins. We had enjoyed some good meals but had never been able to order crayfish or oysters (out of season). All in all, it was a very disappointing trip, though no one is to blame for the poor weather, of course. We were quite glad to get back to Hong Kong, we won't be going back to New Zealand!