Back In New Zealand

Coast 11Coast 3

Coast 9Coast 3

Whatever the artistic merits of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings and the more recent Hobbit (undoubted in the former and more questionably in the latter), what really wins in the films is the New Zealand landscape. So much so that much of the tourism to Aotearoa now is focused on visiting Jacksonland, complete with the now infamous Air New Zealand safety briefing video brought to you by Hobbit characters (at least it is better than that dreadful one of a few years ago that had Peter FitzSimons bagging the place).

I was reminded of all this recently during a welcome visit home based around a family wedding. I swear that every time I fly back in over the Southern Alps I have forgotten how spectacular the place is. Yes, it is where I grew up and was educated so I am biased, but it really is extraordinary. This time,that feeling was reinforced by a few days on the West Coast, still one of the world’s great wilderness areas.

The drive from Ashburton up through Methven and across the Rakaia Gorge hugs the foothills of the Alps until the route through the Lewis Pass leads towards Greymouth, though we detoured via Lake Brunner, one of the many large and placid fishing holes that dot the coast. From there we headed north to Punakaiki along what is one of the best coastal drives in the world – every turn reveals another view of mountains meeting ocean.

Punakaiki is a must-do on the Coast, a proliferation of pancake layered rocks and coastal blowholes where the Tasman rolls in to create a natural entertainment. Kiwis do tourism well, for this was just the first of several places where the walkways were brilliant and the educational explanations the same, with contemporary New Zealand’s emphasis on Maori to the fore (the walk into Munro’s Beach and the penguin colony there further south is another must-do).

From Punakaiki it was back down to Greymouth, invariably driving behind or past or meeting the now ubiquitous camper vans that have made New Zealand famous or infamous. They are everywhere, and sometimes the combination of their unwieldiness and the country’s two lane roads help cause chaos. But they have brought in an enormous number of dollars and help deliver people to jet boat rides, bungy jumping, vineyards and, of course, the filming sites for Lord and Hobbit.

Hokitika might now be the nicest of the Coast towns, even if five out of every six shops sell greenstone artefacts, New Zealand jade. This is the heart of the greenstone country that saw the South Island known in Maori as Te Wai Pounamu (Waters of Greenstone), and searching for the stone now is strictly controlled. (It seems now that the “South” and “North” Islands are not officially registered names, so the Maori names may well return).The Hokitika outlets cater mainly for the tour buses, and one had a group from India led by one of their own as a guide who clearly knew little about New Zealand! 

I hope, though, that his group at least got to go to Hokitika’s Kiwi Experience because there you can see the real thing, a kiwi. That shy and endangered bird is making a comeback in several conservation parks, and it is encouraging if alarming to see road signs warning about kiwis in the area. The Hokitika place has a couple of them, and on quiet mornings they will come right up to the glass to have a close look.

Café 39 served an excellent breakfast courtesy of a pierced and tattooed young waiter with an improbably soft voice and friendly approach. This is the new New Zealand.

Not far south of Hokitika is one of the main nineteenth century New Zealand gold rush towns, Ross, which plays an odd part in my professional development. One of my first and most influential history teachers (and I use that term rather than “lecturers”) at the University of Canterbury was Philip Ross May whose middle name was for the town where he was born and grew up. He failed the first several essays I wrote – no continuous assessment marking then – but in the process taught me as much as I learned in any year later. He had a gift for identifying the key characters and stories in his own work on the gold rushes, and he transferred that to his students. Approachable and gifted, he died at a ridiculously early age, New Zealand losing one of its great historians. Stopping in Ross, then, was about more than just seeing a gold town.

South again towards the glaciers at Franz Josef and Fox, and the southern remoteness starts to set in as the narrow road threads through tight, bush lined valleys and past more lakes. When there are no other cars (or campervans) in sight, it is quiet, lush green (even in an unseasonably local dry spell) and impressive.

Whataroa proved to be a highlight. We stayed there because the next day we were booked on a trip into the Okarito white heron sanctuary. We called in at the office to learn that for the first time in about twenty years the herons had left early – they fly into Okarito for the breeding season then leave – the dry season having served them well. Ken Arnold, owner of the business and local character, booked us into one of his new motel units, formerly the local maternity hospital, and we set off for dinner at the Whataroa pub.

They still had whitebait on the menu, even though the season was finished. Whitebait, a tiny fish, is a great New Zealand delicacy now in short supply and craved for by all Kiwis and expats. This turned out to be the best I had eaten in years: the traditional pattie with more whitebait than batter, and there were three patties, for $NZ22. This brilliant meal was served up by another tattooed and pierced chef – what is it about the Coast? The chat was as brilliant, Sandi asking what an “anti-cyclone” was in weather terms and being instructed by a local. Sauvignon blanc with and after that whitebait, a lot of chat, and a walk back to the ex-maternity hospital – what else would you want?

The next morning we went on the tour anyway, a terrific jet boat ride into the sanctuary to see where the herons had been. It was worth it for the ride, the jet boat being another Kiwi invention that has revolutionised travel. Zipping along at high speed keeping pace with accompanying birds and racing over shallow water, diving into steep turns and across rapids is a great experience. So was the magnificent view from the river of Mount Cook/Aoraki and the Alps.

This is one of the great travel experiences:

The glaciers are now officially a climate change problem. While there has always been an advance and retreat – Franz Josef “ lost” three kilometres between 1893 and 1983, then gained 1. 5 kilometres over the next few years – since 2008 the face has retreated half a kilometre so it is now a 3 kilometre walk from the car park up to the face, and access onto the glacier itself is by chopper. If this continues, it is a major threat to the tourist trade on the Coast, and traffic is already down because of global financial conditions – Ken Arnold reckoned his trade was down fifty percent in January and February this year.

Having been bitten alive by sandflies at Gillespie’s Beach, we headed south again into the Haast to stay at Okura on the road down to Jackson’s Bay, the end of the road on the West Coast. This is real wilderness country and Neroli Nolan, the host at Collyer House ( ) is a descendant of one of the pioneering families in the area. Looking out over the mouth of the Okura River and the Tasman Sea, this is one of the most peaceful places imaginable with the high mountain and bush backdrop.

Neroli set us off into the bush. We turned off the sealed road to Jackson’s Bay onto a surprisingly good gravel road towards Lake Ellery and on past the Arawhata River and its huge valley, to the Martyr and the Cascade rivers and the end of the public road. This is genuine wilderness, but there are still plenty of 4WDs to be seen as people go in search of walks, camps, or fish. A World Heritage area, it connects eventually into the Hollyford Valley and the famous walk there, as well as to Fiordland.

Turns out there is a serious and controversial proposal to turn and extend this gravel road into a 127 kilometre toll road linking Haast and South Westland into the Hollyford Valley and Te Anau. The locals do not like this one bit, seeing it as a blow rather than a boon. Their thoughts are that it would simply mean more tour buses racing between the Hokitika jade shops and Milford Sound, bypassing all the local strengths like the whitebait patties at the Whataroa pub and the excellently independent jade and gemstone shop in Haast ( )that restrung my old bone fish-hook pendant for $NZ15. Those locals have a point. It seems a travesty to drive a major road through what is one of the great wilderness regions in the world.

Lunch was at the Cray Pot, a quaint place overlooking Jackson’s Bay that advertises “the best fish n chips in NZ.” They are certainly contenders, though a couple of places in Akaroa out from Christchurch might run them close.

Then we drove through the spectacular Haast Pass and along the road that runs between Lake Hawea and Lake Wanaka, both massive water bodies. Lunch at Wanaka with friends was at a restaurant run by a guy from Geelong – yes, the world gets smaller.

We checked on our house in Queenstown and resolved that, yes, we really must spend more time there and in the region. Back out through the Lindis Pass,  across the McKenzie Country and the other side of Mount Cook, buying a big salmon from the farm near Otematata, through Fairlie and Geraldine and back into Ashburton.

Peter Jackson was right – the world does need to see and know about this country more.


2 Responses to “Back In New Zealand”
  1. Lance Brennan says:

    Thanks for the return of memories of a couple of trips to the South Island, Brian. One of the truly magical places on the globe. Anne and I thought the North Island, especially north of Auckland, also had much to offer, but the Sav Blanc tips the scale.
    Lance Brennan

    • Thanks very much Lance. There are, indeed, some great places in the North: Hawkes Bay, Mt Maunganui, Russell etc etc. To me, though, the South is unique, and the Sauv Blanc definitelt does it, as well as those brilliant pinots out of Central Otago. I trust you get back there!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: