The “Other” Land Down Under – New Zealand (part 2)

As the “Coastal Express” made its way along the rugged and wild Kaikoura coast, the train passed through several tunnels in order to negotiate the rocky shore at the foot of the steep, rugged headlands plunging hundreds of feet straight down to the sea. Approaching Christchurch the landscape suddenly became a broad, flat fertile plain, dotted with many farms, some raising Elk and Llama.

Kaikora Range - South Island
Kaikoura Range – South Island

After arrival in Christchurch we checked into the Park Royal Hotel downtown and sat down to dinner in the atrium of the Victoria Street Café. Just then the light rain changed to snow. The next morning, we awoke to a beautiful, perfectly clear, cold day with light snow covering everything. After breakfast we boarded the “Trans-Alpine” train for a trip across the Southern Alps to the west coast of the South Island and the tiny fishing village of Greymouth. It wasn’t long before we had spectacular views of the Southern Alps, draped in a pure white cloak of heavy snow. Slowly the train would its way up a very scenic route into the rugged mountains, following the famous Otari Gorge.

The Otari Gorge
The Otari Gorge in the Southern Alps

I had the opportunity to stand outside on the train guard’s platform at the rear, and although it was very cold it afforded me absolutely spectacular views of the jagged, snow covered peaks, each one stacked on top of the other. After a short stop at Arthur’s Pass, the highest point on the line, and a brief snowball fight in the fresh snowfall, we descended the mountains toward the Tasman Sea.

Arthur's Pass - Trans Alpine Express
Arthur’s Pass – Trans Alpine Express
Southern Alps
Southern Alps

At one point the train passed through a very long tunnel and suddenly emerged from a world of ice and snow into one of lush, green forests and fields – the very wet, heavy vegetation of the coastal landscape was a dramatic contrast to the snow covered mountains.

Descending from the Southern Alps
Descending from the Southern Alps
Greymouth, NZ
Village of Greymouth
Greymouth harbour
Greymouth harbour

We found Greymouth to be a small, sleepy fishing village and shipping port, whose sole claim to fame was the 25 feet of rain they get every year! After a short walk around the village and the purchase of a few souvenirs, we boarded the train for the return to Christchurch, and once again enjoyed the magnificent scenery. That evening we discovered “Sala Thai”, a small Thai-Laotian restaurant with a very local and authentic atmosphere. We savored a fantastic meal of Thai fishcakes and spicy red curry chicken.

Christchurch College
Christchurch College

In the morning, I awoke early with the sunrise and took a long walk in the crisp, clear air, just a couple of degrees above freezing. As I strolled alongside the lovely Avon River, the heavy frost slowly melted away under the full morning sun. I stopped at the “Avon Boathouse Café” for a cup of hot coffee, sitting outside under the Weeping Willows hanging over the river – their newly emerging yellow-green leaves beautifully highlighted by the early morning sunshine and brilliantly reflected in the still water of the river.

The Avon River - Christchurch
The Avon River – Christchurch

Further on, as I entered Victoria Park I passed a lone Black Cormorant, his wings spread wide to dry in the warm rays of the morning sun. Just then the faint sound of a pennywhistle caught my ear, and as it gradually became louder, a young man emerged from the trees playing an old Irish jig – a very special and magical moment! Later on an old man passed me and suddenly shouted “what a fine day it is – Aye?”, and indeed it was! Then he threw a few stones into the river for his little dog to chase. By this time, I felt it was a unique beginning to a magnificent day – the colors surrounding me were the deepest shades of green and blue in the early morning sunshine. As I strolled through the forest whose floor was carpeted with hundreds of new daffodils, tulips, and crocus I came upon the Canterbury Museum. In the distance were gorgeous views of the broad green fields and the snowcapped peaks of the Southern Alps shining majestically behind. Soon I came upon the Botanic Gardens, and not long after a small, flat bottomed boat silently glided down the river, being propelled by a young man dressed in all white, wearing a white straw hat, standing on the rear platform, and using a long pole to push it along. This is, of course, famously known as “punting on the Avon” – imported from Cambridge University, England. NZ-2-2

Punting on the Avon
Punting on the Avon

All too soon it was time to return to the hotel and take a taxi to the airport for our flight to Auckland. Once we had checked in, we spotted a series of blue footsteps painted on the sidewalk outside the terminal, and after a short 5 minute walk we came to the “Antarctic Centre”, which had a fascinating exhibit about the natural history and early exploration of Antarctica. It was also the US Naval Support base for Antarctic Operations. We made our way back to the terminal, once more following the blue footsteps, and discovered a small bar named “Cheers”, which was an authentic “knockoff” of the famous American TV series. So of course we had to have a beer before boarding the Ansett New Zealand flight to Auckland. The short 1 ½ hour flight gave us some beautiful views of the Southern Alps to the west and the rugged Kaikoura Range to the east. As the late afternoon sun set, it painted the snowcapped peaks a stunning glow of pale pink and orange. Upon landing in Auckland, we were met by my old friend from the 1974 Africa expedition. I recognized Sas right away, even though I hadn’t seen her since 1982 when she was living in Wiltshire, England. Sas and her daughter, Hannah, drove us to their home in the historic neighborhood of “Three Kings” where we shared a marvelous dinner that began with wine and cheese in front of a warm wood fire in the cozy living room. Throughout the evening Sas and I entertained Leslie and Hannah by telling stories of our days in Africa. It was a great time as we caught up on the time since then. Sas also showed us her pottery studio and some of the beautiful clay pots and ceramic bottles that she sells at local craft markets in Auckland. The whole evening was delightful, and as Sas drove us to our hotel, I felt especially fortunate to have reconnected with her.

Streetcar near Three Kings in Auckland
Streetcar near Three Kings in Auckland

Early the next morning, we boarded the hotel shuttle to the airport for our flight to Brisbane, Australia. After checking in we were escorted to the Air New Zealand First Class Lounge where the flight’s Chief Purser came around to introduce himself and welcome us – a very nice personal touch. Once on board, we were served a chilled glass of champagne, followed later by a lovely breakfast that began with a plate of fresh fruit, a small bowl of muesli, croissant, and a glass of fresh squeezed grapefruit juice. Next came the hot entrée of Pacific salmon roasted in a Dijon mustard and tomato sauce, accompanied by roesti potatoes and local mushrooms – truly superb! During the flight there was a short TV video program titled “You’ve got my line”, based on a popular British TV series. But it bore no resemblance to the old 1950’s American TV show called “What’s my line” hosted by Groucho Marx. This particular program had 4 actors whose task it was to play various word games with each other, based on a theme given them by the host. As an example, they were given the last line of a sketch and asked to play the scene in reverse – all impromptu! It was absolutely hilarious and extremely clever. Later on, as we continued our journey across the Tasman Sea, I listened to some beautiful, peaceful music on the New Age and Meditation audio channel. Soon we landed in Brisbane to find clear skies, a lovely deep blue sea, and glorious white sand beaches. We breezed through immigration and thought we were doing really well when 3 of our 4 bags were the very first to arrive in baggage claim, but one of Leslie’s bags failed to appear at the end. Then an Air New Zealand representative came by so I grabbed him and said “if someone doesn’t check the bags again, it will soon be on its way to Osaka, Japan, the final destination of NZ 31! After a few minutes on the radio, he located the bag and moments later it appeared in baggage claim – very impressive. Then it was a short taxi ride to the Park Royal Hotel downtown and the beginning of our adventures in Australia. Stay tuned!

Connect with me on Social Media:      Twitter     Facebook

 

Advertisements

The “Other” Land Down Under – New Zealand (part 1)

Our 5 hour flight from Rarotonga to Auckland was very smooth with superb service and food from Air New Zealand as we crossed the international dateline somewhere in the middle of the South Pacific Ocean. After checking into our hotel downtown, we explored the busy waterfront and discovered “Kelly Tarlton’s Undersea World”, a privately owned aquarium with a unique attraction – a refrigerated enclosure for several species of Penguins. A motorized ride took us inside the enclosure for a face to face encounter with the birds and included a glass tunnel underwater for a fantastic view as they “flew” through the water with the greatest of ease. During the entire ride we had a very interesting narration by an Antarctic explorer. Later on we visited an amazing reconstruction of Admiral Scott’s cabin, exactly as it was found after his ill-fated expedition to the South Pole in 1912. The exhibit had actual films and photos of the expedition, showing the tremendous hardships they endured, including photos of the destruction of their wooden sailing ship caught in the ice. It was both a fascinating and yet eerie exhibit – so real! As we were leaving the aquarium, we walked through another glass tunnel with huge sharks and stingrays swimming just inches above us.

Downtown Auckland - View from the ferry
Downtown Auckland – View from the ferry

On the way back to the hotel we came upon Albert Park, a huge open space in the center of Auckland. A stroll through the “winter houses” (greenhouses) revealed an incredible display of lush ferns, tropical flowers, and gorgeous orchids.

As we were leaving the park we passed many lovely old colonial buildings, including an old Jewish synagogue that had been converted into a branch of the Westminster Bank. Finally we came to the busy Queen’s Street, the main shopping district in the city. Then suddenly there was a deafening “roar”, announcing the passing of 30 Harleys, each carrying their black leather cargo! Later in the afternoon I headed to Prince’s Pier and found a neat old bar called “The Wharf”.

Auckland Bay from The Wharf
Auckland Bay from The Wharf

As I sat outside on the deck overlooking the harbor, cold beer in hand, I spied a beautifully restored 1902 wooden 3 masted sloop with gorgeous teak decks, brilliant varnished wood, and shiny brass everywhere. It was truly a magnificent sight, and moored right in front of our hotel. Ironically, the rusting old hull of a Russian trawler named “Komtek II” was moored nearby – what a dramatic contrast!

The next morning, following a very traditional English breakfast that included fried tomato, baked beans, “rashes” of bacon and blood sausage, we walked across the street to visit the National Maritime Museum. Here we discovered some very interesting exhibits and films depicting the heritage of the Maori people and their incredible ability for sailing the open ocean. In another display was the “Jules Verne Award” for the film documenting the fastest circumnavigation of the world in a sailing vessel, which was won by “Black Magic”, a huge catamaran from New Zealand that completed the epic journey in 74 ½ days – against some incredibly bad weather! In another section of the museum was an elaborate exhibit about the early days of European and Asian immigration to Australia, and it very realistically portrayed the feeling of being in the steerage section aboard an old sailing ship. In fact, the whole exhibit actually swayed with the motion of the ship. The next day I took a local ferry for a short ride across the bay to the tiny Victorian village of Devonport. Strolling through the old town I passed many beautiful old storefronts that had been converted into small shops, boutiques, cafes and bars. It was all very interesting and historical. At the end of the main street was a path leading up to the top of Mount Victoria, an extinct volcano and the site of a WWII battery of huge 8 inch coastal defence guns that were to protect the harbour. Though I don’t believe they were ever fired, the view from the gun battery was absolutely spectacular – the entire harbor, countless small islands, and many boats plying the dark blue water under clear skies.

Auckland - view from Mount Victoria
Auckland – view from Mount Victoria

That evening I joined Leslie for dinner at a place on the waterfront with an extraordinary reputation among the locals. “Cin Cin on the Quay” was located in the old turn of the century ferry building. As we sat outside overlooking the harbour I ordered a delicious “Tandoori oven roasted salmon” served over coconut milk rice with tomato lentil sauce, along with fresh baked garlic naan. Leslie chose a wonderful spiced chicken curry dish and we shared a bottle of chilled, crisp New Zealand chardonnay from Marlborough Sound on the South Island.

The next morning we boarded the “Overlander Express” train bound for Wellington on the southern tip of the North Island. As we were shown to our seats in the Observation car at the rear of the train, we were served a chilled glass of fresh squeezed orange juice, along with the traditional morning tea, complete with fresh baked scones, Devonshire clotted cream, and strawberry jam! As the train made its way south we passed deep green hills dotted with thousands of small white specks – sheep! (sheep outnumber people in New Zealand 8 to 1) Meanwhile, the on board guides, Bob and Rick, provided us with a running commentary about the landscape and the history of the towns we were passing through.

Tongariro National Park
Tongariro National Park
Tongariro National Park
Tongariro National Park

As the train neared Tongariro National Park we were served a delicious lunch of chicken curry and parsley rice, which I accompanied with an ice cold pint of local DB Draught beer. Soon after finishing lunch, we came to an engineering wonder known as “The Spiral”, a circuitous turn of two 180 degree curves cut into the very steep mountainside, designed to enable the train to ascend over 250 meters (800 feet) in elevation. Further on, in addition to countless numbers of sheep, we began to see large enclosures of Elk being raised to supply venison to European markets, primarily Germany. Most of the towns we passed through had almost unpronounceable Maori names, so I got out my “New Zealand Handbook” and read up on the history of the Maori people. Unlike the Aborigines who have been in Australia for thousands of years, the Maori were Pacific Island people who recently migrated to New Zealand several hundred years ago. While I read about the Maori, Leslie struck up a conversation with a man from Wellington who had driven a car from Los Angeles to Chicago for its owner, and unfortunately had broken down at a truck stop near our home town of Redlands, California. By the time he arrived in Chicago, the owner owed him more than $1,000 for repairs! So the man dropped off the car and bought a 30 day RailPass on Amtrak.

Soon we arrived in Wellington, checked into the lovely Park Royal Hotel facing the waterfront downtown, and joined my friends David and Beryl for a drink in the lobby bar. Then we all headed for dinner at a place David had arranged in the Hotel Raffeole Restaurant overlooking the harbour. As we entered the hotel lobby we immediately became aware that it looked very much like we had entered a mortuary – dried flowers on faded pink pedestals and long, dark purple velvet drapes. (weird) In addition to the dark, depressing décor of the place, the maitre d’ was quite strange as well! He had a very pale, sad face and a sour disposition – hardly inviting, but neither is a mortuary. Despite the dismal introduction to the restaurant, the dinner of herb roasted loin of lamb in filo pastry was superb, as was the Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough Sound. After a lovely evening of conversation and great food, we bid farewell to David and Beryl to retire for the night.

The next morning, I was able to connect with my friend Kate, one of my travel mates on the 1974 overland expedition across Africa. She took us on a day of sightseeing around Wellington, which involved driving up and down the steep hills surrounding the city. Among the places we visited was Victoria Hill with its incredible 180 degree vistas of the entire city and harbour, as well as the Northeast Coast where we had gorgeous views of Cook Strait and the snow-capped Kaikoura Mountains across the water on the South Island.

Wellington - view from Victoria Hill
Wellington – view from Victoria Hill

Later we shared afternoon tea in the tiny village of Eastbourne on the far side of the harbour, among lots of old homes with a curious mixture of Victorian elegance and bush practicality. On our way back to the city Kate stopped at a “farm center” on the Kapiti Coast, where they made their own butter, cheese, and ice cream, so of course we had to sample them. Among the samples was an excellent 6 year old hard cheddar and a lovely ginger-passionfruit ice cream. In another shop we found a fascinating working bee hive enclosed in glass and sitting in the middle of the shop. The honey was very tasty as well. We ended up buying several different kinds of cheese, along with a couple bottles of New Zealand wine, before driving back to the city.

Kapiti Coast
Kapiti Coast

We broke out the wine and cheese at Kate’s house, being joined by her son and two young cats. As evening approached, the four of us went out for dinner at a very nice little restaurant named “Marbles” in an old Victorian house in the historic village of Kilburn. It had beautiful, eclectic décor – a lovely combination of old and trendy. Dinner began with a bowl of chilled pumpkin soup, followed by fresh scallops sautéed in white wine, cilantro, and fresh ground black peppercorns. Both the service and the food were excellent and provided a fitting celebration of the reunion with Kate.

The next morning, under clear skies, we boarded the “Avarlihua” Inter-Island Ferry for the journey across Cook Strait that separates the North Island from the South Island. The ship was a combination rail/car/passenger ship, very much like those of the Alaska Marine Highway System.

Inter-Islander Ferry leaving Wellington
Inter-Islander Ferry leaving Wellington

I sat outside on the rear deck taking in the spectacular scenery of the beautiful Marlborough Sound as we sailed through numerous emerald green islands that studded the deep blue water. It looked a lot like sailing the Inside Passage to Alaska. As we neared the port of Picton on the South Island, there were incredible views of the snow covered peaks of the Kaikoura Range.

Kaikoura Range
Kaikoura Range
Picton on the South Island
Picton on the South Island

Once the ship had docked at the ferry landing, we decided to have a bite of lunch before the departure of the train to Christchurch. I spotted a small, local place called the “Toot-n-Whistle” where I ordered the classic fish and chips, along with a cold pint of local Speights beer. Also on the blackboard menu was something called “toot feast”, described as a large steak smothered in a rich seafood sauce. Too bad that we didn’t have time to try it, but our train was due to leave soon. Then we boarded the “Coastal Express” for a beautiful 4 hour journey along the rugged and wild Kaikoura coast on our way to Christchurch. Stay tuned!

Connect with me on Social Media:      Twitter     Facebook