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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!