Tag Archives: New Zealand

Christchurch

Mark shares his thoughts about Christchurch

Our flight out of New Zealand was from Christchurch airport. We had heard that there was not much to see in the city following the devastating earthquakes in 2010 and 2011, so we probably would not have spent long there had it not been for the very kind offer by Marcia, an old workmate of Leila’s, to stay for a couple of days, and we were delighted that we did (thanks very much Marcia, James et al!).

We forgot to take a snap of Marcia and her gang, but here is a picture of their chickens, who laid some seriously tasty eggs for us.

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The drive from Queenstown to Christchurch passed through some stunning scenery.

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5 months of travel still hasn't made me a grown up

5 months of travel still hasn’t made me a grown up

Kind of someone to put a bench here to commemorate the English and Irish Lions victory the day before!

Kind of someone to put a bench here to commemorate the English and Irish Lions victory the day before!

After a disrupted night’s sleep (we had a couple of hours kip then got back out of bed at 2am to watch Andy Murray win the Wimbledon Final – whoop!) we borrowed some bikes and headed into town.

The Kiwi custom is to build houses on one storey, so in the suburbs there was little evidence of the quakes.

We were shocked when we crossed the park to see virtually every building in the central business district either demolished or crumbling and boarded up. I cannot imagine the sadness and despair that the city’s residents must have felt when their hometown was laid to waste in this way.

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However, the spirit of the residents has meant that the city is rapidly recovering via novel solutions such as the Re:START shopping mall made of shipping containers.

Re:START shopping mall

Re:START shopping mall

We met another of Leila’s old friends Gayle with her new baby Niamh there for lunch.

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'Cardboard' cathedral

‘Cardboard’ cathedral

A sort of outdoor coffee bar area made of pallets

A sort of outdoor coffee bar area made of pallets

A common sight - a bit of colour amid the devastation

A common sight – a bit of colour amid the devastation

A very humbling experience.

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Queenstown: Winter Festival, skiing, bungy and general indulgences

Some people thought we were mad to travel to New Zealand in June, mid-winter down under. “If I had six months off work to travel, I would stick to hot climates and beaches”, they said.

Mark and I, however, love winter – especially snow. Soon after we met, one of the first things he ever asked me was whether I ski. When I replied that I had lived and worked in the Alps for two whole ski seasons I could almost see the giant box he was ticking inside his head.

Some of our best trips and happiest memories together have been in ski resorts. We are even talking about having a winter wedding, partly because of the appeal of a honeymoon in the mountains…

So we were excited about the prospect of getting some time on the slopes in NZ, and even more so when we heard that there would be a “Winter Festival” in Queenstown at the end of June.

Unfortunately the Winter Festival was hardly the Glastonbury in the snow we had hoped for; the only evidence of any kind of festival were a few flimsy signs dotted around town. Hardly any of the standup comedy, freestyle ski and snowboard performances and general boozy partying promised on the festival’s website could be found.

Still, we were there with Anya and her friend Russ who had flown down from Auckland for a long weekend, so we were able to make our own fun.

The ski fields in NZ are all smaller than what we are used to in Europe or the States – just a handful of lifts and pistes. Luckily the conditions were great after a big dump, so plenty of snow to play in anyway.

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Gabby the campervan came into her own for skiing – it was brilliant having a massive vehicle for all of our gear, not to mention a warm, dry place to make lunch and avoid the crowded, pricey cafe on the mountain.

making lunch

making lunch

As Russ couldn’t ski, the next day was a day of indulgence at the Amisfield Winery in nearby Arrowtown. We all went for the “trust the chef” option: five courses with wine matching made for several enjoyable hours of indulgence.

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beetroot and apple soup

beetroot and apple soup

bluenose fish

bluenose fish

Unlike the time in Argentina, Mark and I managed not to fall asleep on the lawn, although it did look rather tempting.

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Instead, we sneaked into Anya & Russ’ s posh resort for some spa time and to watch the sun set.

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It’s a hard life!

Although such languid relaxation is possible, Queenstown is more about extreme adrenalin rushes. Mark had never done a skydive and I had only done one in Oxfordshire, with delightful views of the M4 and a sewage plant. So we were both keen to take the plunge (literally). Regrettably it wasn’t to be – bad weather meant our booking was cancelled four times and we left NZ without jumping out of a plane.

We consoled ourselves with visits to Queenstown’s legendary Fergburger and next door, Fergbaker for classic NZ pies. The “Ferg”empire is so famous, people we met in Peru told us we had to go!

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We also had some lovely walks around the lake.

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But all was not lost in our quest for adventure: I signed up for the 134m Nevis bungy jump, the biggest in Australasia. There were smaller ones around Queenstown but I figured if I was going to ignore every sane instinct and fling myself off a tiny ledge into stomach-churning freefall, I may as well get a superlative under my belt. “Go big or go home” as they say around here!

Even weeks later, I’m thrilled to say I did it! Definitely one of the scariest challenges of my life, although the most intense fear came in the days leading up to the jump. I tortured myself with ill advised Google searches for things like “bungy death”, “bungy accident” etc which Mark thought was hilarious (easy for him to laugh when he refused even to consider signing up).

On the day however, something took over and I became very focused. The music choices played on the way there helped. Fact: nothing makes you feel more of an invincible badass than “Eye of the Tiger”.

Before bungy

Before bungy

ready to go

ready to go

Of course, the stomach flips returned as my turn to jump got nearer. One of the Nevis team led me to the ledge. I vividly remember how hairy his forearm was, I was gripping on to it so hard.

He gently extracted himself and just as my mind began to race, he simply said, “don’t think about it, just do it, 3, 2, 1″… Magically, obediently, as if possessed I shut down my rational consciousness and leant forward, as if diving into a swimming pool.

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Rational thought returned the instant freefall began. I was so shocked I had jumped I didn’t even scream, but just took it all in, wide eyed and gasping at the ground accelerating towards me. Somehow I remembered that I was meant to pull a cord to release my feet on the second bounce – as soon I was the right way up I began giggling uncontrollably with pure joy and relief.

After I was pulled up to the solid floor of the cable car, the feeling of euphoria was unmatched.

After bungy - manic grin and teary eyes

After bungy – manic grin and teary eyes

For the video, click here.

Although the bungy wasn’t for him and his pesky fear of heights, Mark also experienced a similar moment of insanity and glory on the Nevis swing, the world’s biggest swing.

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We did this in tandem which was great fun. I thought it would be a cinch after the bungy but it was a pretty terrifying drop – what made it easier was the fact that someone else pushed the release button rather than the crucial moment being all down to you.

In any case, the wise words of the steady, calm Nevis worker have now become a life mantra for me: “don’t think about it, just do it”. That goes for anyone considering longterm travel too!

Milford Sound, New Zealand

Mark talks about Milford Sound aka “a geographer’s wet dream”

It seemed to rain for most of the time that we spent in New Zealand. June 2013 was one of the wettest on record, and July did not start much better. So it was unsurprising that it was pouring as we made our way to Milford Sound, particularly as this region recieves over 7 metres of rain a year (and we complain in London with a paltry 600 mm).

We opted for a coach trip rather than driving as the views are spectacular, even with the rain and low cloud.

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some dolphins frolicking in the fjord

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I have wanted to go to Milford Sound for many years. It is the prime example of fjordland scenery with huge towering cliffs and water tumbling off the hanging valleys. And the views did not disappoint, particularly as the sun came out about half way through the cruise.

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West coast and Fox Glacier, New Zealand

In this part of New Zealand we would regularly drive for more than twenty kilometres without passing another vehicle. Most of the places on the way down the coast towards Queenstown are pretty remote, so “freedom camping” was no problem.

However the cold made sleeping in the middle of nowhere, in a campervan with no heating, a challenge. Some pretty violent tug of war battles over our one tiny hot water bottle ensued.

But it was worth it to wake up to spectacular views such as the Nelson lakes:

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We stopped off in Okarito for a quick walk we had heard about, the “Trig route”.

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Love a good view at the top of a tough climb!

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Gabby the campervan can appreciate a picturesque spot too.

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Last stop before Queenstown was Fox Glacier for some time on the ice.

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Obviously, I behaved like a big kid (luckily my tongue did not stick)…

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…before posing for a more grown up picture.

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Nothing like a giant ice cube to get you excited for skiing!

From north to south: Wellington to Nelson, New Zealand

If I had a magic wand, I would have made every day we spent in New Zealand a Saturday or Sunday.

Every day is a holiday for food lovers in this country but weekends are particularly special, with many famers’ markets and specialist food stalls opening all over.

Appetites whetted and hangovers cured courtesy of Napier’s Saturday market, we started the journey down to Wellington, already looking forward to a repeat performance the following day.

Wellington’s food market is every Sunday on the waterfront. Not a bad setting for all the hustle and bustle!

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Repurposed Morgan, now with a charcoal barbecue feature.

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Delicious dumplings:

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Packaging porn:

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Before we arrived in Wellington I pumped Beth from Eat and Greet for top tips and was led to a craft beer and hot dog matching event at a local bar, Golding’s Free Dive. Such a fun idea, would love to see something like this in London.

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Once our bellies were full we spent a couple of hours browsing the excellent Te Papa museum, complete with an earthquake simulation room.

Central Wellington:

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Mark and I stayed with some cousins on my father’s side of the family who were so welcoming and generous, even though I was a little girl the last time we met.

Margaret is a great cook and we ate like kings at her home, which made it hard to leave…next time I will have to stay longer to explore more (both Wellington and her recipes). Thank you Margaret, Peter and family!

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But with time ticking on and a date with the ski slopes down in
Queenstown, we had to push on. The crossing on the ferry from the north to the south island was beautiful – even dolphins came to play.

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Feeling very fortunate to be related to such lovely people down under, we received an equally warm welcome from the Dukes faction on the South Island.

Paul & Nic, thank you for having us, we loved spending time with you and your boys. And what a view you have every morning!

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One of the highlights of the Nelson area is the Abel Tasman national park. We drove there for a day of hiking through the pretty scenery.

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Native bellbirds could be heard overhead (listen here). They sound strangely electronic; the first time I heard them I thought someone’s phone was bleeping.

Split apple rock:

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Even with long walks, not to mention the adrenalin sports and skiing in New Zealand, the country’s fantastic food has definitely had its inevitable effect on our waistlines…

Napier and Hawke’s Bay, NZ – a food and wine mecca

Hawke’s Bay is so saturated with fine wineries, restaurants and natural produce that we barely registered that Napier, its main town, also lays claim to being the art deco capital of the world.

After devastating earthquake damage in the 1930s, the town was completely rebuilt according to the architecture & design fashion of the period. Today the distinctive graphic shapes and pastel colours of the Art Deco style can be seen all over.

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We allowed one morning for a stroll around town for a dutiful dose of culture before we got stuck in to what we had really come for: food and wine. I may not know much about art, but I know what I like…

Mini Yorkshire puddings, bone marrow & horseradish and sardines on toast (love the presentation of a sardine tin for lemon wedges) at hip Napier restaurant Mister D.

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Hawke’s Bay is New Zealand’s longest established wine growing area. In the 1850s missionaries planted the first vines to make sacramental wine and would sell off the excess. Before long the commercial side of winemaking was thriving and dozens of vineyards and wineries popped up. Today you can tour between them, tasting as you go.

A classic NZ sight – where else in the world would you find the grass between the vines tended by sheep?

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The organised tours which drive you around are quite expensive and often follow a well trodden route so I offered to be the designated driver, much to Mark’s delight. It was quite fun steering Gabby the campervan around the picturesque winding roads while Mark got increasingly sozzled.

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We pootled around wineries including Te Mata, CJ Pask and Craggy Range – many of the Pinot Noirs (the specialty of this region) were first rate and some of the Chardonnays were just as good. Te Mata was a real standout and we invested in a bottle or two.

The view from the top of the “craggy” bit of Craggy Range (Gabby did well to get up here)…

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We couldn’t resist a couple of frivolous purchases from the quirky Crab Farm winery: a map of Hawke’s Bay styled to look like a London Underground map and a bottle of spicy, sweet and interesting port, named “Starboard” (geddit).

We rounded off a fine day with dinner at Mission Estate, the area’s oldest winery whose name honours its ecclesiastical history. We kept hearing it was one of the best restaurants in town and were suitably impressed by the lush grounds and fancy building (it’s also a popular venue for weddings and high profile concerts).

So I was a little embarrassed when Mark asked the manager if he would mind terribly if we could park our big ugly campervan on the grounds and sleep there overnight like a couple of bums. To his credit, the cheeky request was received with true Kiwi laidback charm and hospitality. The fact that this arrangement meant we were likely to order more booze with our bed stumbling distance away may have helped…

The food was indeed lovely. Mission is known for its confit duck and mandarin macaroon starter, which reminded me of the signature dish at London’s Duck & Waffle: the same sweet & savoury, meaty contrasts were going on.

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The other blobs were mandarin jelly, braised red cabbage and duck liver praline.

Wild venison, hazelnut dumplings and feijoa chutney for main course.

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The morning after we cured our hangovers with a trip to Napier’s farmers market. Nothing like a freshly squeezed juice and bacon sandwich to aid recovery…

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This part of the world is known as the fruit bowl of New Zealand; if you’ve ever bought a Braeburn apple in the UK, it may well have been grown here.

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With produce like this, you can see why Kiwis call their land “God’s own country”.

Rotorua and Taupo, North Island, NZ

Rotorua is in the middle of New Zealand’s north island and is also a centre of Maori culture. Many Maori settled here hundreds of years ago, attracted by the geothermal activity which ensures the ground stays warm during the harshest of winters and there is always plenty of pure, hot water for cooking and bathing.

Today, the town attracts visitors keen to soak in the therapeutic waters, gasp at geysers and swim in bubbling rivers. Many other parts of New Zealand are obsessed with extreme adrenalin rushes; Rotorua is also about relaxing and rejuvenating. Despite the distinct smell of rotten eggs from the volcanic sulphur wafting around town!

It is also still possible to see traditional Maori culture at the many shows in the area.

Mark and I chose Te Puia which includes boiling mud pools and a natural geyser. The geyser (pronounced “guy-zer” down under) blows several times a day and we were lucky enough to snap photos at full force.

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The Te Puia village is also home to a nationally renowned carving school, which teaches the skill to young men of Maori heritage to keep this aspect of their culture alive.

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Although I’m sure the performances and costumes are more showy crowd-pleasers than strictly authentic, the dance performance was in a completely different league to the one at the Auckland museum.

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The Haka especially was riveting and powerful, and the performers were suitably terrifying. The Haka was traditionally performed to prepare the warriors physically and mentally before battle – but its impact often frightened away the enemy before any fighting began.

I can see why – I wouldn’t want to mess with this gal!

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Mark’s version didn’t have quite the same effect…

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Te Puia also had a kiwi house, but we were forbidden to take photos in case flashes interfered with the bird’s nocturnal lifestyle. In lieu of images, I can share some good kiwi facts which may come in handy for a pub quiz one day:

• Kiwis lay the biggest egg of any other bird for their size: a fifth of their body weight. The eggs are not far off an ostrich egg in size!
• Although they look long, technically kiwis have shortest beak of any bird because scientists measure from the nostrils to the tip. Most birds’ nostrils are at the base of the beak near the eyes but the kiwi has nostrils right near the tip.
• They use their beak as a lance to poke around soft ground for food and have an excellent sense of smell.
• They mate for life and sleep 20 hours a day
• Population numbers have dwindled to fewer than 70,000

Enough geekery, on to the food! Part of the evening at Te Puia was a Hangi feast. Hangi is a method of cooking a mixture of meats and vegetables by using geothermal heat to steam it underground.

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Yummy!

We had a couple of days of more strenuous activity too. Waitomo is famous for its deep limestone caves full of glittering glowworms. These clever beasties give off a bright bluey green light to attract small insects carried in by water flowing through the caves. The insects mistake the light for a way out and fly towards it, only to become trapped on the sticky threads dangling underneath and eventually gobbled as glowworm lunch.

We signed up for a day of blackwater rafting, or floating through caves on rubber rings, which sounded like a lovely and relaxing way to appreciate the eerie, otherworldly surroundings. However when we arrived we were told that the blackwater rafting cave had flooded after heavy rainfall (heavy rain was a bit of a theme of our time in New Zealand), so we were going to be “upgraded” to a different experience.

This turned out to be a bit like when we were “upgraded” to a difficult-to-manage 6 berth campervan: all of a sudden our tranquil drift turned into a physical, high octane challenge worthy of Rambo. We had to scramble over slippery rocks, abseil down sheer cliff drops, squeeze between tight gaps and swim through freezing water. Exhausting but exhilarating – sadly no photos, cameras were not allowed down there!

The next day we did some white water rafting, which ended up being unexpectedly hilarious thanks to the other person who joined us on our dinghy. She was a rather “ample” lady to put it mildly (i.e. she was a massive great big fat bird). Mark and I still seize up with laughter at the memory of her trying to step off the bank into the boat, wetsuit bursting at the seams – it was like a French & Saunders sketch. Thankfully we managed to keep straight faces at the time and to her credit she kept up with the pace of paddling. Our guide helped us navigate level 3 and 4 rapids (which are fairly big) and pointed out native flora and fauna such as the silver fern (a symbol of New Zealand) on the calmer bits. Mark was the only one in our boat to fall out; amusingly on a stretch of river with barely a bubble breaking its surface (note from Mark: no bubbles maybe, but still a bloody great rock that we crashed into!).

After all this exertion, my body was screaming for a rest and I had to put my foot down to silence Mark’s talk of a long hike! Consequently we had a blissful day of soaking in natural thermal pools of various temperatures.

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Mark enjoyed the first 15 minutes before getting restless and asking “what now?”

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He got his hike the next morning, however. Waimangu Volcanic Valley near Rotorua is the youngest geothermal area in the world. It was created in 1886 following a series of eruptions and is home to Frying Pan Lake, the world’s largest hot spring.

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The volcanic pools have the most amazing iridescent colours from the minerals in the hydrothermal waters.

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Mark being naughty and ignoring the barriers. He ended up slipping and getting a bit wet as punishment!

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Near Taupo, we stopped to see Huka falls which is NZ’s largest waterfall and the country’s most visited natural site. All waterfalls are pretty but I’m afraid after the ones in Chapada Diamantina in Brazil and of course Iguassu, these jaded travellers were a little underwhelmed.

One thing that never fails to disappoint in NZ however is the quality of food and wine. Originally our plan was to go to Tongariro National Park but the same storms which flooded our blackwater rafting caves meant that the treks and ice climbs here were not possible. So we decided to reroute towards Napier and Hawkes Bay instead, aka New Zealand’s fruit bowl and mecca of food and wine. Don’t mind if we do!