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New Zealand


New Zealand is egg-chasing country. Excessively so. So much so, in fact, that my first rugby encounter is while still sitting on the tarmac in Nadi Airport, waiting for the Air New Zealand flight to Auckland to take off. The standard safety message is replaced by a video featuring various All Blacks. Should there be a crash, we’re advised to “Crouch, touch and brace yourself against the seat”. In an emergency exit, the plane may be All Black, but escape path lighting on the floor will lead you to the exit, whether you’re in the front row or the back row. Throw in a camp 80s gym guy for no apparent reason, and it’s quite unlike any other safety message. Though in fairness, it’s a long time since I’ve paid such close attention to it.

The plan for New Zealand is straightforward if a little rushed. From Auckland, I head south to get to Fiordland as quickly as possible, before returning to Christchurch for the next flight. It’s not as easy as it sounds; South Island, for example, is almost twice the size of Ireland, but there’s only one million people living there. Long-distance trains in New Zealand are limited to scenic trips which are less regular now I’m back in winter. On arrival in Auckland, I make straight for the train station, arrive in the ticketing office five minutes after closing time as the day’s last customer and manage to book my onward train to Wellington for the following morning, the Saturday. After one full day in Wellington, it’s on to Christchurch and a trip over the Alps to Greymouth the next day. Had I been five minutes later, I’d have had to wait till the Tuesday to leave Auckland and the Friday to leave Wellington, giving me just a long weekend on the South Island.

After that, it’s time for a pint. For some reason, I get served a US pint in the local (not Irish) pub, and settle down to drink it at one of the snug-like tables set against the walls. Each table comes with its own 14″ TV screen at the wall end showing the same rugby game that’s being shown on the big screen as well. In a week and a half in New Zealand, I only see two pub tellies not showing rugby. Still, should help keep me sober anyway.

I head back to the hostel, where I’m sharing a room with a guy from Sweden who’s coming towards the end of his travel goal – to journey overland (partly) to the nearest patch of land to his antipode. He’s off the following day to catch a flight to Chatham Island (he’s actually a thousand miles out; there’s not much once you go south from New Zealand), having gone through the likes of Iran and Uzbekistan on the way down. It’s not too often I’ve been one-upped on this trip.

For my part, the following morning sees me on the Northern Explorer, a week-old train which replaced the previous Overlander route. It takes an hour off the old time – now taking 11 hours for the journey between Auckland and Wellington – though it manages this by closing half the stops on the route, and it’s also cut the number of trains per week from 7 down to 3. Progress, apparently.

Sean, the delightfully camp Kiwi who’s sat beside me, doesn’t agree with the changes. He doesn’t like flying, and when work brings him to Auckland, he takes the train – so much so that he’s on first name terms with the crew. He complains that he simply can’t get comfy in the new seats, even though the stewardess tells they cost N$2,500 (E1,500) each. As the train pulls out of Auckland, we chat away about everything from Megaupload founder Kim Dotcom – who was tracked to New Zealand and arrested by the FBI in January only for a New Zealand court to find the previous week that the warrants the FBI acted on were invalid – to Maori-language kindergartens, where you can send your little pre-schooler to learn to speak Maori, all considerably subsidised by the government. Maori seems to have a status akin to Irish – very few people actually speak it, but the tourist board in particular will trot it out quite regularly. Kia ora, for example, isn’t too orangey for crows here; it means “Hello”. Sean giggles away at anything and everything before, after an hour or so, declaring that he just can’t stand the seat any more and going to spend the rest of the journey in the dining car. It’s probably the right amount of time to spend beside him.

The other constant companion on the train is the tour guide. As most people are on the train for the trip rather than as a practical way to get to Wellington, we’re told over the PA about the history of every town and village that we pass through – mainly which wars the English fought here, or how they screwed the Maori over at this place, but also noting that the North Island was initially called New Ulster by the English (the South Island was New Munster and Stewart Island was New Leinster) and pointing out when we’re passing over the bridge which, on Christmas Eve 1953, collapsed under the weight of volcanic mud just minutes before the Wellington to Auckland train passed through, killing 151. Not exactly what I wanted to hear… This is all related by a man sitting in a small room off the dining car reading off a wad of notes; as he has to tell us himself, there’s a new automatic GPS-triggered commentary being introduced in the next few weeks, after which (he doesn’t tell us), he’ll probably be made redundant.

The North Island is a bit like Ireland –

– but towards the centre of the island, we’re reminded of where we are when passing by Ruapehu and Ngauruhoe, both well over 7,000 foot and yet seemingly rising from pastureland –

Ngauruhoe was used for Mount Doom in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and there’s plenty of other LotR sets around North Island. The one I’d like to have visited most is a farm outside the town of Matamata, where the houses in the Shire still stand and can be visited.

As with all the long-distance trains in New Zealand, one carriage is open-air, where you can enjoy the bracing cold, take in the view from either side and take photos without getting annoying reflections from the glass panes –

The only problem, of course, is that they’re usually full, so you’ve to fight for a space by the side. Also, with it being winter, it’s dark by 5pm, so it’s not much good for the last couple of hours into Wellington.

Cities in New Zealand can almost feel like a waste of time; I’ve not really come all this way to have a poke around Wellington. But I’ve a day to kill before the trip to Christchurch, so after the usual trip to the museum, I take the cable car up to the Botanic Gardens for the best view in the city –

– before heading off to Zealandia, a nature reserve for NZ-specific wildlife. New Zealand failed to produce any sort of natural predators, so its fauna evolved never having to worry about being eaten. When people arrived – and they arrived later here than to almost any other country – they started eating the local animals, who didn’t really expect to be eaten, as it had never happened before. The introduction of the likes of cats (by the Maori) and rats (by accident on European ships) meant more threats to the naive local animals. Many of the birds had forgotten how to fly, the place was so safe. The kakapo had no idea at all to be afraid of cats and nearly went instinct as a result. Today, about 100 kakapo survive on a kakapo-only island.

With natural survival skills like that, New Zealand’s native wildlife needs a bit of help, which is where Zealandia comes in. About one square mile of forest on the outskirts of Wellington, it’s a wildlife sanctuary entirely surrounded by a pest-proof fence to keep out everything from cats and stoats to rats and mice. My bag is checked on the way in to see if I’ve any foreign insects. Various paths run through the forest, and initially, all you can notice are some strange bird calls with no obvious source – a reminder of what New Zealand sounded like before the Maori arrived. There’s a couple of tui high in the branches of one tree. Signs note where tuatara have been seen in recent weeks. Farther along the trails though is a feeding station, where there’s plenty of kākā –

– bellbirds –

– and this one –

– which looks a bit like a robin but isn’t, as robins in New Zealand don’t have red breasts (and mayn’t even be robins).

Towards closing time, I stumble across one of New Zealand’s icons – a large, flightless, awkward-looking bird that really could only be found in New Zealand –

It’s a takahē (there are kiwis too, but they’re nocturnal). Once declared extinct, there’s now over 200 in the country, mainly in reserves. When startled, he’ll scurry away in a manner which would do John Cleese proud, but in fairness to it, it’s a foot and a half tall, weighs about 5 pounds, has a nasty-looking beak and eyes which indicate that it knows how to use it; he’s well worth staying clear of.

The next morning, it’s time to head on south, via the Interislander ferry to Picton, and the connecting train to Christchurch. The ferry is somewhat of a surprise – called the Kaitaki, it has its previous name, “Pride of Cherbourg”, painted out on its side. Before that, it was known as the Isle of Inisfree and sailed from Dublin to Holyhead. It’s hard to argue that sailing 60 miles across the Cook Strait and down the sounds that lead to Picton isn’t a slight improvement! It’s 8:15am when we pull out of Wellington – too early for local rugby in the bar, but fortunately, they’ve heard of Euro 2012 down here, and I manage to catch the last half-hour of the final (without ever working out that Italy are down to ten men).

There’s an hour to kill in Picton before the train departs, so I have a wander around the town, home to the only surviving convict ship, the Edwin Fox –

A museum tells of life on deck. Luggage restrictions were in place; a maximum of a quarter of a ton per person was allowed. Michael O’Leary might well laugh, but if you were on this ship, you likely weren’t going back to England any time soon, so all your possessions had to come with, including the kitchen furniture and the horse or cows. A register has been kept which lists the reasons why certain people were on board. Most are the usual – forgery, robbery, rape, court martial. Others could consider a life-time exile a little bit harsh – those whose crime was stealing socks, sacrilege, being habitually drunk or attempted abortion.

Next door to the ship is a Toyota Hiace –

It’s not just any Hiace though. In 2009, after watching the Top Gear crowd drive/sail across the Channel, a couple of Kiwis decided they could emulate that achievement, and set out to drive across the Cook Strait. They made it too – in this very Hiace – though at nearly ten hours, it’s not going to replace the Interislander any time soon.

From Picton, it’s south to Christchurch, along the Pacific coast for most of the way. We’re mainly passing through the Canterbury Plain, the largest expanse of flat land in New Zealand, but the view out the right offers a tantalising glimpse of the South Island –

– while on the left, we’re riding fairly close to the ocean –

Where there’s a verge on the road, colonies of seals can be seen flopped out trying to catch whatever bits of sun are going.

In Christchurch, I spend the night in jail before another day of travelling. The Addington Prison was converted into a hostel a few years back to make one of the more unusual places I’ve spent the night on the trip. One room has been left as it was so you can see what it was like for the inmates, while the rest of us get much more comfortable digs while retaining a fairly stereotypical jailhouse environment –

– although they have converted the showers into cubicles, so you can drop the soap all you want.

The last of the three long-distance train journeys left in New Zealand is by far the most spectacular; so much so that it still operates a daily return. From Christchurch to Greymouth involves going right across the Southern Alps, through Arthur’s Pass National Park and down to the Tasman Sea on the other side. As we leave Christchurch, the mist is so thick that you can barely see a hundred yards, which doesn’t bode well for the journey. Even as we approach the mountains, they’re still partly shrouded –

But the mountains are high enough to have their own weather patterns, and as we climb up, the clouds lift to allow perfect views across the plains and rivers –

The weather’s fairly changeable up here though, and we pass through the odd blizzard or two, while at Arthur’s Pass – altitude 2,400ft – I’m back walking in snow for the first time since Yekaterinburg –

As per usual, the train passengers start to chat away. One is Brian, a kiwi who had a four-year spell playing rugby for Shannon back in the early to mid 90s, a time which included an AIL win and a couple of seasons on the Munster panel.

In Greymouth, I had planned to get a bus down to Fiordland, but I’d admitted defeat on that plan the night before, instead booking the return trip back to Christchurch, which is what most people do anyway. And it does give a chance to get a couple of photos I’d missed on the way out –

On the return journey, we climb up through the Otira Tunnel, which sees us climb over 800 foot in 5 miles. Particularly on the way up the climb, diesel fumes build up in the tunnel, so not only is the observation car closed, the door to the tunnel itself is closed and extractor fans are turned on, not only to remove the fumes from the tunnel, but also to draw clean air through into the tunnel to ensure the train can keep working efficiently. Maximum efficiency is needed; in 2004, a train stalled in the tunnel and slipped all the way back down the incline.

Back in Christchurch, the jail is full for the night, so I’ve changed accommodation to a converted motel the other side of the city centre. Shortly after I get into bed, the room starts to shake, as if a giant hand is rocking me to sleep. This lasts for about 15 or 20 seconds before abating as quickly as it had started. I get up and head into the kitchen, where a spark from Wexford is sitting up, completely non-plussed. “Yep”, he says when I ask the obvious question. “Only a small one. 3.5, maybe 3.8. You don’t notice them after a while.” He’s pretty much spot on. It’s later confirmed as a 3.9, just one of the more than 10,000 magnitude 2.0+ quakes to have hit the region since the 7.1 in September 2010 (this is a seriously impressive map of what’s been happening). No-one died in that – partly because it was at 4:30am – but buildings were weakened so much that a 6.3 in February 2011 killed 185. Another 6.3 hit in June last year, a 6.0 hit in December and a 4.8 was recorded just two days after I left.

Christchurch does at least have regular bus connections, and after another full-day trip (which takes in the Clinton-Gore highway – just named after the two towns it connects, sadly), I end up in my ultimate destination, shivering in temperatures of -7 in the town of Te Anau, gateway to Fiordland. Te Anau, a small town situated on the shores of Lake Te Anau, is aimed almost entirely towards tourism. There’s a proposal to build a train tunnel from Queenstown directly through to Milford Sound, which has been the subject of protests in the town in recent weeks – officially the protests are about environmental damage, but anyone in town will confirm it’s because Te Anau would die if the train link was built.

Still, for now, the way to Milford Sound is by road from Te Anau, a three-hour long drive billed as one of the most scenic in the world. It almost didn’t happen; the road was initially built in the early 20th century by farmers living a few miles out of Te Anau who were frustrated that the local council deemed them not worthy of a road of their own to bring their supplies to market, so they built their own road. When, in the 1930s, the potential tourist draw of the area was being recognised, it was easiest to continue the road to Milford Sound along the path already started. The road took 20 years to build, and even now, the fatality rate is twice New Zealand’s average, even though the road is regularly closed so avalanches can be artificially set off.

As with the trip to Greymouth, the weather is grey and ominous when we leave Te Anau. The mountain tops are completely obscured by cloud, and even Mirror Lake isn’t able to live up to its name, except for its very clever sign –

Our driver warns us that sometimes the weather is bad out this way; that’s just the way of it. However, he sounds a note of optimism too, saying that it’s been similar in previous days, but once up in the mountains, the clouds clear entirely. Fortunately for us all, he’s proven absolutely right –

As we’ve a boat to catch, the driver points out the best of the scenery from the driver’s seat, promising we’ll stop off at everything on the way back. The boat takes us out along Milford Sound – which is a fiord, not a sound – to the Tasman Sea and all the way back again. Its fame stems from the fact that it is quite simply one of the most stunning places on earth. Douglas Adams described Fiordland as having “the sort of landscape that makes you want to burst into spontaneous applause”; Rudyard Kipling called Milford Sound the eighth wonder of the world. Yet the place was pretty much unknown until the road was finished in the 50s; the takahē was re-discovered here in 1948, 50 years after being declared extinct. Milford Sound itself was only discovered by accident; from the Tasman Sea, the folding rock acts as a camouflage, so it looked like more coast –

Only when a sailor from Milford Haven in Wales (hence the name) called John Grono was driven to the coast in a storm did the fiord reveal itself. Armed the knowledge that there was stuff out there to find, he discovered some of the other fiords that make up Fiordland before, as was the style at the time, having half the native wildlife shot to make fur coats –

Today is pretty much a perfect day for the cruise, but Milford Sound is one of the rare places which may be even more spectacular when it’s raining, as literally thousands of waterfalls are born, running down the walls of the fiord. As it is, there’s only two main ones today, one of which – Stirling Falls – fairly quickly puts the scale of the place into perspective –

The small white blob at the bottom left is a three-deck cruise ship going in for a closer look.

After an hour of open-mouthed cruising –

– it’s time to explore the road back to Te Anau. There’s a cliff along the side of the road which doesn’t see sunlight for up to four months; as it’s not long past the middle of winter when I visit, the icicles are going on three foot in length. They’re drinkable, as the water here is officially the world’s clearest, but you wouldn’t want to have one fall on you –

If we survive the icicles, there’s still the keas to beware of –

They’re quite unafraid of humans, possibly because they have a beak which has been known to inflict fatal wounds to sheep.

I do make it back to Te Anau safely, and head to the tramping (New Zealand speak for hiking) hire shop to get a torch. The plan for the next day is to take on the first day of the Kepler Track, a four-day circuit up Mount Luxmore, across the exposed saddle above tree level and back down the far side. The hike starts with a 1½ hour walk around Lake Te Anau before a 4½-hour climb up Mount Luxmore, so even starting out early, it’s still likely to be dark when I get back. In the hire shop, I admit that I plan on doing the hike in runners, and am looked at as if I have two heads. Twenty minutes later, I emerge with hiking socks, boots, show-shoes, sunglasses, snow poles and a booking for a boat across the lake to cut out the first hour and a half. And a torch. It ends up as the most expensive hike I’ve ever gone on.

From the lakeshore, the trailhead indicates that the peak is 3½-4½ hours away, but anyone I’ve spoken to says that’s nonsense; it’s no more than two hours. (I don’t quite know why the need to so openly lie about the time, but it takes me 2¼ hours). The trail heads through a wooded path up the mountain, and fairly soon, I enter the cloud cover which had been obscuring the hike from lake level –

Another few hundred feet up, and I’m above the clouds, albeit with the trees blocking the view for the most part, and I’m starting to hit snow and ice. It’s not that bad – ironically, the only reason I put on the snowshoes in the end is because the weight of the bag they’re in keeps knocking me off balance, which on ice (and with more dagger-like icicles overhead) is rather dangerous.

When I reach the summit, the cloud cover is beginning to clear, revealing the lake below it –

The clouds make it all feel slightly unwordly, and I hang around for a while before heading back down. On the return trip, I pass by 15 or 20 hikers on the way up, all of whom are staying the night on the summit before either returning back down or heading further on the next day. I wish I didn’t have to move on in the morning…

The last evening in Te Anau is spent in the Moose Bar. The back of the food menu explains the name – in the 20s, a herd of Canadian moose was brought in, given about ten years to settle and breed in the area and then shot to extinction by the late 60s. The things we do for fun…

The next morning, it’s off to Christchurch for the third time, this time with a day to explore the city. Or what’s left of it. The February 2011 quake caused many weakened high-rise buildings to collapse – over 100 perished in the collapse of the TV building alone. With 26 magnitude 5.0+ aftershocks over the past 18 months, it’s been practically impossible to rebuild, and the centre of town is now a ghost town, with some token building work going on –

Around town, many buildings have notices on the doors declaring whether or not they’re safe to enter. “Tired of waiting for EQC (Earthquake Commission)?”, reads one ad looking to tap into the presumably quite lucrative repairs market.

I head to the city museums in the Botanical Gardens; a map at the park entrance is covered in “Closed” stickers. Gardens Café – closed. Conservatories – closed. Nursery – closed. Curator’s house – closed. Canterbury Museum – closed. This last isn’t entirely true though, as the ground floor is open, with a display of some local Maori artifacts and an exhibition on the quake, including rescued rubble, footage of the quake (like this video) and the first tweet after the quake (which simply read “QUAKE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” – this is a trait which can’t be evolutionarily selected.)

At the centre of the city is the Cathedral –

Initial reports suggested as many as 22 had died when part of its structure collapsed, but it turned out no-one died there. However, the problem now is what to do with the building. The Anglican Church has come out and said it’ll cost far too much to restore, so the Cathedral is being demolished, with maybe a replacement to be built in its stead. Weekly protests have been held, and a Japanese firm who’ve said it’d cost $20m more to rebuild than to restore have been widely quoted. In a familiar twist, the Church have apparently refused to discuss their reasoning with anyone, or show anyone any documents relating to their decision.

After a stroll through the completely unaffected nature of the park –

– it’s time to head off to the pub for one last drink. Showing on the telly is live semi-pro netball – the minor semi-final of the ANZ Championship, featuring five teams from Australia and five from New Zealand. Waikato Bay of Plenty Magic host Adelaide Thunderbirds, a match which doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue. Netball is like basketball except you can’t run with the ball, which means plenty of quick passing until you get possession inside the semi-circle around the net, when everyone has to stand off and give the poor girl a proper chance of scoring. Waikato win 49-48, with their Goal Shooter scoring each of her 28 shots. It’s another awfully silly game, and yet the top players can take home $50k a year playing it.

New Zealand is about as far as it’s possible to get from Ireland, so the flight out of the country is the start of the trip home. Maybe it’s appropriate that, reading the paper in the airport, one of the big stories from home is making the news. Financial investigators have just left the country after searching for some of Seán Quinn’s millions, and are on their way to the tax-haven of Vanuatu. It’s a tough life for some.


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