Life's a beach

Life's a beach
Life's a beach

Adelaide - hot, wet and a total bloody mystery

Central Market - a bright spot on a dull canvas

The decision to change our itinerary and visit Adelaide had been based on the recommendations of a number of friends and acquaintances. With hindsight I wish we had simply gone straight to Melbourne. Adelaide most definitely did not resonate for me and, I hesitate to contradict my friends (who normally have impeccable taste and common sense), left me wondering what all the fuss was about.

Thank heavens for coffee and cake to pass the time
Unencumbered by a great intellect I can often amuse myself with the smallest of things for long periods of time. (Perhaps I'd better re-phrase that. No, I'll let it stand, a little innuendo never hurt anyone. Crikey it's getting worse; you can tell I have nothing meaningful to write about our stay in Adelaide.) Just as well really, because that's pretty much all we did in the city. In fairness, for most of the time, it was either around 45c (which restricted us to air-conditioned rooms) or chucked down with rain, which kept us indoors as well.

View from Glenelg pier back towards the central
square with 'yours truly' wandering morosely
We had also chosen not to hire a car, so were limited to the CBD and wherever we could get to on public transport. This prevented us from exploring the wine regions around the city, of which there are many, unless we opted for an organised tour. It also meant we didn't get to any of the nearby seaside towns, other than Glenelg, which lay at one end of the city's only tram route. I'd like to say that the town redeemed Adelaide in some small measure, but I can't. The tram terminated in a small square on the Glenelg seafront; this well landscaped space was surrounded by down-market eateries bizarrely, the largest and the cleanest of which was McDonalds. 

We couldn't confirm, it never opened during our stay
We had an iced coffee, took a leisurely stroll along the beach, popped into a small maritime museum and toyed with the idea of lunch. Cowardice (or discretion) prevailed and we returned to the city for a late lunch of sushi in the Central Market.The market proved to be the one bright spot on an otherwise drearily blank canvas. Covered and kept cool by air con, the market catered for all culinary tastes, from the obvious to the obscure. Around 250 coffee shops, delicatessens, fruit & veg outlets and Asian street food stands jostled and competed for the attention of a remarkably laid back bunch of shoppers and tourists. Largely impervious to the heat and wet weather the market became our de facto haunt of choice.

Stuffed seal, courtesy of the Adelaide Museum
Towards the end of our week, and by now more than a little stir crazy, we hopped aboard one of the city's free circuit buses. It rained the entire time but we were still able to catch some interesting glimpses through the condensation-fogged windows. We found some elegant and well-heeled suburbs in North Adelaide, as well as an odd abundance of churches. The area also contained the Adelaide Oval, home to a different Aussie religion but one no less fervently followed. Back on the south side of town our bus wound its way around and through the CBD, revealing a clean and efficiently laid out city, before it deposited us back at our apartment.

Studded penguin, courtesy of the Adelaide Museum.
Well....what else do you do on a wet Wednesday afternoon?

On the eve of our departure, and probably knowing that we had an early flight the next day, Adelaide played its final practical joke and launched a 14 day fringe festival! In closing, and at the sharp end of a pointy finger from Fo, I'll concede that perhaps we didn't give Adelaide a fair chance to display its wares. Maybe we'll revisit one day, but don't hold your breath.

You can tell, Adelaide really fired my imagination.

Auckland – bustling, noisy and a great place to get tats

Jenny, Fo and Teri on the harbour front
On our return to Auckland we took an apartment right in the centre of the city. The intention had been to do all of those things that had seemed vital during our earlier visit but which we had been prevented from doing by illness. As it transpired, these seemed considerably less appealing on our return. My antipathy towards all things tourist (and to a lesser extent Fo's too) really had taken hold big time. We had seen and done such wonderful things on our journey around NZ that nothing seemed to remain other than rest.  Not that this was always easy in the lively city centre, which seemed to be in party mode 24/7.

View from the jump point atop the Sky Tower

Fo at least had arranged to meet up with Jenny from Hamilton and another school friend, Teri, who happened to live close to the city. She had a great day of school reminiscences while I took my iPod and The High Kings for a long walk along the harbour; a routine I repeated often during our stay, albeit with different music on each occasion.

To jump or not to jump.
She didn't look too happy to be there.
Throughout our stay in Auckland Fo was haunted and teased in equal measure by the spectre of the Sky Tower; at 328 metres it's the tallest man-made structure in NZ. There is an external platform (at 192 metres) that can be walked, tethered of course. There is also an opportunity to jump, also tethered thankfully. It's this that Fo had fixated upon ever since we had arrived in NZ. Everywhere we went in Auckland it was visible, unfortunately. This meant that, no sooner had she plucked up enough courage to go for it, she'd catch sight of it again and go weak at the knees. Despite this, and to her credit, she did finally get to within 10cms of the platform edge before bottling it; about 192 metres closer than I ever got. She looked hot in the jumpsuit too!

Fo's tattoo. Full of Maori symbolism. It's also got a
frog and a dragon if you look carefully.
Another personal dare WAS undertaken, and that was to get a tattoo. As I may have already mentioned, Fo had had a design put together by a Maori artist (Jason) in Whakawerawera (the Maori village in Rotorua) and was keen to give her existing frog tat some company.  After taking advice from the manager of our apartment block (whose father was "fully suited" apparently) we sourced two tattoo shops in city. In the first of these we were greeted by a wall of loud rap music and a tattoo 'artist' who was as high as a kite and who was not keen to follow someone else's design. 

Ray's Tattoos. I don't know what I was thinking really.
We about faced and headed for the other shop. I've got nothing against a guy getting high; I just didn't want him using my skin as a canvas while out of his skull. In fairness the rap music was equally unappealing. At the other shop, Fo was paired up with a lovely Japanese lady who was happy to copy Jason’s design without feeling that her artistic integrity was being compromised. I got paired with a Ron Perlman lookalike who, at first glance, seemed a bit menacing and not in the least bit artistic. However, other than a propensity to swear too much, he was great and created a wonderful whale fluke design for me, which he than spent 3.5 hours etching this into my skin. I can't say the process was fun but I don't regret a moment of it. I also think the finished tat is great too, though opinions are likely to vary. No matter, we're delighted with them and that's all that matters.

Nothing to do with Auckland, just one of Fo's best
memories of the South Island
For most of our last day in the city we simply ambled the waterfront, enjoyed the sunshine and stopped for a cold one whenever the mood took us. We lunched in a wharfside seafood restaurant and were entertained by a blessing ceremony that took place aboard one of the moored yachts. If we had had any rice at the conclusion of the ceremony we'd have thrown it, but we didn't and reasoned that they probably wouldn't have appreciated the remnants of our chips.

Also nothing to do with Auckalnd, just a great picture of
Fo being.........well Fo really.

After a little too much sun, and probably too much wine, we slept soundly. For the last few days in NZ we revisited Bruce and Julie in Albany. As ever they were warm and generous hosts and showed remarkable tolerance of the disruption we had brought into their home and life. You shouldn't have made us quite so welcome guys, you might see us again sooner than you think.

Ray's actual tattoo, with a little Maori symbolism too.

Our flight from Auckland back to Sydney had a melancholic feel to it. We were excited about the next leg of our trip to Adelaide and Melbourne but we were also sad to be leaving New Zealand. It had resonated at just the right frequency for us and in a way that few other places ever have. And I can’t believe that we ever thought that three weeks was long enough for a visit. We are already missing it, as well as friends old and new.

Rotorua to Auckland – rotten eggs, the Haka and hairy feet

Whakawerawera - not the most attractive back garden, and
smelly too

The journey to Rotorua (Second Lake) took longer than expected, inevitably. As I've said before NZ is picturesque but its roads can be deceptive. Most of the main highways are excellent but usually with only a single carriageway in each direction. Venture off these and you’ll twist and turn like a downhill skier. Estimated journey times are, therefore, best taken with a pinch of salt. We arrived in Rotorua late in the afternoon and, despite my earlier misgivings, my mood had lifted considerably.

Our guide; fierce but prone to bursting
into song

Rotovegas sits on a site of major geo-thermal activity with geysers, steam vents everywhere and an abundance of naturally occurring hot pools; all adjacent to a huge lake, now heavily polluted sadly, that filled when the Rotorua caldera was formed. These sites have been pulling in tourists for around 130 years and today many hotels, motels and B&Bs jostle for the best positions by the thermal pools and the lake.

Just letting off steam
The local Te Arewa Maori have sensibly secured their ancestral homelands against encroachment or takeover and offer some of the best tours to these sites. We chose to visit the Whakawerawera Thermal Living Village, which just happened to have the best view of the geysers. It also sat on a major thermal hotspot with many bubbling mud pools, boiling mineral springs and silica terraces. On first sight it seemed like an inhospitable and menacing place to live; clouds of steam hung everywhere and seeped from holes and cracks that seemed dangerously close to homes. 

A cultural group performs a haka, part challenge part greeting
At one point our guide persuaded the largest guy in our group to jump in the air. When he landed the ground vibrated under our feet. She then took great delight in pointing out that the crust where we were standing was probably no more than about 6 inches thick and that boiling mud or water lay in the hollow void underneath. Overlay this with all pervading whiff of rotten eggs and you'd be forgiven for thinking that you'd wandered into Dante's inferno.

No comment necessary
As we followed our guide around the village we soon learned that the Maori don't think this way all. It's true that many of the pools are dangerously hot, with surface temps of around 100c. It's also true that the area is prone to eruptions. However, there are many positives. The village has an inexhaustible supply of heat and hot water that's available 24/7. The Maori use it for bathing, for cooking and to earn livelihoods through tourism. The thermal hotspot also has spiritual significance for them.

Apologies, I couldn't keep her off the stage.
Once a drama queen........
After the tour we luckily coincided with a cultural performance, the highlight of which was a feisty Haka full of eye rolling, tongue flapping, thigh slapping and shouted Maori challenges - a bit like a PMQ session in the UK parliament really. It was very exciting and amusing, especially when the group leader got the audience on its feet to join in. The village also offered a 'hangi'. This is a traditional feast cooked in the hot pools and in underground ovens. This seemed OTT for lunch so we opted instead for corn on the cob, cooked in the pools of course, and covered in butter.

Hobbiton - a first glimpse

After lunch we ambled about the village, bought a couple of Maori carvings and then spent half an hour in the company of Jason, the village's resident tattoo designer and masseur. He gave the term 'laid back' a whole new perspective. Many hours later he provided a design for Fo's next tattoo. I won't spoil the surprise but frogs and dragons figure prominently.

She just never stops property hunting
In the afternoon we visited the Rotorua Museum, strangely housed in a mock-Tudor building in the Government Gardens. The main attraction here was a short film about the Mount Tarawera eruption in 1886 which killed over 150 people around Rotorua. As the eruption unfolded on the screen our seats bucked and shook in sync with the film. It was cleverly done and, judging by the occasional shriek from behind us, managed to rattle a few of our fellow viewers.

I know, I swore I wouldn't do this.
Its other main attraction, and one that I found better by far, was a very moving short film about the 3000 or so Maoris who served alongside the British Forces during WW2 (in their own battalion of course). They developed a fearsome reputation apparently and frequently found themselves used as shock troops in the thick of the action in North Africa and Italy. Considering the brutal land wars between the Maori and the Europeans (Pakeha) during the late 19th century I am amazed that any were involved in this conflict, especially as they were not subjected to conscription like other New Zealanders.

Once in, she was almost impossible to winkle out
Many of the young Maori men who went seemed to have quite simple reasons for doing so; to get a new pair of boots, to avoid the boredom of everyday rural life, to see some more of the world or, like Bilbo Baggins, go on a big adventure. In fact Maori leaders probably encouraged them to volunteer, believing that the Treaty of Waitangi, which conferred the rights of a British citizen on Maoris, also came with certain obligations to King and Country. As one Maori leader commented "We are of one house, and if our Pakeha brothers fall, we fall with them. How can we ever hold up our heads, when the struggle is over, to the question, ‘Where were you when New Zealand was at war?’ " OK, history lesson over.

Outside Bag End no less.
By late afternoon it was all we could to drag ourselves back to the motel for a hot soak in its natural thermal spa. We dined in on lamb chops and roasted kumara (sweet potato) before hitting the sack early for our trip to Hobbiton the following day. After a surprisingly relaxing early start, we arrived at Shires Rest, an LOTR themed cafe and ticket office on the outskirts of Matamata, in good time for our 10.00 tour of the film set of Hobbiton. The original site had been almost completely deconstructed following the filming of LOTR.

Off to the pub, which the Hobbits sited on the edge of
town, sensibly.

I found this a bit strange because Peter Jackson must have known he would go onto film The Hobbit eventually! Anyway, when it became time to rebuild Hobbiton for the second trilogy the owners of the land cannily asked the film-maker to make the construction permanent. Thus they inherited a little goldmine to which coach-loads of devoted tourists flock, us included, seemingly every 10 minutes.

In fairness our tour, led by the enthusiastic Christy, was very well done and it was delightful to watch the inane grin on Fo's face get wider with each Hobbit hole we passed. Of Hobbit holes Tolkien wrote "In a hole in the ground there lived a Hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell..." I hate to gainsay the venerable author but that's precisely what lay behind each door we opened in Hobbiton. If you haven't read the book or seen the film then Bag End will mean nothing to you. But I found it great fun, even if it was only a film set.

I could have included so many more pictures of our tour of Hobbiton but there only so much twee a man can stand. Anyway, from Hobbiton, we drove back to Hamilton to reconnect with the Northern Explorer train service and onto Auckland, our final destination in NZ.

It used to be this size but then he became a Hobbit.

Hamilton – old friends, glow-worms and tourist burn out

View down the Northern Explorer from the Viewing Car.

We left Wellington on the Northern Explorer, Kiwirail's flagship tourist train route that runs north to south through the North Island. We had had to be at the station for 7.20am and the hibernating grizzly travelling with me was her usual recently-roused self. Coffee helped immensely, as did the scenery. The carriages had huge panoramic windows allowing uninterrupted views and the seats had a headphone socket which provided an informative commentary on much that we saw. 

Train crossing viaduct - oddly, not vertigo inducing
Unfortunately the carriages also had a plentiful supply of noisy rugrats. Bizarrely this improved the grizzly's disposition but worsened mine. Not all were a nuisance. One young, capable German mother managed to keep her 6-month-old quiet and entertained for most of the 8.5 hour journey. This could not be said of the family responsible for three-year-old Wreck-it Ralph, who seemed incapable of stopping their charge from whinging incessantly. I don't understand why train services can't provide a separate carriage for families with young children! These people have chosen to take a noise hazard onto a long journey and they, and they alone, should live with the consequences.

Mount Ruapehu and friends, a lively trio
For much of the journey the train followed the valley of the Whakapapa River. As 'wh' is pronounced as 'f' you can understand why the name provided some mirth, even to the locals. (For clarification it's pronounced 'fuckapapa'). The route provided some spectacular scenery as it initially followed the Kapiti Coast up the west side of the island before climbing some 800 metres onto the central volcanic plateau. Some of the viaducts en route were spectacular, as was snow-capped Mount Ruapehu, one of three active volcanic peaks in the World heritage Tongariro National Park.

It may look like La La Land but it's far from freindly
We descended from the plateau around mid-afternoon via the Rarimu Spiral, a 6 kilometre winding section that loops down around 220 metres. At this point the landscape changed into a vista of rounded, rolling green hills that were somehow unreal; it felt like an invented place, a blend of Peter Jackson's Hobbiton and La La Land where the Telly Tubbies lived. Parents of a certain age will have no difficulty in visualising this. However, frequent signs of landslip were sinister reminders that this landscape was, and still is, most certainly not benign. 

Mount Ruapehu and friends again
The central part of the North Island sits on a huge, supervolcano caldera, centred on Lake Taupo. Supervolcanoes are huge upwellings of magma that are capable of blowing their stack and releasing sufficient energy and materials to create a planet-wide, extinction level event. The last major eruption from Taupo was 1800 years ago which ejected around 30 cubic kilometres of lava and wind blown material over a wide area. This made it the biggest volcanic event in the world in the last 5,000 years. More recently, in 1953, an eruption from Mt Ruapehu caused a mudslide which knocked out the rail bridge at Tangiwai causing three carriages of the Wellington-Auckland express to plunge into the Whangaehu River killing many passengers. Reassuring huh?

We arrived in Hamilton late afternoon and were met, unexpectedly, by Jenny, one of Fo's old school friends. We collected our hire car and followed Jenny back to her house for a chat and a most-welcome cuppa. We could have chatted for hours but we had to push on south to Otorohanga for our next overnight stop. Our motel for the night was well past its best and its only real virtue was its proximity to the Waitomo Caves. This is a large network of passages and caverns that time and water have carved into a limestone escarpment. Their main claim to fame, however, is glow worms and lots of them. 

We set off for the caves early the following day but, by the time we arrived, I had lost all appetite for another tourist experience. I think I had finally reached saturation point; simply unable or unwilling to play the tourist any longer. I dumped myself in a sunny spot, unearthed my iPod and left Fo to amuse herself in the cold, damp and dark caves. She enjoyed every moment of it but certainly got chilled by the 45 minute tour in 12c temperatures. What follows, excluding the final paragraph, is her commentary on the caves.

My boat ride into the glow-worm caves
Leaving Ray to enjoy a coffee and his ever-present iPod  I took the car about half a mile up the hill to a pretty spectacular construction that is the entrance to the caves. I think I was the only person travelling alone and was certainly one of the oldest. I knew my night vision was bad and, for the first ten minutes, I panicked a lot as I couldn’t see a thing unless the guide, a young Maori woman, shone her torch on it.  She eventually realised that I was struggling and took me under her wing. Thereafter I had a great time, unlike a Russian chap who incurred her wrath every time he tried to wander off.

We were taken into the Cathedral – a vast cavern full of stalactites and stalagmites (tites hold on tight to the ceiling and mites might reach it one day!). They resembled huge organ pipes and the chamber had fantastic acoustics. Indeed, Dame Kiri te Kanawa once did a concert down there and events are held regularly. It was all impressive but what fascinated me more was the fact that our guide’s parents AND grandparents had been married in there!

It's all photographic trickery, but amusing nonetheless.

From here we boarded a boat and drifted into the glow-worm caverns. All other light was extinguished, which revealed millions and millions of tiny pinpricks of light that could have stars. The effect was stunning. Even the grumbling Russian shut up. Once out into the daylight my official photo was waiting for me. I had been superimposed onto a glow-worm background. It was cleverly done but if I ever do get around to doing something brave and daring, will anyone believe me?

After the caves hot coffee was demanded before we set off for Rotorua, NZs premier tourist attraction. As we fired up the Sat Nav I realised that, for the first time in 4.5 months, I wasn't really looking forward to a new destination.

Wellington – Trolls, cable cars and a museum to end all museums

Wellington Harbour front
Our crossing of the Cook Straits was uneventful, if a little lumpy. The weather gradually deteriorated the closer we got to the North Island. Undeterred we checked into our apartment on The Terrace, a long road on the hillside above the city. This caused Fo some consternation (she hates hills) until the concierge pointed out a short cut to sea level via a lift (elevator) in a hotel opposite. It dropped 7 floors straight into Lambton Quay, the city's main shopping thoroughfare making somebody very happy.

Our first day was very lazy. I have a sense that I have repeated that last sentence a little too often of late. In my defence we'd been on the move for a few weeks and it was good to flop; indeed we slept until 10.30am on the first morning. We did manage to stagger to the local supermarket, but that really was as exciting as that day got.

The Kupe Group

The following day we explored Wellington's harbour front and were blown away by the architecture and the design of the public spaces. Maori carvings and sculpture was everywhere. The most prominent was an imposing bronze of the Kupe Group occupying pride of place on Taranaki Street Wharf. It features Kupe Raiatea, the great Maori explorer and discoverer of Wellington harbour, and his wife Te Aparangi among others. My favourite piece, though, was Solace in the Wind, a two-metre-high iron figure leaning forward into a cross-harbour gale with eyes closed and arms held back. Local topography means that the wind is funnelled through Wellington; most days it blows and, more often than not, it's fierce and cold, even on sunny days. On such days you need to be over two metres and have an iron constitution.

Maori Pa within the Te Papa Museum
Not far from here was the Te Papa Museum, the city's flagship museum. Its 6 floors of highly interactive exhibits were amazing. So much so that in 5 hours we managed to explore only two levels. My favourite section was Awesome Forces, an exhibit covering geology and plate tectonics. Its main attraction was a mocked-up house in which we experienced an earthquake. We loved the museum and, unusually for me, returned the following day to visit those sections we had missed. I had seen nothing like Te Papa before and could only assume that museums have moved on a lot since last I visited a major one.

The only thing better than one Fo is two.

As we left Te Papa, it occurred to me that it was almost entirely Maori-centric. Indeed, I realised that all of the museums I had visited in NZ were similarly biased. Perhaps it was coincidence but I did wonder at the lack of European (Pakeha) history. Admittedly, Maoris have probably been here for 800 years but modern NZ has been created by a fusion of many cultures, so it’s strange that this isn't reflected more in museums etc.

They like their garden gnomes big in NZ.
On another day we met up with Maureen, a friend that Fo had met at her regular writing group in the UK. She and her husband very kindly collected us from our apartment and took us to the WETA Cave. WETA is the digital and physical special effects company set up by Peter Jackson and a few other young film-makers around the time of Jackson's first major film, Heavenly Creatures. As part of the studio complex, the group has created the Cave. This was really nothing more than a retail outlet for replicas of movie props and other merchandise. However, it did have a small museum (standing room for 3 only) and a small theatrette running a short promotional film about WETA and some of its work. The highlight for me was three lifesize trolls on the lawn outside. 

The Roxy Cinema in Wellington.
From here we visited the Roxy Cinema, a wonderfully restored art deco theatre. The refit cost $6m and much of the work was done by WETA. If we had such a cinema back home I'd go every week. Sadly we weren't able to see a film but our hosts did treat us to lunch and took us on a long drive around the beautiful bays and headlands of Wellington harbour before returning via their lovely house for a well earned cuppa. We are hoping to meet up with them in March when our paths cross again, on that occasion in Melbourne, Australia.

View from top of cable car across Wellington.
Wellington has a working cable car that provides an easy and inexpensive route to the top of the hills behind the city. It was originally built to provide easier access to new residential suburbs on the outskirts of the city. These days it's largely a tourist attraction that provides a direct but sedate route to the botanical gardens, the observatory and the cable car museum at the top of the hill. We spent a leisurely two hours exploring all three before tucking into our packed lunch in a shady spot overlooking the city.

We had planned to do so much more in Wellington but, as usual, a lack of time defeated us. We'd found another place that we could have all too easily stayed at for a couple of months, not simply for four short days.

View across Wellington Harbour

Nelson – arty, dreary and dull but surrounded by beautiful mountains

Llamas on the beachfront in Kaikoura. Serious trampers
use them as carryalls.

For no reason, other than we didn't want to rush, we split our journey to Nelson at the top end of the South Island and stopped en route at Kaikoura. Our room for the night at the Sierra Beachfront Motel was spacious but spectacularly dismal; dark and furnished in the 1950s. As we were only staying one night we shrugged it off, helped immensely by a good bottle of Kiwi sauvignon blanc.

Wall art everywhere in Kaikoura and it's no fluke.
The town and surrounding area is renowned for its seafood, especially crayfish, and its marine life. Regular whale and dolphin watch tours depart from here by sea and air, though we tried neither. Instead we explored the town and visited a seal colony at the southern end of the town. The town centre and its seafront disappointed, a bit run down and lacking the charm that some neglected seaside towns manage to retain. Out of town the beachfront improved and had some great public art. 

It's a hard life being me.
The fur seal colony, however, was a great hit. There weren't many about, most were out at sea feeding, but those that were allowed us to get very close. Indeed, they seemed to be completely oblivious to us except when they rolled on their backs and offered their tummies for a scratch. We didn't approach. Safety protocols recommend staying at least 10 metres away as they can get very aggressive if cornered and will certainly bite. These ones, however, hadn’t been told that and sat so close to the footpath that Fo, short-sighted as ever, nearly trod on one!

How far does a Englishmen have to go
to avoid TV coverage of the Ashes
series in OZ?

None of the in-town eateries had appealed; nor had the squalid kitchen in our motel room so, instead, we opted to eat dinner at the Pier Hotel & Bar, some 2.5kms south of town. Overlooking the bay, it was stuffed with Kiwiana whaling and fishing artefacts, and the crayfish (lobster) was pretty good too.

One of the few pieces of art to grab
my attention in Nelson.
After a hasty cup of coffee the following morning we headed off, only to stop an hour later for a proper breakfast and yet more coffee at a cafĂ© in Blenheim. I may have already ranted about this but why call a coffee a 'flat white' then cover it in an inch of sickly milk froth?  Everywhere we've gone in NZ we've found great coffee but an inability to get to grips with the simple adjective 'flat'. Perhaps it's subconscious; most of the country is, after all, covered in towering mountains; answers on a postcard please. Anyway, fortified, we drove inland and onto Nelson through a series of beautiful valleys. 

Bone carving stage 1

We hadn’t been aware of climbing to any great altitude but we clearly had because, totally unexpectedly, the road fell off the side of a mountain in the Bryant Range before dropping down into Nelson. The drive down through dozens of hair-pin bends gave my vertigo another chance to sneak up and goose me. 

Bone carving stage 2
Nelson sits in the Tasman Bay on the edge of the Abel Tasman National Park. Bizarrely, and for reasons I have been unable to unearth, it is named in honour of Admiral Horatio Nelson and many of the roads and public areas were named after people and ships associated with him and his doings. For example, Trafalgar Street is the main shopping axis of the city. Nelson is regarded as the arty capital of NZ and, as you probably know, this tends not to get me overly excited. 

Bone carving stage 3
Nor did things improve when my usually reliable Lonely Planet for once let me down; its suggested top sights included Fibre Spectrum (a wool shop), South Street Gallery (a pottery shop), Flamedaisy (a glass shop) and Jens Hansen (a jewellery shop). Admittedly the latter was the same chap who designed and made the rings for LOTR. However, his 3 person, standing room only display space was heaving with Chinese and Japanese tourists with outsized camera lenses and no sense of personal space. 

Bone carving stage 4

All under-whelmed sadly. Nelson’s public gallery, Suter, managed to divert for an hour; largely due to the work of Graham Bennett, a Nelson-born sculptor whose exhibition included works that depicted instruments used to navigate and measure land and sea. It was so good I actually had a look at a price list!

Bone carving final piece
Lonely Planet redeemed itself with our final activity, a full day bone carving course in which we got to design and create our own pendants. Fo’s frog looks more like a lizard and my Maori inspired whale tail & fish hook ensemble turned out rough to say the least, but we’re both immensely proud of our efforts and wear them all of the time. I sense a new hobby in the making on our return to the UKNelson's other memorable experience was my first earthquake, well a distant tremor anyway. I thought I'd had too much Speights Ale when my armchair started to shake from side to side but when Fo said that her chair was shaking too we realised that it was a quake. The epicentre was actually NW of Wellington on the North Island, some 150 miles distant and the magnitude 6.2 earthquake led to rockfalls, power cuts and building damage across a wide area.

Fo's frog
On our final morning on the South Island we drove back up the same mountain we had descended a few days earlier, vertigo in check this time, and drove to Picton where we finally parted company with our rental Toyota Camry. It had been comfortable but a bit sluggish, despite a 2.5 litre engine; one to cross off our new car list when we return to the UK. We caught the afternoon Interislander ferry to Wellington, which took over an hour to traverse the magnificent Queen Charlotte Sound before reaching the open sea. It was a wonderful way to start our North Island adventure.

Picton Ferry
Queen Charlotte Sound from the Picton Ferry