Life's a beach

Life's a beach
Life's a beach

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 café 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

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