New Zealand - A Homily to Homestays
THE NORTH ISLAND
Agapanthus grew everywhere like giant blue weeds which perfectly matched the cloudless sky. We had been in New Zealand for 24 hours, having landed in Auckland, where we'd caught up on some much needed sleep after a long flight from the UK. Sebel Suites, in the centre of the city, were functional but uninspiring. Our dark room had brown curtains, a brown carpet, brown upholstery and looked straight onto a multi-storey car park. I was too exhausted to be disappointed.
Try as I may, I couldn't keep my eyes open beyond 6pm and fell into a dreamless sleep. After what seemed like minutes, I woke with a start at 2am, wishing I'd tried harder. Maybe if I'd drunk coffee and paced the floor instead of laying on the bed I would not have been so jet lagged. Peter and I were the first to enter a quayside coffee shop at 7am, ravenous as we'd skipped dinner the previous night. The 24-hour flight had played havoc with our body clocks.
It felt warm and balmy, even at such an early hour. I tucked into my bacon and waffles with maple syrup and tried to feel less like the walking dead. There was a full itinerary ahead. That morning we would be on our way to Hot Water Beach on the Coromandel Peninsula. It was here that we would be checking into our first homestay.
Homestays offer a unique form of accommodation. We would be travelling throughout New Zealand for 6 weeks staying in peoples' homes. I was looking forward to it, as I had heard only good reports about the Kiwi hospitality.
First of all Peter had arranged to pick up a rental car. He set off at 9am, leaving me to pack the few things that we had taken out of our overnight bags. This took me about five minutes and so I put on the television to pass the time. We had to check out of the hotel at 11 o'clock and, at 10.55am there was no sign of my walkabout husband. I tried in vain to stem my over active imagination. What if he'd been mugged, taken ill, got total amnesia and forgotten that he had a wife? I phoned reception and asked for a porter to help me down to the lobby with our five bags. Within minutes this was accomplished and, at this stage, Peter decided to stroll in, oblivious of my concern.
"Where have you been, I've been worried?"
"Oh, just looking around for somewhere to buy a map," he replied with an air of nonchalance.
After what seemed like a military exercise, and with much huffing and puffing, we managed to get all our baggage into the boot of the hire car. In high spirits we set off for Coromandel and immediately got lost in downtown Auckland. Tempers were fraying slightly, after all we had been awake for ten hours by now, but we eventually managed to get onto the right road. We should have checked the map.
In my befuddled state, I did not remember much of Auckland that day. However the Sky Tower was an exception. Aptly named, this tall edifice literally towered above all the other buildings. We planned a visit to the Orbit restaurant, which was perched on the top of the Sky Tower on our last day in New Zealand.
Once out of the city we were struck by the unique landscape of the island. Having watched the popular films based on The Lord of the Rings, the unusually mounded hills reminded us of Hobbit Land. The scenery soon changed as we reached the Coromandel Peninsula. Beautiful, unspoiled beaches, palm trees and tropical flowers abounded. It was hard to imagine that this country actually had a winter. We could have been mistaken for being in the tropics with such lush scenery washing over our senses. At last we had arrived at our first homestay and were not to be disappointed.
Hot Water Beach
It was exciting to approach our first Kiwi homestay. We had found it on the Internet and downloaded some pictures but they did not do justice to the beautiful home, perched on a hill overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Our hosts, Gail and Trevor, welcomed us like long lost friends and showed us to a tastefully decorated room that had its own deck overlooking Hot Water Beach. Gail explained that the beach was called by this name because of thermal activity under the sand.
That evening we enjoyed a delicious meal that was served on the large deck leading off the living room and which overlooked the sea. We feasted on barbecued fish and roasted vegetables. The wine was a crisp Chardonnay. New Zealanders are proud of their white wines, and rightly so. They are excellent.
We sat outside, trying to keep awake even though it was only seven in the evening. The arduous flight from the UK had taken its toll and the jet lag was hanging over us like an opium mist. It was intriguing to watch people digging up the sand on the beach below and wallowing in the glorious mud; nature's free spa treatment.
As we were not yet acclimatised to the heat wave that had assaulted us upon our arrival the day before, we decided to give the hot mud treatment a miss. We were in another world. It seemed hard to believe that it was snowing when we left England.
We were woken early the next morning by a Bellbird making a strange piping sound outside our window. He heralded in another hot, sunny day.
On the breakfast bar in the open plan kitchen a wide variety of fresh fruits, cereals, yogurts and breads were presented. There was even an array of homemade jam and marmalade served in pretty pots. Gail was brewing fresh coffee, her bobbed hair immaculate at this early hour. Helping ourselves to some fruit we wandered outside where freshly squeezed fruit juice was waiting on the table. We were the only guests, a common occurrence in home stays and were treated like royalty.
"G'day. How would you like your eggs?" Trevor appeared wearing a large, manly apron.
"An omelette please"
"And a little bacon on the side?" he asked.
It was hard to resist.
Our cooked breakfasts soon appeared, garnished with herbs from the immaculate garden. We were to find out that this type of fresh food was to be the norm in these Kiwi bed and breakfasts; a far cry from many of the English counterparts with their greasy fry-ups.
Fortified, we headed out on quiet, bumpy roads to do a spot of exploring. Coromandel town seemed stuck in a very pleasant time warp. It was typical of many of New Zealand's towns, consisting of a main road with single storey shops. Parking was free and easy - just choose your spot. Something about the place reminded me of the one-horse towns in cowboy films. Was that John Wayne riding in on his trusty steed or was I just jet lagged? We wandered into a grocery store to buy some bananas. How pleasant that people knew each other and had time for a chat. It reminded me of the days I went shopping with my mother when I was a small child in the far off late fifties.
Next stop was to be the Driving Creek Railway, brainchild of engineer, Barry Bricknell. This amazing achievement took over twenty years to build and is still being extended. The railroad meanders up into the bush land where lush, tropical plants flourish in abundance. The little train was packed with tourists as well as locals as this was the last week of the long Christmas holiday.
Thurch Church restaurant in Hahei served us a delicious meal that evening. I had chicken stuffed with coriander in a hazelnut sauce. The restaurant was quiet and the decor very attractive as the original features of the quaint little church had been preserved. We sat in the conservatory with its triffid-like plants and savoured our first dinner in a New Zealand restaurant. Afterwards we drove a little down the road to Cathedral Cove where the rock formations formed an impressive arch on the beach. We stood mesmerized as the sun sank and disappeared behind the sea.
The next morning we shared breakfast with a young English couple and their baby who had, like us, just arrived. This was another first, sharing breakfast at a communal table with strangers. We met some interesting company and looked forward to each new day, wondering who would be tucking into a home cooked breakfast and sharing travel stories with us.
Before dragging ourselves away we had a walk on the empty beach before heading off to our next homestay. We soon found out that when New Zealanders go abroad it is not for the beaches. If a beach has more than six people on it then it is considered crowded.
What a Performance!
It seems that Ariki Lodge had a bit of a history. The previous owner was a businessman who, for reasons we never found out, had installed bulletproof glass at every window. This, in a country where people don't lock the doors of houses or even cars, seemed a tad over cautious. We slept well that night in the fortress-like conditions of the lodge.
Breakfast was delicious and we shared the large dining table with an English and an American couple. Hearing about the excellent airport hotel in Singapore we wished that we had broken our journey. Next time maybe. Both the men in the group wore socks with their sandals and had grey beards. The women beige slacks and white blouses. Was this a strange coincidence or was this look de rigour amongst the tourists?
Roturua was close by and we planned a trip that day. It is a favourite settlement for the Maori as we found out when we visited the tourist village of Whakarewarewa. They liked to settle near the hot geysers and made use of the natural heat to cook their food by burying it in the ground and then leaving it until ready.
The Maori people arrived in New Zealand from Polynesia in long boats called wakataua, ostensibly a long time ago and certainly well before any white settlers. However, as the Maori had no written language the exact time is uncertain. This is one reason why their artwork is so important to them as each piece tells a story. Their carvings are intricate and distinctive and are similar to the designs of the tattoos that at one time covered the whole of their faces and bodies.
We, together with a gaggle of other tourists, experienced the haka or welcome dance. Anyone who follows rugby will have seen a form of this intimidating ritual performed by the famous team, the All Blacks. After a long performance with accompanying grunts, bulging eyes and displaying of tongues, we were considered 'friendly' we were invited into their wharemui or meetinghouse. We walked across the marae, a type of village green, before solemnly entering the wharemui. There are around 1,050 marae in New Zealand and are an important part of the Maori community. Non-Maori folk are not allowed in, except by invitation. We respectfully took our seats inside the community hall before being treated to a typical song and dance routine. Although the show was put on for tourists the performers seemed to enjoy what they were doing. It reminded me of a similar show that we had seen in Hawaii. Not surprising really as both peoples are originally Polynesian.
Next we visited an arts and crafts centre where local people were working on their woodcarving. There we purchased some pretty paua shell jewelry, the mother of pearl turquoise that is a glorious, iridescent colour.
The shy Kiwi bird, only native to New Zealand, was a bit of a let down. As it is a nocturnal bird we could only view it in a birdhouse in the semi-gloom. This non-flying, drab brown bird was hiding under some foliage in its cage as tourists strained their eyes to decipher it. At least we could say that we'd seen it.
Within the same Maori village we were treated to an amazing show which nature put on for us. The hot geysers were quite a sight as they spouted enormous fountains of steaming water with alarming force and regularity.
That evening we enjoyed an excellent meal at the Woolie Bugger restaurant. Peter loved the name as it is called after a particular type of fly used for fishing. The owner was a jolly New Zealander married to an Indonesian lady, who turned out to be an excellent chef. We dined on Gado Gado salad with peanut sauce followed by delicious satay and then black rice pudding. These exotic dishes took us back in time to Hong Kong where we often frequented an Indonesian restaurant in Causeway Bay. It was a hot night and I was pleased to sit by an open window. We could have been in the tropics such was the heat. Local people told us that this weather was unusual.
Just as I was finishing the rice pudding I felt a sharp pain in my ankle. As it was only momentary I thought nothing of it until we started to walk back to our homestay. My ankle looked bruised and swollen. I wondered if it was because of all the walking that we'd done that day. However, when I looked closer I noticed some small puncture marks on my ankle. That night I felt a familiar itching on different parts of my body. Mosquito bites so nothing to worry about. Or so I thought at the time.
Over breakfast the next morning I asked our host if he'd seen mosquito bites turn black. My ankle was now an interesting shade of indigo. He looked puzzled and said that he had not. I tried not to worry about it.
En route to our next destination we called into Waiotapu, another thermal area. It was as if we'd landed on another planet. As well as vigorous geysers we viewed large expanses of coloured earth. Bright yellow and orange here, turquoise there - it was as surreal as if we'd found ourselves on an artist's palette. Pink smoke emanated from one particular source, giving the whole atmosphere a dream like quality.
Apparently chemical deposits explain this strange phenomenon. The orange colour is due to antimony oxide, the green to lime, and the yellow to sulfur, which explained the odour of rotten eggs that pervaded the atmosphere. We passed a witch's cauldron of thick grey, bubbling mud, also due to the sulfur content.
We returned to the tranquility of our homestay, the smell of sulphur still in our nostrils.
Next stop - Napier.
Our next port of call was Napier, the Art Deco town, situated on the East coast of the Northern Island. The sky looked threatening and, as we drove into the town, it started to drizzle. Captain James Cook was the first European to arrive here, having sailed down the coast in 1769. I wondered if he had been greeted by inclement weather in an area that boasts one of the highest areas of sunshine in New Zealand.
We had hoped to lodge in one of the 1930's style homestays but they were fully booked. Instead we stayed in a rather characterless motel in the modern outskirts of the town. We could have been anywhere in the world. The room's orange colour scheme jarred, as did the traffic, which zoomed by and kept us awake most of the night. This was not what we had expected. The next day the rain was still insistent but, undaunted, we took lots of photos of the amazing architecture.
The town had been destroyed by an earthquake, which killed 256 people, in 1931 and was rebuilt in the distinctive Art Deco style, similar to that of Miami Beach.
The buildings were beautiful, even in the grey downpour. The sharp angles and brightly painted relief work were displayed on every building. The experience there was surreal as if being in a Bonny and Clyde film set. I wouldn't have been surprised to see some gun-toting gangsters wearing trilbys emerge from one of the buildings. Still my ankle throbbed as if I had received a bullet and I promised myself that I would visit a doctor if the swelling had not disappeared within a few days.
In spite of my discomfort I took a stroll down Marine Parade, a tree lined ocean boulevard resplendent with fountains and gardens. We expect rain to mar our seaside trips in England but, for some reason, feel cheated when the same thing happens abroad.
Such was my disappointment that we were unable to stay in a proper Art Deco house that, for the first time during our stay in New Zealand, we had a row.
"If you would just book into these homestays in advance instead of leaving it until the last minute we wouldn't have had to endure that ghastly motel"
"Why do you have to be so organized, just relax" Peter snapped back at me. Our nerves were frayed after lack of sleep and a tasteless breakfast served on plastic plates in our room. Having taken the marriage vow to love, honour and obey - I obeyed and fell asleep as my dearly beloved drove in heavy silence.
The sun was still elusive as we made our way to Martinborough, but feeling refreshed, I got out of the car to survey a delightful wooden house. Our next homestay beckoned us.
As we drove between vineyards, the sun broke through, chasing away any remaining clouds. The homestay in Martinborough was perfect - a tiny wooden colonial looking house, painted cream and in a quiet road. Thank goodness we had not taken a package holiday, which included motel accommodation. Our host brought a tray of tea and biscuits to our room, which had its own balcony that overlooked a lush garden. We could have been back in Mauritius, minus the lizards and cockroaches. There were Persian rugs thrown onto polished wooden floors and snowy white cotton bed linen on the comfortable bed.
After showering, changing and refreshing my makeup, I strolled out to join Peter. We had planned to have dinner in a nearby restaurant.
I must have looked a wreck when we arrived, as our host exclaimed when he saw me, "My goodness, you scrub up well!"
We dined in a chic restaurant called Este, just walking distance from the homestay. The kingfish with anise mousse was excellent and cooked to perfection. There was a delectable pudding on the menu, all types of chocolate desserts in miniature. We ordered two, then were told that they had run out. Disappointed, I asked if they had one left. They did. We ordered this and two spoons. There was enough for two and consisted of a delicious tart, mousse, white chocolate ice cream and truffles. It was very naughty, but so nice.
I noticed that I was the only person there who had bothered to dress up. Everywhere we ate people wore very casual clothes - sometimes even shorts and flips flops. New Zealand is a back packers' paradise.
Martinborough had only a few shops but each one looked tasteful, from the delicatessen to the interior design shop.
After a peaceful night's sleep, we had a beautifully prepared breakfast. We were the only guests and chatted to our host, who seemed pre-occupied, as he had to go out shortly.
"Bye. Glad you enjoyed your stay. Just let yourselves out when you are ready. No rush".
With this he prepared to leave, giving us the run of his house.
"We haven't paid you!" Peter said.
"Oh, I forgot." Our host chuckled.
Such is the casual nature of the homestay host.
Apart from the city areas, Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch, the roads are virtually empty. This was such a welcome break after travelling on English and Spanish roads. The notorious N340 on the Costa del Sol is like a racetrack, so this holiday was very relaxing, in spite of a heavy itinerary. There's a 60mph speed limit out of the towns, which is frustrating on such empty roads. Later we were to discover that the speed cops are vigilant to the point of being manic.
On our way to Wellington, we took a detour along the coastline and admired the seals, basking in the sun. They reminded me of old men with gout and stared at us lazily, without moving. The scenery here was different again, rugged and austere with a hint of Scotland. Cape Pallister lighthouse, cheerfully painted red and white, was perched precariously on a hilltop. Peter decided to walk off some of his breakfast and took the 258 steps to get a closer view.
On his way down he passed a couple, who had been sitting next to us in Este the night before, which was a bit of a coincidence. They greeted us self consciously, averting their eyes as the English do.
Just before entering the capital city we took a break. On my way out of the toilet I bumped into the same couple that we'd seen at the lighthouse. He was wearing socks with his sandals, brief shorts and sported a grey beard. Soon we were to discover that this look was de rigueur amongst the British tourists who roamed New Zealand.
"Maybe I should grow a beard." Peter looked at me with a twinkle in his eye.
"No way. You'll be wearing socks with sandals next and then I shall have to pretend that I'm not with you." I replied.
I was not joking.
Windy Wellington is the political centre of New Zealand but somehow it maintains a quaint, relaxed atmosphere, in spite of a population of around half a million. New Zealand cities are more like boutique towns. Everything is on a smaller, more manageable scale than in Europe and, best of all, nobody seems to be in a frantic hurry.
The famous Te Papa museum beckoned us but, as time was limited, we promised ourselves a visit on our return from the South Island back to the North in a few weeks.
Our immaculate homestay was owned by a German lady, which she ran in typically efficient Teutonic style. The large 1940's house was well decorated, spotlessly clean and we were pleased with our pleasant room and modern bathroom. There was an annex at the bottom of the garden, which looked inviting, as it had the appearance of a wooden doll's house. Unfortunately someone else had booked in before us - next time maybe. Our hostess did not offer dinner at her establishment but recommended a nearby restaurant, and so we decided to give it a try.
We dined on venison that was served by an eccentric young waiter with a black ponytail who insisted on making references to Bambi. I asked him if he was a vegetarian but laughingly he assured me he was not. I struggled to remove images of everyone's favourite deer as I chomped away at the meat. After the meal, we had a stroll and peeped into shop windows displaying artistic, up market wares. A stone's throw away was the President's house; an imposing residence in large grounds, but it could have belonged to anyone, as there were no guards outside.
On our return to our lodging, our hostess assured me that the crossing to the South Island the following morning would probably be smooth, but offered me a seasickness tablet if the weather changed. I went to bed that night slightly apprehensive. At 2am I awakened with a start. The furniture was shaking. I woke Peter in distress but he just took stock of the situation and said matter of factly, "It's just an earthquake."
With that he turned over and went back to sleep! He'd had a similar reaction to a small earthquake that we experienced in Cheltenham. Peter has acquired the art of understatement.
Not a good sailor, I picked at the beautifully prepared breakfast the following morning, as I had been told that it could be a choppy crossing. Having spent a miserable thirty hours sailing from Plymouth to Santander, I vowed never to take another sea crossing again. We had ventured around the Bay of Biscay in a severe storm. At one point the curtains in our cabin stood out parallel to the floor, such was the velocity of the gale. Peter went to the ship's restaurant and enjoyed a meal with about two other diners who also had good sea legs. It was too dangerous to dock and so we just sailed out to sea and waited until the storm passed. When we eventually docked, terra firma had never felt so good.
To kill time whilst waiting for our New Zealand crossing, we drove around the western peninsular, marvelling at the tranquility of the beaches such a short distance from the city centre. We passed a film crew and were told that it was the same one that shot Lord of the Rings. We were told later that they were filming Gondzilla, but I did not manage to spot any giant monsters.
The crossing to Pickton, South Island was a breeze. After the shock of the earthquake, I wasn't in the mood for bracing winds. A gentle mist around Queen Charlotte Sound added to its mysterious beauty.
Our next homestay was to be with a dog loving Englishman. It proved to be unusual experience, and the only really poor homestay at which we stopped during the entire six-week trip.
The Hounds of Mahau Sound
A shroud of gentle mist slowly emerged like an apparition, giving an ethereal feel to the scenery, as we drove from the ferry terminal in Pickton, to Queen Charlotte Sound. We had reached the South Island of New Zealand intact and I did not need a seasickness tablet after all.
The foliage was rampant and the views across the bay enthralling. We had booked a homestay with its own private beach and were anticipating another marvellous visit. There was no reason to expect otherwise. Mistake!
Feeling strangely apprehensive, we negotiated an overgrown driveway in a deserted part of Mahau Sound. I was struggling to shut the broken gate, when our host sauntered out to greet us. He was followed by three dogs, which lunged at me, barking wildly. We attempted, with some difficulty, to shake hands with Malcolm, our host, while fighting off the hounds. Was it my imagination, was Malcolm swaying slightly, or perhaps I just needed to regain my sea legs after the ferry crossing?
A sour odour of stale whisky emanated from Malcolm as he introduced us to the dogs. We were then instructed how to treat these delightful creatures and it was explained that only dog lovers were allowed to stay. Assuring him that we indeed loved all canines, we were ushered into the tired looking timber house with its peeling paint and mismatched furniture.
Eventually, after more dubious instructions on the care of dogs, we were taken to our room, which was basic but fairly clean. I glanced up at the mantelpiece and was startled by a row of glassy eyes. About twenty teddy bears were perched on the shelf and their eyes seemed to follow me around the room. Hungry and tired, as I'd been woken the night before by the earthquake in Wellington, I stopped my imagination in its tracks. It has always been vivid at the best of times. I unpacked before joining our host for a pre-dinner drink.
Malcolm was an immigrant from England and was to be our only British host during our six-week stay in New Zealand. He cooked for us, his only guests, a delicious dinner of venison, which took five hours to get through. The wine flowed and Malcolm waxed lyrical - about his dogs initially but then about his interest in the occult. The more he drank the quicker he spoke, leaving us no room to comment. We gave up after a while and just let him continue full flow. The lights were dim, we were in a very remote area and the house was spooky. Denis Wheatly books adorned the shelves. Large knives were on display in the open plan kitchen and then there were those teddies with the strange eyes...
After asking us five times if we'd like some Manuka honey ice cream, eventually we were served some. Although by this time, I wished I'd declined two hours previously and just gone to bed. Throughout the meal, satellite TV blared out and Malcolm bobbed up and down at least a dozen times to let his weak-bladdered dogs into the garden. Each time this happened he repeated the command, "You may go," accompanied by an exaggerated flourish of the hand.
It had been a long day. When the dessert eventually materialized it was delicious. As I was savouring the unusual taste of the Tea Tree honey ice cream the biggest dog, a Newfoundland the size of a small pony, started to drool on the tablecloth just next to my plate.
"It's all right, my darling, you shall have some. You beautiful girl," cooed Malcolm.
No, he was not addressing me, but his beloved dog without any table manners. Every so often he would bend his grey head down from the table to kiss the top of the dogs' heads. At one point, to my amazement, he got up from the table, lifted one of the Springer Spaniel's tails and kissed its bottom. The appeal of the ice cream melted away at that moment.
Malcolm's conversation was continually peppered with compliments to the various dogs, such as, "Musetta, you gorgeous girl, you're the love of my life."
Stunned, we staggered to bed well past midnight, after struggling to shut the reluctant dining room door, which objected with loud groans. This was a trigger for the dogs to start barking uncontrollably again as if at some unseen phantom. Remembering the supernatural stories that had been recounted over dinner, I felt nervous and wondered if there was a way of securing our door. Homestays do not have locks on the bedroom doors and so, trying to ignore the row of glassy eyes on the mantelpiece, I flopped into bed for a restless night's sleep. This, in spite of the fact that I'd superstitiously placed my bible, like a talisman, on the bedside table.
The next morning dawned grey and drizzly. It was like an omen. We had planned on spending the day on Malcolm's private beach. This had been the main draw and one of the reasons that we wanted to stay in this particular guesthouse. It had been featured in the Homestay Book and looked irresistible. Malcolm's garden overlooked the sea and the beach was just yards away. But it proved to be so near, but so far away. Not only was the weather inclement but also it seemed that the beach was inaccessible. Our host, sporting a skimpy bathrobe, prepared our huge, cooked breakfast. Throughout the preparation of the meal, he had unselfconsciously adjusted his nether regions, whilst giving a running commentary about the forbidden beach. Malcolm explained over breakfast, while competing with the television, which was on full volume, that he did not like the dogs going to the beach and so had let the foliage take over. We were told in no uncertain terms that we must not attempt to visit the beach in case one of the dogs should follow us. This was the last straw. Malcolm should have been running a kennels not a homestay.
We decided that it was damage limitation time. Feeling slightly jaded after much driving and only one night in each new place, Peter had booked three nights at this homestay, but he made an excuse and reduced the time to two nights. This information was greeted with a frosty glare and we were served pasta that night and no wine - at least not for us.
Although we hadn't planned it, we went to Nelson that day. It felt safer somehow. The sun shone bright and clear and we enjoyed strolling around this lovely little town with its Art Deco cathedral. Another bonus was that a string quartet was practicing in the cathedral for a concert that night and so we had a free preview.
Upon our return to Mahau Sound at around 5 o'clock, I glanced through the window to see Malcolm swigging from a whisky bottle, which he promptly hid away when he heard us. The dogs went wild when they saw us and the younger of the two Springer Spaniels leapt up at me, scratching my arms and bruising my legs. Malcolm abruptly informed me that he did not believe in saying, "No," to a dog. This is after I'd said, "No," sharply to the offending hound. Instead, I should have just turned my back on the creature and it would have got the message. If only I'd known.
Dinner didn't take so long on our second night, in spite of the canine toilet ritual. After enduring another monologue about his dogs, we made our excuses and went to bed. But first came the battle with the heavy dining room door once again, which fought back, and trying to ignore the ensuing barking that this invoked, we made it to the refuge of the bedroom.
Realising that we were not going to be part of a Stephen King type horror scenario, but that Malcolm was just a lonely, harmless drunk who was besotted with his dogs, we slept soundly.
The next morning, after perusing the Homestay Book, we decided to stay at Willow Lodge, a 1930's style house, near the centre of Christchurch. Malcolm kindly agreed to book us in and assured us that he would phone the owner.
"It's all part of the service," he said with a smile.
Maybe he was not such a bad chap, after all.
Christchurch Part 1
Before I begin this story about Christchurch, I must explain that we took the visit just before the disastrous earthquake that struck the city on 22nd February 2011.
On our arrival at Christchurch, we were pleased to find that our homestay was an attractive 1930's style house, perched on the banks of the River Dee that runs through the city. Willow Lodge had a flower filled front garden and pretty stained glass windows. It was good to be back in civilization after the previous remote homestay and the house looked cheerful and welcoming.
Grania, our hostess, was quite a character. Tall and slim with wild, curly hair, she seemed to have limitless energy and enthusiasm. She needed it as she ran the homestay on her own.
"G'day. You're booked in for one night, right?" she greeted us, lifting our heavy suitcase as if it was made of polystyrene.
"Er, no. We booked through Malcolm, our last homestay host in Mahau Sound, for three nights with you." I was beginning to wonder if this was deliberate, after all he was an unusual character. Maybe it was revenge as we had cancelled our last night with him.
Unfazed, Grania sorted everything out. She had some Americans booked in the following night who had specifically requested our room. We had an early start the following day, and so Grania said she'd move our things into a much smaller and more basic room after we had left. However, the night after that she was fully booked. We needed to find somewhere else to stay as we had planned a full itinerary.
Scanning the Homestay Book, we found one round the corner that had just opened. It was in a converted warehouse and sounded interesting and so, after dinner, we strolled round to look at it. The room was gorgeous. It reminded me of the Mandarin Hotel in Hong Kong but at a tenth of the price. The furnishing and pictures were oriental in style and every luxury was catered for. There was even a cut glass decanter and glasses on the antique dresser.
By contrast, on our return, Grania's home looked a bit tawdry, although interesting. It was like a museum. Everything in it, from the crockery to the curtains, was authentic and in the Art Deco style. Our large, sunny bedroom was furnished in typical bulky 1930's furniture. Even the slightly faded bedspread was an original piece from that era. It was a lifetime's work that she had taken on and it was charming.
The alarm clock woke us at 6am. We had arranged for a taxi to collect us at 7 o'clock to take us to the Trans Alpine Express.
It was a bright, clear morning and the flowers along the side of the river were being coaxed open by the sun.
We boarded the TAE with anticipation. The scenery that we were to pass through was reported to be stunning. It was. By now we almost felt as though we were on scenery overload as we passed through the heartland of New Zealand from the East to West coast. We chugged along past lush farmland, forests, active volcanoes, soaring mountains, alpine tussock land, wild gorges and broad rivers. Everywhere in New Zealand looked beautiful.
However, the Trans Alpine Express turned out to be a bit of a misnomer, as the journey from Christchurch to Greymouth, which should have taken eight hours, took us a gruelling twelve. The express turned out to be a slow coach, as the rails had heated up in the unusually hot weather, and we could only chug along at twenty miles per hour.
A chattering bunch of Japanese tourists, eagerly clutching their latest digital cameras, boarded with us. At each stop along the way we picked up another group, the women wearing extraordinary clothes combinations and cotton hats to maintain their upper class pallor. They looked as if they'd all shopped at the same store. All were snapping pictures of each other on the platform, then proceeded to take more of their fellow travellers drinking coffee in the carriage.
"I wonder if they delete these pictures when they get home," I remarked to Peter, who takes shots sparingly and with much thought.
Maybe they take more photos of each other looking at the pictures on their state of the art flat screen televisions or computers.
The deserted scenery was again beautiful, as we crossed the plains between the mountains. We were told that this particular trip was more enjoyable in the winter when the mountains are clad with snow.
Then we spotted some mad fools. Participants in the coast-to-coast run from Christchurch to Greymouth. They were going faster than the train! Apparently, people spend months preparing for this arduous marathon and come from all over the world to participate. Part of the route is spent kayaking and cycling.
I felt exhausted just watching them.
Due to the length of our journey, we only had half and hour to spend in Greymouth, an ex-mining town. Maori settlers were the first to make their home on the West Coast and named the area Te Tai O Poutini. It was valued for its pounamu jade but, centuries later, European pioneers arrived in search of gold, coal and timber. We just had time to grab a snack before boarding the train once more for the slow return trip. In typical Kiwi fashion, the staff kept cracking jokes over the intercom. These were interspersed with nuggets of information about the various places we passed through.
The Kiwis have a great sense of humour. They seem to get a sadistic pleasure from poking fun at their rivals, the Australians. They have a love/hate relationship and refer to Australia as, "that offshore island!"
When we eventually got "home" there was a party atmosphere. The American guests, who now had taken possession of our room, had arrived and were having a whisky tasting session. Then one of Grania's friends, a famous local artist and gallery owner, arrived bearing sparkling wine. We were immediately included in the small party, and although travel weary, had a glass of wine with them. Grania told us that evening that the TAE is often late and people using the train to get to Christchurch Airport frequently miss their flights.
One never knows whom one will meet at breakfast in these homestays. The surprise is part of the fun. The next morning we were introduced to a retiring English couple who had arrived at 1am. Grania had dozed on the sofa, waiting for their arrival. She looked a bit tired, as she served a healthy breakfast of organic muesli, fresh fruit and whole meal bread and cheese. The American gentleman was not too impressed with this wholesome fare.
"Could you fry me some eggs, Grania?" He boomed.
"If you want such an unhealthy meal - you can get it yourself," was her curt reply.
An embarrassed silence fell on the happy gathering.
Then the American lady came to the rescue, "Oh, I always tell him to fry his own eggs."
The awkward moment was over and conversation, along with the coffee, flowed again.
Christchurch Part 2
We bade a sad farewell to Grania and Willow lodge before driving along the banks of the River Avon to The Chester, our rather grand homestay. The Avon flows through the centre of the city and is named to commemorate the Scottish Avon, which flows into the Clyde.
Our dirty clothes had piled up and I wondered how nomads ever managed to get any laundry done and was grateful that a solution was at hand. That day we were to meet up with some old Kiwi friends, Jane and George, who used to live in our hometown in England. We were looking forward to catching up with them, as we hadn't seen them for over twelve years. They had kindly offered to show us some sights before having a barbecue at their home and - deep joy - letting me use their washing machine.
We were just installed in The Chester, when George and Jane arrived to whisk us away on a tour. I could have spent a couple of hours revelling in the luxury of The Chester and felt exhausted after the marathon train journey of the previous day. However, I dragged myself away from the huge painting on the wall, which I was admiring when the doorbell rang. The work of art looked rather familiar. Then I had sudden recall as I remembered where I'd seen the painting before. It had been in the Sistine Chapel in Rome and was a copy of Michael Angelo's Sybilles. I wondered why he painted such muscular women and later learned that he only used male models, even when painting women.
It was good to see our friends again. George looked thinner and both looked a tad older. Jane was a little plumper and more sophisticated than I remembered her. She was a brunette when I had last seen her and now she sported a blonde bob.
"G'day. I'm a psychotherapist now," she greeted me.
I didn't know quite how to respond to this piece of information.
"Hello, Jane. I'm a writer now." I responded and she had the same surprised look on her face.
No longer the businesswoman, I expect she thought that I had lost any lingering air of sophistication. We all laughed. It's strange meeting up with people after a long break. The veneer can appear different but usually the person is the same on the inside. It takes a while for this to sink in and a type of shyness, as if meeting with strangers, forms an invisible barrier for a while.
Our first stop was at The Cultural Precinct, situated in Cathedral Square, in the centre of Christchurch. We had a coffee on the pavement cafÃ© before watching some street performers. The ambience had a very English air about it. We could have been in Oxford. This remarkable similarity is no coincidence, as the Canterbury pilgrims had the idea of building a city around a cathedral and college on the model of Christ Church College, Oxford. Christchurch was named by the Canterbury Association, which agreed this name at their first meeting on 27th March 1848. One John Robert Godley, who had attended Christ Church, Oxford, suggested the name. The cathedral took pride of place in the square and, like several buildings, was constructed in the Gothic Revival Style.
It was a Saturday morning and the city was alive with residents and tourists enjoying the sun. Red trams clanged past us, bringing back memories of my childhood in Merseyside.
We drove to Sumner Beach and had lunch in a little cafÃ©, before George took us for a long drive, pointing out places of interest. Christchurch is the second largest city in New Zealand, so there was a lot to take in. Picturesque, it is bordered by hills and the Pacific Ocean and is a third of the way down the South East Coast.
It was in Christchurch that we were introduced to Southern Man. George patiently drove us round, so that my husband could take photos of his heroes.
Similar to the tough, no-nonsense Aussie Man, Southern Man is macho and a man of few words. He was introduced to us in the form of large billboard hoardings advertising Speight's beer. The adverts always had the same format; two men, one young, the other older, wearing outback gear and having a conversation. For example, the younger man would ask a question
YM "Ever been abroad?"
OM "Not much of a cross dresser, boy."
YM "Cricket fan?"
OM "Only if there's nothing else to eat, boy".
See what I mean.
In spite of New Zealand men appearing macho, Southern Woman is no pushover and appear strong and independent. Jane was no exception.
"We're going to the shopping mall now," she told us as we piled into the car.
Soon we were in a characterless mall in Shirley, on the outskirts of the city. Like large hotels or airports, we could have been anywhere in the world. Jane stocked up on provisions for the barbecue and soon we were sampling the delights of outdoor cuisine on their terrace. George had even opened a ten-year-old bottle of Pinot Noir to celebrate.
During the course of the evening, talk turned to my still discoloured ankle. Jane inspected it curiously.
"You have been bitten by a White Tail Spider!" She announced dramatically.
Swallowing hard, I absorbed this piece of news before asking her what the implications might be.
I was regaled with information about this terrible creature - an import from that offshore island. Words like blood poisoning and amputation bombarded me.
"What's the treatment?" I asked, wondering if my last hours were to be spent at the Chester. There were worse places to end one's days.
"Antibiotics." Jane continued to dress a salad.
As it happened, I was just completing a course of antibiotics for a chest infection that I'd picked up a few days before our trip. I was still on them when the dreaded insect had taken a fancy to me. What had seemed like a nuisance at the time could be a blessing. But, was the dose strong enough and were they the right sort to combat the assault of the deadly White Tail Spider?
"This will explain why I haven't been unwell and the swelling is starting to go down a bit. Well, it hasn't got any worse." I told her. Was I trying to convince myself?
After a wonderful barbeque, we said our good-byes and George returned us to our opulent room. Yippee, we had clean clothes again, thanks to Jane's help. As I folded back the exotic silk bedspread, I decided to see a doctor for my ankle. Just to be on the safe side.
The next morning, as promised, a tray was left outside our back door. Breakfast was served. Although the room had a fridge, microwave, kettle and toaster, we did not need to use them. As we were enjoying our freshly brewed coffee and croissants, an exquisite sound wafted through the ceiling from upstairs. It was Jan, our host, practicing for a concert on his violin. Grania had told us that he was the director of music for the New Zealand Philharmonic. Somehow the serenade fitted the perfection of this place. Pity we had to leave so soon.
Before we set out on our travels once more, our delightful homestay hosts came down to say, "Farewell."
"Please sign the guest book before you go. There are only a few entries as we've only been open for business a few weeks," Jan asked. Jan is pronounced 'Yan', as he is Dutch.
As I opened the guest book, I noticed there were indeed only a few entries. Two were Japanese and the other was written in a flourish by a couple from Australia (that off shore island). Lord and Lady someone.
I was tempted to sign, Lord and Lady Cross of Gloucestershire, but Peter restrained me from penning such grandiose illusions.
Instead, I signed Peter and Susan Molyneux Cross, thinking that this sounded suitably impressive for such a salubrious place.
As we reluctantly left the comfort of our air-conditioned room, the heat outside assaulted us. It was going to be a scorcher.
Little did we know that not long after our visit, Christchurch was to be rocked by an earthquake, the force of which, would wreak unmentionable havoc and loss of life.
After Christchurch, our destination was Lake Tekapo, where we arrived mid-afternoon. The temperature was a staggering 38 degrees and it felt as if we were walking in soup.
Tekapo is a small resort town on the shores of a stunningly beautiful lake, one of three that run along the northern edge of the Mackenzie Basin. The second largest of the three, it is 32 square miles and dominates the town in all its splendour.
My ankle, still affected by a mysterious bite, was looking a little calmer and so I decided to not bother looking for a doctor in such blistering heat.
The Swiss chalet style homestay overlooked the lake and was plain but comfortable. Rosemary, our hostess, looked like a wilted flower and tried to muster up a smile when we arrived. She showed us to our room that faced the full glare of the sun. It was like stepping into a sauna and so I drew the curtains as they do in the tropics, in an attempt to cool it down a little. Coffee and tea making facilities were available on a shelf on the landing that we shared with other guests. Not surprisingly, the milk had gone off and so I brewed black tea, which was quite refreshing. I languished on the bed for an hour like a lazy Mem Sahib while Peter went out for a wander; a true Sahib - toughened by the twelve years when we had lived in Mauritius and Hong Kong.
A Chinese takeaway beckoned and Peter had bought a bottle of White Cloud wine, which cooled to perfection in the fridge in Rosemary's kitchen. The Maori named New Zealand the Land of the Long White Cloud when they first settled and I could see why. Whispy clouds hover over the mountain ranges that run along the centre of the two islands. We ate on our balcony and watched the sky change the reflections on the lake while sipping New Zealand nectar. Even now, I can't resist putting a New Zealand white in my supermarket trolley when we are in the UK. The Marlborough vineyards produce excellent wines.
The next day we awoke to some welcome monsoon rain, which ushered in cooler weather. Breakfast was taken with a German and English couple that shared their itineraries with us. The table had been set with care and Rosemary had even made some croissants herself. They were not quite up to the standard of the French variety but still impressive. As I spread homemade jam onto the flaky delight, I admired a collection pretty jam pots. Each one had what looked like a different fruit imbedded into the inside of the clear domed lid like a timeless fossil. They were identical to the ones at the Hot Water Beach homestay and I decided to take some back to England as a souvenir. Not, you understand from Rosemary's table!
As I savourd my second cup of coffee, I brought up the subject of White Tailed Spiders. Rosemary seemed quite knowledgeable.
"Bites are extremely rare but can prove fatal." Her words hit me with force in the solar plexus.
Agog and suddenly nauseas, I decided it was time to find a doctor that day. The plan was to drive south to Queenstown, a sizeable distance, where we'd already booked into the next homestay for a whole five nights. Luxury. We could even unpack. En route I'd find a doctor I promised myself, as we loaded the boot of the car once more, the rain bombarding us with the ferocity of bullets. But first it was imperative to make a call to a famous site.
On Rosemary's recommendation we visited at a quaint little chapel perched on the side of the lake. The Church of the Good Shepherd is the most photographed church in New Zealand. I could see why. Built in 1935, it has an altar window that frames the lake and mountains. The effect was as beautiful as any stained glass window and a testament to the wonders of Creator God. And as I gazed out at this awesome vista, all thoughts of White Tailed Spiders were lost.
White Tail Spiders
Back in the car we headed south, leaving Tekapo and arrived in the small town of Twizel. It seemed an unlikely name for a place; more suited to a chocolate snack bar to keep you going between meals. I announced to Peter that I'd like to find a chemist and ask his advice about my ankle. This was done easily as we parked outside a pharmacy in the small shopping centre. The chemist looked curiously at my swollen, discoloured ankle and suggested I go to the doctor's surgery round the corner.
We sloshed through muddy puddles in our summer sandals and found a cosy surgery in what looked like someone's house. The place was deserted except for a lone receptionist. She looked up from her knitting as I shared my concerns with her.
Glancing at her appointment book, she announced helpfully," Come back in six hours when the doctor has a slot."
I would not have been surprised to see a sign hanging up on the doctor's door, GONE FISHING.
We were en route for Queenstown, had a long drive ahead and our hosts were expecting us for dinner that evening. I declined her offer.
We waded back through fat raindrops to see the chemist and enquire if there was another surgery in the town. There wasn't.
"Your best plan is to call into the clinic in Frankton, just outside Queenstown. I know them there. Just say George sent you," he announced with a broad grin.
I reflected on this conversation in the car. It's funny how in this country people seem to know each other, even miles away. The New Zealand population is so low that the country is like one amiable village.
So, encouraged, we set off for Frankton. The further south we drove, the better the weather became and with it my spirits lifted. Soon we were back in the brilliant sunshine that we'd started to take for granted.
Frankton is small and the clinic easy to find. Unfortunately, name-dropping did not get me an appointment, as they were fully booked. The receptionist recommended the local hospital that was round the corner. I groaned inwardly. My past experiences with A & E departments had meant tedious hours sitting in dismal waiting rooms. I braced myself for the long haul.
To my amazement, the waiting room was empty and eerily quiet until a diminutive nurse bustled in with a clipboard. So, within five minutes of my arrival she had me seated in a treatment room, where she proceeded to take my blood pressure.
"Have you been in hospital in England over the past year?" She asked.
I told her that I had not and she looked relieved as she wrote on a complicated looking form.
"We don't want any of those nasty hospital bugs here," she said, while looking at my ankle with a puzzled expression on her face.
I asked her about White Tail Spiders, as I was certain that I'd been bitten by one. My hope was that someone in the medical profession would give me sound information, without the usual accompanying drama.
"I've never seen a bite before but I can see some puncture marks, so you've been bitten by something. We'll see what Elizabeth has to say."
I asked her if Elizabeth was another nurse.
"Oh, no. She's the doctor."
Once more I was amazed at the informality of this country. I mentioned this to the nurse, who assured me that New Zealand hospitals are indeed friendly places - not like those formal, overcrowded ones in England that she'd heard so much about.
With that bit of information, she breezed out, leaving me to wait for Elizabeth.
After a few minutes Elizabeth arrived. She did not wear a white overall but looked as if she was having a vacation.
"Does this hurt?" she asked with an English accent, pressing hard.
"Ouch!" I squealed.
"Did that hurt, then?" she asked.
I wondered what she would have said if I'd replied, "No, not at all. I just like the sound of Ouch".
She then asked me if I could remember falling down, as she thought that I had broken my ankle. I assured her that I had not fallen, or even knocked my ankle on anything.
"You'd better have an X ray anyway. I'm going off duty now, but James will see you with the results."
"He's the doctor - right?" I was getting used to the system by now.
"Yes, he'll be along shortly," she assured me.
After many X rays, James sauntered along looking like a film star and not wearing a threatening white coat. He was from Denmark. It was like the United Nations in sleepy Frankton.
"Your ankle isn't broken," he told me.
I wasn't surprised.
"Then what is it?" I asked.
"No idea," was the response, which was given with a broad grin, exposing perfect teeth.
With that I left the A & E department, which was still devoid of patients, non-the wiser but somewhat relieved that amputation was not imminent. However, I was still puzzled as to what had actually happened to my ankle.
I'm sticking to the White Tail Spider theory.
We were late arriving at our next homestay - Twin Peaks in Queenstown, where the magnificent lake beckoned us.
Queenstown Part 1
After the White Tail Spider drama we were late arriving at Twin Peaks, an amazing house (see my last New Zealand blog for a picture) and situated on Lake Wakatipu in the bustling tourist resort of Queenstown. The area is popular with both locals and foreigners wanting an adventure holiday. For the energetic, there is no shortage of sport from jet skiing, sky diving, mountain biking, trekking to snow boarding. Legend has it that the town received its name when a gold digger remarked that the place was, "Fit for Queen Victoria."
Margaret, our hostess, greeted us like royalty with the usual Kiwi hospitality and, if she was irritated by our late arrival, she disguised it well. She ushered us into the most stunningly modern and unusual house that I have ever seen with walls on the waterside that seemed to be made completely of glass, so that we were at one with the enormous lake. The vistas were breathtaking.
We apologized for our late arrival, explaining the visit to the hospital.
"These chairs are reserved," Margaret pointed to two recliners in the window, "for you," she continued with a wry smile.
This was just what the doctor ordered. We sat there in a sort of daze with a pot of tea , munching on home made cookies and drinking in yet another spectacular view.
Recovered, we were shown to our ensuite room. Like the rest of the house, it was tastefully furnished and full of light. Twin Peaks only had two guest rooms, each luxurious. The bedroom doors folded right back so that we could enjoy the view of the lake through the glass corridor walls. This house was an architectural masterpiece.
Margaret had thought of everything - coffee and tea making facilities, home made cookies in a jar, a bowl of fruit and fresh flowers were arranged in our room.
At 6.30pm we were invited to have a drink on the terrace. Derek, our host, was back from work and took a bottle of Chardonnay from the fridge that was built into the outside wall. The spectacular mountain range beyond the lake took on different hues in the changing light. We wondered how long it would be before developers would ruin this unspoiled spot. I couldn't help comparing this mountainous region to the tourist spots in southern Spain which is so over developed.
Derek told us that people from Europe and the United States were investing in holiday homes in the area. It seemed that retirees were now travelling to the Southern Hemisphere to winter. Personally, found New Zealand just too far away to do this. In the time we spent waiting for our connection from Sydney to Auckland we could have flown from Bristol to Malaga. Flights had become cheap and cheerful within Europe even if it meant forgoing seating allocation and decent on board meals.
After a pleasant 'cocktail hour' we decided to savour the delights of Queenstown. The streets thronged with tourists. Feeling slightly homesick for Spain, I was pleased to see a tapas bar offering meals. We sat at a table in the window, which was a cross between a bar and a ledge opening up onto the busy street. Sitting there we had a bird's eye view of the passersby. Equally, they had a good view of us and we felt rather like zoo animals on display as we ate our fish and chips. Well, the Spanish like fried fish and patatas fritas too!
After our very English tasting meal (no olives or baguette on the side), we went for a stroll on this balmy evening in December. Soon we were caught up in the throng who had the same idea. There on the Boardwalk we saw the famous restaurant where President Clinton had dined. The establishment was bustling and very different from any other place we had visited in sleepy New Zealand. It came as a bit of a surprise when we returned to Twin Peaks that the door had been left open for us at eleven o'clock at night. This was definitely not the Costa del Crime. Margaret had turned the bed down for us and put a chocolate on each pillow - a five star touch.
The sun caused sparkles to bounce off the lake the next day as if diamonds had been scattered from an unseen hand. After such a lot of driving, we decided to have a leisurely morning planning the rest of our itinerary. Peter wanted to experience at least one fishing trip and I was hoping to do a spot of watercolour painting. We both wanted to visit the fjords in the south and a glacier at Mount Cook on our return north. These adventures needed to be pre-booked.
Margaret helped with all this and booked us a flight to see the fjords the next day. This done, we returned to Queenstown to take a ferry ride on The Earnshaw, a restored steamboat. We had a leisurely cruise around the lake, stopping to pick up some more passengers at a beautiful old, colonial style house. This used to be the governor's residence and it reminded us of the type of building that one could see in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) or India in the days of the Raj.
There was a lounge area on the boat, which was like going back in time with its polished brassware and oak panelling. A Japanese tourist sat near us, oblivious to the beautiful scenery, which surrounded us. He just sat, transfixed, his gaze never leaving the floor. Perhaps he was afraid of water or maybe he was just exhausted from too much sight seeing. Apparently, the Japanese pack a great deal into their week's holiday. It made our schedule seem positively lazy when we heard what they did in such a short space of time. The poor tourist looked as if he had over done it a bit. It was Tuesday, so it must be Queenstown. Tomorrow, Wednesday - Mount Cook, and so on. I suppose you'd call it 'going Japanese.'
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Queenstown Part 2
God's Frozen People
Trekking, or tramping, as the Kiwis call it, is very popular. Many tourists visit New Zealand just to experience this and stay at specially built cabins, which are distributed en route for the convenience of these hearty travellers.
That evening we revisited Frankton in search of the jam pots with the unusual lids. Margaret had them on her breakfast table each morning too and, knowing I admired them, recommended we try a large shop called The Warehouse, which was situated on the outskirts of town. We got there five minutes before closing time but, unfortunately, they did not stock the elusive jars.
After being thrown out of the huge shop by staff eager to get home, we spotted a restaurant opposite in the tiny shopping precinct. It didn't look very exciting but we were hungry and thought we'd give it a try. The food was superb, beautifully cooked and presented and, amazingly, was half t