Man In A Suitcase

Back on the TranzAlpine

Two days after riding the TranzAlpine from Arthur's Pass to Christchurch, I was back aboard. This time I was headed west. And this time I'd be on until the end: Greymouth on the Tasman Coast. The weather was another difference; the blue skies were replaced by fog in Christchurch, dissipating slowly as we made our way across the Southern Alps. By the time we reached the other coast there was some actual definition to the clouds, a change I appreciated. Nothing worse than photographing a uniform gray sky.

From Greymouth I caught the InterCity coach to Punakaiki, a sort of a settlement a little way north along the coast. This was my first encounter with InterCity, the Kiwi answer to Greyhound. Or at least it would be if Greyhound had nicer buses, provided entertaining commentaries along the way and offered pickups and drop-offs at your hotel. Not to mention the shorter distances and more scenic nature of New Zealand, which I grant is hardly Greyhound's fault. My point, assuming I have one, is that the prospect of taking a bus between cities down here shouldn't fill you with dread. Although I do wish I'd had a chance to stop at a few interesting spots I noticed along the way. Next time I'm definitely renting a car.

Punakaiki, New Zealand

I arrived at my hotel not really knowing why I was there, beyond the fact that my travel agent thought it was a good idea. The Punakaiki Rocks Hotel is so new it practically sparkles, an eco-friendly place that complements its beachfront setting. As soon as I settled in I took a walk on the beach and among the pancake rocks, layers of soft mudstone sandwiched between thicker layers of limestone. And stared in wonder at the waves. And at the way the wind picks up the tops of the waves and throws them up and back away from the shore.

After enjoying the sea view for a while, I decided to take the tunnel under the highway (a grand description for a two lane road) to check out the companion hotel over by the hills. Walking up the path I came eye to eye with a pair of woodland creatures. At first I thought they were deer, and tried to get a little closer for a picture. And realized that those deer were actually goats. And that there were a lot more than two of them. And some of them had horns! Fortunately, they were no more interested in messing with me than I was with them. So I got my pictures and left them to do whatever it is that goats do of an evening.

It turns out that there are two excellent reasons to visit Punakaiki: the remarkable Paparoa National Park and the real, official Pancake Rocks. (Turns out that what I saw at the hotel was just an appetizer.) I had a guided tour into the park, full of fascinating stories of how heavy rains could turn the area, including the road we were traveling, into an instant lake. This is a place of rushing streams that drop out of sight into underground watercourses, sinkholes that form without warning and enough caverns to keep a dedicated spelunker busy for ages. We did some hiking into the bush, giving me another chance to appreciate the diversity of New Zealand's native flora.

But it's not all giant trees and ferns. There's wonder on a smaller scale as well, like these spongy mosses along the trail. Their colors were amazing, running from a sort of cream to a burnt umber and a bunch of other Crayola names along the way. (They make a nice break from all that green.) And I haven't said anything about the birdlife. This little robin followed us around for the longest time. Every time I thought she was gone for good, she'd make another appearance. And then there was the fantail, whose eponymous tail gives him a fascinatingly erratic flight path. Sadly, he wouldn't sit still long enough for me to get a picture. Every time I tried he'd be off, zigzagging drunkenly from branch to branch.

My guide had timed things so we'd leave the park around high tide, the perfect time to visit the Pancake Rocks and experience their blowholes in all their explosive glory. When a wave of sufficient force comes in, water pushes up through these passages and into the air in a burst of spray that looks more like steam. Which then drains back into the hole in hundreds of tiny waterfalls. But what's fascinating about the rocks is that no one is quite sure how they came to be. What would cause these thin alternating layers of hard and soft rock to form, one stacked upon the other, step by step, inch by inch, a hundred feet high? I've heard a rumor that ogres have layers. But rocks? Who knew?

Abel Tasman National Park & Nelson

My next stop was Nelson, a town near the southern tip of Tasman Bay that's big on arts & crafts. Or so they tell me; I didn't get to see much of it. I arrived Friday night and was off first thing Saturday morning for the tiny town of Kaiteriteri and my cruise of Abel Tasman National Park on the aptly named Abel Tasman Explorer. (Due to a small scheduling mixup, my coach dropped me off an hour early for the boat. I was killing time by taking pictures from the beach when a local told me that a better view was to be had from the hill. He was right.) There's no dock at Kaiteriteri. Instead, we were ferried to the Explorer by a pontoon launch. That makes for an exciting transfer, although I'm pleased to say that no hands were lost. Lunches, alas, are another matter. But that's another story for another time.

The park has a number of trails that are accessible only by water. The Explorer makes a bunch of stops to drop off and pick up hikers, kayakers and campers. Me, I stayed aboard and enjoyed the views from the water. Like the mysteriously named Split Apple Rock at left, a favorite hangout for the local shags. At right you can see our approach to Tonga Island and the local seal community. The seals are easy to see in the picture. But from a pitching boat? Let's just say that I was inclined to take the commentator's word for their existence. Maybe if they spray painted the rocks. Then they'd stand out properly. I mean, what's the point of having seals around if we can't gawk at them properly?

Back in Nelson the sun was already going down by the time I got back. That, coupled with the short Saturday opening hours, limited my explorations of the town. But I did appreciate the view up Trafalgar Street past the shops and cafes to the bell tower on Church Hill. And I got a kick out of the School of Fisheries building, which the small sign at the left identified as part of NMIT, which I later learned is the Nelson Marlborough Institute of Technology. I assumed the Fisheries name was just a bit of nostalgia and that the Institute taught more technology-oriented subjects these days. Shows what I know; fish and seafood are academic disciplines to these guys. I shouldn't be surprised; what I'd learned about New Zealanders' dominance in dairy farming should have told me that they don't leave much to chance.

It was Easter Sunday as I prepared to leave Nelson. With a little time before my InterCity coach arrived, I wandered over to Church Hill to check out the Church on the Hill. Anglican Christ Church Cathedral is impressive enough, although I think the modern bell tower is a bit of a clash. And then there's the stone wall in front, a reminder of a time when Church Hill served a less spiritual purpose. Those stones are all that's left of a fort that once stood here. Guarding, one assumes, against hostile Maori. Who once had their own fortifications on this site. But at 8:15 on a Sunday morning it was just a place to enjoy the colors of autumn while I waited for my ride.

Blenheim & Marlborough

Blenheim is a pretty little east coast town that's just a few miles south of the ferry port to the North Island. Like the Marlborough region in which it resides, it gets its name from John Churchill, the first Duke of Marlborough and ancestor of Winston, who beat up on a bunch of Frenchmen and Bavarians at Blenheim, Germany three hundred years ago and was given a great estate by the queen, named (the estate, not the queen) Blenheim in honor of his victory. None of which has anything to do with Blenheim the town or my reason for visiting: Marlborough's position as New Zealand's largest wine producing region. Happily, the Kiwis don't have any blue laws to keep us from enjoying their wine on a sunday. Even Easter Sunday.

But first I had time for a little wander around town. I had spotted the Opawa River from the coach on my way into town and thought it would be a good starting point. Following its banks I came upon the River Queen, which does regular cruises along a river that looks scarcely wider than the riverboat. Heading back to town I encountered Seymour Square, with its war memorial clock tower, its grand trees, its ornate flower beds and a fountain that does its own light show after dark.

I spent the afternoon visiting wineries in the company of a group of English ladies who knew far more about New Zealand wines than I. (Not that there's any accomplishment in that.) And learned in short order that Marlborough produces some awfully nice white wines. (I'm not much on reds.) I also appreciated the friendly atmosphere, which reminded me more of my time in Australia's Margaret River than of my experiences in Napa. And I had a particularly good time at the Prenzel Distillery, where I enjoyed their butterscotch, melon and lemon schnapps (one at a time), and then finished off with a kiwifruit ice cream at their cafe. My luggage was a lot heavier by the end of the afternoon.

I had some time to relax and explore the next morning before catching the TranzCoastal train back to Christchurch. I walked all over town, wandering down residential streets admiring the floral displays. Eventually I was back in the town centre, where I spotted the office building at right. I like art deco; is there anyone who doesn't? And then I read the name on the window and had a little laugh. S.W. Startup, Chartered Accountant. S.W.? As in Software? I've seen a lot of software startups. And most of them are in desperate need of a good accountant. It wasn't until I was working on these pages almost a month later that discovered that this clever little joke actually isn't. There really is a Startup in Blenheim. Just not the kind I'm used to.

On the road to Queenstown

I arrived back in Christchurch Monday evening and was off the following morning for Queenstown, the last leg of my adventure. The coach journey is long but incredibly scenic, as we made the transition from the Canterbury Plain to the mountains running down the spine of the South Island. We made a stop in the picturesque little town of Geraldine just before our turn from the coastal highway toward the Alps. I had just enough time to admire the town's museum and the local cheesemaker and to wander through an antique shop. Across the street from the antique shop I spotted the unlikely looking cinema at right. A pity I couldn't have stayed to catch a performance of The Two Towers. I'd have liked to see it one more time before visiting some of the film sites around Queenstown. Instead I had to settle for Fellowship on DVD at my hotel. Sad, isn't it?

The road to Queenstown passes by Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park, home to New Zealand's highest peak and one of the places where Sir Edmund Hillary did some climbing before he tackled the big one. The tour operators have everything well planned; our stop at the park gave us time for a flight among the peaks, lunch at the Hermitage Hotel and a little wander around before continuing the journey southwest. I jumped at the chance to see the mountains close up. Besides, I'd never been on a plane with skis before. And landing on a glacier sounded like fun.

Fun it certainly is. The landing itself was smooth and easy. And I enjoyed the chance to stomp around for a little while in clean, white snow. And to laugh at the folks trying to make snowballs. They didn't do too well; I'm guessing the high altitude or the moisture content doesn't let the snow pack properly for weapons purposes. I also wondered about the puptent sitting alone out on the glacier at right. How typical is that? You find the perfect secluded location, only to find out that your new home is on the glide path for the local airfield. Damn noisy neighbors! Something oughta be done!

Home / Country Index / Back: Arthur's Pass / Next: Queenstown / Last: The USA

Google Web
 Comments to: Hank Shiffman, Mountain View, California