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New Zealand Revisited - and not a turkey in sight ...

... or how we swapped an English winter for a Kiwi summer. 

Elizabeth Consalvi, a confirmed Kiwi herself, has asked Ann and I to report on our recent trip down-under; we were unable to hide from her the fact that we celebrated our silver wedding anniversary by revisiting a number of the places we knew from our past trips in the Pacific, as well as taking in some new places. Certainly, 25 years has seen a number of changes - retreating glaciers, advancing health and safety, growing tourism and shrinking journey-times. all of which we have tried to capture in this short article...


Our journey started in early December and took us to Tahiti - the French island group that was the backdrop to the original film of South Pacific. The main island seemed so much more busy than we remembered from the past, wider roads and many more cars. We did escape to Morea, a small island just a short ferry ride away where the hotels have developed over-water lodges as their main attraction. We celebrated our actual anniversary there - well why not? After that we returned to the main island where the hotel had a sense of Christmas, with a line of artificial trees each with a charity box asking for donations according to how much you liked their theme. (They also liked to have their garden parties accompanied by over-amplified music, but we won't dwell on that!)


Our second week saw us in New Zealand, travelling the South Island, meeting an extremely tame Kea - a giant parrot that is renowned for chewing windscreen wipers and virtually anything else. This one was particularly over-fed, having made its home at a café on Arthur's Pass in the Southern Alps. Our greatest surprise was the amount the glaciers had retreated in 25 years. Whoever doubts that we are suffering from global warming needs to take a look. Mind you, that is not as easy as it was 25 years ago - then we simply scrambled over the rocks and through the bush to get right to the glacier's terminus. Now, even in NZ, nanny state has a well marked path from a large marked car park, that leads to a viewing platform, a mere 400m from the actual glacier. How things have changed, but maybe quite understandable as the tourist trade has radically changed NZ and we were surprised how many people were there (even if their footwear was often hardly appropriate: "no you really should not wear flip-flops for a 45 minute round trip"). We also found Lake Matheson - a magically quiet location near Fox Glacier that has been iconic for its mirror-like reflected images of Mount Cook - when the wind isn't blowing and the sky is clear... But actually it was still a very beautiful spot, save for the tramping of a thousand tourist feet on the path ...


We needed to move on to join our friends David and Jill who live in Central Otago, the home of fabulous NZ Pinot Noir. No surprise then that we went travelling around, sampling the wine and scaling the heights of the local hills. Where else would you find "our" road sign - Chapman Road one way and a Winery the other? We also visited Dunedin which has a magnificent Gothic railway station and a more recent addition of a secluded Chinese Garden. This city has a personal place in my life as I taught there at John McGlashan College some decades ago (no I will not admit how many), where I met David who has himself earned a place in history as one of their longest serving members of staff until he retired some 10 years ago.


We moved on from Otago to Christchurch, the scene of two major earthquakes some seven years ago which shattered the city centre and destroyed the city's magnificent cathedral along with many other buildings. Christchurch is a giant building site now, essentially open heart surgery. It will be some years before it is rebuilt; for the moment they have shops temporarily housed in shipping containers and a temporary cardboard cathedral (yes it is constructed of cardboard over a steel and wooden superstructure) that was opened in 2013 and seats around 700. It is staggering how inventive the Kiwis are; they need to be, the final design of the permanent cathedral was still not clear when we were there... Rebuild as it was, or redesign it to reflect modern times?


There was only one thing that we could do after the shock of Christchurch - drown our sorrows in some good Marlborough wine! Driving to Blenheim was in itself an experience, as the coast road had all but been destroyed by another earthquake. The roadworks had been going for the thick end of a year and the road was reopened just a week before we got there. Shipping containers had another use here: not as shops, but as gabions, holding back the crumbling cliffs. We gather that the whole coastline shifted by metres in the 'quake, not horizontally, but vertically. Worrying about potholes is nothing by comparison... But we got to Marlborough and had a good time sampling the various wines of the vast region, starting at 10.00am, certainly putting a new twist to the expression "getting one's drinking trousers on early". Then from Marlborough we travelled to the North Island where we have a, sadly ageing, branch of our family with whom we celebrated Christmas; chicken salad on a hot evening - no roast turkey in that climate! Our relatives live in Matamata, a small town in the Waikato region, famous for farming, horse riding and ... Hobbits. Just outside Matamata is NZ's most visited tourist attraction of Hobbiton, the only remaining set from The Lord of the Rings films. (The reason is that all the other sets were on public land and had to be completely removed - Hobbiton was built on private land. Nice little earner even if it was shut on Christmas Day!)


Moving on, San Francisco beckoned as our final stop on our return to the UK. Well, not quite as we had time to nip out to sample the wines in Napa Valley. Who couldn't? We had been worried that the area would be black from the vast fires that had rampaged the area in the autumn. But far from it. The wineries were flourishing - the only black item being the Black Stallion at the winery of the same name. Wine tasting is big business. Wine sales are big business. We brought a couple of bottles back, carefully packed in our cases - bliss. Well it had to be at some $40 a bottle! And our final destination - the Bay City. The home to Alcatraz; we would recommend a visit - the island and its history were fascinating and well worth the time. And the city? Absolutely - again, take the bus or cable car, or simply walk up and down the hills. We have foxes in Ealing - they have Cayotes.


So check where you are going, you may well end up down at the (still rather "touristy") Pier Area. There you will find Bob Culbertson playing a weird instrument, "The Chapman Stick", a "fully polyphonic chordal instrument". I gather it has featured in a range of 1970s and 1980s music including albums by Peter Gabriel, Pink Floyd and Yes. So now we know! From there it is a short journey to the Cable Car Museum which is built around the motor house for the whole system. Amazing. Yet, the city still has its surprises - the last being that the transit system only starts at 8.00am on Sundays which does not help when you are on an 8.30am flight! Hey ho.

So there we have it - 25 years on and we can report that New Zealand is as beautiful as ever. Sadly there are far more tourists than before, but nowhere near outnumbering the sheep, and the glaciers have visibly shrunk. The impact of the Health and Safety folk is now more evident than ever - "keep to the marked path"... Above all the flight times to and from the southern hemisphere are shorter than ever, so it is easier than ever now to get there. Joy!