Jan 13 – 19 South Island
Arthur’s Pass to Christchurch and Le Bons
We are off to cross the South Island by way of Arthur’s Pass through mountain ranges that are collectively known as the Southern Alps. This dramatic stretch of road connects the rugged West Coast with the checkerboard flats of the Canterbury Plain.
The pass was first accessed and the track created by horse-drawn carts in1866 to service West Coast miners in the Gold Rush. Mining played a huge part in opening up the mountainous areas of western New Zealand. Coaxing this car up and over the steep inclines I can only imagine that nothing but the fever for unfathomable riches would have motivated men to keep going through these areas.
Today it is drizzling rain and the cloud cover is low. What we can see is magnificent – a flat open plain with a river running through it, mountains rising up from the floor – reaching high into the clouds
We stop for a cappuccino at Otira, a very small town. Several years ago a couple from Christchurch decided to make a lifestyle change. They bought the historic hotel / pub with the intention of bringing it back to life ...and were gobsmacked to discover that the $70,000 price tag included basically the whole community including 18 homes. So they have been slowly renovating ...very slowly. We had a coffee. The sweets were all pretty old looking, wrapped in saran. Quite a few people stopped by while we were there. A basket of fresh-from-the-oven muffins would have increased her profits many times over.
Also felt that Steve would have had that hotel / pub looking pretty spiffy by now. When you are driving for hours through bad weather, conversation is your chief entertainment. We passed the next hour quite pleasantly discussing what we would do if we bought the place. But after all the plans were made we remembered that Otira has the record for the highest rainfall in New Zealand and in winter it is isolated by snow, ice and closed roads.
So ...I guess not.
About 10 km west of Arthur’s Pass Village you drive over the Otira Viaduct. This engineering feat suspends a cement viaduct at 100 metres above the valley floor. The road then slopes, dramatically hugging the mountain cliff face, with a concrete road structure clipped to the rock face. It is a gorgeous piece of engineering.
There is also a man-made concrete waterfall suspended over the viaduct, channelling the rainwater into the valley and away from the road. On a rainy day, it is spectacular to pass beneath it.
Arthur’s Pass Village gets five metres of rain a year so I guess it would be more surprising if it were not raining. People stop here to use the amenities, check in with the rangers re trails and head off into the bush “tramping”. Even today, with all this rain, the parking lot is full of people suiting up, hoisting packs, and setting off. Crazy people.
Just a few km down the road though, the rain stopped and the heavens opened to blue sky and sunshine. Maybe they knew. Strange country.
Carried on through the awe-inspiring mountains, stopping at Cave Stream Scenic Reserve. Steve was determined to go through this cave system. We stopped and he got talking to a fellow who’d been through it before so they teamed up and off they went. Unfortunately it had been raining a lot in recent days and the “knee-high” stream was actually a chest-high stream. They had to climb on slippery ledges under waterfalls, up aluminum ladders, through wet narrow openings, and over rock faces.
Eventually he emerged, soaked wet, muddy from head to toe, and very happy with his experience. While he’d been having all that fun, I’d hauled out a lawn chair and just sat there in the sun, absorbing the magnificence around me.
Arrived at the farm of our friends, Dave and Elspeth, in the late afternoon. They have a beautiful home, with lush green paddocks surrounding the house. They used to raise sheep but are now graziers, taking other farmer’s stock onto their land to fatten it up on their rich green grass. These cattle are endlessly curious. Those in the paddock within view of the house watch for any movement that might mean Dave is coming out to see them.
They receive the young calves and keep them until they are 18 months old and have been bred. So it is a matter of managing the “mobs” which are of different ages and belong to different owners. Each cow has an ear tag with her identification on it. Dave keeps an eye on them, watching for sick cows and quarantining them, calling the vet and keeping the owner informed. Each cow is weighed frequently. Records are kept to ensure steady growth and weigh gain.
The young cows have 18 months on Dave’s rich green grass, getting fat and cavorting with their friends. At the end of this they will have their first sexual experience ...which is carefully managed to ensure that the young heifers are not mated with a bull that is too big or aggressive. Once pregnant, they move back to their home farm, where they begin their lives as working milk cows.
“So basically, this is the best eighteen months of their life?” I asked Dave.
“That’s pretty much true.”
Dave mentioned that managing cows is just like managing people ...they behave the same. We might look at a grass paddock and think it’s all the same grass, but not so. The cows have their favourite bits and released into a fresh paddock they will eat all the choice bits first. They’ll only move on to eating the rest of the grass if they must. So when Dave drives out there on his ATV or truck they all rush up to the fence to see if he will move them to a fresh paddock with all their choice bits.
If they still have feed they will just follow him around looking hopeful but if they are genuinely out of feed they will bawl and carry on, actually telling him they are hungry.
His job is to manage the feed supply ...ensuring that they have a good supply so they gain weight quickly, but not let them move wastefully before the paddock has been fully fed out. In summer Dave irrigates the grass to increase growth. In winter, when the grass is growing more slowly, he supplements with dried silage.
So each mob has to be checked at least once a day and moved regularly between paddocks. Cows are not aggressive animals, but when you are moving them they press forward en masse, stampeding at times to get through the “gate” to the fresh grass. It is a little scary for city slickers like us because the “fence” between them and us is just a line of electrical wire and if you fell they would be tramping over top of you in moments.
Dave’s best help are his working dogs. They are trained to corral the cattle, move them along, or keep them back. Right now he has one old dog, who spends a lot of time sitting on the back of the truck barking instructions at the new dog. The younger dog is eager but still learning. They really seem to enjoy their lives though, and I couldn’t help thinking how much our old dog at home would love to be out here chasing cows around. It’s a little late for him to be learning the “how” of it though. He’d be out there chasing and barking at will, making more work for Dave, not less.
Something else interesting we learned about is that the long lines of trees we see hedging paddocks are not decorative. These are wind breaks and are put in to protect not just the land but to offer shelter to the stock. In New Zealand the winters are temperate enough that neither sheep nor cattle need to be brought indoors, greatly reducing costs and the spread of disease. But the shelter provided by the long straight lines of trees we see is an important part of that strategy.
But the trees look nice too, usually a dark green evergreen of some sort. Some farmers have them trimmed like box hedges and this does look nice, but Dave explained that this can be self-defeating because the wind funnels up and over the trees, coming down with even greater force on the stock huddling below. When the trees are left in a more natural state, the wind is filtered through the branches, dispersing.
Rangitata River Valley and Gorge
In the afternoon we headed out to the Rangitata River Valley and Gorge. This is magnificent country. In fact, nestled in Ashburton’s high country here, sits Mt Sunday, a sheer-sided hill in the middle of an expansive plain in the Rangitata River valley – a hill made famous by the Lord of the Rings. Mt. Sunday was the set for Edoras, the fortress city of the Rohan people. The crew took nine months to build the set at the top of the sheer cliffs, building Golden Hall and surrounding building as the top with gatehouse and more buildings at its foot. At the end of filming the set was dismantled and the area returned to its natural state. None of the set remains, but the spectacular views of Mt Sunday sitting all alone in an expansive river plain surrounded by the Southern Alps is well worth the trip.
We drove beyond it to Erewhon Station at the end of the road – which is all “shingle” a kind of gravel that comes from the surrounding mountain faces. We were turning around just outside the gate of the station when a woman spotted us and was waving at us to turn around and come in. She and her husband are the caretaker and cook for the station, and they love company. They showed us the trail through the station down to the river and encouraged us to take the walk. It was lovely ...right down to the river with the Southern Alps as the backdrop.
We had a lovely tea with the couple. This is a very remote station, cut off by snow and cold in the winter. They enjoy company and were very welcoming.
The station has recently been bought by new owners who are running it like an old-time station, using Clydesdale horses to plough fields, etc. The next day the drovers were going to push the sheep, some 3,000 of them (that is actually a small mob, apparently) up the river valley for their summer grazing.
We met the drovers coming in for the night, on big horses. One of the female drovers was driving a horse that was shying nervously away from the car. The drover said it was because the horse was young and had never seen a car before.
An interesting (to me) aside is that this ranch is owned by the “dog food queen” in New Zealand. This is a woman who made her fortune with a natural dog food product. Apparently she also sprinkles this dog food on her own muesli every morning and raised her kids on it. She recently got the idea to ship several tons of it over to Kenya to feed the starving children. You can imagine the press she got about that. A few days after we returned from seeing her ranch, the papers were full of it. Kenya made it clear their children would starve before they’d be given New Zealand dog food.
The next day we drove into Christchurch and went to the Riccarton Market – set in the pleasant surroundings of the Carriage Paddock at Riccarton Racecourse. The largest market in Christchurch covers several acres with 300+ stalls selling all manner of goods and produce – plants, produce, bakeries, used goods, crafts, clothing, and prepared foods. Some of the crafts I remember include: stone mats, children’s clothes, wool and knitted goods, weaving, pottery, metal work, photos and paintings, leather craft, jewellery. We bought some lovely sourdough bread, Danish pastries, strawberries and veggies.
From there we went to the Arts Centre. The Arts Centre holds pride of place as one of Christchurch’s most significant heritage sites. Established in 1877 as the original home of Canterbury College, it has the distinctive architecture typical of the Gothic Revival period, with steep roofs and decorative stone details pointing heavenward. The university moved to its current site in 1976 and the Arts Centre of Christchurch Trust formally became the owner and landlord of the centre in 1978.
Conservation of the buildings is an enormous part of the work of the trust – maintaining the building fabric including the stonework, slate roofs and heritage timber. There are many shops at the Arts Centre: weaving, pottery, patchwork, embroidery, books, leatherwork, beadwork, candles, bone carving, jewellery, fabric art, paintings, fudge and sweets, toys, carving, jade and opal centre, woodturning, gifts, prints, wool, kites, stamps, sculpture
There is also a theatre and several restaurants. There is a lovely old huge tree in the centre, with a green space. We sat there and enjoyed our takeaway lunch from the street market stalls, as did many of the locals.
There is a vibrant street stall market on Sundays with 80 stalls, buskers, and a food fair of ethnic cuisine - Thai, Chinese, Czech, Turkish, etc. It was a lovely scene with lots of music, the aroma of ethnic foods being cooked, tons of people milling around, sitting in the grass, dancing to the music.
We also drove around Christchurch – a beautiful city of green spaces, tall trees, parks and gardens. Apparently there are 748 parks and gardens in Christchurch which is set on the banks of the meandering Avon River.
Followed up on this by driving up to Victoria Park which sits in the hills overlooking the city. Magnificent views from this narrow little track – not a great one for people afraid of heights as the track is very narrow, the drop-offs are steep, and there are no barriers.
Today we headed for Le Bons Bay on the Banks Peninsula. The peninsula was formed by two huge volcanic craters, 11 million years ago. It extends into the Pacific Ocean like a gnarly old fist with curled-in fingers enclosing bays and beaches. The drive there, over this volcanic terrain is awe inspiring. It’s about 85 km from Christchurch, 1.5 hours over the upper Summit Road on account on the twisting turning track that goes up, up, up, and then down, down, down through volcanic landscape, historic towns, working ports, scenic views, and pasturage dotted with millions of sheep.
There are many bays and beaches and places to stay on the Banks Peninsula. We are fortunate in that Dave and Elspeth have a batch at Le Bons Bay, a lovely, family-owned cottage that was bought by their mother and the five siblings together . Their mother had been renting it since Dave was a small child. He figures he’s becoming here for at least 50 years.
The batch is directly across from the bay, dead centre between formidable headlands. Le Bons has a lovely clean sweep of beach with a river running down the side and into the bay. It’s an absolute wonderland for children to grow up and adventure in. Le Bons is also fortunate in that it is at the end of the road, so to speak. Most people stop at other bays along the road or at Akaroa, the tourist town down the road.
We drove down to Akaroa and spent a lovely afternoon poking around – picking up gifties for the “rellies” as the New Zealanders would say. And of course, having the mandatory lunch of fish and chips topped off with an ice cream cone. Nothing like an ice cream on the beach and with the family connection we now feel obliged to support the New Zealand dairy industry.
On our drive we bump into some familiar tourists – a gaggle of Canadian Geese paddling about a pond near Akaroa.
That first night at Le Bons we played multiple games of Yahtzee that didn’t go very well because we didn’t have the rules. So we “discussed” what those rules might be ...all night long. The next day in Akoroa we looked for a game, hoping we could read the rules off the back off the box but it was all sealed up so rather than buy it we decided to continue the discussion until we figured it out or found someone who knew.
The next night we played Scrabble ...the only problem is we didn’t have all the tiles ...we rectified that by combining one old Scrabble game with another. The biggest impediment to a fair game was the Oxford Dictionary ...published in 1947! Before I was born. So there are none of the words one would expect in a technologically advanced age ...but other words that shouldn’t be in there. For example, there is no “internet” or “byte” or “website” .....but words like “fa” or “mu”. And of course Dave insists on playing by the “book” so he can challenge me and my words are disallowed because they are not in his dictionary!
Next time we come to New Zealand we will come prepared, with our own dictionary!
Tomorrow, we leave this paradise for points south. Thanks so much to Dave and Elspeth for a wonderful holiday from travelling.