Thursday, 26 May 2011

Day 36: Wombat Combat (05/03/2011)


It's a fairly innocuous word. Sounds a bit like a nice village in the Cotswolds. A quick search on the interweb reveals an angling society, a breed of gun dog and a primary school near Biggun (I'll leave you to draw your own conclusions).

Except to get to these you have to scroll down past a hundred entries relating to what is variously described as 'Australia's culinary icon'  and 'a speciality cake keeping kids happy for decades'. Let's leave aside the fact that sponge covered in chocolate and dessicated coconut is bestowed these accolades by the nation that purports to be the new culinary Mecca.

Instead, let's concentrate on the seedy under belly of this much lauded piece of confectionary.

Undoubtedly it's a tasty, spongy, cakey thing. And Australians seem to like it rather alot. But nobody seems to be counting the hidden cost; the unspoken tragedy that unfolds every day, leaving its silent victims brutalised, traumatised and humiliated.

Who speaks up for them?

Who is going to stand up for the little guy, against the creeping menace of the Lamington?

Who is going to call it what it really is? The Devils Food!

Until it happened, we were oblivious to the risk. The tent was up. Breakfast was happily consumed and we whiled away the day on a long walk from Tidal Bay campsite on Wilson's Promontory. Past the Greater and Lesser Oberon Bays, a pleasant lunch at Norman Bay, a brief sojourn to Squeaky Beach where the sand does just that beneath your feet.

Clare leapt like a gazelle over a small stream running across the beach but losing her nerve mid-flight, put her leading foot down into the puddle deep flow. The sand carried in the current was responsible for a cruel deception and it wasn't until she was hip deep that her foot found solid ground, only to cartwheel the rest of her into what now revealed itself as a raging torrent. Manfully she emerged, bedraggled and sand crazed, hooting hysterically as the rest of us rolled on the floor gasping for air.

But the sun shone and she soon dried off. The sea was a startling shade of blue. The sand was as white as linen and the coast was lined with post fire greenery and boulders, rounded by the wind and spray over countless millenia. We even met the daughter of the inventor of Australia's iconic folding ketchup dispenser and marvelled at 'Pie-Link', the Southern Hemisphere's foremost internet pie delivery service.

But sadly the time of carefree wandering could not last forever and ominously, dark clouds were gathering at Tidal Bay as we returned.

After yesterday's Wombat attack, we raised our guard as night fell. At any minute we knew the raider might return from the darkness and a momentary lapse of attention could spell disaster.

And all was going so well until the fateful intersection of two seemingly insignificant events. The narcoleptic juggernaut driver that was Dirk and Victoria's decision to brush their teeth, was heading directly for the crowded cake stall, that was ...... um, in fact, a cake stall. At least it was an open pack of Lamingtons, wafting irresistible cakey smells across the nostrils of our furry persecutor.

The first I was aware of, comfortably zipped up in my sleeping bag inside the cavernous Dome was sound of Hell's Gates creaking open, followed shortly by the arrival of the Dark One's Most Trusted Minion. Somewhere in the backgound echoed the laughter of the returning floss warriors as, like an Exocet launched from the very pits of Hell, the Wombat streaked a brown trail across the campsite, making a beeline for the Devil's own baked dessert.

Through the canvas he came, parting it like tissue paper, flinging aside cooler boxes, camping chairs and anything that stood between him and the sating of his hellish appetite. Like some scene from The Exorcist, I wrestled with this demon, through the medium of zipping up the inner lining and trembling like some recent arrival from the seminary.

Help arrived from an unexpected quarter as Dirk engaged the Foul One from outside the Dome, and after The Rite Of Excorcism proved ineffective, he man handled him out into the open, partly packaged Lamingtons still hanging from his drooling maw.

Off he lumbered into the darkness, again, the stench of sulphur hanging heavy in the air.

Lamingtons are not to be trifled with.

You have been warned!

Day 35: When Wombats Attack (04/03/2011)

There are only five of them on the planet.

The most southerly point of a continent is a wild and special place (and yes, I know, Clare has already reminded me that Tasmania and New Zealand are technically further south but I am going to ignore that small detail for the moment).

Wilson's Promontory juts determinedly into the surging terror of the Tasman Sea. So fearful is the exposed peninsula that man has entirely forsaken it. Apart from visitors to the National Park, the only occupants are the terrible predators that roam the isthmus. Emu and Wallaby prowl the plains, falling upon unsuspecting hikers. Wombat and Echidna terrorize the inhabitants of the small towns that ring the park.

After a three hour drive, Dirk and Victoria (we're now in Melbourne - keep up), dropped us at the park campsite as the light was failing. As an awful foretaste of the experience that awaited us, we drove through the gorges that surround the promontory. In the twilight, the menacing heads of kangaroos appeared from the waist high road side grasses to survey our progress. In the distance the jungle drums were beating.

In the almost complete darkness, we erected a tent only slightly smaller than the Millenium Dome, fingers feeling blindly for the canvas, with only the million watt headlights of the Subaru to guide us. The cry went up as a large Wombat cruised menacingly toward us. Dirk leapt into Victoria's arms, who had already barricaded herself behind a makeshift corral of cooler boxes and camping gear. Clare screamed and ran into the darkness. Left alone to face the feral beast, teeth and claws flashing in the headlights as it approached, I stood my ground. My mind was like a washing machine full of terrible predictions.

On spin cycle.

Evisceration. Disembowlment. Amputation.

All very painful and all very bloody, round and round they went.

And then the spin cycle stopped abruptly and sitting neatly in the glass door was my salvation. The Scouts.

Well not actually The Scouts themselves, although they would have been helpful, if for no other reason than to feed them to the slavering beast in a vain attempt to placate his insatiable appetite for human flesh. Rather, my Scouts 'How to Evade Death By Angry Badger' toggle that still takes pride of place in cigar box of nick-nacks at the back of a drawer somewhere.

Wombats and Badgers. Clearly related, albeit like some feckless work shy cousin you only meet at family weddings after the seventh beer, and end up discussing tips for silent house breaking. Admittedly the Badger is a noble savage, with an aquiline profile and a patrician air. He smokes cigarettes from a silver case and there is never a hair of his neatly coiffured two tone mane out of place. The Wombat on the other hand is a dishevilled piece of work, eyes too close together; always on the lookout for the main chance. Leave him alone with your fiancee and he would probably make a move.

But they were close enough. They had to be. Our survival depended on it.

Trying to ignore the whimpering from behind the stockade, I recalled the Scouts motto 'Be Prepared'. I was prepared, dammit, and in possession of a perfectly good pair of running shoes that I had even had the foresight to place on my feet. 'Back Away Slowly', the advice had been. I was much older and much wiser than all those years ago.

I ran like a frightened child, dived behind the Esky and maneuvered Victoria and Dirk between me and the approaching horror.

It worked a treat.

Off he lumbered into the night.

Clare reappeared with twigs in her hair and after half an hour Dirk, somewhat unwillingly agreed to get down from Victoria's arms.

And the lesson we take from this encounter with the wild life?

Be afraid. Be very afraid!

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Day 33: The Land That Time Forgot (02/03/2011)

The answers to two questions usually seem to have provided enough information for the early settlers to enable them to map and name the vast land they inhabited.

What is it and what colour is it?

And so it is, with the likes of  The Grey and Green Rivers, The Gold Coast, The Snowy River and The Blue Mountains.

Three hours north of Sydney the mountain range's name refers to the appearance that it takes on as a result of the Eucalyptus forests that grow there. The trees generate a fine mist of oil that refracts the sun light creating the blue haze that hangs over the iconic landscape of ridge back peaks and limestone stacks.

Clare assured me of a memorable view from the lookout and true to her word, I will never forget it.

The mist was so thick that even the information board, that might have conveyed some semblance of the hidden majesty, was itself obscured. No Blue Mountains. No Three Sisters stacks. Three hours drive for a no show might seem like a waste of time but undeterred we forged through the gloom to the ominously named Giant's Staircase.

The mist that had obscured the view from the top was the making of the descent and down 650 steps we climbed. Clare loomed out of the fog behind me like some creature from another planet, resplendent in a 4 dollar, head to toe, transparent plastic poncho complete with hood. Looking like a cross between an over sized freezer bag and a refugee from an itinerant biological decontamination team, she rustled with every movement.

Each step was either carved from the rock face or grafted to it in the form of precariously positioned steel structures too proud to call themselves ladders but lacking the front to claim paid up staircase status. Round the contours of the rock face we wound, under over hangs and through tunnels blasted into the rock, at times staring down at precipitous drops and others penetrating crevices deep within the rock face.

Mist swirled around us and the sound of our progress was muffled. Eerie cries from all directions pierced the white shroud that wound itself about us. Periodically shadowy silhouettes would flit out of the murk only to disappear again in a moment.

We met no one and the sense of total physical and sensory isolation quickly became envelopping.

Beside us, the limestone stacks of the Three Sisters remained hidden until a break in the cloud revealed the nearest, and only then a portion a few metres above and below us, the rest losing its form and shape as it dissolved into the wreath of whiteness. The stronger the sun tried to burn off the cloud, the whiter and more obscuring the effect became as the light was reflected.

Without warning the cloud base broke, revealing an emerald forest canopy several hundred feet below us. The shrieking culprits in the mist were exposed as parakeets who soaredin flocks above the tree tops but far below our vantage point. As we descended further, they sat in plain view in the trees about us, some dazzling white, others black, both with a characteristic flash of yellow crest on their heads.

By the time we reached the bottom of the staircase, the air was hot and humid and the ground was soft and moss bound under foot. The base of the cliff face down which we had descended stretched above us into the mists over head. Aboriginal art work decorated the recesses created by the overhangs carved by eons of wind erosion. Leeches hung from low branches, waiting to latch onto us as we passed.

After a walk through the forest floor, we climbed the staircase again, entirely expecting  some prehistoric throw back to emerge from the undergrowth behind us.

What greeted us as we climbed was a coach load of Japanese tourists intent on screaming into the mist from every vantage point, seemingly immune to the spell that the scene had cast on everyone else we met on the ascent.

We came to see The Blue Mountains.

I'm rather glad we didn't.


Day 32: Manly Beach (01/03/2011)

In need of some down time, we surfaced, breakfasted on Ewa’s patented oats and fruit salad before heading for the beach.

A train ride to City enabled us to walk the short distance to Circular Quay to pick up the famous Manly ferry. Double ended to enable them to sail in either direction without the need to turn round, we secured prime seats on the starboard foredeck to watch the passing of the city foreshore, SHB and the Opera House. Past the Botanical Gardens we went, to Fort Dennison in the roadway, the Navy dockyards and the suburb lined bays of the wealthier southern waterside neighbourhoods.

Manly is now a distant suburb that at one stage was a sizeable town in its own right, some 8 miles from the city, now subsumed into the greater conurbation. It retains its turn of the century charm but has sensitively grafted on the best of modern architecture and so preserved the essential character of the place. Relaxed, easy going and prosperous, Manly is above all a place to have fun. The streets are dotted with weatherboard leisure pursuit shops, intermingling effortlessly with gelateria, sea food restaurants and historic buildings.
The ferry docked at a picturesque wharf protruding from a golden beach. Sydney is a city of countless bays and beaches which contribute significantly to the relaxed air it has acquired. Manly is no exception. Standing on Manly Corso, no fewer than 5 beaches are visible, each as beautiful as the next. We ate our sandwiches under the watchful eye of the seagulls before strolling the length of Manly Beach and around the small headland to Cabbage Tree Bay, named after the Cabbage Palms that used to crowd the foreshore. A small seawater swimming pool has been carved from the rocks and fills with the tide under the gaze of a sculpture of swimmers that is elevated to the horizon.
Walking past the silver sculptures of surfers and fish emerging from the rock face, we arrived at Shelly Bay, named on account of the lack of sand and the substitution of sea washed shells that will one day reach a sufficiently fine grain, to call themselves sand. We found the shade of a palm and sat watching lithe men and curvaceous girls play paddle ball. We fell asleep to the rustle of the dried palm fronds waving in the onshore afternoon breeze.

We retraced our steps to the ferry, only diverting for a cooling ice cream on the Corso before returning home. Gulls hovered beside the ferry as it ploughed through the rising swell and spray soaked our faces. The gulls departed and we arrived in the city before catching the train home.
We had the early evening to ourselves as Nick and Ewa attended a building management STRATO meeting with over ran until 9.30pm. Starving and a little past eating, we went to their favourite Japanese restaurant called Dantako. They were on the point of closing for the evening but agreed to let us in if we were finished within the hour.

Dutifully we ordered and consumed sushi, sashimi and chicken teriyaki with silverfish tempura and vegetable croquets. And so to bed; once again on the merry side of tipsy and full to brimming with all things good.

Day 31: Harbourside (28/02/2011).

Slightly hung over, we surfaced to see Ewa momentarily before she left for work while Nick waited for workmen

We chatted late into the morning before catching the North Shore line 6 stops into the city. On advice, we disembarked one stop early at Milson’s Place in order to walk across SHB (Sydney Harbour Bridge) to The Rocks historical quarter. Few cities have so many iconic sights crammed into such a small space. The bridge, opera house, ferry terminal, sky line and bays are all taken in by a single glance but each is a wonder in its own right.
We walked from the Milson’s Place station but immediately lost sight of the bridge. At only a mile long and 200 feet high, it was entirely understandable. Walking for 20 minutes in the wrong direction, we reached an avenue that gave a clear view of the receding structure and we paused for the humour before reversing our course.
The bridge appears to be a compact structure from almost any vantage point other than on it. In reality, it is very large indeed, towering over the harbour and supported by enormous piers at either end which must have been the largest structures in the city for many years after they were erected; only relinquishing this position in the face of the boom in sky scrapers in the 1960’s. The boardwalk is patrolled by security officers and is the haunt of runners and tourists, commuters and BASE jumpers, hence the security.

The Opera House is equally captivating. Completed in 1973 it resembles the collapse of a giant lotus flower. Iconic from a distance, close up it shows its age through the post-modern architectural design used in its construction. Inside, it is regarded as poor in terms of acoustics but it has found a place in the hearts of the city’s residents and visitors alike and the swarms of snapping tourists will ensure that it survives indefinitely, regardless of the improvements that could be made.
The CBD (Commercial Business District) is really the star of the show. The city sprawls across dozens of bays and promontories that fan out from the main harbour. CBD’s have sprung up in 5 locations throughout the extended conurbation, dominated by the city and the north shore. Sky scrapers huddle together in close proximity, making the most of the available space. Growth is blocked by the national parks to the north and the Tasman Sea to the south. A T-shaped expansion has developed to the north-west which now spreads upwards of 30km from the shore line. There is a bitter rivalry between Sydney and Melbourne for dominance. The former is numerically superior but the latter claims the cultural heritage of empire. Their inhabitants speak ill of each other and of the offerings of their respective cities. The impression is that Melbourne lacks the natural wonders of Sydney but is westward looking. Sydney aligns itself with the Asia-Pacific basin and appears the economic power house but its rival will always know that while the suits may not be sharper, the blood is bluer.
The extended hot spell came to an end in the morning and ominous grey clouds gathered over the bay. Rain drops the size of pennies fell, at first in ones and two’s but quickly in a rush that sent natives and tourist alike dashing for cover. For 10 minutes stair rods fell from the heavens and ricocheted off the harbour side, soaking the dreadlocked Aborigine playing the amplified didgeridoo and the Brill creamed Caucasian playing amplified rock guitar, all the same. When the downpour stopped the ground immediately began to steam and the bird life emerged from cover and returned to its aggressively scavenging ways.
We wandered the waterfront past the Custom House and ferries of the harbour and across the SHB to Darling Harbour, home to the city’s aquarium, maritime museum, I-Max and shopping centres.
We whiled the whole day on the waterfront, together with countless other people drifting around the irregular coastline, marvelling at the high rise sky line and contemplating emigration to a city and a country that, at first glance, seems to have captured and nurtured the elusive essence of national pride and work life balance whilst at the same time developed a world beating economic miracle that has defied the GFC.
The harbour is plied by countless craft from ferries to cruise liners. The ubiquitous jet-boat concession promised the best 30 minutes to be had in Sydney for $95. Lonely business men may disagree. Yachts create a picture post card image as they pass the SHB under full sail. Navy ships exit the dock yards, one bay along from the Opera House, skimming Fort Dennison that sits in the harbour roadway opposite the Botanical Gardens promontory.
We walked through the CBD, admiring the high-rise skyline, dotted with world beating brands advertised from the roof tops and which project corporate power by neon glare, across the bay when darkness falls. Down Macaurie Street and past the Sydney Hospital we ambled, stopping from time to time to take in the contrast of 21st century tower blocks jostling for position around the 18th century heritage of the City Library, Town Hall, Prison and Mint. After donating the appropriate sum, we rubbed for luck on the polished nose of the bronze boar that raises money for the city hospital. Crossing Hyde Park we paused for a spiritual moment in the Cathedral of St Mary. Constructed at a time when Sydney was struggling for identity, it is worthy of attention and hosted Pope Benedict’s meeting with the Archbishops New South Wales in 2009. The mayors of the city are buried in the crypt and the triptych sculptures of the Trinity added in 2009 for the Papal visit have added a classical texture to the space that was previously lacking.
By the time we returned home, we were exhausted. Ewa cooked an inspirational dinner of seared salmon in honey and cracked pepper served with pearl couscous and roasted vegetables followed by home-made banana ice cream. The Sydney birds piped up during dinner and substituted volume for tunefulness.
The skies clouded over again and the setting sun cast fire to the horizon. When the rain came, it was heavy but not prolonged. A rainbow appeared for the last moments of daylight but was extinguished by the arrival of dusk.
We talked of noisy neighbours and recalcitrant builders, of job stresses and life plans, before retiring.

Day 30: Nothing To Declare (27/02/2011)

Fish Kebabs At Sydney Fish Market.
Sooooo Tastey!

There's Something Fishy About This Palce.

By 06.35am when we boarded the aircraft, the lack of alcohol was starting to tell. The skipper was looking edgy and the co-pilots were standing in a defensive circle around the drinks trolley as they welcomed us aboard the Jet Star Airbus.

The Australia's answer to Easy Jet is a cut above its counterpart as a result of simple comforts such as leather seats and pretty tanned stewardesses who smile a lot. The post-industrial wastelands, where Easy Jet recruit, breed a pale, thin lipped type prone to bad skin. They forgo a trowel to apply the makeup, opting instead for something approaching the toolkit of a cake decorator. And they don’t smile very much.
Then again, neither did we, having been woken from what fitful sleep we had managed, by a pre-recorded voice telling us not to allow our children to play on the escalators. Every twenty minutes, at three hundred decibels, all through the night.
I wouldn’t have minded that much but for the fact that I don’t have any children, and even if I did, everyone knows the runway is the best place for early learning.

Into the bargain, the fire alarm went off at 2am, requiring complete evacuation of the building for a further hour while the emergency services stood around in the early morning chill, waiting for the man in the little Chubb van to work out the cause of the problem.

On one hand, every country has a man in a little Chubb van and he is perfectly skilled at resetting alarms in bakeries and shops. On the other, most countries do not delegate to him, the safe operation of their major international airports, in the same way you just don't flick through Yellow Pages to find someone to service your nuclear warheads.

Batter mix disposed of, we lifted off into the New Zealand night bound for Sydney and a week with Nick and Ewa, who appeared from their Face Book posts, the be living the Life of Riley since emigrating from Bristol. Dawn arrived quickly once we reached cruising altitude and it was daylight before we crossed the west coast. After an uneventful flight, we were handed arrival cards which asked the fateful questions about whether luggage contained overseas purchases, food, medicine or articles of natural origin. Australia, I discovered, was hot on this type of thing.
Apart from everything we carried and everything wore, nothing fell into these categories and Clare frog-marched me toward the ‘Nothing to Declare’ aisle. Eye watering fines and jail time were threatened by signs on every pillar between touchdown and customs. I lost my nerve and wriggling free from the Half Nelson, blurted my tearful confession to the nearest person in uniform.

I was directed to a bench 10m away. Like any drive across New Zealand, to get there I had to walk 300m up and down the empty rows of Tensa-barriers, designed to marshal the unruly crowd into an orderly queue. Before long, an elderly but perfectly polite customs officer was rooting through my dirty underwear while I shifted uneasily from foot to foot, praying that I was not about to be exposed as an unwitting Drug Lama. In the narcotics lexicon, drug mules are restricted to the Northern Hemisphere. In keeping with New Zealand’s expansion into the Al Paca trade, adjustment was clearly needed to avoid confusion.
My prescription medicine didn’t warrant a glance. My pebble collection raised an eyebrow but nothing more. The four small sea shells I had picked up in 1989 in a car park in Dusseldorf, triggered mayhem. Heavy steel doors clanged shut. Alarms blared. Lights flashed. Men wearing black boiler suits and night vision goggles, slid silently down ropes from the ceiling. Once lock down was achieved, the erstwhile retiree snapped into a pair of latex gloves and reached for the lubricant while inviting me to adopt the position.
In reality, the shells were sprayed with alcohol, returned to me and I was sent on my way, feeling like a naughty child. Nick was finishing an 80km cycle ride and so Ewa watered us in their spectacular 4th floor apartment over-looking the leafy district of St Leonards before taking us to the Sydney Fish Market. After eating fish kebabs to die for, we wandered round what is openly accepted as the fiefdom of the Bagnato family. A large sign adorned with photos and a description of the exploits of the 8 current and founding members of the dynasty, takes pride of place at the water’s edge.

The Cosa Nostra it was not, but the absence of competition strongly suggested that the only new blood to have been introduced to this closed shop over the last 70 years, was probably spilled on the quay side.
Nick had returned by the time we got back and soon we had opened beer and were catching up on the continental divide. After dinner of sword fish and burgers, we Scrabbled until the early hours by which time Clare and I were monosyllabic with tiredness and flopped, full and pleasantly inebriated into the first comfortable bed we had occupied since leaving the UK 30 days before.

Monday, 9 May 2011

Day 29: Christchurch Airport (26/02/2011)

Canterbury Plain;
Can You Spot The Camoflauged Sheep?

Airport Evacuation; There's Always One.

Jeff; The Pancake Sachet of Indeterminate Sex

Minutes From Take Off

We entered the northern reaches of the Canterbury Plain, famous for lamb exports, and the hills receded, to be replaced by fertile flatlands. Army trucks once again became a common sight, ferrying supplies to the disaster area ahead and fuel rationing became the norm.

By the time we entered the Christchurch city limits, fuel was advertised as restricted to emergency vehicles only, at all petrol stations, by hastily scrawled signs posted at the roadside.

We returned the Hippy Camper to Apollo Hire with the tank 90% full, to assurances from Faye, our cheerful Executive Driver and vehicle check-in operative, that the balance would be charged at the prescribed rate of $2NZD per litre and that we would thankfully not be charged for the tool-kit that had never been there. We needed it to release the engine cover for the contractually required 500km interval oil checks and aside from the obvious perils of a blow out on any of the fearful mountain roads we crossed, the practicalities of changing a tyre without a jack or tyre iron thankfully turned out to be a hypothetical worry.
The airport was closed for 24 hours after the quake but re-opened apparently unscathed. An extra 12,000 people left the city in the days following the disaster, stretching the airport’s capacity, but by the time of our arrival, normal service had been resumed. With a 14 hour wait from arrival to take off at 06.35am, we staked our territory on the free seats and hunkered down with books, pre-made sandwiches and the remaining battery life of the net-book, to wait out the night.
A small display in the terminal recorded the nation’s aviation history. Today Air New Zealand is a large regional player, shuttling the diaspora to and from the four corners of the globe. Surprisingly, a New Zealander, known enigmatically but fraudulently, by the title Professor Baldwin, holds the record for the first manned aerial flight in the spring of 1903, some 6 months before the Wright brothers took to the air for the first time in the Kitty Hawke and claimed the undeserved credit that they have never been entitled to.

The indifference of the government to the potential of flight held back the development of an indigenous aircraft industry for a decade until gentlemen flyers began to prove its worth. By 1923 New Zealand played a part in the record breaking flight from London to Auckland in 23 hours and 11 minutes, which while slow by today’s standards remains astonishing for the time. The government again held back development by resisting the introduction of long haul jet flight in the 1950’s by which time competitors had stolen the march and the nation spent decades recapturing lost trade that should have been it’s by right, based on its earlier achievements.
Australia does not allow arrivals to bring food into the country and so we ate as much as we could before disposing of the residue. It was a sad parting when the pancake mix and maple syrup sachets went to landfill and it was an entirely unnecessary loss which could so easily have been prevented had I succeeded in forcing the overnight lock at the Starbucks concession and robbing milk, eggs and a hot frying pan.

Jeff, as the sachet had been christened part way through our momentous journey together, glowered reproachfully from the trash can as we left him, although he may in fact have been a she as I have, regrettably, yet to acquire the skills necessary in determining the sex of a pancake.
Not far from our thoughts was the ever present risk of aftershocks, still continuing daily at an intensity of up to 4 on the Richter scale and bringing down already damaged buildings in the Central Business District. It was a long wait for the flight but made longer by the niggling worry of nature’s complete unpredictability. A sad story emerged of a foreign student trapped in the rubble of the CTV building, sending a dwindling stream of texts to her family overseas before presumably succumbing to the effects of her injuries before rescuers could find her.
Unease turned to concern when the fire alarm was triggered and the airport was evacuated of bleary eyed travellers in the early hours of the morning for what transpired to be a routine incident and not aftershock related. But no one complained despite an hour standing outside the terminal in the chilly New Zealand night and therein lays a significant difference between this country and many others.

In the aftermath of the earthquake there were no recriminations, no finger pointing and no discord. Even the local radio DJ’s heaped praise on all concerned and even went as far as commending the Prime Minister’s speech to the nation. There is a pride in being a Kiwi that other older and more established nations have lost.

Diminutive, the country may be in terms of population, but it does so much better than simple numbers would suggest.

Day 29: Fuel Duel (26/02/2011)

Lunch At Lake Pearson

Fair Exchange; Rock Cake For Petrol

We cowered under the duvet through the early hours, parked next to the railway line in Arthur's Pass. The night was punctuated by the continuous screech of the dreaded Kea monsters.
It was cold and early when we woke but thankfully yesterday's fuel crisis was about to be relieved. There was no petrol station for another 70km but Arthur's Pass Café, of all the unlikely places, sold tea, cakes and 95 octane unleaded. Unfortunately it was limited to a 10 litre allowance which was never going to get us to the next fuel station in Springfield.

Ignoring the advice of a heavily tattooed redneck, who suggested that we fuel up and make a run for the lowlands, I mustered all my charm and set about sweet talking the pump attendant, who double shifted as the cafe waitress, to bend the rules just this once. Ready to beg, plead, argue and even sacrifice Clare's life if it came to a fight, none of this was necessary as she sweetly rolled her eyes and doubled our allowance. She has clearly had seen ill-prepared tourists fall foul of the improbable distances between refuelling stops, many times before.

As a gesture of our thanks we bought a rock cake from her and free wheeled the remaining 150km down the hill to Christchurch. Petrol supplies were becoming more scarce as the miles clocked up and pre payment for limited amounts of fuel were in force. Scuffles in the forecourt queues seemed on the point of breaking out as we were leaving Springfield; Mad Max look alikes roamed the streets and the strains of Tina Turner were clearly audible as we hit the highway.

The full tank neatly illustrated in microcosm, the fickle nature of our relationship to resources. Whilst eking out the last drops, to make it to the summit of Arthur’s Pass the night before, I had deployed every fuel saving tactic I could think of, short of switching off the engine and asking Clare to get out and push.. Now equipped with half a tank, I left the engine running at traffic lights and careered recklessly at speeds of up to 50kmph. 

We stopped for lunch on Highway 73 at Lake Pearson.

The lake had been heavily forested to the water’s edge in years gone by, but this time it was the Maori, rather than the white settlers, who deforested large swathes of the district, now known as Craigeburn, by setting fires, to clear paths and camp sites, which got hopelessly out of control. What was left was clearance land on which tussock grasses took root. This proved favourable for grazing the newly imported Merino, until the white settlers committed their own environmental damage and over grazed the land to the point of almost irreversible soil erosion.
In more enlightened times, the vulnerable land on the upper slopes has been retired from grazing and the remainder has been actively managed to encourage regrowth of the tussock grasses but not the native forests.

Improbably well camouflaged sheep wander the lower hill sides, clearly a reaction of natural selection to the predations of the Kea Menace.

Sunday, 8 May 2011

Day 28: Parachutes And Ponies (25/02/2011)

Basil The Beehive Maker

Molly Eating The Grass

Clare On  Murphy

Floyd; My Horse Had Spots 

The plan had been for Clare to ride horses and for me to sky dive.
As it turned out, the sky dive company favoured by the Top 10 Camp Site was the only one in town to prohibit cameras. The explanation was that loose cameras may endanger the aircraft which was entirely sensible. The policy started to break down a little when the issue of fixed cameras came up for discussion.

The fact that their employed camera man, whose services were offered to record the once in a lifetime experience for the reasonable sum of $295NZD, used exactly the same camera and harness as I did, seemed to be beside the point. The twelve year old behind the counter started to cry when I gently pressed the inconsistency and I had to give him my lollypop to placate him before his burly mum came windmilling into the delicate customer service discussion, from her position in the back of the shop.

It was a deal breaker for me, having shelled out on a tough little Go Pro HD camera specifically for the purpose, and now I was down one lollypop into the bargain. So, having turned down one opportunity to fall heavily on the ground from a bone crunching height, I chose another. 

I went riding with Clare instead.
The South Westland Horse Treks booking started inauspiciously when the stables appeared uninhabited for half an hour after our appointed departure time. What appeared a problem was actually a bonus as the delay was caused by the extra time enjoyed by the earlier trek which had yet to return. We enjoyed the same treatment.
Basil was our guide and an out and out Kiwi of about 25. His father was born in badlands of Torquay, less famous for its horsemen, and he was seeking a UK passport to travel in Europe with his Irish girlfriend. He was open and charming with a stack of stories about life in the Western saddle, complete with pommel, bucket stirrups and a high back.

He had an equal number of hair raising stories which revolved around green horses that had parted him from his saddle and a side line for the quiet time, making bee hives. The stable was piled high with his work in progress.
Clare rode a forward Chestnut called Murphy, Nicola a Grey called Molly and I had a larger Painted Appaloosa called Floyd who was the elder statesman of the stable. We hacked in a wide arc across the valley floor, crossing clear mountain streams, dry stone river beds and fern laden forest. The horses munched happily on whatever greenery they could steal and Floyd was partial to bracken that Basil said was particularly sweet at this point in the season.

Embarrassingly, we passed the sky dive base, not only where I had caused such a scene, but where Basil’s girlfriend was on the staff, so I pulled down my peak and waited for the inevitable chat to finish before we were on our way. My defection from chute to saddle remained undetected and at the end of the ride I was not sorry to have made the exchange.
When the ride was over we had coffee at a bench outside the stables and then said our goodbyes to the Kingscote clan who were heading south for Milford Sound. We began the long road to Christchurch, hoping for the miracle stories which, thankfully always follow such tragedies.

On the way news broke of baby saved from the arms of its dead mother and an office worker pulled unscathed from the rubble of the collapsed P&G building from which no one else had emerged.

These were small but important mercies.

Day 28: Fear The Kea (25/02/2011)

Hokitika In Sticks.


Arrrgghhh! Run For Your Lives!

It is not fair to call New Zealand’s road network patchy.

As far as it goes, it does a very good job at steep drops, hairpin turns and traction control problems that a hard cornering labrador on ice would struggle to beat.

Obviously, it comes from building your towns and cities on different sides of mountain ranges. But there is also an almost perverse tendency to go up rather than round and over rather than through. Even the Italians can build road tunnels through their Alps, and they spend most of their money on nice shoes and ice cream.

Consequently, the coast to coast drive, from the glaciers on the western seaboard to Christchurch in the east, required a journey taking in two sides of an elongated triangle and a distance totalling over 450km. A simple and perfectly achievable 70km long hole through the New Zealand Alps would have reduced this journey to 140km, with the incidental benefit of providing a channel for mass migration of the Kiwi's national treasure; the Kiwi.

Though possibly not all seven of them at once.

We retraced our steps across the Waitanga River and the glacial plains, over Mount Hercules and back to Hokitika where we stopped for provisions, but sadly not fuel which, with the benefit of hindsight, may have been a mistake. We looked in at a jade factory and took a brief walk on the black sand beach made famous by the Hokatika driftwood logo. We shopped for the next meal at the New World Supermarket before beginning the second leg from Hokitika to Arthur’s Pass, the highlight of which is the Otare Gorge.

In the land of trouser darkening roadside drops, Otare is King of Kings. Rarely venturing beyond 2nd gear, we wheezed up a prolonged and winding incline so steep that even the tarmac was struggling to hold on.
Spotting a look out parking area with reassuringly level tarmac, we pulled in, only to be set upon by a horde of terrible and blood thirsty predators that began to systematically remove the Hippy Camper roof. The Kea is a parrot native to the uplands of New Zealand and thankfully for the sake of humanity's continued survival, nowhere else.

Not thinking of my own safety, I lowered the window an inch before issuing a curt demand that they desist. This didn’t work I so I implemented Plan B and gingerly eased a crisp to within beak reach. They didn’t object to chicken flavour and the distraction enabled me to escape the besieged vehicle and plan a counter assault from the rear to aid Clare who was still trapped in the fast disintegrating van.

Clearly, recognizing the loss of their strategic advantage, the horde withdrew to a safe distance to deliberate and I took the opportunity to return to the van, now partially denuded of external fittings by their fierce talons and beaks. Largely removed was that rubbery strip that makes the roof rack grippy and when hostilities had ended, this was repairable only with the handle of a tea spoon and considerable manual dexterity. The immediate danger having passed, we executed a text book retreat, pausing only to take some photos of the vista of the gorge from the viewing point, and the increasing numbers of Kea attracted by the unfolding spectacle.
There being no petrol light, we had carelessly allowed the needle to migrate fully to the left, and running on  vapour, we reached the peak and cruised down in darkness, to the mountain railroad town of Arthur’s Pass, hoping against hope that fuel would be available the next morning.
We dined handsomely on cold chicken, bacon pie and potato salad with the remaining Steinlager, before bed.
Incidentally, it was out 5th wedding anniversary which made the day very special indeed.
The night however, was filled with the passing rumble of freight trains on the mountain tracks and the haunting cry of the Kea which echoed across the gorge, striking fear into the hearts of all who heard.

Day 27: Lakes and Glaciers (24/02/2011)

It Does What It Says On The Tin.

Approaching Franz Josef Glacier.

A River Flows From An Ice Cave At
The Foot Of The Glacier.

The Black Waters Of Lake Mattheson.

Mount Cook And Mount Tasman
Lost In The Clouds.

Franz Josef and her sister Fox glacier, support small but vibrant tourist townships at their feet.

In summer the visiting population parachutes in the blue skies, kayaks the turquoise gorges and rides, bikes and hikes the green valleys. In winter they ski.

We visited the glaciers which are dramatically obscured by folds in the mountainous terrain until the closing stretch of a pleasant walk. They have advanced and retreated countless times over the eons and are both currently in a state of forward motion. Like molasses, they roll slowly down the gorges, fed by snow that falls at the top. Amongst the fastest moving glaciers in the world, they can achieve 5m per day. A crashed aircraft that was enveloped in the ice in 1941, 7 miles from the terminal face, was ejected onto the forward boulder field a mere 6 years later.
Their size is deceptive.

From a distance the lack of context tricks the eye into foreshortening the dimensions. At 13 miles in length, their true size only becomes apparent when hikers appear like ants traversing the Moraine. Fox is commonly regarded as the less spectacular of the two. Franz Josef produces a roaring river from the ice cave that gapes at the foot of the face, fed by a thousand intra-glacial streams that flow through the fissures that the moving ice opens and closes on a daily basis.
Access is limited to 200m from the terminal face unless accompanied by a qualified guide. The ice sheets are alive and change on a daily basis. Enticing blue ice caves can appear and be reabsorbed during the course of a day. Spectacular collapses are common and signs warn visitors in the strongest terms, of the risks.

Over adventurous tourists have been washed away by collapsing ice dams and being crushed by the tonnes of ice that fall daily from the face. Two Indian tourists were killed in 2009 and many who ignore the safety cordons have been injured. Despite the warnings it is estimated that one third of the 600,000 tourists who visit the glaciers annually, venture beyond the marked safety areas.

Whether this is a measure of the impossible task of managing man’s interaction with a force of nature, or a reflection of the over cautious policy of the Department of Conservation, is a moot point. More people come to harm driving to the glaciers than misbehaving in its massive shadow.
After the magnificence of the glaciers we walked the modest circumference of Lake Matheson. Exploited by the Maori for its eel and timber, the area remained unchanged by its sustainable use for hundreds of years. White settlers cleared the forests for agricultural land but the lake has survived unscathed. The banks are heavily mossed and consequently the soil is deeply peaty. The run off gives the water an almost black appearance and creates perfect conditions, on still days, for the famous reflections of Mounts Cook and Tasman which are visible from the specially constructed viewing platform.

The lake is alive with native fan tails and wood pigeons, unconcerned by the approach of walkers. The former is tiny but fiercely territorial. Taking up a position on a branch or trunk, it will hold its ground, repeating its distinctive staccato chatter and waving its white and blue fan aggressively until the interloper either departs. or comes too close.
After more barbequed New Zealand lamb we chatted and drank coffee.

Despite the low cloud that had shrouded the glacier, we all felt the soporific effects of a full day in the mountain air and so collapsed into bed without further ceremony, leaving the washing up to another day.

Day 26: Hokitika to Franz Josef Glacier (23/02/2011)

Struggling To Get Into Shot.

The Bridge At Hokitika Gorge

The Hippy Camper On The Waitanga River

Downed Bridge At Franz Josef Glacier

Sunset Over The Glaciers

We visited the Catholic Church in Hokitika before leaving town.

Brick built in 1914, completion was slowed but not stopped by the outbreak of war and the attendant shortage of materials and manpower. An elegant structure in the baroque style, it is topped by a dome that overlooks all other buildings in the town. Sadly put to use for a funeral as we left, the sun appeared to chase away the grey skies for the mourners.
Thirty miles inland we travelled to the Hokitika Gorge.

The river that runs through it carries glacial water from the Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers. Sedimentary deposits known as glacial flour are suspended in the water creating a turquoise hue that captivates the eye. A rope and wire bridge is suspended across the chasm giving a precarious vantage point from which to watch the river ease by. On the way in and out of the gorge we passed through a glacial plain of rich agricultural land heavily populated by cows, sheep, goats and even al paca.

Milking time coincided with our departure and the sight of cow dogs and quad bikes driving a running herd toward us was strangely unfamiliar.
We passed through Waitaroa, another of the small townships left behind after the retreating gold rush. A pretty place dominated by a single high street and with a rare court building apparently unchanged since its erection in the late nineteenth century.

Heading for the glacier region of Westland, we ate lunch on the banks of the Waitanga River, grey with glacial run off. Paul and Nicola passed us and stopped to plan a later rendezvous at the glaciers. The appearance of coincidence was an illusion as New Zealand is not blessed with roads in abundance and the most direct route is rarely as the crow flies.

After lunch we took a slight detour to what was advertised as a glacier helicopter tour point. There were no helicopters there but projecting from the river bed were the supports of a long collapsed concrete bridge. The grey water carried trees and debris to rest against them. The next day the water was turquoise as a result of overnight rain washing more glacial flour into the river.

Panic ensued at the local petrol station when we asked about the circumstances of the downed bridge. Mistakenly believing that we referred to a different and recently collapsed bridge to the north, caused by the recent earth quake, the attendant was ready to mobilise the local Civil Defence Committee until the misunderstanding was resolved with embarrassed laughter on all sides.
The glacial plains passed and the familiar switch back returned as we climbed and then descended Mount Hercules and before long the mountains rose around us and the temperature began to fall. Hardy cyclists sweated their way up the road as we passed them. Also passing them were army trucks taking water bowsers and supplies to the stricken city to the south.
We joined Paul, Nicola and Arthur at the Top 10 camp site in Franz Josef, hooked up to power and barbequed New Zealand lamb washed down with native Steinlager. We retired shortly after the evening chorus had died down and when the brilliant orange glow, silhouetting the mountainous backdrop, had faded to twilight.

Day 25: The Doctor Will See You Now (22/02/2011)

Hokatika: Is It A Hospital Or A Hostel?

The Church In Hokitika.

Our destination for the night was Hokitika, a coastal town of 1,000 where we had arranged to meet friends; Paul, Nicola and baby Arthur, also itinerant Bristolians.

Notable for two large brick built churches amongst a forest of weatherboard walls and corrugated iron roofs, we booked into the hill top Sea View campsite and a surreal  but thoroughly pleasant experience.

Situated in a disused hospital and utilising both the grounds and the buildings, the entrepreneurial owners had undertaken a partial conversion that had yet to extend to removing the all the hospital beds and medical equipment. The wards were still in place and you could not shake the feeling that patients continued to roam the corridors in some Stephen King homage, in search of some long departed doctor.

The owners were friendly and hospitable but had family in Christchurch and were packing food and blankets to drive the night roads on a mercy mission.
We helped to load the supplies and waved them off, remaining the only people in the 30 acre complex that came fully equipped with a school, chapel of rest, wards, accomodation and a water tower. Last furnished in the early seventies, the place was a treasure trove of retro-collectibles. 

After dinner and the first wine of the trip, we took torches into the darkness and, accompanied by the wind and the crash of the surf on the beach close by, we sought out the glow worms that occupied a small cleft in the hill a few hundred metres away. A local point of interest, Hokitika had not exploited them as Waitomo had and the wonder was more enthralling, uncontaminated as it was by commercial pressures.
It was a strange and melancholic day that I suspect will continue to influence both our time here and our memories of the place, not least because our departure for Sydney is scheduled from Christchurch in 5 days’ time.

Day 25: Where Were You? (22/02/2011)

Reefton; Where Someone Switched The Lights On.

Brunner; Ghosts Still Haunt The Place.

Today we crossed the Alps.
After a steady climb we made the Lewis Pass in fog at 987m. The road was characteristically winding with great views and even greater drops into the ravines below. The only thing harder than the journey itself, was keeping up with the pace of a selection of Kiwi truck drivers who clearly knew the road but not the speed limit.
We stopped for lunch outside Reefton, a largely inactive gold and coal town, famed for being the first to be electrified in New Zealand and still sporting a high street decked with the original street lamps. Described by the guide books as a western film set in winter, it has no tumbleweed but a healthy tourist industry supported by a disproportionately large I-Site tourist information office.
Further down the river, the now abandoned town of Brunner hosts an industrial heritage centre commemorating the death in 1907, of 65 men and boys in what, despite recent events, still remains New Zealand’s worst mining disaster. The information boards give an interesting history accompanied by an eerie black and white photograph of the site taken at the time. It is dominated by the late 19th century box-girder bridge and chimneys which remain, long after the site was mothballed. 

It tells the story of the town’s birth and rise to prominence on the banks of the eponymous river, producing 12% of the growing nation’s coal output in the years before the disaster which lead to its total demise.

Upstream is the thriving logging and timber town of Stillwater where the river slows to a glassy eddy as a result of a deep river bed that has been carved from the surrounding rock. Heavily laden lumber trucks rumble past the memorial, continuing the industrial tradition while the ghosts undoubtedly look on.
Entering the Grey district, it could have been named after the weather or the memory of some long dead founder. The Grey River, the Grey Valley and the regional capital of Greymouth bear the name.

Whilst in Noel Leeming Electricals in Greymouth, attempting to retrieve the lost dolphin footage, we learned of what was already being reported as a devastating earthquake in Christchurch, regional capital of the Canterbury district, 100 miles to the south east. The shop manager had a brother and son unaccounted for, whose office block had been demolished by the quake.

His computer terminal showed a picture of the collapsed spire of the city cathedral.

Whilst only 6.3 on the Richter scale, the epicentre of the quake was 5km from the city centre, unlike the 7.1 in September 2010 that did damage but took no lives. Aftershocks continued to reverberate as we watched the unfolding story in the shop, felling many already critically damaged buildings. We wished him well and were on our way.

If there is any insight to be gained into the Kiwi culture from the tragedy, it is this. Even in matters as important as a national disaster, some people can be surprisingly parochial. The nation sometimes feels like a series of connected but introspective localities. Local radio news opened with sport and local, not international, national or even regional affairs. Events a mere 100 miles away seemed too distant to be regarded as local. The newscaster lead with Greymouth stories including kittens for sale and the performance of the local sports teams. The events in Christchurch warranted 20 seconds at the tail of the broadcast even though 68 were currently reported dead.

You can speculate about the effect of pioneer spirit or a history of self-reliance and it may only be a perception based on reactions to the breaking story but it is not like home.

Our parents had the assasination of JFK and the Moon landings.

I will always remember where I was at 12.51pm on 22nd February 2011.

Saturday, 7 May 2011

Day 24: Swimming With Dolphins (21/02/2011)

Pretty Handsome, Eh?

You Have To See It To Believe It.

Scenes From The Sugar Scoop

As so often in life, Yin delivers a soothing stroke to the forehead while Yang creeps up behind you and karate chops you in the Adam's Apple or, on this occassion, corrupts the memory card containing all evidence of your once in a life time experience.
After a breakfast we arrived for the Dolphin Encounter pre match briefing. A power point presentation, over dubbed by an adenoidal Kiwi sitting too close to the microphone, emphasised that  “The dolphins may not be ready to see you now” and “Try to take what you can from the experience”. It left us feeling only slightly less than fully confident of the experience promised prior to parting with the cash.
Admittedly, dolphins or no dolphins, we would do it in some style, zipped into flattering wet suits that if not actually flattening the paunch, certainly forced recalcitrant flab into all the right places. Our chipper tour leader emphasised the wild nature of the dolphins and the entirely unpredictable behaviour that they may exhibit.

Never was it actually suggested that there might be fatalities, but the exclusion of liability was written clearly on the wall and the slightly frayed cuff of my wet suit definitely appeared to have been gnawed by something fishy.
After the induction, 15 masked and flippered divers waddled aboard a gleaming multi-million dollar twin hull motor cruiser that took us the 25 minute journey to the pod. Owen, that rare breed of deeply tanned, auburn haired Scotsman, welcomed us with a well-rehearsed patter about respect and sustainability and promptly sounded the horn that indicated that the propellers had stopped turning and that we were free to engage the quarry.

As instructed, we slipped quietly from the sugar scoop into the bright water, each uttering a silent prayer of thanks that the feared force 7 had not yet materialised and the swell had not risen beyond 2 metres.
The opening salvo was electrifying.
The hardest hearted cynic was instantly converted as at first, in two’s and three’s and soon in groups of a dozen or more, the curious species of Dusky dolphin closed on us, circled, whirled and cork screwed about our clumsy, thrashing forms. Close enough to touch but always beyond reach, they performed a bewitching dance that  promised something wonderful but unspoken. Their iconic forms eased effortless passed us with the merest flick of the tail.
The pod was at least 100 strong and wave after wave of the creatures surged past us from every direction. What had seemed a trite list of recommendations to attract dolphins, at the outset, seemed to be surprisingly effective. Singing, circling, making eye contact and particularly diving, all seemed to interest them and they came to investigate, again and again, apparently never tiring of our efforts.

Initially, the water was alive with renditions of every national anthem but after a few minutes of increasingly breathless chase, the singing had subsided to a few tuneless hoots and the offering of one contributor, rather over familiar with the Beatles songbook.
The horn sounded too soon, for the end of the first, second and third dives after which we hauled ourselves, exhausted and elated onto the sugar scoop to disrobe and fall upon the ginger biscuits and hot chocolate offered to ward off sea sickness and gathering chill.
We watched as members of the pod frolicked in the bow wave, harassed a blue penguin and somersaulted repeatedly to no end but mischief in the surf crashing off the rocks nearby.
And then it was over. The boat was leaving and all necks craned to catch a final glimpse of the pod as it powered its way into the distance.
We talked as the boat made its way back to the South Bay. No other animal evokes such a feeling of respect and privilege. The over rehearsed welcomes had seemed more ‘Easy Jet’ than ‘Attenborough’ at the outset but after spending such a short time with the dolphins, the genuine enthusiasm of our hosts shone through.
Sadly, after a single viewing, the Fates decreed the deletion of the memory card that stored all the underwater footage. Perhaps it is better that way, as now, if the true wonder is to survive, it will have to do so unaided by the digital crutch which subtly substitutes itself for actual memories.

Day 23: The Wrong Side Of The Tracks (20/02/2011)

The Wrong Side of The Tracks.

Photogenic Cheese Cake 

Black Lava Shingle and Aqua-Marine Water.

Long Defunct Whaling Stations Litter the Bay.

We woke up at the Top 10 Camp site in Kaikoura, slightly earlier than anticipated when the 2am Nelson to Christchurch freight train shunted 30 wagons past, only 20 feet from the perimeter fence.

And again at 3am and then at 4am. By 5am I was attacking the signal box with a fork, five miles up track, in a vain attempt to switch the points. With hindsight, a screw-driver might have been a better choice.
After that we slept until 6.45am when the whale watching helicopter whirred into life and lifted off from the helipad, just the other side of the railway tracks.
After a bleary-eyed breakfast, we snaffled the much valued opportunity for a hot shower and made our way to Kaikoura Esplanade to register for a dolphin watching trip, en route to a 4 hour walk to the local gull and seal colony.

The routine of a steep hill climb followed by the stunning vista of an azure bay, failed to disappoint. Nature had almost completely reclaimed the line of long defunct whaling stations that had powered the local economy but driven the resident Hump-Back and migratory Right whale to the point of extinction.

It was only the population collapse of the over exploited quarry, induced by the mechanised methods of slaughter, including bombs and rocket propelled harpoons, that consigned the whaling industry in Kaikoura to the same fate. Slowly the communities of whale species have recovered and are beginning to thrive once more as a result of the exceptionally fertile waters off the Kaikoura peninsula. Fed by the upwelling of nutrients from the ocean floor, caused by the combination of prevailing currents and the steepness of the off shore shelf, it is an area of exceptional biological variety.
The sea is two tone when viewed from the cliff top vantage point. A mile or two out from the black, lava shingle beaches that line the peninsula, the sea is dark blue even on the sunniest of days. The depths descend to 1,000 metres and more in the Tsangian trench.

Closer inshore there is an abrupt change as the submarine cliff faces rise vertically from the sea bed. The water becomes a cloudy and enchanting aqua marine. Soft and soluble limestone from which most of the eroding cliffs are made, has dissolved over the eons, to give the water a picturesque hue. The beaches mimic the trench walls and also rise steeply from the surf and the black smooth sea washed shingle rattles with the onset and retreat of each wave.
After returning across the headland to the Esplanade, we stopped at the Encounter café, which the Lonely Planet regards as the best watering hole in town. We had latte and a generous and extremely photogenic slice of raspberry cheesecake. After a more leisurely stroll down the high street the time had come for Risotto and bed.
The 2am freight train failed to appear and I slept undisturbed with a screw-driver tucked happily under my pillow.