Tuesday, November 15, 2011


Picton to Wellington

If you ever wanted an example of how familiarity can breed at the very least indifference, then the ferry crossing from the South to North Islands is it.

The seasoned and regular travelers on this route shuffled and hustled to find themselves a spot to nap or watch television, while we, with the space station on wheels safely loaded and secured below, made our way to the deck to watch the ferry leave the Picton dock and move out into a misty morning. As we slowly pushed out into the waters of Marlborough Sound, fog, wispy cloud, and wake settled behind us, our trail preserved like a gigantic snail, albeit temporarily.

Marlborough Sound - Leaving South Island
With no escape route in sight, the ferry weaved its way slowly out through the hills of the sound, lefts and rights, snaking its way away North-Eastwards. Then with one maneuver the ferry was no longer encased in mist and fog but was being struck by a laser like sunbeam shooting through an opening. The closer we edged the larger the opening became, and within what seemed like just seconds, the vessel was out of arms of Marlborough Sound and into the seemingly unending waters of Cook strait.

1st glimpse of Cook Strait
Drowned in sunshine we powered onwards for a couple of hours through the waters of the strait, until land again formed part of the horizon. Like the escape from Marlborough Sound, but in reverse, we navigated what was seemingly a small opening and sailed into the open arms of the huge natural harbour at Wellington. Within moments it felt like a gate had been closed behind us and we were gliding across the flattest lake imaginable, with the hills of Wellington’s suburbs rising up from the shoreline all round us, and the city itself sparkling and basking in the reflection of the harbour’s glasslike surface.

I’ve paid good money in my time to sightsee far less dramatic land and seascapes, so if this was just a commute for our fellow passengers it makes them the most obliviously lucky people around.

A trundle off the ferry and 20 minutes later we were plugged in at the camper park in the hills just North of the city centre, and a quick taxi ride later we were back in the centre.
Smooth waters of the harbour

It hits you immediately - Wellington is a warm, friendly, and  welcoming place. You get asked how your day is going when you buy a coffee, you’ll have a  half dozen conversations with a half dozen strangers if you enter a half dozen shops. Maybe I’ve lived in the Netherlands for far too long but the novelty of having a stranger strike up a conversation with you on the street when they notice your kid, or camera, or the paper you’re reading is something I love and want more of.

We had walked for maybe 10 minutes along Cuba street when we decided that our next destination was going to have do without us and we were going to stay longer in Wellington. Cuba street and that whole area is filled with hipster, arty and student type cafes , bars and restaurants. You can easily eat whatever the hell takes your fancy, although the selection is somewhat curtailed when all the toddler with you fancies is a bread and butter sandwich.

Snoozing among the waterfront traffic
Over the next few days we walked in the sunshine around the government buildings and the beehive, along the shopping mile of Lambtons  Quay, we took the delightful cable car up the Botanic gardens where you  get wonderful views of the city and harbour below, and we walked again and again and again over and back along the waterfront.  The waterfront is fantastic, with parks & playgrounds, bars & restaurants, open air venues, museums and galleries it in itself is an attraction, but due to being possibly the quickest route from one any part of the city to another it constantly has a flow of office workers in runners, roller-bladers, roller-skaters, joggers and cyclists. Not one of which ever tutted, yelled, cursed, or rang a bell at the curious toddler who made the entire path her own on numerous occasions.

The city looks great, a huge natural harbour that every street in town seems to lead to, a smart, crisp centre, and the green hills of the protected city belt on all sides serve as the residential suburbs, beating blocks of flats or housing estates any day of the week.  

Again we saw how national heritage and culture should be preserved for people in the form of Wellingtons Museums. The Wellington city & sea museum is again a great place, and again it’s completely free.  It houses lots of interesting stuff on the city’s emergence, alongside it’s European and Maori settler history. The highlight of the museum though is the exhibition on the Wahine disaster of 1968, when over 50 people died as a ferry sank in a storm, right there in the harbour, with a city watching on helplessly.

Wellington & harbour from the hills
Any other city in the world would be happy to settle for that, a wonderful city museum, but not Wellington. On the waterfront lies ‘Te Papa’ - New Zealand’s national museum.  6 floors bursting with artifacts, exhibitions, and interactive displays, I can’t think of anywhere I’ve ever been that would be more interesting to, or more geared at kids of school age.  We visited Te Papa on our last morning in the city and we left at closing time, not having even reached the top two floors. The cost of visiting this gem? Nothing. Donation boxes are there for those inclined and able, but once again New Zealand’s heritage, culture, and history is freely accessible for anyone who wants to experience it.

'Solace in the wind' on the waterfront
Art is dotted all over the city, especially along the waterfront, some pieces more abstract than others Some hitting perfect tones.

It’s hard to put a finger on any one thing that sets Wellington apart from other cities, it’s big but compact, it’s bustling but never rushed,  it’s pretty but not vain. It epitomizes what I found about New Zealand in general, people are proud of the place, they enjoy it, they use it, they preserve and promote it, but they are never boastful or arrogant about it. It is always, without fail - homely.

We didn’t want to leave, and truth be told I’d go back tomorrow if circumstances allowed, but with time ticking far too fast, the time came to move on from our camperpark in the Wellington hills and move on to a much shortened stop in Whanganui.
I love this city...

Thursday, November 3, 2011


Franz Josef to Picton
After the drama of the morning in Franz Josef, we packed up in the afternoon to head to Greymouth a couple of hundred kilometers further up the coast in the hope of cutting some time of the following day’s journey to Picton.

We left Franz Josef in glorious sunshine and blue skies and by the end of the afternoon we had arrived in Greymouth that was living up to its name. The rain lashed down from the dirtiest of skies, grey clouds blurring the lines between skies and the ocean horizons.  Maybe we caught it on a bad day, maybe I’m being unfair, but Greymouth looks like a town that time has forgotten.  A 1920s seaside down that has been deteriorating ever since that heyday. 

We walked the streets in the rain looking for somewhere to eat, and it’s no exaggeration to say that we walked them alone, not a soul joined us in braving the admittedly shocking weather. After declining the culinary delights of a couple of pubs that had seen better days, we settled on the only place that didn’t look like a fire hazard. A quickly scoffed meal later we headed back to our van that was taking a battering beachside to take shelter for the night - as much from the eeriness of Greymouth itself as the weather.
Not so bright but definitely early the following morning, we packed up and hit the road again, North East away from the coast, towards Marlborough and onto Picton.

We finally had a journey that didn’t mostly comprise of a rally course. While some stretches of highway were even straight, that didn’t take away from the drama of the surroundings. Once we pulled away from the mountains we were into wine country, acres and acres of vineyards left and right, in front and behind, as far as the eye could see.

The sun and blue sky returned just as the countryside turned to velvet. Rolling hills of various shades of greens, yellows and browns guided us all the way into town.

Picton itself is lovely.  If I were to be mean I could say it is what Greymouth should be. It’s a port town, spic and span, with plenty of life about the place. Only having the evening there before the ferry crossing in the morning, we made a bee line to the port and its park to let Sanne have a well deserved run around.

While we were tending to our daughter’s needs as if she were a cocker spaniel we struck up a conversation with a man pushing his daughter on the swings. If there ever was an example of how open and chatty the Kiwis are it was this, within 10 minutes we had his life story, not long returned after 10 years working in Australia, he now had sole custody of his 2 and a half year old daughter after her mother had just upped and left. It was one of those meetings that you think back on ten or twenty years later and wonder how their life will have worked out.

We settled down for the night once again after a day and a half of driving, happy in the knowledge that with the exception of a getting the van on and off the ferry in the morning, we had a few days on solid ground ahead of us.

Tomorrow we would leave the epic South island behind and cross the Cook Straight to New Zealand’s capital – Wellington.