Mountains, Mines and Middle-Earth – Travels in New Zealand Part 3 – Christchurch and Auckland

Part 3 – in which we explore post-earthquake Christchurch.

(You can read Parts 1 and 2 here and here.)

New, smart, modern buildings mixed with pretty colonial bungalows behind fencing, grand buildings propped up with giant crates and vacant gaps. Attempts to use the gaps creatively – wall paintings and pop-up art installations – didn’t hide the devastation, and many of them had become temporary car parks.

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Wall art, Christchurch
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Crates shore up damaged buildings
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A smart new build
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Christchurch city square
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Damaged building
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Art installation – 185 chairs, one for each victim of the earthquakes

The cathedrals were sad affairs. Fencing round the Anglican one, a hollow wreck, heaved the symmetry of the square off-balance, leaving room only for a horseshoe of fast-food caravans in the remaining space. The catholic one fared better, the angels on its parapet holding on grimly. The powers-that-be in each institution have puzzled for a long while over whether to demolish and start again or restore. Restore has been the decision for the Anglican, but that lies in the future.

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Christchurch Cathedral
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The Catholic Cathedral

The Arts Centre made a similar decision, while embracing the opportunity to modernise systems like the heating. Here, many studios are up and running. The restaurant where we’d marvelled over a nasturtium salad was still a hive of scaffolding and sawing, but we enjoyed the quirky café, newly furnished with oddities that harked back to its days of study and research.

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Arts Centre, Christchurch
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Arts Centre, Christchurch
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Café, Arts Centre
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See what the milk for my tea came in?

We visited Quake City, a museum that charts the story of the earthquake and aftermath. Here, we followed a narrative showing the courage of victims and emergency workers and the cheerful work of student volunteers clearing up after. People we spoke to in the city told us of portaloos for weeks afterwards, of rents soaring as those made homeless looked for somewhere to stay, of insurance claims taking years to come through, of people sleeping in their cars, homeless even now. Sobering, too, was our visit to the east side of town. Their neighbourhood condemned now as unsuitable for buildings, homeowners had to leave their homes behind to be razed and grassed over. The area is like a curious parkland now. Straight lines of shrubs mark the boundaries of dismantled properties. Empty roads go nowhere. All you can hear is birdsong.

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Markings left by rescue workers
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The red-zoned area of eastern Christchurch

The area we’d lived in before was less affected, and suddenly I was recognising roads and strips of shops. Travel through the Port Hills has been affected, with one road blocked off permanently, but there are still plenty of opportunities for walking or driving, so we spent Christmas Eve exploring the Banks Peninsula. In search of Pigeon Bay, we found ourselves on a gravel road that twisted and turned, falling away sharply at one side. It was a relief to return to tarmac. At Diamond Harbour we explored the coves, then fuelled up in a café overlooking the cricket ground. Here was another prime example of a small town: as well as the eatery and sports field it boasted a playground, a hairdresser and a library.

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Port Hills, view of Lyttleton Harbour
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Port Hills
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Sign of the Takahe
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Banks Peninsula
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Banks Peninsula, Diamond Harbour
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Banks Peninsula, Akaroa

And so on to our last stop, Auckland, a city we’d explored only once before, thirty years ago. We flew in on Christmas Day. Our chatty driver who ferried us to our hire car insisted we needed to visit the Night Market for its street food.

The biggest city in New Zealand, Auckland is much like many other Western cities, a mixture of old and new, grand and mundane, and plenty of retail therapy. While the young people emptied their purses in the shops, we oldies pursued more sedate activities. One day we explored the forested areas to the north of the city.

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Waitakere Ranges Regional Park
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Waitakere Ranges Regional Park
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Waitakere Ranges Regional Park

The next day we took the ferry to Devonport across the harbour, where the rich live and the less rich enjoy the bookshop and the views.

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A writers’ retreat, Devonport
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Devonport, Auckland
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Bookshop, Devonport
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The ferry returns to Auckland

The Night Market, said Google, is held in a different location each night, across the city. This particular evening it was in Papatoetoe.

On arrival, it didn’t look promising. Apparently it was underground somewhere. Inside the shopping centre doors were closing and at a stall in the middle of the hall three young assistants dismantled a Christmas tree. There were a few people walking purposefully towards the escalator, so we followed them down. For a minute or two we thought we’d gone completely off-track: we’d descended to an underground car park. And then we saw the stalls, over on one side. Rows and rows of food stalls lit up the concrete dungeon offering every form of fatty food and neon-coloured drink your heart could desire – doughnuts and dumplings, hot dogs and hoi sin, burgers and bubblegum tea. For five or six dollars a diminutive stall owner – mostly Asian and a few Eastern European – will pack a polystyrene box with more food than you will ever be able to eat. It buzzed with families, friends and couples viewing, choosing or crowding onto the picnic tables that ranged one side. As the young folk disappeared again, to make their own choices, we found a vacant bench and tackled our mountains. A couple asked to share our bench and offered us doughnuts – she’d expected one for her money and had been given six! Half an hour later we’d made two new friends and agreed, laughingly, that we’d meet up again there on our next visit. And why not? Thanks to Facebook, we’ll be able to make the arrangements once we’ve saved all over again!

It was an unexpected and delightful way to end the adventure that both confirmed and refuted the saying that you can’t go back. We’d visited areas that had been favourites before and areas that were new to us, some changed, some much the same as they’d been before. We’d changed, too, in what we wanted out of a destination. Which places will we revisit on our next trip? It will be interesting to see if Christchurch, for instance, has chosen to leave the colonial days behind and build in a new style, one that looks forward rather than back.

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Christchurch’s pop-up cathedral, built after the earthquake
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New library, Christchurch

Mountains, Mines and Middle Earth – Travels in New Zealand Part 2 – Picton to Queenstown

(You can read Part 1 here.)

Part 2 – in which we cross the Cook Straits to the South Island, visit a ghost town and find our travel plans disrupted by a landslide.

A ferry connects north and south of the country, sailing sedately out of Wellington and navigating the islands and inlets of Charlotte Sound. In Picton, where the ferry docks, we’d booked a luxury flat for a few nights, and were all agreed we’d have happily stayed longer. If our son really does become a millionaire, I’ll credit staying here gave him that taste of high life that spurred him on. The sun shone, the sky was blue. The only cloud was a gentle enquiry from a friend, via Facebook, asking whether we were OK. White Island had erupted, and a boatload of tourists were missing. We were many miles away, across the Cook Straits, but the news that unfolded each day was sobering.

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The Cook Straits
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Picton, view from our balcony
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Charlotte Sound
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Picton
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Charlotte Sound

It was time to head West, the road crossing and re-crossing the Buller River. Deep turquoise, it runs through rocky chasms and under wide bridges, and dawdles in wide beds between pebble pastures.

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The Buller River and a lost shoe

Our destination this time was the ghost town of Denniston.

I’ve mentioned Jenny Pattrick before. Her first novel, the one I bought on our previous visit, is ‘The Denniston Rose.’ I’d read it as we journeyed round, and when I’d finished it, I told Mr W about it.

“Oh, Denniston’s a real place,” he said. “We weren’t far from it last week.”

So Denniston was a must-visit this time.

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Deniston

A half hour drive out of Westport, it thrived on the coal industry between 1880 and 1967. Up on the Rochfort Plateau coal was loaded into wagons that then slid almost vertically down an incline of 518 metres to the bottom, where it was taken by train to the coast. It was illegal for people to ride it, but many risked it anyway.

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Deniston, abandoned machinery

A community formed round the miners. You could say life was bleak. On the rocky ground it was hard to grow fruit, vegetables or flowers. Coffins needed to be lowered on top of coal mines to be buried on lower, softer ground. Furniture had to be brought up via the coal wagons. But it’s interesting what their priorities were. Before a proper road was built, they’d established a hotel, a school, a police station and the School of Mines and Working Men’s Club. There was a strong ethos of education and socialism, and though girls were expected to look after the home, they were also encouraged to excel at school.

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A bit of brickwork is all that is left of a home in Deniston

It always amazes me how quickly nature reclaims the ground. An earthquake a year after the closure covered part of the upper incline. Iron wheels and wagons litter the site, but of the homes there, little remains – half a wall here, a flight of angled steps there with nothing at the top. There are two homes further up the hill, set so far back from the historical area that they are quite out of sight unless you drive further up the mountain road.

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The wild West Coast

From Westport we were headed for Wanaka. The coastal road winds through wild forests, dipping down to wet, empty beaches, where scattered homes watch the sea spray. Storms had brought down a landslip, blocking the second half of coastal road and sending us back east for a long detour that took us over Arthur’s Pass and the wonderful South Island Alps.

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On the road to Wanaka
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Lupins

The hills of Otago look bleak and barren, but when you get up close you’ll see they’re covered in grassy tussocks, green in the centre, gold-tipped. Wanaka, our destination for the night, sparkled with light and lake. The journey had taken us twelve hours, and every twist of the road brought us a new vista of glory.

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Wanaka

Wanaka is famous for a museum and a tree. The museum is Puzzle World, full of optical illusions 2D and 3D. Being a wordy woman, I was particularly intrigued by the ambigrams – to quote the museum information itself, “a typographical creation that presents two or more separate words within the same physical space.

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Which word do you see first in this ambigram?

 

Next stop, Queenstown.

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Approaching Queenstown

The first time we visited this tourist destination, we’d travelled the coastal route. After days of tiny towns where Saturday lunchtime marked the start of the weekend and everything closed until Monday, Queenstown – full of bars and restaurants, lights and laughter – was a welcome break. It’s probably more a mark of my age than a change in the town, that now I found it loud and touristy. You can also spend a small fortune here on extreme sports. Most of the activity on offer involves throwing yourself off something – high wire, hang gliding, bunjee…Fortunately, there are also walking opportunities, whether up the mountain track (who needs a gondola?!) or round the lake.

 

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Walking up Ben Lomond
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Views across Lake Wakatipu, Queenstown
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Walking on Kelvin Heights
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Walking on Kelvin Heights
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Walking on Kelvin Heights
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Walking on Kelvin Heights
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Walking on Kelvin Heights

You can also escape to Arrowtown, because this delightful little place a short drive away preserves many buildings from the Gold Rush era, including the tiny homes of Chinese gold miners.

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The spot where Jack Tewa first found gold
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Delightful Arrowtown
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Arrowtown
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Chinese miners’ home, Arrowtown

When Jack Tewa, a Maori shearer, discovered gold in the Arrow River at the spot that became Arrowtown, his employer, William Rees, asked him to keep it a secret: Rees was keen to complete his shearing without the drama of a gold rush. Tewa kept his word but others made a similar discover and the news spread. By the end of the year 1,500 miners camped by the Arrow River, flooding in from all over the world. Men and women also flocked to offer services: the miners lived hard lives, but they needed to eat and they liked to drink.

One of the women was Julia Eichardt, born in Ireland, taken to Australia by her mother. Starting as a barmaid at the Queen’s Arms hotel, she married the owner and continued to run it after his death as Eichardt’s. A no-nonsense woman like many female New Zealanders, she seems to have been equally famous for throwing drunken customers into the ‘stone jug’ (a room, mercifully, not a receptacle for beer) and opening an extension fitted with electric lights – the first commercial premises in the world to do so – by hijacking the town’s water supply and running it through a pelton wheel. It makes sense to me that New Zealand was the first country to allow women to vote for Parliamentary elections.

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Julia Eichardt
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Julia Eichardt’s grave

The next stage of our journey took us east once more, with scenic stops. Kawarau Bridge is THE place to bungee, but today the one person who’d paid up stood shivering and crying on the edge, and we felt like voyeurs watching, so we moved on. Roaring Meg is a stream that drives a hydroelectric power station as it merges into the Kawarau River. Pines on the slope above it have been condemned as wildings, like various other swathes of non-native timber. Once they were planted by colonials to remind themselves of home and provide materials for building or burning, but the birds and small creatures that had thrived on the local flora began falling in number. Sprayed with chemicals, the pines stand dead, waiting to fall and rot away – a ghost forest. The sun was out as we reached Lake Tekapo, with its photogenic chapel and fields of lupins.

 

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Church of the Good Shepherd, Lake Tekapo
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Lake Tekapo, reflected: me trying to be arty

We were bound now for Christchurch, our home in the 90s. As a couple, we’d arrived with two rucksacks and a lot of hope. Living in a former motel, a unit with shower, galley kitchen, living area and bedroom, we’d worked a variety of jobs to pay the rent. We were looked after by lovely friends from the church we went to on Sundays, and I was welcomed by the local writers group. Christchurch was designed to be the perfect English town, with its roads named after bishops and its gorgeous Gothic architecture. We were both fond of lingering in the town square, with the cathedral as backdrop. If you were lucky, the bagpiper, in full tartan regalia, was away. If you were really lucky, you could hear the famous Wizard with his soap-box oratories, proving that shopping causes wars or selling his maps of the world from the Kiwi point of view. Then it would be time to find coffee or lunch, maybe in the old university, converted into an arts centre. Here, Ernest Rutherford, first person in history to split the atom, experimented for his masters in the former cloakroom, because there was no formal physics laboratory.

If we needed to stretch our legs (and Mr W always needs to stretch his legs) we’d head the other way for the Port Hills, that brood over the town. At the start of the 20th century Harry Ell, aware of the declining population of native flora and fauna in the country, designed a series of resting places here to encourage others to explore and appreciate the area. As with many big projects, only a part was realised, but the houses that were built are splendid. At the foot of the hills sits the Sign of the Takahe, a Gothic wonder with stained glass windows, offering a restaurant and coffees. Higher up is the Sign of the Kiwi, a café with Tip-Top ice-cream, the best in the world. The Sign of the Bellbird and the Sign of the Packhorse offer simple shelter with no refreshments.

We’d been back since then, with our children, and spent a week revisiting all these wonders, though the Wizard and the bagpiper had retired. Not long after that the city was devastated by two earthquakes. We’d seen pictures on the news, and heard from our friends of the psychological impact. We weren’t sure what to expect on our return this time.

 

Tune in to Part 3 to read about post-earthquake Christchurch and Auckland’s night markets!

 

Mountains, Mines and Middle-Earth – Travels in New Zealand Part 1 – Auckland to Wellington

 

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Hot springs in Te Aroha

“Do you have family over there?”

This was the question I was asked countless times as we announced our month-long trip to New Zealand.

Perhaps, to our friends, it’s the reason that makes most sense   for spending over twenty hours on a plane. The truth is that we’ve visited before, once for a holiday, next for a sort of belated gap year, then to show our children, and each time we leave we vow we’ll return.

Because, when you stumble out of the airport in clothes you’ve worn for two days, teeth furry, hair lank, you’ve landed in perhaps the most beautiful country in the world, where finding an ugly spot is a challenge, where every sweep of the road throws open a new vista – jagged peaks, sharp chasms, wild forests.

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The Edwardian spa
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Our garden sat where the mountain began

Though we’d flown into Auckland, we chose to drive straight out in search of Te Aroha, a small town to the south, a discovery we’d made in our last visit. At the foot of a sacred mountain sits the Edwardian spa, utilising the hot springs. There is nothing particularly pretty about the town itself, but it is friendly and equipped with cafes, a bar, an Indian restaurant, and a supermarket, with a book group once a month – surely the basic necessities of life? Here, we breakfasted each morning in a garden that rose to meet the base of the mountain then stretched our legs with walks around and up it. As the path steepened, a distant roar, like traffic or a waterfall, grew louder. At the top stood a mighty transmitter: the roar was the wind buffeting its giant metal frame.

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Te Aroha, sacred mountain
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View from the top of Te Aroha

The landscape on the drive south is carved by plate movement, softened with rain and sun. At Hukka Falls we admired the billowing waters and at Taupo the serene lines of the lake. Our destination this time was Raetihi, a former timber centre now fallen on hard times, though our rented house, a few miles out, looked out onto rolling fields where sheep grazed, Mount Ruapahu sketched onto the sky like Japanese ink work. When darkness fell, it was absolute.

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On the road south
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Hukka Falls
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Lake Taupo

 

Tongariro National Park consists of the peaks of Tongariro, Ruapehu (snow-tipped when we rose the next morning) and Ngauruhoe, Mount Doom in the film of Lord of the Rings. There are plenty of opportunities for walking around here, and our son made the most of the second one with his new camera. We were instructed to walk well ahead so as not to be in the film, so what he actually composed is a mystery to us. All we could hear was the scrunch of gravel under our feet, and the single note of a birdcall.

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Ngauruhoe, Mount Doom
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The Silica Rapids
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Walking back to the car

Lovely, jagged hills flattened out into an ordinary landscape by lunchtime as we resumed our drive south, but Wellington sits in a bowl of hills. New Zealand’s capital threw rain and wind at us for the first day, so we explored the shops, and here I found that the author I’d discovered on our last trip had written a handful more titles. I’d spent a happy hour or more before the trip loading up my kindle, but I couldn’t pass by the chance to buy another Jenny Pattrick. This writer first published in her sixties, with a title that is still a bestseller in the country, so she’s become a role-model for me.

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Wellington
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My new Jenny Pattrick

The next day was clearer, and we took the cable car to the top of Mount Victoria, where I left the rest of the family in the planetarium and explored the botanical gardens that run round and down the mount.

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From the top of the cable car
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Wellington Botanical Gardens
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Wellington Botanical Gardens
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Wellington Botanical Gardens
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Wellington Botanical Gardens

Te Papa museum is another must of Wellington, and while Mr W explored the exhibitions on volcanoes and icy places I wandered through the displays about the wildlife of New Zealand, until the relentless list of birds hunted into extinction overwhelmed me and I took refuge in the section on immigrants.

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The Emigrants, 1844: some of the wealthier ones!

I have a curious fascination with the European pioneers of New Zealand. It’s not just my love of history, but a feeling of inferiority when I read about the women particularly, doing battle with household tasks and farming with minimal equipment and pregnancy after pregnancy. I came across this wonderful poem many years ago by Ruth Dallas. It’s called “Photographs of Pioneer Women,” and you can read it here.

The rain had cleared as we emerged from the museum into daylight and the present time. We walked along the harbour and puzzled over sculpture and pavement poetry. I don’t understand this one, but I like the sound of the words.

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Pavement poetry

In Part 2 we cross the Cook Straits to the South Island, visit a ghost town and find our travel plans disrupted by a landslide.