(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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Next stop, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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!