Return to the land of the long gray cloud
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No, I haven’t misunderstood Aotearoa, the Maori name for New Zealand. It is however a reflection of the holiday that my wife,Sue and I had there in February. Our visit was, as Samuel Johnson remarked about a second marriage, a triumph of optimism over experience. We had stayed on the North Island for the whole of February 2004, partly with a friend and touring the rest of the time. After two weeks the month was described as the wettest for 25 years. This increased to 50 years and by the time we left it was apparently the rainiest February for over 100 years. With summers like that it was easy to understand why so many people say NZ reminds them of home. No wonder the scenery was very green and lush! It has taken a few years but we finally decided we should see the South Island, surely lightning, or even rain, won’t strike twice? A golfing friend and his wife also enthused about the benefits of touring by coach so we booked a 12 day tour. This began in Wellington and yes, I did know that is on the North Island. After crossing to Picton we would then go more or less clockwise down the east coast, across the bottom and up the west coast before going through the Southern Alps to end in Christchurch. We were to begin by staying a few days with our friend in Auckland with whom we stayed in 2004. At the end of our tour we would spend nearly a week with other friends who live in Kaikoura, about 3 hours by train north of Christchurch (or ChCh as it is called in texts and T-shirt messages). Our flights were booked on BA, despite my career long wariness about them, mainly because the son of a cousin is a BA Pilot and got us a preferential deal. Even so two return flights in World Traveller Plus cost, as many of you will know, more than I earned in a year not very long ago. Our friend assured us the sun was shining; summer was definitely there so we could look forward to a holiday that would change our view of New Zealand for ever. Well, as you can guess, things did not turn out as expected. In fact they started to go wrong before we even left home. In response to an e-mail from BA I tried to book in 24 hours before our scheduled departure time of 21.15. Despite having been invited, I couldn’t because of a “.. technical error, please try again later..” which was the only response I got for the next three hours. In the morning I finally got through to discover there were only 3 seats available, none of which were in the same part of the cabin, let alone together. BA’s Customer (non) Services advised us to get to the airport very early to see if we could get seats together. We didn’t – as usual every BA staff member was polite, sympathetic and useless. We were told the flight was completely full and my booking of Gluten-free meals rendered me ineligible for an upgrade, which was news to me. To make matters worse more unexplained technical problems delayed our departure so it was about 00.45 before we left, more than seven hours after had arrived at the terminal. For the first time in 32 years of flying Sue, and I were not seated together. There was a further one hour delay at the end of the stopover in Bangkok which we all had to spend in an increasingly crowded, hot and sweaty departure lounge. At least they told us that the problem was a cargo door not shutting properly so we understood the reason for the delay. When we got back on board Sue had somebody new sitting beside her even though the previous passenger was, like us, travelling to Sydney. To make matters worse the new passenger said she too had come from London but had been asked to move so that a couple could sit together! Once again the cabin crew were very sympathetic but unable to explain why we couldn’t have been seated together or do anything to help us. The result of all the delays was that we missed our connection to Auckland. However, credit where it is due, Qantas got us off the plane first and onto the next flight to Auckland in less than an hour. They also let us phone our friend so that she knew of our delayed arrival. We actually spent less time on the ground than if we had arrived on time so things were looking up. Until we got to the Baggage area in Auckland; we had got there but our luggage, and that of about 40 other travellers from London, was still in Sydney! You will not be surprised to learn that when I went to bed that night, about 48 hours after last being in a bed, my feelings about BA had not changed. The next day our luggage arrived as promised and the holiday really did pick up. We saw many different places that we had not seen before and more importantly, the sun shone. Before we left Auckland we went to the beach at Karekare where the opening scenes of”The Piano” were filmed. My recollection of the film is that the rowing boat with the piano precariously onboard comes ashore on a grey cloudy day at a very deserted beach. That was Karekare on the day we visited as the sun had deserted us. It was a Public Holiday so we were blamed for importing the UK tradition of poor weather on Bank Holidays. Our friend’s newly built house was still having electrical and broadband problems so it was a few days before we got to an Internet café to catch up with our e-mails and what was going on at home. The news that snow had seemingly paralysed London lifted our spirits and made the Auckland weather seem very summer like. We also booked our seats for the return BA flights, much as I begrudged paying even more on top of the fare but we felt we had little option if we wanted to travel together. Interestingly on Qantas we were allocated seats together without payment which is what I would have expected on BA. Unfortunately we also received the sad news that a friend and former colleague had died which plunged us back down again. Sue and I had known him since we all worked together as teenagers in the early sixties. More recently we have played golf together a couple of times a year. Later messages showed that we would not be home in time for the funeral which only added to our sorrow. Unfortunately our second visit to the Internet café brought us an e-mail advising us that our next door neighbour and friend had died and that we would also miss his funeral. Although neither was completely unexpected it did bring home to us just how far away we were even with modern telecommunications We travelled to Wellington by train which was a long journey, just under 12 hours, but interesting. The train, all three carriages of it, was the smallest inter-city train I have ever seen. The carriages looked no bigger than those on the Jubilee Line although they were much more comfortable and included an observation car. Wellington was interesting as our friend had lived and worked there for many years so was an excellent guide especially to places off the usual tourist trail. One morning we travelled across the bay and walked into the town of Eastbourne which, not surprisingly, is nothing like our home town but at least we have now seen, and photographed, it. Our friend returned to Auckland on the day we joined our tour. I will not attempt to describe the places we visited. If you have been to South Island you will know them and if you haven’t a better writer than me is needed to do justice to them. The highlight which I will mention was being in Queenstown and in particular the Pipeline Bridge over Shotover Canyon. In 1993 our youngest daughter, then aged 23, and the boyfriend who is now her husband, did a bungee jump off the bridge. Fortunately we didn’t know about it until they returned home and showed us the video. Ever since I have wanted to see that bridge. Well, it did not disappoint me. It is scary and even more so now, I cannot understand why otherwise sane people want to throw themselves off it. We now have photos of Sue and me in exactly the same spot as our daughter. Although the bridge is no longer a bungee site the platform is still there half way across and we also have photos from underneath as our jet boat took us along that part of the canyon. Sue and I have different views on the merits of a coach tour. There were only 2 hotels where we stayed 2 nights; otherwise it was a different hotel each night. Living out of a suitcase probably comes easier to a man and it was what I did for some of my working life. Sue would have preferred fewer stops with longer periods in residence. My golf friend who recommended the tour assured us there were no early starts. I should have remembered that he was a Postman. The coach driver’s evening mantra of “tomorrow – alarm call at 6.30., bags and breakfast at 7.15., leave at 8 sharp” must have meant another lay in for him. Having mentioned the highlight of the tour I should also give the lowlight. We visited Christchurch both on the tour and at the end but it was only when our friends showed us round that we appreciated the extent of the earthquake damage. Our coach driver, who lived there, drove us around but could not take us to the town centre. When we returned there with our friends from Kaikoura we walked through the town. Even though they had lived there, and their son and family still do, they were disorientated by the ruined buildings and blocked off streets. I was going to say that it looked like a war zone. However there was neatness about the way some areas were completely, almost spookily, empty with every building demolished and cleared away. Other areas still had damaged and partially destroyed buildings awaiting demolition. I cannot claim to have seen any famous landmarks as those that still exist are cordoned off and inaccessible. We had taken a camera with us on our walkabout but it felt almost ghoulish even to be looking at the damage. Neither of us felt it right to take any photos. Rather bizarrely we then had lunch in a Casino which our friends assured us not only served very good meals but was proven to be earthquake proof- mammon clearly looking after itself or perhaps they understand risk. Our flight home was uneventful and we were upgraded between Sydney and Bangkok. In case you think that might have changed my view of BA I should add that almost everyone in WTP was also upgraded. We were also served the same meals as if we had been in our original cabin. Still, the seat/bed was comfortable – while it lasted. I hope I haven’t given a negative impression of New Zealand. The people are, without exception, friendly and welcoming. The scenery really is stunning in places, even when seen through windscreen wipers. If you have never been there it really is worth a visit. I heartily recommend the country, and Kirra tours with whom we travelled on our coach trip, but I leave the choice of airline up to you. Will we go again I hear you asking? Possibly. We would like to see our friends again but we may go later in the year when we will not expect summer and there will be plenty of good rugby available.
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This review is solely based on the opinion of a Silver Travel Advisor member and not of Silver Travel Advisor Ltd.