Hawke’s Bay – it’s like the Peak District, only with nice weather, wine, and closer to the sea (or – Napier, it’s like being in Poirot, but without the murder)

Hawke’s Bay – it’s like the Peak District, only with nice weather, wine, and closer to the sea (or – Napier, it’s like being in Poirot, but without the murder)

Yes, I have finally managed to go somewhere in the North Island that isn’t Wellington! Yes, I went for the weekend in the middle of September and it’s now the… 8th October – details, details! Yes, I am going to use as many exclamation marks as I want, so there!

Now that it’s finally spring in New Zealand (not that you can tell in Wellington), I’ve started to finally get off my backside and start doing little side trips to see parts of New Zealand I’ve not seen yet. I realise that the previous sentence makes it sound like my normal life in Wellington isn’t very active, which is far from the truth. Not having a car here, I actually walk a hell of a lot more now than I ever have. I’m not a huge fan of buses, so unless it’s chucking it down with rain or blowing more of a gale than usual, I walk everywhere here. This is sometimes an ill-advised plan, when you don’t own any particularly effective waterproof footwear, but when have I ever worn appropriate shoes for anything? Anyway, I digress…

The first of these side trips was to Hawke’s Bay, and I absolutely hit the jackpot with the weather. Taking the Friday off work, I got the bus from Wellington at 7.30am, arriving in Napier just after lunchtime, with the sun shining and a perfect 23 degrees to welcome me. Remember, I am British, and we don’t like it to be TOO hot, so this is pretty much my ideal temperature. Sorry, Mediterranean friends!

Napier is a reasonable-sized city for New Zealand (population 62,000) on the eastern coast of the North Island. It calls itself the Art Deco Capital (of New Zealand or the world, who knows? They do, probably), and indeed the architecture of Napier is its biggest tourist attraction. This is because nearly all of central Napier was destroyed by the 1931 Hawke’s Bay earthquake (which remains New Zealand’s deadliest natural disaster to date) and subsequent fires, and was rebuilt in the style of the era. Fun fact – the 1931 earthquake changed the geography of the region so much that rivers drastically changed course and around 40km2 of seabed lifted to become dry land. Not only the city, but the entire area would be totally unrecognisable to the people of Napier prior to 1931.

Art Deco Napier - one of those places that's beautiful in the sunshine, but incredibly difficult to take good photos (mainly because of all the cars!)

One of the other main reasons for tourists to visit the Hawke’s Bay region is the wine. It’s apparently New Zealand’s oldest wine producing area, and the second-largest in New Zealand today after Marlborough (thank you, Wikipedia). What’s the best way to get a taste for Hawke’s Bay wines? To do a tour, of course! I decided to do a wine tasting tour through Grape Escape Wine Tours (I definitely didn’t pick them just because of the name, honest), and I’m so glad I did. Chief Wine Tasting Officer Greg (and is that the best job title ever, or what?!) made it a fabulous day out, and although I was by myself and everyone else on the tour was in pairs, it was a small enough group that I never felt awkward at all.

We visited around half a dozen wineries, all totally different. When the first place you visit has 11 wines to sample, you know it’s going to be a good day! The first winery, Askerne, was probably my favourite as the host was informative and engaging. He talked about wine and food pairings and gave a “test” to guess where the Gewürztraminer grape originates (spoiler alert: it’s not Liechtenstein). This was followed by a delicious lunch at Black Barn, before going on to Ash Ridge, Trinity Hill, Te Awa and Craggy Range. We drank allllll the wine 😉

I actually surprised myself by finding a number of red wines that I liked. I still find that red wine for me would need to be paired with food to drink a whole glass, but the small samples were just the right amount. Hawke’s Bay produces mainly Syrah and Bordeaux blends in reds, and Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Viognier in whites. And that, dear readers, is the subtotal of my wine knowledge.

Another great advantage of doing the wine tour was that it got me a free lift to the Sunday morning farmers’ market, because it’s all about networking 😛 As we all know, I do love a good market! This one was exactly the kind of farmers’ market you want to go to, with lots of free food samples 😉 I managed to come away with only one purchase – a bar of fancy chocolate that was well worth the price tag (milk chocolate with lemon and sea salt, sounds odd but tastes amazing), so I’m quite impressed at my self-restraint there.

When not drinking wine or visiting markets, I spent the rest of my time in Napier enjoying the sea and sunshine, exactly what you need for a restful weekend away.

Oh, and I had an ice cream, of course. Here is a bonus photo collage in homage to the ice cream parlour (because it was awesome):

Well, that’s about it for now, really. One day, I will write a post about Wellington, but it is not this day. Head over to my instagram account to see my pictures from Wellington and my recent trip out to the Putangirua Pinnacles (or, if you’re a Lord of the Rings nerd, the Dimholt Road). If you recently received a postcard or message from me claiming that for Labour Day weekend I would be going to Rotorua and Hobbiton, I’m afraid I must inform you that this is no longer the case. I will now be going to Taranaki with friends, and will do Rotorua and Hobbiton at a later date.

On a slightly more terrifying note, my parents are in the midst of planning their trip out here, which also means booking my flight home so that I can come home with them at the end of February. This is quite the kick up the backside to make sure I make the most of the next few months, but also a bit of a relief to know what’s on their list, so that I can do some of the places I haven’t already been with them, and don’t need to fit everything in before (looking at you, Coromandel).

I’m still very happy working and living in Wellington, so hopefully I’ll have a job after my current contract ends on 20th October. It would be kind of awkward if not…


Call off the search party, I’m not dead

Call off the search party, I’m not dead

I would love to tell you all that I accidentally fell into an alternate dimension where time works differently, and that for me it really has been only a few days since my last post. I’d be lying. In my defence, I really did think that I’d already written the Wanaka and Queenstown post… oops?

It almost seems a bit silly now to go back and tell you about places I visited in April. Luckily, I hadn’t yet got around to moving the pictures from that stage of my trip off my phone and onto my Cloud storage, so I can still show you. This post isn’t going to go into the depth of detail about Wanaka and Queenstown as my older posts did, purely because it’s quite hard to remember. I did keep my travel journal up to date, thankfully. Also, I’ll hopefully be heading back down South with Mum and Dad when they come to visit, so you might (might!) get some more detail then.

So, how have things been in the meantime? Well, I’m still in Wellington, and still enjoying living here. I have a flat with a lovely housemate (she’s studying opposite me at the dining table right now, in fact. Hi, Michaela!), and I’m currently on my second job. The joy of temporary positions means I can get a decent wage and do something that might actually look good on my CV later on. Both jobs I’ve had so far have been in the public sector, very different experiences to my other work history. I’ve been very lucky to have found friendly colleagues in both places, and have made some wonderful friends. My next blog post, whenever that is, will be all about Wellington, my experiences here, and some of the many things I’ve done.

I’m in the process of planning a few long weekends to see different parts of the North Island, and have just booked a trip to Auckland and the Bay of Islands in December. Although I haven’t travelled for the last four months almost, I’m very much looking forward to seeing what the North Island has to offer now that we are coming out of Winter and heading towards Spring. If you’re lucky, I’ll do those blog posts less than three months later. But for now, only four months behind schedule, Wanaka and Queenstown…

Wanaka is possibly my favourite of the places I’ve visited so far in New Zealand. Partly because I got very lucky with the weather and the time of year that I visited, but also just because it’s a lovely little lake-front town that draws you in and makes you want to stay there. It’s Lord of the Rings country, and you can tell. This was the first time I actually felt like that. It feels like it could be Laketown (which it isn’t, but that is not the point), you look up and around and feel like you’re in Rohan, and the sunset behind the Southern Alps (AKA the Misty Mountains) is incredible. The picture I managed to get of the sunset could pass for Mordor, too, really.

It is a bit of a tourist town, though much less so than Queenstown. There are quite a few bars and restaurants on the lake that the locals probably don’t visit very often, but there’s also a fantastic ice cream parlour that probably wouldn’t be there without the tourists, so swings and roundabouts!

The journey from the glaciers through the Haast Pass is beautiful, with some of the most amazing views you could wish for. I have to say, though, that I was glad to be on a bus and not driving. Especially when the bus driver tells you about the risk of land slips and rock falls on that particular stretch of road. Yikes! We stopped off along the way at a couple of view points and a waterfall. If you’re driving, there are many other places you can stop and walk, or just take in the scenery (park safely, don’t block the roads!).

A few minutes’ drive from Wanaka town centre, or a 30 minute walk if you’re me, is Puzzling World. It is almost exactly what it sounds like – a “house of illusions” inside, showing some excellent, mind-bending displays (if you like Escher, you’ll love it), then a giant outdoor 3D maze, with stairs and bridges and four towers that you have to climb. Yes, I did get lost in the maze, and yes, it did take about twice as long as it says it does. But it was fun, so there. There were a lot of outdoor sculptures ideal for taking that forced perspective picture you always wanted, but I was by myself and too chicken to ask someone to take one.

That Wanaka Tree (plus pianist)

Then there’s the tree. You know, #thatwanakatree. I’m not really sure why it became a thing, to take a picture of a tree by the edge of the lake. It’s a very lonely tree, I can only assume that it must feel ostracised by the other trees and that people felt sorry for it. Seriously, though, it’s impossible to take a bad picture of that tree.

I visited Wanaka in Autumn. The colours were just beautiful, and I couldn’t imagine a better time of year to go. It was exactly what you think of when you think of Autumn – sunny, just warm enough, orange and brown leaves on the trees and crunching underfoot. 10/10 would recommend.

After a few days in Wanaka, it was time to head on to Queenstown, the last stop on my trip around the South Island. There were more places I wish I could have visited, but it was time to head North and find a job for the winter. Honestly, by the time I reached Queenstown, I was quite overwhelmed with travelling, and was ready to settle down in one place for a few months. I’m not sure if this meant that I didn’t enjoy Queenstown as much as I could have, but I do think that it’s the kind of place that is wasted on a single, anti-social traveller. Best to see it with others, or, if you’re a bit more gregarious, willing to do crazy things by yourself. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it, I just could have done more with my time.

Queenstown highlights, including Frodo made from jellybeans and proof that I was alive four months ago

The highlight of my stop in Queenstown was the Skyline. Not the actual cable car part, that was less fun. As it was quiet at that time, they put me in a cable car by myself. Not the best experience when you’re not good with heights and it’s a bloody long way up from the bottom of the hill. Journey aside, the views from the top are spectacular. I even bucked up my courage to ask someone to take a picture of me to prove I made it up to the top. I didn’t do the luge or the bungy though, #sorrynotsorry.

There are a lot of things to do in Queenstown, if you have the time and the money. I really did not do it justice, but I’d love to go back (not by myself this time) and do more. There were so many places to eat, to visit just a short drive away, or just to go for another walk around the big park (maybe even play a bit of frisbee golf!). Of course, it is a bit of a party town, and I am not a partier, so maybe that’s the problem.

Signing off here, so that I can actually get this posted. Before I go, though, I thought I would take this moment to celebrate the fact that it is six months today since I left the UK. Holy smokes! It has absolutely flown by, but I can appreciate how much has happened in those six months. I’m actually quite proud of myself for making it this far with only a few minor meltdowns. Let’s see what the next six months bring.

Postscript: You may want to mark this day in your calendars, I just said I was proud of myself.

What next? Wellington

When will that be? Who knows?!

Ice, Ice, Baby!

Ice, Ice, Baby!

Yes, yes, it was longer than a day, I know. I got distracted by being invited to join in the hostel Sunday dinner (it was worth it!). 

As you all already know by now, after leaving slightly boring Greymouth, I headed to Fox Glacier. New Zealand has two famous glaciers (many more that are less well known or less accessible) – Franz Josef Glacier and Fox Glacier. Both glaciers have small townships nearby, which are around 25 minutes drive apart. I decided to stay at Fox over Franz Josef for no other reason than the hostel at Fox was cheaper. If you have a car, you can easily see both from just the one township, but without a car it’s a little more difficult. I booked 2 nights here, but due to the bus times it was really only dinner on the first night, one full day and then bus first thing in the morning. 

The West Coast of the South Island, including the glaciers, see something like 200 days of rain each year, but I was lucky and didn’t get any rain at all between leaving Nelson and arriving in Wellington. Even for me as a British person, 200 days of rain seems like a lot. This, of course, has now led to me looking up the annual rainfall of Chesterfield (apparently we get on average 135 rainy days per year). It’s because of all that rain that the area has such lush temperate rainforests. Travelling down the west coast to Fox, it really is obvious that it just gets greener and greener (and let’s face it, New Zealand is pretty green to begin with), the forest becomes more and more dense, with more ferns and undergrowth. Part of what makes Fox and Franz Josef so popular is that, as well as descending to around 300 metres above sea level, they are surrounded by this temperate rainforest. The scenery really is like nothing else you will ever see. 

For both glaciers, you can walk fairly easily to the terminal face. The car park at the start of the valley walk is a few kilometres from town, easily reached by car or shuttle. I’m going to write only about Fox, as I obviously haven’t done Franz Josef. The valley walk took about 30 minutes each way up to the viewing point 400m from the terminal face. Just as the name suggests, you are walking through the Fox River valley, then uphill towards the glacier. The first portion of the walk is essentially crossing the riverbed. This is a lot easier than it sounds, as the riverbed is mostly dry gravel and silt with smaller streams running through in places, easily crossed with well-placed stepping stones. However, due to the often inclement weather and regular falling ice, the water levels can rise very rapidly. It’s always advisable to check the weather forecast closely on the day you plan to visit, as you may need to turn back or the path might be closed. For the first 400m or so, you are warned not to stop – that’s how quickly the weather and water can turn. 

After the first portion of not-stopping, you reach the first lookout since the car park. If you ever do visit, I strongly suggest that in addition to gawping at the glacier in front of you, you also turn around and gawp at the rainforest-covered valley behind you. In my opinion, that is just as impressive. Gawping over, you carry on across the riverbed and on to dry land, crossing bridges and stepping stones over a few more streams. Not long after, you reach the steepest part of the walk. Like the first 400m, the last 400m also have signs warning you not to stop before you reach the top. This is because, as well as rising water, the area is also at a serious risk of falling rocks and ice. Not exactly the place to stop and take a selfie… you might need to pause and get your breath back, just don’t pick that place for a 10 minute break! Hard part over, and you’ve made it! Now you can take that selfie (literally everyone… even me!). It is worth noting that you can actually see more of the glacier from the car park than the terminal face, but the bit you can see is a lot bigger (apparently that’s how distance works, who knew?!) and still very impressive. Once you have taken all the pictures you want and had time to appreciate the view from the lookout point, it’s time to turn around and do it all again. 

The best way to see the glacier is, of course, to take a helicopter tour. You can even take a tour that flies you up to the top and then drops you off to walk on the glacier. These tours are super weather dependent, any change in the weather can delay or cancel your trip. Also, they cost a lot more than I could justify spending at this point in my trip! 

As I only had one day and the weather was so good, I also decided to visit Lake Matheson, about 5km the other side of Fox Glacier township. Lake Matheson is famous for being the “mirror” lake that gives a perfectly reflected view of Mount Cook and Mount Tasman. Of course, to get a perfect reflection, you have to hope that there’s no wind and no clouds. They tell me the best times to get those conditions are at dawn or dusk, but when you don’t have a car, you have to take what you can get. I got there probably 30 minutes too late to get the perfect picture, but I’m still very impressed with the ones I got. The walk takes around an hour and fifteen minutes, with it being 30 minutes to the first “photo op”. In the 30 minutes between me entering the woods and reaching that point, a cloud decided to float right in front of Mount Cook. Very considerate of it! Also, you know, the breeze picked up and disturbed the water. Luckily for me, I had managed to get a perfect picture of the mountains from the very start of the walk, and I got a picture of the lake reflecting the trees before the breeze reached that far. 

Lake Matheson shot right up towards the top of the list of New Zealand places I really want to visit again before leaving the country. It’s an easy walk, very peaceful, and even if you don’t get a good reflection, the pictures will still look incredible. What’s not to love? 

So here it is. Another short and sweet update, and only one more before we reach Wellington! That one will be up in the next few days, but I don’t want to put a deadline on it. We all know how good I am at sticking to a posting schedule! 

Coming soon: Wanaka and Queenstown (or, which lake would you live by if you had the chance?) 

Wait, how long ago was Easter now? I forget… 

Wait, how long ago was Easter now? I forget… 

Welcome to another thrilling instalment of “what did Sophie get up to about 2 weeks ago? In this week’s episode – Nelson, Punakaiki and Greymouth.

As you may or may not know, I spent the week around Easter weekend in Nelson. I decided to spend a bit longer in Nelson with the intention of hiring a car and exploring some of the nearby national parks (Abel Tasman and Nelson Lakes). That… didn’t happen. As the weather forecast for that week was so bad, complete with flood warnings and pretty much a week solid of rain, I decided to cut my losses and save the money. Sod’s law (or should it be Murphy’s law? I always get confused between those two), of course, then dictated that, after a day of really torrential rain when travelling from Picton to Nelson, the rest of the week would be fine. There were a couple of rainy days, but nothing like as bad as forecast. No cyclone in Nelson, that’s for sure. I comforted myself in the knowledge that I wasn’t missing out on much by not hiking in the mud. Please, do not burst my bubble. I’ll go back to the national parks before I leave New Zealand, I promise! 

I arrived in Nelson on Wednesday afternoon, and left the following Tuesday morning, leaving me five full days in the city. Did I make the most of it? No, not really. Did I enjoy it anyway? Yes. Yes, I did. Bank holidays  in New Zealand work slightly differently to the UK. Last I checked at home, shops were open (although maybe with reduced hours) on Good Friday, and most shops were closed on Easter Sunday (perhaps not Tesco these days!). In New Zealand, it seems to be the other way around. Pretty much everywhere was closed on Good Friday. A couple more places were open on Easter Sunday, but the majority of places remained shut. One of the few places that did remain open on both days was the cinema. Bear in mind that these were the two rainiest days after the awful Wednesday. Now, do you want to guess what I did on those days? That’s right, I went to the cinema! To see Lion and Beauty and the Beast, in case you were wondering. I enjoyed them, and the cinema was the cheapest one I’ve seen in NZ (taking the exchange rate into account, also cheaper than Cineworld and Vue at home), so I can’t complain. 

Saturday was, for the most part, a very sunny day. Nelson has a weekly artisanal market on a Saturday so, of course, I had to go. While artisanal markets aren’t quite as much fun as farmer’s markets (there’s generally less free food samples :P), they’re still a lot of fun to walk around and see what’s on offer. There are the “wow, that’s so beautiful/clever/handy” stalls, and the “why are they trying to make a business out of that?” stalls, even the “HOW much are they charging for that?” stalls. In a far from exhaustive list, this market had stalls selling upcycled tin can model aeroplanes, gourmet peanut butter and rocking chairs. There truly is something for everyone if you look hard enough. 

All market-ed out, in the afternoon I visited the Founders Heritage Park. Operated by Nelson City Council (I think), this “park” is a collection of recreated or relocated buildings and businesses either from the early days of or important to Nelson. Some of the buildings, such as the bakery and brewery, house existing businesses within buildings representing the original 1800s businesses. Others are simply open as a display for the public, such as the newspaper building with its display of printing presses through the decades, or the doctor’s surgery with it’s display of Victorian and Edwardian medical equipment. They even had a miniature railway complete with station (the station entrance was made to look like a steam engine cab, I was suitably impressed) and you could also climb up into a Bristol Freighter and pretend to fly the plane. You enter and exit through a windmill, and the church was relocated from its original site, but is still the original building. It’s free to get in if you live in Nelson, and super cheap if you’re a visitor to the area, so well worth making the time on a sunny afternoon. 

Highlights from the Founders Heritage Park in Nelson

Other highlights of my trip to Nelson include the Cathedral on top of the hill, walking along the riverbank and even walking to the geographical centre of NZ (spoiler alert: not actually the accurate geographical centre of NZ, and holy crap that hill is steep!). Despite once again being smaller than Chesterfield (Nelson is slightly bigger than Invercargill, but way more interesting), Nelson is a lovely little city, and there would certainly be enough going on to keep you occupied if you had a job. Another one of those places where I would be happy to live if I had a car. 
Moving on from Nelson, I stopped for one night at Punakaiki, home of the pancake rocks. This is one of those stops that, if you were travelling by car, you would stop for an hour or two, see the pancake rocks and maybe have some lunch, then get on your way down the West Coast. In my opinion, that would be a mistake. It’s true that there is absolutely nothing going on in Punakaiki – they don’t even have a corner shop (although they do have a pub. Priorities) – the hostel was right by the beach. It was an incredibly peaceful corner of the world, and the sunset was spectacular. If you wanted a break from the world, Punakaiki would be the place to go. 

So, what are these Pancake Rocks I’ve been going on about? They are basically a much-eroded outcrop of limestone cliffs off the mainland. Exciting, right? What makes them such a popular attraction are both the vertical blowholes (if you get the timing right and come at high tide, the sea bursts through these blowholes, it makes quite the show) and the unique “pancake” layering of the rocks themselves. So named because they look like a stack of pancakes.

Disclaimer: I know bugger all about rocks, and could have made all of that up. Always check the facts provided to you. If no proof is forthcoming, you may have been told an alternative fact. Also known as a “lie” in the real world. 

Pancake Rocks, cafe (where the pancakes rock) and beautiful sunset in Punakaiki

After spending a peaceful night in Punakaiki, I moved on to Greymouth. Greymouth is, if possible, even less exciting than Invercargill was. It’s main tourist attraction is a gold rush “Shantytown” about 10 minutes drive out of town. As I didn’t have a car and had no one to split the cost of a taxi with, I didn’t make it out there, unfortunately. There’s a good bike trail, an art gallery and a short bush walk. I did have a very yummy brunch at a hipster cafe where the order numbers were old records. Other than that, there’s only really the lookout point, where on a clear day you can see Mount Cook. It wasn’t a clear day when I was there, but it’s a good point to look back on the town, or turn around and stare out into the Tasman sea. Apparently, there are dolphins near the bay on days when the sea is calm. While in Greymouth, I did make friends with a lovely, retired Swiss-French couple also staying at the same place. It was great to share a meal with them and get chance to brush up on my neglected French. 

That’s about all for those few places, short and sweet. It was a rather low-key week and a bit, but as I’ll soon be working again, it’s good to make the most of the peace and lack of schedule while it lasts. Hopefully, tomorrow I’ll be able to post the Fox Glacier update, which should be a bit more interesting for you guys to read. Then, in a few days, it’ll be Wanaka and Queenstown. Almost up to date! 

Coming soon to a screen near you: Fox Glacier (brrrrr)

You’re the wine that I want (ooh, ooh, ooh honey!)

You’re the wine that I want (ooh, ooh, ooh honey!)

I know, I know, I’ve still got a lot of catching up to do on the blog. On the bright side, I have finally caught up on my travel journal, so I have lots of notes to refer back to when typing up the next update. Yay! A quick A/N before we get going on my adventures in the Marlborough region: In the interests of not spamming you all too much, I have decided to condense Blenheim and Picton into one post, and Nelson, Punakaiki and Greymouth into another (unless it turns out to be REALLY long, in which case I’ll split it). Fox Glacier and Wanaka should (eventually) each get their own post, although I may decide to put Wanaka and Queenstown together depending on when I get around to that one. I can’t say for sure when I’ll be uploading all of these, but I’m hoping to bring the blog up to date by the end of next week. Let’s see how that goes, shall we?! 

Boring admin stuff aside, let’s get on to the reason you’re all here… wine. Erm, I mean… words. 

As you may have noticed if you follow me on Instagram or are friends with me on Facebook, my time in Blenheim was mainly filled with wine tasting. Actually, I didn’t stay in Blenheim, but in neighbouring Renwick. I hired a car for 3 days which, although I could easily have made more use of it and driven much further than I ended up driving, came in very handy. 

In Renwick, I stayed at Watson’s Way Lodge backpackers, which was very clean and super friendly. The owners had only taken over about a month and a half before I arrived, so it was great to see such an enthusiastic welcome. Noticing that I was travelling alone, one of the owners invited me along on the wine tour with her and a few of the long-term guests the following day. The weather was perfect, the company good, there was just one slight problem… they were all cycling. Now, I’m not the most confident of cyclists, but I am perfectly capable of riding a bike. However, as you may or may not know, I am really very short. Practically hobbit-sized, in fact. Maybe things like this don’t occur to average-height people (sounding a bit like a member of the Campaign for Equal Heights here. Sorry about that, I’ve been reading a lot of Pratchett lately), but it’s not just the height of the saddle that affects the height of the bike. While they did indeed have both men’s and ladies’ bikes for hire, they all had the same sized wheels. This meant that even on the smallest frame with the lowest seat height, my feet still didn’t touch the ground once in the saddle. This meant that I could cycle, but couldn’t stop without tilting the bike more than a safe angle and so would risk falling off. Not exactly ideal for a wine tasting trip. 

In the end, I decided to take the car. This worked out perfectly for two reasons: firstly, it gave me a much-needed break from the group between wineries; secondly, it gave me an excuse to only have a token sip of each sample and pour the rest, meaning that I cumulatively drank less than a small glass of wine across all of the places we visited, rather than about three-quarters of a bottle. No wine headache for me, yay! A couple of the places we skipped over, I went back to by myself the following day. We basically visited most of the places that offered free tastings within the circuit around the hostel. Here are my very non-comprehensive not-really-a-wine-connoisseur thoughts:

No. 1 Family Estate – according to their website, they make “méthode traditionelle” wines. According to me, they make sparkling wine. It’s a perfectly decent sparking wine, if you like that kind of thing 😛

Huia – We really liked this one, the hostess gave a very comprehensive description of all of the different wines and was very friendly. Plus, they had chickens roaming around outside the cellar door. (A Huia, by the way, is a NZ-native bird that was last seen in 1907)

The Vines Village – we didn’t try the wine here as you had to pay for tasting (a mere $5, but there were plenty of free places, so we didn’t feel the need), but it’s a great little business park with a cellar door (they don’t make their own wine, but offer a selection of local wines), café, design store, gallery, outdoor recreation area, ice cream shop and a pretty amazing craft shop. Certainly worth a stop off there should you be in the area

Nautilus – home of the overpriced but very tasty cheese plate, and probably the nicest Sauvignon Blanc of the day

Wairau River – cellar door with café/restaurant, a good place to stop and eat something to soak up all that wine. 

Forrest – Another very friendly hostess. Getting a bit sick of Sauvignon Blanc by this point, we decided to try the two reds. The expected-for-the-area Pinot Noir, and the only place that we noticed a Merlot. Turns out I still don’t like Merlot very much, but the Pinot Noir would have been lovely with red meat. For me, that’s high praise indeed for a red wine 😛

Framingham – one of the two wineries I visited by myself the next day, this one also offered one of the best Sauvignon Blanc vintages I tried, and the hostess was very friendly and informative. Apparently, they supply a few of Gordon Ramsay’s London restaurants. The more you know…

Giesen – again, I visited this one by myself the next day and decided to treat myself for lunch. The seasonal platter was not something I’d have ordered if I’d known what was actually on the platter, but I’m glad I didn’t know in advance. Aside from the cured meats and bread, the other offerings were all things I would not have chosen to order. Still, I tried them all and actually enjoyed everything. It just goes to show that we should eat outside of our comfort zone now and then. 

Some highlights from the wine tastings (plus token vineyard picture)

I’m sure it won’t exactly surprise anyone to find out that most New Zealand wines are cheaper in the UK than in New Zealand, however we don’t get to see most of these wineries at home. Although there were vineyards for Oyster Bay, Hawke’s Bay and Brancott Estate in Marlborough, amongst others you may have heard of, most of these don’t have cellar doors in the area. Brancott Estate do have a heritage centre, but I didn’t go so couldn’t really say what’s there. 

While I had use of a car, I decided to drive the Queen Charlotte Drive. This road is a coastal drive along the part of the Marlborough Sounds accessible by car – from Picton to Havelock. It’s simply incredible scenery but, as I soon realised, with it being a windy up and down sort of road, you’re really too busy paying attention to the road to actually appreciate the scenery. Oh, well! Fun fact for the people waiting for me to finally start mentioning LOTR and the Hobbit filming locations. The Pelorous river, close to Havelock, was used for that one scene where the dwarves go down the river in barrels. Not that I got a picture of it or anything, but I have to pretend I’m paying attention to this kind of thing. 

Moving on from Blenheim/Renwick to Picton for, well, no real reason, I just felt like it, I stayed for two nights at the Juggler’s Rest hostel. This tiny, cosy hostel was just brilliant. No, I’m not just saying that because they had a bathtub. I’m also saying it because I got a 3-bed dorm to myself the first night 😉 Oh, and because the owner came from 10 miles away from home and a stone’s throw away from where my Dad lived for years before my parents got married. It’s a very small world indeed!

With my final day in Marlborough cloudy but dry (and forecast to be the last dry day for a week. More on that one in the Nelson update), I decided to make the most of it and do a day trip out to Lochmara Lodge in the Marlborough Sounds. Like many places in the Sounds, Lochmara is only accessible by boat. My day pass included the water taxi to and from the resort, full facilities access and, most importantly for me, access to their bush tracks. The did have an underwater observatory that I also could have visited, but I decided against it because it cost extra money and the times to visit weren’t very convenient for the other things I wanted to do. 

The day got off to an excellent start when we saw not one, but three seals on the short boat ride. We saw one New Zealand fur seal, one earless seal plus one eared seal all sat on the rocks. According to our guide, the seals who frequent those particular rocks tend to be males who are either too young and weak or too old and slow to chase prey. Instead, they spend their days lounging on the rocks while the others do the hard work. Some life, eh?

After arriving at the resort, a short trip to reception gave me all the information I needed, plus the all-important wristband for access to tracks and facilities. My access pass did include free use of the kayaks but, much as I would have liked to explore the sounds in a kayak, I am not confident enough in the water to risk doing that by myself. Until I have someone to join me, I am stuck as a landlubber for now. I wouldn’t want to fall in and frighten the fish! 

Lochmara Lodge highlights

One of the main draws of the walking tracks was that they also functioned as a sort-of sculpture trail. You go through a forest of trees that have faces carved into the trunks, arriving at a small cove lined with hammocks. Then, up to the top of the hill and down into the bush, passing sculptures and art installations along the way, before arriving in “crumpy’s camp” – a (slightly romanticized) replica of Barry Crump’s bush camps. Fun fact, the film Hunt for the Wilderpeople (ooooh, Ricky Baker!) Is based on Crump’s novel Wild Pork and Watercress.

Without a doubt the most memorable of the artworks I saw along the way was a giant face coming out of the rock. This was Papatuanuku, the Maori Eart Mother. Appearing just as you turn a corner, this friendly face covered in moss is very impressive. I didn’t know this before I got back at the end of the day (so please don’t feel that it influenced my opinion), but the artist who created her was staying at my hostel. It was fascinating to hear the story of her creation 12 years ago, and I hope that Kim was pleased to see how she looks now. One of the most interesting points was that, although much of the face is covered in moss, there are clear tear tracks on her cheeks. This was completely by accident, but it turns out that she cries in the rain. Something to do with the angle of the eye sockets. It was dry while I was there, so I didn’t get to see the tears in action, but I bet it would be quite the sight. Thanks, Kim, for your insights! 

Oh, yes. They also had llamas. I really don’t recommend having one come thundering past you and stopping about 5 feet away to stare as you walk by. It does make a pretty good photo, though. 

What are you looking at?

One final experience of the day that I’d like to tell you about. At Lochmara, they are fortunate enough to run a successful breeding programme for kakariki, an endangered NZ-native parakeet. These small, green birds are able to fly, but feed mainly on the ground. As with many native birds, they evolved not having to worry about predators on the ground. Before the arrival of Europeans, New Zealand had very few native quadrupeds (tuatara, gecko, native frogs) and bats were the only native land mammal. Some species, like the moa, were hunted to extinction by the Maori settlers long before the Europeans arrived. Others, like the kakapo, kakariki and others, have been driven to the edge of extinction due to the arrival of pests such as stoats, rats and feral cats. Places like Ulva Island and lots of other small, uninhabited islands are being used to try and rebuild these populations, but very few species are being bred successfully on either of the two main islands. The kakariki at Lochmara are one of the few success stories, and I got to feed them. 

Aside from feeling slightly like the “tuppence a bag” lady from Mary Poppins, feeding the kakariki was a lot of fun. The keeper provided the group of us each with a handfull of birdseed and told us to put our arms out and stand still. In short order, the birds came and perched on our fingers, wrists, shoulders and even heads, picking at the seeds or waiting their turn. It’s an odd feeling, having a bird on your head, but luckily for us they did not have sharp claws. In some cases, the birds got tired of waiting their turn and decided instead to chase off the bird currently feeding. It’s quite hard to stand still while that’s going on an inch from your palm! 

As always, I hope you’ve enjoyed this instalment of my adventures. Now that my journal is up to date, it shouldn’t be very long until the next couple of posts follow suit. 

Coming soon: Nelson, Punakaiki and Greymouth (maybe in one post, we shall see!)

The one where Sophie proves herself capable of looking after small children (and does a bit more walking)

The one where Sophie proves herself capable of looking after small children (and does a bit more walking)

When I first told people that I would be doing a HelpX for 3 weeks in essentially the middle of nowhere, and that the main thing that I would be helping with was looking after a 2 year old, reactions ranged from sceptical to outright laughter. I’m fairly sure that everyone who knew what I would be doing expected me to hate it and not to last the whole three weeks. I’m very pleased to say that I’ve proved them all wrong. I actually had a great time. I would do it again (although maybe not for a few weeks). It has, however, reinforced the fact that I am nowhere near ready to have any children of my own just yet. There are only so many nursery rhymes a person can take!

So, what the hell is a HelpX? Have you heard of WWOOFing? If you have, it’s essentially the same concept just with a bit more variety in the types of work. It’s not necessarily on a farm, and even if it is on a farm, you won’t necessarily be helping out with typical farm labour. If you haven’t heard of WWOOFing, HelpX is an organisation that allows you to arrange work in exchange for accommodation and food. It’s a worldwide organisation, although it was originally started in the Canterbury region of New Zealand. What you do and what you get for your efforts varies greatly from host to host, so anyone considering HelpX for their working holiday (in Australia, NZ, Canada, the UK and elsewhere) should make sure that they know how many hours a day they will be working, what tasks they would be expected to complete and what facilities they will have access to before they agree to stay with a host. For instance, the average amount of work you would be expected to do is 4-5 hours per day, but some people might want you to work longer hours, work alternate days or split that time up over different parts of the day. If you’re on a dairy farm, chances are you will be working very early in the morning but then have the rest of the day free. With facilities, some places may only provide accommodation, meaning you would need to pay for your own food (not ideal on a farm out in the sticks!). Quite a number of hosts, especially those wanting to live ” off the grid,” may not have internet access, so maybe don’t agree to stay there for a month if you want to skype home every day. Some hosts might allow you to do laundry, others may not. Some might be happy to spend the evenings with you, others may want you to make yourself scarce. Some hosts may let you use their car, others may expect you to have your own car and not consider helpers who don’t have their own transport. Every host is different. 

For me, I was staying with a lovely couple and their young children about 15 minutes away from Mount Hutt ski field.  I knew that they had a 2 year old, and would have a newborn baby by the time I arrived (said baby not having been born yet when I arranged to stay), and that I would mostly be expected to help out looking after the older child. As they have a walkway open to the public on their land, I also knew that I might be expected to help out with greeting the walkers, amongst other tasks as and when required. In exchange, I would have accommodation and food provided, as well as being able to use their internet and laundry facilities. They were happy to pick me up and drop me off from the hostel in Christchurch, and let me use their car to get their daughter to playgroup and back or to take her on outings. 

Before heading out there, I was a little bit nervous about my ability to entertain a toddler. My experience with pre-school children was pretty limited, and I didn’t have a clue what they would be interested in. My parents gave me some advice that seemed pretty unhelpful at the time, but actually turned out to be the most important thing I needed: just be enthusiastic about whatever it is they are doing at any particular moment. Having just turned 2, she was still a little bit young for any activities requiring planning, so I seemed to spend most of my time chasing after her and making sure there were no disasters. OK, that’s simplifying it a little bit, but anyone who has had a toddler will know exactly what I mean. There was also a lot of singing. I think I’m now in competition for world Incy Wincy Spider champion (possibly up against my sister-in-law). By the end of the first week and right up until I left, I found myself trying to drift off to sleep and suddenly getting a random nursery rhyme stuck in my head.

Oh, yes. They also had a pet sheep. Mustn’t forget that one. 

Other exciting tasks I had, that will probably make you laugh if you know me, included cleaning the car (a 4X4 about 2 feet taller than me), changing nappies, going to playgroup and music, and cooking a roast dinner (complete with roast potatoes and gravy from scratch but no Yorkshire Puddings. In my defence, it was lamb, not beef, and I couldn’t find the flour…). Mainly, though, I was looking after their daughter (who, you may have noticed, shall remain nameless along with the rest of the family. I don’t think it’s very fair on them to immortalise them in blog form without permission) and greeting the walkers who came to see the waterfall. 
Greeting visitors and getting them to pay to do the walk and giving them the spiel (and the all-important track guide) is, it turns out, a lot like working in a shop that sells both Bakewell Tarts and Bakewell Puddings to tourists. Although a lot more enjoyable than that one. I’m now just as good at telling people to follow the arrows and that number 12 is water out of the creek that we use in the house for drinking water as I am at explaining the difference between a Bakewell Tart and a Bakewell Pudding (do it. I dare you). 

Of course, if I was going to give endless talks to visitors about the walk, I needed to do it myself. Problem was, most of the time the weather was bloody awful. It was almost a week before we had a good enough day that also had enough spare time for me to do the 2-hour loop. It’s amazing what you can learn from the track guide, though! The walk takes you uphill (up, up, up. It’s quite steep and, on the day I did it, quite muddy) into the woods, then along the cliffside of the valley (formed by a volcanic eruption waaaaaay back when. No volcano any more), past some caves, out onto the bluff, back into the woods to the falls and lagoon, through to the lake. Ok, I’ve definitely missed some bits out there, but I forgot to pick up a guide when I left. You’ll just have to go if you ever come to New Zealand. 

Overall, I had a great time staying in the middle of nowhere in the Canterbury high country, and I would definitely recommend HelpX as an option for any prospective Working Holiday-ers to anywhere that has it! My opinion is that the best way to get to see and know a country is by spending time with the people that come from there. Staying in hostels and travelling around a lot certainly has its advantages (maybe not the top bunk, though…), but you tend to mostly only meet other travellers. How can you know whether you want to make a life in this new country unless you get to know the people who’ve grown up there? (If you’re wondering, my position on that last one is “still undecided”). 

Now, this post is about a week and a half late being posted, so it might mean that you get a couple more posts very soon. I’d suggest that you don’t get used to that, as we all know what I’m like with a schedule… or a plan of any kind… or, knowing me, I won’t get those up for another 2 weeks, either, so this paragraph is pointless. 

Coming soon: Marlborough (wine, wine, wine, oh look – a seal!), and Nelson (wherein Sophie cancelled her car hire because of money and the weather forecast, and then the weather was actually fine) 

These boots were made for walking (and walking, and walking)

These boots were made for walking (and walking, and walking)

Hello! This one is a little bit later than I’d planned to update, but I’ve been a busy bee. Last time we checked in, I was in Invercargill just about to head out to Stewart Island for a couple of days. Obviously, I’m back now, and this is your irregularly-scheduled update about that trip. 

I’m not sure what, if anything, you may know about Stewart Island, so let’s start at the beginning. Waaaay back when, New Zealand’s South Island was originally known as the Middle Island. That is because, along side the North and South Islands we know well today, there is a third large island (and lots of smaller islands) that make up New Zealand. These days, that third island is known as Stewart Island, with the two biggest islands being named North and South. The Maori name for Stewart Island, and indeed the name of the national park that covers over 80% of the island, is Rakiura, meaning “glowing skies.” ‘Why glowing skies?’ I hear you ask. Well, that’s because it’s a fantastic place to see the Aurora Australis on a clear night. Unfortunately for me, it wasn’t a clear night when I was there and so I didn’t get to see them. Sad face.

To get to Oban, the main settlement on the island (population: 381 as of 2013), you need to either take a 1-hour ferry from Bluff, 27km from Invercargill, or a 15 minute flight from Invercargill airport. Not having the biggest of budgets, I decided to take the ferry. Luckily for me, the crossing was fairly smooth both ways. There was no spewing Sophie in sight. Yay!

When I arrived at Oban township, the rain had just about stopped, although it was still cold and windy. After 3 weeks of mostly sun and warmth, that was a bit of a shock to the system, but I had my windbreaker and was well-prepared. After a quick stop to buy something to take for lunch (come on, I’m not that well-prepared!), I was ready to get on my way. Having already picked up the leaflet on different short hikes to do starting around the township, I’d already decided that I wanted to do the 3-4 hour loop from Halfmoon Bay to Horseshoe Bay via Horseshoe Point. I had toyed with doing the walk to Fern Gully instead (because Fern Gully), but that one was apparently considered to be a lot steeper, and I was carrying a bit too much on my back for that to have been practical with my dodgy knee and hip. Having done the route I did, I am definitely sure that I made the right decision. Even the easy walks are really steep around the township. 

Now, I’m not going to talk you through the walk. A – because that’s boring; and B – because I’ve slept since then and I can’t remember every bit of it. Overall, it took me about 3 and a half hours to do the whole thing and end up back where I started. As that was including a break for lunch, I was really impressed with myself. I’m sure loads of people can do it much quicker, but they aren’t me so who cares?! 😛 The hardest part of the walk was actually getting to and from the main walking track via the roads. Steep hills, plus pavement, plus me is not a great combination. The hills along the track were actually much easier, through a combination of steps and gravel or woodchip paths. And when I say the hills were quite steep, I mean steep. If you’re from Derbyshire, try walking up Slack Hill a few times and you’ll get the picture. Highlights of the track include Dead Man Beach (actually quite pleasant), Horseshoe Point (a lookout point before horseshoe bay, really badly signposted so you don’t actually realise you’re there) and Horseshoe Bay itself. I think I passed 6 other people the whole time, and they were all doing the track in the opposite direction, so actually no one overtook me. 

Some highlights of the Halfmoon Bay – Horseshoe Bay walk. The weather wasn’t really great for taking photos, so these really do not do it justice

There’s something pretty amazing about walking alone, without any music or car noise. Just your thoughts, the sound of the birds and the water. Also, it’s a hell of a lot easier to concentrate on where your feet are going if you’re not wearing headphones. 

When I eventually made it back to the township, it was mid-afternoon and I could check into my hostel (Stewart Island Backpackers, in case you are interested). Through some feat of really bad planning (also known as not being psychic), my visit coincided with two large groups also staying in the same hostel. Group 1 – the Cambridge Tramping Club. That’s Cambridge, Waikato region, New Zealand, not Cambridge, UK. A group of mainly-retired, mostly-friendly and generally rather jolly people who’d just got back from doing the Rakiura track Great Walk. Group 2 – the Stray bus brigade. A group of mainly-18 to 30 year-olds, mainly-Europeans doing a bus tour of New Zealand (mostly over around 30 days). Sliiiiightly different. I didn’t see much of the Stray lot. Even though I was sharing a room with two of them, they went out to do the Kiwi encounter in the evening (and apparently didn’t see any. Oops.), not getting back until 1am, then were still asleep when I got up to get the ferry to Ulva Island in the morning. That said, they were very considerate getting in late, even trying to make their beds in the dark to avoid disturbing me (I did let them know that they could turn the light on, though. I’m not that  mean, but it would have been entertaining). 

After dropping my things off in the hostel, I scoped out the town (and got the most expensive coffee I have ever purchased in my life. Clearly it pays to have the monopoly on coffee-drinking clientele), popped in the few shops and decIded to get an early dinner after a fairly-insubstantial breakfast and lunch. Dinner for me was Blue Cod and chips from the Kai Kart, and it was yummy. Everything was cooked to order, so the fish and the chips were super fresh. Also, the fish was only caught that day by the local fisherman, so it couldn’t get any fresher. Having looked at the prices in the few other places on offer, that was definitely the best value for money, too. 

Oban in a nutshell, complete with dinner

After dinner, I decided to do a couple of the short walks that fit in well together. The Fuchsia Walk (the wrong time of year to actually see any Fuchsias, unfortunately, but a good little walk through the woods) and the walk to Observation Point. Had it been a clear evening, this is where I would have stayed to watch the sunset. As it was not a clear evening, I sat there for about 20 minutes before deciding it was too cloudy and too cold to stay there another hour or so. Also, the hill to get up there was even steeper than the earlier hills, so I wasn’t keen to be going downhill in the dusk. Knowing me, I would have taken ages and it would have been pitch black by the time I got back. Instead, I went to sit on the bench by the bay, where I got talking to a lovely British ex-pat, who had been living in NZ for the past 40 years. We had a great chat in good company, but didn’t succeed in seeing either the sunset or the moon rise because of the clouds in both directions. Oh, well! 

No complaints about the hostel other than to say IT WAS FREEZING! Most of the rooms were in a portacabin-like block, and although there was a radiator in the room, it didn’t seem to be turned on (yes, I did try turning it up. What do you take me for?). Cue me sleeping in my hiking socks as I’d left my hot water bottle in my main bag back in Invercargill. Brrr. At least it meant that I was up bright and early the next day. 

Day 2 dawned much as day 1 had. Cloudy and raining, but thankfully a fair few degrees warmer. The rain petered out into a drizzle, and had stopped by the time the ferry set off for Ulva. Ulva Island is one of the larger islands in Paterson Inlet, and is one of the best places to see native birds and plants. It is kept carefully pest-free, so a perfect haven for rare birds. Most people visiting Ulva Island tend to do one of the guided tours. Me being me, I decided to go the “pay $2 for the guidebook and $20 for the return ferry instead of $100 for the guided tour” route. 

While I may have missed out on some of the additional anecdotes and information provided by a guide, I think it unlikely that I’d have stumbled across a Kiwi if I had been in a group. Yes, I saw a Kiwi. In broad daylight. They are bloody huge! 

That’s the thing about Kiwi. When you see a picture of one, it’s never next to anything, so you can’t judge the size. I was expecting something no bigger than a blackbird. Instead, I saw a bird bigger than a pheasant. Probably around the size of a peacock without the large tail. No one else I spoke to on the boat back had seen one that day, so I felt very fortunate. There are only 30-40 Kiwi on Ulva Island, but it is apparently pretty much the only place where you are likely to see this mostly-nocturnal bird during daylight hours. I will admit to feeling slightly gleeful that I’d seen one for $25, and the people doing the Kiwi encounter tour hadn’t seen one. So sue me! 

Other birdlife that I saw on Ulva Island, and pretty much failed to get any decent pictures of, include the Stewart Island robin, the Stewart Island weka (very bold, that’s the weka looking at the person’s phone in my pictures), the kākā, the South Island saddleback, the New Zealand parakeet and the Oystercatcher. Rather unsurprisingly as they are nocturnal, I didn’t see a Morepork (a species of owl native to New Zealand), but then I only wanted to see those because the name was funny. 

After getting back from Ulva Island, and walking up the hill and down the hill back to the main street, there was only time for a late lunch before getting the ferry back to Bluff. This time, I went to the pub and enjoyed some more local Blue Cod (which may or may not have been the cheapest thing on the menu, but it was delicious). After one final night at the hostel in Invercargill, I made the long (long) bus journey back up to Christchurch, in time to meet up with my HelpX host the following day. 

Up next: What the hell is a HelpX? (And Washpen Falls)