The next stage of our journey takes us to the South Island. We leave Wellington by ferry, dumping the car, and three and half hours later are in Picton where we collect another. Like everything so far in New Zealand it’s all gone like clockwork, on time, efficiently and with a smile.
This part of our trip will take us to Blenheim in Marlborough country, then to the Abel Tasman National Park, from there to Franz Joseph glacier via gold rush town Hokitika. After we leave Blenheim the countryside changes dramatically from north to south; much of the roads are winding, narrow with single-lane bridges, cutting through pine-clad hills, some with great gashes in them where the wood is being harvested, hideous, and snow covered mountains in the distance. The roads are slow and we amuse ourselves by streaming Radio 4 iPlayer and listening to favourites such as the Archers Omnibus and the daily serials. Wherever we are, the scenery is breathtaking.
In Blenheim we are lucky again in our choice of B&B. Botanica is in an Art Deco house and our quarters are self-contained in the gorgeous garden. The owner, Clare, is a keen fruit and veg grower (I’m dead jealous of her veg beds) as well as a beekeeper. When we leave she gives us a pot of her own honey.
The top tasting accolades are shared between Hunters, where we are plied with very fine wines for an hour including a special young winemaker’s experiment, ‘Offshoot’, a fizzy sauv Blanc with the yeast still in the bottle. Rarely tasted and opened just for us and actually rather good. The other fun experience was in Te Whare Ra, where the owner, Anna Flowerday, officiates herself and so the experience is all the more personal. It is one of the oldest vineyards in the Marlborough Valley. And good! A superb Riesling (not normally a favourite) and all organic.
After a night in dull Hokitika – here as everywhere we are asked where we are from, not surprising really as only 36,000 people live on the west coast of the South Island – we continue on towards Franz Joseph via Lake Kaniere which Ross assures me is a ‘lakeside’ walk. Ha! It turns out that this, like all subsequent lakeside walks we undertake, is in a dense fern forest (pretty to be sure) and nary a lake in sight apart from at a single viewpoint, but more like an alpine track as it zig zags up and down, mostly up for 30 mins! Mrs Grumpy wins and after 45 mins we turn back.
We make a stop at Cape Foulwind – named by Captain Cook after battling bad weather here – and the Tauranga Bay seal colony where we have much more luck and see a whole family of 20-30 of these comic creatures, with the alpha male chasing the girls and the little pups playing in the nursery pool while mums are hunting. Then we drop in on the extremely crowded Pancake rocks and their blow holes which are extraordinary examples of NZ’s volcanic history.
We arrive at Franz Joesph at around 4.30 and the sun has finally come out! We stroll up the road to see the snowy peaks, before having sundowners. Sunset is 9.30 at this latitude.
No such luck. But it is pretty quiet – until 4.15 when the Chinese arrive in busloads: they love nothing better than a bit of snow, as we discovered in Yunnan. And they time it right: as we are having a post-walk cuppa the clouds miraculously clear and we get stunning views of the majestic peaks towering over us.
Fed up with cooking on a single ring, we splash out and have a Thai meal in Franz Joseph. Like all the tourist parts of New Zealand the majority of hospitality staff are not from here – Thai, Indian, English, American – you name it and occasionally a local. But we get a real sense of Jacinta Arden’s influence, even in these rural areas. The country is extremely eco conscious – recycling is an obsession and the roads are peppered with national Parks and walks, all beautifully marked and maintained to the highest standard. It is truly impressive. And we don’t see any overt racism – but I realise that might be hidden; there’s a lot of respect shown to Maori culture that seems to go beyond the place names, especially in the museum exhibits and nature reserve information which details traditional uses for the trees and flowers.