The fortnight before our extended Christmas vacation in New Zealand was backpacked with incident and action. My myriad internecine bank accounts, loan agreements, scrip and credit cards had to be carefully calibrated with the fine checks, filters, gears, brakes and balances that are now characteristic of my new gossamer financial identity. Advent was recalled with a sumptuous early Christmas dinner with the Jarvises and in the company of the Barneses. I had lunch at the Anthonys of Therwil, who had also invited Clive, Graeme and Cindy. Clive’s wife Sue had very recently passed away after an unexpected heart attack. In the dignity of his mourning Clive was as positive, sociable, and friendly as he ever is.
Gwen’s 16th birthday took place on the day before we left and on the last day of the school term, and Ella arrived from England to take Gwen for a birthday lunch and shopping in Basel. Gwen received a DSLR camera from us, extravagantly bought from Jessie, to encourage her to take even better photos for Gwen Fern Photography than she does at the moment. She also received a smoothie maker from Jessie, some CDs and tickets from us to a Sam Smith concert next year in Brussels and from Ella to a Michael McIntyre concert in London next year. Gwen’s distinctive style and interests generated the unusual birthday party requirement that her guests came dressed in 1950s dress. The photo shoot was perfect. Teenagers have all the best ideas.
Our holiday in New Zealand was a bit unusual, even for us. There had been some resistance to the idea when I had first proposed it, but the idea had bedded in well enough for me to have bought the tickets last June and for Jessie, now an old Kiwi hand, to start organizing most of the details after moving into a new flat in Dhaka. The 28-day adventure gave us a vivid, wide and generous panoply of outstanding family memories: sheer wonder at the breadth and intensity of the sceneries wherever we went: the soaring mountains, the natural forests, the empty beaches and the deep lakes, the big skies, the outstanding flora and fauna, the many moments of comedy and misunderstanding and the kind, hospitable and friendly people we met along the length of the white cloud, including our own rarely seen cousins and vintage friends.
The memorable sceneries included the views on the road from Queenstown to Te Anau, and from there to Milford Sound, which we passed through on a boat trip organized for us by my prodigious cousin-guide-Kiwi convert Christine. This “eighth wonder of the world” has been sculpted by thousands of years of shape-shifting by glacier and scree into fjords, bouldered coasts, soft-sprung valleys and tall crashing waterfalls. On the way through the FiordlandNational Park, we saw acres of violet, purple, blue, pink and white lupins in untidy half-serried rows, like massed terraces of submerged football fans with soft feminine scarves outstretched aloft. We walked alongside tidy sprung paths made through the forest with the moist mossy fur of decades and fossilized tree roots looking like giant green modern beach sculptures. We saw yawning caverns and white waterfalls interrupted by huge boulders frozen in mid-fall, barely restrained by matchstick logs and giant flotsam. The variety of local birdlife in New Zealand is prolific: native tomtits, fantails, pukekus, bellbirds, tuis, black robins and cheeky keas, the world’s only alpine parrots, who destroy the rubber of car aerials with their curved beaks. There were also startling mirror image lakes cohabiting with obnoxious sandflies that bit us on our ankles and wrists. The scenery and visual experiences of the North Island were no less stunning: the Coromandel Peninsula and Pukehina Beach, the long grey and blond (and black) sandy beaches, Waiheke Island with its lazy sun hat on and clear green vineyards in rolling rows, the profusions of colour along the roadsides with splashes of agapanthus, kowhai, clematis and flax, winding single track coast roads that swayed around the bays like a drunken sailor separated from his ship, the huge sunsets, the almost comical hillocks and hassocks of the little rounded green hills resembling miniaturized Sussex downs, and the Hebridian coastlines of the Bay of Islands.
We also covered several kilometers walking and biking (making the holiday an officially active one), for example, alongside Lake Wanaka (after Jessie, Ella and I had jogged along some of the route earlier) and some determined bush walking in Fiordland, near Taurangaand Rotorua, along the bays of the Coromandel Peninsula, and around Mount Mainganui. There were also happy and sudden surprises: the appearance of our Christmas hosts Talulah and Keith on our first morning in Auckland; cousin Christine, bright, smiley and breezy as always, meeting us in Queenstown from the plane. Less of a surprise but a well-taken opportunity was dinner with our friend Keith (once a Basel neighbor) before we boarded a boat together to see the glow worm caves across the lake. In Wanaka, we had an unexpected helicopter trip, which Jessie had organised and paid for as her very generous Christmas present to Alli and me. The helicopter landed briefly on the top of Mount Roy, giving us a huge surrounding vista of the landscape, before ceding our place to a wedding party keen to perform the sacred ceremony as well as to prevent the flight of carefully prepared hats, tresses and dresses. Ella provided us with another generous surprise with her Christmas present to us: a session of swimming with dolphins in the Pacific Ocean atKaikoura. There were several dolphins around us each time we swam from the boat. I was circled mockingly several times by three or four at once, although unlike the others, my swimming abilities prevented me from correctly following the detailed advice to: make myself look like a dolphin; make dolphin noises; make eye contact with them; and to remember that we, not they, were the entertainment. To be honest, I only satisfactorily achieved the last of these. In the category of surprises also was Gwen performing a stately, almost spontaneous and well-executed bungy jump-come-swallow dive over the Kerawauriver, less than twenty minutes after we had driven by the bridge and Jessie had insisted that we should stop to “have a quick look”. There were more mundane surprises as well: the hospitality, natural friendliness and welcoming nature of people we didn’t know, the traditional Maori receptions, the excellence of local museums, crafts and arts, the cleanliness of public toilet facilities throughout the country, the high quality of the domestic plumbing and electrics, and not least the excellent tea to be had everywhere we went.
No family holiday is complete without the enjoyment of food and drink, and of the company of the people we shared it with along the journey. In Te Anau, we returned, genuinely shocked by the sheer majesty of Milford Sound, to be welcomed by our hosts David and Naomi, who live in a large new house in the hills above Te Anau (not a bad view either) and a stupendous meal of grilled blue cod, a local specialty, and lashings of Sauvignon Blanctopped up by Scottish malt whisky, not a local but an appropriate nod to the Caledonian heritage. The crayfish in Kaikoura, after we arrived tired and ready for sustenance, wolfed down in a cafe overlooking the Pacific Ocean, and again from a seaside caravan the next day as we traveled north. Other delicacies we tried were the Paua, a sea slug that looked awful and tasted excellent after Todd’s refined culinary treatment; the whitebait fritters offered by Ramon’s partner Colleen and the salmon she also cooked for us a day later, several excellent vegetarian meals over Christmas cooked by Talulah as well as a batch of home made “Anzac” biscuits that were impossible to resist on a long car journey. We also feasted on the some of the most delicious shellfish and molluscs that any of us had ever had, and Alli and Gwen each tried their first oysters in Waiheke Island, the venue also of some of the best restaurant meals of our holiday.
Jessie’s navigation skills kept us on track throughout the journey, apart from in Wellington, when she left us to spend some time with her friend Donna Marie. We found our way to the hotel only with considerable difficulty. However, Gwen’s oral skills with her iphone promptly found us the “best” Indian restaurant nearby, and we had an excellent meal together, releasing the tensions of the day’s journey. Together with Ella and Gwen the next morning, I had breakfast with Rob, a ministerial chief of staff who used to work with Todd. We yammered about New Zealand politics and history in a stylish restaurant in the centre of the city where I chose porridge with “two drams” of whisky, the latter mystifyingly served in a syringe. Afterwards, we all took the cable car to the top of the Botanic Gardens, and walked down the winding path, lush with trees, shrubs and plants from around the world. Ella, Gwen and I then visited the Te Papa museum, wandering around an imaginative but over-egged exhibition of New Zealand social and cultural history. In the evening we were invited to a barbecue with Donna Marie and her husband, who were friendly, helpful, and sociable: we felt as if we had known them for years.
After a long drive north we arrived hot and sticky at the house of Talulah and Keith, who had surprised us a few days earlier on our Auckland arrival. Relieved that our travels were over for a while, we settled into our new and comfortable abode at the end of a long dusty track a few miles outside Tauranga. Other visitors, apart from us, were Talulah’s sister Chris and brother in law Darryl. Her children Louis, Bex and Lily were also in close attendance. So our first Southern hemisphere Christmas holiday proper began in unusual style, in virgin native bush, surrounded by a kiwi bird protection area and an unfamiliarly rich biodiversity of tuneful fauna, colourful flora, and an unseasonably grey sky. We went on bush walks, including to the foot of the Whataroa Waterfall and the top of the Otanewainuku mountain; we inspected nearby Tauranga; we visited the beach at Mount Maunganui, and walked around the volcano mountain, ruby-hung by the stunning Pohutukawa trees, and we spent some time relaxing on the boulder-strewn McLaren Falls. The following days were spent on more bush walks and visits to Tauranga, videos (including “It’s a Wonderful Life”) and party games: a quiz, cards and drawing charades. And the girls even awoke on Christmas morning with three Christmas socks full of gifts hanging on the door of the caravan in the garden where they were billeted. We also visited Ramon and Colleen, who lived in Tauranga. Ramon, whom we last saw in Switzerland in 2005, looked much the same as ever, although the effects of heavy physical work as a courier have made him gaunt of face, but fit, thin and bony of body. (Not much like me, at all). We had great evenings together over a couple of dinners with our families together and other shorter visits with him and his partner Colleen during our stay.
We took Ella to Auckland airport after Christmas for her flight back to England before visiting the Coromandel Peninsula, where Jessie and Louis power-walked down the cliff to the famous Cathedral Cove. We also visited and swam at the hot water beach nearby. One evening after dinner in Tauranga, Talulah suggested that she drove back as I had consumed some wine. There was a police presence in the town, suggesting that a roadblock was likely. She was proved right, and since the limit for drivers was very low, and I had been breathalysed a couple of days previously, I was grateful for Talulah’s prescience. I lived to drive another day. This was just as well, as we had plenty of travelling still to do, and mine was the only name on the car hire agreement.
We left Talulah and Keith on New Year’s Eve and drove to Rotorua, where we visited the Maori Cultural Centre, the spectacular Pohutu Geyser and other hot springs and sulphurous mud pools, before watching a traditional Maori cultural show, then checking in with Todd and Nadene and their children Joshua, Sam, Caelen and Ana Kiera. In stark contrast to the colour-splashed idyll of sylvan calm in which we had previously stayed, Todd and Nadene’s house suggested suburban chic from the outside, but inside it was more chaotic, with large gangly male teenagers charging around randomly knocking things over. I got into the spirit of things by breaking a chair when I sat down on it but couldn’t compete with the teenage males for moody spontaneity. In the evening we all dressed up in 1920s gear and went with Todd, Nadene and children to the top of the hill overlooking Rotorua to celebrate the New Year as well as Todd and Nadene’s 20th wedding anniversary. On the following day, although the weather had improved, Rotorua’s characteristic smell of sulphur had kicked in again. (With our bedroom window open, Alli had noticed the smell in the night and had presumed it to be my flatulence). On Jessie’s proposal we went with Ana Kiera to the Blue Lake, a popular local bathing and boating spot. It was an unusual sight for a European on New Year’s Day, as hundreds of nearly naked people, organized into contented groups of friends and families, sunbathed, swam or picnicked on the tidy beach in the sun. There were speedboats and jetskis with outboard motors scraping over the birdsong. We left the next day for Todd and Nadene’s holiday house on Pukehina Beach, a long stretch of sandy coast and rough-edged sea that reminded me of the north Norfolk coast (apart from the weather). While we were there we met a colleague of Todd’s and in conversation I remembered the rare technique of talking with two Parliamentarians (of any nationality) at the same time. This can be summarized as shutting up when either speaks. Todd and Nadene took us all out to lunch at Julian’s in Papamoa, a garden centre and pick-your-own place where my roasted vegetables and couscous compared very unfavourably with the banana split, berries, pancakes and ice cream ordered by certain others of my family. After two very enjoyable days at the beach, we drove back across the island to Auckland, and took the ferry toWaiheke Island, where we stayed in a welcoming bed and breakfast lodge close to a warm and calm sea. In the evening we visited a large and echoing winery restaurant serving well-cooked tapas, just as the sun went down over the vineyards around us. We visited other parts of the island the next day, stopping only for some wine tasting, cheese and seafood for lunch and beach-hopping in the afternoon, with a delicious seafood meal afterwards inOnorea Bay, including several oysters and more than one excellent “sav”.
The last stage of our holiday was to see Alli’s second cousin Hilary and her husband Vince, who now live for the best part of the year near Russell in the Bay of Islands. Their house is magnificent, as was their great hospitality, sparkling conversation and good humour. We luxuriated in the magnificence of the house and its surrounds, the last venue of our holiday, and took a morning boat trip northwards from Russell to see the “Hole in the Rock” and discover some of the other islands in the Bay, the first part of New Zealand to have been settled both by early Maoris and by the nineteenth century European visitors and migrants. The comfort and calm of the setting sweetened the knowledge that these were the last nights and made for a contented farewell to the country. We flew back to Europe, to reports of sub zero temperatures, unrest and cruel terrorist acts. Not for this contrast, but for many reasons we shall not forget this unique holiday, and the company and hospitality of all the people we met. We returned happy, revived, fulfilled and completely skint.
ki pai hiahia, me te Tau Hou hari ki a koutou katoa