Chasing Horizons #37: Canterbury, Christchurch and the Crusaders – New Zealand
Canterbury, Christchurch and the Crusaders
After spending over two months travelling around Australia now it was the turn of their Antipodean cousins. I must admit my enthusiasm for travel was waning and thoughts were turning ever more increasingly to home. The country is small and sparsely populated, but there is an incredible amount packed into these two lamb-chop shaped islands. There is also a natural affinity between Kiwis and South Africans, much of it stems from the passion we each have for our respective rugby teams. I have many good Kiwi mates so I wanted to have a fair crack of travelling through their land even though I was going to rush through the country in barely three weeks.
It was time to explore the Land of the Long White Cloud that is New Zealand.
In 1642, Dutch Explorer Abel Tasman had just sailed around the northeast coast of Australia from Batavia (modern day Jakarta, Indonesia). He sailed up the west coast of a land he christened Niuew Zeeland after a province in the Netherlands. Because he only sailed up the west coast it was speculated that he had happened upon the fabled great southern continent thought by European cosmology to exist to balance the landmasses in the northern hemisphere. He didn’t stay long though, his only landing attempt resulted in three of his crew being killed by the local Maoris.
The discovery of New Zealand as a British protectorate actually predates that of Australia. It was that man James Cook again. The Dutch had no interest in NZ after their first uncomfortable look and Lieutenant Cook circumnavigated the islands in 1769 aboard the Endeavour. He made contact with the local inhabitants and determined that the country was not the great southern continent. After claiming the land in the name of the King and the British Empire, he continued on to Australia.
At this time New Zealand was inhabited by the Polynesian Maori, themselves settlers to the land from around AD 1000. According to the Maori oral histories, the navigator, Kupe, sailed from Hawaiki to discover the north and south islands. (Despite the similar sounding names, Hawaiki was not Hawaii but probably somewhere near Tahiti). It was Kupe’s wife who named the new land Aotearoa, which means “Land of the Long White Cloud”. Legend tells of the fanning of Polynesian peoples eastwards across the South Pacific inhabiting the small islands they found; Fiji, Tonga, Samoa, Tahiti, Easter Island and Hawaii. Eventually driven from their homes by land shortages, war, and religious dissent, a Great Migration took place around AD1350. The settlers sailed from Hawaiki for Aotearoa aboard a fleet of migratory canoes. Each canoe or waka would contain a whole community, which would then grow and form the different iwi or tribes throughout NZ. Over the next two centuries, under increasing pressure for resources, the Maori tribes became aggressive and warlike. Cannibalism became prevalent, as did the development of pa, or forts for protection.
“If you melt dry ice, is it possible to swim without getting wet?” As you can see the inflight entertainment was pretty poor and it took three hours to cross the Tasman Sea. The plane banked and began its decent when a break in the clouds revealed a dark green mosaic of fields and paddocks. The land could well have been transplanted straight out of England. I would be starting my New Zealand adventure on the South Island in the city of Christchurch.
I had learnt from my experience when entering Australia not to flaunt the custom regulations or mess with the officers. I headed straight for the red “something to declare” channel to hand over my termite infested washing line pegs and lice ridden muddy hiking boots. The thing was the queue at red channel moved a whole lot quicker than the green “Nothing to Declare” channel, which was gridlocked with passengers. The customs officer gave my items a cursory once over and waved me through. Once in the arrivals hall I shunned the airport shuttled buses that charge NZ$12 a pop and took the NZ$4 bus into the Christchurch city centre.
Christ Church Cathedral
The bus drove through the tranquil western suburbs of Christchurch. These contained large timber villas with exquisite gardens. The geraniums and chrysanthemums where in bloom and there wasn’t a blade of grass out of place on the carefully edged lawns. I was dropped at Cathedral Square in the centre of town. As the name suggests the square is dominated by a grand Anglican cathedral. I heaved my rucksack onto my back and walked off into the commercial district in the direction of a hostel that I hoped would have a bed for the night. About half a dozen blocks to the east I got a bed in a huge dorm at Charlie B’s hostel that is just off Latimer Square. It is a large hostel and it seemed quite busy but my fellow guests seemed to be under some kind of zombie spell. The place has a number of lounge areas complete with TV’s and it was like these groups of travelers had never seen a television before. After coming all this way to the other side of the world they could only sit transfixed by the box. Sad really, so it looked like I would be exploring the Christchurch nightlife on my own.
It been said before and I will say it again. Christchurch is the most English of New Zealand’s cities. On Saturday morning, the day dawned bright and sunny, perfect conditions for a walk around the town. I once again started in the square at the centre of town, the Gothic cathedral stood imposing with its granite stone edifice and tall spire. Christ Church Cathedral was consecrated in 1881 and as it’s the town’s most visited attraction. The vicary has rather embraced tourism and the free market with a secular zeal. After forking out for the entrance fee there are extra charges for a camera, to climb the 134 steps to the spires viewing balconies and video screenings. I seem to remember learning in the bible about similar happenings in churches, what would the pious founding fathers think?
Bridge of Remembrance
The picturesque Avon River winds through the centre of the town. It was a delight just to walk along its banks lined with willows and shrubbery. Punts and boats floated their lazy way up and down the waterway. I walked down Oxford Terrace, which is a prime street for dining. It borders the river on one side and is lined with pavement cafes and bars on the other, a good place to just hang out and be seen. Some delightful old British-styled bridges cross the river, at one I walked under an arched memorial to the towns’s war dead, the Bridge of Remembrance. Restored trams give the final addition to all this Englishness, taking in most of the city sights in a small loop.
I walked west along Worcester Street towards the botanical gardens. I was in some kind of museum and arts district because I passed many galleries housed in old stone buildings. It was a lovely day and Christchurchians were out in their numbers at various flea markets, taking in many forms of street entertainment. I was heading to the Canterbury Museum where sense has prevailed and admission is by donation, I gave what change I had in my pockets. The museum is excellent, I learnt more here about the history of the early colonialist as well as the lives of the Maori before the Europeans came. In the Maori gallery was a repugnant but informative collection of stuffed endemic bird species. New Zealand was once home to its own species of flightless bird. Looking uncannily ostrich/emu-like, the Moa stood over 3m tall and was used by the Maoris as a source of meat and feathers for clothing. Sadly, these birds were hunted to extinction by about the late 17th century. Another exhibit of interest was the Antarctic Discovery section with turn of the century snow tractors. Christchurch is the HQ for “Operation Deep Freeze”, the supply link to Antarctica, and flags from all the participating countries are hung around the hall and I was proud to see the old flag of the Union of South Africa there.
Every year provincial rugby teams from New Zealand, Australia and South Africa contest the Super 12 championship. The competition is fierce and hectic with each team having to play half their games whilst touring on the other side of the world. My home town team, like all the South African representatives, has never faired well but the Canterbury Crusaders from Christchurch have dominated the championship over the previous three years and last season they defended their title by lifting the trophy undefeated, no mean feat in a competition of this quality.
That evening, on the recommendation of some Kiwi mates back in London I went along to the Holy Grail. This local watering hole is shrine to the Canterbury Crusaders rugby team, all the club’s merchandise is on sale in the foyer as you walk in off the street. I walked through some huge double doors into the cavernous interior. It is, in fact, a converted movie theatre with long bars down the one wall, the stage was used as a dance floor and the old movie screen was still in place and doubled showing dance videos and live sports telecasts. The auditorium at the back has three levels each with its own bar, pool tables and restrooms. I settled in for the night, playing pool and hotly debating rugby perditions for the upcoming year with some loud locals.
Whilst living and working in London during 2001 I had lived with three fellows from Christchurch, Greg, Dave and Hayden. I was still in contact with Greg and with the wonders of modern technology managed to swing an invite to his parent’s house for Sunday tea – which is in fact a late afternoon dinner. I was looking forward to it as I was pretty fed up with the normal backpacker fair dished up at hostels and wanted to get to feel normal with some good ol’ fashioned NZ home cooking. I caught a bus into the northern suburbs. The settlement of Christchurch in 1850 was an ordered Church of England enterprise and the land was placed in the hands of the gentry. Christchurch was meant to be a model of class-structured England in the South Pacific, not some scruffy colonial outpost. Churches rather than pubs were built and the elite prospered, in 1862 it was incorporated as a very English city.
However, things changed as other migrants came and new industries sprung up. Now as I walked the residential streets outside the city centre I was reminded of the sort of place I grew up in – affluent suburbia, large, single storey houses surrounded by large gardens and swimming pools. I had previously met Greg’s mum and dad, Bill and Fidelma, when they visited Greg in the UK in 2001. I easily found their house where they welcomed me with a cold beer, which we enjoyed sitting in their front garden, in the late afternoon sun. We chatted and I caught up on all the news whilst I ate Fidelma’s lovely dinner. I was pleased to hear that Greg himself would be arriving in the country soon and made a mental note to arrange a reunion with him. Finally, it came time for me to leave and Greg’s dad kindly gave me a lift back to my hostel.
I gave in to peer pressure that evening and sat in front of the TV to watch the first part of “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. I had seen “The Fellowship of the Ring” before but I was now in the cinematic home of the trilogy. New Zealand has embraced the Rings films with such a passion you would swear that the country was a modern incarnation of Middle Earth and the events that took take place was part of a factual history. As we all know, the classic story was written by Professor J.R.R. Tolkien and is his own vision of all British mythology brought together in an epic tale. A fact that is blatantly overlooked worldwide is that Tolkien himself was born in Bloemfontein, South Africa to ex-pat parents. It was whilst holidaying back in the UK as a 5-year old Tolkien’s father died and he never did return to the land of his birth. The films are brilliantly made by Kiwi director Peter Jackson, and I have to admit there isn’t a better place on Earth where you will find the wild, varied and unspoiled landscapes. The magnificent NZ scenery is just how any Tolkien fan would have imagined Middle Earth to be. New Zealand went ballistic when “Fellowship” was released in 2001 and was now gearing up for the next installment of the Trilogy, “The Two Towers” due to be released in Wellington in a couple of weeks time.
So after spending a few days in Christchurch it came time for me to leave the quaint, oh so English town and start my journey around the New Zealand countryside. Early on Monday, 2 December, it was a grey dreary day with low-lying cloud when I boarded an intercity bus. I had purchased a Trailblazer 18-day pass that would be valid for travel from Christchurch to Auckland including a loop around the South Island. Christchurch is not an awfully big place and after riding through leafy suburbs we were soon hurtling across the Canterbury Plains through farmlands lined with hedgerows. The fertile Plains are covered with farming smallholdings and criss-crossed with bolder strewn riverbeds that have distinctive, ice blue raging waters making the journey from melting snow high up in the Southern Alps to the west to the South Pacific to the east. Once over the low bridge that crosses the Rakaia River, we were into Southern Canterbury. Now the bus turned off SH1 (State Highway) and traveled along SH79. This scenic route passed through a picturesque little town called Geraldine where we stopped for some breakfast. It is a quiet town with a retirement village atmosphere; the well-tended gardens suggested that residents have a lot of time to potter.
From Geraldine the road left the southwest corner of the Canterbury Plains and climbed into some low, rolling hills. This was the start of the Southern Alps Range; the sheep paddocks gave way to conifer tree plantations. In the fields were trophy stag deer with their antlers standing tall and proud, grazing peacefully. Dotted all across the hills were loping bushes flowering in bright yellow. I could have been in the Swiss countryside. As we climbed, the cloud cover started to break up and as if on cue I caught a glimpse of the snow capped Fox Peak. Soon the entire Southern Alps ranges could be seen through the breaking cloud and now the landscape was really spectacular.
There was a lot of snow about on the mountains and not for the first time I was worried about my lack of warm clothing. I had had no reason to carry a fleece top or warm jacket, and I had was a couple of pairs of jeans and one long sleeved t-shirt. How was I going to cope?
The road continued on up into the mountain passes of the Mackenzie country. It’s named after a sheep rustler called Jock McKenzie – nobody could explain to me why the region and the chap’s names were spelt differently. He used to run stolen flocks into this uninhabited region seeking refuge. When he was finally caught, his secret was out and other settlers realized the potential of the land. At these higher altitudes the sky finally cleared and revealed a seemingly impregnable wall of mountains, and snow covered peaks dominated western landscape. Exotic grasses covered the countryside, these grasses had been introduced for sheep grazing.
Border collie statue
The bus stopped at the southern end of Lake Tekapo. It was a spectacular view, sweeping across a turquoise lake and snowy mountains forming the backdrop. The blue colour of the lake is created by finely ground particles or “rock flour”, held in suspension in the glacial melt water. Although the place was swarming with other tourist buses, I visited the little stone Church of the Good Shepard that overlooks the lake and a little further along was a bronze statue of a border collie, a touching tribute to sheepdogs that helped develop the Mackenzie Country.
At another huge blue lake, we detoured off SH8 to journey up towards Mount Cook and the Aoraki National Park where we stopped for lunch. The vista of the surrounding mountains was breathtaking, with Mount Cook, Australasia’s tallest mountain, towering over all. It was here that Sir Edmund Hillary did much of his early mountaineering that stood him in good stead for his summiting of Mount Everest. It reminded me of Nepal and my trek, back in March, to the Everest Base Camp.
The large lake in this region in Lake Pukaki and is home to New Zealand’s largest hydro electric scheme. As we skirted the lake we traversed canals, dams and run off culverts. The centre for all this construction was at a place called Twizel, but thankfully we shot through this sterile looking town.
That afternoon we crossed into the Otago province. I had actually passed through this way before but I must have been wearing blinkers back then, this time I noticed I had a more mature approach to travel. I mean I was much more aware of the surroundings, like I was seeing it all for the first time. Admittedly, when I did pass this way three years ago I was fast asleep on the back seat of a bus, after setting off from Queenstown at 6am and after a tiring week of snowboarding and wild parties. Our driver pointed out the Clay Cliffs near Omarama, these clay pinnacles are formed by an active fault line that continuously exposes these clay and gravel cliffs. This region is home to some of the world’s best gliding spots due to the hot air thermals. Now it had certainly turned out to be a stinking hot day, at a cafï¿½ in Omarama I was gasping for a cool drink and I noticed the air temperature was 27ï¿½C.
Following the scraggy Lindis Pass, the road wound even further up into mountains as we made our way into Central Otago. It was so hot now the asphalt surface of the road was softening so that as the bus drove over it a splashing noise could be heard. The marino sheep in the fields must have been relieved that their wool had recently been shorn. There was a dazzle of pink and purple looping over the hills.
We came to Cromwell in heart of stone fruit country. Most of these Central Otago towns owe their origin to the gold mining heydays of the 19th century. As we made our way through the Kawarau Gorge I could see some old gold workings along the river banks. Further along the road we passed the historic Kawarau Suspension Bridge, built in 1880 for access to the Wakatipu goldfields. This is the site of the world’s first commercial bungy jump.
We were nearly at journey’s end now. We approached Queenstown across the Gibbston Valley where traditional sheep farms have been turned into Otago’s newest attraction – vineyards producing some world-class wines. Finally, I recognized road sign pointing out routes to familiar ski fields of Coronet Peak and Remarkables. We passed through Frankton and skirted around the Frankton arm of New Zealand’s longest lake. Like most lakes in the region, Lake Wakatipu fills a glacial valley and is fed by the summer melt of winter snows from the surrounding high mountains. The water of the lake is freezing cold all year round but that doesn’t deter the sailing enthusiasts and I noticed some dinghies racing out on the water. I hope they don’t capsize too often.
By now, the weather had turned nasty and it was in heavy rainsqualls that I made an unexpected and most welcome return to Queenstown.