Meals on wheels

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 17 June, 1995, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 17 June, 1995, 12:00am

MOST of us have done it. The nod and smile of approval after the waiter has put us through our wine-tasting ceremony, and we've made the wrong choice. After all, he has already opened the bottle. And we have to pretend we are experts, don't we? Or the white lies we tell the guesthouse owner who wonders why we haven't eaten the breakfast which is swimming in cooking oil. 'Looks wonderful, but I've got this stomach ache, you see. Must have been the wine I drank last night.' And so, ever the quintessential Englishman, I gave the customary 'Yes, thank you,' when the receptionist at Noah's Hotel in Christchurch inquired if I had enjoyed my stay in the city, as I fumed inside because I had not.

I had stayed two nights at probably the best hotel in town, certainly in the best situation, on Cathedral Square, as downtown as downtowns can be, and I was about to start the holiday of a lifetime, campervanning through New Zealand's South and North Islands. But I had not enjoyed Christchurch.

They tell me it is a city more English than England, with punting on the winding Avon river, botanical gardens thriving in a gentle climate, where locals show off their handicrafts at the Arts Centre, an imposing building that was once the city's university, a city surrounded by the green Canterbury Plains, where sheep outnumber people.

I'm sure it is, but the jewel of Christchurch, Cathedral Square, is fiercely guarded by a maze of one-way streets that is best penetrated on foot. I had tried to breach the defences in a campervan, and failed miserably.

Leisure Port's motor hire headquarters is ideally situated, close to the airport, about 15 minutes drive from the town centre, and I left Noah's Hotel at 8 am to pick up our two-berth Maui campervan telling my wife I'd be back about nine for breakfast, and we'd have a full day sightseeing.

'You shouldn't have any problem getting back, just be a bit careful of the one-way street system,' said the taxi driver, as he dropped me off.

Within a few minutes the paperwork had been completed and I was in the driving seat, my new home at my back. A bit like being a tortoise, I mused, thinking of the table that converted into a double bed, the gas cooking stove, fridge, toilet and shower.

A tortoise with a good sense of direction would have beaten me back to the hotel.

Breakfast became brunch as I arrived at Noah's after a two-hour grand tour of the one-way street system which had taken me every which way but Cathedral Square, and thrust the ignition keys into the hands of the concierge, wondering how I could possibly navigate 2,000 kilometres when I could not even find my way back to the hotel.

OK, there was still time left. We'd head for the nearest supermarket, stock up with food for our 10-day trip, then take the gondola up Mount Cavandish, which they say offers great views over the city, and later visit the International Antarctic Centre, where special effects, lighting and holograms offer virtual reality, a taste of being in the great white continent.

In Christchurch, people shop as if they are about to fall under siege. Some supermarkets dwarf even the largest in Hong Kong. The car parks take up acres of land, and everything you need is under one roof.

And so after an hour's shopping, I wheeled out a giant trolley, helped unload everything on to the shelves in the campervan and sighed with relief. But you know the rules of Murphy's Law . . .

'You know, the campervan doesn't seem big enough for such a long journey,' said my wife. 'And I don't think the bed is going to be long enough for you. Don't you think we should try to change it for a 4-berth?' Now murdering your wife is not the best start to a holiday, so I resisted the temptation, folded away the dining table, let down the bed, removed my shoes, lay down - and my feet scraped the opposite side of the campervan.

YOU can see the entrance to the Antarctic Centre from Leisure Port, but I wouldn't go through it. It was too late, and on my second visit of the day I was too busy moving groceries from one campervan to another. Mind you they were very good about it at Leisure Port, and a 4-berth does have a lot more space. Your feet don't touch the side, either, unless you are a basket-ball player.

This time I managed to get back to the hotel fairly quickly with a map-reader at my side, and I didn't offer any explanation to the puzzled concierge as I thrust a set of keys into his hands for this much larger vehicle, which I had abandoned outside the lobby.

No, I didn't get to see much in Christchurch, but leaving early the next morning was easy after doing a night recce on foot for a few blocks to make sure there would be no further clashes with the traffic system.

I was heading for Arthur's Pass, the spectacular crossing through the southern Alps to the wet, wild west coast, which attracted thousands of prospectors during the heady days of the New Zealand gold rush, hell-bent on making a fortune, and defying the elements to do so.

The boom times are over, and towns which sprouted almost overnight on the banks of gale-lashed rivers are no more, the wooden shacks having long-since rotted and decomposed. But some small gold mines still exist down the west coast, and rugged individuals can be found leading a lonely life out in the bush, searching for the elusive lode their predecessors might have missed.

Many died on the 300-kilometre trek on horseback and by foot over the muddy trail that led from the fertile plains of Canterbury, to a height of 1,000 metres through the Alps after gold was discovered in the 1860s. Some died of starvation, others from exhaustion.

Between February and April of 1865, some 4,000 are said to have attempted the crossing. Today, however, Arthur's Pass, though still remote, is a protected national park, and it can be crossed in a few hours on a sealed road, or on the daily TranzAlpine Express train. It cuts through mountains which soar to more than 2,000 metres.

In the tiny hamlet of Arthur's Pass, which is a centre for trekking, climbing and skiing in the winter, a wooden stagecoach reminds of the gold rush days. It still bears the plaque 'Licensed for 14', but most would have had to sit on the roof, cold, miserable, and jarred continuously as the iron-rimmed wheels hit the ruts. Though the sun was shining, isolated fog banks clung to the mountains. The weather can change abruptly here, and wardens at the small visitors' centre warned that heavy rain was expected.

Christchurch has a remarkably mild and dry climate. The reason, I was told, is that the rain-bearing clouds come in from the west coast and get trapped in the Southern Alps, which are deluged.

'Welcome to the West Coast', read the sign at the summit of Arthur's Pass, and as if to prove the point, the mist moved in and the rain belted out a drum solo on the roof of the campervan. Five minutes ago, we were in bright sunshine. It would now rain virtually non-stop for two days. If reaching the Arthur's Pass plateau from Christchurch is a dream journey, then leaving it to descend to the West Coast is something of a nightmare. It is a dramatic drop, much of it on single-file road, through deep gullies topped by threatening black clouds, with hair-pin bends, jungled slopes and sheer rock faces, passing places with names like Big Slip Creek.

I was imagining how costly a mistake at the driving wheel could be when a car came round a bend towards me with an open coffin on its roof - and a garter-clad leg sticking out of it.

I edged into a narrow lay-by and was relieved to see that this was a leg of the shop window variety. Some folk have a strange sense of humour.

A few minutes later another car squeezed past, massive bull-horns over the radiator, the word 'Sheriff' emblazoned across the side, and a set of teeth grinning up at me from a wide-brimmed cowboy hat.

After this I was ready for anything, I thought, but the biggest shock was yet to come.

I had reached the coast, followed the road round a sharp corner - and found myself to be driving across a long, single track railway bridge, only slightly wider than the campervan, the steel rails shining ominously before me through a curtain of rain.

How could I have made such a mistake? Should I reverse? Indeed, could I reverse? Would I be hit any second by an express train? The sweat ran down my brow but I kept going on, slowly, into the unknown.

I came back out on to the road. I had not made a mistake. This was indeed a rail and road bridge. I hadn't seen any traffic lights. And I still don't know how motorists are warned when a train is due. Maybe you are meant to carry a train timetable.

I soon discovered the benefits of campervanning. The West Coast is sparsely populated, and only a handful of vehicles passed me in the opposition direction. The towns are more like villages, and well-scattered.

But if you get tired of driving, just pull into the roadside, put the kettle on, heat up a snack, read a book, and even take a nap if you want. There's no rush, no need to check the watch.

By the time I reached Ross, a now tiny historic gold-mining town, it was mid-afternoon and still pouring. New Zealand's largest gold nugget was found here. The 'Honourable Roddy', weighing 99-ounces, was discovered in 1907.

Friendly people down here. I popped into the Empire Hotel, which was built during the gold rush, and whose walls are festooned with souvenirs.

The manageress joined us and talked of the gold rush days. 'If only these walls could speak,' she said. 'They'd have some great tales to tell. Ross used to have dozens of pubs in gold rush days. Mind you, most were just wooden shacks.' We were joined by an elderly couple from Dunedin, the university city on the southeast coast of the South Island, who showed us a tiny sliver of gold in a miniature brandy bottle filled with water.

'I just panned that,' bubbled the old chap. 'You know, there is panning here for tourists, and they put some gold flake in the water to make sure they are not disappointed. But I got this away from the tourist area. There must be still a lot of gold around.' After 15 minutes we were exchanging names and addresses and were invited to visit their home any time we were in Dunedin. 'There'll always be a bed for you,' they said. It is like that in the rural areas of New Zealand, I would find over the next week or so.

It had been a long drive to Franz Josef, where the glacier of the same name is still forcing its way through a gap in the mountains.

You can trek over the glacier, fly over it, land on it by chopper, or simply drive to the observation point, from which you can see huge lumps of ice which have broken off, drift by on the river.

But I made straight for the camping ground. The great thing about campervanning is that New Zealand has dozens of camping sites which are geared for them.

You plug in to their electricity supply which heats your shower water, allows you to use your microwave oven, convector heater, and strip lighting. All the sites have their own kitchens, toilet blocks, shower rooms and laundries, and only cost around NZ$16 to $18 (HK$80 to $90) per night for two people.

Campervans also have their own fridge, water pump and lights which are operated by batteries, plus a gas cooker.

Covering those 2,000 kilometres I would see a host of major attractions, including the Punakaiki blowholes and the glaciers in the South, and after crossing to the north by ferry from Picton, Lake Taupo, New Zealand's largest. Then there were the Tongariro volcanoes, Rotorua's thermal attractions, and the peaceful Coromandel Peninsula.

I would stop at orchards near Nelson and Auckland to buy freshly-picked fruit and pure juices, and stock up with fresh vegetables at roadside markets, all at a fraction of supermarket prices. I would drive by vineyards and sample the wine, visit a tiny rural cheese factory and sample the cheeses; watch thousands of migratory birds from a hide on a wild estuary, and go out to old mine workings at night to see glowworms.

But I didn't get to see what Christchurch has to offer. That will be top of my list when I return to New Zealand - and I'll pick up my hire vehicle after I've explored the city.