Starstruck in Marlborough Country

Touring the vineyards in Marlborough made me feel like a film fan doing the Hollywood celebrities’ tour,

‘Ooh, look – it’s … Villa Maria/Wither Hills/Brancott!’ as famous name after famous name rolled by, and I leapt out of the car to take a pic –

With my liver’s best interests at heart, we didn’t stop at all of them, but I did have to do a tasting at my absolute favourite …

… Cheers!

And then, in a serendipitous twist of fate, we happened to be in Blenheim the very day of the annual Wine and Food Festival.  So of course we bought tickets, queued up with the rest of New Zealand –

and finally got to enter Wine Lovers’ Paradise – every Marlborough wine maker had their own stand in a sunny field just the right size for me to get to any one I wanted within ten minutes.

And just to make sure everyone stayed hydrated, there was Liquid Action Man –

– ready to leap into action and fill up your glass or water bottle.

Very sensibly, you could buy a glass or just a taste of any wine you fancied, to stop people (like me) feeling they had to drink the entire glass of every wine they bought just to get their money’s worth.

The food was great too –

– I love NZ oysters!

And the mussels weren’t bad either –

I got a good tip from the mussel chef – if you want tender mussels, don’t steam them, you should open them and grill them in the shell.  These were grilled with breadcrumbs, garlic and butter and they were delicious.

It was a definite frock and hat day, and everyone was out to have a good time –

My outdoor adventure hat didn’t quite measure up, but at least I’d made the effort.

The northern part of South Island isn’t just about wine – it’s also got the most stunning scenery.

Abel Tasman National Park is considered to be the most beautiful Park in NZ – and deservedly so –

I took this picture on a Sunday at about lunchtime – so a busy time leisure-wise – and yet there’s hardly anyone on the beach.

Nor is there on this equally beautiful beach –

We’re so used to any beauty spots in the northern hemisphere being packed with tourists, that an empty beach on a sunny Sunday seems weird.  Although, if I was being picky, I’d say that the water is a little on the cool side – well, it is for someone who’s now used to swimming in warm tropical water, anyway.

We were lucky enough to catch this large pod of dolphins on a boat trip in the park –

And this is my new friend, Al –

at least, I think we’re friends – now that I’ve convinced him that my hat is made of cotton, and definitely not alpaca.



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Mad museums on South Island

I have to say that some of the strangest museums I’ve been to are here in New Zealand.

They have the world’s only steampunk museum on South Island, with some very unusual displays … sort of Dr Who meets Narnia in Steptoe’s yard –

But the descriptions were the highlight for me.

This – if you hadn’t already recognised it – is a lunar dismembulator cannon …

And if you’re not sure what a lunar dismembulator cannon is, there’s a helpful description –

Likewise, some people might have thought that this was simply a room filled with pretty coloured lights –

But they would have missed the point entirely –

– a space-time travel gateway … blimey.

The World of Wearable Art Museum in Nelson offers a different kind of gateway; it’s the gateway to looking otherworldly, rather than actually travelling to other worlds.

I imagine this outfit would make daily life rather difficult, whichever world you happened to live in –

But on the other hand, I could see the appeal of this one –

– particularly on the tube in the rush hour.

And this would be an excellent way to use up a spare bit of shag-pile –

Then there was a section called ‘Bizarre Bras’, which showcased the winning entries in a bra-designing competition.  No matter how outlandish they look, they are all wearable, and have all been worn on the catwalk.

This one won first prize –

It’s called Uplift, and the turbine blades go round as the model walks.

I liked this one, called Step Right Up –

– but it would be difficult to know what to wear over it; a fitted shirt or clingy top would be a definite no-no.

And this one would be quite practical for a wet climate like  Malaysia –

– at least part of you would stay dry if you were caught in a downpour.

NZ museums are so zany that I couldn’t understand how the country gained its reputation for being a tad staid – but then I decided that all the sheep farmers must come home at night and pour all their creative energies into designing wool based creations to showcase the material they spend all day producing –

– like this one, called Cell Belle and inspired by a single cell organism.  They’re versatile people, those sheep farmers.

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In which I discover that Fox Glacier isn’t a mint, after all

Apparently, there’s an entry on many a bucket list which reads, ‘heli hike on a glacier’.

It’s not on my bucket list because I’d never even heard of heli hiking before I got to New Zealand, and once I found out about it, I wasn’t really sure how hiking on a glacier differs from slithering around trying to get to work on a snowy January day in England.  So we decided to go on a guided walk to the glacier, and not on the glacier, with an expert guide to tell us all about the glacier … but from a distance.

Fox Glacier is behind us in the picture.  What you can see here is the snout of the glacier – but the whole thing is 13 km long, and it’s one of the most accessible glaciers in the world.  Given that you have to access it by helicopter, I can’t imagine how inaccessible all the others must be.

We learnt that glaciers constantly retreat and advance, and Fox glacier is currently in retreat, and has been since 2009.  Great lumps of ice drop off the retreating glacier –

– and end up in the river where you can pick them up and marvel, or stick them in a gin and tonic.

There are all sorts of weird and wonderful plants growing beside the glacier, including the elephant killer –

– which our guide is pointing out to us here.  There are no elephants in New Zealand (I’m sure I must have known that before he told us ) but several circus elephants have died after eating this plant while grazing out in the countryside, hence the name.

And the elephant killer is not to be confused with the fern –

which is:

a) the national smbol of New Zealand,

b) doesn’t kill elephants, and

c) tastes of walnuts.

These tiny young shoots are delicious, but not very filling, it has to be said.

Another national symbol is the kiwi –

– but they’re much harder to spot than this sign would have you believe.  The kiwi is an endangered species and there are so few in the wild that the only place to see them is in a kiwi sanctuary.  The fact that they are nocturnal birds only makes it harder to see them, because it’s so dark inside the kiwi house that you can hardly see anything at all – you can just hear rustling in the undergrowth and see a dark coloured blob at the back of the enclosure.

Anthony and I went to the kiwi sanctuary at Franz Josef Glacier – and the best view you get of a kiwi is this one –

Entrance to the sanctuary is $40, and they have two kiwis – so that’s $20 for each dark, rustling blob … not exactly a snip.

But in compensation, there are lots of other wonderful birds here, in much more plentiful supply.

This is the weka – another flightless bird – but they’re not nocturnal and there are lots of them around in the wild, so much more satisfying than the kiwi experience.

There’s also the pukeko –

– which has a little white tail that bobs up and down endearingly as it walks.

There are lots of flightless birds in New Zealand, and I started wondering why.  What is the point of being a bird if you can’t fly?  It looks like a serious design fault to me.




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What sound does a Sound make?

Fiordland, in the south-west of South Island, is full of Sounds.  To be honest, I wasn’t quite sure what a Sound (with a capital ‘S’) actually is, so I had to look it up.  It turns out that a Sound is a large sea/ocean inlet, formed when the sea fills a valley, so it’s surrounded by hills or mountains – which makes it very picturesque –

In fact, it’s so pretty that it inspires even the most unlikely photographers –

What’s the matter with this child?  Why isn’t he playing a game on his iPad?

There are some dramatic waterfalls, and the captains of the tour boats liven up their day by getting in as close as they can, to soak all the passengers –

– and I can attest to the fact that the spray is absolutely freezing.

We saw fur seals lolling around on the rocks, and then a pod of bottlenose dolphins came into view –

– and everyone got very excited.

Fiordland also has the world’s only alpine parrot, called the kea, which seems to spend all its time hanging around in the tourist car parks, begging for food –

They hang around humans for two reasons according to the information panel: firstly, they have a fondness for fast food and secondly, they like ‘to exercise their strong, manipulative beaks in the destruction of our unguarded possessions’  … bloody delinquents.

Fiordland is extremely wet – they get between 8 and 12 metres of rain a year.  To put that in perspective, Kuala Lumpur, which seems very wet to me, gets 2.6 metres of rain a year, and London’s average annual rainfall is 60 cm.

In addition to the waterfalls, many of which are periodic, there are also rivers flowing at high speed down the mountains.  They pick up hard, crystalline pebbles which get swirled around and around in the current and grind out weird and wonderful pothole shapes –

The rainwater in Fiordland is stained brown by tannin, and it sits on top of the sea water in the Sounds, making it very dark underneath, and allowing deep sea creatures to live much closer to the surface than they normally would.  This means that scientists and divers love this area just as much as we daytrippers do.

We cruised around Milford Sound and Doubtful Sound on two different days, and these boat trips are quite expensive, so I sat outside on the deck and made sure that I got the most out of the experience.  But not everyone shared my enthusiasm –

Oh well … more room on the top deck for the keenies.

And finally …

Q: What sound does a Sound make?

A: The Maori name for Doubtful Sound is Patea, which means ‘the place of silence.’  Perhaps, with a nod to accuracy,  we should call them No-Sounds from now on.







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Albatrosses and Orcs

We landed in New Zealand at Christchurch, and the temperature was 32 degrees.  We just accepted it, having become used to Malaysian and Australian weather – but it turned out to be a fluke, and as we drove south to Dunedin the temperature dropped by more than 20 degrees, until it was just ten above freezing, and there was a cold wind and driving rain.  I thought I’d escaped the British winter, only to find it again 16,000 kilometres away, and at the height of the New Zealand summer.

But we doughty Brits aren’t put off by an Antarctic wind blowing right up our Bermuda shorts, so we pressed on to the very end of the wild and windswept Otago peninsula, in search of albatrosses.  Despite studying Coleridge for A-Level English, and still being able to recite several verses of the Ancient Mariner, I’d never seen an albatross, and was keen to remedy the situation.

In the information centre, we were invited to handle a replica albatross egg –

Verdict: bloody enormous and very heavy.

Then we watched a video all about the life of the albatross, and how, once they learn to fly, they spend the first five years of their life out at sea, never touching land once.  Then after those five years, they come back to the place where they were born to spend three years indulging in laddish behaviour, with lots of squawking, posturing and banter, before they find a mate and pair up for life.  And a very long life too – one of the albatrosses at the centre, known as ‘Granny’, was still breeding at the age of 60, poor thing – no chance of getting empy-nest syndrome if you’re an albatross.

The young birds weigh more than their parents – a whopping nine kilograms after several months of being fed the special oil their parents regurgitate for them.

And we all got the chance to feel just how heavy a 9 kg baby albatross is when you hold it –

And finally, we saw the Northern Royal albatrosses themselves, swooping and gliding over the cliffs where they live –

The wingspan is about 3 metres and they soar and glide effortlessly, but sometimes have trouble landing and either crash to the ground or have to abort the attempt and circle around and try again.  Our guide told us that the Japanese name for albatross means ‘stupid and clumsy bird’ and I felt rather sad about that.

After Dunedin we headed to Queenstown, where it was just as cold, so I dashed into the first outdoor shop I saw and bought some warm clothes.  Unless it warms up, every photo of me from now on will show me wearing my bright blue fleece and grey leggings, as they are the only warm clothes I possess.

Luckily, our next trip involved wearing cloaks, so that was one extra layer of warmth.  We went to Glenorchy to see some of the locations for the Lord of the Rings films.  Our guide took us to the locations, and showed us stills from the film and told us lots of stories about what happened during the filming.

The wargs were ambushed on the hill behind this lake, and the Rohan refugees struggled across the plain in front of the lake.

Incidentally – the Riders of Rohan were all teenage girls from the pony club.  So the long, blonde hair is real, but the beards are not – bet you didn’t know that.

Then …

out came the swords …

And we got cloaked up and ready for battle.

Here I am re-enacting the tea break at the battle of Isengard –

Then we went to the location where Sam and Frodo cook some rabbits –

Where we got into character and pretended to cook our own rabbits –

I haven’t had so much fun since I used to dress up in woolly tights and a jumper and swing from my bedroom curtains, pretending to be Tarzan’s girlfriend Jane – and this time I didn’t get told off for it either.




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