More wine, a fishy feast and a rebuilding city

Hey dudes, it’s Andy again, here to enthrall, entertain and hopefully not bore you too much. We’ll see. So we drove out of shinning happy little Picton and made the decision that we’d tackle the south island in a huuuuuge clockwise loop, following the coast the whole way and dipping inland where necessary. With the plan made, our first stop was to be Blenheim, the heart of the Marlborough wine region. As we drove south, already some sizable mountains were coming into view, all fairly parched looking. Whilst we’d been getting soaked in Coromandel over Christmas, the south island had been basking in sunshine and that trend was set to continue from what we could see. The land was pretty dry and not what I’d expected from a wine region, I was starting to realise that perhaps the sunshine is more important in growing grapes than the rainfall is as a water supply, that’s what the rivers are for. So as we arrived in Blenheim, spitting feathers, we sat in the shade of our van sinking our teeth into a deliciously juicy and refreshing New Zealand nectarine. Man was it hot here! Blenheim’s an ok town, fairly average really with not much to do, so there was nothing for it other than to pick one of the many wineries, try to make ourselves look a little smarter and use some poncy language at a wine tasting.

We settled on the Cloudy Bay winery, I changed into my jeans and we walked into the rather posh cellar door. Get this, even if you’re on a budget, most wineries offer tastings of their range for $5 (about £2.50 at the time of writing) and many are even free, there’s really no excuse not to sample one of the true delights of NZ. In fact many people decide that the drink drive regulations don’t apply to cyclists and so spend their days biking from vineyard to vineyard drinking free or very cheap good wine. The point I’m making is that wine in NZ is enjoyed by the masses and not the rich few, you can turn up to a winery wearing anything to be honest (just like we did), they are actually pretty chilled out places. We sampled a sparkling wine, a chardonnay, a sauvignon blanc, a riesling and a pinot noir. I was driving today so only had a sip of each but still enough to enjoy and start to appreciate the differences between the grapes and the different techniques of production. We chilled outside in their lovely grounds, sat in swinging seats in the shade of giant trees, the grapes were surrounding us extending off into the distance in huge rows.

We camped that night in the very basic, but scenically located Department of Conservation campsite in White’s Bay. As we sat eating our curried vegetable cous cous, the sound of Tuis filled the air with their flute like songs interspersed with weird crackle and scraping noises.

The drive the next day was sublime. With huge mountains on our right and the coast on our left I was as smug as a git driving our own van through this spectacular scenery. We stopped off in Kekerengu at a small restaurant and sat drinking a coffee looking out over the stony beach. A large group of dusky dolphins were leaping into the air out at sea putting on a pretty spectacular show. We walked down onto the beach and took off our flip flops so that we could cross a small stream. It was at this point that Emma declared this spot her favourite beach in the world. The round perfect pebbles everywhere were either pure white or speckled like birds eggs, the beach felt clean and untouched. Cormorants were sat on the rocks drying their wings. A family of sooty oystercatchers were running along the high tide mark, two adults and three tiny black balls of fluff following them. The sea water was that incredible blue/green that you only get in NZ, not crystal clear, more chalky looking, and beautifully colourful and unique to this place. The best beaches aren’t all covered in sand and fringed with palm trees.

As we continued along this coastline we stopped off at a New Zealand fur seal colony. We stood by the side of the road looking down on hundreds of the blubbery fellas, all sunning themselves, with the odd squabble as one stood on the other’s flipper. We were so pleased to have our own van, we could stop where we liked, like here, and for as long as we liked. Remembering the advice of Anne at the Sileni winery in Hawke’s Bay, we were to stop at Nin’s Bin, a small caravan on the roadside just before Kaikoura, order a crayfish and sit and eat it with a glass of her Sileni chardonnay. So we did just that. We ordered a $42 crayfish (that’s cheap believe me) and sat on our deck chairs in the scorching sun drinking a glass of our slightly warm white wine we’d been saving in the back of our van, it was heaven! The delicate flavour of the Crayfish coupled with the creamy chardonnay was bliss. Kaikoura means ‘food, crayfish’ in Maori, they tended to name places after the food the found there, the waters of Kaikoura are indeed crawling with the things. As we sat enjoying our crayfish we realised it was basically a lobster except these guys don’t have any claws. This little snack was certainly an indulgence, but then when would we be coming back?

Back on the road we soon arrived in Kaikoura and got settled into a campsite for a few nights. With the sun out, the sea in front of us and surrounded by huge mountains this place was pretty awesome. In bad weather I could imagine people being not too taken with Kaikoura, but nothing beats it on a sunny day.

The next day we’d booked onto a sea fishing trip with Kaikoura fishing tours. We were both pretty excited to get out there and see what we could catch, hopefully there would be some dinner to bring back with us. After a wrong turn, we made it to our boat just as it was getting ready to leave without us, we jumped on and soon found ourselves heading out into the pacific. There were a couple of European guys along with a Japanese family onboard, with Tomo the skipper and his helper there too. A short way from shore we stopped and the pro’s winched up a few crayfish pots. Quite a few crayfish were thrown back as they were too small, the others went into a tray. I thought these were the fishermen’s own pots and we were just getting an insight into the fishing technique, I was wrong, we’d be taking one of those lucky beauties home later to eat! We carried on out to sea, the fishermen set the boat up to drift and we all took a rod. We sent our lines hurtling down into the deep wondering if we’d get a bite. As the weight hit the bottom the line slackened and immediately you felt the knocking of a fish on your hook. Everyone was winding up fish and bringing on board blue and red cod, sea perch and at one point a baracouta, the barracuda’s smaller but equally dangerous looking brother (they are not actually related). This continued for the remainder of our trip, as soon as your weight hit the bottom you immediately had a fish. Apparently the waters here are extremely fertile with weird deep sea currents getting forced up to shallower water, hence the crazy amount of life underwater. After two hours we’d actually got bored of catching fish, it was that easy, we were also starting to feel pretty guilty about the number of fish’s days we’d ruined. Emma was taking a break anyway as the old seasickness was creeping up on her, she wasn’t sick but wasn’t feeling too great. She helped herself to a bag of fruit leather Tomo gave her, it was covered in dried fish slime and blood and so didn’t look too appetising but Emma soon became addicted to the stuff finding it helped her a lot with the rolling boat. The Paihia Bombs she’s taken before going out had definitely helped a lot too, by now she would usually have been feeding the fish herself. By the way, as usual she’d kicked my arse at fishing by landing a big blue cod on her first cast, I caught nothing anywhere near as big!

We arrived back in the harbour and Tomo set about filleting and sharing the catch. Not having a fridge, we settled for a massive bag of blue cod and another of sea perch fillets along with one of the crayfish we’d seen them catch earlier. We could have taken loads more of each but worried it would go off before we could eat it. The Japanese family very happily took the remainder, bags and bags full of fillets, they were grinning from ear to ear! We got back to the camp and began preparations for our “fushy” feast. On Tomo’s advice I left the crayfish in a large bowl of freshwater which had drowned him very peacefully in thirty minutes with no struggle at all, they can only breathe in saltwater apparently. I just about fitted him into our saucepan and left him steaming for 7 minutes. We fried the small blue cod fillets in lemon and garlic, saving the separate and bigger bag of sea perch for the next day. Wow what a feast! With the remainder of our Sileni chardonnay, we were eating like royalty, it was absolutely divine. I think everyone else in the campsite was very jealous of the awesome smells from our cooking. The crayfish was perfect and I’d even managed to cut him correctly straight down the middle with one of our blunt knives, it looked very posh on our blue plastic plates 🙂 Not a bad meal to eat whilst watching a perfect sunset over the mountains.

The next day the sunny spell ended, the rain was back. Just as we’d left the campsite for a long walk it had started, so we didn’t even have our trusty old umbrellas with us from Luang Prabang, Laos! We followed the coast north past a public garden with arches of whale bones (there was originally a whaling station here). We then tried to book onto one of the tours for which Kaikoura is most famous, dolphin swimming and whale watching sea trips. As the weather had become quite windy now most had been cancelled and all were booked up for the remainder of the week. Em was a bit sad to miss out, but given the weather it was probably for the best. We carried on eventually arriving at the town’s seal colony. You don’t instantly see them but there are seals everywhere here, lounging out on roundabouts in the middle of the car park, beside the road, anywhere that looks remotely comfortable has a seal on it! When one yawns and you get a glimpse of their big bloody red teeth you realise why there’s signs everywhere telling you to keep your distance from them! Back at the camp that night we cooked up our remaining sea perch fillets which accompanied by a bag of “chups” made for another cracking “dunner”.

After a night of the heaviest rain yet and very little sleep we got up and debated where we should head next. As it was still pouring we decided to head inland to the town of Hanmer Springs, there would be no point being near the coast in this weather. After a gruelling twisty drive through the mountains dodging fallen rock in the roads and hoping that the raging rivers next to us wouldn’t burst their banks, we arrived in this nice little town, famous for its thermal baths. We decided we needed warming up and so spent a few hours reenacting our hot water beach experience, this time without any digging involved. We worked our way up the temperature scale through the various different baths. We started in the pleasant jacuzzis and finished in the shockingly hot 36 degrees Celsius sulphur pool. As you stepped into the water you could just about handle the heat. Emma managed about 5 minutes in there, me a couple of minutes more. As you stepped out again into the cool air your head went light making you feel like you were going to feint. After a hot shower and giving my shorts a damn good rinse there was still that unmistakable sulphur whiff about them 🙂

With our cockles nice and warm, we headed back out to the coast and then south towards Christchurch. We’d been a bit apprehensive about reaching this city knowing what had happened here two years ago in the devastating earthquake. As we drove in through the northern suburbs it was clear that lots of building work was going on, many homes lay unoccupied as they were either structurally unsafe or the family had left to start a new life elsewhere. The roads were a mess, the van was thrown about as we drove over the uneven surface covered in temporary remedial fixes. As we got closer to the city, many walls were propped up by wooden supports, the damage became obvious. Soon we were approaching the city centre and had reached the demolition zone of the CBD, we could drive no further. What lay ahead of us was a maze of collapsing buildings in various states of demolition, truly shocking to see. To give you some idea, over 1,500 buildings have been pulled town with another 45 still to go. I wish I could have seen this place in its prime, I have often heard what a pretty city it was, so sad. We drove out to our campsite in the seaside suburb of New Brighton and saw little to lighten the mood. Streets of dilapidated and collapsing housing everywhere.

The next day we headed out by the airport and visited Christchurch’s Antarctic Centre. Being one of the closest cities to the Antarctic many scientific missions leave from here to the frozen continent. We had some fun learning about Antarctic expeditions and what life’s like there for the scientists. We got to see some of the tiny blue penguins found on NZ’s shores that had been rescued after injury. Very cool little chaps. We then headed to the Cassels & Sons brewery for a tasting of their beers. It turned out to be a strange experience, the business seemed more keen on promoting its restaurant than its beer. We asked for a tasting tray and then made our way through six small glasses of them. Soon we realised that we weren’t really enjoying any of them. All were extremely bitter, over-hopped for our palettes with no subtlety from the hops coming through, just the bitterness. We ended up leaving most of them and feeling a bit disappointed with the whole experience.

With Christchurch in its transitional stage of being rebuilt, we decided to take the short drive south and then out on the Banks peninsula to the only French settlement in NZ, Akaroa. The geography here is quite incredible, an old volcano with its crater making a huge sheltered bay with little Akaroa perched on the side. To reach it you must drive up over the rim of the volcano and then down the other side, the view as you approach is simply stunning. We found ourselves a campsite halfway up the hill and went for a walk around the quaint little town. The French influence is there to see in the houses with the odd chateau tower-like extension on some. We spent a pleasant but fairly quiet few days here walking around the town and chilling in the sun which had thankfully returned. A huge cruise ship had anchored in the harbour and so businesses were enjoying the boost in trade from the many American and Australian tourists in town.

We booked on to a trip to swim with the Hector’s dolphins for which Akaroa is famous. We got into wetsuits and were taken out into the harbour. Hector’s are the world’s smallest and rarest dolphin with an instantly recognisable round dorsal fine, unlike the straight and sharp fin found on all others. The unusual round dorsal fin is often described as looking like mickey mouse’s ear. The dolphins are very hard to spot what with them being so small coupled with the chalky blue water, but soon into the trip we’d found a small pod of maybe 3 dolphins. We got a few fleeting glimpses of the lovely little creatures as every now and then one would surface. The moment they went back under they were gone though. We were all instructed to jump in and start acting like idiots in the water with the hope that the dolphins would be attracted to the weird noises we were all making through our snorkels. Funnily enough they weren’t that impressed and kept their distance. We were all frozen after 20 minutes in the cold water and so all got back on board. We headed out of the harbour into the open ocean and spotted a larger pod. In we all got whilst again we were encouraged to attract them with our trumpet impressions. These dolphins were far more friendly and spent thirty minutes swimming around our group, trying to understand why human beings feel the need to float around on the surface making bizarre noises! On several occasions one passed within a metre of us, a very cool experience. It was never far from the back of my mind that we were floating on the surface and making a lot of noise, I couldn’t help but wonder what any bigger fishes with empty stomachs might have made of that! When our time was up we got back on board and enjoyed a mug of hot chocolate. The tour guide eased my worries by telling us that sharks don’t like the chalky sea water here, it hurts their gills so we had been quite safe 🙂 This is the reason that these small and fairly helpless dolphins are found here. Later when back on the shore we heard how a killer whale had been spotted in the harbour a few days before, now those bastards would have quite happily eaten us!

After a night of strong winds we awoke to find what had been a small stone chip in the corner of our windscreen had spread about 20 centimetres over the passengers side, oh dear. I’d been hoping it wouldn’t get any worse as I’d planned to get the windscreen replaced just before selling the van. The roads are covered in loose stones here so I ‘d expected we’d get another anyway what with all of the driving we had to do still, but this made the decision for us, we’d have to get it replaced now. The nearest city where we could get it fixed was back north in Christchurch, so we said our goodbyes to Akaroa and headed off. On the way we stopped off in Lyttelton, Christchurch’s main port and also the epicentre of the terrible earthquake. Again the place was in ruins, many historic buildings in the town centre were being pulled down. There was however a very positive feeling here. Business whose premises had been destroyed had set up small pop up stalls, using palettes and crates as furniture with flowers growing everywhere giving the feeling of returning life to the place. We strolled around eating an extremely generous ice cream in the sunshine feeling inspired by this community that was getting on with things.

After a short drive north of Lyttelton we were back in Christchurch, dropping our van off to get its windscreen replaced. We were on the outskirts of the city centre where despite lots of damage, many businesses were still doing their best. Again lots had reopened as small popup stalls with gardens and art lifting the community’s spirits. We sat drinking the best cup of coffee ever and eating a lovely Afghan biscuit, really chocolaty and crammed full with walnuts. As we sat drinking I couldn’t help but wonder what the place would look like in 5 years time, there are big ideas for the city and it sounds like they’ve got something special planned 🙂

With a spanking brand new windscreen we headed out to Christchurch’s coast again and spent a lovely day in the sun at Sumner. Many houses were perched precariously on the edge of a mountain here, lots had fallen away or where in a state of demolition. The road was lined with huge Maersk shipping containers which were cleverly being used to stop anymore landslips falling onto the road. The containers were all covered in artwork which looked really cool, something very unique to Christchurch. At the beach the city’s residents certainly weren’t letting the past spoil their day as they were all out surfing and sun bathing. We were really pleased to have seen the positive and reemerging Christchurch at its best and left feeling inspired by the city’s people.

Thanks for reading everyone,



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