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Alan And Robin Go South

Robin and I and Phyllis and Tim (Robin's mum and dad) were about to set off on our holidays, in the South Island of New Zealand. Our journey would begin in the North Island, so a trip on a ferry was called for since the inter-island road was waterlogged because of the high summer tides. The Bluebridge ferry Santa Regina sat quietly at the Wellington wharf, puffing smoke. Next to her was moored her sister ship, the Monte Stello which had been broken for a fortnight and which therefore puffed no smoke at all. Both ships (or are they boats?) were painted blue on the bottom as is only right and proper, given the name of the company. They each had a white superstructure and blue funnels.

We checked in and surrendered our bags.

"Hello," said the check in man, giving me a public relations smile and four wooden sticks which were painted dirty yellow.

"What are these for?" I asked.

"These are your boarding passes," said the man.

"Why aren't they blue?" I asked. "Everything else is blue."

"Don't lose them," the man told me, ignoring my question, "or you won't be able to get on the ship."

"Is it a ship, then?" I asked. "I thought it might be a boat."

His smile got grimly fixed and I retreated in confusion, the questions still unsettled in my mind. Ship or boat? Boat or ship? Why couldn't I have blue sticks? I put the yellow sticks in my pocket where they bulged ominously. I walked lopsidedly because of the unevenly distributed weight.

Eventually a boarding call was made and we all filed through a door and out on to the wharf. Along the way, we passed a woman with a big white plastic box.

"Boarding passes, please," she said.

I retrieved my yellow sticks and dropped them into her box with a satisfying clatter, though I was still vaguely perturbed. Shouldn't the box have been blue as well? Oh well, at least I could walk upright again.

We boarded the boat (or possibly the ship) by walking through the vehicle deck, entering a narrow doorway and clambering up some slippery, badly painted metal stairs. Everything reeked of cat pee. Presumably the last cargo carried by the Santa Regina was a batch of hugely incontinent tigers.

Soon we reached the passenger decks. We passed small alcoves containing comfortable leather couches and no portholes whatsoever. Since there was no prospect of being able to see out, we avoided these areas. Other people, more experienced than us in the etiquette of travel, took advantage of our error of judgement, and the alcoves soon filled up behind us. It wouldn't be long before we discovered our mistake...

The main lounge area had sets of aeroplane-like seats arranged in rows in front of a large, flat screen television set. As we entered, nothing was showing on the TV. Around the edges of the lounge were some more comfortable leather couches, each with easy access to a porthole. We settled ourselves down on a couch, congratulating ourselves on our good seating judgement. Little did we know...

"These aren't really portholes," said Tim. "They are square. Portholes are supposed to be round."

"Quite true," I said. Now I had another nomenclature niggle to worry about. Would it never end? "If they aren't portholes, what are they then?"

"How about starboardholes?" suggested Tim.

The nomenclature niggle died away. I liked starboardholes.

Amazingly, the boat (or perhaps it was a ship) pulled away from the wharf five minutes before the scheduled departure time. We all took this as a good omen. The ship (or boat -- I'll tell you what, let's compromise and call it a vessel) glided smoothly out into the harbour. The sea was so still and calm that hordes of gulls were strutting up and down on top of the water, pecking at the occasional passing fish.

Someone turned the television on and it quickly became clear why the alcoves were so popular, even though they had no starboardholes. Some terrible American movie was being broadcast at eardrum shattering volume. Astronauts in orbit in the International Space Station sent letters of complaint about the noise level. Zombie passengers sat transfixed in their aeroplane seats, eyeballs glued to the screen.

I went in search of food and drink. On the second level of the vessel (yes, that's a much better word) I found a cafe that served anything you cared to ask for as long as it was deep fried. I had deep fried soup with a deep fried bread roll and deep fried salad. The deep fried coffee tasted strange, so I had deep fried Lemon and Paeroa instead. Much better.

As we pulled out of the harbour and into the open sea, mobile phone reception started to disappear. All over the Santa Regina teenagers went rigid with shock as sensory deprivation set in. Thumbs twitched impotently as the inability to send text messages became frighteningly clear to them. Withdrawal symptoms drained all energy from them and they became quite catatonic. Euthanasia seemed the kindest solution.

After a while we looked through the starboardholes and we could see the South Island peeking coyly through a cloud layer on the horizon. It crept closer and we entered the Sounds through a narrow channel. Rugged coastlines slid by on each side of the vessel. Every so often we could see a smug looking house squatting in isolated surprise on the beachfront.

"How do people get to their houses?" asked Phyllis. "There aren't any roads."

"Dolphins," I told her with a straight face. "The more adventurous people harness and saddle the dolphins and ride them around the bays. Those of a more sedentary nature take water taxis, which are carriages hitched to teams of specially trained dolphins."

Phyllis gave me the look that mothers-in-law reserve especially for use on irreverent sons-in-law who they suspect of taking the Michael. Suitably withered, I changed the subject.

Picton Harbour came into view and the vessel swung round in a semi-circle, presented her statuesque rear end to the pier and gently reversed into her mooring. We disembarked and waited for the coach to take us to the baggage reclamation area. From there we headed to the Interislander Ferry Terminal where we were due to catch a bus to Nelson.

The bus check in kiosk was closed but the timetable was prominently displayed. It informed me that the bus we were due to catch ran only on Mondays. Today being Friday, I began to panic and I rang the bus company for advice.

A cheerful lady utterly failed to understand the problem.

"You are booked on the 6.00pm coach to Nelson," she confirmed.

"But the timetable says it only runs on Mondays."

"You are booked on the 6.00pm coach to Nelson," she confirmed.

"Tonight?" I asked desperately.

"You are booked on the 6.00pm coach to Nelson," she confirmed.

It was now 5.45pm. A coach pulled up and stopped. On the front was a sign that said Nelson in large friendly letters.

"Ah," I said. "the coach is here. The problem is solved."

"You are booked on the 6.00pm coach to Nelson," she confirmed, and rang off.

Nelson advertises itself as the sunshine capital of New Zealand. Therefore, on our first day, it rained. The rain was very pretty, but nonetheless, it was rain. Clutching umbrellas, we visited the Nelson Market which was full of stalls selling organic fruit and veg and tourist-trap greenstone carvings. We approached a stall, intent on purchasing organic apples.

"I have scales over here," said the stall holder. "Come with me to the other side of the stall and I will weigh you out some good ones, special organic apples chosen by me just for you."

My mother in law trotted off with him. Twenty minutes later, just as we were beginning to consider sending out search parties, they returned. Phyllis was clutching a plastic bag full of apples. The plastic bag made me suspicious – surely a true organic stall holder would use something recyclable.

"Here we are," the stallholder said gaily. "Sorry about the long wait. I didn't sell her. I got a lot of good offers for her though!"

We took the apples back to our motel where we discovered that organic means that the flesh of the apple turns brown the instant you cut into it and expose it to the air. Organic also means that the fruit has been extensively bored into by real live wriggling bugs which are still in residence and having a good chomp. They were properly organic bugs, though...

The next day dawned clear and sunny. Nelson's reputation was restored. We arranged a trip with Cactus Tours, which is owned and operated by a young man who answers only to the name CJ. He picked us up at our motel and showed us everything there is to see in Nelson.

CJ showed us a statue of Abel Tasman staring in bewilderment at a beautiful bay that he never actually saw in real life.

Then CJ showed us a Japanese garden. Stones sat elegantly in beautifully raked sand in which local teenagers had scrawled cryptic messages and left fashionable Nike footprints.

"Soon the tidal gardeners will come on their regular morning rounds," explained CJ, "and they will rake the sand clean again. The temporary messages will vanish just like sand castles vanish from the beach."

Then CJ took us on a little walk through a park which contained a plaque marking the exact centre of New Zealand. Standing there, you have precisely as much land north of you as there is to the south. I stood, feeling in balance with the land. Harmony and good vibes, man.

CJ pulled a leaf from a tree.

"This is a kawakawa tree," he told us. "It's a close relative of the kava root that grows in the Pacific islands. If you chew it, it has a nice pepperminty flavour and it makes your mouth numb." He took a big bite and chewed thoughtfully. "Yummy!" he said in distorted tones.

"Try some," he encouraged us. "Choose the leaves with holes in -- the bugs always know which are the best ones."

We took his advice. It was good advice. The leaves were indeed richly minty and the narcotic effect was quite pronounced. Being firmly of the opinion that anything worth doing is worth overdoing, I munched several handfuls of leaves. Soon I could no longer feel my arms and I was beginning to wonder whether or not I still had feet.

CJ is just starting out in the tour guide business. If he makes a success of it, as I am sure he will, it won't be very long before the streets of Nelson are littered with paralysed tourists and the kawakawa trees are denuded of leaves.

On the way back to town, we passed Abel Tasman's statue again. A seagull perched on the statue's head and expressed his opinion. Tasman tried to clean up the mess but was unable to move his arms. Presumably he had eaten too many kawakawa leaves.

CJ took us out of town and dropped us at our next destination. He had another customer to meet and we wouldn't see him again. We thanked him for his tour and watched him leave with a real sense of regret. If you are ever in Nelson, get in touch with Cactus Tours. You won't regret it.

Our final destination was the WOW centre, a huge complex which housed a Classic Car museum (boring) and costumes from the World Of Wearable art (not boring). The costumes were breathtaking, some for their elegance, some for their cleverness and some for their humour. One costume was made of more than a thousand hand sewn silk butterflies and was stunningly beautiful. Another, a training bra, consisted of a model railway circling a large pair of tightly cantilevered breasts.

That evening, our last in Nelson, we ate at a Chinese restaurant. Gesturing extravagantly, I spilled a whole glass full of beer all over my hat. This was a terrible waste of beer; almost sacrilegious, and it sent me into a deep depression. However my hat didn't seem to mind. My hat is an Akubra and it is designed to have beer and other, more unmentionable, fluids spilled over it. It shrugs these things off without a second thought. However throughout the rest of the holiday casual passers by inhaled the fumes arising from my hat and went immediately in search of a pub. I began to consider sending the brewery an invoice for services rendered...

The next day, at an obscenely early hour, we boarded an InterCity coach to Greymouth. The road from Nelson to Greymouth twists and winds like the devil's corkscrew. It is well known that New Zealand Road engineers are paid by the corner. The ones who built this road must have retired as multi-millionaires.

Our coach driver flung his vehicle around the bends with gay abandon to the accompaniment of much vomiting on the part of passengers with sensitive tummies and turbulent inner ears.

"Sit closer to the front," the driver told them. "Oh, yes!"

We hurtled through the Buller Gorge at an appreciable fraction of the speed of light. Steep sided cliffs covered in a thousand shades of green towered ominously above us. Feathers of ferns peeked coyly through the bush. The coach ran upside down over a switchback spiral. Road signs warned of the danger of rock falls. One somewhat mysterious and vividly orange sign simply proclaimed:


The exclamation mark is in the original.

Sitting closer to the front of the coach made no difference to the terminally travel sick, and we arrived in Greymouth with the coach awash in stomach contents. Coffee, curry, corn flakes and diced carrots predominated. We splashed our moist and lumpy way out of the coach and rang the motel where we had reservations. They sent a courtesy shuttle to pick us up, and when we arrived at the motel we were introduced to the seven cats and one Jack Russell terrier who really ran the place. The cats ignored us and the dog presented us with a ball to throw. We proved to be less than talented at this, and he took his ball away again in disgust. We had failed the initiation rites. We would not be allowed breakfast.

Directly across the road from the motel was a supermarket. Phyllis had finished the organic apples she bought in Nelson and was now suffering from fruit deprivation. We mounted an expedition to the supermarket which proved itself to be singularly inaccessible. It was surrounded by a chain link fence. The only holes in the fence were those made by vandals. Wriggling through a hole placed us at the top of a sheer cliff side which made non-negotiable gravitational demands.

Time to implement Plan B.

Plan B involved walking downhill away from the supermarket. When it was just a dot on the horizon, a sharp turn to the right brought us to the huge expanse of the supermarket car park, which, interestingly, contained no cars. We hiked across the tarmac. Sheer cliffs topped by the chain link fence that we observed from the motel towered above us on our right. Another chain link fence on our left separated us from the Greymouth Railway station and prevented us from damaging the trains, should one happen to run into us when weren't looking. Eventually, just as terminal exhaustion set in, we arrived at the supermarket. It was closed.

The next day dawned. There was a thin mist covering the town and we could barely see the supermarket. A very chill wind was blowing. Robin and I implemented Plan B again and headed for the supermarket where we bought breakfast cereal and fruit.

"It's freezing cold," said Robin, shivering.

"Yes," said the checkout lady. "We call the wind 'The Barber' because it cuts through you like a barber's straight edged razor."

"That's a good name," said Robin. "Very descriptive."

"It takes a unique set of geographical characteristics to produce the barber," explained the check out lady cheerfully. "It's caused by cold air moving down a steep slope and being funnelled through a gap that the river has worn in the limestone hills. Technically it is known as a katabatic wind. There's only two places in the whole world with a proper barber. Greymouth and Norway." She sounded quite proud.

"Brrrr!" Robin shivered.

"Don't worry," said the lady. "The sun will soon burn off the mist and the wind will die down. It will be beautiful and warm in an hour or so." She gave us our change. "Have a lovely holiday," she said.

"How did she know we were tourists?" Robin asked me as we left.

"Because we were shivering as the barber cut us up," I explained.

The predictions of the check out lady were accurate and by the time the coach arrived to take us to Shantytown, the day was warm and sunny.

Shantytown is a reconstruction of a gold mining town with lots of authentic buildings full of authentic relics. There's a gold buying office, a bank, a hotel, a gaol, a printing shop, stores, stables and a long drop dunny. The dunny is a two seater. I took a photograph of Phyllis sitting in it and then a passer by took a photograph of Phyllis and me sitting companionably side by side sharing a conversation.

We took a short ride on a steam train past a sawmill to the gold diggings and back again. The engine was called Katie and she chuffed and puffed as she pulled the carriages just like the little engine who could. Her brass work gleamed and her freshly blackened smokestack belched clouds of smoke into our faces.

We saw a demonstration of gold panning and then we had a go at it ourselves. A man dressed in authentic gold mining clothes handed each of us a pan of gravel.

"There's gold in every pan," the man assured us. "All you have to do is find it."

We stood by a line of sinks full of water and washed our gravel. The swirling water took the gravel away, hopefully leaving the gold behind. The gold, being much heavier than the gravel, tends to accumulate at the bottom of the pan as you swirl the water round; at least that's the theory. However too vigorous a swirling can remix the gold with the gravel and then the gold washes away of course. As always, happy mediums have to be struck.

The first sight of little gleaming things in my gravel was indescribably thrilling. I washed and swirled, washed and swirled and there it was, indisputable gold. The man in charge gave my pan a final swirl and decanted the gold into a small tube for me to take away as a souvenir. I was quite proud of my few grains of shiny stuff.

Robin proved to be a particularly talented gold panner and she did even better than I did. All I had was a few tiny particles. Robin's gold had definite lumps in it and she had a lot more than I did. Presumably I'd swirled a bit too hard and washed some of my gold away into the sink.

Unfortunately, even when we combined our gold, we didn't have enough to pay for holiday. What a shame.

As we left, I could see the man who had done the demonstration for us panning the tailings we'd left in the sinks. Presumably the staff supplemented their wages with the gold the tourists left behind.

In the afternoon we visited the pancake rocks at Punakaiki. These are limestone rocks layered down in distinctly stratified stacks and they really do look like pancakes piled higgledy piggledy one top of the other. When the sea is in a bad mood it rushes and roars up into the rocks and propels itself out through huge blowholes high into the air, throwing up enormous columns of dazzling spray to the accompaniment of deep booming noises. Unfortunately, on the day that we visited the rocks, the sea was in a good mood, calm and serene as it sailed to the shore and there was no blowhole activity at all. However even without the blowholes being active, the raggedly sculptured pancake layers are still a thrillingly surreal sight.

The next day was the 4th of March 2009 and it marked the completion of my 59th orbit around the sun. I celebrated by taking a train trip across the mountains on the Trans-Alpine train from Greymouth to Christchurch. Very few people have spent their birthday on top of an Alp. I felt privileged to have done so.

There was no snow on the peaks. I suppose the summer weather had chased it all away. But the mountains were still breathtakingly dramatic with their sheer sides and fiercely sculptured crags. As we went through Arthur's Pass, I caught a glimpse of a sword stuck in the top of the highest peak.

The train was running about an hour and a half late. Apparently it always runs behind schedule because of speed restrictions on the rather poorly maintained tracks. However nobody has bothered reprinting the timetable to make it match reality, and so the carriages are always full of tourists muttering urgently into mobile phones as they frantically try to rearrange the onward connections that they had pre-booked based on the erroneous assumption that the timetable was accurate.

Every so often the train ran parallel to the road which stretched emptily from horizon to horizon. Roads in the South Island are always relatively traffic-free and driving is an absolute pleasure. Sometimes you can drive all day and seldom, if ever, see another vehicle. That's what driving is supposed to be like.

Tim stared through the carriage window at the empty road. "I think I understand now," he said thoughtfully. "Southern roads are things that New Zealanders build just in case a car comes along."

"That's right," I said, because it was.

As the train approached Christchurch, we passed through six tunnels in the course of a mile. This section of the track is called "The Mile Of Six". What else would you expect in a country which has an island in the north called the North island and an island in the south called the South Island. New Zealand nomenclature is often prosaically literal.

"Perhaps The Mile Of Six is the train equivalent of the Mile High Club," I suggested suggestively.

"No!" said Robin, fiercely rejecting the suggestive suggestion. "My mother is sitting beside me."

"Pardon?" asked Phyllis who had been concentrating on the view and paying no attention to the conversation. I let Robin explain it.

We stayed overnight in Christchurch and ate at a magnificent restaurant called "Two Fat Indians" which we chose simply because we liked its name. Then, the next day, we hired a car and drove to Hanmer Springs. This small village is named after Thomas Hanmer, one of the first European settlers. He was a man with a most unfortunate name. Many people find 'Hanmer' quite hard to pronounce and there is a common tendency to transpose the middle consonants, turning the word into 'Hamner'. Early documents and maps of the area are rife with this misspelling and I was amused to find that Robin consistently mispronounced it as well.

"Han," she said and then paused for a second or so, girding her vocal chords. "Mer Springs," she said proudly.

"Well done," I congratulated her. "Now say it without the pause in the middle."

"Hamner Springs," she said.

Oh, well.

We were staying at the Alpine Springs Motel; words that Robin had no problem with whatsoever. The motel was owned by three Golden Retrievers. The eldest, called Sophie, had a blue ball of which she was inordinately fond. She carried it around with her everywhere she went. The ball was not only blue, it whistled loudly when squeezed. Since Sophie refused ever to relinquish the ball, except possibly when eating, her morning greeting to all and sundry tended to be:

"Woof - whistle - woof - whistle. BA - whistle - RK!"

The only reason to visit Hanmer Springs is to take the waters. The area's principal claim to fame is its thermal pools. A large complex offers soaking facilities in rock rimmed ponds of varying temperature and chemical composition. The water is quite salty; it contains large quantities of sodium chloride together with sodium carbonate, sodium borate and various lithium salts. Some of the hotter springs contain sulphur compounds and there is a distinctive whiff of rotten eggs drifting over the area. Many of the pools simply present the water au naturelle but, for the fainter of heart, there are also pools where the water has been filtered and chlorinated for your comfort and safety.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the springs became increasingly popular. However mixed soaking was strongly discouraged. A flagpole by the springs flew a pair of trousers when it was the men's turn to bathe, and a skirt when it was the women's turn. But now, in these enlightened modern times, this segregation has been dispensed with and the flagpole is long gone.

We soaked ourselves for three glorious days, becoming somewhat wrinkly and prune-like (but extremely relaxed) in the process. We also discovered that soaking, while undeniably therapeutic, is also extraordinarily tiring and we collapsed early to bed every night, much to Sophie's disgust.

"Woof - whistle - woof - whistle. BA - whistle - RK!" she told us in no uncertain terms.

At last, relaxed and cheerful, we drove back to Christchurch for the final few days of our holiday.

Our first stop in Christchurch was the Willowbank Wildlife Reserve. It offers two main attractions, a wildlife park with a nocturnal kiwi house and something called Ko Tane, the Maori experience. Since Tim and Phyllis had never experienced either of these, we decided to indulge in both of them.

"Do you want to feed the animals?" asked the lady we bought tickets from.

"Yes, please."

And so, for a small extra fee, we were given a paper bag of pellets with the letter 'B' written on it for feeding the birds, a paper bag of different pellets with the letter 'F' written on it for feeding the farm animals, and a small plastic container of pink stuff together with a long spoon for feeding the eels.

The eels were crowding around a small platform full of people who were dipping their spoons into the pink goo and spoon feeding the eels. The eels were obviously very accustomed to being spoon fed and knew just how to slurp the goo gently off the spoon, though one rather enthusiastic eel grabbed hold of Robin's spoon and pulled it out of her hands, refusing to let go.

They were very impatient eels. If there was the slightest pause in the spoon feeding, they raised themselves out of the water, mouths agape, and attempted to climb up on to the platform in search of more goo. This was more than a little frightening. The goo was obviously very nourishing – one and all, the eels were about the size and shape of Arnold Schwarzenegger's left thigh. Being pursued by ravenous, disembodied Terminator legs is the stuff of which nightmares are made.

Eventually we ran out of goo and went to throw pellets at the birds instead. These consisted mainly of ducks who followed us round, threatening us with a severe quacking if we didn't feed them fast enough.

The final paper bag, marked 'F' if you recall, was eventually shared between some kunekune pigs and a rather grand clydesdale who were all duly appreciative and very polite, unlike the eels and ducks. That's the difference between wild and domesticated animals, I suppose.

And then it was time for the kiwi. I've been to a lot of kiwi houses up and down New Zealand. The one at Willowbank is the best I've ever seen. In most kiwi houses there is a big glass wall between you and the birds and you strain your eyes in the nocturnal gloom trying hard to ignore the reflections in the glass that are interfering with your view of whatever kiwis may be on show behind it. But not at Willowbank. There is no glass at all in the kiwi house at Willowbank. The birds are on open view. There's just a waist high fence to protect the people from the kiwis should they happen to run amok.

We leaned over the fence watching a busy little kiwi running around and poking at the leaf mould with his enormously long beak. He knew we were there, but he wasn't very interested in us. He just wanted to scurry and scritch, and that's exactly what he did.

Never before have I been so close to a kiwi with nothing between us at all. I could lean over the fence and get up close and personal. I could have reached out and touched him, though I was careful not to. I felt extremely privileged.

Then, together with about a dozen other people, we assembled for Ko Tane, the Maori Experience.

A young Maori lady called Tina who was dressed in traditional costume and who had the proper facial moku tattoo introduced herself to us and welcomed us.

"You," she explained, "are visitors to our land. But before you can be properly welcomed, we must know who your chief is. Which one of you is the chief?"

Every eyeball in the audience clicked into place and stared at me.

"Are you the chief?" asked Tina.

"Yes," I said, "I suppose I am."

"And is the beautiful woman beside you your queen?"

"Indeed she is."

And so I became a chief for a day and Robin became a queen.

Tina led us off into the forest, explaining points of interest to us along the way. Suddenly an enormous tattooed Maori warrior jumped out of the bush and confronted us. Eyes popping, tongue sticking out, he waved his spear and roared a challenge. He placed a small, leafed branch on the ground and retreated. I picked it up and held it, thus indicating that I was coming in peace.

This was my first ever powhiri – a Maori challenge and welcome. I was astonished at the overwhelming emotion of the moment, the sense of taking part in a truly foreign and yet at the same time oddly familiar ritual There was a feeling of spiritual rightness about the moment. I felt very strongly the deep cultural heritage with which I was now involved. It was all extremely moving, and I confess I was close to tears.

We were led to a marae. There were special seats for me and my queen, and then the warriors and ladies of the village put on a show for us. Afterwards the ladies in our group were taught to use poi and the men were taught the haka Kamate. This was great fun – it's always good to have a legitimate excuse to stamp your feet, stick out your tongue and roll your eyeballs around.

As we left, I planted the small leafed branch that I had been presented with in the soil. It seemed wrong to take the branch away with me. It belonged here in the forest. But I couldn't bring myself to simply discard it either. Probably it won't take root, but nevertheless planting it seemed like the right sort of gesture to make.

The other big attraction of Christchurch is the Antarctic Centre. It is housed in a huge building close to the airport. In the entrance foyer was a board displaying the various delights available to us, together with their costs. We could experience an antarctic storm and see the blue penguins being fed. For an extra $20 we could go behind the scenes of the blue penguin enclosure. It seemed very reasonable.

"Let's do it ALL!"

And so we did.

The antarctic storm takes place every half hour (they have very accurate weather forecasts in Antarctica). Before we could go into the room where it was taking place, we were outfitted with warm, furry, hooded anoraks so that we wouldn't freeze, and overshoes so that we wouldn't get the snow dirty when we walked on it. I pulled up my hood and Robin took a photograph of me.

"You look very intrepid," she said.

The temperature was -80C. The wind chill factor brought this down to about -280C. Robin, Phyllis and Tim are from Perth in Western Australia and are used to spending most of their days at about +420C. As soon as they were exposed to the storm, their extremities froze solid, went brittle and dropped off. I gathered up all the fingers and toes from the ice and put them in my pocket. When we got back outside into the warmth I stuck them back on again in the appropriate places. But I'm not sure everyone got the right bits back. I think I might have mixed them up by mistake. Ever since we visited the Antarctic Centre, the finger that Robin uses to poke me in the ribs when I do something wrong has started to look a little bit masculine. That probably means that Tim got some of Robin's fingers. I hope it improves his golf game…

The blue penguins have an enclosure all of their own. They aren't an antarctic bird – they are too small to survive the extreme weather conditions down there. They are, in fact, a native New Zealand penguin. All the penguins at the centre have been injured by boats, or cars or (sickeningly) by human thugs. Although many have recovered to a certain extent, they are all too weak or too injured to survive in the wild and so they live out their days safely in the Antarctic Centre. These poor, injured birds are (the notices reminded us) the lucky ones. Many others die alone, in pain.

The penguins swam around the pool. It was dinner time and they knew it.

"Fish!" they yelled. "Where's my fish? I want fish now!"

Fish was not long in coming. Some of the birds were lame, some blind, one had an artificial beak. But all seemed happy and frolicsome. The fish was eagerly gobbled up.

Later we were given a guided tour through the penguin enclosure and we learned that despite their sometimes horrible injuries, the penguins do, on occasion, hatch and rear chicks. It is obvious that the Antarctic Centre is doing a wonderful job with these extraordinarily cute birds.

And with that our holiday was over. The next day we took the Trans Coastal train to Picton where we joined the ferry for our trip back to Wellington. The Bluebridge ferry Monte Stello was still broken and so, rather than transfer to the (very) late sailing of her sister ship the Santa Regina we booked ourselves on to the Interislander ferry Kaitaki instead.

As the train travelled North up the coast, I saw a light dusting of snow on the majestic Kaikora mountains. To an extent, that made up for the lack of snow on the alps and I was quietly content as we boarded the ferry.

Kaitaki pulled away from the dock and somebody with no training in public speaking made an announcement over the loudspeaker system. He was trying to be very formal and correct, but he didn't quite do it properly...

"Passengers are reminded that alcohol purchased on board may be consumed."

Well that sounded like a good idea to me, so I went upstairs to the bar and consumed some. When I came back, Tim said:

"I looked for you for hours!"

"I was there all the time," I said.

"Well so was I," said Tim. "But the there where I was obviously wasn't the there where you were."

Robin started to giggle. "You sound just like Pooh and Piglet discussing deep and meaningful things," she said.

We docked in Wellington and all the people with cars on board hurried down to the car deck. As they went, the man who couldn't do public service announcements said:

"Passengers are reminded not to start their engines until asked to do so by the chief screw."

We disembarked and collected our luggage and then went looking for a taxi to take us home.

"We'll never get four people and all this luggage into one taxi," said Robin. "Let's get two taxis."


"I'll go in the girl's taxi with mum," Robin said to me. "You and dad can go in the boy's taxi."

And so it was done. Robin and Phyll stowed their luggage in the boot of the first taxi and then got in to the car. As it pulled away, Tim and I climbed into the second taxi.

"Follow that cab!" I said.

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