It’s probably the Waimakariri. I was too tired to know. But it is certainly New Zealand. You don’t get braided rivers like that just anywhere, especially with snow-capped mountains in the near background. There was water everywhere as we landed. Canterbury had had a foot of rain in the preceding week, a genuine wet week. It was winter and we were being international for the purposes I would say primarily of eating, sleeping and looking out the window. And seeing Rhys Darby at Christchurch’s Isaac Theatre Royal.
We had been on the theatre’s mailing list since we attended the re-opening night seven years ago after the earthquakes. Rhys Darby (at left) was going to have a concert celebrating the 25th anniversary of his stand-up comedy and while that won’t mean a thing to most people it meant enough to us to test attendance as an idea. (Flight of the Conchords? Jermaine and Brett? New Zealand takes New York? No? ah well. Rhys was Murray the band manager: ‘Now I’m going to take the roll. Brett?’ Every time he appeared the show got funnier.) His brand of humour involves his entire being while somehow remaining entirely deadpan in a very New Zealand-ish way. And yes, improbably, we went. I only loved it; he reduced Myrna to weeping mush.
The night before we had been to see Top Gun: Maverick (It was a holiday, okay? And we really wanted to have a choc top. Really. Mate, New Zealand choc tops … We drove around most of Sydenham, a southern Christchurch suburb, to find an ATM so we could accomplish the transaction. Foreign cards, in this instance, were worthless muck.) Anything more antithetical would be hard to imagine. An ageing Tom Cruise conquering some unnamed wicked country by bumping fists with young American athletes majoring in aggression and world domination, fighting off the baddies with CGI (ah yes, pardon, computer-generated imagery), a miracle of technology so removed from humankind it is hard to fathom let alone explain. Rhys just stood on the stage and said and did funny things ending the evening with his kids running around the front of the theatre distributing what we’d call thongs so they could be clapped along to his song ‘Jandals’. Not necessarily his best work, but anything more delightfully human would be hard to imagine.
However this blog is mainly just an excuse for photos, memorabilia. And to indicate that going to New Zealand for a holiday is a very desirable thing to do. I’ve made this case elsewhere, here and here and here.
We arrived in Christchurch. It is still in recovery. It is unlikely to ever be the same as it was before the giant earthquakes of 2010 and 2011 which killed 185 people and shook its centre, including its cathedral which used to dominate the city square, to bits. It is a moot point whether hundreds of millions of dollars should be spent restoring this building. Do you justify it, as a Kiwi friend did, by referring to its iconic historical status or, as her husband suggested, do you put your money instead into rebuilding the stadium, home of the Crusaders, the greatest rugby club on earth? The cathedral remnant is still not secure enough to enter to determine precisely what needs to be done. The good-looking facade is a banner. I thought Wow! Naylor Love! sponsoring the rebuild of the front wall and window, go for it you civic-minded creatures you. But in fact they’ve just sponsored the banner.
Another fake, the wall of the Riverside market, one of three pockets of the city which remain bopping. It’s flat. Yes. Flat. A single surface. But nicely done. There’s still plenty of street art.
And the Gallery is back in business. Four offerings.
The light fittings: 60s kitchen chairs with neon tubes through them. Why not?
We visited at a changeover, so the exhibition offerings were modest. Modest, but most engaging with a strong emphasis on Victoriana. Here she is herself for example.
William Nicholson, ‘H.M. The Queen’ (1899), a lithograph derived from a woodcut, and isn’t that just marvellous. Sort of perfect in a way. A huge version of this is the major decorative feature of the external walls of Christchurch’s casino. New Zealand. They do that sort of thing over there.
The exhibition I enjoyed most was called ‘Leaving for Work’, perhaps 40 pieces again often early 20th century about people at work. ‘Threshing’ (below), a woodcut print by Clare Leighton (1933), caught my eye along with its companion ‘Apple Picking’. She has found some wonderful blacks along with extremely inventive hatching. And look at that smoke coming out of the steam engine. Somewhere near here is one of the places that craft truly meets art.
Elsewhere George Dunlop Leslie’s, In the Wizard’s Garden, about 1904. The wall notes say, ‘Because the painting puzzled viewers Leslie was asked for an explanation of its meaning.’ Well, I’ve got news for the viewers: I think I know. But, elegantly obfuscating in the prescribed Victorian manner, Leslie describes the painting as being about a young medieval noblewoman who had sought an alchemist or wizard’s guidance to discover the secrets of the future. For more distracting camouflage he throws in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s story ‘Rappacini’s Daughter’ in which case, unhappily, the garden would be entirely filled with poisonous plants. Okay. Menace. (Just nod knowingly. Thank you.)
For ourselves, concerns focused on the scones. In fact the heritage diet of New Zealanders may be under some threat.
The food cabinets are full of the products of wild and fertile imaginings — some of these dishes are even vegetarian — but the cheese scone, as perfected widely in the past, is endangered. We were concerned about its extinction until we found what we were looking for and much else, including a sausage roll which actually was a sausage wrapped in a pastry roll — how good is that, how express and admirable in fact, Shakespearean — in the Union Company Cafe, Port Chalmers. Worth a journey.
There’s some large scale new building, a lot of civic infrastructure including Te Pae, a giant conference centre which looms with its exterior collection of Canterbury greys and gigantic video screens illuminating its walls. And yes a giant squid. A whale swims past from time to time. You may make of that what you wish.
But there are still a lot of teeth missing from the jaw. Car parks — ubiquitous, endless — fill places where you feel buildings should be (and make you wonder where the hell all those cars come from … and why).
So we went looking for something other than the built environment.
Christchurch is not a maritime city but its eastern edge runs into the South Pacific looking here from the New Brighton Pier very pacific indeed. Christchurch’s port, its crucial port both for receiving goods and more especially for dispatching the riches of the Canterbury Plain to the world, is 10 or 12 kilometres away at Lyttleton in a fractured volcanic crater.
Separating the city and Lyttleton are the Port Hills, the crater rim, just fine for a walk. On this Saturday morning it was a sharply cold day with drifts of rain and some fierce wind up high, but we were there with dozens, scores, hundreds of locals mooching walking running riding not really noticing the weather. New Zealand.
We cheated by going up some of the way in the gondola before launching out down through Major Hornbrook’s Saddle and up to the peak, Mt Pleasant.
The Avon and Heathcote, often only masquerading as creeks, drain the mudflats of Christchurch into the estuary as seen in the pic on the right. They were both running hard and the visible surface water was much more extensive than it looks here.
When there’s a dance class on, doesn’t matter where you are, you’ve just got to do it. Mercifully the internet wasn’t good enough to sustain a whole hour out on the blasted heath. Praise the Lord. We were able to move on to the summit, near which were these lichen-encrusted trees, followed by a muddy but interesting descent down to Lyttleton via the Major Hornbrook Track.
We got to Lyttleton in the mid-afternoon and both hungry and not confident about finding anything to eat in a tiny town at that hour on a Saturday afternoon. But lo and behold we found a most conscientious and capable Japanese chef, him and his wife really, who provided for us.
The okonomiyaki was a bit sludgey — by rights it should be kept cooking at the table — but everything else was delicious.
• • • • • • •
The first night we were there there had been a big dump of snow down to 400m and as we drove 400km south to Dunedin there it all was. We stopped for a break at Oamaru, in its central part a reliquary of some time ago, a 100 years perhaps, and felt the need for an ice cream from a trailer van. They looked good and the ageing couple weren’t getting much business. That’ll surprise you. They caught our accent and wanted to sympathise with us about our recent change of government before running through Jacinda’s perfidies along with the evils of vaccination and lockdown. That van could well have been recently providing treats to those laying siege to the Beehive (the building housing NZs parliament). It takes all types. The ice creams were excellent.
Dunedin is the capital of the Otago region and in the past a home away from home for Scots. (Edinborough = ‘Edin town’ in Old English; Dunedin = ‘Edin town’ in Gaelic.) It is famous for its hills and, in Baldwin Street, has the steepest road in the world, 1: 2.86, officially certified by Guinness Records. A town in Wales laid claim to this title in 2019 but Dunedin courageously fought back. The decision to reinstate the previous record holder was reached in 2020 following the completion of an extensive review of an appeal brought by representatives of Baldwin Street. The appeal included a comparative survey of the three-dimensional shapes of the Dunedin street and Ffordd Pen Llech. The findings revealed that in order to fairly assess the different shape of the streets, whether they’re straight or curved, steepness must be measured by the central axis (the centre line of the road). Certainly that would have been the way I would see it. Regardless, it’s steep all over the place.
It is also a university town (see immediately above: who else would?) with excellent cafes and coffee and funky clothes shops. The University of Otago comes in very high on world rankings and looks like it would be great fun to attend. The day after we arrived it was Open Day and the town was swarming with late adolescents and their parents.
This is the view from what might be the best room in town, the top floor suite of the 97 Moray Motel, Room 409, looking out over The Octagon, the nominal centre of the city. The square is furnished with a statue of Robbie Burns (described on investigation as an ‘eroto-maniac’. Why Scots put up statues to him — there’s another one in Ballarat for example — is beyond me), and a bus depot. St Paul’s Cathedral, an Anglican church, and the Forsyth Barr office block dominate. We wondered if the office block had just been erected. We couldn’t remember it. And, in which case, just who had paid whom and how much? But our mate at reception said that it had been there for ages; it was just that the exterior had recently been renovated. Hence the spotty styling, the lift block and the new top storey which offered some groovy lighting effects.
Dunedin is the sort of place where amateurs publish ideas for city walks. (See also above.) We chose to follow the excellent and well-researched advice of Antony Hamel, barrister. Some of the advice anyway; his guide offers 20 walks. ‘Grand Homes of Dunedin’ takes you up (and up and up) to Royal Terrace just below the ‘Town Belt’. (The original instructions to the New Zealand Company’s Scottish surveyor included: ‘It is indeed desirable that the whole outside of the Town, inland, should be separated from the country by a broad belt of land which you will declare that the Company intends to be public property on condition that no buildings be ever erected upon it.’ ) You walk through the Town Belt which, even if the city has crept over the other side of it, is still 10 or more kilometres long and is still a lovely thing flourishing with several dozen different types of noisy birds. Then on to Jubilee Park and back down High Street to the Octagon.
Some samples. These two in Royal Terrace were owned by the same family (Hudson’s chocolate and biscuit manufacturers), the second now being a Buddhist Centre.
Near them is Ulveston, probably the party piece. Built for a family of four, it was subsequently vested to a somewhat nervous City of Dunedin (upkeep costs). It is now open to the public at regular specified times.
And it has a rather lovely greenhouse.
Just around the corner is the Ritchie House which has recently been bought for a very large sum of money by St Hilda’s, a nearby private secondary school for girls with the customary surfeit of funds.
On the corner in the background above is this one, a more sober affair but interesting in its own 1920s way.
… with this view across the city and the end of the harbour to Vauxhall.
Just below Jubilee Park. This wasn’t on the list but I liked it. You could talk about the San Francisco influence, or perhaps the Dunedin influence on San Francisco, or perhaps how you build houses in steep places where there isn’t much suitable stone but plenty of timber (and, in its time, gold).
• • • • • • •
Dunedin is at the end of a long bay, Otago Harbour, with the Peninsula famous for its sea life on its southern side.
We visited the Royal Albatross Centre at Taiaroa Head and this was something. Four chicks had decided to do their eight months of pre-flight maturation within 15 or so metres of the viewing station, a pill box with a glass slit. (A not very old fort with the ‘Invisible Gun’ which can be raised and lowered is close at hand.) And there they are, these fat things with legs that can only just support their 12 kilo weight.
This one was stumbling around flapping its wings rehearsing flight.
Taiaroa Head is one home for about 5 percent of all the albatrosses in the world. They mate here, commonly for life, and produce one egg which is nurtured by both parents taking turns to go fishing for chick feed. The chick’s first flight, which for the one above might be 3-4 weeks away, is to Chile 10,000 kms away. Their first flight! which takes them 10-15 days! They are able to lock the tendons in their wings which have a 3+ metre span and coast on upper level air currents using only as much energy as they would sitting on the ocean surface. They stay in Chile for five years sowing their wild oats and return to the Otago for responsible parenthood. How do they know how to get here? No idea. Some say via smell. There are some orphan chicks here which are incubated, fed and nurtured by the Centre’s staff. The oldest regular visitor was Grandma, who was still breeding at 60. (If you’re interested.) It has been a sanctuary since 1927 and is a most impressive place.
We saw some adults flying and just how magnificent were they. There was a brisk wind blowing and so sensitive and I guess efficient were their aerodynamics that it wasn’t always easy to land.
On the way home Myrna decided we should go to Sandfly Bay via Highcroft Road and what a drive it turned out to be. This is a pretty gorgeous part of the world.
Sandfly Bay is where sand flies rather than where there are sand flies, and had its own impressive dunes with a carefully marked path for human visitors.
And we were lucky enough to be completely ignored by four panaka, New Zealand sea lions.
Here are three of them, with one heading off bored or possibly embarrassed, because it was clear that the other two were involved in some serious foreplay.
Okay. Speculative. But the female on the left would chew away at the male (do I know the genders? No. Not for certain. But my ‘she’ was smaller and sleaker.) until she garnered some similar response. Play fights. He’d get bored. She draped herself over the drift tree still chomping and whimpering, then slid back and my ‘he’ lifted himself up and just flopped on her, all half a tonne of him. It went on, but so did we. Important to give creatures their privacy.
Then there’s the other side of the bay. We had seen this oddity from Taiaroa Head and thought we should investigate more closely.
This is The Mole, all 1.2 kms of it sticking out into the mouth of the harbour. A ‘mole’ (which has the same root as ‘molecule’ and the chemical measurement ‘mole’ meaning ‘mass’) differs from a pier or jetty in that it is solid. Water can’t pass underneath it. There are nine shipwrecks contributing to the rock and cement here. The idea was to prevent sand bars blocking the entrance to the harbour. This is apparently successful, and it is repaired from time to time.
It doesn’t look like it in the pic above but this area was swarming with sea birds. I don’t know what the ones below were but I don’t think gulls: wrong beak, wrong colouring. I’m pretty sure they are terns, but in their hundreds they were wheeling and squalling, a majestic performance really.
We hadn’t had enormous luck with food. The parents and the teenage graduands were better prepared than we were and had soaked up the more obvious eating places. But I’d liked the look of a place we’d tried at St Clair Beach and thought we should give it a go. And a go we gave it. Titi. Chef’s choice of food, er hem locally sourced of course and some of the most imaginative and brilliantly successful cooking I’ve ever tasted. Everything was right. The table was Goldilocks-sized, the chairs comfortable, the service fun, alert but not intrusive, and very well educated. They had to recite the contents of each of the dishes and they did so with enthusiasm and pride. From the texture, taste and colour of the avocado foundation of the amuse bouche to the pumpkin ice cream, a bavarois with a thin coating of white chocolate for dessert, one masterpiece after another kept arriving.
Myrna had the vegetarian offering and I’m pretty sure this was ‘Ettrick’s Carrots’, a soup with lemongrass, coconut, cashew, coriander, lime and paw paw. The purple is the carrot, the flavour of which I can only describe as enticingly warm.
I know: disgraceful. But I don’t care. Once in a while it’s good to encounter the work of a genius with food. I’d go again right now. They’d be open. 24 The Esplanade, St Clair. Come on. Why not? Let’s go.
Nearly there. I thought I’d like to show you this dish of helleborus grown at the Blueskin Nurseries in Waitati. I’ve never seen helleborus, usually a most discrete plant, with such offerings.
Back in Christchurch everything was normal again.
And finally some advice.
Press either the Go button or ‘Replay’