HERE’s my story of a real life Christmas in New Zealand, 2018, just to show you what it is like in the land of reversed seasons.
Well actually, they aren’t completely reversed. Here’s snow falling outside my window in Queenstown a month before Christmas. A guest quipped that it was “the first snow of summer.”
It had warmed up by Christmas Day but my British friend Sarah, visiting with her mum, is still keeping her puffer jacket on.
Queenstown is two hours south of Auckland by jet, two hours that make a difference. Auckland has palm trees and looks like Fiji. Queenstown looks more like Norway.
Queenstown is on a really long lake called Lake Wakatipu, which stretches 80 km or 50 miles from Kingston at one end to Glenorchy and Kinloch at the other. Queenstown is part-way between.
In the old days, Lake Wakatipu was a sort of watery highway, with a fleet of four lake steamers based in Queenstown, part-way along the lake.
The lake steamers met trains from the outside world at Kingston, and delivered their passengers and goods to communities along the lake as far as Glenorchy and Kinloch. (They’re big on Scottish names in this part of New Zealand, which looks like the Highlands as much as it does Norway, and was settled by Scots.)
Queenstown didn’t have road access from Kingston until the 1930s, though there were rough tracks leading eastward out of Queenstown before that, such as the terrifying Skippers Canyon Road. Glenorchy and Kinloch didn’t get a road from Queenstown until 1962.
One of the most unique attractions in today’s Queenstown is the 1912-vintage Earnslaw. The Earnslaw is the last working coal-fired steamer in the Southern Hemisphere, sole survivor of the old Queenstown fleet
Heading eastward from Queenstown, on roads now improved into major highways apart from the Skippers, you get to a desert-like region called Central Otago. Otago is the bottom third, or so, of New Zealand’s South Island.
Central Otago is a rain-shadow region, kept dry by the blocking effect of the high mountains around Queenstown. It looks a lot like Outback Australia or parts of the Middle East that I’ve been to. Some call it a desert, though there are a few too many trees and shrubs for that to be literally true.
They call South Africa a world in one country, and this is true of New Zealand as well. Some bits of New Zealand look like Norway, and other bits look like Fiji. And there are bits that look like the Outback or the Middle East too. Probably nowhere could you say that ‘this is typical New Zealand’!
Central Otago begins just a few kilometres outside Queenstown, in the extra-picturesque little mining settlement of Arrowtown, depicted on calendars and postcards and boxes of chocolates for decades past.
Though the average year-round temperature isn’t high in Otago as compared to OUtback Australia or the Middle East, it gets pretty hot under a blue summer sky in Central all the same — and in Queenstown too, once it has been summer for a while.
Otago towns are mostly quite historic by New Zealand standards, with whole streets of stone buildings erected in the 1860s and 1870s for want of timber; buildings that nobody has ever had the heart to demolish. Such towns are open-air museums of the early settler’s way of life.
The mainstay of Central, as it’s generally known, was for a long time a mixture of gold mining and sheep farming. Nowadays, the main activity probably consists of the growing of wine grapes and other sorts of fruit with the aid of irrigation, plus tourism. The New Zealand actor Sam Neill, of Jurassic Park fame, has a vineyard round here.
Throughout Otago, Scottish names are at least as common as the alternatives. For every Arrowtown there’s a Bannockburn, for every Lawrence, a Lauder. Māori names, so common in the more hospitable parts of New Zealand, are less common in Otago and particularly so in Central.
I spent a day in Central a few weeks before Christmas, as I had to go to a town with the stern name of Cromwell in order to pick up an outdoor table I’d bought. Cromwell was partly submerged for a combination hydro-electricity and irrigation scheme in the 1980s. Fortunately, the picturesque old part was saved, and some new suburbs were built on higher ground as well.
See what I mean about a complete time-capsule of the 1870s!
On Boxing Day, my editor Chris Harris and I decided to head to Paradise: literally, with a capital P, namesake of the California town lately destroyed by wildfires. The area around Glenorchy and on to Paradise is the setting of the British TV drama Top of the Lake. Many locals thought the series was too Deliverance-like, even though the director, Jane Campion, is a New Zealander herself.
The Glenorchy-to-Paradise road leads into a valley very much like the Yosemite Valley in California. A flat valley floor is hemmed in by impressive, steep-sided mountains. There would be hundreds of people up the Paradise Valley every day if it were as easy to get to or handy to big cities as Yosemite; but of course it isn’t.
There is some tourism, though. The valley sports a huge rambling wooden guesthouse called Arcadia, or Paradise House, a surprising sight in what is increasingly a real wilderness as you keep heading away from the lake. Also, one end of a a back-country trail of major importance, the Rees-Dart Track, comes out into the Paradise Valley.
I said that Paradise was hard to get to (no pun intended!) There is a gravel road, but for some reason it is poorly engineered and has many fords with deep, un-drained standing water in them even in dry weather. A sign warns would-be motorists to turn back unless they have a suitable vehicle. Under the illusion that this included my Subaru Legacy, I pressed on. In one of these potholes, the water went over my bonnet. This came as a considerable surprise and a bit of a worry for the return journey, though the Subaru kept going the first time.
We parked up at the beginning of the Rees-Dart track and walked along it for a way, up and over the nose of a vertical-sided outcrop called Chinaman’s Bluff, after the Chinese miners who used to work in the area. That’s another California parallel, I guess. The vertical cliffs were carved by a glacier that used to run down the valley, and subsequent flows of gravel created the valley’s flat bottom. A bigger, downstream glacier carved Lake Wakatipu.
On the way back we swamped the engine in the deep pothole and then damaged it by trying to restart it. As we stood there, we noticed that it was possible to drive around the deep pothole, though it wasn’t as if any sign advised us of the fact.
The engine ran, but it was clear that we had sucked in water and bent something inside, as it now ran with a rattle that sounded like a dodgy bearing. I needed a car that would be reliable and bought a little Honda, sight unseen, from a guy in Invercargill, which we would pick up on the 28th.
Invercargill is the southernmost city of any size outside of Patagonia and, no doubt in view of its isolation, the local inhabitants seem to be rather old-fashioned in ways that include being honest. We arranged to meet the seller more or less halfway at a town called Dipton, where I would pay for the car and drive it back to Queenstown while Chris drove the Subaru back.
Our route took us along State Highway 6, which runs north-south from Queenstown, past a major crossroads called Lumsden, to Invercargill. Dipton is just south of Lumsden. This is in an area called Southland, which is not as barren as Central Otago.
Just north of Lumsden, the Subaru’s engine broke down completely and then, to our horror, caught on fire.
We decided not to open the bonnet and have a look, vaguely recalling some Reader’s Digest article to the effect that fresh air would only make things worse. A passing motorist squirted a fire extinguisher into the engine bay from underneath, but it wasn’t enough. As in the Johnny Cash song about a burning ring of fire, as we grabbed our things of value the flames they went higher. Luckily the wind was blowing away from the petrol tank, so a Hollywood-type explosion didn’t seem to be on the cards.
Eventually the police and two crews of rural fire brigades turned up and doused things. We felt bad about the surprisingly huge amount of traffic that soon built up on SH 6 in both directions, some of it headed for Queenstown Airport. I think in Auckland there would have been all kinds of angry shouting but down here everyone was really nice about it.
Anyhow, the traffic wasn’t held up for long. Once the fire was out. the police officer took some photos and then the Subaru was pushed into a farmer’s field with the burnt-up part away from the road so that rubberneckers wouldn’t look at it twice and risk going into the ditch. Signs and cones were gathered up and then it was as if it had never happened.
The police and the brigades seemed quite cheerful about the whole thing, and when I asked why, they said that it was because we weren’t inside the car. Relatively speaking, it was a good day for them.
Anyhow, the little Honda got back to Queenstown. But goodness, I nearly forgot to mention one more thing. Rounding a corner on the way back at about 80 km/h we came face to face with an SUV heading in the opposite direction at a similar speed, overtaking someone through the bend, which is a stupid thing to do of course.
A head-on loomed in about one second! Nor, if I had had time to think about it, would I have fancied the little Honda’s chances against the SUV. The Honda was an older, therefore cheaper model and probably had about a one-star safety rating by today’s standards.
Without thinking, I instinctively broke left — this being New Zealand, where we drive on the left — and the SUV driver broke left too, squeezing in on the vehicle that was being overtaken. And so, all three shot past each other like the Red Arrows or the Blue Angels or whatever your country’s air force display flight might be called. If we’d had an audience, they would have been impressed.
Most likely, the SUV was being driven by a Kiwi with the same reflexes as me. How do I know? Because, as Chris pointed out, a tourist on the wrong side of the road would probably have broken right, and gone into us.
So all in all it was a day of frights for us and what with this whole business where a pothole in a remote rural road led to a car fire and then to us nearly getting killed, it left me reflecting on the loose threads of fate, and also wondering whether I was less safe in New Zealand than in some of the more officially-dodgy places I’ve been overseas. And, whether my holidays should even perhaps be spent indoors watching Netflix.
But then I’d probably get sick from lack of exercise. Plus, they say that at home is where most accidents happen, so you can’t win. And such was my Kiwi Christmas!
Penned on New Year’s Eve, 2018. For more, see my website:
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