Best of Kiwi: Fish and wine

Trip Start Jun 04, 2005
Trip End Apr 05, 2006

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Flag of New Zealand  ,
Saturday, October 22, 2005

we flew into Christchurch at 2.30pm on Tuesday 18 October after leaving Sydney at 8am - the Kiwis' clocks are a whole 3 hours ahead of Oz, meaning that we are now a full 13/12 hours ahead of the UK and SA. Caught a shuttle bus into the city, and had a couple of hours to kill before meeting our friend from Edinburgh days, Mike Perry, just after 5pm. We used the time to prepare and send off a parcel back to Edinburgh - I was served at the counter by a Cape Town girl!

Our first impressions of Christchurch is that it is really FLAT - all the buildings are low rise and the roads stretch dead-straight without a dip or hump. After collecting us from the city and taking us back to his newly purchased home - a quaint timber cottage in the suburbs - Mike and his partner Katie drove us around the surrounding hills and over to Lyttelton harbour. The landscape reminded us so very much of Edinburgh's Pentlands - we were surrounded once again by lowish hills of volcanic rock, with short grass grazed by sheep and dotted with pines and the yellows of gorse and broom. But the views down to Lyttleton were more dramatic than any we'd ever seen from the Pentlands: vast mountains rose in the distance and the sea was a milky aqua colour (as opposed to the filthy brown of the North Sea). We stopped a few times along the way to take in the views of the beachside suburb of Sumner, and to watch a paraglider land, then drove back via the estuary. The icy winds that greeted us at every lookout reminded the two of us that we were now much further from the equator than we'd been for months!

We returned to Mike and Katie's home at sunset, and Mike proceeded to cook up a storm: roast lamb and veges, which we washed down with a few bottles of wine and some great catching-up (and in Katie's case, getting-to-know-you) conversation.

On Wedensday morning, our hosts left for work, and we made quite a late start. After cleaning up, we packed our wagon - a marvellous gold 1980s Honda Prelude which Mike had kindly offered to lend us for the duration of our stay on the South Island. At noon we hit the road north to Kaikoura, about 2.5 hours drive away on the east coast. The drive took us across the flat Canturbury Plains - productive fruit and vegie farming country - and on through low mountains hemming the coast. We did a couple of detours down to the ocean and found tiny bays with scatterings of beach homes reminiscent of the small holiday hamlets on SA's Garden Route. But mostly, the surrounding hills reminded us of Scotland - all those sheep, the yellow gorse and the conifer plantations. And just like Scotland, the weather was iffy - low cloud and drizzle set in as we continued up the coast. It certainly was a drive of familiar landscapes!

We reached Kaikoura, billed as the marine wildlife capital of the South Island, at about 4pm on Wednesday. Kaikoura is renowned mostly for the whale watching, seal- and dolphin-swimming tours offered by a number of operators... and it really is big business. The town consists mostly of hotels, motels, B&Bs and backpackers' lodges, hinting at the vast crowds the place receives in high summer. At the visitor info centre, we took a look at the options and decided on a fishing trip for the next day - at about $125 each, the dolphin swimming was a bit out of our price range, and besides, we'd feel like frauds, having feasted on dolphin meat in Indonesia (see Lamalera entry)!

That evening, we pitched our tent and made ourselves at home in a fab little campsite with kitchen and BBQ facilities, which seem to be the norm here in NZ. There's no need to cart along a camp stove or other cooking paraphenalia, as most sites have decent kitchens. Communal dining (and often lounge) areas provide shelter from the weather and a pleasant place to read or chat in the evenings.

When we awoke early on Thursday, we were delighted to find that the previous day's bad weather had lifted a little. A magnificent range of snowcapped mountains, no longer obscured by cloud, provided a dramatic backdrop to the seaside town. Just after 9am, we boarded a small ski boat called 'Molly D' for a 3-hour fishing trip. There were five of us on board - ourselves, Gerard (the owner/skipper) and a young couple who were working in the town for the summer season. We headed out of the sheltered bay and around a rocky point for a closer look at a colony of fur seals, then picked up Gerard's three crayfish pots. Besides marine mammal watching, Kaikoura is renowned for its crayfish. Unfortunately the 10 or so crays netted in Gerard's pots were all females with eggs, so had to be thrown back.

We baited up our hooks and cast our lines into fairly deep water - about 100m - and immediately started hauling in the sea perch. These guys were biting like crazy - the weight would hardly hit the bottom and there'd be a bite. Two hours later, we'd caught well over 30 sea perch between us, but had no success with blue cod or other more sought-after fish. However, Gerard assured us that the perch made good eating!

The abundance of sea birds was a treat in itself. We gawped at the sight of a magnificent albatross swooping down low and then landing right beside us in the water; large flocks of black petrel surrounded us. On the way back to the bay, we kept a look out for dolphins, but spotted only one.

After returning to Gerard's home to clean and gut the fish, we stretched our legs on the footpath that hugs the shoreline all along a rugged peninsula, and then returned on the clifftop path. We came up close to some lazy fur seals basking in the sun, and a noisy colony of nesting gulls (Rich took great delight in capturing a lengthy gull sex session on camcorder). On the clifftop, while walking on the outside of a fenced paddock full of cows, we suddenly found our path blocked off by two bullocks who'd managed to find their way on the outside of the fence. They were blocking our path! With the fence on the one side and a sheer drop-off on the other, we had no option but to sit down and stay dead-still for 15 minutes or so in the hope that they would walk past. After eyeing us for some time and making a fewalarming advances in our direction, they finally lost interest and moved on. Phew! I never know how wary one should be of cattle!

In the evening ,we feasted on grilled sea perch - yummy! Our good-looking dinner turned a few heads in the camp kitchen. Friday morning we awoke to find cloud low over the mountain once more; we broke camp and started our leisurely day drive up north to Picton, where we'd agreed to meet up with Mike and Katie for a weekend at the family 'bach' (short for bachelor pad, meaning a small holiday home) in the Marlborough Sounds. We were due to meet them at 10pm, and our plan was to fill the day with some wine tasting in the Marlborough region, known for its Sauvignon Blancs.

We passed some stunning rugged coastal scenery on the way up, and reached Renwick, the small town just outside Blenheim which is the heart of the wine region, at about noon. First vineyard on our hit list was Cloudy Bay, a large winery whose wines are familiar to us. Then we stopped in at Saint Claire, another well-known name (with the best wines we encountered that day). After grabbing a mid-afternoon sandwich in Renwick, we dropped in at Clifford Bay, then Grove Mill and Villa Maria. We found the tasting experience very pleasant at all the wineries we visited - staff are friendly and knowledgeable, the tastings are generally free and of course the wines are a pleasure. Apart from some scrummy Sauv Blancs, we tasted some interesting dry Rieslings and unusually floral Pinot Gris, as well as a good few spicy, individualistic Pinot Noirs.

The scenery of the wine region, situated around Blenheim and Renwick in the Wairau River valley, is charming, though nowhere near as picturesque as good old Stellenbosch in SA. The wide river valley, hemmed in by hills, is flat as a pancake, and small vineyard blocks are dotted among the semi-urban developments. Most of the wineries grow the bulk of their grapes in larger vineyards in neighbouring valleys like Awatere, but have their cellar facilities in the Renwick/Blenheim area.

All in all, Friday was a most enjoyable day. We picked up a few interesting little wines to enjoy in the company of our hosts in the Sounds.
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