South into autumn

Picton – Kaikoura – Christchurch

The Interislander Ferry advertising around Wellington asks potential passengers how they would prefer to cross the Cook Strait – ‘zip across or cruise across?’ I had originally intended to ‘cruise’ across in three hours on a traditional ship but I was informed that the crossing I wanted wasn’t sailing (though apparently it did after all). Keen to maximise the time time I had left in Wellington, I decided to book on the last afternoon crossing of The Lynx, a catamaran that provides a high speed service which ‘zips’ between the North and South Islands in two and a quarter hours. As it turned out, this proved to be a good move as my last meeting in Wellington proved to be an interesting one and lasted much longer than I had anticipated, leaving me just enough time to change out of my suit before heading off to hand the car back and board the boat.

The Lynx, with its gun metal grey superstructure and wide bridge, is an unusual looking boat in that it would not be out of place in a science fiction movie. This formidable-looking vessel sits high out of the water on its twin hulls and, once beyond the harbour, the two powerful diesel engines propel it at a impressive rate of knots, leaving two enormous ‘rooster tails’ of spray and foam in it’s three-striped wake. The mostly enclosed design of the boat means that deck areas open to passengers are limited to a rear-facing platform at the back and a small area forward, just behind the panoramic windows of the bridge. The former proved to be fine in harbour but once up to speed in the choppier waters of the Strait, the spray and diesel fumes drove most folks back inside. However, the spray combined with the day’s sun to create rainbows just off the stern of the craft which brought many back out briefly to photograph. Once into the stunning Tory Channel and Queen Charlotte Sound, the Lynx slowed considerably. This, I understand, is in an effort to minimise coastal erosion which many say is worsened by the ferry. The passage between the steep fir-clad slopes was jaw-droppingly beautiful and, as I drank it all in, I wondered just how on Earth I could convey the view without ending up knee deep in meaningless superlatives. After no small amount of thought, I’m not sure I can; suffice to say, the last hour of the crossing was spent passing secluded bays with a house or two at the water’s edge, each having a jetty or boathouse with the vessel moored alongside possibly the only means of visiting some, as the terrain is very steep and there was little evidence of tracks or roads.

Picton itself is a small town with a sheltered bay harbour that looks barely large enough to turn the larger ferries in. It sits at the foot of a valley that winds down between Mt Duncan and Mt McCormick and, driving away from the the town in my second hire car, I found myself (not for the last time) mumbling inanities as each corner in the road produced yet another gorgeous view. With summer almost at an end and autumn moving slowly over the land like the ever-present clouds above, the Alpine meadows, river plain grasslands, gorge scrub and crops have all taken on a variety of brownish or greenish hues. After a while, it occurred to me that I was looking at the sort of haphazard patchwork of colours that must have inspired the invention of camouflage material (or Disruptive Pattern Material in military-speak). Over laying this background were more vivid greens, smoky whites and silvers of the trees whilst the streams and rivers trickling under the road had a milky opalescence, like that of the ‘glacier milk in mountain-fed rivers of the Swiss uplands. Many of the rivers are mere summer shadows of their winter selves, small rivulets meandering through wide expansive gravel beds that show the true width of the river once the rain comes. Each of these is neatly signposted by the roadside with small yellow marked that bear names like Telegraph Gully, Caroline Stream and, most curiously, Jedi Culvert. More often the names are family names, probably of those who settled and cultivated the valleys and coastal plains hereabouts a hundred years ago. I say one hundred years ago for I passed more than one place that proudly proclaimed ‘Settlement Centennial – 2005’ next to it’s name sign with details of planned festivities.

With the bulk of the ‘business’ part of my trip over, I relaxed into a more reflective mood as I drove. The single lane highways here are deceptive and demand respect from local and visitor alike. Although I have seen little of the poor driving some Kiwis warned me of, the new government road safety campaigns on the roadside and the television each evening attest to a death and injury rate far too high for such a small population. With this in mind, lighter traffic than the North Island and with no pressing deadlines, I snaked through steep narrow passes and wafted along arrow straight sections, rarely exceeding the 100kph limit and happy to hold station between the truck up ahead in the distance and whoever was in my mirror. Although cooler than previous days, I kept the window open to allows the smell of the land and the sea, ever present somewhere to my right, to compliment the view. The early afternoon brought me to the towns and suburbs north of Christchurch, which is to be the last city I will visit. Although I had planned to drive further south, my planning from 12,000 miles away didn’t allow for much slippage in my schedule. With it becoming clear early in my journey that I needed to focus my efforts, initially at least, in Auckland and Wellington where the vast majority of opportunities in my field exist, something had to give. Needing at least three more days and a further 750 kilometres’ driving to get there and back to meet folks, it was Dunedin that had to be chopped from the itinerary and I am sad that I shall not be able to complete my trip as planned. Having said that, I deliberately built some flexibility into the trip and it may just be that my ability to stay on longer in Auckland and Wellington when required to do so makes all the difference to the desired outcome. I shall have to wait and see.

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2 Responses to “South into autumn”

  1. True_Halcyon says:

    Many thanks to you for giving an artist some inspiration! Your words have taken me to a place I have dreamed of. Looking forward to your next posting!

  2. Brenda says:

    The west side of the sounds, as viewed from the ferry, is actually an island. There are no roads, but there are several water taxi services based out of Picton. More than a few Wellingtonians own batches in the sounds (or know someone who does) since the land is very cheap out there. You can often hitch a ride on a yacht from Wellington, and stay in a batch or just pitch a tent on the beach.. For the return voyage just call a water taxi and jump on the Ferry 🙂

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