Taking the Coastal Pacific train from Christchurch could have been one of the highlights of my South Island experience; but the golden glow through the native trees, which I wrote about in a previous essay, was not available that day. Instead, torrential rain accompanied my sad journey away from my family. As a result my photo opportunities on the trip were limited: the viewing carriage floor was slippery, and the driving rain made it decidedly uninviting, though a few intrepid photographers were still out there braving the elements.
The seals were on the rocks, black against grey and hard to pick out unless they moved, there were several dark grey herons fishing, and the usual motley collection of gulls and ducks. But I wish I could have photographed the visible erosion in Cloudy Bay Valley; the vines in serried ranks on the sandy soil, the streams and rivers creamy with the washed out sandy sediment – New Zealand on its way to the sea! If I knew more about geology, and believe me I am a complete novice, I would say, with no disrespect, that South Island is one gigantic sand bar, too young for the sand to have petrified into sandstone. The hillsides were a running cascade of sandy water, which even as I watched, was carving deep gashes into the surface. As if, at the seaside, one had built a large sandcastle and poured a spray of water down the sides, an instant disintegration follows.
Further on I would have photographed a long, marshy valley overgrown with willows which had, at some time in the past, suffered a catastrophic fire and now stood gauntly spreading their empty, blackened branches to the sky for lichen and moss to colonise. Beautiful and devastated, at one and the same time.
Willows brings me on to another scourge of the native wilderness: the introduced plant species, of which willow is one as well, others include tree lupins and hebe, both of them growing furiously and abundantly along the coastal strip. Pampas Grass is everywhere too, which I fear must have arrived from overseas.
However, in spite of the dreadful weather, and all the other factors combating for my attention the scenery was stupendously dramatic, the Pacific Ocean crashing beside the train, and the rocky headlands against the glowering sky. Mud on the track slowed our journey time and we were nearly an hour late getting into Picton.
By this time, the rain was hammering down and we were quickly ushered on to the Interislander (Cook Strait Ferry). There was only a moderate swell, but the rain pretty much obliterated the view of the islands as we passed, though there were plenty of dolphins. I think I also saw Arctic Skua, if they are dark grey seabirds with scimitar-shaped wings skimming low on the surface of the water. Still no photographs as it was too dark to make the pictures worth preserving. Into the memory bank instead, I saw them anyway.
Wellington, which we arrived at significantly late, was also enjoying a downpour. In fact I am getting a bit of a reputation as a rain-maker, though I am not sure whether that is complimentary or not. I rather fear not.
One night in a boutique hotel, the bathroom was a welcome sight:
and a wonderful metre square New Zealand shower as well, comfort and bliss, what more could one want?
My bus for Tauranga left at 11 the next morning, so a taxi took me on a swift tour of the city, it was pouring again! So from the top of the hill we could not enjoy 360 degree views, it was the airstrip in one direction and clouds in the other!
I haven’t yet had a proper look at a map, but our bus, scheduled to take 8 hours and 50 minutes, took exactly that; although we drove through a rainy, blustery landscape, occasionally meeting a particularly heavy cloudburst. Nothing deterred, the bus careered on though a vastly different landscape from the familiar flatness of the Canterbury Plain. Contoured hills, with dramatic gorges cut by magnificent rivers, out onto the desert road, though we would describe this as heathland, in fact I am sure I did see heather – another imported shrub.
We reached Thermal Valley just as it was getting dark, but light enough to see the plumes of white steam billowing into the grey skies. Indication of the geothermal activity below the surface. Water penetrates to the volcanic rocks below, gets heated up and shoots to the surface as steam. A great deal of this energy is, of course, harnessed for industrial purposes.
Thereafter it was more and more rain, thunder and lightning all the way to Tauranga, after thirty-six hours, only eight of which were not on the move. The coach trip across North Island, while not the most comfortable or the quickest, is at its very least a quite brilliant way to see this wonderful country up close.