I am a guy who prefers to travel in the slow lane, hence my passion as a one-time motorman on the Christchurch Heritage Tramway, and a mega bicycle traveller in far countries. Not surprising then, last week I elected to take a 12-hour trip from Wellington to Christchurch. Flying time is little more than 30 minutes for those in a rush. Add on another hour for getting to the airport and checking in. Another 30 minutes for getting home at the other end.
My day begins chillingly in the dark aboard the 7 am Interislander shuttle pickup at Wellington’s YHA. I yawn from my early wake-up as we negotiate the city’s almost deserted streets. The ferry terminal is bustling but easy to negotiate. Interislander staff are pleasant. I ride escalators and walk passageways until I am stepping aboard Kaitaki. The ship is chartered by Interislander, explaining “Portsmouth” on various equipment. I hear a cherry “Welcome Aboard.” It does sound welcoming. I have heard the expression somewhere else I muse. The upper deck food court is bussing. I settle down to an excellent breakfast and coffee.
Being a sunny autumn day much of the voyage is spent on the top deck. I chat to visitor travellers and locals. The latter are interested in Christchurch and how we are getting on. The re-opening of our Welcome Aboard Port Hills Gondola attraction is well-known owing to television coverage of the March 25 event. (Official opening is on Friday April 19.)
Cook Strait is having an almost unruffled day. A guy from England remarks on the “strange” green hue of the sea. “What colour is the sea where you come from,” I ask.
“Grey,” is his dour reply.
I spot a “been everywhere” kid with a T-shirt inscribed “London, Shanghai, Tokyo, Hokitika.” The best is listed last?
I am intrigued by weird dome-shaped rocks, reminiscent of a Weta Workshop creation, near the entrance to Tory Channel. The challenge is to line them up as we pass for a good photo.
Marlborough Sounds are exceedingly pleasant. Pleasure craft buzz about, their occupants waving to us gleefully. Other craft go about their duties serving mussel and salmon farms. And, rounding Dieffenbach Point, we pass the graceful, outgoing, Interislander Aratere recently lengthened and refurbished.
Despite an enjoyable sojourn up north, on assignment with agreeable German tourists, I am happy to have my clumsy feet anchored to the South Island. In good time for the next leg of the journey aboard the Coastal Pacific rail service, I pass the time enjoying a beer at the Toot and Whistle bar beside the train station.
With six hours of my journey over, the train with its stylish new carriages (designed locally and constructed in Dunedin) promises an appropriate encore to the three hours at sea. We glide through Marlborough’s vineyards and pass newly harvested salt at Lake Grasmere before skirting more than 100 km of scenic seaboard. Two pods of frolicking dolphins are seen close to the shore. Seaward mountains appear surreal basking in soft autumn sunlight. We cross sparkling braided rivers, the water appearing much cleaner than that seen in the North Island.
Train staff discuss an announcement about to be made re the Coastal Pacific becoming seasonal over an extended summer. Although passenger numbers have picked up over this summer, significant improvement is needed. A lack of hotel accommodation in earthquake struck Christchurch is partly to blame.
I had heard about the announcement during a courtesy phone call from KiwiRail’s Scenic Passenger Manager Tom Evers-Swindell earlier in the day. At least the train service is not being canned. One can only hope South Island visitor travellers will return as Christchurch increasingly returns to normality. Tourism New Zealand needs to put some effort supporting Christchurch especially championing our Welcome Aboard attractions along with other tour operators who have stuck out a woeful two years.
I am in my Bowenvale home at 7 pm, twelve hours after commencing my journey. I consider it a day excellently spent. I look forward to more agreeable autumn weather through April – perfect for a half-day up the Port Hills Gondola or a spin around the Botanic Gardens on an informative Caterpillar Tour.
I am home in time to see proposed plans for the future Christchurch Anglican Cathedral. The contemporary design is in my opinion inspirational. Appropriately it has a nodding acquaintance with Sir Gilbert Scott’s original design for our Christchurch Cathedral intended to be constructed in wood. Sadly our pioneers insisted building an English-style Cathedral in stone. A bad call it turned out to be for a future seismic active region.