Travel: At home at the end of the world

South of Auckland, the landscape of Hawke's Bay is oddly reminiscent of England - but canoeing on the Tuki Tuki river certainly beats boating on the Serpentine.
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The Independent Culture
ONE GREAT thing about visiting Hawke's Bay (five hours below Auckland, down there on the right hand side) is the view when you get there: the countryside is like a dream of a landscape you might have had as a child. It's like looking down into the valley of Brigadoon but there are broad rafting-rivers running through grazing meadows; huge poplars and willows line the banks, a wrecked Zephyr lies head-down in the stream. There is much that is familiar, but plenty that is strange.

The other great thing is the places you visit en route. While you wind through the bouncing vermilion hills, travelling on empty highways, on shingled tracks and dusty beach roads, you will see time-warp evidence in the midst of modernity - barefoot children walking to school (yes, and by themselves), up in the backblocks there are shepherds on horseback, in town there are pre-war rattletraps that haven't been restored, just maintained, and it's like a sort of heaven - or at least Eden - that's what you feel. And while you wouldn't want to voice the idee recue that the country is years behind the times, you may notice how the landscape has an almost mythical sense of the shire, of England between the wars (the peninsular campaign and Waterloo, perhaps).

The air is very different (you can see through it, for a start). The ozone concentration makes it like a shot of champagne, the one that fires up a party. And then look up: the pre-industrial sky has every imaginable colour in it from this side of red to the other side of violet. Less metaphysically, if you come from a British city, you'll notice that, compared with the locals, your voice sounds both tentative and fraught. The pace of life in that part of the world is such that vocal chords lengthen and loosen, and generally relax (it might be an effect of the two-pint bottles of gin you can buy for about pounds 7).

Stop at Taupo, the largest lake in the southern hemisphere and gossip capital of New Zealand. There you can gawk at Huka Falls where a select group of depressives, murder victims and canoeists have gone over and survived. Calming down, you rent the biggest tourist boat on the lake for pounds 25 an hour and take a dozen friends out trout fishing, drinking, shooting clay pigeons off the back of the boat (only rarely are guns deployed in New Zealand without alcohol).

For lunch, you pull up on one of the little beaches and baste your fish with honey over a driftwood fire. On your way out of Taupo perhaps you contract Simon Dickie (ex-Olympic cox of a gold medal eight) to take you deer stalking in the hills of native beeches. If you're flush, he can chopper you further into the hills to fish remote streams for the 13lb bush trout that have never seen a rod. And there, in the matter of wild life you may be surprised by a troop of armed Maori ragamuffins riding wild horses through the wilderness.

When you get to Hawke's Bay, there are the tourist things to do. Personally, I wouldn't take the trip round the vineyards (you can't drink as much as you'd want out of the little tasting glasses). And the art deco tour of Napier (the city was flattened in an earthquake) is strangely unsatisfying unless you like art deco. However, there is a canoeing club in Napier where you can rent out a canoe.

Take it to the bridge across the Tuki Tuki river, the one nearest Havelock North, and spend four hours wandering down the blood-warm shingle river to the sea. And you'll be so pleased with what you've seen that you'll buy a ticket to Andy Coltart's millenium party - which peaks on New Year's Eve but may well already have started: after all, this is Hawke's Bay, party capital of New Zealand.

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