Ssshh, this is the end of the world

Jeremy Atiyah braves the gales of the South Seas to taste New Zealand's primeval wilderness. But his South Sea bubble bursts when all he finds is Surrey with palm-trees

WE HAVE all taken New Zealand for granted. I suppose it is the New Zealanders: they are so unassuming. They make us forget that their country is not actually a part of the West Country. Stranded alone in the wild southern oceans, a thousand miles from its nearest neighbour, their country is in fact the remotest on earth.

But was New Zealand as primeval as that made it sound? Or was it a branch of Little England, all sheep and narrow suburbia? Arriving after 25 hours in a plane, my first impression was predictably inconclusive: a mixture of tropical palm-trees, green spiky flax and wintry leaf-shorn skeletons dotted the gardens of Auckland's suburban bungalows.

After checking into a cool, stylish hotel, I set off into quiet streets, looking at quiet people and quiet traffic. Only a few outcrops of untamed wilderness and a bald hill to the south of town, topped by a single pine and a Maori obelisk, conveyed hints of southern secrets.

Luckily I was only here to catch a train. At the station the next morning I discovered the secret of New Zealand railways: they are very, very personal. With just three carriages and an attentive in-train service, my ten-hour journey on the Overlander to Wellington felt like an organised outing.

When completed in 1907, this line was the only link between New Zealand's largest two cities. Today, of course, everybody goes by plane - unless, that is, you are poor, weird (the farmer next to me was reading Plutarch on Sparta) or a tourist.

It may have been mid-winter, but trundling out of Auckland I was soon marvelling at the abundance of the land: every space between the houses was stuffed with yellow gorse, ferns, lilies and bamboos, as leafy as a Japanese watercolour painting. Only later did the scenery settle down to fenced-off green fields, cows and sheep.

Dark spirits of the land? Deep in the centre of North Island, where the train spiralled its way over the central volcanic plateau, I may have felt them. Crows croaked. Massive snow-capped volcanoes reared up from untrodden forests. Then a long, slow twilight began, which was only broken when I arrived in Wellington on a night as nasty as Manchester in November. I was soon scurrying about freezing wet streets of tall painted wooden houses overlooked by wooded cliffs, black with cabbage trees.

Like Auckland, Wellington is scattered over leafy hills and rugged islands. As the capital city, it has also built itself the country's national museum, the ultra-modern Te Papa. A must-see. "Come and follow the pathways of our ancestors," beckoned the Mana Whenua exhibition, "who sprang from the womb of our earth mother."

I sat down in a recreated Maori meeting house of carved beams, eyeball- to-eyeball with grotesque tattooed figures, lurking like ghosts in the shadows. Were these the mysteries that had attracted Hungarian Jews, Spanish sheep farmers, Scottish crofters, and Iraqi refugees to settle these isles? I went for a virtual bungee jump on the second floor, swinging upside down from my ankles while wearing video spectacles: the up-to-date way to banish the mysteries you cannot understand.

But South Island, old hands say, is where New Zealand really begins. In the last century, this area was the hub of the emerging nation: the old cities of Christchurch and Dunedin were built to resemble the cities of Cambridge and Edinburgh respectively. Today it is better known as an eco-paradise, a huge wilderness of chilly, sodden rainforest, rugged mountains and glaciers. It is a place that draws people from halfway round the world, just to take a walk.

My trip from Wellington to Christchurch was an old boat-train affair of the sort you would have once used to get from London to Paris - except that the Cook Strait is a much stormier place than the English Channel. Today, though, a mild sun was lighting up the Pacific Ocean, and we were soon snaking through the rugged inlets of the Marlborough Sounds, passing Cook's Lookout where, in January 1770, Captain Cook had realised that these were islands, not extensions of a southern continent.

The Coastal Pacific pulled out of the docks at Picton in shirtsleeves weather. On my left was what I called a beach: an untouched shore of black sand and shingle, littered with seaweed and driftwood. On the land sand were swampy valley bottoms held together by tussock grass.

But before I could shout "Sperm Whale", a huge black storm of wind and rain had swept over us. Giant grey waves began battering the shore as we were passing the small town of Kaikoura, now world-famous as a whale- spotting centre.

Even here though, there were distractions to spoil my South Sea illusions. "We are now passing Blenheim, the capital of the Marlborough region" came the in-service commentary. I looked out at improbable lines of Sauvignon Blanc slicing the landscape. "And now we are passing the Conwy River, named after the river in North Wales."

Where did he say we were? That storm was dragging in icy gales from the Antarctic.

At Christchurch, after stepping out into a wall of horizontal sleet, I caught a cab to the Charlotte Jane b&b, an immaculately restored, 19th- century schoolhouse of dark wood, coal fires and slowly ticking clocks. Yes, there was something familiar about Christchurch.

The next morning I strolled down an avenue lined with half-timbered houses behind hedges. In the cathedral I read plaques commemorating old devotees, including one Frederick George Brittan, 1848-1945, "the last survivor of the Canterbury Pilgrims, who reached these shores in the ship Sir George Seymour, 17th December 1850". Could a pilgrim father of the nation have still been alive in the middle of our own century? Had anyone remembered to cut the umbilical cord of the mother country?

In the town museum I found an old Notice of Sailing for a ship from London to Canterbury, a "magnificent, well-known full-poop ship" departing on 2 October 1858. Passengers were warned that there would be "no spirits or gunpowder allowed on board", though rations for first-class passengers would include salmon, herrings, ham and North Wiltshire cheese.

No wonder the local River Avon had been planted with willows and equipped with punts. Britain seemed so close-at-hand. Seeking a fast escape, I spent the afternoon in the local Aquarium and Antarctic Centre, two fantasy lands in which sperm whales plunged, albatrosses made their nests, orcas the size of elephants flashed through water at 30mph and blue whales ate 4000 kilograms of krill daily.

I needed that. The next morning I was on my final train, The Southerner, down to the end of the world. Time for more climatic upheavals. We struck out across the frosty Canterbury Plains, aiming, I imagined, for the tundra. Except that just now the landscape decided to mimic southern Europe: dry, rolling hills appeared, dotted with green copses. I may have been heading rapidly towards the South Pole but I was still at a comparable latitude to Bordeaux or Verona.

Alas, Invercargill, when I got there, was no Verona. I checked into the huge, draughty home of a couple who rented out rooms for tourists. Charlie Ireland, my delightful host, explained how one got to live in Invercargill. "My grandmother came here in 1885, at the age of 16, by ship from Glasgow. They got becalmed around the Cape of Good Hope. She spent three-and-a- half months at sea."

A familiar, melancholy story. Charlie drove me down to Bluff, commonly regarded as the nethermost tip of New Zealand. Bungalows stared bleakly out to sea. In a gale, we climbed up Stirling Point to look out over the bottom of the world, where the snow-sprinkled hills of Stewart Island loomed. Beyond was Antarctica: two signposts said: "South Pole 4,810km" and "London 18,958km". Had Charlie found whatever it was that his grandmother was looking for? "Life is about friends and opportunities," he said. "We've got both of them, haven't we?"

But on the gale blowing in from the southern ocean, it was not hard to detect the salty tang of disappointment.

FACT FILE

new zealand

GETTING THERE

Fares for the coming months can dip below pounds 500, though they increase over Christmas and New Year. Travelbag (tel: 0171 497 0515) offers flights at pounds 493, plus pounds 20 tax (via Indonesia; takes over 30 hours). The most direct route, with one stop, is Air New Zealand, for whom Austravel (tel: 0171 734 7755) is offering a fare of pounds 859, including taxes, for outbound travel on Christmas Day, and optional stopover in Los Angeles. A basic seven- day coach tour of New Zealand costs pounds 830 from Australia Pacific Tours (tel: 0181 879 7444). Other interesting operators include Bridge the World (tel: 0171 734 7447; wine and wilderness tours), and Travel 2 (tel: 0541 550066) which offers low-cost self-drives, for example nine days round the South Island for pounds 325, including car and eight nights' twin-share accommodation.

GETTING AROUND

Tranz Rail passes for about pounds 140 permit travel on the entire one-way journey from Auckland to Invercargill, including the ferry crossing. Book through UK travel agents.

WHERE TO STAY

The New Zealand Tourism Board (tel: 0839 300900, premium rate line; website www.nztb.govt.nz) publishes a where to stay guide. B&bs, farm and home- stays are all possible.

The author flew as a guest of Air New Zealand and the New Zealand tourist board.

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