'Sheep, millions of sheep. And you've got them natives . . .'
'Maoris,' I offered.
'Yeah, that's the one.
'Quiet, mind, a bit backward,' he continued, warming to his theme. 'Had a mate who spent some time out there. Loved it. But he always used to say it was a bit like . . .'
And I thought to myself, here we go again. If I'd heard it once, I'd heard it a thousand times: 'A BIT LIKE ENGLAND WAS 30 YEARS AGO . . .'
He looked at me. 'How'd you know I was gonna say that?'
'Fluke,' I muttered. 'Sheer bloody fluke.'
CHRISTCHURCH was inclement, inhospitable even. Southerlies howled up from the Antarctic, exhausting themselves against the Southern Alps before snuggling down over the Canterbury plains like a cold, wet blanket. The man in the dairy - the little shop on the corner that plied newspapers, fresh bread, milk, cream, eggs, bacon, butter and baked beans - was apologetic. 'Most unseasonal, most unseasonal.'
The Christchurch Press was moved to save face for the city with talk of continuing meteorological fallout from the volcanic eruption of Pinatubo in the Philippines almost two years ago. Then there was the curious phenomenon of El Nino - a causal, inverse relationship between climatic conditions over New Zealand and those off the coast of South America. The sod of it all was we'd come 12,000 miles from the depths of a northern winter to the heights of New Zealand's summer only to find ourselves in the midst of an English autumn; small consolation that our bad news was good news in Santiago.
Still, it was a good excuse to get a museum or two under our belts and start the children's scrapbooks - in lieu of the schooling they would miss. So we drove out in our Nissan rental car through the Homes & Gardens beauty - every bungalow set apart in its own well- cultivated section - of the old Christchurch suburb of Fendalton, along the broad Memorial Avenue, through less memorable suburbia, to the impressive Antarctica Exhibition near the airport.
Housed in its own modern, purpose- built building and constructed as a series of walk-through 'rooms', the exhibition was a hit with the children. They were intrigued by the hologram-simulated dialogue between hut and snowmobile in the first chamber and adored the wildlife section with its lifesize specimens and audio-visual presentations. When they tired of these, they retired to the chamber marked 'Children Only', where they wrestled around the floor with stuffed toy penguins and seals.
THE MAN on the end of the telephone at Saggio di Vino, near Hagley Park, the green heart of Christchurch, felt it prudent to warn us in advance. 'Strictly speaking, we're not a restaurant, more of a wine bar sort of thing.'
'But you do serve food?'
'Oh, yes. Tonight's special is venison with . . .'
There was a time when if it wasn't steak and chips or roast lamb, it simply wasn't on; when anything less than a mountainous plate of meat and three veg was sent back to the chef accompanied by loud and irate speculation on his sexual orientation - but that was probably 30 years ago.
In any case, it sounded fine. We sat - Mary, my wife, and I - for 10 minutes at the bar, sampling Deutz Marlborough Cuvee and Daniel Le Brun Methode Champenoise, world-class wines produced 200 miles to the north, then we sat down for dinner. Here, over the venison and scallops and a mountainous fresh fruit salad, washed down with Giesen Sauvignon Blanc (produced on the outskirts of the city) and chased by a couple of botrytised rieslings, we watched as the long, shadowy, southern twilight ambled by. I can think of worse ways to bring in the New Year.
The weather turned and we tossed up between a cable-car ride on the Gondola - Christchurch's latest and most extravagant attraction, rising high up over the Port Hills behind the city, to Mount Cavendish - and a run down to the beach at New Brighton. The beach won by a whisker. Strolling there along the near-deserted acres, assaulted by a stiff breeze and the sea mist, the children carving secrets in the sand with driftwood wands, the world, till now a little wobbly on its feet, seemed to right itself. 'It takes a good few days to get over the flight,' a relative had warned.
NEW ZEALAND, its economic nose severely put out of joint by Britain's membership of the EC, discovered Asia and, more specifically, Japan, in the Seventies. The process has continued apace and now seems to be mutual. Golf holidays from Taiwan, Korea, Malaysia and Japan to Christchurch, which seems to boast any number of top courses, are popular. The rolls of many Christchurch schools are dotted with Asian children. The city's poshest hotel, the Park Royal, has three well-regarded eateries - one is Japanese. Strolling around the commercial heart of the town along streets - Salisbury, Worcester, Hereford, Durham, Manchester - stolen straight from England by the first settlers, the evidence of this new neighbourliness presents itself: here a Vietnamese restaurant, there a Thai, here a Chinese, there a Korean.
With the return of the sun the teenagers had come out, adorned with the latest designer labels, to lounge at pavement cafes. At Espresso 124, on Oxford Terrace above the lazily snaking Avon, they sipped cappuccinos and watched a Ray-Ban-tinted world go by. A little bit of Italy in a little bit of England in the southern reaches of the Pacific.
If there is any place that earns New Zealand comparisons with the 'old country', it is Christchurch, with its greenery, gardens and the old stone buildings at its centre, but just in case I hadn't noticed, the city contrived, through Finnian, our five year old, to deliver a parting shot as we drove out on our way north: 'Dad, Christchurch is a little like England, isn't it?' He was just three words - '30 years ago' - away from being disinherited.
IN Marlborough, which prides itself on being the gourmet province of New Zealand, we did the wineries, down Jackson's Road, then along Raupara, a few miles outside Blenheim. Here was Cloudy Bay, then Alan Scott's across the way, where we stopped for lunch. We skipped Corbans's Stoneleigh Vineyard on the corner and moved on to Hunters. Wine has come a long way in New Zealand, with vineyards all over the country producing very drinkable wines, reds and whites. But this is still its golden mile: here, where grapes yield fresh, ripe essences of gooseberry and blackcurrant, and give rise to the hallowed label Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc.
We collected a kilo or two of finest Marlborough Sounds smoked salmon, some chilli smoked mussels and a dozen Daniel Le Brun brut, and headed for Golden Bay and a family reunion.
WERE it not for this isolated region at the north-western tip of the South Island, it is possible to imagine that today people might be saying of New Zealand, 'It's just like Holland was 30 years ago.' Abel Tasman called there in 1642, lost a couple of sailors to hostile Maori tribesmen, named it Murderer's Bay and fled back to Zeeland. Perhaps it was the golden sands of the beaches, or the area's early colonial history as a gold-mining centre that accounted for the change of name; either way, it remains one of New Zealand's best-kept secrets.
The bay has beckoned a mix of people over the years: traditionally farmers and fruit-growers, more recently potters, artists and various 'alternative lifestylers'. It's the sort of place you feel at home in if you are inclined to Save the Whales, but in the best of hands-on New Zealand traditions, here you get to exercise your values: a week before we arrived 60 pilot whales grounded themselves in the bay. 'We heard about it on the radio and went down to help out,' recalled Richard Herzig, an American professor who has retired to the area.
'We kept them wet with buckets of water and covered them with blankets to protect them from the sun, then cajoled them out into the open sea as the tide turned.' Sadly, the whales returned and eventually, suffering badly from exposure, some drowning, others wounded by sharks, were put out of their misery by the Department of Conservation.
'WELCOME to cruiseville]' Tony grinned and pointed his Japanese car down the motorway towards the heart of Auckland city. We were on the last leg of the trip, a flying visit, just time to share a glass of wine with old friends.
'This place has changed, even since you were last here. It's laid-back, but it's a happening city.' We drove to the summit of Mount Eden, a strategic volcanic hill, and surveyed the City of Sails. 'Auckland is now an Asian-Pacific city. That makes it interesting. We've had our hard times, there'll be more ahead, but on the whole, people are optimistic.'
Coming down from the mountain, Tony pointed out a number of trendy cafes, wine bars, bookshops and cinemas. At home in a nearby suburb called Balmoral with his English wife, Ann, and their two children, Charlotte and Francesca, Tony put us to work spearing marinated lamb on Turkish ('bartered for in the great bazaar in Istanbul') kebab skewers; he, meanwhile, stripped baked capsicums for a salad, doused them with capers, cut up ciabatta and foccacia and served a chilled fume blanc. Aucklanders, too, know and love their food.
A couple of other old pals turned up en famille, bearing salads and other goodies. Like most of my generation, they had travelled and lived abroad. They had returned to 'Godzone'. Laurie had married and brought back Trien, a Belgian. They had four children. He manufactured kitset furniture, exporting much of it to Australia and Asia. That was where the future lay. Ian and Tony, consultant engineers, agreed. Then, as the kebabs cooked, we argued over the merits of gas- fired and charcoal barbecues.
New Zealanders we met, far from being the boring, rugby-playing dullards they are still often, mischievously, portrayed as (this is not to say that such types don't exist), were interesting, well- read, open to ideas. And they have had to be. The country's economic imperatives have been matched by social ones: poverty, racial disharmony, the dismantling of the social welfare system.
Today is Waitangi Day, the 153rd anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi between Maori chiefs and the British Crown, a founding document for New Zealand, or Aotearoa - 'the land of the long white cloud'. The document has been a source of bitter controversy in recent years as the Maoris have sought to reclaim some sovereignty over the forests and fisheries, the language and culture of the land they share with the 'pakeha'.
Concessions have been granted on lands and fisheries. Maori issues and culture are featured in a manner unseen 20 years ago. You will turn on the television and meet a Samoan presenter; or open a 'lifestyle' magazine and be introduced to the latest Maori pin-up. A columnist in the same magazine will headline her copy, 'Trampling On My Mana': 'mana' is Maori and means something like 'dignity', but more; it carries with it a specific cultural shorthand that New Zealanders of all shades understand. New Zealand 'English' is no longer truly English.
LONDON was a long haul away and, taking off, it felt further away than ever. Despite the reunions, the happy times, or perhaps because of them, I was morbid and worse for wine. It was hours before Ellen, 22 months, non-paying and unseated, fell asleep in my lap; Thomas, seven, also had fidgeted himself into a state of exhaustion and now dozed fitfully on a shoulder. At 33,000ft, time assumes an etiolated quality. The seconds seem to drip by. I had begun to read Paul Theroux's The Happy Isles of Oceania and found myself unduly agitated by this passage, and to make matters worse, without a free hand to turn the page:
'. . . a transported culture of houses named 'Oakleigh' in suburbs called Ponsonby, that looked second-hand and small and seedy, ill-suited and mediocre - the most terrible aspect of which was that the New Zealanders themselves did not seem to know what was happening to them in their decline . . .'
The dawn came up far away in the slipstream and dreaming (or was it hallucinating?), I saw there, splayed out across the heavens in huge red letters, 'Paul Theroux Is A Miserable, Patronising Prat.'
Ah, divine retribution.
Flights: Air New Zealand (081-741 2299) has a promotional fare for groups of two to eight people travelling together. Between 1 March and 15 May, for example, for two people travelling together, the fare is pounds 722 each (for eight people travelling together, the fare is pounds 522 each). For one person travelling alone, the return fare starts at pounds 950 (the same charged by British Airways). Discounted fares are widely available: for example, Trailfinders (071-938 3366) has a return with Qantas via Australia for pounds 709, and with United Airlines via the US for pounds 721.
Further information: New Zealand Tourism Office, New Zealand House, Haymarket, London SW1Y 4TQ (071- 973 0360). The office produces the Official New Zealand Holiday Planner, which is available free of charge.
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