12.12.2014 - 15.12.2014
Friday 12 December
We arrive at Wellington airport, the home of the legendary filmmaker Peter Jackson and his various studios. Lord of the Rings was such a global success that Wellington gives it huge prominence and the terminal itself is a fan's dream. Suspended from the ceiling are two giant model eagles with a wing span of 40' and with Gandalf riding one of them. Further along hangs an equally large model of Gollum holding two fish. Amy screams in terror at the sight of Gollum and hides behind a pillar.
We are collected by our Seasonz rep and set off on a brief tour of Wellington before stopping by a small beach where the children play on a giant climbing ball and can only be prised off for lunch when the rain starts. This is a charming residential area with houses overlooking the sea and the cafe, Scorch-o-Rama, is obviously a favourite of locals as it is jam packed. Afterwards we drive round the bay and into the city centre. I rather like Wellington with its trams and theatres, opera, restaurants and cafés and even a street with casino and strip bars. It has it all. We head for the Te Pape museum, renowned as the best in New Zealand.
As we enter the museum we are met by a giant model of a fearsome Ork statue. Oddly Amy is not frightened of this at all and happily poses for photographs. The museum is focused on New Zealand, both its history and culture and also its fauna and flora. We start in the natural history section where a preserved giant squid amazes us all as does the video of its capture. The children go from exhibit to exhibit eyes open in wonder - at this rate it will take us a day to get round. The simulated earthquake whilst standing in a little house scares the children but helps them understand what it must have felt like in Christchurch at the time of the disaster.
Upstairs is the Maori section. This has been done beautifully and helps us all understand their origins and culture. The wharenui (meeting hall) is particularly wonderful with its intricate symbolic carvings and the children like the Maori sleeping hut with its very low door. This is so anyone entering the hut had to virtually bend double to get through the doorway and was thus rendered defenceless and unable to attack. I had not realised that the Maori coveted albatross feathers for their costumes and head dresses and at one point the harvesting of these feathers led to a sharp decline in numbers.
We just have time to race through one or two more exhibits before it is time to dash to the airport. Ray has spoilt us all by booking a helicopter ride to and from Wharekauhau and the only shame is that the weather is very overcast and thus the visibility is rather poor. None of this matters to the children who, with endless complimentary Werthers sweets stuffed in their pockets, clamber on board. The pilot is fantastic with the kids and the journey a truly beautiful one. We will all be spoilt for life after this global trip as flying in a helicopter is one of life's greatest pleasures. All too soon the elegant silhouette of Wharekauhau Lodge comes in to view and we land on the lawn in front of the main house.
Wharekauhau is one of New Zealand's top lodges and owned by an American called Bill Foley - one of three prominent Americans owning lodges in this country. This is where Ray had stayed 12 years ago on his previous visit to New Zealand and had always been keen to return to. The lodge is set in a 5,000 acre estate which still runs a working farm and sheep station. The view from the front is over rolling pasture to Palliser Bay and at the back are formal English styled gardens complete with herbaceous borders and a croquet pitch. It is an idyllic setting and it is not hard to see how it made such a lasting impression on Ray the time before.
We take the kids for a swim in the pool before heading back to our villa in the grounds to unpack. Dinner that night is delicious and the manager, Richard, is knowledgeable on his wines and he and Ray go off to explore the cellar and return with a bottle of Pinot Noir from the Martinbourough Estate. Absolutely delicious.
The next day we wake to grey clouds which does not bode well for our tour of the estate. We set off with Roger in the land rover and realise quite early on this is not a journey for the faint hearted. After five minutes we make our way down the steep sides of a valley to a river bed below. This river bed, like many in New Zealand, is made up of rock and debris carried down the river in between which run narrow streams. In the winter or during heavy rains the water can cover the entire river bed but today it is relatively dry and we drive across and up the other side. We pass several fields of cattle and stop to admire one of the largest bulls I have ever seen. The sheep too are larger than their English counterpart and the lambs here grow at a much quicker rate and are the size of our hoggets.
A bit further on we stop by a small lake. Although it is drizzling he wants to show us something and we walk down to a small jetty with a box of meat. He puts a piece on a long skewer and holds it by the edge of the water. Within seconds a large eel slides out of the shallows and snatches the meat whilst others slither out to join him. They have vicious looking teeth and really mean eyes and I am not at all keen on them but the kids are riveted and Roger lets them feed the eels - albeit under supervision as they can bite. One box of meat later we head back to the car, now rather wet.
Sadly the next part of the tour was not so magical as the incredible views from parts of the estate were obscured by the cloud and rain. Roger takes a detour to a forest and points out the various indigenous trees and plants. We then head down to Palliser Bay and drive along the beach itself. This is not a pretty beach and is made up of large grey pebbles and piles of driftwood. Roger drives as if he is taking part in a Formula I race and I feel rather green as we slide from side to side. Amazingly the children shriek with laughter and love every moment. We reach the end of the beach (thank god) and head off to the wool shed to see some shearing.
We are met by the farm manager who shows us round the wool shed. The main shearing took place a few days ago and there are large bundles of wool stacked up at the end. He shows where the sheep are kept in pens before being sheared and then afterwards are pushed down a small slide to the outdoor pen. The scores are notched up on a board and the fastest shearer had shorn 270 sheep on one day. He puts on shearing shoes, which are flat laced up skin shoes, to stop him slipping on the lanolin (an oily substance secreted from the sheep's wool). He then brings a sheep in from a pen and anchors its head between his legs. Electric shearers hang from the ceiling and he pulls a set down and starts to shear the sheep. He is incredibly fast and within a matter of minutes and without a cut to the sheep he has shorn it and released it into the pen. I rather like the wool shed with its rough wood floor boards, greasy from lanolin, and wish we had been there to see the main shearing day - it is hypnotic to watch.
As the rain has stopped we go outside to see him round up some sheep with his working dogs. They do use traditional sheepdogs to work the flock forward and herd them into the pen but also a breed called huntaway which have a loud deep bark and are very effective in the large areas of farmland common in New Zealand. The dogs get to work and with a few whistles and the odd voiced order he controls the dogs and rounds up the sheep. They are so beautifully trained that it is almost an art form to watch.
We head back to the Lodge to warm up by the fire and have lunch. Despite the weather it was a great tour and the shearing and eels both highlights. Later we have another delicious supper and although we cannot fault the cooking, we are finding the direction that many of these lodges are taking is for a fussier haute cuisine in place of presenting wonderful ingredients more simply.
We wake to a beautiful morning and the small pond outside our villa is full of birds. It is the most beautiful of views and with the clouds gone we can see across Palliser Bay to the South Island in the distance. Ray takes Jack to his first shooting lesson armed with a .22 rifle. They went to a gorge where the instructor lined up a series of targets including some shaken up coke cans. With the minimum of help and to our astonishment Jack proceeded to hit every single target using only the allotted rounds he was given. The coke cans were a particular delight as when hit they exploded with quite a bang. The smile on his face when they got back to the Lodge was too precious for words - it spread from ear to ear. He was bursting with pride and happiness and was on a high for the rest of the day.
That afternoon the children and I go with the chef to pick salad for supper. We have requested steaks and salad that night as we are craving some simple food and the children are helping prepare for it. We have a wonderful time filling baskets and our arms with fresh produce and stagger back to the kitchen to wash it all. Amy munches on the raw carrots and even Jack, not the best vegetable eater, joins in. Doing simple things like this make us feel more normal and less like pampered guests - something that is vital after so long on the road.
We play croquet, we sit in the sun and we swim. A wonderful way to spend the day. Later whilst Ray and I sip delicious local wine the children are shown a secret staircase to the upstairs room by the lovely Flynn (assistant manager) and play an imaginary game oblivious to all around them. Everyone at Wharekauhau is utterly charming and very child friendly.
Monday 15th December
After breakfast Ray sets off to go to Martinborough to visit a couple of leading wineries, the Martinborough Estate and Escarpment. Martinborough is New Zealand's premier Pinot Noir region and the town itself is lovely. The winemakers at both properties spend a lot of time with him, discussing various Burgundies and recent vintages. He is absolutely in his element and has a wonderful time.
Meanwhile the kids go and make Christmas biscuits with Anna in the kitchen. I go to join them but am firmly sent away and spend a happy hour, coffee in hand, ordering Amazon vouchers as Christmas presents. This is definitely the stress free way to Christmas shop and makes me realise that we have placed far too much importance on presents back home and somehow lost the joy of the event along the way. I return to find the children covered with icing decorating their biscuits. They have had a blissful time and were in fantastic form.
Our last day at Wharekauhau passes too quickly. It is hot and balmy and we relax and enjoy everything the lodge has to offer - croquet, a mad swim and a snooze in the sun. Ray was completely enamoured with Martinborough and perhaps leaves more of his heart behind here. It is a stunning place and the staff are lovely but I became less emotionally attached than at other stops.
Still, as we get in to the helicopter the next morning and wave goodbye to the wonderful Flynn it feels sad to fly away knowing I may never get back here again. This time the helicopter ride was in glorious sunshine and the views of Wellington as we approached were incredible. It is a great farewell to the north island.