Chapter 9 - Nelson to Ashburton

22 Feb 2013

Early start at 8.00 am, lovely bright and sunny day initially although after a few miles there was an ominous cloudbank looming on the horizon. Our driver is not called 'Murray', his name is 'Maurie' which is short for Maurice, so 'Maurie' it is from now on! We all have to change seats each day, moving one number up from the previous day's number as determined by a randomized chart (all very scientific!). This at least means that everyone gets a chance of the 'best' seats without any arguments and we all get different folk to sit near each day - but, even so, poor Maxi treads a fine line keeping everyone happy! Maurie drove us up and over the wonderful Richmond Mountain Range with its fabulous scenery. There is a lot of logging in the area, the sites are cleared and the felled logs dragged to the top of steep hills where roads have been built so that they can be collected by the logging lorries. The main roads are pretty busy with these double log combos, it's fairly hairy going round the endless hairpin bends. At one stage our coach was behind a convoy of three of these with a long caravan of cars trailing behind us! The trees that are being logged are predominantly Radiata Pine which grow quickly and reach maturity in twenty five to thirty years. Once the trees have been felled the site is left fallow for a year or so and then re-planted with more Radiata Pines. The original native trees were destroyed for grassland in the nineteenth century but there is now a move to replant these as there is now a big problem with soil erosion. A native tree, the Totra, has a fifty to sixty year cycle which is double that of the Radiata Pine,  because of this there is a lot of opposition to planting native trees due to commercial repercussions.

We had a quick stop at Blenheim for a 'mimi'. The area is very dry and barren, with a lot of vineyards. The main ones are owned by 'Montana Wines' which was started by a Croatian immigrant who planted his first vines an 1934 and produced his first wine in 1944. The company is now NZ's largest wine-maker and is owned by the French company Pernod-Ricard.

We passed through Seddon, named after Richard John Seddon a previous Prime Minister of NZ, and then the very small town of Grassmere on Lake Grassmere. The highly saline water of the lake is a wonderful and distinctive pink colour caused by a particular shrimp which feeds on the brine. This lake is a major source of salt for New Zealand producing about half its domestic need. We stopped to see a colony of black and brown fur seals on the rocks along the east coast near Kaikoura - in the past these were hunted almost to extinction to satisfy the Chinese who traded highly sought after tea for sealskins. Eventually someone smuggled tea plant seeds out of China and the sealskin trade was curtailed. Now the seals are fully protected although some of the local fishermen are not happy because the seals eat 'their' fish. There are often dead seals washed up on the shore that have been shot, all very illegal but it's difficult to find the culprits! Forestry, sheep, dairy and some deer farming are the main industries and it is also an important whale watching area for the tourist trade.

We were more than ready for lunch and stopped in Kaikoura for a sandwich and were lucky to arrive at the same time as lots of classic cars that had gathered there on their last leg of a British Industry sponsored Auckland to Christchurch Rally. Even I became nostalgic to see old Minis, Morris Minors, Bentleys and Rolls Royce cars driving along the streets. We spotted a motor home with the slogan 'Sure Beats Working' on the side of it - we could only agree, "It sure does..."!

Following our refreshing lunch stop we crossed another mountain range before crossing the Canterbury Plains with its herds of sheep and beef cattle, a brief 'mimi' stop at Amberley before entering the outer suburbs of Christchurch. The day we were there was actually the second anniversary of the major earthquake in 2011 in which Christchurch was severely damaged with around a hundred and sixty deaths. It was a poignant moment for Maxi who had been on a Scenic Tour in the North Island on that day.

There was actually a Scenic Tours group staying in Christchurch on that fateful day but luckily they had been away from the city at the time the earthquake struck, although their luggage remained in the severely damaged Millenium Hotel. All their luggage was eventually rescued from the upper floors of the hotel using 'Cherry Pickers' - everyone rallied round to help. About seventy per cent of the centre of the city was destroyed, along with people's homes and livelihoods, it was devastating for so many. Since the earthquake there have been around eleven thousand aftershocks, some of those have been almost as severe. It was a sombre thought for all of us. However, the city is gradually recovering although a lot of people have moved out of town and Maurie reckons it will be at least a decade before the city is functioning even close to full capacity. We continued on to Ashburton, south-west of Christchurch, to stay at the Ashburton Hotel overnight. Very nice rooms, with yet another excellent evening meal. The food all along has been superb. With another early start in the morning most of us were in bed by 9.30 pm! Have I mentioned how tiring this holiday lark is?!

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