Despite having to get up at an atrocious hour (something I hoped I’d left behind in Africa), I arrived bright and breezy in the chill winter air at Christchurch, on New Zealand’s South Island (also referred to as the Mainland by the inhabitants). I passed through biosecurity without any confiscations, though I did have to get my shoes disinfected as they weren’t clean enough. The city immediately struck me as being like some of England’s nicer places – all old stone buildings, pedestrian plazas, willow trees and ducks in the river. To reinforce this feeling, the art gallery had a L. S. Lowry on permanent display.
As is often customary with the cities I visit, I took a walk around the botanic gardens. Through the winter lack of colour, there was a very Victorian air about the place (most likely down to the conservatories, brick walls and rose arches), and it was full of children as I’d managed to come during the school holidays. The park staff had put up a “Myth and Magic” discovery trail, including information about the various forest spirits and legends in other countries – and were showing My Neighbour Totoro in the information centre (there were also numerous references to Princess Mononoke, leading me to suspect that some ranger is a Miyazaki fan).
One major attraction in Christchurch is the International Antarctic Centre – the city is the springboard for most Antarctic missions and the US Antarctic Program (possibly other countries too; I only saw the one) maintains a permanent facility there. The Centre itself is short on history (that’s covered in the city museum), but has plenty to keep visitors occupied. The highlight for me (aside from local penguins and sluggish Antarctic fish) was the storm simulator, where you hang around in a -8 C room (complete with snow and an ice slide) until the storm starts and blasts you down to -25 C – after that, -8 seems pretty manageable.
Continuing my journey south, I got on the (not nuclear-powered) Atomic Shuttle to Dunedin and arrived very late after we got stuck in ice crossing the hills. Dunedin feels extremely Scottish, and the dusting of snow in the background completed the picture. I was there (staying at the excellent Penny’s Backpackers) to check out the Otago Peninsula, a windswept (and suspiciously Northumbrian) set of hills jutting out into the sea harbouring cliffs, seals, penguins, albatross and the odd sheep. Walking around, I was struck by how quiet the sheep were – in Britain they make a constant racket, but out here the silence is a little unfamiliar (it might be the lack of predators, though judging by the amount of possum roadkill it’s not inconceivable that larger mammals could sneak in too). I took in the blustery coastline, retreated back to the bus stop, fell asleep on the bus, got off at the wrong stop and had to do some more walking to get back to town.