People I Met In New Zealand

“What do I need with a farm tour?” I asked Marcia, my traveling companion. (I grew up on a farm.) She wanted to, so we took one with the owner of a farm where we stayed in Marlborough Sounds, at the Northern end of the South Island, where wine grapes now seem to be a better investment than sheep.

With 1600 acres, this farmer is really a rancher. When he said he would take us to the “top of the hill,” I did not salivate to go. Turns out, he grazes cattle on the steep dry hills. From his double-cab pick-up we drove for about 2 ½ hours over rough, winding dirt lanes, somewhat akin to crawling along the outside of a cup. He assured us that he also “wanted to get home.”

He has lived in Marlborough Sounds all of his life and has farmed (as he calls it) since 1960. We saw the one-room school house that he had attended and got his opinion on just about everything in his country.

At first, he raised sheep, which he describes as the “dumbest” living creature and also quite susceptible to disease. During a fire, these animals panicked and ran up hill and into the blaze rather than following the dogs who were directing them downward. He has raised cattle since.

Wine grapes are increasingly grown in this region, which has gained a reputation for its excellent sauvignon blanc. I did my best to research this. After the tour, the farmer’s wife had us to tea, before we departed on the road to Christchurch.

At a bed and breakfast on the Coromandel Peninsula, our hosts were a former policeman and a health care worker. To serve us breakfast in the formal dining room, they dressed as servants from the Upstairs, Downstairs era, taking on a different personae when “in uniform.” Usually quite informal, they chatted about the restoration of the house, their former careers, and directed us to a very good restaurant and the Hot Water beach, and anything else we needed.

In Queenstown, we took the boat cruise on the TSS Earnslaw which has been operating since 1912. At Walter Peak Station, we had another farm tour of sorts though quit different from the earlier one.

We heard from a sheep shearer there, dressed exactly as you would expect someone who is more in the tourist trade than the sheep business. He demonstrated his craft, but also guided us on a tour. The current state of raising sheep includes flying in embryos and doing a catscan on the mothers to see how many lambs they will produce. Wine is also being produced this far south. When the weather gets cold, helicopters hover over the vineyards to keep the air moving.

Back aboard the TSS Earnslaw, the friendly and affable piano player handed out song sheets and everyone sang songs like On Top of Old Smoky, Home on the Range, and Amazing Grace.

In Rotorua, we spent an evening visiting a Maori Village, having their traditional meal, called a hangi (the food cooked in an earth oven) and then getting back on the bus for the 30 minutes back to our hotel. But the driver wasn’t ready to let us fall asleep. She insisted everyone sing a song from their country and then took us to an unoccupied traffic circle where she went round and round as fast as she reasonably could. You have any idea how much her tips went up because of these activities?

Fuller’s Cream Trip delivers mail to the remote homes nestled around the gorgeous iridescent green and blue world that is the Bay of Islands, stopping at various docks where the young hearty crew greet the owners by name, exchange a bit of small talk, or, in one case, throw a biscuit to the dog that is always waiting.

All the above were, of course, in the tourist trade, though the farmer in Marlborough Sound’s principal business is farming. He and his wife have a cottage which they rent out and for those who rent it, the tour is offered. The bed and breakfast people have a capacity of about 3 rooms and, I believe, do this to add to their retirement income or to meet travelers. The sheep shearer knows his trade and has parlayed it into “show and tell.”

Everyone seems to be in a good mood in New Zealand and it appears to be genuine. Maybe it is the lack of smog, a small population, and gorgeously blue water never far away, whatever almost all New Zealanders we met are just darn nice people, seemingly glad to have tourists, not annoyed, as many Europeans are, because so many people have traveled there.

Outside the trade, we met friendly people also, not annoyingly hang all over you talkative, but when given an opportunity, they responded.

We stopped in a small town a bit out of Queenstown for lunch. At the combination cafe and bar, three men were drinking beer at a nearby table. We ate our lunch and read the paper. They didn’t say anything to us until we began to gather our things to leave.

“Where you from?”

“The United States. California.”

“I’m going to Steamboat.”

“Steamboat Springs?”

“Dunno.”

“What state is it in?”

“Dunno. It’s like here. Skiing in the winter and rodeo in the summer. I’m going in our winter.”

“Steamboat Springs, Colorado. My son and his family live there.” I said, amazed that he only knew the first word in the town name and assumed most Americans would know about it.

We took the train, the Alpine Express, from Christchurch to Greymouth, which was a bit of a disappointment in terms of scenery—something rarely said in New Zealand. Sitting across the table was a couple from Britain who’ve put their jobs and lives on hold to tour the world for a year or so. What they were missing most was a new grandson. We shared stories of here and there, the kind that travelers tell when they begin to talk with one another.

It’s often said, you don’t go to New Zealand for the cities. It’s the glorious water, the fiords, the glaciers, the rain forests, the islands. (Younger people go for the extreme sports.) All true, but the pleasant surprise is the ability to go all over the country without any hassle. The airport in Rotorua didn’t have any security! At all! And the people—I’ll never forget them.

Back