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Easy driving through the the crusty loaf landscape

Country where you need never meet a crowd

It is the answer to the school Geography question - Name another country, apart from Norway, that has fiords? Give examples. The SW coast of New Zealand, of course.

There was something odd about the traffic flow on the road that leaves mountain-bound Queenstown, the entry airport for the south west of South Island, and runs down 80 miles to a crusty loaf of a landscape, probed by watery fingers. (I had finally reached the answer to my O Level Geography question - ‘Name another country, apart from Norway, that has fiords? Give examples.’)

For much of the time the road was that utterly alien concept to most British people, a route quiet enough for the driver to enjoy the landscape. The Rolling Stones found NZ shut. Unkind, but even on a weekday afternoon this road seemed stuck in Sunday morning mode, an hour before church. The only moving things I could see outside my hire car were sheep - and confusingly - deer, drowsily redistributing themselves over gently-rolling meadows, and the irritable forced departure of an Australian Harrier from a road-side fence post.

Then, in late afternoon, coaches began to swoosh past northwards. At first I thought: ‘What remarkable public transport!’ But what public? Here was capacity enough to decant the entire sparse population of the region, several times over. Yet the coaches kept coming, some of them state-of-the art aerodynamic wedges.

I concluded they were returning from somewhere pretty important. They certainly hadn’t been to Te Anau, a neat and serene little town on the island’s biggest lake beneath the forested mountains of Fiordland, recently declared a World Heritage Site. In the visitor centre I learnt how reassuringly inaccessible most of it still was. Anyone willing to put in a week’s tough walking could reach the site of Capt Cook’s first landfall, 100 miles down from here, and see the stumps of the trees his surveyor Wm. Wales removed to erect his gear.

Our coach parties had certainly not been there. Nor had they visited the habitat of the takahe, rediscovered near here in 1948 after half a century of invisibility. This amiable red-beaked bird, as docile as a chicken, nibbles the base of the snow tussock, and little else. Without human help, it couldn’t compete with the deer (introduced: indeed, every single mammal in the country apart from two small bats, was introduced). The takahe is the success in New Zealand’s programme to haul species and habitats back from the brink. Quite correctly, you can’t get near it. It was my hosts for the first night, at a farm stay just outside Te Anau, who told me where the coaches parties, mainly Asian visitors, were heading. To Milford Sound, the one arm of Fiordland water with a road to it, a day’s dash from Queenstown. It was a matter of regret for locals that these high-spending visitors hurried past every other attraction in the region. For me it was priceless information. I resolved not to go near the place. Here, after all, is a country where you need never meet a crowd. Yet Milford is often bursting. The verity of international mass tourism applies in NZ as most other tourist destinations, but you can easily slip its leash. I did so through the agency of Ron Peacock, formerly of the Department of Conservation and my guide to the fringe of Fiordland. Ron is a typical product of the new entrepreneurial spirit that came with NZ’s recent head-first pitch into Thatcherite privatisation. Lots of family silver sold off, but energies released too. I found men like him spaced around the coast, offering a personalised entry point to nature. Once the jet boat had deposited us on the other side of the lake at the start of the Kepler Trail, we were in a landscape not so unlike the one Capt Cook’s men would have seen. Dry beech forest hanging with rata vines, the only sound the delicious, seductive chiming of the bell bird. Ron was a positive Attenborough of natural information. Here a rifleman, ‘smallest bird, just like an olive-green bumble bee’; there a flock of yellow-crowned parakeets, ‘real ones, not escaped from a zoo.’ Next day to Dunedin, purpose-built sanctuary for the dissenting Scots, but, in its setting, more Swansea than Edinburgh: wide streets lined with ample stone houses leading steeply out of the small centre. Another world, even another age. I spotted a Wolsley of the marque my father drove in the 1970s. The jarring note, or aroma, in a country emphatically dedicated to conservation, was the noxious fumes of leaded petrol. Across the water to the peninsula for dinner in the Harbour Lights on the Portobello Rd, with its fine views back to Dunedin. New Zealanders work hard at their menus, and serve hard and obligingly at their tables. By a neat symmetry my hostess was working Saturday nights to earn enough for the statutory visit to Europe. And so to NZ’s concluding eco-statement, the royal albatross colony, appropriately at the utter end - it was the location for the closing scene of Attenborough’s Trials of Life. The bird was always here, forlornly clinging to its territory even as European settlers stole eggs from under it and Maoris snatched it for the pot. Its epic circumnavigations of Antarctica, returning to the nest after perhaps two years wandering, neatly parallels the far-travelling New Zealander. I watched one approach into a stiff wind, webbed feet inelegantly splayed, ready to abort its landing only inches off the ground. It touched down, fed its young, then (and this was startling) waddled over to another nest to commune in the manner of a socially-involved neighbour with a chick obviously not its own.


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