Where Lions dare to tread
We visit New Zealand ahead of the rugby showdown
It sounds like fake news: “There’s a guy near Christchurch, he’s exporting compressed New Zealand air to China. In a canister. With a mask.” But when I check it out later, I find it’s true. If Coca-Cola is the American Dream in a can, this is the Kiwi version – the purity of a place that prides itself on having no snakes or scorpions. This is only the second day of my first visit to New Zealand and the hands of my body clock are still spinning in reverse, somewhere over the Indian Ocean, having spent 16 hours in the air (on what is being marketed as the world’s longest commercial flight) en route from the Arabian Gulf to Auckland. Already two New Zealanders have told me about their country’s lack of natural predators and one has said she routinely leaves her car unlocked with the key in the ignition.
The person who tells me the fresh-air-to-Beijing story has a glass of pinot gris in his hand at the time. “It’s got your name on it,” he says, handing it over. Then he tells me his own story – of how an elastic-limbed Frenchman finally found a place where he fitted in. Eric Desiles is a clown and acrobat who performed around the world on cruise ships before executing a perfect landing in New Zealand 14 years ago.
“People come here to make a New World,” he says. “They have to be self-reliant and they have to get on with one another. There are no class distinctions like in the UK. It’s a little paradise.” He gestures at the pristine rainforest beyond the guard rail of the yacht on which we are standing.
Among other things (and this is still a pioneer country in which people double or treble-up on jobs) Eric works as deck crew on a champagne-hulled yacht named Tarquin, dispensing Marlborough wines and greenshell mussels as she plies the fretted inlets of the Marlborough Sounds on dreamy excursions from the port of Picton at the northern end of South Island.
Skipper Matt McLeod has moored in a pocket of jade waters and forested escarpment named Kumutoto Bay. The electronic thrum of cicadas drifts across from the rainforest canopy as he joins us on deck.
“It’s how Cook would have seen it, if he’d come right up here,” he says. Then he points out a totara tree – the Maoris would chisel their war canoes, each big enough for 100 men, from the trunks of these colossi (one such waka, 80ft long and built in the 1830s, is the most impressive exhibit in Auckland’s War Memorial Museum).
Telegraph readers have voted New Zealand their favourite country for four years now. Most stay a lot longer than me – I’ll be on the flight home in 10 days, while the average stay is about a month. Rugby fans going over to follow the British and Irish Lions will exceed that if they go to all the games in a tour that culminates on July 8.
But standing on the deck of the Tarquin this morning, I feel I have already got the measure of the place, sensed the pull of it – what the Maori call “whenua”, which means land, or home (and also placenta). It’s wrapped up in the natural beauty, the immediate mateyness (an English accent bestows honorary Kiwi status), the sense of freshness that lies in a knowable beginning.
The Maori were Polynesian navigators who arrived in their waka as recently as the late 13th century; Cook first made landfall in 1769. Rats, rabbits and the reviled possum (“If you run one over, you have to reverse back over it to make sure it’s dead”) arrived later – as did two manifestations of home-grown genius: the All Blacks rugby union side, surely the greatest sporting outfit the world has known, and exceptional wine.
My base for the trip out on the Marlborough Sounds is the Marlborough wine region, whose
60,000 acres of vineyards spread like steam-pressed corduroy across a perfectly flat plain flanked to north and south by mist-snagged hills.
There are some 120 wineries, of which more than 30 offer “cellar door” tastings – the Wither Hills winery even produces a crib sheet of tasting notes represented in a wheel.
So here I am in a cool cellar, hemmed in by barrels of French oak, perfecting my wristy swirling technique (worthy of the great Sri Lankan spinmeister Muttiah Muralitharan) and experiencing that cognitive alchemy whereby grapes become liquorice, asparagus or even, according to my chart, ethyl acetate – which is nail-polish remover.
Thankfully there is none of that in Marlborough country, just heady citrus and stone fruit aromas (definitely a smidgen of lychee) from the justly famous sauvignon blancs and, in the pinot noirs, subtle flavours of berries, plums and… actually my favourite word for these delicious reds, which I fall for in a single swirl-and-slurp, is knees – as in bee’s.
Three-quarters of Kiwi wine is produced here – and the excellent and improving viniculture is very much part of the burgeoning reputation of New Zealand as a sort of earthly paradise that is unique in the Western world (let’s drink to no snakes or car thieves, and no security checks on domestic flights).
In recent years, paranoid American survivalist types have cottoned on to all this loveliness and started buying up South Island properties as bolt-holes from the impending apocalypse – the theme of the new, in-progress novel by New Zealander Eleanor Catton, who won the Booker Prize for The Luminaries in 2013.
On the flight south to Queenstown, I overfly landscapes that are reeling in the billionaires, as well as increasing numbers of Chinese tourists (the theory of the Christchurch entrepreneur is that once the Chinese have introduced their lungs to air without hazardous particulates, they will be gagging for the canned variety when they return home). Below me are the snow-dusted peaks of the Southern Alps and astonishing teal-blue lakes such as Tekapo and Pukaki.
A day later I am breathing the cannable mountain air and getting the tussock grass on my boots. Taking off from Makarora, pilot Will Plunkett twists his Cessna 206 above the ridges, tarns and hanging valleys of Mount Aspiring National Park, then lowers it gingerly on to a grass strip bandaged in lint-like mist (“That was on the cusp,” he says cheerfully) in Siberia Valley, and leaves me to walk back.
The return takes me through forests of fern and beech, with the sudden boom of rapids far below as I hit an acoustic hotspot. European pioneers – gold prospectors and cattlemen – made many of these tracks through the mountains but they weren’t the first. Before them came the Maori, who crossed from east to west coast in search of the pounamu, or greenstone, to make their sacred ornaments.
The Maori have no written history of these times and their story is often neglected by the Pakeha – white man. But it’s a salutary one that visitors should hear if they are to understand more fully Aotearoa – the Land of the Long White Cloud.
“We belong to the land, the land does not belong to us,” Sofia Tekela-Smith tells me back in Auckland – then proceeds to relate “a very dark history, but one that is slowly being acknowledged”. Sofia is an artist and jewellery maker of mixed parentage (“You can’t just tick a box – ‘that person is a Maori’. If we can’t beat you, we marry you!”) who conducts Maori tours of Auckland. These focus on the Treaty of Waitangi, signed in February 1840 by representatives of the British Crown and more than 500 Maori chiefs, which promised the chiefs “full, exclusive and undisturbed possession of their lands”. Now, says Sofia, “less than six per cent of New Zealand is under the guardianship of Maoris. That’s a lot of confiscation.” At Bastion Point, land sacred to the Ngati Whatua tribe, she tells the story of its occupation in the mid-Seventies in protest at government plans to sell it off. “They occupied the land for 506 days. On the 507th, the government sent in the military and burned the houses down.” It was a nadir from which race relations in New Zealand began to improve. Now, thanks to a process that looks into alleged Treaty breaches and agrees compensation, historic wrongs are being righted. But, as the exhibit on the Treaty in Auckland Museum makes clear, “many Maori still feel the reverberations of physical and cultural dislocation”. My companions on Sofia’s tour, two American couples, are shocked by all this. They really did think New Zealand was a country unlike any other. And they are still smarting from how long it took them to get here: “Thirteen hours from San Francisco.” “Well…” I begin. Sofia holds up her hands: “All I’m going to say is, calm down, people – my ancestors paddled here!”
It’s how Cook would have seen the jade waters of Kumutoto Bay, if he’d come here
Clockwise from above: Siberia Valley, in Mount Aspiring National Park, seen from a Cessna light aircraft; lupins in Mount Cook National Park; and dolphin watching from the yacht Tarquin
The pool at The Marlborough Lodge, on a country estate in the heart of wine country
Take a tasting tour at Wither Hills winery
Lions captain aptain Sam Warburton