Where Lions dare to tread

We visit New Zealand ahead of the rugby show­down

The Daily Telegraph - Travel - - FRONT PAGE -

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

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