Old Pleasant Point

Once Pleasant Point  was a thriving railway town, a busy stop on the way to the fabled Mackenzie country, the secret pastures high in the mountains, where the notorious James Mackenzie led his stolen flocks beyond the reach of the long arm of the law.

Pleasant Point Railway Station
Pleasant Point Railway Station

But now, most of the time, Pleasant Point (so named because it was a pleasant resting point on the hard slog into the highlands) is as still as painted town.

The train no longer runs, the high school has closed, the Post Office has been re-born as Legends Cafe, the doors of St Joseph’s Catholic Church are closed forever after the 2011 earthquake and the streets are quiet.

But come the weekends and the school holidays, Pleasant Point bursts into bustling life again. Still it’s not life as we in the 21st century know it. It’s life in the town’s 19th and 20st century heyday.

The station gleams and sparkles with bells, brass, red-painted fire buckets and quaint old signs. You queue at a small wire grille to buy your ticket, while behind you, the old Fairlie Flyer blows impatient clouds of steam across the platform. You take your place on the green padded seats in your carriage, dump your gear in the mesh luggage racks above and with a clang of bells, a hiss of steam and a toot of the whistle you’re off.

It’s a short run to the end of the line. There you’ll discover another treasure of the old railway world – a jigger. There’s great entertainment pushing and pulling yourselves up and down the line while you wait for the return train to the Point Station.

When you’ve taken the rides, and tried everything that opens and shut on the Fairlie Flyer, there’s was only one last, very special and very fitting way to end your morning in old Pleasant Point – with a Hokey Pokey ice-cream from the Dairy.

 

 

 

Don’t miss St Andrews

Head south on State Highway 1 from Timaru and in a short time you’ll arrive in St Andrews. Blink twice and you’ll miss this tiny seaside village. The road and the railway line run, side by side, straight through it. Beyond the railway line, scattered rows of houses look out across the Pacific Ocean to the horizon. It’s a view to die for.

Masonic Hotel, St Andrews
Masonic Hotel, St Andrews

On the land side of the road running through St Andrews, there’s a bright, shiny service station, a couple of stores, an antique shop, a few more houses and the beautiful Art Deco Masonic Hotel. Faithfully restored and re-refurbished its original style, it offers accommodation, fine cuisine in an elegant dining room, a comfortable lounge and a bar with a comprehensive menu and beverage list which includes a great range of New Zealand wines and boutique beers.

On the cold autumn day, when chance blew me into St Andrews at lunch time, I was introduced to the stone-grill experience. I must confess I was somewhat taken aback when a sizzling hot plate and three portions of raw meat were placed before me. But, after instructions from the waitress and a few tentative tries, I was grilling away great guns, turning out mouthfuls of pork, lamb and steak precisely to my own tastes. Accompanied by a small green salad and a baked potato, my stone-grill lunch was perfect. I would like, however, to make one small recommendation to the chef à propos the steak – leave the fat on!

I can imagine a great life in St Andrews – a cottage overlooking the ocean, the sound of the waves tossing restlessly on the sand, long walks on the beach in all seasons, convivial sessions in the Masonic Hotel in all seasons, a bit of craft, a bit of creativity …

But if not, I’ll put a stay at the Masonic Hotel on my agenda and I’ll definitely stop in for dinner one day.

 

Roll on again Waitaki

Leaving the Mackenzie Country we wind down the Waitaki Valley, following the river through its course of dams and lakes and channels.

Lake Benmore
Lake Benmore

Little more than half a century ago, The Waitaki River flowed freely down from the mountains, carving its way through farmland and bush. But then in the 1960s, the Waitaki Hydro Project harnessed the river’s power and transformed the landscape forever. Perhaps those who lost their land lamented it. Perhaps there were protests. I don’t recall. I do however recall, and in fact it comes back to haunt me quite regularly, the song that emerged from the project with the unforgettable lines “Roll on again Waitaki on your journey to the sea, bringing power to all New Zealand, a better life for folks like me”

At the time of construction Benmore was the largest earth dam ever built. We drive to the top to marvel at the giant concrete spillway and the huge turbines. Even with these great, grey cement intruders, it’s a beautiful scene. The top dam is a deep, still turquoise pool where a houseboat floats idly in the shelter of an overhanging willow. Below, the unbelievably blue Lake Benmore laps gently at a sandy beach shaded by willows and ringed with sheltered grassy picnic spots.

The autumn sun is hot. The lake sparkles seductively. We have to swim. The icy water is at first a terrible shock, but soon it’s tolerable and finally, from the safe warm boards of the diving platform just offshore, it’s superb.

Roll on again Waitaki!

Fairlie

Sitting at the foot of rugged, tussock-clad mountain slopes and overlooking rolling hills that slope down to the distant coast, Fairlie is a beautiful town of lovely old colonial buildings, tidy modern bungalows, lush gardens and simply beautiful trees.

The Mackenzie Pipe Band at the Fairlie Show
The Mackenzie Pipe Band at the Fairlie Show

Fairlie’s history begins with legendary New Zealand sheep rustler.James Mackenzie, who, in 1855, stole 1000 sheep from a Timaru station. The station owner and two Maori guides tracked Mackenzie and his flock up to his secret pastures in the high country at the foot of the Southern Alps. Over the next decade other graziers, then settlers, followed the McKenzie trail into the mountains. Around 1865, by the settlement of Fairlie Creek was established. In 1884, the New Zealand locomotive legend, the Fairlie Flyer, launched a rail service that was to run between the port of Timaru and the town, now known as Fairlie, until 1968.

Most striking  and famous of Fairlie’s simply beautiful trees are the five hundred that make up the Peace Avenue. Running from one side of the town to the other, they commemorate the signing of the Peace Treaty at the end of World War I. Fairlie had more reason than most small New Zealand towns admonish to a future peace. This small town lost 72 young men to the 1914-18 war. It was to lose more still to World War II. Their names and those of Fairlie’s heroes of the Korean and Vietnam Wars are etched on the War Memorial in the centre of the town.

New Zealand’s first Olympic Gold Medalist in Athletics, was a son of Fairlie and a former dux of the local Primary School. His name is immortalised in the Jack Lovelock track.

Fairlie’s fame doesn’t end with sheep rustlers, war heroes and star athletes. The Fairlie Show which takes place annually on Easter Monday brings out all the Mackenzie Country’s best equestrians, axemen, Scottish and Irish dancers, not to mention dogs, livestock of all kinds and machinery of unimaginable size and might. Best of all, in my opinion is the Mackenzie Highland Pipe Band, with the skirl of those magical bagpipes.