Hosts of daffodils crowd into Pleasant Valley

I wandered lonely as a cloud, that floats on high o’er vales and hills When all at once I saw a crowd, a host of golden daffodils.

William Wordsworth

Just outside the quaint South Canterbury town of Geraldine, New Zealand, you’ll find Pleasant Valley Daffodils. Had he wandered through Pleasant Valley’s paddocks of perfect blooms, Wordsworth would have been inspired to write an epic, not just a mere sonnet.

Pleasant valley Daffodils
Pleasant valley Daffodils

Here, at Pleasant Valley Daffodils, not just a crowd, but crowds and crowds and not just a host but hosts and hosts of daffodils spread across the paddocks, like a thick tapestry, in every possible shade of yellow, from the bright colour of the summer sun to the pale hue of the winter moon.

If you’re a connoisseur, then this is the place to find rare and special blooms for your collection, including the tiny and delicate original daffodil species. If you’re after a low maintenance show then there are hundreds of hardy specimens that will happily look after themselves for most of the year and still turn up trumps every spring. Or if, like Wordsworth, you just want “to wander, lonely as a cloud” surrounded by this lovely symbol of spring, then Pleasant Valley Daffodils at 66 Brophy’s Road. Geraldine is definitely the place to do it.

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.

Luxuriate at Tekapo Hot Pools

Surrounded by mountains, centred on a beautiful blue lake, shrouded by snow in the winter, bathed in warm sunshine in the summer and canopied by 4,367 square kilometre of pristine, Gold Status World Heritage Dark Sky Reserve, Tekapo in the South Island of Aotearoa New Zealand is one of the world’s most beautiful adventure playgrounds. But adventure isn’t all that Tekapo has to offer.

Tekapo Hot Pools
Tekapo Hot Pools

When you’ve done with the day’s adventures and when you’re in need of some rest and relaxation, head to Tekapo’s marvellous hot pools.

Spread under that famous heritage sky, tucked into the side of a hill overlooking the lake, the three pools progress from nicely tepid, through deliciously warm and finally to fabulously hot. Work your way up and down the temperatures until, like baby bear, you find the one that’s just right for you, then contemplate the heavens until hunger or fatigue drives you out, or until your skin can stand no more.

For those who do want more, there’s the spa with its range of ministrations with soothing oils and lotions. Or, if it’s food you’re after, there’s a great cafe with a stunning lake view, a roaring fire in a two way stone fireplace and great, fresh Kiwi fare. If, (hard to credit but possible) you emerge from your soak energised and ready for action, put on your skates and take a turn around the ice rink just next door.

Aoraki Mount Cook Mackenzie, magnificent but merciless country

This story was published on the Flight Centre blog in February 2015

 

Roughly half way down Te Waipounamu, the South Island of Aotearoa New Zealand, lies Aoraki Mount Cook Mackenzie. Running up to the Southern Alps in the west and down to the edge of the plains in the East, it’s a region with a handful of small towns, few people and vast isolated farms. It’s a place that is rich with legends and ripe for adventures, where the earth is spectacular and the sky sublime.

Burke's Pass
Burke’s Pass

These high, remote lands were known only to Maori who had hunted there for centuries, until, in 1855, James Mackenzie fled there with 1000 stolen sheep. His story became legend and the ancient Maori hunting ground became the Mackenzie Country, home to hardy graziers, their tireless collie dogs and tough Merino sheep.

We’ve traced Mackenzie’s trail up through peaceful Fairlie, then higher, through hills and bush, to Burke’s Pass.

Beyond the pass the land flattens, the sky lowers and the light brightens. Golden tussock stretches away to the horizon on one side. Thick clouds race across the sky and roll down the hills on the other. There’s nobody here, no other cars – just us, following a straight, undulating line across the empty landscape. There’s nothing here but earth and sky.

Earth and sky in the Mackenzie Country
Earth and sky in the Mackenzie Country

The road ends at Lake Tekapo. Framed by Mount John and the Southern Alps and   coloured an unbelievable blue by the glacial rock-powder suspended in its waters, it gleams in its mountain setting like an opal. On the foreshore stands the little stone Church of the Good Shepherd, a memorial to the Mackenzie Country’s pioneers. Nearby, the faithful collie is immortalised in bronze. It’s a scene that has inspired countless artists and untold photographers.

Lake Tekapo
Lake Tekapo

But Tekapo isn’t just a pretty face. In winter the skiing is superb on Roundhill and Mount Dobson. In summer the lakes are brilliant for water sports. The scenic walking, cycling and horse trails are stunning in any season. Most weather is fine for a round on the rugged golf course. Any time is a good time to luxuriate at Tekapo Springs. On the summit of Mount John, the Astro Cafe, is, according to Lonely Planet “the best place on earth for a coffee”. The Good Shepherd Church, with its altar window overlooking the lake, is always the perfect setting for a fairytale wedding.

On any clear night, though, the star attraction here is the sky. Above Aoraki Mount Cook Mackenzie are 4,367 square kilometre of pristine, Gold Status World Heritage Dark Sky Reserve, the largest, and one of only two, in the world.

It’s a rare and magical sight. From the lakeshore we gaze spellbound at the thick clusters of stars, clouds of silvery dust and trails of vivid light and wonder How did it begin? Is there anybody out there? Where does it end?

Mount John Observatory’s Earth and Sky Tours offer a closer look at the stars, through telescopes, with astronomers to address those big questions.

Next morning, we’re deep in the Mackenzie basin. Sometimes a lonely mailbox, or a driveway marks a farm. Merinos, dark with summer dust, watch as we pass. The land slopes upwards and clouds, backlit by a blazing sun, hang low above it.

Lake Pukaki
Lake Pukaki

The road leads to Pukaki, the Long Lake of Middle Earth and a “star” setting in Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit. The lake is surreal, rock-powder blue, the land is muted gold and the distant hills are hazy mauve. Away at the top of the lake Aoraki Mount Cook towers against the sky, his summit crowned with a circle of cloud. It’s a movie dream scene. But beneath it lies the cautionary legend of Aoraki who was exploring here with his brothers, when a vicious wind froze them forever into the peaks of the Southern Alps.

The land at the top of Lake Pukaki is Aoraki Mount Cook National Park. It is a magnificent but merciless terrain of soaring mountains, swift rivers, shadowed valleys, glaciers and capricious skies, where Aoraki reigns supreme. To anyone, it’s compelling country but to adventurers, it’s irresistible. On Aoraki’s formidable heights, Edmund Hillary honed his skills for the conquest of Everest.

There are innumerable ways to adventure here. “Extreme” adventurers scale Aoraki and ski down. The extremely “soft” can enjoy views of Aoraki from the cafe at the Hermitage Hotel and adventure vicariously in the theatres of the Hillary Centre. We take a family tramp up the Tasman valley. It leaves us breathless on a high rock ledge, not because of the steep climb, but because the milky glacier lake below, with its floating icebergs, is breathtaking.

Tasman Glacier Lake
Tasman Glacier Lake

Leaving Aoraki Mount Cook Mackenzie, we pass through Twizel, once a booming Hydro town, now a quiet sanctuary and through country where canals spill into dams and pylons march across the land.

Our journey ends at Omarama, gateway to the Waitaki Valley. Here the sky is high and clear and paved with thermal pathways, where adventurers from far and near, including living All Black legend Ritchie McCaw, come to glide. Here, the earth begins to change from gold to green and to fill with dairy cows and sinister ranks of giant irrigators.

 

 

Lost in Translation

It was late one evening, in a certain starless Paris hotel. Danny, aged 11, was studying the nightlife below the window, Kat, 15, was confiding in her diary and I was wrestling with 8 year-old Babe’s wet, tangled hair.

The Eiffel Tower from Trocadero
The Eiffel Tower from Trocadero

Suddenly there was a shout from the corridor “Feu! Sortez ! Gardez le sang froid!

“Fire! Go out! Keep the blood cold!” Someone translated helpfully through our keyhole.

“What blood?” asked the baffled kids.

“Later! Quick! Out!” I snapped as a siren began to scream.

Muffled foreign music, snatches of unfamiliar language and occasional wafts of exotic cuisine had so far been the only sign of our fellow guests. But here they were now, surging down the corridor like a tsunami. They closed around the kids and swept them away.

“Gardez le sang froid” I called as I shouldered my way downstream after them.

At the stairwell the crowd slowed, stopped, then swirled impatiently on the spot. A crutch appeared above the sea of heads.

“Prenez l’ascenseur. Take the lift” shouted someone.

“No!” I bellowed ”Dangéreux!”

But my voice was drowned out by the howls of protest that accompanied the crutch towards the lift. There was a clang and a whirr. The crutch vanished and the howls grew distant. People poured down the stairs. I hurried along in their wake.

With a groan like a dying beast, the lift ground to a halt. Now it hung frozen between floors. Within, a stranded soul in striped PJs slumped dejectedly on his crutches.

“Gardez le sang froid” I whispered as his eyes met mine in hopeless silence.

Below, two camps had formed. Outside, on the boulevard, Kat, Danny and the men stood at attention, their arms raised in salute at some presence off stage. The ladies and kids had lined up around the lobby. There, half-hidden under a burkha, her head turbaned in a souvenir tea towel from Antibes, was Babe.

Given that a fireball could roll down the stairs at any time and that someone was trapped in its path, the mood was convivial. People were passing round biscuits and dates. (I couldn’t help but marvel at the sort of sang froid that could consider refreshments at such a time!) But refreshments were soon eclipsed by a burst of applause from the boulevard.

“Napoleon!” yelled a youngster as a figure in a brass-studded tunic and helmet strode into view.

“Attention les pompiers! Attention the firemen”, he commanded.

Twenty pompiers filed by, dragging a fat hose. Up the stairs they marched. The hose snaked along behind. There was a hopeful cry from the elevator but the pompiers were impervious. Onward and upward they pounded. Doors slammed overhead. Suddenly the hose stopped. Time stood still. There was a long silence. Finally, heavy footsteps crossed the ceiling and clumped down the stairs. The pompiers re-appeared. They were a different detachment now. In ragged twos and threes, with their helmets under their arms, they straggled past.

“Alarm False” Napoleon grunted in passing

Out on the boulevard, the pompiers had stopped. Danny was trying on a helmet and Kat was giggling coquettishly.   I dashed to the rescue.

“Gardez le sang froid” called an impertinent pompier as I siezed the kids and marched them away.

Back in the lobby, the hose lay abandoned. The ladies, the refreshments and the Antibes tea towel were gone. Babe stood forlornly by the stairs, her hair had dried into dreadlocks.

There was a whirr and a whoop from on high and the lift sank slowly into sight. The door clanged open and out shot the prisoner. With two swift strokes of his crutches he swung through the doors and disappeared into the darkness.

“What was all that about the blood?” asked Babe as we headed upstairs.

“Gardez le sang froid, says keep the blood cold. It really means don’t panic” I explained at last “The blood gets lost in translation”

 

L’Abbaye de Senanque

Tucked into a narrow valley just outside the mediaeval village of Gordes, is L’Abbaye de Senanque. The thick rows of purple lavender in the foreground, the faded stone walls and slate roof silhouetted against a background of deep blue provençale sky, make the abbey one of the most photogenic and one of the most photographed, buildings in France.

L'abbaye de Senanque
L’abbaye de Senanque

The abbey dates back to 1148, when, under the patronage of the Bishop of Cavaillon, the Count of Barcelona and the Count of Provence, a small group of Cistercian monks from the Ardèche arrived in the valley and established their community in a cluster of rough huts. By 1152, their numbers had outgrown the huts and the monks had gained the support of the wealthy seigneurs, or nobles, of the neighbouring region of Simiane.

With the seigneurs’ financial backing, l’Abbaye de Senanque began to take shape, in the Romanesque style of the Cistercian mother house at Citeaux. The church was completed first and consecrated in 1178. Shaped like a cross, with a projecting apse on either side, it points to the north, as the narrow valley did not allow for the traditional eastward orientation. The church was soon followed by the cloister, the dormitory, the chapter house and the calefactory, which, being the only heated room in the complex, the monks used as a scriptorium or writing room. The last addition, in the 17th century, was the refectory. Remarkably, all these buildings survive still, with their simple, austere beauty but still intact.

During the 13th and 14th centuries, Sénanque flourished, possessing large estates and operating numerous enterprises, including mills and granges in the region.

By 1509, however, Sénanque began to decline; only about a dozen monks remained, then, during the Wars of Religion, Huguenots ransacked the building.

With the French Revolution, Sénanque’s estates were nationalised, the last monk was expelled and the abbey was sold to a private individual.

In 1854, the Order of the Immaculate Conception bought Sénanque but their community was expelled in 1903. Again, in 1988, another small community returned. They remain there today, running spiritual retreats, making honey and growing lavender as their livelihood.

It was autumn when I visited Sénaque, the purple glory of the lavender had been cut to stark grey stalks and the plain, austere abbey had faded into its narrow valley like some ancient stone landmark that had always been there and always would.

The Mystery of Les Saintes Maries de la Mer

Les Saintes Maries de la Mer is a quiet, pretty seaside place with small holiday homes and fishermen’s cottages hung with buoys, nets and anchors, with shops selling buckets, spades and plimsoles, a broad esplanade with a painted merry-go-round, a town square dominated by a statue of a Camargue bull and a skyline pierced by the tower of its fortified church.

The beach at Les Saintes Maries de La Mer
The beach at Les Saintes Maries de La Mer

Yet it’s a place with a hint of mystery, none so much as in its name. Les Saintes Maries de la Mer, in English, is, the Holy Marys of the Sea. It’s a name that begs the question – Who were the Holy Marys and how or why did they give their name to this little town out on the far edge of the Camargue?

According to the bible, after the crucifixion and burial of Jesus Christ, three women paid a visit to his tomb. They found it open and empty. The three women were Mary Magdalene, the famous follower of Jesus, Mary Salome, the sister of Lazarus whom Jesus had raised from the dead, and Mary Jacobi, the mother of James, the apostle.

According to an old French legend, back in the very first days AD, three women, their uncle and their dark skinned servant, were washed ashore on the coast near the mouth of the Petit Rhone. They had set sail from Alexandria in Egypt. According to that same old French legend, these three Maries were none other than Marie Magdalene, Marie Salome and Marie Jacobi. Their Uncle was Joseph of Arimathea and their servant was an Egyptian girl named Sarah. They had come to spread the gospel of Jesus and to avoid persecution in their native land.

According to the Knights Templar, Dan Brown, and a large number of others, a woman named Marie and her daughter, Sara, were washed ashore on that spot. The woman was none other than Mary Magdalene and her daughter was the child of Jesus. They had fled Jerusalem to escape death.

According to Gypsy lore, two women named Marie, half-dead from thirst and starvation, in a boat without oars or rudder, were washed ashore on that spot. They had been put to sea in the Holy land and sent off to starve, dehydrate or drown, a common way of dispatching undesirables (read Christians) at the time. They were rescued by a dark-skinned woman named Sarah. These two Marys were none other than Mary Salome and Mary Jacobi. The dark-skinned woman was Sara, patron saint of the gypsies.

The place where the Marys landed was known first as Notre Dame de Ratis (our Lady of the boat) then Sainte Marie (for just one Mary, if so which, or because one Mary stands for all?) Finally, in recognition of the two, or three, Marys and the sea which had delivered them, in 1838, it was named Les Saintes Maries de la Mer.

Mary Salome and Mary Jacobi lived out their days in that place at the mouth of Le Petit Rhône. After their deaths, their sacred remains were sealed in a casket and placed in the town’s fortified church. They remain there today. A statue of Saint Sara, clothed in finery, keeps vigil nearby.

Pilgrims have been coming to Saint Maries since the 15th century. Arles was on the route of Saint Jacques de Compostelle and as Mary Jacobi was the mother of the apostle James or Saint Jacques, they made the short detour to Les Saintes Maries de La Mer to pay homage to her.

Every year, Gypsies from all over Europe gather in Les Saintes Maries de la Mer on May 25, to celebrate the fête, or feast of Saint Sara. Early in the morning a special Mass is celebrated in the church. The casket containing the relics of Marie Salome and Marie Jacobi are lifted from the vault and along with the statue of Saint Sara, it is carried to the sea in a solemn procession. Long into the night, the Gypsies dance and sing.

The story of Les Saintes Maries and Sainte Sara, fascinating and mysterious as it is, is just one of the stories of this town. There are many more. Likewise the Fête of Sainte Sara is just one of the town’s fêtes. There are many more of those too, like La Fête des Vierges (festival of the virgins, in the sense of unmarried girls) started by Frederic Mistral, the great Occitane poet, in 1904.

Check out the others here: http://www.saintesmaries.com/fr/accueil/agenda.html