Located at the foot of Christchurch’s Port Hills, on the site, initially, of an ancient Maori hunting ground and later, of Zealand’s first public railway, Ferrymead Heritage Park includes the model town of Moorhouse (old Christchurch from colonial times to the 1920s) as well as a transport and technology museum.
On weekends and during holidays, a team of dedicated volunteers mans the businesses and transport of Moorhouse and visitors stream into the little town to ride the tram and the old steam train.
On the Thursday afternoon that we visited Ferrymead all its attractions were ‘static’, which meant that neither the transport, nor the businesses in the town were manned and operating. Still everything was open and the whole of Moorhouse was ours.
We could visit one another in “our” cottages and shops. We could linger in the dimly-lit church and in the spooky gaol, where a criminal dummy lay stretched on a bed, staring with glassy eyes at a small barred window. We could tinker with the pumps in the street and potter with the gadgets in the sheds. We could sit in the single classroom in the little school. We could push buttons and follow tiny trains around miniature landscapes, through tunnels, points, signals and crossings in the model railway shed. We could hide in the thunderbox outhouse and scuff along dusty roads.
There were huge garages lined with motors from every era. There were hangars full of aeroplanes, including an old NAC Friendship like the one on which I took my first flight in the 1960s.
It was a great afternoon for all of us – a lovely walk down Memory Lane for the baby boomers and a fabulous flight of imagination for the 21st century kids.
There are several routes through the rugged Port Hills; zigzag up the Bridle Path tramped into the tussock by the early settlers; cut straight through the centre via the Lyttleton tunnel; zoom around hairpin bends on the spectacular summit road; or like us, take the Gondola and swing straight up a sheer cliff face in a glass bubble on slim wire cable.
Accustomed to leaping virtual tall buildings, if not mountains on their Nintendo DS and their PSP, the kids laugh madly as a rocky hillside hurtles towards us, but we adults clutch each other’s sweaty hands in panic while, beyond a sign which tells us not to be alarmed if our capsule stops, the flat ground drops swiftly away.
As we dock at the summit a couple of school teachers lead a troupe of miniature mountaineers, all in high-visibility gear, over the skyline. We are indeed in the land that nurtured the Sir Edmund Hillary.
We picnic on a vertiginous slope. In front are the modest towers of Christchurch and beyond them, the Canterbury Plains stretch away to the Southern Alps. On one side the Pacific Ocean vanishes into the horizon. On another there are folds of dun coloured hills, Lake Ellesmere and a roll of surf on the Tasman Sea. Behind us Lyttleton Harbour lies like an opal in its volcanic crater bed. Impervious to the view but not the dizzying height and space the kids dance madly on the edge of the land and make wild leaps at the sky.
As we lurch off one side of the summit for the return trip in our glass bubble, the tiny hikers set off through the tussock on the other. We watch the line fluoro yellow hats until they vanish behind a ridge. Just in front of us a red sail drops from a cliff. We follow it as it circles the fading evening sky.
It’s a crisp, sunny autumn morning and Orana Park, New Zealand’s only free range zoo, just outside Christchurch, is busy with holiday visitors. Still, a few steps down the path, we’re in empty territory. Across a stream a trio of hippos paws irritably at the ground. A troupe of wildebeasts watches nervously from the next enclosure. Curious emus trot over to their fence to eye us as we pass, while behind us, a young tiger warns us off with a growl. On the far side of a lake, a young baboon swings in a tree as his mother instructs anxiously from below.
Orana offers a range of close animal encounters. You can hand feed Giraffes, or step into a cage within the lions’ cage to see, hear, smell and, yes, almost feel them tear their prey apart at feeding time. You can pet and stroke the farmyard animals and walk among native birds in a giant aviary. In the dark of the kiwi house you can watch, as, just behind a glass partition, the shy, earthbound and anomalous emblem of the nation so bent on scaling to and soaring from great heights, grubs away in the undergrowth.
And as if to underscore this New Zealand penchant for soaring and scaling, just a little further along from the Kiwi House, we come upon a queue. It’s longer than the queue for giraffe-feeding. It’s longer than the queue for the little train that trundles visitors around the park. It’s longer even than the queue at the cafe. Kids of all ages, mums, dads and even grandparents wait impatiently to climb a solid wooden platform and hurl themselves along the sagging wire of the flying fox.
Although the earthquakes swept away much of Christchurch and with it many of city’s iconic attractions, some classic traditions remain. One of them is that age-old Christchurch leisure activity – boating on the Avon.
The Avon meanders through Hagley Park under bridges, past sculptured gardens and grassy banks overhung with weeping willows. It’s a setting that could be anywhere in England. I could be in an English storybook I think as we paddle erratically upstream, two adults and two little boys in a bright red canoe. I half expect Ratty, Mole and Toad from The Wind in Willows to come paddling round the bend towards us. But my crew mates are on a different fantasy track.
Taking to the river in a canoe is certain to unleash almost anyone’s inner brave and as we paddle upstream, the boys hurl war cries at a passing punt. “How!” replies the boater-hatted punter, raising an arm in salute and spinning his craft dangerously towards us. My husband’s latent pirate comes to the rescue “Heave ho, me hearties!” he bellows. Churning up great fans of water on all sides, we lurch into safe waters. The spirit of the river is infectious. “Ship ahoy!” we shout to other river-folk! “Ahoy, land lubbers!” we call to watchers on the bank. “Ahoy there!” they shout back.
As they say in The Wind in the Willows, “there’s nothing like messing about in boats” And happily, in spite of everything, you can still mess about in a boat on the Avon.