The far side


The far side

Nelson is a tiny, oft-overlooked Kiwi gem, unbelievably beautiful and with a deeply cultural soul

By Cheryl-Ann Couto  June 16th, 2014

New Zealand is the kind of place that makes you feel like nothing bad could happen. It’s got a faraway quality – a 22-hour flight’s worth – from your overcrowded, unplanned, impolite Indian city. The skies are a Disney cerulean, and unlike Australia, the scenery is not out to get you (refer the Sydney funnel spider).

I expect it’s why, on a bright, drizzly afternoon in Nelson, on the South Island, I found myself suspended upside down from an open-cockpit Pitts Special S2A stunt plane with only a seat belt keeping me from plunging 4,000 feet and into the South Pacific Ocean. “Weird, ha?” Vincent D’Ath says conversationally, over the speaker.

My co-pilot is a career flight instructor and airplane aerobatics champion, who’s had roughly 20 years of experience before starting his aviation adventure company U Fly Extreme (Uflyextreme.co.nz). I entertained the idea for the first time 20 minutes ago. “Yes,” I squeak, as the blood thunders against my temples.

For the 15-minute eternity that follows our airplane tumbles through the air like a loopy puppy – somersaulting, rolling over, shooting up like a bolt before falling, plummeting, down, only to go the whole routine again. I listen for D’Ath’s voice over the roar of the engine and the jackhammering of my heart as he tells me where to focus my eyes so I don’t start vomiting all over his shiny plane, how to navigate its centrifugal force and where to steer the potential deathtrap next. It was only later when watching the video footage of it careen across the sky, with D’Ath waving at the hidden camera with hands that I believed had been on the controls all along, that I thought I was going to be sick. Sweet, nconspicuous little Nelson was turning out to have a lot of kick.

That morning started out tamely as any standard-issue Nelson morning, with pitch-perfect weather – gold sunshine and balmy temperatures – and landscapes so spectacular, it’s a wonder they get any work done. My bolt hole is the swish Te Puna Wai  Lodge (Tepunawai.co.nz) in the middle of the city which, by rights, should be surrounded by tedious buildings to make any civic logic. Instead, the emerald Haulashore Island gleams right outside the window of this waterfront 19th-century townhouse. It takes a short stroll through a green, slope-y borough to get to the water’s edge, where at high tide, Kiwi children stop their bikes on the side of the road to dive right off the railing into the plump waters of Tasman Bay. Does he know about this thing called drudgery, I ask Richard Hewetson, my utterly charming Indophile host, who makes the best eggs. What are these views? The real world does not function like this, for his kind information. “You should see this place in winter then,” he laughs. 

Nelson is the oldest settlement in New Zealand’s picturesque South Island, nearly always overlooked for the slicker, more Bollywood-friendly Queenstown. But go past its somewhat country-bumpkin veneer, and you get a cultural tasting menu of the best of what the country has to offer, packed into a fairly small radius.

Late morning, I set out to meet Brian Flintoff, a wood and bone carver, at his home-cum-studio in suburban Stoke. Of course, it stands on the lip of a vast blue lagoon fringed with hillocks; what other way is there in the South? Flintoff, a kindly fellow who has absent-minded professor written all over him, is a Maori legend across the world though not actually Maori himself. The intricate, anthropological musical instruments he carves – trumpets, flutes, conches, wind chimes – are etched with lore and revive the sound sciences of early Maori. How to call on the gods, how to get through to those afflicted with what we now know as autism, how to signal war, records of daily medieval Maori life, fables of love: it can all be read and heard off these little curios. Flintoff’s belief in the ancient Maori tenet of appeasing the spirit world gives his work an ethereal cast (his long white beard and empress of a cat certainly help the effect). Perhaps people like him will stymie the dull uniformity of globalisation yet.

Driving around the greater Nelson region in the countryside is like passing through a big bucolic DIY project. The scene changes a swathe-a-minute. Strawberry and lavender farms sit alongside rolling vineyards and grassy plains. Artist studios and galleries appear out of nowhere. Native bush draws out as sunny beach alcoves. Toss in an aerodrome and a horse ranch too. So it is possible to trek through the Abel Tasman National Park, swill organic Pinot Gris over cheese and meat at the gravity-fed Woollaston winery (Woollaston.co.nz), buy local preserves at adorable gingham-covered village stores, peruse the incredibly good environmental wood sculptures of local artist Karen Walters (Kererugallery.co.nz), shuck down a Dark Dude (a dark craft ale, prude) at Golden Bear brewery (Goldenbearbrewing.com), throw yourself off a plane at 16,000 feet (Skydive.co.nz), and be back in the city centre for an early crayfish dinner (Boatshedcafe.co.nz). I did it leisurely without breaking a sweat – and I’m a sloth.

My guide on this trip, Noel Kennedy (Wineartandwilderness.co.nz), is a stocky man in bermudas and Nelsonian right down to the ruddy sweats he breaks out in every time he encounters the slightest of spice. You can hear his pride in the way he recounts what every other native shrub we pass is good for, how the Maori were ingenious peoples and the Europeans they warred with, giant twits. How you’d either have to be too lazy or too stupid to not flourish here because everything – the roads, the national eco-conscience, the taxes, the weather – is generally excellent. Not a single bellyache. Like I said, Nelson makes no civic sense. Everybody is so... happy. And satisfied. And toned.

We’re on the top deck of a sea bus that is returning to entry port Kaiteriteri from the national park. I leave Nelson in a couple of hours and as the blue waters let us pass, I think only a good Mumbai traffic jam can set me right. Just then, a little Maori girl sitting behind us begins singing a melancholy Maori song – something about birds and lovers, explains Noel, who has obviously planted her there. It’s all too much. And I’m so very sad to go.  

For the LOTR nut
Turns out Sauron the Dark Lord enlisted Danish-born Nelsonian Jens Hansen to create The One Ring. The late jeweller, known for his minimalist aesthetic, was a Nelson legend even before Peter Jackson came calling, so make sure you ask after the other masterpieces once you’re done taking One Ring-selfies.
Jenshansen.com

For the soft adventurer
If free-falling from a plane is your idea of a suicide run, maybe try the Skywire, a 3km ride high above native bush, in a heavily harnessed, four-seater cable chair. Speeds are varied so you’re barely holding on to your teeth sometimes and at other times are suspended 150m over forest canopy in pin-drop silence.
Happyvalleyadventures.co.nz 

For the fashion freak
Steel tutus, clockwork bras, anthropomorphic ball gowns... The sheer creativity (absurdity) on display at the World of WearableArt museum will make you gawp. The WOW Awards that were instituted in Nelson in the late ‘80s to bring art off the walls have become a global phenomenon, drawing talent from across the globe. Manish Arora’s iconic Butterfly Dress has seen its time here.
Wowcars.co.nz

New Zealand is the kind of place that makes you feel like nothing bad could happen. It’s got a faraway quality – a 22-hour flight’s worth – from your overcrowded, unplanned, impolite Indian city. The skies are a Disney cerulean, and unlike Australia, the scenery is not out to get you (refer the Sydney funnel spider).

I expect it’s why, on a bright, drizzly afternoon in Nelson, on the South Island, I found myself suspended upside down from an open-cockpit Pitts Special S2A stunt plane with only a seat belt keeping me from plunging 4,000 feet and into the South Pacific Ocean. “Weird, ha?” Vincent D’Ath says conversationally, over the speaker.

My co-pilot is a career flight instructor and airplane aerobatics champion, who’s had roughly 20 years of experience before starting his aviation adventure company U Fly Extreme (Uflyextreme.co.nz). I entertained the idea for the first time 20 minutes ago. “Yes,” I squeak, as the blood thunders against my temples.

For the 15-minute eternity that follows our airplane tumbles through the air like a loopy puppy – somersaulting, rolling over, shooting up like a bolt before falling, plummeting, down, only to go the whole routine again. I listen for D’Ath’s voice over the roar of the engine and the jackhammering of my heart as he tells me where to focus my eyes so I don’t start vomiting all over his shiny plane, how to navigate its centrifugal force and where to steer the potential deathtrap next. It was only later when watching the video footage of it careen across the sky, with D’Ath waving at the hidden camera with hands that I believed had been on the controls all along, that I thought I was going to be sick. Sweet, nconspicuous little Nelson was turning out to have a lot of kick.

That morning started out tamely as any standard-issue Nelson morning, with pitch-perfect weather – gold sunshine and balmy temperatures – and landscapes so spectacular, it’s a wonder they get any work done. My bolt hole is the swish Te Puna Wai  Lodge (Tepunawai.co.nz) in the middle of the city which, by rights, should be surrounded by tedious buildings to make any civic logic. Instead, the emerald Haulashore Island gleams right outside the window of this waterfront 19th-century townhouse. It takes a short stroll through a green, slope-y borough to get to the water’s edge, where at high tide, Kiwi children stop their bikes on the side of the road to dive right off the railing into the plump waters of Tasman Bay. Does he know about this thing called drudgery, I ask Richard Hewetson, my utterly charming Indophile host, who makes the best eggs. What are these views? The real world does not function like this, for his kind information. “You should see this place in winter then,” he laughs. 

Nelson is the oldest settlement in New Zealand’s picturesque South Island, nearly always overlooked for the slicker, more Bollywood-friendly Queenstown. But go past its somewhat country-bumpkin veneer, and you get a cultural tasting menu of the best of what the country has to offer, packed into a fairly small radius.

Late morning, I set out to meet Brian Flintoff, a wood and bone carver, at his home-cum-studio in suburban Stoke. Of course, it stands on the lip of a vast blue lagoon fringed with hillocks; what other way is there in the South? Flintoff, a kindly fellow who has absent-minded professor written all over him, is a Maori legend across the world though not actually Maori himself. The intricate, anthropological musical instruments he carves – trumpets, flutes, conches, wind chimes – are etched with lore and revive the sound sciences of early Maori. How to call on the gods, how to get through to those afflicted with what we now know as autism, how to signal war, records of daily medieval Maori life, fables of love: it can all be read and heard off these little curios. Flintoff’s belief in the ancient Maori tenet of appeasing the spirit world gives his work an ethereal cast (his long white beard and empress of a cat certainly help the effect). Perhaps people like him will stymie the dull uniformity of globalisation yet.

Driving around the greater Nelson region in the countryside is like passing through a big bucolic DIY project. The scene changes a swathe-a-minute. Strawberry and lavender farms sit alongside rolling vineyards and grassy plains. Artist studios and galleries appear out of nowhere. Native bush draws out as sunny beach alcoves. Toss in an aerodrome and a horse ranch too. So it is possible to trek through the Abel Tasman National Park, swill organic Pinot Gris over cheese and meat at the gravity-fed Woollaston winery (Woollaston.co.nz), buy local preserves at adorable gingham-covered village stores, peruse the incredibly good environmental wood sculptures of local artist Karen Walters (Kererugallery.co.nz), shuck down a Dark Dude (a dark craft ale, prude) at Golden Bear brewery (Goldenbearbrewing.com), throw yourself off a plane at 16,000 feet (Skydive.co.nz), and be back in the city centre for an early crayfish dinner (Boatshedcafe.co.nz). I did it leisurely without breaking a sweat – and I’m a sloth.

My guide on this trip, Noel Kennedy (Wineartandwilderness.co.nz), is a stocky man in bermudas and Nelsonian right down to the ruddy sweats he breaks out in every time he encounters the slightest of spice. You can hear his pride in the way he recounts what every other native shrub we pass is good for, how the Maori were ingenious peoples and the Europeans they warred with, giant twits. How you’d either have to be too lazy or too stupid to not flourish here because everything – the roads, the national eco-conscience, the taxes, the weather – is generally excellent. Not a single bellyache. Like I said, Nelson makes no civic sense. Everybody is so... happy. And satisfied. And toned.

We’re on the top deck of a sea bus that is returning to entry port Kaiteriteri from the national park. I leave Nelson in a couple of hours and as the blue waters let us pass, I think only a good Mumbai traffic jam can set me right. Just then, a little Maori girl sitting behind us begins singing a melancholy Maori song – something about birds and lovers, explains Noel, who has obviously planted her there. It’s all too much. And I’m so very sad to go.  

For the LOTR nut
Turns out Sauron the Dark Lord enlisted Danish-born Nelsonian Jens Hansen to create The One Ring. The late jeweller, known for his minimalist aesthetic, was a Nelson legend even before Peter Jackson came calling, so make sure you ask after the other masterpieces once you’re done taking One Ring-selfies.
Jenshansen.com

For the soft adventurer
If free-falling from a plane is your idea of a suicide run, maybe try the Skywire, a 3km ride high above native bush, in a heavily harnessed, four-seater cable chair. Speeds are varied so you’re barely holding on to your teeth sometimes and at other times are suspended 150m over forest canopy in pin-drop silence.
Happyvalleyadventures.co.nz 

For the fashion freak
Steel tutus, clockwork bras, anthropomorphic ball gowns... The sheer creativity (absurdity) on display at the World of WearableArt museum will make you gawp. The WOW Awards that were instituted in Nelson in the late ‘80s to bring art off the walls have become a global phenomenon, drawing talent from across the globe. Manish Arora’s iconic Butterfly Dress has seen its time here.
Wowcars.co.nz