Nelson: More than an Art Attack by Karen Phelps
Karen Phelps finds eels, tuk-tuks, stalactites and even jesters in sunny Nelson.
I remember seeing Gary McCormick on TV once going into a chemist shop determined to find at least one person in Nelson who was not artistic in any way, shape or form. He found a woman who was, she said, just a shop assistant. McCormick smiled, certain that victory was within his grasp, until she mentioned that she was also (really) a dancer.
Nelson is a curious blend. A pot luck dinner of a town, it combines the historic, the artistic, the quirky and more recently, the adventurous. The people are also a strange mix of typical kiwi blokes (jandals and shorts), sheilas, hippies and the downright eccentric. The brochures in the YHA give a pretty good indication of this hotchpotch city, advertising everything from zoological parks and llama treks to 4x4 motorbikes and seal swims. You can even tour round the town on a genuine Thai tuk-tuk Taxi.
Nestled in the middle of Tasman Bay the region receives more than 2400 hours of sunshine a year. It did rain (briefly) while I was there but according to the locals this was the first time for months. Still it did allow me the perfect opportunity to catch the bus out to Broadgreen House.
A New Zealand Tourism Award winner, Broadgreen House was built in about 1855 and is an excellent example of an early colonial cob construction house. It has features such as 1880’s French wallpaper (for those with tactile inclinations there is a separate framed piece you can touch), original Brussels carpet, 18th and 19th century patchwork, dolls, a variety of Victorian gowns and Mrs Beeton’s Household Management Book (she was apparently the equivalent of Alison Holst in this era) with gems of timeless advice such as -
“Home should be first and foremost in a woman’s life”, “Women should endeavour to cultivate the tact and forebearance without which no man can hope to succeed in his career” and “Aim at being well and attractively dressed without allowing questions of clothes to establish inordinate claims on either time or purse.” Enough said really. Outside the grounds are spectacular with a rose garden boasting some 3,000 plants in about 600 varieties.
The next day I decided to venture a little further out of town to Takaka. About 40 minutes out of Nelson on Coastal Highway 60 I spotted the Jester House Cafe. I’d heard about the tame eels here so I decided to stop off and take a look. After driving through a small stream and walking down a plant-covered path I reached a raggle-taggle garden. The cafe is fully licensed and serves hot and cold lunches and local wines and beers along with the usual cafe food. The staff wear jester hats and there is also a gift shop, a maze, giant chess game, a playground, sandpit and toys for the kids. You can even poke your head through the giant jester and get your photo taken.
Across the river is a ‘trip trop’ bridge leading to the tame eels. I presumed that ‘tame’ meant people managed to pat them occasionally as they swam past but these eels were literally slithering out of the water round our feet medusa-style. Not for the faint-hearted but definitely an unusual experience. If you want to feed the eels food can be purchased at the cafe.
Just 20 minutes from Motueka I found what I was looking for - Ngarua Cave. Located on Marble Mountain a short road leads down from State Highway 60 through the karst landscape of the weird marble outcrop to the cave. Usually the numbers in the tours (which run on the hour from 10am to 4pm) are not excessive. When we went, there was a school group of probably at least a hundred children, all decked out in the obligatory hard hats. Once we got inside it didn’t matter because the cave is quite simply magnificent.
First opened as a tourist attraction in the !970’s (about a hundred years after it was first discovered) lighting, pathways and bridges have been installed making easy access for people of all ages. These man-made structures do not override the cave’s natural beauty though.. Millions of stalactites hang from the ceiling (at one point the guide, Mike Endres, even plays a tune on one) along with pillars and columns of mineral rock. At the end of the cave the names of early explorers have been inscribed on one of the limestone formations. The earliest is H B Everett, a 17-year-old surveyor’s assistant from London, dated 1876. The tour ends by climbing up a steel ladder through a hole and walking over the grassland outside, back to the souvenir shop.
Back in Nelson on the weekend I headed over the back of the YHA to the supermarket car park to sample the ‘artier’ side of the region. The ‘Nelson Market’ operates every weekend (Saturdays 8am-1pm, Sundays 9am-1pm) and encompasses hundreds of stalls. Celtic jewellery, pottery, hand-crafted moccasins, Indonesian sarongs and paua shell jewellery are just some of the goods for sale. If you’re hanging round Nelson for a while you might want to consider buying your fruit and vegetables from here. It’s cheap and if the locals shop here, it’s got to be good.
If you get hungry while wandering around (or should I say when) there are also a variety of food stalls ranging from the usual (muffins, cakes, sandwiches) to the regional (whitebait and mussel fritters) to the exotic (gourmet cheeses and meats). The markets on the two days are different - Saturday focuses on local arts and crafts, Sunday on second hand treasures.
Relatively new for Nelson (according to the brochure) are adventure sports. I don’t know why this is a recent occurrence because the region seems custom built for it. There are three national parks all within 90 minutes of each other (Abel Tasman, Nelson Lakes and Kahurangi) with great tramps and walks. Sea kayaking is also a favourite activity with tourists on the Abel Tasman but if you want to escape the crowds or are short on time try a day trip with Cable Bay Kayaks.
It is hard to believe that this isolated spot is just a 20 minute drive from Nelson and that ten minutes after leaving the beach we were paddling through the first cave. The coastal waters are crystal clear enabling us to see butterfish, kawhai, king fish and kina on the ocean bed. The diverse coastline around Pepin Island is a maze of rock formations fringed by lonely cliff faces and beaches. There are waterfalls to paddle through and a ‘blue’ cave where, for reasons unknown, the strange reflections of the water cast a mysterious blue-green glow. The island is also home to a seal colony and a variety of sea birds.
We stopped for lunch on a secluded beach. Unfortunately seclusion also meant the absence of a toilet so we were forced to go behind a large boulder. Round the northern face of the island we encountered a seal which swam right underneath the boat posing just long enough for us to grab a snapshot. The seal however had the last laugh because when I got mine developed it turned out to reveal little more than a brown streak in the middle of the picture.
Luckily horse trekking with Western Ranges afforded some better photo opportunities. Once again these guys are located a bit out of the way in Baton Valley but you won’t get a namby-pamby trek where the horses play follow the leader and know exactly where they’re going. After saddling up we headed across farmland and into the native virgin bush bordering Kahurangi National Park. We trot, we canter, we scream and laugh and hold on for dear life. Later we encountered steep inclines and rode through rivers before stopping for a sausage roll and a cup of tea. If this all sounds a bit too adventurous for you don’t worry - owner Cheryl Dean tailors the treks to suit individual riders. The farm dogs and, if you’re lucky a deer that Cheryl hand raised, also run out with the treks making this a truly unique experience.
After the trek we dropped our hats off at the tack shed and I noticed a variety of arty hand-crafted items for sale sitting alongside the harnesses and bridles.
“I do this over the winter,” explains Cheryl.
Even out in a grubby farming shed in Baton Valley it seems it is impossible to escape the artistic spirit of Nelson. You can’t get much more quirky than that.