You live in Bangalore, Angola, Sri Lanka, Portugal, Texas, Manila, New York or Gippsland – so why visit New Zealand in mid-winter?

I join a coach tour to find out. I was keen to learn what visitors see of our country, and what they think of it.

In Christchurch, we walk silently in soft rain through a CBD littered with cranes, and acres of car parks where buildings used to be. Everyone knows of the quakes, but this is more desolate than they expected.

That’s the prevailing reaction to New Zealand – it’s all more than they expected. More powerful, rugged, varied, fresh, open – even more populated and more European.

All the coach passengers are from overseas, except me. Most have been on board since the Bay of Islands; others joined in Christchurch. Many have been before and are back to fill gaps or show the family round. Others have always wanted to come.

But New Zealand, in June? A few thought it’d be more beautiful in winter, more dramatic. They got what they came for – the tour skirted North Otago floods, just missed South Otago snow and encountered the Queenstown Winter Festival.

Jane is an English teacher from Dallas, Texas. Her mother, also a teacher, brought students here in the 90s, often bringing Jane along. Now Jane is showing New Zealand to her two daughters.

Jane’s daughter, Ann, often checks with me as the guide narrates: How come you call hot rhubarb crumble a ‘pudding’? When he says ‘keen’, he means ‘eager’, right? What’s a ‘ford’? (We’ve just crawled through floodwaters.)

She’s puzzled about Maori in the south. Do they own any of this land? The place names are so different from up north.

That’s the prevailing reaction to New Zealand – it’s all more than they expected.

She has a point. As we drive through Geraldine, Fairlie and Burkes Pass, the guide talks about a Scottish sheep thief. I tell Ann about Maori coastal settlements, eels and birds from inland lakes, moa on the plains and rock art in the Waitaki Valley.

A retired couple from Australia live in the bush and appreciate how very different the South Island landscape is.

A solo traveller from Portugal says he just wanted to see the opposite side of the globe but, in Dunedin, he’s clutching a volume of landscape art: “This is really why I’m here, you see”.

There is just one mention of hobbits. A Korean girl, here with her mother, confesses to a Lord of the Rings fixation.

Apart from the Indian family who pine for spicy vegetarian, no one mentions the food, possibly because most of it’s from hotel buffets. That changes with the farmhouse lunch at Stan and Angie’s sheep and beef farm near Fairlie. To the overwhelmed, we explain that roast meat, veges, pavlova and chocolate slice isn’t typical city folk fare in this century, unless they’re at a cool retro café.

From Twizel to Oamaru it’s all hydro lakes, canals, turbines and salmon farms. They learn that we grow and catch huge trout – and even the Australians are impressed. The Mount Isa miner would’ve fancied a bit of that wild stuff, but admits even the hotel salmon beats barra’, no worries.

Reported by Bill Lennox for our AA Directions Autumn 2019 issue

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