Unforgettable tour of the country

I have just returned home after two weeks touring New Zealand, mostly the South Island, by train and coach and can honestly say it was the most stunningly beautiful trip I have ever made. It even beat Sicily, Turkey, India and Japan, all of which at various times seemed to have taken the prize for the best trip ever.


We were lucky with both the weather, alternating between amazing, good and only very occasionally damp, and the season which turned on its traditional autumn splendour in Central Otago, Canterbury, South Westland and on the West Coast. As well as showing New Zealand at its finest, the trip also provided an invaluable insight into the sheer breadth of agricultural investment and activity across the country. In light of calls to cut carbon emissions, plant millions of hectares in trees and generally reduce our agricultural footprint, it was a salutary reminder of how much the economy depends, and will depend for a very long time, on agriculture for our overseas earnings.


It is impossible to see realistically how huge swathes of rural country will convert voluntarily to other forms of activity, except for the apparently inevitable encroachment of urban sprawl onto productive farm and horticultural land and the billion trees programme. Of course population growth causing loss of land contributes to higher carbon emissions and is essentially unproductive, unless the increased building activity is seen as a positive factor. But this is unlikely to benefit the balance of payments.


Travelling by train through the North Island on a gloriously clear day provided the perfect contrast to the South Island tour ahead of us, making the transition from the increasingly built up Pukekohe and Pokeno area to the fertile Waikato and then onwards through rural King Country, the splendours of the Central Plateau and the Rangitikei, before the coastal stretch to Wellington. As would prove to be the case south of Cook Strait, it was hard to envisage just how anything could replace in a hurry the different farming activities being carried out on all these varied types of soils and land forms.


The train journey from Picton to Kaikoura provided my first view of the impact of the earthquake, both on the shape of the coastline and the impressive structural achievement to rebuild the road and railway. Arriving in Christchurch in the dark caused complete disorientation, as I hadn’t realised the station had moved to Addington, but it wasn’t till the morning that the scale of destruction in the square, by the Avon and to the east became obvious. This was my first time in Christchurch since the earthquakes nine years ago and the immediate impression was mind blowing, although Hagley Park and further west were much as I remembered them.


The journey to the West Coast was spectacular and nothing much seemed to have changed apart from the increase in dairy farms on the plains, but travelling south through Mid and South Canterbury we saw lots of pivot irrigators used for both dairy and arable farming. No doubt there are plenty of people who question the wisdom of allowing so much irrigation on this land, thereby encouraging more agricultural and horticultural production. But given the economic advantages and council approval for these large units, it would be unreasonable to expect farmers to ignore the opportunity.


A visit to Walter Peak at the southern end of Lake Wakatipu via the Earnslaw provided an insight into the Headwaters composite sheep breeding programme as well as the way agriculture and tourism can combine to offer new career opportunities for younger people. The shearing demonstration was performed by a lad off a Mid Canterbury farm which produces Headwaters sheep for the Alliance Te Mana lamb programme; he had completed a tourism course in Queenstown and now works for Real Adventures, owners of the Earnslaw and providers of the shearing and farm demonstration at Walter Peak.


Queenstown was a shock, having changed from an attractive lakeside town to an ever expanding tourist Mecca with major housing and retail developments, an airport which has quickly become too small for international flights, and an inexhaustible need for accommodation to house all the overseas hospitality staff. Central Otago has some wonderful parts, but Queenstown and increasingly Wanaka look out of control.


We were relieved to head for Te Anau and Milford Sound which we were fortunate to see on a perfect day, clear skies, no wind, waterfalls and fresh snow on the mountains. The coach journey through western Southland showed many ewe flocks with tell tale marks of having been serviced by the ram, some dairy farms closer to the coast and, to please Shane Jones, plenty of evidence of farm forestry blocks.


The far south sums up the beginnings, past and present of the meat industry. On the road to Bluff sits South Pacific Meats’ compact plant next to the Open Country dairy factory followed a few kilometres later by the damaged remains of Ocean Beach. Two days later on Sebastopol Hill beside the road to Oamaru we passed the monument to Thomas Brydone which commemorated his part in the first shipment of frozen lamb to Britain in 1882.


This snapshot of history, combined with what I saw during two weeks travelling around the country, gives me hope for the future. In spite of the enormous challenge posed by the need to change how we feed the global population, it gave me confidence New Zealand agriculture retains the capacity to adapt and flourish in this demanding new environment.



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