Deborah Coddington: Fresh air, fresh food, fresh sandfly bites

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Home again, jiggedy-jig, after driving more than 2000km around some of the most isolated places in the South Island.

We 4WD-climbed up and down mountains, bounced up river beds, and tracked through hinterland bush, checking out the People's Estate.

Taxpayers have kindly funded the Department of Conservation to buy up much of the South Island's prime real estate, so take my advice and travel around enjoying it while you're able.

There's no way DoC will ever have enough resources to manage the huge tracts of land for which the last Labour Government wrote out cheques on our behalf, spending millions.

Driving through Rainbow Station and St James Station, the familiar green and yellow DoC notices advising visitors to "restrict vehicle access while grazing is phased out" are enough to give the willies to anyone who knows anything about weed control.

When livestock's verboten, this beautiful scenery will revert to gorse, ragwort, wild borage, foxgloves, briars and every other invasive - but pretty nevertheless - enemy.

I'm sure I've lost weight despite eating too much. The sandflies have devoured half the flesh on my arms and legs and I'm scratching like a flea-ridden huntaway in a drought.

Tell me, why do sandflies especially love you when you're cleaning fish? Is it the smell, or do they know both hands are too preoccupied with sharp knife, blood and guts to brush away these biting emissaries of the devil?

For one week we were joined by a delightfully eccentric London architect on his first visit to New Zealand. Standing 2m tall in stockinged feet, he alarmed the Amberley motelier when we booked in after flagging pitching our tents in Lake Sumner's gale-force westerly.

"I don't have a bed long enough for you, mate," was the innkeeper's first reaction when he spied us banging on his door. Well-used to such jibes, Keith wasn't insulted, but struggled to see the joke when we fell about laughing at his bewilderment at New Zealanders leaving painted wooden filing cabinets out in the paddocks. He was looking at beehives.

Then on the Rainbow Rd, heading up to camp beside Lake Tennyson, we were halted by the station staff who required us to fill out forms and pay a $20 "toll" per vehicle.

"I come all the way from London," said Keith, good-naturedly, "and I'm confronted with forms. You've copied all the bad English habits."

We went from scorching hot weather to freezing; from rugged, snow-resistant vegetation to lush native bush, where a pair of kaka hopped close enough to touch, laughing at our attempts to move a fallen log on the track.

Weka cruised around the campsite, and robins, with their soft brown eyes, kept close watch that we left only our footprints when we decamped.

Sometimes, lunching among the young beech trees on bright green grass, you could easily be in England - the gorse seeds popping like an electric fence shorting. But a day at the Kumara Races quickly dispels the notion you're anywhere but on the West Coast of New Zealand - whitebait sandwiches, whitebait fritters, whitebait quiches.

If that doesn't convince you, then celebrate a birthday at the Ross Hotel, where local legend Veller plays piano all evening (You Are My Sunshine), dogs sleep under the tables, Michael Joseph Savage's photograph proudly hangs above the door, and Linda and I sing a rewritten version of When I'm 64 to the birthday boy.

A local shearer, who tells us he weighs 41kg and his disfigured arm was mangled in a car crash, rubs chalk on his withered hand and wins on the pool table, while another chap describes how he and mates built their own 4WD vehicle when NZ Rail deliberately removed some of the tracks from underneath the jigger they were using to get to the pub.

They added wheels to travel between the tracks, then NZ Rail removed the lot, so they built their own all-terrain vehicles, which became so popular with the community they started racing competitions.

Fresh paua sauteed on the campfire for dinner. Then to Golden Bay, where half of Wellington come for summer - turning right for Awaroa and private land, or left for Totaranui and the DoC camping ground.

Swimming, then more fresh fruit to eat on the journey, tossing peach, nectarine, cherry stones, and apple cores out of the window to add to the long-acre orchards, no-man's-land where enough fruit to feed South Auckland for at least six months lies rotting in the long grass.

Alas, the holiday's over. Back to anti-Semitism (always fashionable with the liberals), dire predictions of unemployment, and yet another Auckland-based Transport Minister who can't see the point of Transmission Gully.

With only two major routes out of Wellington, one can only hope when the big earthquake hits, Steven Joyce will be stuck in the panicked crowd blocking all exits from the capital. Plus ca change.

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