Getting in the spirit across Cook Strait

By Jim Eagles

The Interisland ferry Kaitaki. Photo / Supplied
The Interisland ferry Kaitaki. Photo / Supplied

There are many ghosts haunting the stormy waters of Cook Strait: warriors lost when their canoes overturned and seamen who went down with their wrecked sailing ships, drowned whalers whose small boats were no match for the fierce waves and, of course, the 51 people who died when the interisland ferry Wahine became the victim of a ferocious storm in 1968.

When we set sail from Wellington to Picton on the ferry Kaitaki, bridging the gap between the rail journeys offered by the Overlander and the TranzCoastal, it was the spectre of the Wahine which first came to mind.

Partly that's because the Kaitaki is effectively the Wahine's successor. But it's also because the first journalist on the scene when the Wahine was driven ashore was an old friend, the late Dick Wauchop, whose dramatic radio broadcast from the shore is revived whenever the tragedy is being commemorated.

But as the journey progressed we began to leave behind the reminders of that disaster, including the foremast of the ship which is the focal point of a memorial on the Wellington seafront, the Wahine Memorial Park in Seatoun, where a plaque and the ship's anchor and chain mark the spot where several of the survivors came ashore, and Barretts Reef where the ship came to grief.

As the ferry steamed past Pencarrow lighthouse, at the harbour entrance, I began instead to be haunted by memories of the last time I travelled on an interisland ferry, some 20 years ago, when I was hit by a disaster of a different kind.

Shortly before our trip the old New Zealand Railways had trumpeted a dramatic upgrading of the previously awful food on the ferries. Our two children were not convinced and demanded we pick up a consignment of KFC. But my wife and I decided to try the new cuisine. The kids were right.

The food on offer was disgusting. We eventually opted for baked beans on burned toast because that looked the least likely to result in food poisoning. The service was equally appalling. The evil-tempered, unwashed slob behind the counter would have been perfect for the part of a troll in the Lord of the Rings.

So what, I began to wonder, would the food be like this time? Had we been wise to forgo breakfast at our hotel in favour of the ferry?

I needn't have worried. As we sailed round the steep cliffs of Sinclair Head, up the rugged coast at the bottom of the North Island to Cape Terawhiti, and out into the Cook Strait proper, my wife was tucking into bacon, eggs and toast. I opted for muesli and yoghurt.

As we crossed the strait, which was remarkably smooth despite a strong, cold wind, I topped up with a few nice little savouries and a cup of Earl Grey tea.

Soon we had entered Tory Channel and the Marlborough Sounds and were enjoying the beautiful sights of Arapawa Island and its old farm buildings and wharf, dolphins frolicking in the sheltered waters, salmon farms, seaside holiday homes, lovely bays and forested valleys.

And as the Kaitaki steamed into Queen Charlotte Sound on the approach to Picton I couldn't resist an announcement that fresh-baked scones were on offer. A hot buttered scone and a flat white were just the thing to round off the voyage. The scone was nice but the coffee was even better, no great surprise when it turns out that Interislander cabin attendants came first and second-equal in the barista section of the latest Wellington Culinary Fare competitions.

Finally, right on time, we reached the pretty port of Picton with its bush-ringed bay, a colourful tide of houses rising up the hills, and a picturesque fleet of pleasure boats.

There was, it turned out, a rather nice cafe in the Picton Railway Station but, do you know what? I couldn't eat a thing.

Instead I filled in the time waiting for the TranzCoastal's departure by taking a look at the preserved remains of the venerable sailing ship Edwin Fox, built in 1853 and the ninth oldest ship in the world. Made of teak and built in India, in the course of its career this vessel took troops to the Crimean War, brought settlers to New Zealand and transported convicts to Australia.

The troll who served us baked beans on the ferry 20 years ago would have been in his element serving slops to convicts. But I don't think he'd fit in on the modern Kaitaki.

- NZ Herald

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