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Our Travels in New Zealand Part 2

Author: Mal Part
Date of Trip: March 2007

Day 15 – Whale Watch Day

It’s Whale Watch day, and we’re at the Whaleway Station (which is also the railway station) in plenty of time to check in and pay for our trip. The trip organisers keep us occupied with a video until the coach is ready to take us to the quay for departure. Being a less-than-good sailor, Chris takes a couple of seasickness tablets before we get on the coach.

Eventually we are marshalled onto the boat and we ease out of the harbour. As we make our way, both the distance to the whale grounds and the height of the sea have increased! Various announcements have told us that the whales are “a couple of miles off shore”, then “three miles away”, and finally “four miles from the coast”. The swell has gone from “1 – 2 metres”, to “a little over 2 metres”, to “3 metres and greater”. 3 metres is over 10 feet!!! Both are bad news for Chris – longer travel times and bigger seas. As the journey proceeds, the boat (which is not that big) is thrown from side to side and up and down on what our guide calls, “a fairly calm South Pacific Ocean”.

WhaleWatch Kaikoura – our trip organisers operate four boats, two helicopters and a plane on their whale watching activities. This is very handy because the helicopter and plane can radio whale locations to the boats should they spot any. As luck would have it, the helicopter has a sighting and we speed to the site. Chris is pretty ill by now, and by the time we reach the whale she is being sick into one of the plentiful sick bags. She is not alone; I see at least 3 others with their heads in bags.

The whale is at the surface. We are hold that they dive for between 20 and 30 minutes, and stay on the surface for 5 to 10, “getting their breath back”. The whale floats on the surface, occasionally sending up a huge spray from its blow-hole. Eventually it pushes forward, aches it back and dives! The last sight of it is as it goes vertical and puts its tail into the air – “snap” – a good photo I hope.

About 8 passengers, all looking a bit green and being sick into bags have now joined Chris. The crew are kept busy relaying full bags to the bins and supplying tissues and new bags to the victims. But, everyone stands up to see the whale despite their discomfort.

There’s another whale. We all get seated and the boat speeds off again. It’s the same procedure as before – whale on the surface recovering from a dive, push forward, ached back, tail in the air and “snap”, “snap”, “snap”. By the time this whale has dived, the first one is on the surface again, so we speed back for a second look before heading for the shore to see if there are any dolphins about.

As luck would have, there are about 30 Dusky Dolphins in the bay, close to Kaikoura. They entertain us by jumping, breaking the surface and swimming under the boat, then it’s time to head back to the harbour. This couldn’t happen a minute too soon for Chris …. She’s seen all the whales and the dolphins, but from the relative warmth of the cabin. It’s been $50 well spent for me, but I’m not sure Chris would agree it was good value for money?

We go straight back to the motel where Chris takes to her bed for a couple of hours and I write up my journal. Chris is up and about again by 4-30 and we take a stroll to i-Site to book the ferry back to the North Island for the 6th March. Here we also hear that there is a two-week long flower festival in Christchurch and we resolve to ring ahead for accommodation.

We take a long walk through the town and back along the SH-1 to a point before it enters Kaikoura. Now, the SH-1 is nothing like the M1 even though it’s the backbone ‘motorway’ that runs the length of NZ. At Kaikoura, it’s a two-lane road with a cycling track on one side and a parking strip on the other. There are small houses, shops, cafes, motels and a few business premises strung along the sides, together with the local wool and needlecraft shop, a camp site and the local drama group’s hall. It’s all very quaint.

On our return to town, Chris has recovered sufficiently to think about food, so we stop off for an early dinner. Chris has soup and bread, and I have spare ribs with spicy wedges and a sweet chilli sauce; all washed down with a Guinness. We’re back at our motel by 7-30 and book a motel for Christchurch for the next three nights (Friday, Saturday and Sunday).

As of today, we are two days ahead of the schedule we planned back in the UK. Since we would otherwise only be in Christchurch on the day we take the TranzAlpine train trip, we have booked an extra day to see the sights and relax – well, Sunday is supposed to be a day of rest.

Day 16 – Travel to Christchurch (ChCh)

It’s only 150 miles to ChCh, so we have a leisurely drive up the coast today. We stop at a small town called Domett; well, it’s not really a town, it’s a place the train used to stop in the past (but not any more). The train station has been turned into a café, so we stop for a snack. The café is wonderful – everything is homemade. The chef takes the orders and prepares the food, and his wife serves it, clears tables and takes the money. Chris has a croque monsieur and I have toasted homemade wholemeal bread and jams.

We get to ChCh and find our motel; taking care to get the right one per the proprietor’s telephone instructions. It’s called the Addington Stadium Motel – close-by there are also the Addington Court Motel and the Addington City Motel, and apparently people are always getting them mixed up. I wonder why? Anyway, it must be true because at about 9pm that night, a pizza deliveryman knocked our door trying to give us a pizza – he left scratching his head (and getting splinters up his nails I suspect).

Having un-packed, and since it’s only 2pm, we head off to the city for a look around. ChCh could be an English town. It’s built in an ‘old’ style, all the street names are English, the River Avon runs through the centre, and there are flowers and gardens everywhere. We take the 30-minute tram tour of the city, starting and ending in Cathedral Square, and then look around the jewellery stalls that are set up there. It’s all calm and tranquillity.

After a quick return to the motel, and a wash and brush up, we’re on our way back to the centre for dinner. I find some free parking at the side of park near the city centre and we have a short walk alongside the River Avon before picking out Rydges Restaurant for our meal. Chris has a sirloin steak and I have the rack of lamb, all washed down with the usual bottle of good NZ wine.

ChCh is quite a big city by NZ standards (third largest) and we’re new to it. What is more we parked a little outside the centre and it’s now dark. We can’t find the car! But, after a lot of fluffing around and false leads, we find it and are ‘home’ again by 10pm. We have a 7-40 start in the morning, so I set the alarm for the ludicrously early time of 6-45.

 

Day 17 – TranzAlpine Train Trip

The motel’s proprietor has a train station pick up and drop off service, which proves a great boon for us. He’s there at 7-40 and we’re at the station, getting our seat assignments for the train, in plenty of time. The place is packed – this train is said to be one of the great rail journeys of the world, and tourists, rail enthusiasts and regular travellers ensure that it’s full every day. See: About – Booking Ahead in Section 4.

The train gets under way; off across the Canterbury Plains and on, up, into the eastern stretch of the Southern Alps. The train is comfy and it has a buffet car and an observation car. Well “observation car” sounds a bit grand – it’s more like a cattle truck with handrails.

The highest point over the Alps is Arthur’s Pass at 735 metres (2,400 feet), where the train stops of a ciggy break and to let people off. The only reason the train can get across the Alps at such a low level is that a tunnel has been built through them. This is the famous, even infamous, Otira Tunnel. It was started in 1908, but the rail company went bust in 1912 and work stopped. The NZ Government took over the line, but the war delay resumption of work until 1921. The tunnel was finished in 1923. It’s 7km (almost 4½ miles) long – the 7th longest in world. The scenery is rather spectacular all the way through the Alps – even in summer many still have snow on the top. The train passes through the pretty town of Brunner and runs alongside its large boating lake, and through the town on InchBonnie, now owned by a man from Auckland. Apparently, a large farming concern sold off a huge parcel of land and the town stood on part of it. The farmland was very poor, but the sale included the freehold to both the land AND all the properties on it. The sale was by auction and there was no reserve – the Aucklander bid $17,000 and got it!!! He now owns 1000s acres of land, a couple of dozen houses, a church, a church hall, the town hall, a public park, some WCs and a lot more besides. He lets the houses for $60/month providing tenants live in them and agree to decorate the outsides.

The train’s end is Greymouth, which turns out to be better than it’s written up in the guidebooks. There’s a pleasant enough main street, a harbour and a pretty quayside. We have a coffee and hot snacks, and take a walk along quay before getting back on the train for the return journey – turn-around time is only 1 hour.

On the way back, we’re sat opposite a South African couple and get to chat about NZ and SA. Little of interest comes out of this except that they advise that the best time to go to the Cape Town area is March. I’m interested in this because we may yet go there at some time in the future, and local information is always better than guidebooks and climate charts.

Since we’re not very hungry, we decide to go to the supermarket for something ‘light’ for dinner, but we find nothing. As we come to discover, NZ’ers are not much interested in either frozen food or ready meals. There are a few frozen meals (curried chicken and rice, and the like), but the choice is poor and the quality looks ordinary. Other than that, the freezer is packed with ‘party ice’ and frozen peas.

Shame to say, we go to the local McCafé, where Chris has a chicken tandoori roll and I have a Big Mac. It’s our only fast food meal in NZ (honest).

Day 18 – ChCh

We decide on a late start and a quiet day in ChCh. We’re into town by 11am and come across a Maori dancing demo in Cathedral Square. The troupe is practicing for an up-coming competition, and give us a grand concert of Maori songs and dance; ending with the Haka, which pleases everyone.

Chris is looking for “vegetables” with her lunch, and we are advised to head for the “Oxford by Avon”. We’re told they do an excellent Sunday lunch, and so it turns out. We dine on roast lamb, four vegetables, gravy and apple pie for dessert. What could be more English on a Sunday? To add to the illusion, we eat our lunch watching punts go by on the river. But, to break the illusion, we also hear bagpipes? When we’ve finished our meal, well seek out the source – a Scottish Pipe and Drum Band is practicing in the park. They too have an up-coming competition but we don’t care, it’s free entertainment on a sunny Sunday afternoon to us.

When the band packs up we head off to the Botanical Gardens. However, it’s too late for a good look around so we decide to walk for a while and then sit in the sun and read for a couple of hours.

It’s about 6pm and we’re feeling a bit peckish (but not overly hungry after our meat + 4 veg. lunch) – we need some light. We make our way to Cathedral Square and see a restaurant serving NZ Green Lipped Mussels – perfect, nourishing but not too filling. We order two servings; one with mariniere sauce and one with sweet chilli sauce, plus a bottle of wine. We sit in the setting sun, eating 4-inch green-lipped mussels with fresh bread, and drinking Montana Reserve Sauvignon Blanc – what could be better?

Day 19 – Travel to Twizel

I’d failed to find any accommodation in Mt Cook Township or Twizel when I’d tried the previous evening, so I try again as soon as I’m up. I still get several places not answering, or saying their full. Then I find a motel in Twizel, but I can only get one night. I take it nonetheless and we decide to re-think our use of time in the Mount Cook area.

We’re on the road by 8-45 and after a breakfast of Eggs Benedict (Chris) and pancakes and maple syrup (me) in Geraldine, were in Twizel by 1-45. We spent some time on the journey re-planning and have decided to go up to Mt Cook today. This way, we can leave Twizel tomorrow and head off to Dunedin a day earlier than originally planned. So, we quickly get installed at the Aspen Motel and head off again for the 40-mile drive to Mt Cook. Naturally, the scenery here is absolutely spectacular – there are mountains all around, many with snow on the top and we have Lakes Tekapo and Lake Pukaki to accompany our journey. These two lakes have an amazing blue colour. We normally attribute the blueness of lakes and the sea to the fact that water (and ice) reflect blue wavelength light better than light of other wavelengths (hence, the blueness). But, these lakes are even bluer and a quite different shade of blue because of their mineral content – it’s a rich, pale, aquamarine, paddling pool blue, and very beautiful.

One company – the Heritage Lodge – owns ALL of the accommodation at the Mt Cook Township and it’s always full because every room has a view of the Mountain!!! However, they magnanimously provide facilities for other visitors and we park up in one of their car parks for a first look around. The mountain looms above us – this is about as close as you can get without putting on mountain boots and carrying an ice pick! It’s beautiful, and you can clearly see the snowfields on the top and the glaciers descending from it; clouds form and break away from the very peak and, against the blue sky, paints a very pretty picture.

We go to the DOC Information Centre to ask about local walks, and select a 1-hour, hillside walk that gives good views of the mountain from a new vantage point. It’s a good walk, with DOC-provided steps and handrails for the steepest and most dangerous parts (see About: View Points and Walkways in Section 4).

We’re back at the motel by 6pm and off for dinner – pizza for me and seared salmon for Chris. On our return I get on the phone to make a motel reservation for Dunedin, but again I’m having trouble. Since we’re well ahead of our schedule, I’m looking for 3 nights but the best I can get is 3 nights with a room change after two nights – everywhere else I ring is already full, so I take what’s offered.

Day 20 – The Road to Dunedin

It’s a long drive today – 256 miles – but we can take our time because we have our accommodation and can arrive late if we have to. So, we make several stop offs: First we stop at noon at Oamanu for breakfast, then at Shag Point because the LPG says there’s a seal and penguin colony. We’re in luck with the seals; there are dozens of them sunning themselves on the rocks by the water’s edge, but no penguins again. Probable at sea, feeding, again. Our final stop is at the Moeraki Boulders – a strange, natural feature on the coast. On an otherwise sandy beach, there is a collection of about a dozen large (10 – 20 feet wide), round boulders just back from the waterline? The area is not particularly rocky at this point, and there’s no way that they could have been washed up by the sea!!! So, how did they get here and where did they come from? Nobody seems to know for sure …..

We arrive in Dunedin at 3pm and take a walk into town. If ChCh was very English, Dunedin is very Scottish – all the streets take Celtic or Scottish names, and the whole place has a ‘granite’ feel about it. We take the city tour bus to give us a good sense of the place. And after that, we walk the streets to find a restaurant. Chris had pulled a flyer about an Indian place, but when we get there, we find it’s moved (½-mile back in the direction we’ve just walked). But, we find it, and get an excellent Indian meal – it makes a pleasant change.

Dunedin is a university city, and its buildings are all over the place, especially around the area of our motel. We learn that there are 28,000 students in the city; attracted by the universities policy of not charging fees. This not only attracts NZ students, but young people from all over Asia and beyond.

As we make our way back to our motel, we are intrigued to see dozens of students dressed in sheets (like togas) walking through the streets. We are even more mystified when we see older students driving by in cars pelting them with eggs! We have to ask the students what it’s all about, and get the explanation that it’s first year student’s “orientation week”. The university has a tradition that its new students walk the streets in togas (?) to get themselves familiar with its lay out. I don’t imagine the university sponsors the egg-throwing part of the tradition, but tradition it now is, and it happens to every new intake of students. We are mindful of this new information, and keep our distance from the groups of students scurrying along the pavements – we are trying to keep our washing down to a minimum!!!

Day 21 – Otego Peninsula

We’ve made a plan to spend the day on the Otego Peninsula, just outside Dunedin – it’s home to an albatross colony and a penguin colony, and there are plenty of walks for us as well.

When we get out on the headland we find out that there’s no public access to the birds – in both cases access is provided at a charge. Since it’s not much, we trump up for it, and we start with the Royal Northern Albatross – it’s the only breeding colony on the mainland anywhere in the world; other colonies are on deserted offshore islands around the world.

A local society hosts this small colony of breeding albatross and provides viewpoints to the public under very strict conditions. This bird has a 2-year breeding cycle; they are 1-year at sea feeding and in the second year they mate, lay eggs, tend fledglings until they can fend for themselves at sea, and then they’re off to sea themselves to start the cycle again. The colony is at the fledgling stage – one parent is at sea catching food while the other is on the nest keeping the fledgling cool. It’s a fact, albatross fledglings get over-hot in the sun and die, so their parents cover them to protect them from it during the day.

There are four Royal Northern Albatross on their nests – they are huge, and in flight have a 10-foot wind span. We’re not very close, but it’s a privilege to get this close to such a unique and rare bird. We take in the views and check out the situation with the penguins. The guy at the albatross centre rings ahead and makes a booking for at for the 3-15 tour. We fill the wait-time with a short walk and lunch, and drive off to the Penguin Watch.

The penguins have nested on private farmland, and the farmer has made a good side business (perhaps even, main business) out of running trips to the see them. That said, the farmer has made some heavy investments – access is via a series of elaborate, inter-connected, netted tunnels across the land. The tunnels give access to hides near where the penguins nest and come ashore.

The birds we hope to see are the Yellow-Eyed Penguin (YEP), an very endangered species because of their strange habit of walking inland and making their breeding burrows tens of yards from the safety of the sea. At other locations, the walk to their breeding burrows often takes them across roads (where they are run down by cars); while their inland habitat makes them and their young venerable to attack by stoats, possums and all manner of predators.

YEPs also have to come on land to moult every year. It takes about 2 – 3 weeks to shed their old feathers and reveal their new ones, and all the time they must stand preening themselves to help the process along.

Another thing that adds to their endangered status is the fact that they are loners. At sea, they swim and hunt in groups, but on land (for breeding or moulting) they go separate ways and cannot enjoy the protection of a collective defence against attack. This also makes it tricky for us because they can only be found as single individuals.

The YEP has a one-year breeding cycle; in February, the young are almost full grown and ready for the sea. It’s also the time for the annual moult.

We come across several YEPs as we scramble along the tunnels – some are young waiting for their parents to return with food, and some are really shabby looking individuals in the middle of their moult. BUT, at last, we’ve seen some real, live penguins.

After dinner and back at the motel, I turn on the TV to catch up on the football scores – we learn of the trouble at the Lille v MUFC match but, importantly, we find at that the Mighty Reds have beaten Barcelona at the Neu Camp; what a result.

Since we have been having increasing trouble finding motels with vacancies and trips at time we want them (see About: Booking Ahead in Section 4), I get on the phone and book a motel in Te Anau, and a trip to Milford Sound. Since we are not much enamoured of Dunedin and since we’d have otherwise had to change rooms, we decided to leave a day early…. so, tomorrow has become a travelling. Day 22 – To Te Anau

Today we have the long drive to Te Anau – it’s just over 300 miles but again, we’re in no rush. This is just as well because, much like England, there are very few roads across NZ. We have to drive 60 miles south (almost to Invercargill) before we can pick up the SH-94 and head west. The further south we go, the more NZ looks like Scotland; the land and the place names – we drive through Balclatha, Arthurton, McNab, and past the MacLennan Mountains.

We stop at Gore for an egg and bacon breakfast – it’s a service town for the local agricultural communities, so we’re assured a hearty serving, and we get it. Gore styles itself, “the country music capital of NZ”. Every town is the (something) capital of NZ – we’re seen “sheep-shearing capital of NZ (several times), “cray-fish capital of NZ” (Kaikoura), and “the wildlife capital of NZ” (Dunedin).

Rested and refreshed, we head off west through Mossburn and Castlerock and get to Te Anau in the late afternoon. I’ve booked the Alpine View Motel – at $175 (£65) per night, it’s the most expensive place we’ve had so far. All accommodation in Te Anau comes at a premium but we have a good lake view and we’re happy to have three nights in the same place and plenty to do.

We’re quickly unpacked and take the 5-minute walk to the town for a look around. Te Anau is somewhat ‘up market’ and much like Taupo – a lakeside community with lots of good cafés and restaurants, a large i-Site, a cinema, a couple of useful supermarkets, a few souvenirs shops and a few more “activity booking centres”. It’s all very neat, with well-groomed gardens, wide roads and large grass verges. Of course, having the lake along one side and snow-capped mountains beyond adds to its scenic nature!!!

The Kiwis yen to make a dollar out of a beautiful site is manifest again – there’s a boat plane on the lake offering scenic flights and a couple of helicopters going up and down every hour taking people for an over-view of Doubtful Sound and beyond. But, hey….

We have dinner at The Moose – a sports bar, café and restaurant. It’s heaving and there’s a 30-minute wait for food but we stay anyway and sit outside so we can take in views of the lake, mountains and helicopters. I have a rack of lamb and Chris has her old favourite, Lasagne. After a few “Ummms” and “Ahs”, Chris announces it as the best she’s ever had, displacing the previous No 1 she’d had in Bermuda. After a couple of glasses of wine to end the day, we’re tucked up in bed by 10-30 – it’s an 8 o’clock start for our trip to Milford Sound tomorrow (see Note below).

===================== Note: As everybody knows, a sound is a valley that was cut by a river and subsequently flooded by the sea. A fiord is a valley cut by a glacier and then flooded by the sea. Since a glacier cut Milford, it should really be called Milford Fiord. The NZ’ers have put right the error of the original European settlers by calling the whole area, Fiordland.

Day 23 – My 60th Birthday on Milford Sound

Picking a trip remotely (as we had with our trip to Milford Sound) is always a bit of a lottery. Although the prices are generally very similar, some will be better/more friendly/longer than others. Previously we’d often had advice from locals, i-Site staff or others, but not this time. Chris had read several flyers and had picked out “Trips and Tramps” – it talked about a small group, a leisurely drive (Milford is 75 km from Te Anau), an expert local guide and was 10 hours long verses the more normal 6 – 8 hours. We were very reassured by the owner of our motel, who told us, “You’ve picked the best”. In any event, the mini-bus arrives at 8-05 and, after a few more pick ups, we’re on our way.

We are 12 people on the trip – 2 Swiss, 2 Kiwis, 2 Canadians, 4 Brits and a married couple; one a Kiwi and one from Colorado – quite a varied bunch, and very lively and talkative. Our guide is Dave (“or DT if you prefer”) – he is at or just passed retirement age, having previously been a road maintenance man on the Te Anau to Milford road! He knows every nook and cranny of the road and could tell us the name of everything (and why they were named that way) – he took us to several hidden and less used places that gave better views of the surrounding mountains, lakes, waterfalls and geological features. Since we are in a mini-bus, we can go where the big coaches can’t, and this gives us access to places and sights others miss. Chris definitely made the right decision.

Since we have the time, DT takes us right at the Great Divide – this is where the Milford road forks; left for Milford, and right to.. “No where”. He tells us the story of the road … the original plan was to drive it across the mountains to extend the west coast road south of Haast. At the moment, the west coast road leaves the coast and heads inland – there is no coast road south of Haast. Had it been finished, this road would have provided a second route across the Southern Alps. But, it never was finished … it runs for about 10 miles, as far as the Humboldt Falls, and peters out into a dust track.

About 8 miles along the road to nowhere, there’s still a road builder’s camp – Gunn’s Camp – it’s been turned into very rough and ready accommodation for backpackers and trampers. BUT, there’s a museum and a shop, and Chris buys herself a small greenstone necklace. The site has no mains electricity, but a small generator runs a computer and some small lights, and there’s Internet access via satellite too.

Having taken a look at the impressive Humboldt Falls, we head back to the Great Divide, and take the left turn this time to Milford.

We start our cruise from the quayside. Milford Sound is pretty much a wilderness site – there’s no development except the boat terminal and a small airstrip. Of course, there are the boats on the sound, and helicopters and small planes above. The sound (fiord) is deep and steep sided, with many waterfalls draining the mountains around. At this time of year, the water is from melting snow on the higher mountains around; I can hardly imagine what the falls would be like in winter and the rainy season – Milford gets 20 feet of rain a year (yes, 20 feet) – the waterfalls must be really gushing.

To get to Milford we have passed through the Homer Tunnel – it’s less than a mile long, but has a 1-in-10 gradient and a sharp turn at on end to align it with the road on the other side. Unlike most tunnel stories (where they turn out to be accurate to a few inches in the middle), this one was over 10 feet out at one end, and the sharp bend had to be made so that it linked with the road at the other side!

On the way to Milford, DT had told us of an option to take a helicopter ride after the cruise – it takes in an aerial view of the fiords and dropped you off on the Te Anau road so that the coach could pick you up. Unbeknown to all of us, the Canadians had decided to do this trip and DT gave us this explanation for their absence. Many of the party thought he was joking first time around, and there is a lot of chatter about whether or not it’s still a joke. As I said before this is a very chatty group: the Swiss are very talkative, especially about the 3,000 photographs they have taken – one of them is always missing, trying to get a better angle for the 3001st. The NZ wife of the American talks about US politics incessantly and tells us how corrupt it is. The other British couple are from Pinner and, like the Kiwis, can hardly get a word in edgeways.

DT continues to tell us more about local wildlife, and tells us to watch out for the NZ Pigeon flying from the trees as we motor by. These pigeons are a little bigger than the UK variety, and are black with a white breast. They stuff themselves on the fruit of fuchsia trees – they eat so much that, when they launch themselves to fly, they plummet and almost hit the ground in front of the mini-van. DT laughs every time it happens.

He also tells us about the introduced mammal species – possums were introduced from Australia, and the stoat and weasel came from the UK. These mammals (and other non-indigenous species) have decimated native mammals and birds. Because all the large birds have gone (either eaten to extinction by the Maori or killed off by introduced mammals), there’s no bird big enough to eat the large seeds and nuts of some native NZ trees. So, the seeds are no longer spread about, and some of these trees are now becoming endangered too.

Finally DT tells us about another non-indigenous species. With a humour as dry as a desert, he says, “These come in all shapes and sizes; (pause for effect) they arrive in Boeing 747s and tour around in coaches”.

Back at the motel, I open the birthday cards that have faithfully followed me to NZ and drink a glass or two of champagne. When I think I’m done opening cards, Chris tells me there’s one more – I take it off her puzzled because I can’t think of anyone else who’d give me a card. As I open it, a pile of plastic 60s fall out, along with several NZ Dollar bills!!! It’s from JoJo and Mel, and Mikey and Paul – my “birthday money”. They sent it with a wish that I treat myself while I’m in New Zealand. What a great idea – I’ll have to put my thinking cap on in the coming days.

At DT’s recommendation, we eat at the Olive Tree Restaurant that night, where I have a Thai curry and Chris has pan-fried chicken with mushrooms, and we order the best wine on the menu; Mt Difficulty, Roaring Meg, Sauvignon Blanc. It’s fairly late we return, and there’s a stiff breeze blowing off of the lake …. The lake’s water is 100C in winter and 110C in summer, so the air temperature is about 110C … brrrrrr!

==================================== Note: Over the past few days we noted down a few new car number plates; here’s a few of the best: NZ P1E (on a pie van), BILBOS (on a LOTR tour bus) and RED Mk2 (on a red Mk 2 Jaguar).

Day 24 – A Lazy Day

We have a truly lazy day and spend some of the time catching up with things. Since it’s nice and sunny, we get some washing done in the motel’s laundry and peg it out; I send a stream of emails to people back home thanking them for their cards and presents; I also send one to Rai at AA Car Rentals….. When I took delivery of the car, he pointed out a stone chip on the windscreen. Over time, this has developed into a crack, and a crack that continues to spread. So far it had extended to the top of the screen and is inching across it, getting ever closer to my field of view. I asked if there’s anything he’d have me do?

In the afternoon, jobs done, we go for a 3-mile walk around one side of the lake but it’s hot and the walk is not that interesting and we do not preserve with it.

In the evening, we get dressed up and it’s off to dinner and the cinema! Te Anau has a nice little cinema – 52 seats, and 10 times/day they show a 30-minute feature about the local region; all shot from a helicopter. The cameraman worked on the LOTR and the helicopter pilot is a local man who’s worked around Milford/Doubtful Sound/Te Anau for over 20 years. It’s a spectacular film, with some amazing shots and, since it covers a whole 12 months, we get to see the landscape in many different costumes. We’re home late – almost 11pm – so straight to bed.

Day 25 – Wrong Way

We have the short drive to Wanaka today. Our plan called for Queenstown as our next over-night stop, but all the advice we’ve been given says, “stay at Wanaka, see Queenstown on the way or as a day trip”, so that’s what we’ve decided to do.

Chris is driving, and on the way out of town she sees a hitch-hiker with a board saying “Queenstown”. I see two hitchhikers, but before I can say anything, Chris has stopped to pick them up. They have two large rucksacks so it’s a bit of a struggle since the boot’s already full with our stuff. But, they shoehorn themselves into the back seat and we’re on our way again.

They are Israelis – they have booked a slot on the Queenstown – Milford Sound trail and need to get to the start of the track in Queenstown. They have parked their car in Te Anau, so when they finished their walk to Milford, they will hitchhike back to Te Anau to pick it up. The tramp takes 3-days!

We need a toilet break, so we pull into a lay-by in a small town called Gibbston. There’s a signpost at the side of the toilets telling how far it is to Dunedin, Picton, and so on, and a plaque telling us that “Gibbston is the most inland location in NZ”. So, the 106 inhabitants of Gibbston have the longest journey to the seaside of all Kiwis…. ummm?

We are soon in Queenstown; we drop off our hitchhikers and then spend a couple of hours walking around the town and getting some breakfast. It’s Sunday and it’s market day – the town square is filled with craft and other stalls. It’s all a bit ‘arty’, a bit ‘hippy’ or a bit expensive for us. After a look around the quayside (which is very picturesque), we continue our journey to Wanaka.

But, before hitting the main highway, I indulge myself with a side trip to Arrowtown; it’s a very authentic gold mining town that has been preserved much as it was in the 19th Century. There’s a quaint main street, with colourful single storey shops, and the whole town is bedecked with hanging baskets and flowers. BUT, the main reason for coming here is that it was the site of a famous scene from the LOTR…. Arwen is fleeing from the Nazgul (the Dark Riders) with an injured Frodo, and crosses a river – this is the river at Arrowtown. The Nazgul fear water and Arwen challenges them with, “If you want him, you must come and take him”. The Nazgul (fearing Sauron more) are tempted into the water. Arwen then conjures up the power of the elves to cause the river to flash-flood and wash the Nazgul away. Magic. Anyway, the scene was shot just outside the town – we walk out and find the very place; it’s very distinctive. After this indulgence, we again head off for Wanaka.

There are two possible routes – the SH-6 or the Crown Range Road. I’d forgotten that the Crown Range Road was one of the “10 Best Drives in NZ”, and directed Chris onto the SH-6 my mistake. But, this is still a pretty and dramatic route, and follows the Kawarau River and Dunstan Lake for much of the way. This is also a vine growing area, so we stop off at the Peregrine Winery for a tasting and some wine purchases on our way.

When we arrive at our lodgings, our first impressions are not good … the office is pokey and the units look old and run down. When the proprietor leads us around the back of these chalets, I was beginning to wonder what we’d let ourselves in for. But, we were surprised when we saw a newly built, two-storey block. At ground level there were two units (we had one), with three on top. The block also had a community kitchen and lounge area – both newly fitted out and very well appointed, with fridges, microwave, 5-burner range and oven, a cupboard full of crockery and cutlery, and dining tables and chairs. The community lounge has easy chairs, a TV and DVD player, a radio, and there are games, magazines and puzzles. The place was to prove a very happy choice for the coming three nights since our room also had lake views.

I’m still puzzling about how to use my birthday money, so we go to the i-Site to check out some glacier options. Naturally, the Kiwis have covered all the bases: guided or self-guided trips, ½-day or full day, lower part of the glacier or upper part, walk or delivery by helicopter, flying over the glacier, and so it goes on. My natural choice would be a walk on the glacier, but I see I can afford a heli-hike: a helicopter to the upper part of the glacier and a two-hour guided hike – that’s the trip for me so I book it.

We spend the balance of the day walking around the town and getting our bearings (and selecting a restaurant for dinner tonight).

Wanaka is a pretty town. A shoreline road separates the lake and town, and there’s a small marina at one end. For half the length of the shoreline road there’s a greensward and park – our motel over-looks this space, and we can see the lake and snow-capped mountains beyond. In the ‘towny’ part of the shoreline there are quite a few cafés, bars, ice-cream parlours and restaurants – we pick out Speight’s Ale House (a bit like Yates’). Chris has the Lamb Roast and I have the baby-back ribs. My ribs prove a bit of a ‘mountain to climb’, being at least a foot long and 6” wide, with roast potatoes below and a side salad. But, with perseverance I get through it – Chris fails and has to leave some of her roast, sacrilege.

Day 26 – Paying the Price

After yesterday’s eating excesses, we decide on a walk, and go to the i-Site for a DOC map of local walkways. We also go to the supermarket for the makings of a picnic – this needs to be a serious walk!

Map in hand and with rolls/ham/cheese/bananas/muesli bars/isotonic drinks in my backpack we head off for Bremner’s Bay and the mouth of the Cultha River (which empties into Lake Wanaka). The walk is alongside the lake for the whole distance, and meanders across the shore and through bush lands and woods along the way. The trees and an occasional breeze off the lake prove a blessing – it’s a hot, sunny day, and not really suitable for a strenuous walk. Well, I say strenuous but in truth it’s only 4 miles out and 4 back but in the heat, we’re more than ready for our halfway picnic and a drink.

The scenery is quite dramatic – the blue lake, the buff-coloured mountains, the distant snows on the high slopes, the town of Wanaka set in the valley’s head in the distance and, all the time, the lapping of the lake’s water on the shore. And, not a soul around – very peaceful.

Back at the motel, we laze away the balance of the afternoon and agree a major re-plan of the back-end of our time on the South Island based on everything we’ve learned so far and the fact that we’re still a day ahead of the schedule for the ferry on 6th March. After Wanaka, I’d originally planned two nights in Franz Josef for the glaciers, two nights in Greymouth, and a night in Picton ahead of getting the ferry the next day. Since my ‘glacier experience’ finishes at 1pm, we can reduce to one night in Franz Josef, and since Greymouth has little to offer we can cut that to one night too. There’s no need to stay at Picton to get the 2pm sailing from Picton, so we can have a stopover somewhere else. All this leads to a plan for 1 night at Franz Josef, 1 at Greymouth (just an over-night) and 4 at Nelson, said to be another South Island ‘must see’.

Pleased with our new plan, we head off to town for an ‘Indian’ at the Bombay Palace. Our waiter is from New Delhi but was born in Varanasi (was Benares), so I’m able to impress him with my reminiscences of Chandni Chook (a famous street in Delhi) and Mughulsarai (the mainline station for Varanasi). His eyes lit up and we were quick to agree that Mughulsarai Station’s rats were the biggest in India! We part on good terms and well fed and watered for our $48.90.

Day 27: What a Puzzle

Our plan for the day only involves a visit to Puzzle World – this is an amazing place devoted to puzzles of all kinds and is situated on its own site about 2km outside Wanaka.

The main attractions are an ‘illusions’ display and a 3-D maze. In the first, there’s a full sized room that distorts the perspective of height (Alice in Wonderland style) – in fact at one end its 8ft high and at the other, only 4 ft high, but it ‘looks’ like a normal room. There’s also a second room that has been built on a slope, but all the walls, fittings and doors have been placed on the same, sloped angle. So, it looks to be upright, but isn’t. Water appears to flow uphill, and everyone in the room looks to be walking at a seriously unbalanced angle. It’s easy to fall over. It’s all good fun, and makes the always giggly and snap-happy Japanese even more giggly and snap happy.

Having had our fun out of the illusions, we make our way to the 3-D Maze. This is built with 6-foot high, natural wood fences, and the object is to find your way to the four towers, one placed in each corner of the maze. There are also a number of bridges and high-level walkways that are part of the maze and criss-cross the lower level. Of course, when you’re on the walkways you can see the layout of the maze below and (in theory) plot a route to the next tower. In practice, once you get to ground level all you can see are the fences around you and any route you may have plotted is soon forgotten.

Chris and I have an infallible way of solving mazes, and we have no difficulty finding all four corners and the exit. Others are less lucky, and we see them time and again looking totally lost or peering down from the walkways trying to plot their route to their next tower. Of course, if you’re on the correct route and see someone more than once, they MUST be lost – people on the right route are in a procession and would never cross each other. It’s great when we see people again and smugly say, “You’re lost aren’t you?” and get the answer “Yes”!!!

We busy ourselves with some of the tabletop and indoor puzzles before heading outside for a couple of photos and the drive back to Wanaka.

As we head back, I see a sign for the Crown Range Road – the route between Wanaka and Queenstown we should have taken on our way here. I suggest we go on a drive along this route (since we have no other plans) and Chris agrees. The route takes us high up the Wanaka Valley and into the major skiing area between Wanaka and Queenstown around at town called Cardrona. We pull in to the Cardrona Hotel for a drink and a snack.

The Cardrona Hotel in a “major skiing area” paints quite the wrong impression – it’s a single storey, cream-coloured wooden building that would not look out of place on the set of a cowboy film. There’s an old Ford car parked outside with the hotel’s name on it and gold-mining paraphernalia to the side. The inside is equally 1900s but, at the back, there’s a wonderful garden, all set up with wooden table and chairs, wooden sheds and other old, outbuildings. We share a piece of New York cheesecake after each downing a slice of spinach quiche with salad – wine and beer accompany the snack of course. Although it’s cooler in Cardrona, the sun’s still shining so we sit in the garden for a couple of hours reading before going back to Wanaka via the Crown Range Road.

Our snack proves enough food for us and we can’t face a full dinner tonight. So, we drop into the Four Square and buy some soup, rolls, cheese and a piece of cake. The sun’s still good and we sit and read until it sets, then prepare our ‘meal’ in the communal kitchen in our block. We find two Taiwanese already there preparing their meal – they tell us that meat is very expensive in Taiwan and very cheap in NZ – they’re been eating meat every night since they arrived in NZ two weeks ago. They had rump steak, broccoli, some other vegetables and garlic bread; putting our soup and rolls to shame!

Day 28 – To the Glaciers

We’re on the move again after a wonderful couple of days in Wanaka. NZ has many glaciers, but the biggest and best known are Fox Glacier (no connection with Foxes Glacier mints) and Franz Josef Glacier – they are only 10 miles apart. We’re heading to the Franz Josef Township and pass Fox on our way. We’d like to see both glaciers.

The townships of Fox and Franz Josef have grown up on the backs of their glaciers; both are heavy on glacier trips and experiences, and light on everything else. Nonetheless, we have coffee at Fox and head off for the car park close to the Fox Glacier. As we get out of the car, Chris misses her hand bag, and then realises she’s left it at the café back in Fox (3 miles away)! We shoot back and there it is, still on the table where she’d left it! Nothing lost, we’re soon back in the car park near the end of the glacier.

We know it’s a walk of less than a mile to the actual glacier, but its rugged and quite cold, so we dress up in ‘layers’ and put on our walking socks and boots.

Glaciers are impressive beasts but in reality they are not quite what TV exposure has led us to expect. The surface ice of the glacier has been around for 10s of years and at the lower reaches of the glacier (where we are) the ice is quite dirty. At the leading edge the ice is cracking apart and there is evidence of recent falls. A fast running stream flows from the base and, magically, it’s milky white. When we are there, everyone is respecting the rope barrier and the warning signs saying “DANGER”. But, the previous week, two over-confident Aussies had ventured under the ice overhang and a large chuck of ice had fallen on them. As a national newspaper reported it, “One was seriously injured and the other was very seriously injured”!!! Both had been hospitalised.

I’d expected there to be a throng of people at the end of the glacier, but within a few minutes it was just Chris and I and a lad by himself. The three of us just stood in awe – what else is there to do?

From my days studying glaciers (as part of a geophysics course), I remembered about glacial striations – these are parallel scratches on rocks and boulders caused when they are rubbed against the glacier’s floor by the moving ice above them. The striation lines are very distinctive and are often found accompanied by a highly polished surface on the rock (caused in the same way). After a bit of scrambling around I was able to turn this bit of book learning into a reality in my hand – I found a couple of very convincing samples right on the pathway back to the car park

We are soon at Franz Josef and we are welcomed by the inevitable buzz of helicopters taking off from the helipad next to the main street. The town is totally geared up to help you see the glaciers (and a lot more besides). There are trips to the glacier by foot, helicopter, 4-WD, buggy, horse or plane; trips by helicopter or plane to Mt Cook, Milford Sound and Southern Alps; guided tours to a nearby heron sanctuary; kayaking, canoeing and jet boating down the Franz Josef River, and, and, and…..

Of course, people are also being bussed in from places like Queenstown and there’s the Kiwi Experience and other tour busses stopping to drop off and pick up travellers. This makes for quite a hub-hub in the town, but precious little character or charm. The same was true of Fox Township.

Seduced by the good value we again dine Indian and have an early night, with a long and eventful day in prospect tomorrow.

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