Final Day in NZ

Our final day in NZ greeted us with bright sunshine — such a change from the start of the week. Since our only goal for the day was to reach Auckland ready to fly out early the next morning (I had to be at the airport by 5:30am), we decided to take a scenic route towards the coast and then up. This plan started well as we made two stops to see a cool rock formation, an impressive waterfall and the road offered some lovely views of the beautiful countryside and snow-capped volcanoes to the south. It took us longer than expected to reach the coastal town of Kawhia, a rather uninspiring place, although it did have a lovely outlook across the bay. Unfortunately we then discovered the road we wanted to take north was unpaved, and we spent most of the afternoon backtracking and then driving on rather dreary roads towards Auckland, where we promptly got stuck in a massive Friday-evening traffic jam. πŸ™

Finally finding our hostel just after 6pm, there wasn’t much to do except go out for a final meal (a rather good curry) and have a final Speights (the only NZ beer that was really drinkable)… It had been a fantastic four weeks and we both agreed that every place we now visited was going to have a hard time when compared to NZ!

Going underground

After the dizzy heights of skydiving the previous day, on Thursday we sought out adventure in the opposite direction: underground in the Waitomo caves.

Having donned wetsuits and helmets with lanterns, our adventure began with a 35m abseil into a dark hole. This was lots of fun, although much harder work than it looks on TV! Our excellent guides, Logan and Fraser, then gave us a quick introduction to the cave system we would be exploring and asked us to avoid stepping on the 10,000 year-old mud. After a short walk we had to make another descent, this time by zip-line and into complete darkness — awesome!

So, here we are, quite a long way underground, illuminated only by the light of our helmet lanterns, sitting on the bank of an underground river dangling our legs over the side, really not sure what to expect next and our guides produce a couple of thermoses of tea and coffee and flapjacks — an underground picnic! (The flapjacks were really good too.)

After the break we discovered why we were wearing wetsuits — the next part of journey was going to be water-based. We were each given a large rubber-ring which we had to sit on and jump into the water, preferably without falling out of the ring and dunking ourselves in the rather dark and cold looking water… Having successfully managed this we pulled ourselves up the stream using the static line attached to the wall of the cave before extinguishing our lights and floating back down lit only by the illumination given off by the many, many, glowworms that lived on the ceiling of the cave! To be honest, I found glowworms to be a little disappointing—they’re so tiny they really don’t give off enough light to be able to see, even in the huge numbers found in this cave system but the sight of all these small, blue, pin-pricks of light shining down from the ceiling, like stars in the night sky, was still very pretty.

After abandoning our tube-rings at the picnic spot, we continued down stream by walking and swimming. There was another snack-break for hot orange and chocolate, and then we started our ascent back to the surface, scrambling over rocks and climbing up three waterfalls — such an awesome experience. Emerging from the cave was a little odd as we had been underground about three hours and so instead of emerging from the darkness into daylight, it was almost as dark outside as it had been in the caves!

Although I hadn’t found it too cold underground, a hot shower, bagels and soup were an excellent way to round off a really good trip. After such a disappointing first few days on the North Island, our last few were proving to be some of the highlights of my trip.

The view from 12,000 ft

Having finished exploring Thermal Wonderland (see previous post), a quick phone call to Taupo confirmed that the weather was as good there as in Rotorua and the decision to ditch our afternoon plans and drive the 50km back to Taupo to go sky-diving was a no-brainer.

After the first company we rang were fully booked we briefly feared that our hopes would be dashed by everyone else having had the same idea, but fortunately the second company had some space later in the afternoon. After arriving at the airport we spent the time waiting for our turn to come round watching groups go up and come into land—they all made it look so easy. We also got to watch the parachutes being packed which was quite interesting! Finally our turn came round and we put on some very fetching bright-red jump suits and a variety of safety gear which had large ‘WARNING — Sky diving is dangerous’ labels on them before climbing into a small plane with two other travellers with a lemming-like desire to put their lives at risk and the various tandem dive-masters and camera-men.

There was a beautiful view as the plane flew over Lake Taupo, although the nerves finally kicked in when I realised that while we appeared to be quite high, the altitude meter worn by the guy in front of me said we were only at 3,000ft! The crew kept everyone distracted by passing around cameras and making us do silly faces and before I knew it the door to the plane was open and Andy & his tandem had disappeared out into the clear-blue sky… There was only one other diver between Andy and myself and suddenly I found myself sitting at the edge of the plane with my legs hanging out into 12,000ft of nothing-ness! The image of the ground being a very long way away is fixed in my mind as the next thing I knew I was hurtling through the air—head first—towards it. Initially the fall was completely disorientating, I had no idea which way was up, but as the tandem-master brought us horizontal I was able to focus my eyes again and wow….what a view! πŸ™‚ After about 40 seconds of free-fall the parachute opened, at about 4,000ft, and we gently floated down to the ground admiring the amazing views of Lake Taupo (which is larger than Singapore), the distant snow-capped volcanoes and the fantastic NZ countryside.

Safely back on the ground, I had this awesome buzz for the rest of the day—I think I really might like to do that again sometime. πŸ™‚

Geysers and Alien Landscapes

Contrary to all predictions, and for the first time since the South Island, we actually saw the sun on Wednesday morning! Our first destination of the day was the Wai-o-tapu geyser since it spouts exactly once a day at 10:15am. For some reason I found this slightly disappointing — I suppose as a natural phenomenon seeing a column of water 15m tall is quite impressive, but this sort of geothermal/volcanic area is not exactly most awe-stunningly beautiful natural landscape and I found myself thinking ‘Cool, I wonder how it works’ rather than ‘wow!’.

After the geyser we toured the associated ‘Thermal Wonderland’ park which contained a myriad of bizarre and colourful, and very smelly, landscapes created by the geothermal activity. The entire place looked very alien—I thought it was incredibly ugly and possibly the least scenic area I’d seen in NZ, but it was quite amazing to see how impressively different and un-earth-like the landscape was.

Rotorua

After another abortive attempt to go jet boating Tuesday morning, we gave up on Taupo and headed for Rotorua as the Rough Guide suggested there were a greater number of rainy day activities there and the forcast was no improvement in the weather until Friday. πŸ™

On the way we stopped at the ‘Buried Village’, an excavation of Victorian and Maori village buried in a huge volcanic eruption in 1886. The village itself was fairly uninspiring, but the associated museum gave some interesting insights into 19th century New Zealand and Victorian tourism (the buried village was a tourist hot spot in 1886 as people came to visit some beautiful volcanic rock formations called the Pink and White Terraces).

Tuesday afternoon we also managed to locate some adventure activities that did run in the rain, namely the excellent ‘zorbing’, although perhaps more descriptively described as a ‘hamster-in-a-ball simulator’! The idea is that you get strapped into a large transparent ball which a nice Kiwi then pushes off a very steep hill… Lots of fun! πŸ™‚ There was also some jet-boating here, albeit a small three-man boat on a man-made course instead of past beautiful river bank and canyon scenery, but it was still fun.

The evening saw us partaking in a Maori Cultural Experience. We were welcomed using a traditional ceremony, involving lots of posturing by scary looking warriors to ensure our intentions were peaceful, then given a fascinating overview of Maori singing, dancing, weapons, body-art and cooking–the highlight of my evening, as always. πŸ™‚

Art Deco Napier and Taupo

We left Wellington on Saturday and headed to Napier. The weather was not particularly nice so apart from pit stops for sandwiches, cake, and coffee, we made only one stop for scenery—a pretty waterfall.

The city of Napier was completely destroyed by an earthquake in 1931, and was subsequently rebuilt almost entirely in Art Deco style. Little in the city centre changed until the 1980’s, and since then conservation efforts have lead to one of the finest sets of Art Deco buildings in the world, which we toured in the pouring rain on Sunday morning. It’s difficult to describe Art Deco—it has this modernistic and forward-looking feel, yet at the same time it has a quaint and old-fashioned charm. No more so is this true than in Napier which is a living and working city, not a museum or ghost town.

Sunday afternoon we headed to Taupo where we hoped to do a day tramp in the Tongiro national park (used as the location of Mordor and Mount Doom), throw ourselves out of planes and go jet boating. Unfortunately the weather gods were against us and we were forced to find other ways to entertain ourselves—a highly frustrating and depressing task. Yes, there were impressive waterfalls and rapids, a smelly geothermal activity area with steaming ‘fumaroles’ and boiling mud (evocatively named ‘craters of the moon’), and a pretty good museum, but it wasn’t what we had come here to do… πŸ™

Queen Charlotte Track and Wellington

Right, I’m almost up to date! Last week, after Nelson, we headed to Picton. We arrived on a lovely afternoon and did a short walk up to a lookout point which had a fantastic view of the harbour and Queen Charlotte Sound. Picton is quite a small place, but we amused ourselves playing mini-golf — one of the best courses I’ve played, although it was more like pool than mini-golf the number of holes that required you to bounce the ball off one or more surfaces to get near the hole!

Unfortunately the weather the next day was decidedly less pleasant for our cruise in the Queen Charlotte Sound & 15km walk along the Queen Charlotte track, but it was still an excellent walk with some lovely views of the Sound which I think would have been amazing had the sun been out.

That evening we took the Interislander ferry to Wellington, a lovely medium-size city. The weather remained poor so the highlight of our day here was the National Museum, although Saturday morning we also walked up Mount Victoria for some nice views of the harbour and tried to spot some Lord of the Rings filming locations! We also tried a bit of wizard-spotting — the latest Harry Potter went on sale here at 11:01am, the witching hour British Summer Time — there were quite a few people in fancy dress in Dymocks [sic] book shop!

Films and Buses

Thanks to everyone who has emailed me, and apologies for being rather behind at replying! A couple of things people have asked:

1. How many photographs have I taken?

LOTS! I think I have so far used about ten nine 24-exposure films, and I think I’m just about to finish an eleventhtenth… I’ve slowed down a bit recently as overcast weather has not made it easy to take good photos. πŸ™

2. How’s the Magic Bus? I hear it’s like “Club 18-30” on wheels.

Never having been on a “Club 18-30” holiday I can’t accurately compare them but I will say that it’s nothing like I imagine Club 18-30 to be like… We travelled on the Magic Bus around South Island from Greymouth to Christchurch and it was pretty good — friendly and helpful drivers gave an interesting commentary on where we were going and made organising hostels and activities so effortless that we were quite sad to have to strike out on our own after Christchurch. The one thing I did find slightly disappointing is that there was nothing social organised to help you break the ice and meet people, but the atmosphere was friendly and we met some nice people anyway, and the fact that they guaranteed you a seat on the bus if you booked 24 hours in advance (unlike other companies) would have been really useful had it been busy.

Since Christchurch (and for our trip to Te Anau from Queenstown) we’ve used a variety of bus companies. They’ve been OK, but it’s involved a lot more effort on our part (not all companies drop-off/pick-up at hostels) and there are no scenic stops or commentary. The one place where we did score is Kaikoura, where as I described in my previous post we were able to reschedule to take a later service, whereas with the Magic Bus we would have had to stay until the next morning (a horrifying thought given how much time we had already wasted in the place!) So, overall: Magic are pretty good and it makes for a such a hassle-free and relaxing holiday that if they had a trip that suited our fairly tight schedule for the North Island we would be using them again!

Whales and Dolphins!

Sunday morning we left Christchurch at the very early time of 7:15am and headed to Kaikoura. There’s not much in Kaikoura, the main reason for going there being whale watching, and unfortunately the whale watching cruise we had booked for that afternoon was cancelled due to rough seas! πŸ™ Fortunately we were able to move our onward travel plans the next day to an afternoon bus and reschedule the cruise for the next morning, but the only time they could fit us in was also 7:15am!!!

Having exhausted most of Kaikoura’s entertainment possibilities whilst waiting to go on our cancelled trip, and exhausted ourselves walking across town and to/from our hostel (inconveniently located 2km’s from the town centre) I don’t have particularly fond memories of Kaikoura. There is a seal colony and some nice views out on the peninsular, but we’ve seen quite a few seals and nice views now. The tiny local cinema prevented us from going entirely insane in the form of ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ in the evening but it’s not a great film…

Fortunately whale watching did go ahead the next morning and it was very cool! We saw two humpback whales in the distance, and four sperm whales up fairly close — such huge creatures! There was also a Royal Albatross majestically gliding across the waves around our boat for much of the journey — we saw these before at the colony near Dunedin, but out here in the middle of the ocean it was a really impressive sight.

After Kaikoura we went to Nelson, arriving fairly late in the evening. Another very early start the next morning took us to Abel Tasman National Park where we went sailing. This was lots of fun as it was a fairly small boat and we were able to help out with putting up sails, and doing some steering, but just to be out on the water, speeding along without the noise of an engine was a fantastically relaxing and enjoyable experience. The national park also has some quite beautiful coastal scenery — lovely deserted beaches and rocky outcrops — quite a change from the mountains and similar we’ve seen up until now, but the highlight of the day was the 20 minutes under sail with 6 or 7 dolphins playing around our bow! From where I was lieing on the desk watching them I could have practically touched them they were so close, and they seemed to be having such fun playing around in the water, I can see why people find the experience of swimming with them so amazing.

Dunedin and Lake Takepo

Having enjoyed Queenstown and the surrounding area it was time to get on the road again if we were to get around both islands in the time we had left! The bus to Dunedin was fairly uneventful, overcast weather in the morning didn’t allow too many scenic views, but fortunately it cleared up in the afternoon as we took a wildlife tour. The world’s only mainland Royal Albatross colony was very cool as we saw both flying adults and chicks in the nest. We also saw a colony of fur seals, sea lions sleeping on a beach and rare yellow-eyed penguins waddling in from the waves (and moving with surprising speed past the sea lions!). Unfortunately the tour didn’t leave us any time to see Dunedin — a very Scottish city by all accounts — by daylight.

Our first stop the next morning was to walk up the world’s steepest street; before breakfast I might add. I forget the vital statistics at the moment, but it’s damn steep, especially just before the top! Next stop was breakfast overlooking a beach of slightly bizarre looking, very round boulders, another great example of the geological oddities (I can’t use the word beautiful to describe these!) you find in New Zealand.

Unfortunately the rain came down for the rest of our trip to Lake Takepo and so we missed what is supposed to be a spectacular view of Mount Cook as we drove north, but Lake Takepo itself proved to be a very pleasant place — there’s hardly anything there except a few shops/tea rooms and the lake, but once the weather improved the mountain backdrop made for a lovely walk and extended sit in a coffee shop that reminded me that it’s perfectly acceptable (and enjoyable!) to do absolutely nothing while one is on holiday! πŸ™‚

Takepo was another one night stop so the next day we were back to Christchurch. Having seen quite a bit of the city already, we spent some time planning the next leg of our journey and strolling in the pretty botanic gardens.

Back to the Queenstown

Tuesday 5th July we headed back to Queenstown from Te Anau. The weather continued to be rather overcast and uninspiring and we had an early-start rafting the following lined up so we had an easy afternoon exploring a little more of the town and gardens. The evening was a lot of fun with a Mardi Gras parade and party with some more really good bands on the freezing cold outdoor stages, the best being rockers “Zed” after which the headline act Black Seeds were disappointingly dull.

Unfortunately more low cloud caused rafting the next morning to be postponed until the afternoon so we could catch up on some sleep, but when it finally happened the rafting was well worth the wait! We started with a short helicopter ride into the canyon, a fantastic experience in itself. We then rafted down the river for an hour, going through a number of rapids which were rated grade III-IV+, although the seasonally low water level meant I don’t think they were quite as exhilerating as they might have been. They were certainly quite tricky though with a couple of boats getting flipped over, and one getting so stuck at one point that it took two guides from the front boats to pull them through. We also saw some people jetboating in the canyon which looked a lot of fun too, but unfortunately by this point there was no time to fit that in as well.

Te Anau and Milford Sound

After two days in Queenstown we headed down to Te Anau, a small and very quiet town that was quite a nice change after the bustle of Queenstown. Once more the journey was lovely with ever-changing scenery that makes every journey in this country so pleasant.

The main reason for going to Te Anau was to visit Milford Sound but since we had an afternoon to spare we walked around Lake Te Anau to the start of the Routeburn track — although alas we didn’t have the 4/5 days needed to complete the track itself! There was also a very cool bird sanctuary on the lakeshore so we saw (and heard!) a number of native New Zealand birds.

Unfortunately the next day started very cloudy so the views on the road down to Milford Sound were not as good as they might have been, but the cloud and mist gave the Sound (technically a fiord) itself an eerily beautiful appearance during our 2 hour cruise, and the rain meant the many waterfalls were all the more impressive. The sun also came out in the afternoon so we got the best of both worlds, seeing the landscape shrouded in mysterious cloud and we got to see most of the scenery too!

To Queenstown

On 1st July we took the bus from Franz Josef township to Queenstown, so-called “Adventure Capital of the South Island.” On the way we stopped at Lake Matheson which, thanks to the clear weather, had the most beautiful reflection of Mount Cook and Mount Tasman. As we got closer to Queenstown, driving through the Makarora river valley, the scenery just got better and better as the day went on — all of the countryside is so beautiful around here, but this was one of the best journeys that we have done so far!

In the afternoon we stopped briefly at the town of Wanaka. We didn’t see the town itself but instead spent the time at the excellent Puzzling World just outside the town. This had four “illusion” rooms which showcased various optical illusions and tricks, such as heads that follow you around the room, the wierd effects you get if make the floor at a 45 degree angle, some holograms and a demonstration of one of the tricks they used Lord of the Rings to make hobbits appear smaller and other creatures larger! There was also a tricky but very fun 3-D maze, but it was time to leave before I had chance to finish it. πŸ™

On the way into Queenstown we stopped at the site of the first-ever commercial bungee jump operation. A baby jump of just 43m compared to others that are now available (Andy did the 134m “Nevis” the next morning!), it was fun to watch people throw themselves into the canyon, but the concept still doesn’t appeal to me — it’s not a cheap activity and it all seems to be over rather quickly really.

Since Andy was jumping the next day and we needed to plan our itinerary for the next few days, I spent the 2nd July wandering around Queenstown, sampling its various coffee shops and enjoying the views of the lake and mountains. By sheer chance we had timed our arrival to coincide with the opening of the annual Winter Festival, and there was an outdoor party starting mid-afternoon. Some of the entertainment was a bit suspect, such as dancing “celebrities” (all unknown outside of NZ!) from some reality TV programme called Dancing with Celebrities, but there were some good fire dancers, a very polished and amusing performance from Abba-tribute band Abbalicious and some excellent fireworks. (These were set to music which I’d really like to find out more about but alas my knowledge of classical music is practically non-existent! I think the opening passage was associated with the NASA Apollo missions in some way — it’s a very rousing intro — so I shall have to hunt that down when I get back to the UK.)

After dinner we caught the second half of the rugby… no more needed on that topic I fear!

The Southern Alps and the West Coast

With so much to fit into just under four weeks we decided it would be a good idea to hit the road as soon as possible and not spend too much time in Christchurch. Having said that, the first leg of out journey was actually by rail as we took the TransAlpine train across the Southern Alps to the West Coast — a four and a half hours journey with some beautitful and varied scenery. The first half of the journey presented us with stunning alpine vistas, deep river valleys and gorges. After breaking through the western side of the island the landscaped changed to lower mountains covered with mist-covered rainforest, then dairy farmland, then more river valleys.

Once we arrived in Greymouth we headed straight out on a tour to the Punakaiki National Park and its famous Pancake Rocks. I didn’t think these were terribly interesting in themselves, but the National Park features some fantastic coast line, similar to the Great Ocean Road in Australia, and the weather meant that there were HUGE waves — it was an awesome demonstration of the raw power of the sea.

The next morning we took the bus to the Franz Josef Glacier, stopping at the pretty town of Hokitika (it’s positioned very nicely with the coast on one side and a superb mountain backdrop) and the former gold-rush town of Ross (where we saw a demo of how to pan for gold). We arrived at Franz Josef at lunchtime and did a half-day hike on the glacier that afternoon which was a lot of fun. We were in the faster group so got to go further than the established track — our guide cut steps in the ice for us and we had to squeeze through some tight spots! Walking on the Athabasca glacier in Canada seemed very tame experience after this!

Christchurch

Apologies for the lack of updates recently, NZ has kept me rather busy, and cheap Internet cafes have been somewhat scarcer than in Oz.

So… I’ve actually been in NZ for over a week now — I can’t believe how the time has flown by! I landed in Christchurch, the largest city on the South Island. It’s a very pleasant place, with quite an English feel to it with the Anglican Cathedral and other neo-Gothic public buildings dominating the centre of the town. It even has an Oxbridge-style College, although the Univeristy moved out years ago and it is currently an Arts Centre!

The Arts Centre was actually a really interesting place with some cool modern sculptures, an excellent cafe, and a small museum dedicated to Ernest (later, Lord) Rutherford the Cavendish physicist who took his first degree at Canterbury College at the end of the 19th Century.

The Cathedral is very nice, but the views from the top of its bell tower weren’t particularly inspiring. Afterwards we rode the gondala up to the top of the nearby volcanic peak which was much better.