10.10.2011 - 01.11.2011
Ferry to Picton
After an early start to reach our 8am boat in Wellington we splashed out on a fry up on the ferry and watched Wellington harbour and the north island disappear, we could even see our mini car park peninsular on our way past. The ferry on the way to Picton enters through the Marlborough sounds, with the route to port not always obvious as we weaved past all the forested bays and out reaches. Off the ferry out of the port, we elect to turn right and therefore travel anti clock wise round the south island as we hoped to make Queenstown for the semi finals. Our first spot was to be Golden bay, in the Abel Tasmen National Park at the very north west, and meandered through Blenheim and Nelson on the way. After over a week without any luxury facilities we head for a Top 10 camp site to recharge and scrub up, but the winding hilly road took longer than we thought. Unfortunately due to the weather we could only imagine it to be lovely in the sunny warm weather, with beaches, coves and forests nestled around what would be a great place for Kayaking.
To escape the depressing spring weather we head south taking a short cut along a back road towards Lewis Pass, travelling through some impressive scenery, the beginning of the Southern Alps and backbone of the south island. The pass was a nice enough drive but the blustery weather at the top convinced us to go back down and camp at the foot of the main divide, which also happened to be located right on top of the Alpine fault. In the morning we headed off to Greymouth on the west coast to stock up (and look for a Welsh Flag) and book a Franz Josef Glacier trek for the next day. We continue down the long western Route 6 road and stopped off for a white bait pattie at a chippy for lunch, apparently a must and a local speciality especially during the whitebaiting season. We arrive in Franz Josef village in the absolute pouring rain and decide quickly to just top up with expensive petrol and retire to the DOC camp out of town straight away and hope for better weather the next day.
To our delight and luck the weather when we were woken by the alarm was blue sky's and sun, a rarity in the wettest place in New Zealand, and we arrived in time to check in and collect our equipment, boots, coat and crampons. Unfortunately we couldn’t stretch to the helicopter trip up over and land on the top so we had to settle for the ½ day guided trek, so with our guide we were shuttled to the car park close to the location of the original terminal face and had to walk 40 minutes to the location of the existing terminal face of the glacier. The scenery to the foot of the glacier was amazing with steep cliffs either side as we walked up the stony bed next to the bright blue milky river and the glacier disappearing up into the mountains. To access the glacier we climbed a steep pile of gravel dumped by the reseeding glacier and at the top donned our metal crampons and off we set on to the foot of the glacier following our guide with his big ice pick. Our route took us up round and through these amazing ice structures all made from compressed snow over a 100 years old, broken, sheared and coloured in different shades of blue and white. Never seen anything like it in real life! Apparently the naturally reseeding glacier has accelerated over the past 5 years and is melting and collapsing at an unprecedented rate, if it continues it won't be long until it disappears totally. In the afternoon we head south to the Fox glacier not to far away and attempted to get to the upper view point only to be thwarted by a large cold river crossing (nothing like a cold river to stop you in your tracks) , so we head back to the van and to our beach side camp at Gillespie beach down a windy gravely track.
It was Friday before the big semi final game so, we made tracks early for Queeentown further down south. Route 6 follows the west coast and looking at the trees the west obviously gets constantly battered by the blustery Tasman sea and the roaring 40's and every now and again you come across the braided river crossings, masses amount of gravel dumped by huge volumes of water, and all are crossed by long one lane bridges some looking in better condition than others. The route then cuts in at Haast and up through the Haast pass and into Mount Aspiring National Park with loads of waterfalls, gorges such as the gates of Haast, and pools along the way tempting you to stop. We had lunch at a DOC on an out reach on lake Wanaka with absolute stunning views of the landscape with just an annoying blanket of cloud hiding the tips of the mountains. After chilling longer than planned we follow the road down, over and around, past lake Hawea and continue until we hit a range of snow tipped mountains called the Remarkables overlooking Queenstown and the Z shaped lake Wakatipu. We find a British chippy run by a welsh man and indulge in some fish and chips WITH vinegar (first time in NZ) and wonder out of town to a camp on the lake shore.
The day had arrived the biggest game in Welsh rugby history ever, and after being woken up by the camp ranger for the camping fee we head into town and to a proper campsite on the outskrts, there was to be no more driving that day and probably the next too...... With the lucky unwashed red shirt we head into town and check the place out. We have lunch at the infamous Ferg Burger, lovely Venison burgers and they are as good as everyone says, then visit the underwater lake aquarium on the towns jetty, and see some humongous fish (probably rainbow trout) just swimming around these big thick glass windows with the occasional duck driving deep down. No wander they were hanging around with every 50c slotted into the machine some food was delivered to them. After checking out the country fair going on and getting some internet (checking flights to Auckland from Christchurch for a potential final) we head back to the camp & prepare for the game (i.e. Sian do her hair and meurig drink some quality cheap cider, to settle the nerves). After spotting a drinks deal in a bar we head down town early & flagless to get a table with plenty of Scots and Irish cheering support, and the odd blue frenchy around looking unusually unsettled.
Well bollocks to that then, after Sam's tackle and even with 14 men & our inability to kick it was to be 3rd at best, and our best chance for years and years to come probably to get to the coveted final gone!!! Scraping some positive out of the result, we wouldn't be flying back to Auckland early so then spending three weeks in the south island giving it the time it deserves, BUT STIILL!!! As you can imagine the mood the next day was not massively positive, but the glorious weather had turned up, helping us decide to jump off the side of a mountain....!!!! Unfortunately there are many extreme sports/ activities to do around and about Queenstown, our budget couldn't stretch to all, let alone have the time to do them, so we chose Paragliding. More time in the sky than skydiving and half the price. Jumping off at a ski resort the view was unbelievable and the conditions apparently perfect and the sky crystal clear, AMAZING!!! Looks so easy to do and the guides told us south Wales is one of the best places in the UK for it so look out the valley’s!!!!
Down to Milford sound
After a loop up high on a mountain road with great views we head south west on some long straight roads to the Fiordland National Park, a UNESCO world heritage area of outstanding beauty much of which was formed in a similar way to the fiords in Scandinavia through ice, so in reality the sound should actually be called a fiord. We ran out of time to get there in one day so we camped down in one of the many DOC camps in the area, it's obviously really busy in the summer.
Our destination for one of the must do boat tours was Milford Sounds (named after a welsh seal hunter from our very own Milford Haven) and to get there you need to take the road up and up through the dramatic snow capped mountains, scattered with long waterfalls and through a tunnel at the top to enter the Cleddau Valley (again sound familiar) which drops down into the miss named fiord. There's really not much of anything in this isolated spot, so we rock up at the port and jump on the next cheap tour boat for a 2 hour cruise out to sea. Along the way the Captain describes what we see and gets within meters of the sides of the fiord and points out all the classic big glacier hallmarks, Mitre Point the highest mountain and Mount Pembroke also quite impressive. We also see a colony of seals sunning themselves and get under a big waterfall to wash the bow of the ship but making sure we were all inside first. After the cruise we headed back on the same road out of Firodland but stopped randomly in a site called The Casm. It was a huge space carved out of the rock by all the water that flows through the river. Sian bumped into Nigel Owens the ref and had a chat about New Zealand and the rugby, then back it was up the hill and through the old, dark tunnel. We stopped just outside the opening at the other side as the were some Kia parrots hanging around. There was a guy there trying to get an up close photo shoot with them by enticing them with a baguette!! Meurig managed to get a decent shot thanks to the man's efforts, cheers. Our next destination was Invercargile, New Zealand's most southern city but due to the distance we got to a beach side camp site about half an our from the city. We got there just in time for sun set and Meurig was able to reach a small island literally just before the tide came back in!
We drove through Invercargile the next morning and headed to Bluff the most southerly mainland part of NZ. As with Cape Reigna in the north we got to the infamous sign post with distances to worldwide cities and also the mountain top lookout where you can see Stuart Island. We made our way along the Catlins coast to visit Curio Bay where there is a petrified beach. When the tide is out it is possible to see pieces of trees which were around the same time as dinosaurs. On the opposite side of the headland the beach has a more usual look and sometime you are able to see dolphins, unfortunately we didn't! We followed the coast road up towards Dunedin via nugget point and made it to Otago peninsular before nightfall. The area is home to the small yellow eyed penguin and there is a penguin sanctuary there which rescues injured penguins and ensures that the healthy ones have a safe place to nest. With the numbers of these penguins reducing year on year we had to visit, try to see some of these guys and visit the penguin hospital. We had to walk through trench like tunnels and watch some of the penguins through binoculars whilst trying to hide because apparently these penguins like to live alone (never thought we'd turn into bird watchers!). Also at the end of the peninsular there is an albatross centre but we were too late for the morning tour, booo. That afternoon we headed into Dunedin centre to see how much of an influence the Scottish settlers had in the area. Some of the buildings did look similar to some older buildings up in Edinburgh and the train station is probably the most decorated train station I've ever seen. In the octagon central area of the city there was a makeshift camp full of protesters against capitalist governments, shows how much news we've seen over the last few weeks as we had no idea this was going on! We had a five hour journey north to Christchurch to make as our van needed to be back there for an MOT the next day, so onwards & upwards.
The route took us past the spherical boulders which was noted as a tourist attraction in our guide so we thought we'd make a quick stop to check it out. It was indeed a cluster of stone boulders strewn across the beach and in the water. Not really sure how they got there and to be honest it looked pretty surreal but like a lot of other areas in NZ there is every likelihood that it's a strange natural event. Continuing on route we travelled through the towns of Omaru and Timaru and up through South Canterbury farmlands. The area was flat for miles and miles and it was possible to see the snow covered southern alps in the centre. We eventually got to a free camp just as darkness approached thanks to the motor association map given to us, it definitely came in handy for free overnight stops! It was a fairly early start to make it to Christchurch by 9am and to the escape office but luckily we didn't have to wait too long for the van to be sorted. We headed into the centre of the city but due to the earthquake in February there were huge restrictions for traffic and pedestrians in the central area. We managed to find a spot to park and decided to have a walk around the cordoned area. The damage to some of the buildings was shocking and some of the older building had serious visible damage to them, including the cathedral in the central square. Huge cranes are in the process of dismantling buildings and hundreds of other empty buildings had official graffiti on them, we assumed it's to indicate if the building needs to be destroyed or not! The bridge of remembrance was closed off with flowers, pictures and notes for those who died. Unfortunately the city seemed eerily quiet and we decided to move on to Kaikoura where we would be able to watch Wales play in the third place playoff and hopefully see some sperm whales in the next few days.
Kaikoura is a coastal town on the north east not close to much, but just off the coast is one of the deepest underwater gorges and as a result an area rich in marine wildlife big and small. Along with many fish, squid and crustaceans the area is the home of male sperm whales, too cold for females and pups but great feeding for the adult males who use a wax substance in their big head to dive the depths in search of squid. So after watching a disappointing finale by the Welsh rugby team in the sports club/camp we planned to head out the next morning for a boat cruse in search of the local attraction. However the trip was delayed to the next day as the whales had left the area after a feeding frenzy earlier in the week. So we sailed out next morning in search of the whales but even with all the detection devises, two boats and a plane no whales were found, we had to be content with video's on the big screen, a small pod of dusky dolphins and a albatross being the only wildlife.
After a no show by the whales we decided to make a move up to Hanmer Springs. It was final day so we needed to make sure we weren't in the sticks and close to a pub. Hanmer was very touristy due to it's hot springs which had lots of different pools at different temperatures, some with that familiar egg like sulphur smell and a bit of a water park for entertainment. The place was pretty packed with most people waiting for the game to start at 9 that evening. We found a decent size pub with a good size tv and waited for the big event. I think the kiwis were pretty confident that this would be a winner for them seen as they had beaten France convincingly a few weeks prior but as the game went on it got a bit tense in the pub! Not surprising as the All Blacks got through and beat France by 1 point (god that sounds familiar!!!!!). So 25 years of waiting over and a bit of celebration in the pub, well for about 10 minutes then people started to go home, quieten down and even ask the one lonely supporter who was excited to quieten down! Uhm I thought New Zealand had just won the world cup at home or am I mistaken!!!! I can't even imagine what Wales would have been like, it was mayhem after a grand slam let alone a Webb Ellis trophy! Maybe it's because we aren't used to wining as often as the AB's are, still we are talking about the biggest prize in rugby here. Our campsite was a few miles out of town and Sian was des so off we went a little bit shocked by the absence of the revelry and celebrations we were expecting. The camping guide/map came up trumps with another free site and when we woke the next day to glorious sunshine it turns out it was a lovely country park, bonus.
We headed next for Arthur pass, one of the east to west routes on the south island, and travel up, round and through the Southern Alps passing some dramatic terrain and a couple of isolated villages, a great drive. We decide we have a little extra time so we decide to take the west coast route again re tracing our steps round to Mount Cook national park so we can drive the central road which we'd missed, hoped for some better weather this time and also on the off chance we find Sian's missing walking shoe. We stayed in the same DOC campsite outside Franz Josef and then continue driving through the great scenery and even find Sian's lonely, wet shoe by chance next to a waterfall we'd previously stopped at, so that's where it went mystery solved.
The drive up to Mount Cook was definitely interesting. The town of Twizel is high up and surrounded by really baron countryside and man made canals for a hydro plant. The water in these canals were almost a turquoise & a bit cloudy at the same time. As we got nearer to Mount Cook village the dark clouds in the distance were above us and the rain was lashing down. Due to the pretty awful weather, cloud cover was thick and low so we couldn't see any of the mountains surrounding us only a very grey looking village. The rain turned into the worst thunder storm we have ever heard. The rumbles were echoing through the valley and the wind was blowing so hard the van was shacking non-stop & we had to try to move it to a slightly sheltered area!! Even through all this noise and shaking Sian slept like a baby but Meurig on the other hand couldn't quite nod off. After a rough night we woke up to the warden banging on the door wanting some fees plus blue sky and no rain in sight. We set off on one of the many walks in the area which would lead us to the Hooker glacier but the bridge over the river was closed for repair, great timing! On the way to find another path we passed the stone memorial to fallen climbers on Mount Cook. A surprising number of people most of them being in their twenties when they perished. From this memorial the view of Mount Cook was pretty amazing now that the sky was clear and blue. We were able to get get up to the Kia viewpoint, passing an American guy on route who told us that the views were more beautiful than his wife, charming. He did have a point, the view of the glacier and the river flowing from it was indeed beautiful but we don't know what his wife looks like so can't comment! In Mount Cook village they have the Sir Edmund Hillary centre with info and clips from his climb to the top of Everest and turns out his training was done on Mount Cook. A few km down the road is the Tasman glacier which has also receded over time and now there are big icecaps floating in the melt water river. With time in the van running out we had to keep on going and drove down to Lake Tekapo which was one of the top tourist sights in the south. The water is so blue that the reflection of the snow capped mountains is clearly visible on the lake, fantastic scenery.
Heading north through the last of the hilly terrain into the flat industrial farm land we stop quickly in Timaru then onwards to a free camp on the coast towards Christchurch not far from Ashburton. In the morning we awake to the sight of a little community by the sea side, camper vans, caravans and a buses huddled together, sheltered behind the flood defences. Standing on the rocks you notice a disorderly line of people in all weather gear and waders sieving the waves with a triangular netts, trying to catch little white fish or white baiting as its known. Over breakfast we chat to a ex merchant navy man from Liverpool who jumped ship nearly 40years ago and never looked back, with his strong accent still renaming we discuss everything from the seasonal fishing community there, his evacuation to a Welsh farm near Aberystwyth during the war and all the problems with the world today, we even had a farmer in his pick up join in and put the world to rights, quite interesting and good to hear NZ have similar problems to us at home.
With only two nights left in the van we drove towards our final destination Christchurch again, but only for a quick stop at Pak'n Save to splash out on some meat, lamb, beef rump steak and a selection of sausages for the BBQ and then onwards to Banks Peninsular east of Christchurch. The green hilly peninsular is a world away from the city, not too far distance wise but with the windy, narrow, steep roads it took longer than anticipated. Our camp area was a free camp on the shore of Wainui Beach one of the many inlets in Akaroa Harbour, and fired up the BBQ with the sun disappearing over the hill tops and revealing the stars. We woke up to the blistering sun and blue skies (the last three days had to be the best weather in weeks) so all we did was lounge around, walked the mussel covered rocks and went for a wonder round the bay to Akaroa town an old French settlement to pick up more meat for our last BBQ & drove back to the same spot via the mountain scenic route.
So it had arrived, the LAST day in the van, sad times!!! It was an early start to get back to the escape office & get to the airport in time for our midday flight back to Auckland. It was all going smoothly until we sat down in departures and tried to find the laptop to get some wifi........ shit where's the laptop! It dawned on us that we'd probably left in the escape office whilst struggling to get our makeshift bags into the taxi. We called the taxi driver and asked him to pick it up & deliver it back to us, he agreed for a fee. Sorted well as soon as he turned up which wasn't exactly straight away but we made the flight in time, phew. We have to say Air New Zealand have the best safety video we've seen so far, it's camp, funny and stars some of the all blacks, think it's the only one we've paid attention to! We got to our hostel in Auckland no probs not expecting anymore hiccups as we'd got to know Auckland pretty well previously. Oh here comes another little problem a sign in the hostel reception saying that Qantas had ground all of their flights, great!! We got in touch with our travel butler and it was decided that we had to shift our flights to Oz forward one day, so one more unexpected night in NZ. We went to see Tim before we left, caught up about the rugby, the road trip & future destinations. So we had a full day to spend in the city and it started with a full brekkie, a bit of a wander around town then a trip to the cinema to see The Inbetweeners. I haven't watched such a funny film in ages, absolutely hilarious. After making use of some drinks vouchers at the hostel bar and some free punch we headed to the airport to bunk down for the night because the new flight times weren't as convenient as the old ones!! With a bit of a snooze we boarded the plane and said goodbye to NZ, it was a great 2 months and we'll be back..............