Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Aotearoa - Land of the Long White Cloud

Having lived in New Zealand for over 9 months, we had yet to experience the great natural beauty that the country is so famous for and that was showcased so well in the Lord of the Rings movies. After prolonging our departure for long enough, on the 1st of April we finally hit the road again. With our van completely out of action and lacking a Warrant of Fitness. Tammy's friend Moana did us the awesome favor of lending us her car, which in comparison to the van was a powerful beast and a complete pleasure to drive. Words can't describe how much grief Moana generosity saved us.

The Beast...

Our plan of action was to do a loop of the South Island of New Zealand. So the first thing we had to do was catch the inter-islander ferry to Picton again. This time heading west towards the beautiful Golden Bay area. Our friend Flynn is from here and highly recommended we go and enjoy the laid back atmosphere of the hippie capital of New Zealand.

Tammy gets to grips with the crazy South Island Roads

Reflecting on the 5000Km we covered in 9 days in Australia, we were almost mocking the South Islands puny 1000Km. But where Australia was all huge straight roads, the South Island of New Zealand is all windy mountain roads and one lane bridges. We found this out the hard way on our first night, when we didn't make it as far as Golden Bay and had to spend the night in the small town of "Motueka", of which we have nothing to report.

Got some weird looks while taking this one

We had hoped to visit the Abel Tasman national park and do some sea kayaking, but the weather the day before made us uneasy about booking it. So the next day we headed for the bizarrely named "Farewell Spit", which is a 26km long sand spit that sticks out of the northwest corner of the South Island like a rogue wisp of hair on a windy day.

The eastern side of Farewell Spit

The eastern side faces inland towards Cape Farewell, which is mostly made up of heavy minerals like quartz and garnet. The constant eroded material from the cape makes its way out to sea, piles up on the spit and so ends up as beautiful white sand.This makes the inland side of the spit very deep and covered in a layer of debris such as shells and dead birds. But cross the dunes to the side facing the Tasman sea and you are greeted with an endless stretch of white dunes that are very easy to get lost in, but that's a story of another time.

Tammy on the dunes

Driving back from the spit we stopped for some food in "Oneka" in the absolutely kick ass Mussel Inn (Thanks to Graham from MOT for the awesome tip). Not only was the food amazing, but they brewed their own beer with manuka honey! To top it off they had a fire pit and when the sun went down the place came alive like a proper small scale festival. We loved it so much we couldn't leave so we booked a room in Shambhala across the road. A place where you don't get a key to lock your room but you are welcome to attend the morning meditation session for free. As tempting as it sounded, the hangover the next day required sleep more than meditation.

Making our way through creepy Charnwood Forest

Due to serious time constraints our road trip was to be one of fleeting visits. So the next morning we were out of Oneka as soon as possible. Though the weather was bad, we made our way up "Takaka" hill along a 11km unsealed road through Charnwood Forest. For some reason the forest felt strangely familiar to us. Upon reading up on it in the guide book we discovered it was a filming local for the first Lord of the Rings movie, where the hobbits first encounter a black rider.

We felt under attack by inquisitive Fan-Tails

We were heading for the top of the hill to see Harwoods Hole, the deepest sinkhole in the southern hemisphere, weighing in at a staggering depth of 357 metres!!! We contacted a local cave jumping/rock climbing outfit to inquire about bringing us down into the cave, but they never responded so we didn't push it and simply satisfied ourselves with sitting right on the edge. Well Richie sat right on the edge while Tammy trembled in fear a few feet behind.

Harwoods Hole

As we hit the road for the West Coast, the rain really came down and we were caught in the mother of all storms which forced us to stay in badly flooded Westport for evening. With nothing of interest to keep us there though, we were gone very early the next morning. Supposedly, on a sunny day, the drive along the west coast of the South Island is one of the most beautiful in world. We didn't get the opportunity to test this fact though, as the previous nights storm stayed with us all morning.

Its raining outside, but we're still smiling in here

However, we soon realized that the storm would prove to make our drive beautiful in a very different way. The Tasman Sea to our right was roaring with the full force of god and the usually small trickles of water that fell off the cliffs to our left were suddenly transformed into one awesome waterfall after the next. Later when we stopped in Punakaiki, to visit the Pancake Rocks, the spectacle entered it's final act in the form of awe inspiring blow holes!

Pancake Rocks and Blow Holes

The Pancake Rocks are geological phenomenons created from layers of lime rich fragments of sea creatures that fossilized and compacted on the seabed over 30 million years ago. They were then overlaid with softer layers of mud and dirt. Over time earthquakes raised the seabed above sea level, where the wind and rain eroded away the softer layers to expose the thin pancake like structure beneath. The formations are full of underwater caverns which have chimneys that rise to the surface. When swells fill the caverns to capacity the water can only go one way. So on a stormy day like ours, the caverns filled very abruptly! This causes the water to explode skywards and in the process, creates one hell of an awesome sight!

Tammy - "The Poncho! It does nothing!!"

After 20-30 minutes outside we returned to the car completely soaked, carrying our broken umbrellas. We felt pretty alive and excited though and managed to hold on to this buzz, as we made our way towards Franz Josef and glacier country! We arrived too tired and too late to do anything except book our visit to the glacier for the next day. We had hoped to do some ice climbing but it was all sold out. But the full day trek we booked instead would still prove to be challenge enough.

The lead guide cutting out a track for us to follow

Richie inspecting the ice for signs of extreme cold

The next morning we were slightly horrified to find ourselves on a bus with a group of maybe 60 people or more. Thankfully though when we reached the glacier the tour guides split up our sizable horde into more manageable groups of ten. People were then asked to choose between the six groups depending on their level of fitness. The first group would be going harder, climbing mostly virgin ice and making the first cuts. While in comparison, the last team would be pretty much walking up a pristine ice stair case.

Can you spot the climbers?

The beginning of a crevasse

We of course opted to join the first team, as this meant that rather than having the other teams in front of us, we only ever had the ice. This also meant we'd be the first group to reach the top and hence have at least 15-20 minutes up there before the other teams caught up with us. Franz Josef, though smaller than the neighboring Fox and Tasman glaciers, is more famous as it offers amazing panoramic views of the surrounding alps and is more easily accessible. The beginning of the glacier, called the ablation zone, is a staggering 2700m above sea level. Over the course of only 11km Franz Josef descends to a mere 240m!

Climbing through a pure blue ice cavern

The next day we took Haasts Pass through the southern alps and spents hours gazing in silence at the stunning magnificence they radiate. Tammy may have been silenced by the beauty of the surrounding area, but Richie was silent for a whole different reason. Deep within the recesses of his mind he was constantly throwing himself out of planes, off speeding trains, off the top of skyscrapers, as well as countless other perilous activities.

Stunning Lake Wanaka

When the backdrop of mountain ranges gave way to our first site of the south islands epic turquoise lakes, his mind wandered more rapidly. First the road lingered alongside the majestic serenity of Lake Wanaka. Then with a sudden bend eastward Lake Wanaka fell away to our right as Lake Hawea's impossible stillness greeted us to our left. Soon the road found itself dancing its way between the two great lakes as we got ever closer to the little town of Wanaka.

No turning back now

Minutes after arriving, before his nerves convinced him of something he'd regret, Richie booked a 15,000ft skydive for the next morning! Later that night after dinner and a few beers had failed to calm his overactive imagination head, Richie finally found solace after an hour online reading up on the physics of skydiving. Lets us all take a moment and praise the calming nature of science!

Its very unnerving signing a form stating you're aware you might die...

In what felt like a blink of any eye it was the next morning and Richie was staring out the window of a tiny biplane and ascending rapidly. Harnessed to the biggest skydive instructor that money could buy and breathing greedily through an oxygen mask, he watched as at 12,000ft two very nervous Scottish girls disappeared from his sight at a speed he had never experienced before. But before his mind could comprehend it, he was 3,000ft higher than they were and he was hanging out the door with his legs hooked under the outer body of the plane and then.............. nothing..........

Such an awesome plane!!

They say the first time you jump, it can take the mind up to 40 seconds to even begin to comprehend whats happening. A jump from 15,000ft gives you 60 seconds of free fall, meaning if you're sharp, you begin to form a thought somewhere near the end. But before that there's no thoughts, no life, no death, no job, no bills, no friends, no family, no enemies, barely even a concept of self. Just the force of gravity, pure speed and a strange silence exist. After about 10 seconds gravity and wind resistance balance out and you reach whats called terminal velocity, which clocks in somewhere around 200kph!!! WOOOO-HOOOOOO!!!!!!

Back on solid ground???

Just as you start to comprehend everything the parachute goes and its supposedly time to enjoy the scenery. Not for Richie though, his body may have been floating back to earth, but his head was still firmly in the clouds above him, where it would stay for the next few days. Tammy having skydived before, was acutely aware of this sensation and thankfully was more than happy to look after her existential invalid of a boyfriend. Over the next few days we made our way through Queenstown, to Glenorchy and further a field to tiny little Kinloch in search of someplace, where contemplative heads, could find space, to ponder.

Stopping for lunch in Glenorchy

Though we had never planned to stop in Queenstown and hangout with all the tour groups, every Kiwi in Wellington we asked for south island tips had told us the same. Except one, Marty from provoke, went further and advised us to drive through it to Glenorchy. The drive alone was worth it he assured us and he definitely wasn't wrong. But even the quiet, relaxed vibe of Glenorchy wasn't enough so we kept going further.

Some parts of the South Island can truly be called paradise...

In stark comparison to the adventurous time we had being enjoying up until now. Kinloch was a serious break in the action. Barely even on the map, it's reached via unsealed roads and comprises of a handful of homes and one lodge. The unchallenged peace and quiet is almost unbelievable and has to be experienced to be believed. Anyway how can we describe silence in words to you! Suffice to say we just sat for hours by the lakes edge and just soaked it up for as long as the day would allow.

Just chillin out in Kinloch

The next day, despite more warning from Kiwi's, time constraints meant that we had to cut through the low lying and comparatively dull farmlands of Southland. Our first destination, Invercargill, has been affectionately referred to as the "Arsehole of New Zealand". The main street more closely resembled a road through an industrial estate so we felt no urge to stop. Unfortunately our destination on the other side of Invercargill was Bluff, which brought us little respite from the drabness.

A renegade sheep with nothing to lose...

For most people, including ourselves, Bluff is basically a place to catch the ferry to the remote and primordial Stewart Island. Having the missed the ferry, we unfortunately had to spend the night in Bluff. But we did manage to find a little piece of heaven even here, in the shape of the Bluff Homestead. The patrons of which, let us park our car on their property the entire time we were away on the island. And after an delicious homemade breakfast the next morning they even drove us to the ferry terminal!

Richie - Come on nature! Give me your worst!

Thankfully we survived the infamous Foveaux Strait crossing with our sea legs intact. We then proceeded to take those legs on a three day trek through the tranquil wilderness of the Rakiura National Park. Maori legend tells of how the demi-god Maui, was out fishing with his two brothers in their "waka" (canoe) and so they dropped their "punga" (anchor) and soon they caught a great fish. The anchor, canoe and fish make up the three islands of New Zealand. The North Island is the fish (Te Ika a Maui), the South Island is the canoe (Te Waka a Maui) and Stewart Island is the anchor (Te Punga a Maui).

Huge Anchor Chain at entrance to Rakiura

Each day of the trek was a 12-13km walk ending in a night in a DOC (Department of Conservation) back country hut. The huts are pretty basic dwellings so travelers need to bring all their own supplies to survive their time in the wild. This makes for heavy backpacks! Though tiring, our first day was easy in comparison to the rest. This was mainly due to the great weather we enjoyed and the fact that the track mainly followed the coast. So for the whole day we could enjoy a fresh sea breeze, untouched beaches, spotting tell tale tracks of the elusive and sometimes endangered wild life and just unrivaled serenity.

Following a call to the wild...

The serenity was seriously challenged however when we reached the first hut! Info regarding DOC huts has warnings stating that trampers should be aware they may need to share huts with hunters. We foolishly took little heed of these warnings, only to be surprised at the presence of a group of no less than eight hunters. All armed with rifles, booze and hick sensibilities. Despite them having shattered the tranquility they were mostly good guys and were decent enough company. However a good nights sleep, which we desperately needed, was unfortunately off the cards. So when the rain came the next day, our enthusiasm took quite the knock.

And then cameth the rain...

We strongly considered backtracking along the coast, to the small town of Oban, where we had set out from the day before. But after deliberating for awhile we both agreed that quitting would be something we'd both seriously regret so we pushed on. Before commencing any great walk into the wilds of New Zealand, trampers must state their intentions at the local DOC office. When doing this the ranger had told us that due to current upgrades to the Rakiura track there was more mud than usual. Like many things in life we could have never imagined how bad it would be until we experienced it.

The old Rakiura track...

The actual Rakiura track...

So the conditions and the weather made for slow and tough progress on our second day. We had to take it in turns to be the optimistic leader and help along the tired pessimist. But eventually we came out the other side and found the next hut. This time, to our relief, we only had the company of two German trampers, Berger & Chris. The tranquility was out in force as we drifted to sleep, accompanied by nothing more than the sounds of the forest and the distant squawks of kiwi's.

Getting ready for our last day

The next morning we off before our German friends. At first the mud proved even worse than the day before. But this time we had a shower and an actual bed to look forward to. Not to mention the promise of some FISH & CHIPS and a well earned beer. To top it all off the German couple behind us, comprised of a Surf Lifesaver and an Ironman contestant! So the Software Engineer and the Executive Assistant had something to prove to themselves that morning. And prove it they did when hours later, collapsed and exhausted at the exit to the National Park, the Germans eventually caught up with us. Even if they were in far better than shape than us, we still didn't suffer the embarrassment of been over taken. In your face fit people!

Tammy's boots weren't ideal for the mission

Once we returned to the South Island it was time to start heading north and homeward. We spent the next night in the Scottish colony of Dunedin. Tonnes of Kiwi's from Wellington had told us to go to Dunedin, which is where many of them would have gone to University. So obviously they must have strong bonds with the place. But maybe if we had more time to spend there or had been with someone who could have demonstrated how cool the place is, then we might have had a different experience. But for two visitors just passing through it was just another city to us unfortunately.

Getting to know the locals in Dunedin

So we moved back inland towards the Alps again. We were heading for one of Tammy's favorite memories of her trip to New Zealand many years ago, Tekapo. Despite our trip having some rainy days, our trip to Tekapo made us reflect and appreciate having visited the South Island during Autumn. As the lakes turned turquoise again, the surrounding foliage stood out in amazing contrasts of bright yellows, burnt oranges and deep moody reds.

Highway 83 - from Oamaru to Omarama.... OMG!

Lake Tekapo, like many of its neighboring lakes, is fed or has been fed by glaciers. The glacier in the lakes headwaters grind the rocks along the lake bed into a fine dust. The resulting tiny particles are in constant suspension throughout the water. When the bright sunshine reflects off these particles, the lakes take on an impossibly beautiful turquoise hue. Similar to our stay in Kinloch, our stay here was one that simply comprised of kicking back. But this time we also enjoyed the chance to chow down on some fresh salmon purchased directly from a local salmon farm.

Lake Tekapo

Leaving Tekapo kind of put an end to the trip in our minds. On our way home we would stop in Geraldine (Just because of the name!), Hanmer Springs (For a night in the local hot springs) and then back to Picton (Because we had to get the boat). After we arrived back in Wellington it was time to start thinking beyond New Zealand. Soon we'll be heading to Japan, and from there..... HOME!!!

Tammy - "I spy with my little eye...BEAUTY!"