Monday, March 31, 2014

South Island New Zealand Part 2

We stopped at Arrowtown, a quaint town, built in 1860s when gold was discovered. The town retains more than 60 of its original wooden and stone buildings. Tour bus central, and a good place to shop if you have the funds!

Wanaka was another lovely town we stopped at. It is situated next to a pristine lake with mountain ranges in the background, with good restaurants and bars. If you ever find yourself there, try Kai Whakapai for excellent and beautifully presented breakfasts and great coffee too! We stayed at Lake Outlet Campsite, a really lovely bush campsite, situated in a secluded spot overlooking the lake.  We completed two cool walks from the campsite, one to Albertown, five km along the lakeside and the other back to Wanaka town centre, a fourteen km round trip, again following the lakeside round. Both very scenic and peaceful and well-worth doing.

From Wanaka, we took the very scenic road to Fox Glacier. On arrival, as the sun was shining we drove over to Lake Matheson. The lake is known as 'Mirror Lake', as on a clear day it will reflect the mountain range in the water! Unfortunately, theory wasn't being put into practice on that particular day, but it was a nice walk anyway! Early the following morning, we went to the Glacier to do the thirty minute walk from the car park. It was very quiet and the car park devoid of tour buses! A good time to be there. The walk is stunning, with sheer valley walls on either side and a river running along the track. It was eerily quiet, apart from the river flowing and small waterfalls trickling from the mountainside. There are many signs warning of the various dangers, and you can see signs of how parts of the mountain have just crumbled away. A steep incline took us up to the finale, the glacier. Although impressive, it doesn’t compare to the Canadian glaciers, but the walk up to it was spectacular.


Afterwards, we drove to Gillespies Beach. The road there was an unsealed and rather narrow (in parts) twelve km drive. En route, we saw two cheeky keas. The beach is the site of an old mining settlement and it is usually possible to walk to Galway Beach, where you can see seals. We followed a trail through the bush, and found ourselves at a black sand beach, which was deserted and full of drift wood. Sadly the final walk to Galway's Beach was closed due to flooding so we didn’t get to see the seals, however we did get a lovely sandy beach all to ourselves instead. All in all, a good couple of days at Fox Glacier, so much so that we decide to bypass the more commercialised Franz Josef completely!

Next stop was Hokitika, a town that was thriving during the 1860's gold rush, and is now just a cute town by a lovely beach. We decided to stay for a couple of days. We drove to the Hokitika Gorge. We just don't seem to be able to resist turquoise waters! It involved a nice little walk, with glimpses of those turquoise waters through the trees, a swing bridge and some friendly little singing birds (we felt like extras in Snow White!) and the Gorge did not disappoint. Talking of things that did not disappoint to things that did. Ku felt it was important that T witness the phenomenon that are called Glowworms. So after dark we proceeded on foot to the Glowworm Dell, which was quoted as being a two minute drive from the town centre of Hokitika (and the rest!) and viewed in pitch black, New Zealand's native fungus gnat lavae - known as glow worms!

If you are in Hotkitika, go to Fat Pipi Pizza - fantastically good pizza! Thoroughly recommended!

Next stop was Punakaiki - home to the Pancake Rocks and blowholes! Technically, it is something to do with a layer-weathering process which gives them the appearance of layers of pancakes. Add this to caverns and crashing ocean running through them, and it makes great viewing! The whole coastline is very picturesque, rocky mountainous terrain on one side, a driftwood-featured sandy beach the other, with a few rock formations thrown in – it was a stunning place to stay and explore. One walk we completed was the Porari River Track, which took around three hours and followed a spectacular limestone-studded river to a more taxing uphill bush walk. We had some fun banter with a group of older walkers that we kept coming across, and it was one of our favourite hikes so far.

En route to Murchison, we stopped off at Tauranga Bay Seal Colony, 16km from Westport. We saw an abundance of seals, plus lots of pups swimming around in their own baby rock pool. Addictive viewing. We also completed the Cape Foulwind Walkway, finishing at a lighthouse. It was a scenic walk right on the edge of the coast, with lovely views of the sea and various rock formations.

Onto Murchison and the Buller Gorge. Our reason for stopping at the gorge was to experience jetboating. It was far cheaper there than Queenstown! We bought tickets, only to realise that we had to cross Buller Gorge Swingbridge!  It is the longest in NZ at 110m. T does not like heights, but attempted to cross it. Being able to see through the bridge and having to pass people coming from the opposite direction, proved too much to cope with and she was forced to turn back. Fortunately, the guys were very accommodating and the funny and very helpful jet boat driver Mark kindly picked us up from a beach on the other side, so T didn't have to cross the bridge!  It was an incredible ride through the beautiful gorge at high speed, with loads of turns, through raging rapids. We got completely drenched and absolutely loved it! We definitely recommend this trip with Buller Canyon Jetboats at the Swingbridge!


And then onto Takaka, in Golden Bay. What can one say about Takaka; a mixture of art galleries, nice coffee shops and stores leaning towards a hippy influence. People that know Ku will know that she would be very happy here and yes, it was her idea to visit! There were various cool murals on shop walls too!

Afterwards we drove back to Picton wanting to tackle the 'Snout Track' - a great walk - sadly it was the weekend of the cyclone! Fortunately apart from continuous rain and a little wind, Picton and most of NZ escaped anything too bad. We were forced to stay in our cosy cabin and catch up on writing and reading!

From Picton, we drove to Kaikoura. Instantly the good sunny weather returned and we had a lovely journey there. We stopped off a few times on the way for breath taking views of the ocean and the fabulous seal colony, which we couldn't tear ourselves away from. Again we watched the seal pups practice their swimming in rock pools, enjoying themselves! It was great to be so close to them without infringing on their space.

As it was T's Birthday, we treated ourselves to a motel room for a couple of nights. We decided to do a walk around the Kaikoura peninsula. As we parked up, we were amazed to see some of the seals had come on land and were lounging on the boardwalks and in the bushes. We rushed over to see them at close range  (obviously keeping the regulated distance away!) It was so cool. They weren't bothered about us and just carried on doing their own thing, mostly sleeping! We started off on the walk and hugged the coastline, really stunning views. The walk took a couple of hours and was probably one of our favourites so far. We celebrated with pizza and wine later.


As we left Kaikoura en route to Christchurch, we couldn't believe it as we turned into a bay on the coast road and spotted two or three whales!

Finally it was time to return the trusty old Subaru car to the rental company in Christchurch. We had decided to stay  a couple of days, and found a good deal to be had at the Southwark Apartments. A cool black and white little studio right in the middle of the city. We checked in went off to explore. The devastation that Christchurch suffered when the earthquake killed 185 people and injured many more in 2011, was apparent as soon as we entered the city centre. Walking around the city brought home how much damage the earthquake had caused and it was really quite emotional.  There were still buildings surrounded by rubble, certain roads were still cordoned off and many properties were awaiting demolition. However, what soon became very clear was how the city was quietly and uniquely fighting back in many different ways. We absolutely loved the street art scene that had developed in every area. The main shopping drag now comprised of strikingly colourful shipping containers, housing various chain stores to more arty shops, and a handful of innovative eateries.

We walked around the Botanic gardens and saw visitors being punted along the river. We explored the museum, which was interesting and made more so by the fantastic temporary exhibit on street graffiti. The trams were up and running down the streets, and although the Art Gallery was not yet open, there were plenty of art, graffiti and murals to locate and enjoy, popping up all the around the city. We visited what remained of the cathedral, still cordoned off, but colourfully so. Even the nearby public toilets were painted in vibrant colours!

The following day we went to Quake City, a museum dedicated to the earthquake.  It told the story of what happened from photographs, footage from residents and a tribute to the rescue teams. There were even parts of the cathedral, such as the huge fallen spire.  The last section detailed plans to rebuild the city. Fascinating, emotional and a real insight on what had happened. Well worth visiting. We also went to the independent cinema,' Alice in Wonderland' to see the French film - The Past - excellent. It was such a shame we were the only ones in the small, cosy cinema watching such an excellent film.

We also stumbled across the Saturday market, packed with local artists work and great eateries, it was buzzing.  Again - a must do if you are coming to Christchurch on a Saturday.  New Regent Street, full of colourful shops and cafes was an interesting area to have a wander.  Nearby are several other art installations, worthy of a look. We loved our stay in Christchurch, instead of finding a ghost town devoid of soul, we found a city fighting back with creativity and imagination, making us smile and able to recommend a visit to the sceptics and to the people who think it might be depressing. Go visit Christchurch!

And so back to Nelson to borrow some camping gear from our friend Steve. It was time for our big walk on the four day Abel Tasman Trail.....


Tuesday, March 11, 2014

South Island Part 1

Welcome to the first leg of our South Island explorations.  It has been an adventure and we have seen some fantastic scenery, cool rock formations and craggy wild coastlines have been aplenty. Throw in some great walks, many seals, a penguin or two, a kea and some quirky New Zealandisms ( just as we had hoped).  So join us on a whistle stop tour!

Picton. We stayed longer than we anticipated when the bus to Nelson only went once a day! Picton is a tranquil, pretty seaside town with nice little shops and cafes and deserves more attention than most people give it.  For the majority, it is the port where people step off the ferry and move on as quickly as possible (as we were planning to before the fully booked bus foiled our plan!)  There are some nice walks, which sadly we didn’t have time to do, but are planning to on our way back! 


Nelson - a cute little town, with some great nearby beaches. We had a fantastic  time catching up with our lovely friends, Robyn and Steve and their kids, Matt, Jo and Caitlin and also the fabulous Ziggy (the parrot!). We hadn’t seen them since our around the world trip in 2000.  The kids were all grown up, but so cool and welcoming! The highlight was going out with Steve on his boat around the coastline. A great day out!  Below is a picture of Ku and Robyn attempting synchronised swimming at Kaiteriteri Bay!


We enjoyed a couple of hours at Nelson’s Art Deco state cinema 6, watching Labor Day starring Kate Winslet.  It is such a lovely little cinema with huge, comfortable seats.

The Naked Bus is the company that runs around both islands, and is comparatively cheap. The journey from Nelson to Christchurch, where we were due to pick up our hire car was dire. It's not worth wasting any time explaining why – however full marks had to go to the cool lady driver who drove us that day. 

The hire car wasn't what we were expecting.  Instead of a hatchback, we were given a station wagon. The happy owner Scotty told us we could even sleep in the car. We didn’t know then, that we would actually be doing that ! Anyway off to Akaroa, on the Banks Peninsula. It was an interesting drive of twists and turns, and lots of narrow roads, with sheer drops!  Luckily T has a head for heights – well she told herself that anyway!  We eventually came down to lakeside and stopped at Barry's Bay Cheese to try and buy new cheeses – all yum!
The campsite, situated at the tiny Okane Bay, was right on the beautiful beach, hidden amongst pine trees.  We pitched our little tent for the first time and settled in.


We headed back to town, wandered around it's quaint shops, delis, enticing restaurants and then stocked up on food and fuel! We spent a great couple of days at Okane Bay, enjoying the beach and the rather hairy coastal walk that is beginning to fall victim to erosion.

Onwards to Oamaru – T’s favourite place so far. Oamaru has something for everyone!
Steampunk HQ - It is hard to explain what steampunk is without witnessing it and immersing yourself in it- photographs won’t do it justice, as it’s not just a visual form. It’s the sounds, the concept, the whole experience. In basic terms, it's old and disregarded machinery i.e train, tractors which are recycled and rebuilt into crazy and wacky art. Added to that are sounds and special effects, lights and a skeleton or scary ghoul too!


After this, we decided to go and see the yellow-eyed penguin colony. Now, a certain travel guide book, whose name we won’t mention, suggested the walk to the penguins was a casual walk along the beach!  Well, no! We had to master the steepest hill in Oamaru, possibly in the entire of NZ, and then walk down for several miles, past farmland, knowing that we would have to climb back up these hills after seeing the Penguins!



The Bushy Beach is a spectacular stretch of beach – and in addition to that, has seals hanging out! We saw the penguins waddle onto the beach and seals shuffled up too!  Fabulous and all free! Then for the long walk back, mostly uphill!  By the end of it, we were cursing that travel guide, and were pleased to get back to our campsite!


As if that wasn't enough, thanks to it's prosperous history, Oamaru has architecture to be proud of.  Art galleries and bookshops abound, and our personal favourite was a fabulous second hand adventure travel book shop in a old grain storage building. Some locals were dressed in Victorian attire, perhaps just for us, or probably because they always do that! It’s that kind of town!


 T is a fan of New Zealand's most famous novelist, Janet Frame, who was originally from Oamaru . Her childhood house had been preserved and presented as it was, when Janet was living there with her family. She had an incredible life – from spending time in a psychiatric asylum, and narrowly avoiding a lobotomy, thanks to her newly found fame for her writing. Her books are intense and reflect much her troubled mind, and are very good. Ku discovered that Janet was a patient in the same hospital run by the Maudsley Trust, that her brother now works at!

Finally the Public Gardens are a must see, really impressive and opened in 1876. There are nooks and crannies to sit, a Chinese garden, flowers in full bloom and our favourite, Jimmy the talking Cockatoo. He decides to say hello when you are walking away – trickster!

Onto the Moeraki Boulders – 30k from Oamaru, the collection of large spherical boulders are on a lovely beach. They didn’t disappoint, despite a drizzly kind of day. The sea was violent, but added to the mystery and drama of  these giant marbles.


Next stop was Dunedin. It is very much a university town, and does have a certain charm. Ku had remembered coming here twenty years ago, and everything had been closed. She didn’t have particularly good memories, however she did change her mind after a couple of days here, and that was primarily thanks to Cadburys World!

Cadburys World. We enjoyed the tour, the chocolate liquid waterfall was impressive and the freebies even more so!  We went to the Otago Settlers Museum – which was free. It’s a really good museum and has a eclectic collection of exhibits - Maori, the Scottish, whalers, and farmers. It has a whole room of old transport, a fab old black Buick, pulling a black retro caravan!   A train, trams, carriages, buses, it is full of interactive displays. It also has a great collection of old retro toys, household appliances etc. And who knew NZ had their own version of the TV programme Playschool?  The original toys are there too!

The Edwardian Railway station is striking. Mosaic-tile floors and stained glass windows. There was a farmers market next to it (Sunday) and the produce looked great. The Public Art Gallery was good and free to get in. Mainly contemporary stuff.

This was the end of the spell of sunny and warm weather. At our campsite, surrounded by native bush with a river running beside it, we discovered our bargain tent could stand a little rain, but not the bucket loads we got that night! It was a grim night!  We consoled ourselves the next day with a hot breakfast in town at the Perc, which made really good coffee and a great breakfast!  On to our second night, the tent was pitched and we were hoping for a dry night. All day the sun shone, as it had the day before. At four/five o’clock, the cloud started circling, and by six it was pouring!  Eventually we ran for cover and jumped into the back of the car. The back seats went down, we lined the car with our camping mattresses, and it was actually quite cosy. By morning, our limbs were aching and we packed up and got the hell out of there!


We drove to the Catlins on a coastal route, between Invercargill and Dunedin. It was very lush, there were farmlands, forests, rugged bays and deserted beaches.  Our friend Grant, who had been in November, had recommended it. The weather had not improved very much, and it was breezy and wet, but we persevered….and went to Nugget Point, along a rough gravel road. With our pac-a-macs on, we set off on the walk. There were sheer drops to the ocean on each side with stunning views, and rugged vertical rock formations. There’s a viewing deck next to the lighthouse, making the most of the amazing views of the rock formations. The best part was that there was nobody else in sight!  We spotted seals down on the rocks, totally oblivious to us. A lovely find. Onwards, Curio Bay is a lovely bay and has fossilised Jurassic-age trees which are just visible at low tide, when we visited. Yellow-eyed penguins are known to frequent the beach, but the weather must have put them off that day!  Kaka Point and Surat Bay have fabulous sandy and deserted beaches and were definitely worth visiting. Another highlight was McLean Falls, a very impressive waterfalls at the end of a twenty minute walk through the rainforest.


Our next stop was Invercargill. It was not on the agenda, but the weather had taken a turn for the worse, with constant sleety rain and high winds. Camping was out of the question, so we checked into the Tay Colonial Motor Park for a touch of luxury!  We wandered into town and saw the Burt Munro motorbike, as seen in the movie 'The World's Fastest Indian' with Anthony Hopkins. To celebrate Ku’s Birthday, we ate at the aptly named Devil Burger, which did gourmet burgers and veggie wraps. And as a finale, we went to Reading Cinemas to see 'August; Osage County', starring two of our favourite movie stars, Meryl and Julia. Brilliant film.

We drove to Manapouri next, a gorgeous lakeside setting backed by mountain ranges. The weather had improved, the sun was out and it was hot, hurrah! We stayed at Possum Lodge, a charming and quiet little campsite with walks around the lake at its entrance (and quite a few damn sandflies!) 
Next day, we set off along the Te Anau - Milford Highway. We stopped at various viewpoints.
The road is spectacular – snow-capped mountains everywhere you look. When you actually arrive at Milford Sound it’s a bit of an anti-climax! The Homer Tunnel was quite an experience, framed by a high ice wall, it’s a one way tunnel with traffic lights! The tunnel itself is dark and dripping with water, 1207m long. We saw a naughty Kea on the way back  – seeing us he started hopping our way, but sadly we weren’t allowed to stop! Highlight!

We stopped to camp at Knobs Flat Campsite, in the grassy Eglinton Valley. We did a lovely walk, that the manager at the campsite suggested to us. We didn’t have any expectations but the walk was fun, lots of twists and turns, steps carved out of tree stumps, a small river crossing and the finale, a lovely long waterfall falling into a pristine beautifully turquoise pool. A real highlight. Once back at the campsite, we ummed and ahhed as to whether we should camp in the tent as the weather had been appalling all day – we put the tent up and then moved area, then at the slightest hint of rain, we took the tent down packed it away, and waited out the evening in the car reading and eating chocolate! The rain fell in buckets all night so we knew we had made the right decision, another cosy night in the back of the car! A shame as the campsite only had two other tents in it, had great amenities and was in a lovely location, idyllic but for the rain, oh and our new friends, sand flies!

Part two to follow.......


Monday, March 10, 2014

A Whistlestop Tour of Auckland and Wellington

We finally arrived in Auckland New Zealand after a long and very expensive journey!  Thank you Qantas for ripping us off with your “you need a transit visa for stopovers in Sydney over eight hours”.  Our lay-over was 8 hours and 45 minutes! We were not leaving the transit departure lounge and according to the Australian Embassy – you do NOT need a transit visa IF you are just in transit and NOT leaving the departure lounge and ALSO UK citizens DO not need a transit visa – FULL STOP!  This is purely a scam by Qantas – we can’t speak for other airlines. This was a very expensive stopover (£70.00 each) – no one asked to see this transit visa – We wonder why?! Funny how this particular Qantas flight had an 8hrs 45 stopover in Australia! So wrong!

Anyway – severely jetlagged – we found the shuttle bus that went directly to the city – thanks to the humorous and informative man on the desk outside that told us exactly where we needed to get off for our accommodation! Great service!

We were very happy with our apartment – Waldorf Bankside Apartments – all we could ever need plus a balcony! After not being able to sleep for many hours, we discover to our dismay we slept in until 10:45am! We had only one day to cram in everything we wanted to do before we were off to Tongariro!

We zipped around Auckland fairly quickly. We had no idea that it would be so accessible by foot. Anyway we had a nice time and even had a little flutter at the casino at the Sky City! The highlight was the Art Gallery and the fab exhibition by Francis Upritchard.


Pretty soon we were off on our first Naked Bus to Tongariro. The driver was very dry and his manner scared some of the travellers – very funny!  We are going to gloss over some of the finer details of our two night stay at Tongariro National Park and Tongariro Campground – let’s just stay with the particulars – the shuttle bus to Tongariro Crossing was cancelled due to bad weather (we therefore were unable to do the hike that we had specifically come here to do). The campground had a 24 hour café when we booked -  the café is still there but is closed – so in a fit of madness, our hunger, lack of transport to get us back into civilisation, we decide to walk the 28km to Torangi where we were to pick up the bus to Wellington. The walk was stunning, the sun was out, and we walked along the road lined with trees. The volcanic Tongariro was in the distance, still shrouded in thick cloud. Five hours later we were still walking, the water had run out, Ku’s glucose tablets had been contaminated by washing powder (they were the only source of food that we had left!) and we started to walk up a hill that seemed to be never ending. We were both in a bad way, our feet were on fire, we were dehydrated, and T felt sick! On pure willpower, we got to the top of the hill and it was all downhill from there.  Ku stuck her thumb out in a bid to hitch a ride.  We realised that we weren’t far from town, however not close enough to walk without missing our bus. Finally we were picked up by a lovely man from Golden Bay – who had no luck fishing and was happy to drop us off in town. Sure enough we weren’t very far from our destination!

We crawled into the I site centre – a brilliant tourist information centre that can be found in nearly every town. They are full of brochures, they can help you book buses, accommodation and have toilets and water! We bought water and energy drinks and and sat down. From somewhere, Ku suddenly found the energy to run over to Burger King and buy food! As T sat drinking water, she watched Ku run over and back and then feasted on her burger just before the bus turned up!

The same driver picked us up and we were off to Wellington – just about in one piece!! We were exhausted, but were soon giggling about it!

And so to Wellington. We arrived late at night and eventually found our way to our hotel, The Leisure Inn on Willis Street. A lovely friendly welcome from the reception staff and a quick check in, we were soon luxuriating in our hotel room.  T  soon discovered that the TV soap she watched as a teenager – Shortland Street, was still on television and still going strong! Fantastic toiletries too, probably the best yet!

Next day and despite the rain, we reluctantly adorned the wet weather gear and marched into town. Well march if we could have done, we were aching all over and hobbled down the street, determined not to waste any time!

Again, time limited, we had to cram everything into one day. Mission set! First port of call was definitely breakfast. We wandered up and down the edgy and trendy Cuba Street.  We found an ideal place for breakfast, Ku had a burrito and T had a vege buttie! A triumph for T, full of veg, including her favourite ripe avocado, yes, UK you heard it correctly a RIPE AVOCADO! Anyway delicious breakfast and coffee. If you need breakfast in Wellington, Cuba Street has great choices!

As the rain continued, we decided to take refuge (also because it was a must-do), in the Te Papa Tongarewa Museum! The place is amazing, full of contrasting exhibitions, something for everyone. We pass a couple of hours easily! Next stop is the cable car! T has a secret liking for cable cars (don’t judge her!) and we climbed on board, it was red and shiny! We sat right at the front with the controller….and enjoyed the ride. We had a great view, despite the weather and saw some pretty fab Victorian houses. We enjoyed the view at the top and decided to walk down and enjoy the botanical gardens en-route. A sign for a Henry Moore sculpture on the sign, sealed the deal! The gardens are lovely but it was a steep walk down, reminding us of our previous day’s 28kms! Henry Moore was viewed and photographed by T only, as Ku had to sit down and did not wish to climb another hill!

We ate Mexican for a late lunch and had to admit defeat, we couldn’t manage anything else and staggered back to the hotel!  We really liked Wellington, easy to get around and has one of the best Museums! Next stop South Island, can’t wait!!