Rejected by Whales – Dunedin, Christchurch & Kaikoura

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From Queenstown we drove south again to Invercargill, almost the southern tip of the island, where we lunched. There is a more direct way inland, but the route via Invercargill is famous as the Southern Scenic Route, rolling through the Catlins and taking you near New Zealand’s southernmost point. Invercargill is a sprawling, grey conurbation without anything very much to recommend it, but it does have a few decent cafes. We also took the chance to stop above a spectacular south-facing bay and gaze out, knowing that nothing stood between us and Antarctica but open sea. After that, we spent the afternoon driving through the Catlins, an area of rolling hills by the coast, before arriving in the student city of Dunedin in the late afternoon.

We were staying in a B&B just outside Dunedin’s central octagon, and at the top of a steep hill. There are some beautiful outdoorsy things to do along the Otago Peninsula, but for once we weren’t there to do them but to return to more urban pursuits, such as art. We visited the Dunedin Art Gallery, which differed from most by not having a permanent collection. Its current exhibits included sculptures made from lacquered corrugated iron and fluorescent lights, and an exhibit of composite photos set in American suburbia. After that, it was to the Otago Museum, which harbours an enormous, Victorian-style collection of taxidermied animals, patiently laid out according to families and phyla. Elsewhere in the museum, there were exhibits on Maori culture and their legends about the formation of New Zealand. We only spent a full day in the city before moving on, though. On the drive to Christchurch, we stopped over in Oamaru to visit Steampunk World, and to those of you who don’t know what “steampunk” means, I’m afraid you’re going to have to google it yourself. The… exhibit is a small and very odd collection of kitsch, rusting machinery, and grotesque dolls, but Loz enjoyed himself.

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In Christchurch, I spotted and zeroed in on one thing in the guidebook: the International Antarctic Exhibition. I had never realised that the American, British and New Zealand expeditions to Antarctica all base themselves out of Christchurch, and there is a huge exhibition building dedicated to this purpose out by Christchurch Airport. I love everything about Antarctica, and I have no idea why. I think it’s the harshness, the enormous distance away it is from everything I’m familiar with, and of course the scientific fascination. The first exhibit we hurried to was the one that gives you the chance to experience, in part, an Antarctic storm; you step into snow in a room kept at around -8C, and then the lights dim and the wind rises and rises until you’re experiencing a windchill of below -20C. A 4D show gives you the experience of travelling on a ship through icebergs, including rocking and the occasional spurt of icy water in your face. The centre has extensive exhibits about Antarctica’s geology, flora and fauna, and the environmental research that takes place there, as well as, of course, what life is like year-round. As a finishing touch, the centre has a troupe of blue penguins. I loved it.

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The next day we were on the road once more, heading back gradually towards our ferry to the North Island. Three hours’ drive brought us to the coastal town of Kaikoura, which is famous for its marine wildlife. We had an afternoon whale-watching expedition booked, but stormy weather at sea had led to cancellation, so we crossed our fingers, rescheduled for early the next morning, and retired to our motel room. Sadly, the next morning the whales had once again declined to play ball, and we had to be in Picton for a 2pm ferry, so we hit the road, arriving in Picton three hours ahead of schedule. We filled the time by a visit to the local aquarium and a hike out to Bob’s Beach along the edges of the harbour. And there we were; done with the South Island, after looping right from north to south along both coasts. Now for the North Island: volcanoes and hobbits await.

 

Wordless – Queenstown

There’s one way in which New Zealand is not really working out for me: it’s making me feel like a failure as a writer. I search for adjectives and come up bankrupt. “Stunning”? Used it two sentences ago. “Beautiful”? How bland. “Breathtaking”? Well, yes, but now I sound like a Visit Scotland PR puff piece.

So, the hell with it. I present to you Queenstown, New Zealand, on the shores of Lake Wakatipu:

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The drive there had its non-ugly moments as well. Here’s a sample of the kind of road we found ourselves rolling down:

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We’d planned to pull over at Wanaka on the drive to Queenstown to have coffee and trade places, and as we reached the outskirts we saw a sign for “Puzzling World”. We exchanged glances and threw the car into the car park. We started with the outdoor maze, where you have to find your way to each of four corner towers, then went inside for the rooms of optical illusions. Unfortunately, the “tilted room” where water seems to flow uphill made me so dizzy Loz had to keep on driving for the rest of the afternoon.

The glorious weather didn’t hold completely; our first day in Queenstown was grey and rain-spattered. We had booked a Lord of the Rings location tour, and were picked up in a battered jeep by Cameron. A lot of the locations used are actually composite, where several, sometimes miles apart, were combined by computer into one place, but nevertheless, he was able to drive us to the tiny town of Glenorchy at the top of the lake, and also to the plain that became Isengard and the woods where Boromir was shot. Cameron pulled out a couple of blunt swords and grey elven-cloaks for photographic posing at the latter. In between stops, he told us funny stories of the filming; of his boss getting hired to play one of the Rangers of Ithilien as an extra, but then knocking himself out on a take and ending up as an orc, the generous fees paid by Weta to farmers for use of their paddocks and their donation of barely-used machinery afterwards. Evidently, the Weta crew are highly popular around the area. I also had to laugh when I got out of the jeep and spotted its licence plate: BOMBUR. Cameron’s boss had taken the initiative to buy up licence plates of all Tolkien’s character names before the films came out, and now uses them for his tour vehicles.

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On our second day, we had booked a tour out into the glorious Fiordland of the west coast. Rather than the more famous Milford Sound, we opted for Doubtful Sound, which is quiet and untrafficked. (It was named by our old friend James Cook on one of his voyages around the region; he was doubtful whether, if he sailed in, he’d ever be able to get out.) Getting there took some doing – a two-hour bus journey was followed by a catamaran across Lake Manapouri, then another ninety-minute coach trip over the Wilmot Pass to get to the cruising boat. Along the way, the tour takes in the hydroelectric power station burrowed deep into the mountain above Deep Cove. The fiords are serene and uninhabited, other than by a rich variety of wildlife, and are spectacularly carved by glaciers, with waterfalls, steep green peaks, and hanging valleys. The environment is unique; the fresh water that pours into the Sound is stained brown with tannins, and sits on top of the seawater because it’s less dense. This means that the waters of the Sound are unusually dark, and many creatures who normally live in very deep waters survive here close to the surface. For an area where it usually rains two days out of three, the weather held sunny, with hardly any cloud.

On our last day in Queenstown, the weather was utterly flawless, and we felt like some activity after twelve hours of near-motionlessness the previous day. We hired mountain bikes and set off around the Queenstown trail, an exhilaratingly hilly walking and cycling trail along the lake. We saw the day in drinking some New Zealand craft beer at a rooftop bar, well satisfied.

Queenstown

From Franz Josef, we continued down the west coast of the South Island to Haast. After an early lunch we headed up into the mountains and over the pass towards Wanaka and Queenstown. That factual description of the trip doesn’t really begin to capture the beauty of the coast road, my regular desire to stop and take photos, nor Amy’s occasional informative comments that the pass closes at 6pm and perhaps that was enough photo stops.
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We paused for coffee just outside Wanaka and went into The Puzzling World, a curiosity of an attraction featuring a maze and a series of rooms with sloped walls, holograms and other optical illusions. The slightly queasy nature of the exhibit wasn’t massively helpful for our trip up and down to Queenstown, but after we settled our stomachs it was time to finish the drive. 
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Queenstown is known as the adventure capital of New Zealand, but having sky-dived in Cairns, kayaked in Abel Tasman, and helicoptered onto a glacier in Franz Josef, we were reasonably well adventured. That just left a jeep excursion to Lord of the Rings film sights (including dressing up in elf cloaks and fighting with swords), a coach and boat trip out to the Doubtful Sound in Fiordland and a hike and cycle around Lake Wakatipu. Phew. It’s tough to undersell Queenstown. Every guide we’ve read or person we’ve spoken to about it has raved about it. They’re all right. It’s an incredible place, like the most beautiful parts of Scotland, Ireland and the Alps rolled up with better weather and bluer water. Even as we were cycling around the lake I was trying to work out how I could get here every year or two for holidays. I’ll let you know if I work anything out.
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After four nights though, it was time to move on.  

Fire & Ice – Nelson & Franz Josef

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We boarded the 8am ferry for Picton – a trip of around three and a half hours across the Cook Strait – to spend a few weeks seeing the best the South Island had to offer. We had a smooth crossing of the open water, and after a few hours, we entered the area of fiords that is the Marlborough Sounds. I went up on deck (or, as the Kiwi accent renders it, “on dick”) and leaned on the rail, enjoying the breeze and the view. It was a stunning day, with the islands and peaks that surrounded us a vivid green against deep turquose water. We landed around lunchtime, and picked up our rental car to see us through the next three weeks. By dint of being willing to drive a 2003 Nissan Sunny, we got a good deal. Since the car was grey, we named it Shadowfax in the hopes that it would show us the meaning of haste.

Our first drive was along the narrow and winding Queen Charlotte Highway, which runs along the rugged north coastline, to the tiny town of Havelock, where we stopped for lunch. Havelock appears to have two main industries: mussels, and tourist tea-shops. We continued to Nelson, which sits on the edge of Abel Tasman National Park on the north coat. Nelson is famous for its lovely Mediterranean climate, and is a centre for outdoorsy activities. We started with a day kayaking and walking in the National Park, which has miles of native bush, walking tracks, and stunning beaches on which storms occasionally dump black sand – pure iron ore from deep-sea trenches. We paddled out to Adele Island, which is maintained as a nature preserve, and saw a tiny fairy penguin shooting through the water. Next was a whole family of seals lounging on the rocks and taking occasional dips. We were learning a good bit about New Zealand’s ecology – principally, the problems caused by its two big pests, the stoat and the Australian possum. Both came from overseas – the possum accidentally, but the stoat was imported from England to try and solve the problem caused by rabbits (also introduced from England). This genius plan went mildly awry, since stoats discovered they could kill native birds and eat their eggs much more easily. “If you see a stoat or a possum in the road,” said our kayaking guide, “it’s your patriotic duty to run it over.”

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We picnicked on a beach some way into the park, then trekked back along the Abel Tasman track. The next day, we had planned to drive out to Golden Bay, some way further into the park, but after a sleepless night in our thin-walled hostel we couldn’t face the four-hour round trip, so we spent the day relaxing and walking around central Nelson. We also dropped in on the World of Wearable Art museum, full of weird and wonderful creations made for the annual WoW show, which began in Nelson but has now relocated to Wellington, a victim of its own success.

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After a long drive down south the next day, we fetched up in the tiny town of Franz Josef Glacier. What we were there to see needs little explanation. As we got closer, the Southern Alps rose up to become a looming presence to the left; then the streams and rivers started to display the eerie blue of glacier meltwater. The glacier is the only one in the world that occurs within 10km of the sea, and which sprawls down directly into temperate rainforest – an odd, but visually arresting combination. Naturally, we awoke the next day to constant pouring rain, and had to cool our heels and catch up on our sleep for the duration. The next day, after some early cloud, came out fine – and we climbed into helicopters to explore the glacier (it’s too dangerous to walk directly onto it). As the helicopter banked and swooped like a dragonfly, we had amazing views of mountains, sea, and the glacier tumbling down in between the two. We strapped crampons onto our boots and followed our sunburnt Kiwi guide, Ross, up rough steps cut into the ice and into caves marbled with bands of white and frigid blue. As we climbed, the crevasses we traversed got narrower until we had to slide crabwise, unable to put one foot in front of the other, wedged solidly between two sheets of ice.

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“Yeah, I love it here,” said Ross. “At weekends we go tramping and camp way up in the hills. Or I go hunting. I kill all my own meat. I never buy meat from the supermarket.”

Once helicoptered safely back down, we spent a little time relaxing in the town’s 40C hot pools, surrounded by rainforest. Then we packed up to take Shadowfax further south to Queenstown.

Franz Josef

From Nelson we drove south-west, up and over the top of the Southern Alps. We had some glorious sunshine and were very contentedly enjoying our exploration of the West Coast of the South Island. We pulled into the fairly dull town of Greymouth for lunch and then continued down the beautiful coastal route to Franz Josef.
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Franz Josef is one of a pair of large glaciers about halfway down the South Island (the other being Fox Glacier – about 15km south). It is remarkable in that you transition between the cwms and corries classic to a glacier to rainforest below the terminal moraine – before the streams and rivers that flow from its meltwater carve their way through the valley floor down to the ocean. And if that sounds beautiful, well, we didn’t see any of it as it was chucking down with rain and our trip up onto the glacier was cancelled.
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Faced with the decision to stay an extra night in Franz Josef and hope the weather held – while sacrificing time further south – we decided to stick and give it a go for the next day. Fortunately the weather brightened up and shortly before noon we found ourselves climbing into a helicopter for our trip to the ice.
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I’ve never flown in a helicopter before and they really are marvellous machines. The pace of landing, embarkation and takeoff is quite incredible – and admittedly necessary given the number of people wanting to travel up! As we soared up the valley and swooped in for our landing we saw the craggy ice for the first time. Fortunately, shortly after landing we donned crampons and spent the next 3 hours enjoyable stomping up and down the glacier, over waves and through crevasses. Some were particularly tight, one member of our party (not me) got stuck and had to be pulled out by our guide – a pickaxe-swinging kiwi who eats six meals a day and hunts his own venisons. Quite a guy.
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After all that ice clambering, it was time to relax in the local hot pools, before we loaded up Shadowfax for the trip down to Queenstown.

Giving It Some Welly

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We arrived in Wellington at midnight local time, and headed straight for our latest Airbnb accommodation. We were staying in a kind of international student house headed by Steve and Anna, both mature students; a huge, rambling, comfortably shabby old house full of books that made me feel immediately at home. It had been used as an embassy by the Polish delegation in Wellington for many years, and the cupboard in our room was in fact their old steel-lined document safe, installed at the height of Cold War paranoia. The house had a semipermanent population of five, but up to eight travellers like ourselves were also in residence at any given time, and Steve cooked big communal dinners every night, whilst Anna plied me with coconut-milk ice cream and homemade vegan cake. I spent some happy hours on a dilapidated couch reading a James Herriott book that I think also lingers somewhere in the mustier corners of the house I grew up in.

Wellington feels more like a sizeable town than a capital city, and it is set on and around a harbour as stunning and complex as Sydney’s. The whole of Wellington, in fact, felt like a parochial British society had collided with a Pacific Islander one, somehow producing a two-headed chimera that walked and talked. Aspects of the culture feel inescapably British, but they’re combined with a widespread integration and pride in Maori heritage. Wellington’s beautiful harbour is subject to frequent earthquakes, whilst the hills surrounding it are rapidly becoming higher from the friction between the two colliding continental plates that sit below it. For me, it was a mildly weird combination of British cosiness with the exoticism of lively tectonic activity. If actually asked “what do you think of New Zealand?”, my honest answer would be something like, “It’s a bit like Surrey, but with volcanoes”.

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We took it relatively easy while we were in the city, spending some time just wandering the centre and its famous Cuba Street. We also visited Te Papa, the national museum, where displays include the mighty stripped bones of a blue whale and a whole, preserved enormous squid, caught in Antarctic waters a few years ago. Displays explained New Zealand’s volcanoes and recreated, with video, a milder version of the devastating Christchurch earthquakes of 2010. The museum is huge, and there were many displays we didn’t get to, such as those on Maori culture and the Aztecs. We did, however, pick up some new Icebreaker layers cheaply to deal with New Zealand weather – Wellington is the southern hemisphere’s windiest city, with wind being funnelled through the Cook Strait between the North and South Islands, and even in summer with a fierce sun, the windchill factor could be significant.

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Loz has long planned on some major Lord of the Rings geeking out, so the next day, we took the bus out to the Weta Cave, where Peter Jackson’s special effects production company is based. We arrived too late to book a tour for that day, so we were left to admire the lifesize figures of trolls and orcs. The next day, we did manage to get on the tour, where a cheerful South African walked us through the production studios, talking us through the intricacies of, say, prop weapon design, and sword and chainmail production. He demonstrated for us that Sauron’s armour would be totally impractical in battle, and would have a reasonable risk of taking its wearer’s eye out. Happily, Weta got round this problem by making the spiky ridges on the shoulders out of rubber. The tour is fun, hilarious, and very popular; book ahead while you’re in town. We also visited Victoria Peak, where you can get a 360º view of the harbour. On its wooded lower slopes, some of the Shortcut to Mushrooms scenes were filmed (“Get off the road!”). At Te Papa, Loz had also managed to acquire the LoTR location guidebook, so many further visits of this nature were being plotted. We fitted in a trip to the National Maritime Museum, which tracks the notable events that have affected Wellington every year from the city’s founding until the present.

After taking the cable car back to our loftily-positioned lodgings, we were ready to move on. Steve drove us to the ferry terminal for our trip to assault the South Island.

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We left Wellington early in the morning to catch the Cook Straits ferry across to Picton in New Zealand’s South Island. The harbour departure and most of the Cook Straits were fairly uninteresting, but nearing Picton we entered the Malborough Sounds, a gorgeously complicated set of fjords and inlets.
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Upon arrival we headed to the Ferry Terminal to pick up our car for the next three weeks. We named him Shadowfax, King of the Mearas. Perhaps surprisingly, Shadowfax is a 2003 Nissan Sunny with nearly 150 000km on the clock (we hope to hit that landmark on our trip!) We drove along a beautiful, windy coastal road to Havelock (spiritual home of the Vetinarii) and then onto our lodgings for the next three nights in Nelson.
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The next day we drove up to Abel Tasman National Park on the North coast of the South island. Here we picked up kayaks for the morning, paddling around the stunning tidal waters of the park and hopping between islands before lunch and a brisk 12km march back to the car. Across these three nights we slept poorly, one of the downsides of backpacker accomodation is the walls tend to be paper-thin. This was fine in Nepal where everyone was shattered from hiking and had to be up early the next day – so were asleep by 10. In Nelson we were subjected to giggly German guitars after 1am and got a bit crotchety. Perhaps we’re just old.
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Anyway, the next day we headed to the World of Wearable Art (and Classic Cars) museum. I’d had a taste of some of this in Te Papa in Wellington. Every year there is a fashion show (originally in Nelson, but now in Wellington) that demonstrates artistic creativity in fashion. There are incredible designs and costumes, all fabulous and impractical. One of the highlights is the ‘bizarre bra’ section, which encourages copious amounts of mammarial punning.
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We wrapped things up in Nelson with a wander around town before our departure the next morning for glacier country.
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