Sulphur, The Shire and Shiny Bugs

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After the Tongariro crossing we drove directly to Rotorua,  home of boiling mud pools, spuming geysers and, well, a truly horrible smell. You sort of get used to it, but one strong gust of wind and a sulphurous stank is up again. We stayed at the Grand Hotel, a bold but ultimately failed attempt at nominative determinism.

We just had one full day in Rotorua, so we headed out to see the big geysers and the Maori workshops at Te Whakarewarewa (full name significantly longer). The delicate bone carving and weaving is a nice counterpoint to the hourly rumbling explosion of hot Te Puia, or the bibbly-bubbling of mud.
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The next day we went to Hobbiton. More precisely, we went to Matamata, halfway between Rotorua and Hamilton. From what was once just an idyllic farm and film set , a permanent (and, it would seem, extremely profitable) recreation of the Hobbit village has been installed, with holes of many sizes, vegetable patches, the party tree, the mill and the working pub – the Green Dragon. With over two thousand tourists sampling a draft each day, it is officially New Zealand’s busiest pub.

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It’s a really great trip, and after traipsing through the country for views of where they filmed (often drastically altered in post – production) it’s good to visit the permanent reminder.

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The next day we headed south from Hamilton to the glow worm caves of Waitomo for a spot of relaxing abseiling, flying fox, tubing and free-climbing up waterfalls. In the dark. It was pretty awesome. Then it was off to Auckland for the last stop off the trip.

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Two Simply Walk Into Mordor

(yes, both Amy and I have basically made the same joke)

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We drove up from Wellington via Palmerston North, which houses the New Zealand rugby museum. This is a relatively small but well curated set of memorabilia from a century and a half of rugby. If it has a slight tendency to forget that other countries play rugby and occasionally not against New Zealand, we’ll forgive them that.

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We stayed overnight at the Sportsmans Lodge in Turangi. This is the self – proclaimed Trout capital of the world and the was many a photo of a grinning fisherman on the wall. We ignored this and got up early to head to the Tongariro Alpine crossing. This is one of New Zealand’s great walks, a 6-hour tramp up and over a pass between volcanoes. The scenery is extremely varied, from scrub at the start through a rocky Mars – scape past Mount Doom.

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From the top, an infernal smell greets your view of stunning turquoise lakes. We wound or way quickly upwind of them before stopping for lunch. From there it’s a hustle through an active volcanic region before finishing through a long, winding forest. Really quite stunning.

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Dunedin, Christchurch, Kaikoura and Picton

From Queenstown we drove to Dunedin via Invercargill. This is not exactly on the way, but we had the time and the scenic route was supposed to be worth it. Invercargill itself is sprawling and kinda dull,  but every city in New Zealand that we’ve visited (apart from Wellington) has had that feel a little. Clearly the Kiwis take a French attitude to summer and just bugger off on holiday. Fair enough.

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From Invercargill we drove up the coast through the Catlins to Dunedin. They’re pretty, but slightly less impressive after the west coast. Dunedin itself is a big student town, and with the students away feels a touch quiet. It’s got a few decent museums though, and it was appropriate to spend Burns’ night in a city with  Burns statue.

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We then drove up to Christchurch, stopping in Oamaru, owner of the hotly – contested title of ‘Steampunk HQ of New Zealand’. There is a museum of creepy dolls, statues and, well, junk. It was pretty cool.

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Christchurch is still recovering from the earthquake it suffered in 2011 and many attractions are still closed. We did find the International Antarctic Museum out by the airport, which was very informative. It includes an ‘antarctic storm simulator’, which I think is relatively gentle compared to the real thing, and a 4d cinema experience, which enhances 3d cinema by shaking you up and down and spraying water in your face.

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The next day we drove up to Kaikoura for some whale watching. Sadly a storm blew through and the boats weren’t going out. We tried again the next morning, but the effects of the gales lingered and so we cut our losses. Up we drove to Picton and took the opportunity to check out their aquarium, as well as a stroll around town and out to a nearby bay.

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Finally it was time to take the ferry back across to the north island. We stayed at the same airbnb place again and I took the opportunity to pop out to the botanical gardens for more night photos.

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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.  

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.

Nelson

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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Wellington

And so, we’ve arrived in our very last country on this tour. 5 months of awesome travelling down, only 4 weeks to go. But hopefully this should be a superb 4 weeks, chasing adventure, excitement and Lord of the Rings film locations.
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Wellington is a very hilly city and we were staying at the top of one, overlooking the City and just 100m from the top of the cable car and the botanic gardens. The daily walk back up that hill reminded me a lot of when I lived in Bear Flat in Bath, with simarly stunning views available across the City. Our first couple of days we got ourselves oriented around the City, wandered around the harbour and checked out a few of the museums. Kiwi museums so far seem much stricter on taking photos, especially in art galleries, which is a shame. Still, the main museum in Wellington – Te Papa – allowed it in most places.
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After this, we started some geek hangouts. After a false start at Weta (we hadn’t realised you had to book – and they were quite busy), we managed a day trip out there and taking in the sights of Mount Victoria – including a bunch of locations for shoots, including the ‘get off the road’ scene. The ‘Window on the Workshop’ tour at Weta was fantastic, a cracking insight into the design work done there.
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After a few days, we headed for the ferry to the South Island and our car rental.
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