We wouldn't normally mention much about the actual arrival to a place, but this one is worthy of a mention. Our flight had us flying into Christchurch, where the plan was to land, grab our bags and then find a phone to get in touch with our friend Jo and find out where she lives. As it turned out there was no need to phone her, she had figured out what plane we were on and welcomed us at the airport, what a surprise!! We had met Jo several months before while in Varanasi, India and it turned out that she was on her was back to New Zealand after working in the UK for 2 years, like us. The funny coincidence was that she had been working in Manchester as well and had in fact been living just up the road from we had lived. After chatting over a few days in Varanasi we parted ways, only to meet up again, by complete coincidence on a street in Katmandu, Nepal. Anyhow, we went went raftng for a few days in Nepal and she had then invited us to look her up in Christchurch when we arrived.
After our surprise pick up at the airport we headed back to her place for a lovely cheese board, crackers and bread, and always welcome, gin and tonics- excellent. Shortly after our arrival at the house, Jo's boyfriend Sean and his friend Wayne (great Kiwi Blokes) showed up and the real feast began, all sorts of yummi-ness, including green tipped New Zealand mussels which were absolutely outstanding, those who have enjoyed these will not easily have forgotten them. All in all this was the nicest, warmest welcome we had had to any country since leaving the UK.
We spent a few days in Christchurch, which is picturesque little city with great access to beaches, mountains and the very interesting, nearby Banks Peninsula. On our first day we spent the day out exploring the Banks Peninsula, an unusual land formation created by two volcanos. The cap of one of the Volcanos has created a small island inside a well protected ocean inlet near the town of Lyttleton. Interestingly this little island was the place where the first Antarctic expeditions of Shackleton and Scott made camp to prepare for the journey south. If you look on a map of New Zealand the unusual geography of Banks Peninsula is immediately obvious, it is a round, mountainous piece of land just south of Christchurch, unusual since the rest of the land in this part of the Canterbury region is totally flat. The whole peninsula is carved by deep inlets around all of its ocean-exposed coastline. Of special interest to those epicureans among us, there is a wonderful cheese factory in the Banks Peninsula called Barry's Bay which makes a wide selection of delicious cheeses, very nice. Also, on our way out of the peninsula (exiting back to Christchurch through a long tunnel which began in Lyttelton) we stopped at a 'Dairy', which is the Kiwi term for a convenience store or corner shop that will almost always have an ice cream counter. This was the first of many delicious ice creams that would be enjoyed in our journey around the South Island. It turns out the Kiwis are quite fond of there ice cream, which is readily available everywhere, so doing as the locals do here would be a very good thing to do, especially with favorite ice cream flavors like Hokey Pokey and Boysenberry- yum!!!
Leaving Christchurch in our sleeperized Nissin station wagon we began our counter-clockwise journey around the South Island. The landscapes were a stunning, gorgeous geography of forests and arid mountains with coastlines of water that seems an impossible colour of blue. Just before the town of Kaikoura we stopped to look at the water and were greeted by a few New Zealand Fur seals who were lazing about on the rocks beneath the road. Here for the first time since we were in British Colombia we saw masses of Kelp forests, there tops swirling about in the waters near the shore. The water seemed to be healthy and full of life. Apart from the insane shade of blue, reminded us a lot of home.
We did a great tramp around the Kaikoura coast line ('tramp' being the kiwi word for a hike, walk or ramble. Not the North American term for a slut, street person or prostitute, 'doing' one of those would certainly be very different to 'doing' a tramp in New Zealand!). The coastline here is very exposed and windy, the shores are covered in Seals, thousands of them. The rock formations here are interestingly carved chunks of limestone, weathered, worn and shaped by the extreme environment where they sit. We had a great walk, satisfied our appetite with a order of fish and chips from the local 'chippy' which was surprisingly inexpensive. But i suppose it can be cheap when they don't give anyone any utensils (that's right, it seems that the Kiwi way of doing fish and chips is to eat it all of a piece of paper with your fingers, hmm) and you also get charged extra for any condiments, tomato sauce, tarter sauce, even vinegar! At 0.50 cents per condiment packet the extras soon add up. None-the-less it was tasty and were were on our way to find a nice quiet piece of beach front to spend the night.
The next area for us was to explore was the world famous Marlborough wine region. This hot and arid landscape of vines is famous for its Sauvignon Blanc wines, which after touring some of the wineries in this region, were remarkably consistent and lovely. I think it would be fair to say that if you wanted a nice Sauvignon Blanc wine you could fairly choose one from almost any of the wineries in this region and it would be good. Certainly our favorite winery here was Cloudy Bay, a large winery whose wines are readily available in the UK and Canada, as well as many other countries around the world. I am not sure why, but a part of us almost wanted to be disappointed by Cloudy Bay, maybe because we wanted to be wowed by more by some of the smaller, more boutique wineries in the region, rather than this massive producer. As it turns out we were not disappointed at all, in fact it is the only winery that either of us have been to where we really liked all of the wines! Unbelievable, these guys were certainly masters in the art of wine making, beautiful wines. We spent a couple of days in the region, had a lovely afternoon picnic, with of course a carefully selected bottle of wine, and enjoyed the welcoming atmosphere of the region.
Our trip around the South Island continued with a trip to Queen Charlotte Sound, a beautiful hilly area with a maze of ocean inlets. The area is home to some excellent walks and super kayaking. We decided for an afternoon of kayaking to explore some quiet little inlets and bays, our starting point was the town of Portage which follows an hour drive from Picton along an impossibly tiny, curvy road. Picton, is a lush, picturesque little town which also serves as the ferry terminal to and from the North Island. As a little comment here, it is worth noting that unlike in British Columbia, there is more than one ferry company operating a car ferry service here, consumers in BC would no doubt be better served with a little ferry competition between Vancouver Island and the mainland. Anyhow, the Queen Charlotte region was fantastic, very picturesque and plenty of outdoor pursuits to keep you busy.
Our next stop was the northern city of Nelson, a great little city which felt almost tropical. Justin was a happy guy here since there was a great Kitesurfing scene here so he wasted no time in rigging up the kite and heading out in to some very choppy water. The water was lovely and warm, the sun was shining and the wind was 'on.' After a great day of Kitesurfing and chatting with some very friendly locals, we made our way up towards the trail head of the Abel Tasmen Track where we would walk along a 54km stretch of coastline camping on the beaches as we went along. The night before we arrived to walk the Abel Tasmen trail we had one of our best car camping spot to date, a not yet completed green of a golf course that sat precariously on top of a cliff with stunning views out over the sea. We woke the next morning to our fantastic setting and drove down the road for a cup of fine coffee and fresh fruit ice-cream for breakfast, this is surely what the good life in NZ is all about!
The Abel Tasmen walk is one of several famous multi-day walks in New Zealand, the beachy landscape of the trail attracted us. The trail was pretty straightforward and we had allocated 3 days to do it. The trick to getting this trail right is timing your walking so that you hit the multiple intertidal zones at low tide. Some of these intertidal zones are quite large and do not have a high tide option for avoiding them, so planning where to spend the night and how far to walk during the daytime is essential. We managed fairly well and were never more than thigh deep in water, it is not difficult really, but it is important to keep an eye on the time. The camping was very nice, but over all the trail and nearby beaches were a little busier than we would have expected. One thing that the Kiwis are very good at is tourism, which i guess you would be too if you had 2.5 million visitors each year. But sometimes part of being good at this tourism is knowing how to get plenty of people into a particularly nice area.
In the case of the Abel Tasmen, one of the popular things to do is to do day hikes where a water taxi will drop you off on one beach, you walk a few hours and then get picked up at another, and there were quite a number of people doing this. Also, on the beaches you've got more people with their private boats hanging out for day with families, water skiing, jet skiing and so on. All of this business would have been fine, but i guess when we decided to spend three days on this undeveloped protected coastal park, we thought it would be a bit more remote. The flip side to our slight disappointment here is that the Kiwis are doing a great job of getting people out to these areas and running some great tourism businesses, other naturally beautiful areas of the world would be good to pay closer attention to the way tourism in general is managed here in New Zealand, because overall they are very very good at it. No wonder it's such a popular destination, but bring a thick wallet if you come!
At the end of our 3 day walk on the trail we had arranged for a late afternoon pick up on a beach. The speed boat ride back to the start of the trail turned out to be quite the event when 20 minutes in, our boat slowed to a stop when the captain realized that we had been completely surrounded by hundreds of bottle-nosed dolphins who had decided to have a little play with us and put on a show. They darted all around the boat and a few came flying right out of the water like hasty circus acrobats, anxious to please the crowd, this was a very special experience. Shortly after our Dolphin encounter we came across a load of seals lounging on some sunny rocks of a small uninhabited island. What made this unique was that there were a number of small seal pups, only a few weeks old and you could tell they hadn't quite figured out how to move their awkward bodies yet and were funny to watch. I am sure they would one day realize that flopping about like a person trapped inside an awkward overstuffed bag of lard is very much a normal part of being a seal.
We arrived back to the car and treated ourselves to a nice coffee, fruit smoothy and a warm sunny patio, where we planned our next move. We would end up that night in an end of nowhere campground, which we choose instead of free camping so that we could charge up the camera and computer batteries. The next morning we woke up feeling fine, but all that was about to change. We are not sure whether it was the apple juice or the campground tap water, but something was very wrong. Both of us fairly quickly became rather ill feeling and what followed was a good four days of fun crushing, explosive diarrhea and stomach pains. Justin actually ended off pretty bad and became the most sick he has been on our whole trip. A strong course of antibiotics ended up putting him back on course. Steff's body seemed to have a good handle on the situation, while she by no means escaped whatever evil little guy had gotten into us, she had faired much better. Turns our the cause was giardia.
The illness had put a little damper on our trip down the more remote West coast of the South Island, which was very beautiful and full of life, including---Sand Fleas. Now, I don't know why previous visitors to New Zealand have left out details regarding these horrible little creatures, but we will certainly not subscribe to any such omission, they irritate to no end. Sand Fleas look like over grown fruit flies and love to bite people. Despite their name they don't just live in the sand, they live pretty much everywhere that you would like to be. Fortunately Deet based bug repellants seem to keep them at bay, but if you forget to put some on and decide to leave the safety of you vehicle, watch out! Now some areas are worse than others, some times of day are worse than others, but the West Coast definitely has plenty of the little buggers. The sad thing is that if you are not effectively covered in DEET they really threaten to ruin an otherwise great time. Anyhow, they have been mentioned and we will leave it at that.
While on the West Coast we visited the Franz Josef Glacier which is a wonderfully accessible, rather large Glacier that starts up in the peaks around Mount Cook (3755m), the highest mountain peak in Australasia. We spent an afternoon at the base of the Glacier and enjoyed the views. It was neat to watch the hundreds of clampon-clad tourists get led onto the glacier for a quick visit on the ice, lead by the glacier mountain guides. Remember the comment about how they are great at the tourist business here, well this was one of many great examples of this. We had initially planned on Glacier walking as well but didn't end up doing it for a few reasons, not the least of which was still being ill. But take note, those living near accessible glaciers, this glacier walking tours is a super money making business!
We continued our way down the West Coast and eventually headed back inland to the arid town of Wanaka, somewhere we had been looking forward too. We spent a few days in the area, just enjoying not moving around for a bit. We enjoyed some of the amenities of this quaint little town on the lake. Great for swimming, walking, a little wine touring and some mountain biking, not to mention one very unusual local cinema. The region has a very well organized set of mountain bike trails that are all graded and mapped. We visited the areas local downhill style mountain bike trails and then did a cross country style ride along a beautiful stretch of river. It was a great day out and since we were finally on the mend, good to get our bodies moving again with a bit of exercise.
Following a few days in Wanaka we drove down to Queenstown the whatever-adrenaline-pumping-activity-you-can-create-that-you-can- charge-tourists-heaps-of-cash-for destination. And that pretty much sums it up. Queenstown sits on a beautiful lake with a gorgeous mountain back drop, an unique looking mountain range called the Remarkables. For us the town felt overly contrived and while the activities it offered were interesting you couldn't help but feel like it was all just an elaborate tourist trap that could just leave you feeling, well, broke! We moved on, Milford Sound here we come!
With our trusty, but seriously under powered Nissan plodding on we started towards Fiordland, a large park in South Western New Zealand that is very rugged, wet and lush and deeply cut by mountain fiords that have made the area famous. (Just as a side note here, those who are sharp and up on their geography terminology will note that in the last paragraph I had said 'Milford Sound here we come,' Milford Sound is actually on of the most spectacular Fiords in Fiordland, it is actually a mistake that the name has never been corrected. Now, for those who are confused, as Justin would have been before learning this little tidbit, a Sound is ocean inlet that has been formed by an ancient river, while a fiord is an ocean inlet that has been formed by an ancient glacier. Milford sound is actually Milford Fiord, incorrectly named. But really whatever you call it, it's a pretty amazing place to check out).
The drive into Milford Sound must surely be one of the world's most spectacular drives, sheer mountain sides, deep rivers, waterfalls rainforest and glaciers are what defines this region, absolutely stunning. Nearing Milford Sound there is a long tunnel to drive through that is really only wide enough for one lane of vehicles which is why they use traffic lights on either end of the tunnel changing in 15 minute intervals. After popping out of the Milford side of the tunnel the road begins to wind its way down an amazing valley that begins as an impossibly huge rock amphitheater, this is road trippin' at its best.
Once we arrived in Milford Sound we made our way to the docks where we would join a small boat tour which we had booked a few days prior. The glacially carved rock formations, including a spectacular hanging valley were fascinating to view. The sides had many waterfalls dropping from the cliff tops, one of which we went under with the boat. One of the interesting features in this region is the short forests that cling to the rock faces. The forests of beech actually don't really have any soil to set their roots into so they have adapted a remarkable way of intertwining their roots into surrounding trees so that the whole forest is tied together they can cling to the steep rocky sides. What results from these type of forests is the occasional tree avalanche, where a whole group of trees sometimes slides off the rocks and plummets into the cold waters below, bizarre.
Milford Sound was fascinating, but it was time to make our way to another destination on our hit list, the Central Otago Valley. The Central Otago valley is another hot arid wine region here on the South Island, famous for its Pinot Noir wines. The Bald Hills winery from this region won the 2007 red wine of the year at the London International wine awards, so we felt there would be some excellent tasting to be had. We learned a couple of important things in the region; first of all we found that neither of us was a great fan of the Pinot Noir wines, even the best of them, and secondly that maybe wine awards aren't all they're cracked up to be, a point which we discussed with people at a few of the wineries, they all felt the same way. But, wineries are very interested in getting awards because it's great for business, even though they may not necessarily agree with the judges. We put a real dent in the list of wineries around here, Justin was hot on the pursuit of a great wine and Steff was drunk! Justin, being the designated driver here was making fine use of the spittoons provided, spitting out all, but the absolute best of the wines. Steff meanwhile, having her place in the passenger seat was getting increasingly chatty and rosy in the cheeks. After a while Steff had felt the touring should end before things got out of hand, Justin meanwhile was not satisfied that the nicest wines had been sampled. It wasn't a case of 'Lets Get Steff Drunk' or anything, it was actually that we were invited to a lovely roast chicken dinner the following evening and were determined to fine the perfect bottles of wine to go with the menu. We had decided on white, but were in a region famous for its reds. But alas at winery number seven our efforts were rewarded with a couple of stunning bottles of white, Justin was happy that suitable wines had been found and Steff was happy that there would be no more wines to taste. Following an hour or so of chin wagging with other wine touring folks at Olssens winery, we were on our merry way.
After a night in super free camping spot number, uhhhh we lost count, we made our way back to Christchurch for our tasty meal and preparations for the next phase of our South Island adventure.
We had traded in our reliable little Nissan station wagon for something a little more exciting- a motorcycle, where the plan was to spend the week cruising around roads we had selected for their motorcycle friendliness, namely that they didn't continue in a straight line for too long. We picked up a Honda 750 Shadow, American Cruiser Edition, which basically means that it looks much like a Harley, but is not as noisy and I suspect more reliable. The afternoon we picked this up was interesting as the car rental place hadn't provided enough riding gear for the two of us, so Steff was asked to drive a car back to the owners house to pick up the remainder of the gear, while Justin rode the motorcycle behind. The interesting thing here is that Steff ended up in a hot silver convertible, a Mercedes SLK230 Kompressor, this was one fun journey. It was a gorgeous sunny day, so Steff with the top down (on the car that is) in her cute pink t-shirt and blond hair blowing in the wind, drove with Justin on the New Honda cruising along beside her... Uhh, somebody refresh my memory here, aren't we supposed to be backpacking?!!
After getting everything sorted out with our gear we were on the road and making our way towards the popular Hamner Springs for a bit of hot spring soaking. The bike proved to be very comfortable and we were excited about the next few days of mountain roads. For those of you who are somewhat familiar with the South Island i quickly outline the route plan. We left Christchurch for Hamner then continued along the Lewis pass to Greymouth and then back across the mountains through Arthur's Pass before connecting up with the inland scenic route south before connecting with the road into Mount Cook. For those unfamiliar with the region, this is a pretty and scenic route. Well, a few days in the weather turned unpleasant and it was looking like we were not going to be seeing much of Mount Cook, so we changed our plan, came back to Christchurch and enjoyed a day riding around some stunning motorcycle roads in the Banks Peninsula region, what a super day, including (no surprise here) more yummy cheese and ice cream. As a great finish to our motorcycle adventure, Jo's friend Wayne lent us his BMW FS650G Dakar motorcycle to ride for the day after we returned the Honda, really nice to compare such different machines. I had been considering the idea of getting one of these BMW's at some point so it was great to have a first hand experience of riding one, unfortunately we only rode it around town since i think we were just a bit worn out from spending so much time cruising around the island on the Honda.
As a final bit of fun on our South Island adventure Jo had planned a two day tramp into the mountains near Arthur's pass where we would stay at a newly constructed mountain hut. The weekend turned out to be a great success with beautiful mountain scenery, good friends and a fantastic curry meal made be Sean, Jo's boyfriend. A super way to finish off the South Island tour. Tomorrow morning we head to the airport where fly up to Aukland for a little more Kiwi fun!