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Saturday 18th December 2004
For the first time in about 30 years, I decided not to spend Christmas with the family, I decided to spend it with a pack on my back in the mountains of New Zealand.
Two weeks isn't long enough for all of the South Island so we opted for a perambulation of the lower half. NZ is big enough that the distances can be inconvenient. But competition in the rental car market is fierce and we got a little blue Toyota Echo for $45/day including insurance. Better deals can also be had. We considered a campervan and, in retrospect, it might have been better.
We picked up the renta-car in Christchurch, stocked up on food and headed west.
The backbone of the South Island is a mountain chain stretching down the west coast. With Mount Cook roughly in the middle, the mountains are broken only by passes at Lewis in the north, Arthur's Pass near Christchurch and Haast on the south west coast. The chain dominate the landscape and every photo you take will feature the distant, snow covered peaks that were the backdrop to the Lord of the Rings films.
Arthur's Pass was our first encounter with the mountains. The road climbed from the plains of Canterbury up flower-encrusted valleys into a magnificent... cloud. Mountains are often associated with inclement weather and you can either rail at the fact or revel in it. Whatever you choose, you'll be seeing the inside of a lot of weather in New Zealand.
Here, I committed my first blunder. Arriving in NZ the week before Christmas is not the best time to try and find accommodation without booking. After half an hour of thrashing around we secured the self-contained 'Snowgrass' cabin for the scandalous rate of NZ$80/night. The cabin however had its own fire, electric stove, lounge and gorgeous hot shower. We settled down to dinner that night beside a window which looked onto the magnificent mountain right outside our door.
Over the whole trip we averaged about $55/night for a 'backpacker' double (the toilet is down the hall instead of next door). The terms hotel, motel and hostel are largely interchangeable in NZ and each will cater for all types of traveller. Take care to check what kind of room you're getting though - in one establishment a 'motel room' cost $110/night where a 'backpacker double' cost us $54. The only difference being the presence of a TV.
The next morning we arose to a beautiful crisp alpine morning with blue skies studded with fluffy white clouds. The mountains loom large around Arthur's Pass and there are plenty of walking trails, some for the geriatrics and some for the hardcore mountaineer.
We contemplated an 8 hour return trip to the top of the quaintly named Avalanche Peak but, since we were fresh off the plane, we opted for a 2 hour loop past Bridal Veil and Punchbowl waterfalls. Punchbowl in particular is a spectacular sparkling white fountain amongst the mottled colours of the earthy beech forest. We stopped for lunch along the way and meandered back Arthur's Pass.
Down the road from Arthur's Pass is the Bealey hotel. In 1993 the publican, Paddy Freaney, claims to have spotted a moa, an extinct giant flightless bird, while hunting deer in the Craigieburn Range. He had two witnesses and managed to snap a blurred photograph but the official line remains sceptical. Still, stranger things have been happened, so keep your eyes peeled!
We headed west from Arthur's Pass through alternating alpine valleys and high pasture. Somewhere beside a river we stopped for lunch and were joined by the jester of Kiwi bird life, the mountain parrot or Kea. Kea are totally unafraid of humans but on you should never feed them, it corrupts their natural habits and makes them dependent upon humans. They also have a formidable can-opener of a beak and will happily chew on your boots, puncture your pack or shred your clothes should you fail to feed them.
That night we stopped in the tiny village of Okarito just north of Franz Josef glacier.
Okarito is a former gold mining town in the crook of a lagoon. The local YHA is a tiny converted schoolhouse and has a total of 12 very skinny beds. We weren't able to squeeze into the YHA so we arranged to stay at the nearby Royal Hostel with the very amiable Sean and Rebecca.
We decided to use the remaining hours of sunlight and my mad Czech girlfriend insisted on going for a swim in the lagoon. I went along for moral support and she paddled round happily for about ten minutes before hypothermia set in and she had to retreat to the car to warm up.
After dinner we walked up the trig point behind the town. The walk starts from the end of the beach and takes about 45min one-way. It has excellent views and possible kiwi sightings. To the east the sunset glittered off the snow capped Mount Cook, to the north we could see Okarito and south was a powder blue lagoon dotted with herons.
The next day was glacier day. Tucked in behind the lofty Mount Cook are two gems in the South Island's arsenal of awesome sights - the twin glaciers of Franz Josef and Fox.
The best way to experience the glacier is from the air by helicopter or plane, but it costs multiple hundreds of dollars. Instead we chose a two-hour walk on the glacier for about $50NZ each. Our guide armed us with crampons and alpine staves and took us up the mountain and out ont the glacier.
It is, as you might expect, cold and hard. However it's also alive. As you pick you way across the cracked surface, you can hear the trickle of melting ice, the rush of a stream, and the clatter of tumbling rocks as the glacier advances. You feel like a miniscule flea, picking your way across the scarred back of a slumbering beast. You can only hope that it doesn't awake or, that if it does, it will be in a good mood.
After the walk we grabbed a meal in a local eatery.
New Zealanders shouldn't cook.
In 13 days of meals in New Zealand I had Nasi Goreng that featured frozen peas and a hard boiled egg, I had very expensive tapas that was more tasteless than the plate it was on, I had a steak sandwich that was so miniscule I had to chase the meat around amongst piles of lettuce and once we actually had a decent meal - at KFC.
You might think I'm being unfair, and I have had some excellent meals in New Zealand - for example the Indian in Christchurch and the food at the Orongo Bay Homestead, which I visited in 1997. But, on the whole, the food was terrible.
The piece de resistance of the trip came at little place in beautiful Manapouri. I opted for surf-and-turf, hoping that they couldn't mess it up. The chef excelled. My steak was grilled to leathery suppleness and was topped with a sauce so oily it appeared to be a natural disaster of Exxon proportions. My girl's lasagne slumped across the plate in a featureless smudge and was mostly tasteless. But the best was the salad. Lurking in the depths of my lettuce was a dead, petrified spider. When I showed it to the chef he said something to the effect of "Whew! Glad you found it and not a local," and dropped it in the bin.
We stayed that night in Haast, in the south. The weather was a little damp and in the moring we headed off to Queenstown in a veil of mist. The road up through the Haast pass is lined with forest and offers a number of diversions like the 'Blue Pools' or 'Thunder Creek Falls' to break the journey.
The road from Haast runs east through the pass and turns south along an incredibly scenic stretch of mountains beside Lake Wanaka. Halfway down the lake, the road jinks to the left and up through a hills to run south alongside the equally beautiful vistas of Lake Hawea. The road is broad and smooth and snakes through the alpine landscape in pleasant curves. I tooled the car around the corners, whistling "On Days Like These" and wishing I had a Lamborghini Miura!
The road descends out of the hills to gently undulating farmland and the little town of Wanaka. Wanaka is a pleasant little town and we stopped to replenish our cash and petrol, and to partake of some caffeine. Then we hit the road to Queenstown.
Queenstown is billed as the adventure capital of NZ. You can go : bungy jumping; bridge swinging; zorbing; paragliding; skydiving; hang-gliding; hiking; wine tasting; mountain biking; off-roading; quad-biking; flying foxing; golfing; horse riding; jetboating; canyoning; white water rafting; white water sledging; kayaking; river surfing; skiing (water and snow); climbing, abseiling and mountaineering (okay so golf isn't a an adventure sport but I bet you someone will turn it into one).
We considered a few of the alternatives but settled for some white water rafting. To sign up, we simply picked one of the throngs of sgops on the main street and turned up at the appointed hour to be bussed out to the start point on the Shotover river.
Little did we know that the adventure starts with the bus ride! To reach the Shotover you can either fly in by helicopter or go by bus via Skipper's Canyon. The road was built by Chinese gold miners who hacked it through the solid rock to get to the river. If you're sitting in a window seat you get to look straight down into the canyon. If you dare.
Our chatty American driver had to deliberately aim the front of the bus at the edge of the road so that the trailer behind would have enough clearance to swing round. On one corner our guide cheerfully explained that it was most dangerous point in the trip. All that prevented us from plunging to our deaths was a rickety 100-year-old, Chinese built revetment held together with sheep shit. But it was okay he insisted. They tested it twice every day -by driving a bus load of tourists over it.
On the bank of the river, they divvied us up into rafts and gave us a comprehensive briefing that provide useful advice like "if you fall out, don't stand up you'll probably break your legs" and "if we're hitting you on the hands with the paddle it means 'let go'". They introduced us to our safety kayaker and launched us out into the river.
The first 20 minutes was spent getting acquainted with the guide and learning basic instructions such as "forward right", "forward left" and the all important "Paddle you Mothers!"
We tested a few rapids and promptly got stuck on the first rock in the river. We passed through a few more simple rapids uneventfully and then, explained the guide, it was our chance to have a crack at the real thing. Next up was a series of six rapids. The first was easy, the second a bit tricky, the third easy again and the fourth was the big one. If we didn't dig deep and paddle our hearts out we would get stuck in the standing wave of the fourth rapid and we would all be going swimming.
From my vantage point at the front left end I can testify that number four was truly impressive. As we crested the third rapid I found myself staring at something that resembled a washing machine on full spin cycle. There was a three foot drop into a six foot wave and as we went in the guide screamed "Paddle, paddle, paddle you Moootttthhherrrrs!" and we paddled.
Rapids number five and six were a breeze after that.
The last section on the Shotover is special - a 170m tunnel with rapids at either end. The entry rapid was a bit tricky but we negotiated it with aplomb and cruised through. The 'rapid' at the other was a twelve foot drop into a relatively calm pool complete with grinning company photographer to snatch your portrait.
From Queenstown we descended to Ta Anau in Fjordland, for we had an appointment with the mountains. We slept in the Te Anau holiday park that night in a kind of wheelless caravan, but it had a toaster and a bed and four walls so it suited us.
The next morning we were up early, knocking on the door the NZ Department of Conservation. DOC manages the walking tracks in NZ and a damn good job they do too. We picked the Kepler Tack, just across the lake from Te Anau. It's less famous than the Milford or the Routeburn but both of these are booked solid up to six months in advance, so we booked the Kepler.
We cheated on the start, skipping the first 7km around the edge of the lake. We took a water taxi from Te Anau and htiched a quick ten minute ride across the lake to the campsite at Brod Bay. From there, the first day is a straight uphill climb through the beech forest to the hut on Mount Luxmore at 1085m. The huts well appointed, with bunks and matresses, gas stoves for cooking and fresh water.
At Luxmore, we took a nature walk with the hut ranger Mark and learnt a little about NZ ecology. Even before the Europeans arrived the Maoris were hard at work hunting the large animals into extinction. New Zealand's flightless birds evolved due to its relative isolation and lack of large predators. But this has made them sitting ducks for introduced predators like foxes and stoats. Mark explained that DOC makes efforts to control them but it's an uphill battle (female stoats can store fertilised embryos for years, waiting until conditions are right). Nearly all of the native birds in NZ are under threat, with the Kakapo, which was down to less than 50 individuals, numbering about 80.
Mark was a colourful character and a good source of information. After dinner we chatted him while he waited for people to produce their 'hut tickets'. A friend told me that out of all the tracks, Dusky was the one to do. Dusky is eight days walking in a straight line, with two river crossings and a pickup by boat. I asked Mark for his opinion - "Well Dusky's pretty good," he said, "but I reckon if you just went round Routeburn twice and had a roll in the mud it'd be about the same."
Day two of the hike marked Christmas Eve and the ascent to the highest part of the walk. From the hut you ascend the side of Mt Luxmore to cross just below the summit and the snowline. From there it's a long ridge walk through stunning scenery to two emergency shelters at Forest Burn and Hanging Valley. We had persistent low cloud on our walk but we got glimpses of the ranges on both sides.
From Hanging Valley you descend towards the second hut at Iris Burn. As you hit the treeline the track plunges into the valley, zig-zagging down to the hut. Here we encountered Tani, our second ranger, hacking away at the path with with a mattock, wearing standard issue DOC khaki shorts and a Santa hat.
The last day of the Kepler offers a couple of alternatives. Most people, tight on time and budget, opt to finish the track on the third day, going an extra 6km past the last hut at Moturuau and the finish. The clever people stay in Moturuau.
Our penultimate day took us down through an alpine valley filled with flowers and birds and we walked under bright blue skies in brilliant sunshine. Here the steamy beech forest gives way to open marshland and the track meanders along side of the river. At Rocky Point, a little over half way, there's a delightful grassy spot by the river to stop for lunch and an environmentally friendly pee in the DOC provided long-drop toilet.
At the end of the trail is Lake Manapouri and the Moturuau hut. Fringed on two sides by mountains and on a third by densely wooded forest it's a beautiful big lake. It has fine sandy beaches which tempt you for a dip in the lake but the water is freezing and you won't stay more than a few minutes.
The last day of the trek was a late start and a gentle stroll from Moturau to Rainbow Reach where we caught the bus back to Te Anau. In Te Anau we celebrated our return to civilisation with a hot shower, a pub meal and a substantial quantity of alcohol. Sleep came easy that night.
The next day we had to postpone a canoeing trip and opted to visit Milford sound. As nearly every tour guide in Fjordland will tell you, the name "sound" is a misnomer. Milford, Doubtful and Dusky are in fact fjords and not sounds. The critical distinction being that sounds are formed by rivers while a fjord is formed by a glacier - nobody told Captain Cook.
The road down to Milford is beautiful. The mountains slowly build out of the farming plains around Te Anau until they bracket the road with serrated, snow-topped peaks. Scattered amongst the twists and turns of the road are a couple of lakes fringed with fields of purple lupines.
Just before you enter the sound proper is the Homer tunnel, a long drain like cavern bored 1200m through the rock. Past that is a long winding descent with a couple of notable places to stop, like "The Chasm" - a maelstrom of white water carving the rock into twsited shapes.
The sound itself is justly famous for its beauty and we took a 2 hour trip out on one of the innumerable tours plying the waters. The tour was well narrated and organised but a little too clinical for my taste. The highlight was when the skipper, or his juniour apprentice, nudged the boat into a waterfall to ensure everyone on deck got a good soaking.
After Milford we backtracked through Te Anau to Manapouri, 20 minutes further down teh road. There we stayed in the 'Glade Motel and Motor Park' in a lovely little backpacker cottage with a well appointed kitchen nearby.
Our trip to Doubtful started with a 7.30am rendezvous at the local garage. A combination of bus, boat, bus and another boat got us across Lake Manapouri and into the sound. After a little instruction we were launched off the back of the boat in two man kayaks and spent a lovely couple of hours tooling around the sound. We encountered basking seals, a lone penguin, some frisky birds and little or no people.
Our time in NZ was running out so that night we hit the road, trying to knock some k's off the distance back to Christchurch. We made it as far as Dunedin which is a drab city made from grey stone and cinder blocks. But it's bordered by an area that is as lovely as the city is industrial, the Otago Penisula. At the aptly named SandFly Bay we stopped for a swim. Had we known that sea-lions come ashore here we might have skipped the swim. We found one later lazing on the beach.
The last day was a long haul back to Christchurch, which is a much larger and much pleasanter town than Dunedin. The streets are wide and leafy, the people are nice and the food is, surprisingly, excellent! The following morning we had time for some quick souvenir shopping and then dropped off the renta-car and lounged at the departure gate until our plane arrived.
New Zealand's South Island is as beautiful as it's portrayed to be. The views are astounding, the wilderness breathtaking and precious and the people friendly and hospitable.
One niggling impression I still have is that there is a vast and slickly organised machine designed to separate the tourist from his dollar. Travelling was easy but I didn't feel like we'd met many genuine Kiwi personalities along the way. Most people were happy to see us arrive, but even happier to see us leave.
If I were you, I would go to NZ in the off season and spend some time, getting to know the place. Just watch out for the food!