Tuesday, 29 December 2009

17.12.09 Skydive - Lake Taupo

I'd grown ever more indecisive about doing a skydive because of the horrible stories of peoples' parachutes failing and not living to tell the tale. I realised that if I kept dwelling on this fear I would never do it and so I decided to book it that very afternoon so I wouldn't even need to sleep on it, I'd just have to get on and do it while the sun was shining and I was up for it. I had a very real nervous feeling as we drove to Taupo airport but I told myself, if I started to panic, I'd chicken out and not do it, so I tried to keep as calm as I could and not think about it. It was fortunate, in a way, that when I arrived 1/2 hour early for my 3pm booking that they managed to fit me in on the 2.30pm flight, so I didn't need to wait and get more apprehensive. I was rushed through to the hanger to get kitted out with a harness because everyone else was already seated in the plane. My co-diver luckily insisted he strap me up properly even though his colleague was calling him to hurry up. Because my co-diver and me were last on the plane, we had to sit facing the opposite way, on the floor, next to the see-through door and would be the first to jump!
I started to get a bit worried about the fact I was the last one and maybe my straps weren't done up properly, but I was sure to banish all thoughts like this to the back of my head. My co-diver attempted conversation with me, perhaps to stop me panicking, but I couldn't really hear him because of the noise of the plane. Then he ran through the jumping procedure with me so I thought we must be getting high. However it was still only 5,000 feet (he had a watch with an altitude indicator) and he explained that this is the height at which he'll deploy the parachute and we still had to get to 12,000 feet before we could jump. I was looking down out the see through door and thought this is high enough for me thanks. When we reached 12,000 feet a green light went on next to the door and the other divers were indicating that we should go, go, go. My stomach had butterflies in it and I tried to keep smiling because everyone was looking at me, as I was the first to jump. My co-diver said it's going to be really windy, cold and noisy when he opens the door so be prepared. He checked I was okay then the door was opened, I swung my legs out into the air, feeling the force of the wind immediately, leant my head back, gripped on to my straps and before I knew it we were out, plummeting face down through the air, the earth coming up to us very quickly.

can you see me? - I'm the little white dot to the left of the plane!

The force was terrifying. I thought I was going to die. My co-diver tapped my shoulder three times which meant I could stretch out my arms, which I did. After what seemed a very long freefall, our parachute was deployed and suddenly we were jolted upwards and I was in a sitting position and the noise of the air had completely stopped. It was like we were hardly moving at all, just floating along, catching the breeze. Again he asked me if I was okay and I gave him the thumbs up saying it was fantastic. We were able to enjoy the brilliant views over massive Lake Taupo and up to the Tongariro mountains in the distance. The day couldn't be better. The sky was cloudless. He told me we'd have to do some spiralling down to get down a bit quicker because there were jumpers behind us. It was fun but made me quite ill from the pressure as we spun downwards. I was loving looking round though at all the patchwork of scenery, fields, buildings and when we circled down round the airport I tried desperately to pinpoint Greg who was waiting below with his camera.

Landing was a bump to the bum and we were down. I'd survived! Woohoo!

12.12.09 - 16.12.09 3 day Whanganui River Canoe Trip

the Wanganui River Valley

From Wellington we drive up the west coast of the North Island to Wanganui, a large historically Maori town on the estuary where the longest navigable river in New Zealand, the Whanganui (at 300km) reaches the sea. We enjoy culinary delights from the cake stall at the Riverboat Market on Saturday morning and test the wild sea waters off the coast of Castle Cliff beach nearby. But the surf and high winds prove a bit too much for us and our little boogie boards- we're tossed around as the waves crash in and get pulled back into the depths with the back current- we only last 20 mins! We arrange to hire a canoe from Canoe Safaris based in Ohakune and the following day we leave Wanganui to drive up the Whanganui River Road which hugs the river's route through the valley, to the small ski resort town of Ohakune, nearby the Tongariro National Park. The stretch of the Whanganui river from Whakahoro to Pipiriki is renowned as the most scenic part of the Whanganui river journey which has been given a New Zealand Great Walk status, even though it's on water. The whole area is part of the Wanganui National Park, managed by the Department of Conservation in association with the Maori tribes who still occupy the banks of the river in traditional dwellings. We stock up on all the essentials we'll need for our 3 day trip on the river and collect our watertight barrels from the Canoe Safari lodge to fill with food, clothes, sleeping bags and torches, the huts we'll be staying in have no electricity. We need to meet at the lodge early next morning to get to the river to start our first day's paddle. We'll be covering 30km downstream to reach the first camp, John Coull Hut. We're warned by the driver of the first meeting of river currents because there's the chance we could capsize. Apart from the odd rapid it should be an easy ride. The river levels are very high so it's flowing faster but the rapids shouldn't be as tricky. The water's hidden the rocks that cause the rapids but the undercurrents will still affect the boat, pulling it in different directions. The advice is to keep paddling if you start wobbling to try to remain steady. The canoe is a double Canadian canoe which is open-topped and a lot bigger than a kayak. However, unlike a kayak, it's more easily flipped and, although our gear is in so-called watertight containers, we don't want to risk it getting wet, so we make every effort possible to avoid going over. As soon as we get paddling it becomes obvious to me why people say they can forget who they are and everything in the outside world when they paddle down the Whanganui. It's so serene and quiet on the gentle flowing water and the continuous moving gallery of jungle foliage clinging to the sandstone cliff faces and countless waterfalls makes it one of the most relaxing and stress free experiences I've ever had. I personally believe a canoe down the Whanganui should be used as a form of treatment for stress!

Although there are other parties on the river while we are, it's quite convenient that the bends in the river hide them from us, so we feel that we're the only ones there. We only get to meet up with them when we all arrive at the first hut at different times. There are a Dutch couple, a German couple, four Americans, two Singaporeans and five Israelis. Staying in a small hut in communal bunks and using a small kitchen/ diner means that we have no choice but to get to know our canoeing companions. We eat together round the dining table, staying cosy by the logburner that Mae and Olive, lodge wardens, keep stoked for us. Mae and Olive are Maori and Olive has a Maori design tattooed on her chin to represent her important lineage. As it gets dark Greg lights our gas lantern to help us keep playing Tantrix and cards on the table but it's not long before everyone makes their way to the adjacent bunk room for the night. After a not so restful sleep- one of our group is a snorer- we pack up our barrels and untie our waka (canoe) for the second day on the river. We have to cover another 30kms to get to the next hut, a traditional Maori pa (settlement) complete with it's own marae (meeting house) called Tieke Kainga. The Department of Conservation have conveniently signposted the river banks to indicate where the campgrounds and huts are- they are often invisible from the river, so we know where to moor up.

We stop halfway to visit the famous Bridge to Nowhere, a short bush walk from the bank. The Bridge to Nowhere has an interesting story behind it to explain it's name. After the First World War, the New Zealand soldiers who returned were relocated to the areas surrounding the Whanganui and given land to farm. Unfortunately the land was too rugged and many of the farmers abandoned it. However, prior to this, it was planned to build a whole community in the area and construct a road to it which is why the bridge was built to cross a deep canyon. The concrete structure now sits redundant as the Great Depression also added to the problems faced by the farmers. Britain no longer agreed to pay the prices for imported goods from New Zealand so many ordinary folk had to leave their land to seek other employment. We walk across it but we notice it is no longer the bridge to nowhere, it in fact leads to a walking track. We feel duped! In the second half of the day we suffer strong head winds which make the paddling much more difficult. And, by the way, because I'm in front, I have to do most of the paddling while Greg is using his paddle as a steering rudder. Although, he would dispute this! We make it to Tieke Kainga with time to spare though and have to tiptoe into the hut as there's a Maori youth community group having a meditation session in front of the marae. When they're finished we're introduced to the group leader and the chief lady who also has a chin tattoo. They're very welcoming and offer us a hot drink. We 'book' our bunks and enjoy the last rays of sunshine before it disappears behind the hilltops. The teenagers play guitar and sing together in harmonies which are not bad, if a little loud at times. Their group leader tells us they're on a 6 day journey of discovery. As a Maori community worker he's trying to give them a positive experience and boost their pride in themselves. They all bunk up in the marae so we have the hut to ourselves. This one has two separate rooms so we're sure to pick the one the snorer isn't in. A peaceful uninterrupted sleep ensues. We're the first to set off on the last day and the river is still like a millpond.

It's beautiful when the sun hits the scenery. We paddle up one of the many waterfall gullies to have a close up look at the sparkling water as it comes over the mossy cliff edges. It's magical. I vow to try to recreate one of these spectacular natural water features in my garden one day! There are three sets of stronger rapids on the home stretch and there are times when we're pulled by the water underneath us into the flow even though we're a bit apprehensive about going through too many waves and are paddling as hard as we can. After mooring up for the final time at Pipiriki boat ramp we all say our goodbyes because, even though we've not seen each other on the river, we've grown quite close through spending two nights in huts together. This experience has to be up there with swimming with dolphins and the Tongariro Crossing as one of the best in New Zealand.

Thursday, 17 December 2009

08.12.09 - 11.12.09 Goodbye South, Hello North (again)

Well, that's us finished our grand tour of New Zealand's South Island and we're off, back up north, to spend the rest of our days here finishing exploring the North Island. We leave on a hot sunny day in Picton, and arrive in Wellington to be greeted by cold and wind. We were hoping it would be a lot better here but I guess it is 'Windy Wellington' so it's to be expected. Before journeying on further north out the city, we make a pit stop to visit the Weta Cave (Weta Workshops) which is a film effects studio based in the outskirts of Wellington. It was co-founded by Peter Jackson, director of Lord of the Rings, and all the props, modelling, makeup and visual effects for the movies were produced by the workshop. When we arrive, it's simply a small series of wooden buildings in a residential neighbourhood, very unassuming. We're not allowed to view the technicians and designers at work due to confidentiality reasons but we are invited to watch a film about the work they do and can see a few of the models that were made for the Lord of the Rings in their mini museum, including a life-size
Orokei and Gollum. They have costume designers, metalsmiths, leatherworkers, sculptors, animators and digital artworkers who all work to create the pieces for the films they're involved in- King Kong (animatronics of gorilla including facial expressions) Lord of the Rings (it took 7 1/2 years to produce all the props, models and costumes before filming commenced) Chronicles of Narnia series (armour and weapons plus props) and Master and Commander (pioneering water movement techniques in the ship fight scenes). To work there would be one of those dream jobs but with 1,000 applications every week, it's pretty doubtful!

06.12.09 - 07.12.09 Abel Tasman National Park

(Marahau Camping Ground)

Our journey up to Nelson through the Buller Gorge would've been a glorious drive had it not been for the weather. Endless rain prevented us from seeing the scenery and it was only later on that evening, having checked into a room at 'Accents in the Park' hostel in Nelson, that it cleared up and became actually quite a nice evening. We were glad of the real bed though, with crisp linen and the opportunity to spread our stuff out without having to shove it all back in bags like we have to do in the van and put it all away each evening. It's the little things when you're travelling! The forecast for the next day is much better though so we resolve to make an early start to drive up to the beginning of the Abel Tasman National Park to get a good day's walking in on their New Zealand Great Coastal Walk. Abel Tasman National Park is New Zealand's most visited and it's easy to see why, with it's golden bays and lush green forests. The majority of the park is only accessible by foot or water so we leave our van at the entrance in Marakau and grab a watertaxi up the coast to Bark Bay with the intention of walking the 26km back down the coastal path to retrieve our van. It's a fantastic sunny day and the water sparkles as we speed out of Marakau bay and take a small detour past Split Apple Rock which, you can guess what shape it comes in the form of. A group of kayakers are setting off at the same time as us to paddle the sheltered bays and perhaps camp up at one of the many Department of Conservation sites along the way.
We arrive at Bark Bay and jump off the back of the speedboat into the shallow sea waters and up on to the sand. We mustn't take too long admiring the picture postcard beach scene as we've got a lot of ground to cover before the day's through. The track winds round the coastal bluffs through rainforest vegetation hugging the side of cliffs at times and crossing numerous streams.
We have to take the high tide route to navigate round one bay because the low tide route, across the sand banks, had been lost to the incoming waves hours ago. The tides can advance a metre an hour here. We stop at Anchorage Bay for sandwiches in the sand and I try the temperature of the water- a not very comfortable freezing! But the sea is so clear and inviting I can't resist a few minutes swim then it's off again to complete the 3 1/2 hours back to Marakau, where we collapse exhausted.

05.12.09 Barrytown Knifemaking

(Greg's day of fun)

As recommended by our friend John, Greg chose to sign up for a day's knifemaking at Steve and Robyn's forge in the little village of Barrytown on the striking west coast. I, on the other hand, chose not to, just because it's not really been a dream of mine- unlike some people. So I became official knifemaking photographer for the day, catching all the enjoyment had be Greg and his knifemaking chums as they were taught all the essential processes from tempering the steel to sanding and polishing the blade by Steve, a characterful old gent who'd been running the classes since he stopped work as a lingerie designer. When I asked him about this odd career change he simply answered that people should have many changes in their vocation through life: he was quite philosophical- and liked to crack a joke every now and then- well, pretty much all the time. Their setup was very accommodating- all the equipment including the forge was laid out on their front verandah and the sanding was done on their back porch with views overlooking the sea. Robyn even took her recruits for a short bush walk by the house to work off the sandwiches she'd provided and there was a spot of axe throwing on offer, but you had to watch out for their two dogs! And, to top it all off and as a very touching gesture, we were all invited (including me who hadn't done anything) into their home for a glass of bubbly wine and a chat, once everyone had finished making their knives. Greg had a fantastic day and it was made all the better by the friendly nature of Robyn and Steve who weren't obviously doing it just to make money. We continued our drive up the west coast highway passing by beautiful, long sandy beaches on our left and miles of green rainforest on our right.

We stopped off at the unusually formed Pancake Rocks and ended up in the small town of Westport for the night.

More Photos from Fox

don't worry, I wasn't actually in charge of the ice axe!

the fast moving spikey ice formations of the Fox glacier

crawling through the ice cave

one of the many ice caves

trying to squeeze through the shallow first cave

02.12.09 - 04.12.09 Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers - Westland

From Queenstown we journey up the wild west coast to Fox and Franz Josef glacier townships, which, as you'd probably guessed, sit at the snouts of two of the biggest glaciers in the Southern Alps. The drive takes us through Wanaka and Mount Aspiring National Park, although the poor weather conditions prevent us from stopping to view any of the majestic lakes or mountain ranges. We'd been recommended by numerous parties to book in for a heli-hike on one of the glaciers, where you're taken up on to the main ice flow and given the chance to explore the blue ice formations. So we signed up for a 7.30am trip on the Fox in two days time and prayed the weather would change. The following day it did and, in the blistering sunshine, we attempted the perilous trek up to Roberts Point to view the Franz Josef glacier up close. The trek through hillside woodlands gradually became more tricky as we ended up clambering and scrambling over wet rocks which were obviously touched by the glacier on it's retreat up the valley, by the massive striation ridges covering them. We reached Roberts Point out of breath but exhilerated by the view of the massive ice wall in front of us. The sharp, protruding ice blocks indicate the fastest moving part of the glacier as the compacted snow in the top valley is pressurised to the point where it causes mass movement down the steep valley floor. The glaciers are in retreat but can sometimes grow and over 5m of movement in the ice flow can be measured in one day alone. We make the long trek back down the side of the glacial valley and drive to Fox in preparation fro our heli-hike tomorrow morning.
The day is the best of the season so far, according to our hike guide, Matty. The skies are completely clear of clouds and the sun is beaming. We've chosen the right time of day also to make the trip because any later and convection clouds start forming over the mountain tops obscuring the views and the surface of the ice starts to become slushy as it melts in the sun causing the scene to be less pristine. So we feel pretty lucky, all in all.
The flight up to the landing point in the middle of the main flow takes about 5 minutes, but it's 5 minutes of sheer beauty with tremendous views up the glacier to Mount Cook and Mount Tasman. (Yes, we are directly on the other side of the Southern Alps from where we viewed Mount Cook a week or so ago.) We strap some metal crampons on to the soles of our boots and are given a quick lesson on how to walk on the ice, basically like a penguin, flatfooted and searching for adequate ridges in which to dig the crampons into for grip. Matty explains the ice changes shape daily and sometimes there can be ice caverns where sheets have buckled up forming tunnels and expanses under the ice. These can melt and break off during the day, so quite often during our trek, he has to check out the formation first, before we go to explore it, in case there's any significant fragility. We step over deep crevasses and can't resist poking our wooden walking poles down some of the meltwater holes where we would lose them to the depths if we didn't hold on. We're standing on an ice sheet 250m deep with meltwater streams all round us which burrow continuously into the mass underneath.
the Fox glacier
We come upon an ice cavern that's quite shallow in height and has a slippery, sloping base and those of us adventurous or stupid enough to sttempt sliding through, give it a go. Both Greg and I get stuck halfway where the gap gets too small for our hips but with a bit of wriggling against the freezing surfaces we plop out the other end drenched. We continue on up the face of the ice flow looking out for interesting formations as we go.
us in the Ice Cave
Another bigger cave shows itself and after a quick safety check by Matty, which involves chipping away at parts of the overhanging ice to see if it falls, we pile in one by one, admiring the intense blue light refraction on the deep ice. The suns starts to melt the surface of the glacier and we view a Moulin, a meltwater stream gushing down through the depths. Another hour or so of ice investigation and a quick taste of pure glacier water and we're back on the helicopter to fly to the green valley floor at Fox town.
And sure enough, as we land at around 12noon and look back up the valley to the glacier, clouds are already perching over the tops starting to obscure the fabulous views we've just been enjoying.


It's interesting to note that, while in Milford, I happened to read up on the current projects the Department of Conservation are involved in, one of them being the gifting back of traditional Maori owned land across the majority of the South Island. This land was taken by the crown and there has been an ongoing court investigation for many decades into the legitimacy of this changing of hands, from Maori to British farmers, the outcome of which has been that the land was, in fact, unlawfully taken and it should be returned to its original owners, the Maori Ngai Tahu tribe. There are similar disputes taking place across New Zealand today. It stems back to the misunderstandings of land ownership and title caused by the interpretation of the Treaty of Waitangi (1840), from English into Maori. When the British colonists wanted their newly settled country of New Zealand to become an official Crown colony of the British empire, they drew up a Treaty to be signed by 50+ Maori chieftains and members of the British consulate. This Treaty indicated that New Zealand would henceforth become a country under the crown and therefore, although the Maori citizens could retain ownership of their land if they so choose, any selling of that land was to be done only to the crown, in other words compulsory purchasing. The land would then become crown land and all rights would be transferred to the new landowner. However, when the document was hastily translated in Maori, the essential wording describing ownership was mis-represented and in the Maori version, land that was bought by the crown would still retain its overall governorship to the Maori who owned it, more like a rental scheme. In their eyes, the Maori were rightful owners of the land on which they'd lived and tended for generations and these newcomers were still inferior to their populations and caused no real threat of take over. Which brings me back to the signing over of most of the South Island back to the Ngai Tahu tribe. You see, the Maori system of land ownership was worlds away from the British one at that time. Maori land ownership was attained by the usage of the land, growing or hunting on it and age old understandings between tribes members, so there may have been no particular boundary lines even. Therefore, when the British surveyors came in, measuring up the land and giving it value, the Maori were tricked into giving up their land due to false dealings and exchanges with the British. Without a valid form of currency the Maori were vulnerable to being unjustly rewarded for the purchase of their land.
This is why the Department of Conservation has seen fit to return land to the Ngai Tahu tribe, allotting them a partnership role in the continuing conservation of it and areas where they are free to use the land as they once did, particularly traditional fishing. Traditional Maori names have been re-introduced, which is why Mount Cook is now precursed by it's original Maori name of Aoraki (Sky piercer).

29.11.09 - 01.12.09 Queenstown - Otago

We journey up from Te Anau to Queenstown on a beautiful sunny day which helps to illuminate the mighty peaks and rolling hills of the Lake Wakatipu region. The lake itself is huge and shaped in an L with the resort town of Queenstown located on its banks on the corner of the L. Queenstown is the most frequented of all New Zealand and, as such, is a little disappointing in its lack of authenticity- even the operators working behind the counters of the trillions of adrenalin sports booking offices are tourists themselves and have little local knowledge. The town certainly has money with its impressive array of plush lakeside apartments and swish holiday chateaux. It's known as the adrenalin capital of New Zealand because it offers bungies by the bus load, jet boating, sky diving, paragliding and the highest swing in the world.
Our first taste of this is a trip in the Shotover River Jetboating expeience, a 1/2 hour trip through the narrow gorges of Shotover Canyon, our driver missing the sharp protruding rocks by centimetres and performing 360 degree turns in the shallow waters at very high speeds. Cool! After surviving this first activity we slow down a bit and spend the following day trekking the end of the Routeburn Track from glorious Glenorchy, at the other end of the lake, where the scenery is specifically reminiscent of the Scottish Highlands. The day is not so sunny and we actually start out with hats and gloves. But these are soon shed as we pick up our pace through the beech forests gently climbing uphill for about 2 hours. The path then gets steeper and we have to negotiate our way past avalanches, one of which completely destroyed the path in 1994 and is still very treacherous in bad weather.
It's very impressive, the power of the rocks and the water shows its evidence of its force in the fantastically eroded twists and turns of the numerous waterfalls we pass over on suspension bridges. We reach the summit pass for lunchtime and choose a picnic spot right up in the hidden valley of craggy peaks, a calm oasis away from the freezing winds. It's an eerie place up here especially with the cloud cover descending over the tops of the mountains. Unfortunately we can't continue any further because it's time to turn back so we begin the 3 1/2 hour descent back to the shelter. We've covered 24km today, so that's another tally to add to our book. The next day we make the interesting decision of doing the highest swing in the world, the Nevis Arc. I say interesting because, having done it, I 'think' I can say I did enjoy it but it's very difficult to remember the exact feelings I had when the trapeze that was holding us both, suspended 164m over the canyon floor was released into tens of seconds of freefall before catching it taut and swinging us gently across the expanse, our feet dangling in mid air. I think it was feelings of intense fright and the sensation of vast amounts of air whizzing past us as we dropped though the air, letting gravity do its work. Wowee!
after doing the highest swing in the world

27.11.09 - 28.11.09 Milford Sound - Southern Fiordland

Milford Sound
(Milford Sound Lodge)

The drive between Lake Te Anau and Milford Sound (119km) is reputedly the best for scenery in all New Zealand and it doesn't disappoint. Although as we cross into the Fiordland National Park the clouds begin to descend and by the time we reach Milford the scenery has completely disappeared under swathes of cloud and rain. We check into Milford Sound Lodge camping facilities and proceed to spend the whole of the rest of the day waiting out the rain in the lodge's recreation room, reading and watching films on our laptop. It's miserable out there and the only thing that's keeping us going is the promise that it'll turn tomorrow- we have a four hour kayaking trip planned. And, sure enough, later on the downpour lets up a little and then fizzles out by 8pm so we're hopeful for tomorrow. We're delighted the next morning when we spy chintzes of blue, cloudless sky through the gaps in our van's makeshift curtains. It's clear and sunny! Woohoo! The sheer cliff faces and rocky summits which rise up 360 degrees round our campsite are pretty impressive- it's the first time we've seen them. But we're not so impressed by the hundreds of pesky sandflies which keep buzzing round our heads and biting us as we try to get ready for our kayak. Oh well, you can't have everything! We're collected by our guide from Roscoe Kayaks and bussed down to the jetty at Milford Sound. The day couldn't be better and we thank our lucky stars we hadn't gone out there yesterday. It would've been an utter washout. We're kitted out with life jackets and spray skirts then motorboated 8km through Deep Water Basin and into the Sound itself- a vast sea inlet with highsided crags and snowcapped mountains on either side. We're informed that it was all shaped by glaciers in the last ice age, the water stretching 200m below us and striation marks from the passing of gigantic boulders in the ice are still plainly visible on the sides of the craggy mountains. Our two-seated kayaks are lowered into the waters, there are two more couples aswell as us, and we're asked to clamber in and ensure our sprayskirts are sealed to the holes to stop water getting into the boat. We're run through the 'what to do if your kayak capsizes' then it's off on our way, gently paddling along the sides of the crags, clinging as close as we can to get a sense of the magnitude of the mountains before us and to try and spot any wildlife on the mountainside in front of us. We're constantly passed by cruise ships touring the Sound and overhead by small planes and helicopters doing the same, so it's not quite the peaceful atmosphere you'd like. However there is a definite lull in the proceedings and we're left on our own in our self-propelled vessels to linger as long as we want, gaping up at the scenery all round us. Our serenity is dashed soon enough as we come upon the awesome Sterling Falls coming off the side of the cliffs in a torrent, swelled by the rainwater of yesterday evening. We paddle through the cold spray and are encouraged by our guide to attempt to get as close to the base as we can by paddling as quickly as possible straight for it. The spray becomes more forceful as the wind created by the force of the water hits us head on, but we do manage to get pretty far in, until we can no longer take the piercing icy water in our faces! What we'll do for a thrill! We recover and continue on along the edge of the Sound rounding an outcrop, on which a small colony of young male fur seals are basking and playing. Then we're joined by some bottle-nosed dolphins who swim alongside us showing us their slender arched bodies and fins.
We paddle up to a stoney beach to get out of the kayaks for a lunch break- it's magic to think this bay is only accessible by water. Then it's a push-off back into the waters for the paddle back. Unfortunately Greg's spray skirt seems to have sprung a leak and is letting in water each time we crash through a wave coming from behind us. This makes us quite unsteady and there's a couple of times when we're riding the wave and I feel like we're wobbling and about to capsize. I'm more worried about the cameras in the dry bags getting wet if we capsize than me though! It doesn't happen fortunately though and we make it back to the jetty safe and sound. My first kayak experience- a pretty good one on the whole. Because it's still such a beautiful day we try to make the most of it by stopping off on the road back from Milford through the alpine scenery,
alpine scenery on the Milford road
at Chasm Falls, the tunnel where the cheeky mountain Kea parrots keep watch at either end for tourist pickings and Key Summit track- the beginning of the Routeburn Great Walk. It takes us just over an hour to reach the Key Summit pass where it's possible to view three different mountain ranges on either side.
It's well worth the climb and with the light starting to fail across the still cloudless skies we feel pretty special to be one of the last people on the mountains today to experience their serene beauty. The Southern Fiordland district has been the most impressive area on our New Zealand trip so far- the mountains are awesome grey black crags with gushing waterfalls, turquoise river waters, snow capped peaks and lush green rainforests.

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

25.11.09 - 26.11.09 Lake Te Anau and Lake Manapouri

(Southern Fiordland District)

We spend most of the day on the highway 1 south to Te Anau, a small town on the banks of Lake Te Anau, gateway to the most magnificent scenery in Southland, the Fiordlands of Doubtful and Milford Sounds. Most of this spectacular area of mountain ranges and sea inlets is only accessible by foot, crossing the peaks and valleys via the popular Milford, Kepler and Routeburn tracks. When we enquire about the Milford Track we find the hut accommodation provided by the Department of Conservation has been booked up solid til March next year- it's supposedly the best tramp in New Zealand. We attempt a day walk on the Kepler Track however, leaving from our campsite in Te Anau at 7.30am. The first few hours are fine and sunny and while we ascend towards the first hut enroute we enjoy the beech forest and impressive limestone bluffs. However, approaching the top of the climb, rain starts to fall and by the time we're crossing the exposed tussockland where, on a good day a fabulous view across Lake Te Anau and beyond can be appreciated, the rain has turned to driving sleet hitting our faces with the force of gale force winds behind it, and we decide we've done enough. Coming back down the increasing rainfall has turned the path into a river and our lack of waterproof trousers causes us to be continually uncomfortable. We're satisfied with ourselves that we managed to clock up 36km today but, by the time we arrive back at the campsite even our so-called 'waterproof' hiking boots are full of water. Not very pleasant. However, a hot shower, cup of tea and some dry clothes later, we feel 100% better. The Fiordland National Park can experience up to 6m of rain each year which does help to contribute to the lush rainforest type vegetation but does also mean you must expect at least one heavy deluge during your trip.
The following morning is a different story thankfully. We take the sunny drive down to nearby Lake Manapouri, a stopping off point for cruises on the Doubtful Sound.
We catch a boat ride out across the lake to see the largest underground hydro electric power station in New Zealand, which harnesses the force created from the lake water gushing through metres of underground tunnels. To build it was a controversial proposal back in the 1960s, due to it's unsightly structure in the midst of the beautiful fiordlands, but the unique position between Lake Manapouri and the sea waters of Doubtful Sound convinced objectors (the level of the lake sits at 180m above sea level so the difference allows for a massive drop to create the energy). We're bussed underground down through an access tunnel 200m below the surface to view the huge generator hall,
where we're also given an explanation of how the station was gouged out of the mountain by hand using an immense workforce drafted in from around the world. The station now produces the most energy from any hydro plant in the country. We exit into the mountain air again and are driven to the mouth of the Doubtful Sound visible from the only road in the entire area, built purely for connections from Lake Manapouri to Doubtful. It has no link to the other side of the lake other than by boat.
Later, back on dry land, we make a small detour to the Wairau River and the opposite end of the Kepler Track, primarily because this is where they filmed the River Anduin scene in Lord of the Rings (where Arwen conjures up the white horses to defeat the Nazgul) and the Dead Marshes.
the 'Dead Marshes'
The evening itself is very pleasant so I enjoy the tramp up to the viewpoint across the wetlands (they don't seem as spooky as in the film) and back again.

Sunday, 29 November 2009

23.11.09 - 24.11.09 Dunedin and the Otago Peninsula

Dunedin was first founded by Scottish settlers, one of whom was Robbie Burns' nephew. They decided the scenery and climate reminded them of home and proceeded to build a traditional Scottish city centred around an octagonal street system with a statue of Robbie Burns adorning the centre octagon and a long thoroughfare passing through the middle named, on one side, Princes Street and, on the other, George Street, as in Edinburgh, Dunedin's Scottish counterpart. We make a compulsory detour to view the steepest street in the world in one of Dunedin's northern suburbs. (pic to follow) It's named Baldwin Street and, with a gradient of 1 in 2.86 it features in the Guinness Book of Records. We decide to leave the Tank parked up at the bottom, just in case, and walk up the concrete stairs at the side. It's pretty impressive and it must be quite a sight when, every year during the Dunedin Festival, participants in the famous Gutbuster competition have to run up and down the street as fast as they can.
One of the natural attractions of the Dunedin area is the Otago peninsula which sits just east of the city and it surrounded by waters rich in marine life- seals and sealions, penguins and albatross. We drive out to Sandfly Bay
towards evening because we've read that the endangered yellow eyed penguins, whose population today stands at only 300, make their nightly journey up the beach and over the dunes to their nests and it's quite a spectacle. The Department of Conservation have built a viewing hut for this specific purpose because the penguins are very shy creatures and will not come ashore is they see people on the beach. This could be fatal for their little chicks because they'll go hungry. At this time of year though the eggs are being incubated by the mother and the male penguin comes ashore to relieve his mate and take over the duty. We wait in the hut for a significant amount of time and the light starts to fail and then, sure enough, a penguin swims ashore and starts waddling and jumping over the rocks on the beach. He then proceeds to clamber his way slowly up the tussock covered hillside to the very top where he enters his nest and his mate comes out in his place. We wait again for any more but eventually give up and head back along the beach, which is incidentally dotted with gigantic snoozing sealions.
It's important not to get too close these big daddies as they have an awesome jaw strength and can move very quickly across the sand when they want to. We spot a couple more penguins swimming but we choose to leave the beach briskly in case they're too frightened to come ashore.

Fleur's Place - notice the large green mussels!

the very weird Moeraki boulders

the Queen at Oamaru Victorian fete and some interesting 'old' bits hidden away in one of their warehouses

20.11.09 - 22.11.09 Aoraki/ Mount Cook National Park

(Glentanner Holiday Park)

After leaving our community campground in the sweet little mountain village of Mount Somers we continue on our journey south through the Canterbury district and on to Mackenzie Country. We are accompanied the entire way by ranges of scenic mountains to the right hand side of our route and when we reach Mackenzie Country, the scenery becomes more spectacular. The turquoise lakes of Tekapo
and Pukaki
are filled with glacial moraine which, when ground down by the water, gives them this unique colour. They are glacial lakes which lead tantalisingly up to the peaks of the Southern Alps beyond, including the highest of them all, Mount Cook.
Mount Cook or Aoraki, it's Moari name, is the tallest mountain in Australasia at 3,750 metres. It's an impressive peak, however, having trekked to over 5000 metres in Peru and seen the Andean range we don't reckon it's quite on the same par! (I begin to realise we were pretty spoiled by the awesome scenery we encountered in South America). Minas Tirith, the city from the Lord of the Rings, was set in the plains of the Mount Cook valley though, so we're pretty 'psyched' (as they say) by this and the fact that we meet a real life ork from the original movie! He now works at the alpine gear store in the Sir Edmund Hillary Centre but was conscripted to become one of the 300 ork extras when Peter Jackson and his film crew came to town. The whole valley was closed off and, I would guess, virtually all the local men would've been invited to don makeup and costume and try out their roars for the camera. Unfortunately the weather doesn't want to do justice to the glacial scenery in front of us, clouding the tops of the ranges pretty much all day and throwing down plenty of rain, so much so that we're forced to spend most of our day in the Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Centre, watching a 3D film of a scenic flight over Mount Cook and a couple of Planetarium movies on the stars of the Southern Hemisphere night sky and space travel. We learn that Edmund Hillary, the New Zealand born first man to conquer Mount Everest, used Mount Cook and surrounding ranges as a training ground for his larger expeditions and has had a bronze statue of himself as a young climber erected in front of his alpine centre at the base of Mount Cook. Although it rained and there were gale force winds, we were lucky enough first thing in the morning, to make a quick pilgrimage to the snout of the Tasman Glacier and it's glacial meltwater lake, Lake Tasman before the rains got too heavy.
We climbed over moraine boulders through the glacial valley where the glacier has been retreating. This was obvious from the large stone cliffs on either side of the valley, showing where the gigantic glacier had pulled away from. The Lake itself displayed many icebergs some of which are actually the tips of a mass of ice under the ground stretching 200 metre deep in places. We were unable to make the trek up to the neighbouring glacier in the Hooker Valley because of the weather so instead we opted to get on the road south to Dunedin, stopping at Omarau, a pretty Victorian town which, as luck would have it, was in the middle of it's annual Victorian fete. The boys on the gate were dressed in kilts, so we felt we had to attend! The town's history started with a trade in refrigerated shipping which brought in enough wealth to construct beautiful limestone buildings in the Victorian style. The fete was full of locals dressed in Victorian finery, traditional Victorian games and fine foods, music and even a competition, judged by the king and queen, for the best Penny Farthing cycler! The weather by the East coast had turned warm and sunny so, when we stopped at the famous Fleur's Place in Moeraki for seafood and ultra fresh fish, we felt like we were on holiday again sitting at our white tableclothed spot overlooking the small fishing harbour. I braved a shellfish hot pot, with large green mussels, scallops and welks and, as I'm not normally a seafood connoisseur, I think I did pretty well, to finish most of it! Greg thoroughly enjoyed his blue cod fillet but wouldn't touch the tiny cockels on the side of his plate, re-iterating his gastro motto 'No insects, no molluscs!'