Photos

For those interested, I’ve uploaded my entire photo collection from New Zealand. (Well, obviously not the entire collection – I had to remove those incriminating shots of Wilson Tuckey doing… well, I’m not quite sure what it is he was doing, but he was certainly hard at work.)

Unfortunately, I have limited web space, which means that (a) I’ve had to reduce the resolution to 1024 x 768 (or 768 x 1024), and (b) they may removed at some unspecified time in the future when I need to upload something else. But for now, I invite you to peruse my adventures in pictures. If for some reason you’d really like to acquire a higher quality version of some particular photo(s), let me know.

Christchurch

The drive to Christchurch was long, and took us through the middle of the South Island, away from the mountains of the west to the summery east. The wind whipped up an enormous swell on the light, milky-blue waters of Lake Pukaki. The colour comes from the tiny particles of rock (rock flour) suspended in the water. We ate something resembling a picnic lunch at Lake Tekapo (the bakery there sells excellent pies), a little way to the east.

I can’t report anything much from my visit to Christchurch, because I only spent one night there. I wandered the streets around Cathedral Square the night I arrived, and also the next morning, but I didn’t really see anything. I parted company with my new friends from the Kiwi bus, the night before at Queenstown, then en route to Christchurch, and finally as I left the hostel for the airport.

My final act in New Zealand was to spill a large cup of soft drink all over the floor and around the cash register at a dodgy fast food outlet inside the airport. I immediately regretted even thinking about eating there, and I enjoyed the pre-packaged in-flight meals considerably more.

Milford Sound

Kiwi Experience runs day trips to Milford Sound from Queenstown: five hours on the bus each way, in the middle of which you get a two hour cruise up and down the fjord. One of my friends and I decided this itinerary was a little abrupt given how beautiful Milford Sound was reputed to be. We elected to stay the night somewhere in the area rather that heading straight back to Queenstown.

Organising this meant going outside the normal Kiwi Experience planning, but one of Kiwi’s selling points is that you can jump on and off the bus along the way. Owing to a lack of accommodation in Milford itself (the result, I assume, of being in a national park), we sought to stay in Te Anau. Te Anau is about two hours away from Milford, which is hardly ideal but still a lot closer than Queenstown. We would travel with our companions from Queenstown, do the cruise around Milford and get off the Kiwi bus at Te Anau in the evening, and get back on the following day at the same time. After a night in Te Anau, we would enlist the services of Rosco’s Milford Kayaks to get a more close-up view of things. Fortunately, Rosco’s runs its own bus service to and from Te Anau, but I was worried throughout most of the trip that we would miss our Kiwi connection on the way back. We left most of our luggage in Queenstown, me with premonitions of having to chase the Kiwi bus frantically down the road, in which case a suitcase could be a fatal burden.

So that was the plan.

The initial trip to Milford was easy enough, planned as it was by people who know what they’re doing. The driver (a different one) obviously knew the route like the back of his hand, and we flew down twisty hill-side roads at speeds that you’re just not supposed to do. After passing through Te Anau for a breakfast stop (they make a nice chocolate croissant in the “Pop Inn Cafe”) we began to make stops to admire the scenery. These get progressively more awe inspiring as you get closer to the fjord, and you begin to realise that the Milford well deserves its reputation.

The cruise begins with a buffet lunch, which is very nice (particularly for low-budget travellers such as ourselves). I felt torn between eating as much as I could and going outside to look at the scenery that was, after all, the reason we’d come here. The latter instinct won out once I was sufficiently stuffed with spring rolls and samosas. The low cloud cover and light rain creates a mystical effect inside the fjord, which rises on both sides to seemingly impossible heights, well above the lower cloud levels. Dozens of waterfalls of varying sizes cascade down cliff faces that look almost imaginary. Every time you look up and try to locate the top of a hillside covered in vertical rainforest emerging straight out of the water, you see another, even more massive shape behind and looming over it in the clouds. The entrance to the fjord gives you a taste of this, but the view from the decks of the cruise ship was simply unreal, and unfortunately photos don’t do it justice. Most of the group ended up quite wet, from the rain and spray from some of the enormous waterfalls as we went for a close-up look.

The ship eventually emerged into the Tasman sea, where the calm of the fjord disappears. On the way back, we were dropped off for a few minutes at the Milford Deep Underwater Observatory, where you can see sea creatures only eight metres down that are normally only seen below 40 metres. This is made possible by the blanket of dark freshwater on the surface of the fjord that blocks much of the sunlight from entering the salty water beneath.

Our accommodation in Milford was the Lakefront Backpackers Hostel, which was possibly the best of all the hostels I’ve stayed at, and made me regret not being able to stay longer in Te Anau. Our dorm “room” had a kitchen, bathroom, dining table, arm chairs and a balcony large enough to host a barbecue. We met up with an Israeli guy from who we learnt a little of the news of the outside world – specifically that Israel was now in a pitched battle with Hamas. We also engaged in a short discussion of theology.

My friend from the Kiwi bus and I were to wake up at 5:15 the next morning, in time to be picked up by Rosco’s minions. We woke up alright, but my friend, who’d been feeling a little sick the previous day, decided that she couldn’t do it, so it was just me. Rosco’s bus came right on time and took me and three Texans down to the waterfront at Milford, where we geared up in all manner of colourful clothing, and were instructed in the art of kayaking. This time I announced that my primary goal was to not capsize.

As in Mercury Bay, I once again was in the back steering. The going was fairly relaxed, though my left leg kept complaining about being in an awkward position. Unlike in Mercury Bay, the only stops we made were on the water, where we “rafted up” by collectively holding all the kayaks together as a raft. To be honest, the Milford Sound experience had actually been a lot more compelling on the cruise ship the previous day, perhaps because that had been my first exposure to it. The scale of the place, I think, is much more impressive when you’re moving through it at an appreciable speed. Nevertheless, looking up at the hillsides from the kayak is still unreal. Imagine a perfectly ordinary piece of rainforest, and then imagine that someone has tipped it up at 80 degrees. Once again this effect is very difficult to capture in photos. Every now and then we spotted a seal, but unfortunately it was the wrong time of the year for penguins.

The timing worked out fine in the end. I arrived back in Te Anau with 90 minutes to kill, but in my paranoia I spent much of this within sight of where the bus makes its scheduled stop, eating another chocolatey Fiordland delicacy.

Queenstown

Queenstown is a moderately-sized town that (as mentioned in the Lonely Planet guide) feels like a small city. There are far more people walking around the streets at night than you would expect, most of whom I imagine are tourists.

We were hammered with information about all the activities you can do in Queenstown, including bungee jumping, canyon swinging, sky diving, river boarding, jet boating, etc. ad infinitum, and this is essentially what the town is all about. Its main street is lined with companies that will arrange anything that involves almost colliding with something at high velocity. That’s not the reason I came to New Zealand, however, and for me Queenstown was more of an opportunity to relax than to get the adrenaline pumping. Indeed, Queenstown is a very nice town to relax in if you resolve not to almost collide with things at high velocity.

We were told that we should face our fear, by jumping off a bridge at the original commercial bungee site. I accept that I have a fear, and that given the safety precautions taken it’s technically an irrational fear. But there’s just something missing from the argument. Why must we face our fear? Sure, if you’re into that sort of thing then go for it. But this particular fear (of jumping off things) isn’t something that presents a barrier to leading a healthy and fulfilling life. The only door that opens for you is the one where you fork over large sums of money to do it again.

Queenstown does have an underwater observatory, for which you pay $5 to see the really ugly fish that inhabit Lake Wakatipu a few metres below the surface. This is probably the cheapest thing you can do in Queenstown (bar simply walking around), but I’m not convinced it was worth the money.

On the walking side of things, the climb up to the inspiringly-named Bob’s Peak gives you some great views. There’s also a gondola that will take you to the top in far less time, but that’s cheating. The path up the hill is marked with signs pointing to several downhill mountain bike tracks, which are practically vertical in places and will probably take you a little further than almost colliding with things at high velocity. At the top there’s a cafe, a restaurant, a shop or two (I wasn’t really paying attention), a bungee jumping platform and a pair of luge tracks.

The Base hostel in Queenstown does have an irritating policy of locking both the kitchen and laundry at 10pm (in practice, earlier), and any food or clothes you may happen to have in there at the time will be inaccessible until the morning. Thus, on my last night in Queenstown, unable to cook my own food, I popped over the road for a Fergburger. Everyone (almost) raves about Fergburger, and I can report that it was quite nice, but then I’m not a connoisseur.

Wanaka

The trip to Wanaka on New Year’s Day was fairly uneventful. We stopped off at Lake Matheson for a bit of photography, but we weren’t given enough time to do the full walk, which (as I learnt later) would have shown us a fairly amazing view. We also stopped over at Thunder Creek Falls.

Our driver informed us, on the way into the township of Wanaka, that we could feed the dolphins if we waded out into the lake. Remembering the Christmas lunch in Wellington, I was rather sceptical of this suggestion. We went down to the lake anyway to check out the scenery, but it was freezing. The hills and mountains around Wanaka are picturesque, but there’s a large ridge rising just to the west of the town, which must cut short the daylight throughout the year.

Entertainment for the evening for some of us consisted of watching a German dubbing of Drop Dead Fred, but only briefly before we were all fed up.

The following morning, on our way out of Wanaka to Queenstown, we stopped off at Puzzling World, which includes a museum of optical illusions and the Great Maze. We ran around the maze in the light rain like headless chickens. I did eventually manage to find all the corners of the maze, followed by the finish, which was the “standard challenge”.

Franz Josef

Fabio made us all scrambled eggs and bacon on toast for breakfast before we left Lake Mahinapua, even though he was apparently still drunk from the night before. And then we were off to the tiny town at the base of Franz Josef Glacier.

We stopped for an hour or so at the Bushman’s Centre on the way, to learn of the valiance of those who used to jump from helicopters to tackle deer (I’m not making that up), which were then bred and farmed. Deer were among a number of species introduced to New Zealand that have wreaked havoc. They were culled and sold for their meat, but when both the culling and the venison business proved successful, they had to be farmed instead. You can also get a possum pie at the Bushman’s Centre, but I can’t comment on how it tastes.

I expected the Franz Josef glacier hike to be the South Island equivalent of the Tongariro Crossing, at least as far as my particular trip was concerned. Walking over a glacier requires more expertise and specialised equipment, though.

Some of the group balked at doing the full-day hike, and chose instead to do the “heli-hike”. This apparently involved being helicoptered to a point high up on the glacier and walking around there for a couple of hours, as opposed to walking to and climbing up the terminus. Unfortunately for them (as I discovered later), the heli-hike was cancelled due to bad weather, and those people were taken on a normal half-day hike instead.

Unfortunately for the rest of us, the bad weather at the top of the glacier was still bad at the bottom of the glacier. Nonetheless, we set forth from the carpark in multiple layers of clothing, as advised. These included boots, jackets and overtrousers supplied by the tour company. The first part of the walk took us through the rainforest near the base of the glacier, and before long I had to take off two of my three layers.

Our guide showed us how to fix our crampons onto our boots, and then we were clambering over the dirty front-end of the glacier. The dirt and rocks piled up on part of the ice were apparently the result of a “jökulhlaup”, where (as far as I understood the guide’s explanation) an eruption of water from beneath the glacier brought the rocks to the surface. We past this debris after a few minutes, but the glacial ice had particles of dirt throughout it anyway.

I replaced one of my layers – the jacket – when the weather started to close in, and close in it did. The jacket kept out the cold, but we all eventually realised it wasn’t exactly waterproof. After a short time on the glacier, we were all soaked. In parts of the walk we were actually inside the cloud. In other parts we were being rained on, but there were stretches that offered us spectacular views. The cloud blew around and off the surface of the ice. The ice itself was covered in rivulets – some combinations of rainwater and melt water – which converged and eventually disappeared into holes that (as I understood it) led right down through the ice to the river underneath.

We stopped for quick meal breaks three times on our way up the glacier. Unfortunately, each time it was pouring with rain.

Crampons make walking on ice fairly straightforward, but there’s still a risk of twisting your ankle, which I almost did on a couple of occasions. Our guides hacked away at the ice with picks to try to prevent this, and to construct stairways to get us around and over large obstacles.

As the guides promised, coming down was easier than going up, and for a time the weather seemed more favourable. As we approached the terminus, though, the weather really closed in, and we battled through heavy showers and paths turned to rivers all the way back to the car park. All the things in our bags were as soaked as we were. We celebrated the New Year back at the hostel in the Monsoon bar, whose slogan (doubtless appreciated by many) is “It rains, we pour”.

Lake Mahinapua

Along the West Coast we were dropped off at Cape Foul Wind and the Pancake Rocks to have a walk and a look around. The former has a nice (short) walking track, but it wasn’t all that spectacular. There were a few seals visible on the rocks, but my camera and/or photography skill were insufficient. The latter reminded me a little of the Twelve Apostles rock formation that lies along the Victorian coast, but more interesting and photogenic, and predictably the path was crammed with other tourists.

We were warned on the way to the Lake Mahinapua “Poo Pub” (where we would spend the night) that we would be expected to participate in the nightly fancy dress party thrown by the owner – 84-year-old Les. The theme was anything starting with a P, and our driver took great delight in the alliteration involved the P-Party Piss-up at the Poo Pub, or some permutation thereof.

Living out of a suitcase and/or backpack isn’t conducive to the construction of a fancy dress costume, but everyone managed to pull off something or other. We had quite a few pirates, two presents, a pool party, a pimp and a prostitute, the pink panther, a couple of plastic bags, a pop star, a princess, two pregnant princesses and probably some others that have slipped my mind. Determined not to be sucked into the trap of buying things I wouldn’t need once the party was over, I spent a grand total of $1.50 on sticky tape and improvised myself a penguin outfit. I made a beak from a small part of a disused plastic water bottle, a yellow plastic bag and the elastic straps from the luggage tags from our trip over the Cook Strait. I turned my rain jacket inside out (it’s black on the inside) and taped a white T-shirt to the front, fashioned into an oval. I rounded this off with a beanie, gloves, dark trousers and more yellow plastic bags taped over my shoes.

This came off fairly well, so I was told, but after about 45 minutes I was feeling the heat from my waterproof clothing, and my stomach (the white T-shirt taped to my front) had dislodged from the sticky tape. I took a breather for an hour or so, and then put everything back together and came back for the last of the group photos. The next morning on the bus I learnt that I’d won the best costume prize, which turned out to be a canyon swing voucher that I immediately resolved not to use, much to the dismay of everyone else.

Earlier in the night we’d been treated to an enormous dinner by Les, with the help of our driver. This involved a large steak, potatoes and a buffet of pasta, curry and salad. Had it been a restaurant, our $10 meal might have cost us $40 or more, though of course I couldn’t finish it.

Westport

Westport is not a “happening” town. We were warned by our driver to stay away from two of the town’s main pubs, and probably the others just in case, due to previous incidents involving Kiwi Experience passengers. There wasn’t a whole lot else to see. A small group of us ventured down to the beach, which was nice, but there weren’t many people there and my fun was mitigated by stepping on a crab.

It turned out that one of our fellow travellers was a Brazillian chef called Fabio, who lauded it over the rest of guys at Lake Rotoiti (where we stopped for a walk on the way to Westport) with his six-pack and wet hair flicking routine as he went for a swim. Fabio was one of a group of new people who joined us as we arrived in Picton, having chosen to travel only the South Island or the South Island before the North. He took it upon himself to make a roast lamb dinner for as many people as he could get a hold of. Regretfully, I wasn’t one of them.

The most exciting part of Westport that we encountered was probably the hostel itself, which was not Base and so therefore quite pleasant. It contained at least four cats. My Danish roommate, who was apparently allergic to them, wasn’t especially enthusiastic about this.

Nelson

The trip to the South Island began in spectacular fashion as the bus driver swerved illegally over to the curb to collect me as I ran out of the Wellington YHA. I hadn’t slept in. Far from it – I’d actually been killing time looking over my photos, and just happened to kill a little too much of it. This earned me fame throughout the bus, and probably gave the driver – who was new, both to us and to Kiwi Experience – a taste of the sort of incompetence to be expected of passengers in the future.

The journey proceeded with far more organisation from then on. The ferry was “full”, which essentially means that half the passengers don’t get seats because the seating arrangement of the other passengers leaves numerous small gaps, not sufficient to seat groups of people. Throughout the voyage the decks were thick with people who looked like they might be in search of the Promised Seating Area. We reclined instead on a couch and several arm chairs arranged between the toilets and the pay phones, and attempted to acquire some more sleep. The view from the top deck wasn’t all that exciting.

The ferry dropped us off at Picton, where we waited a bit for another Kiwi Experience bus to turn up. It did, and it turned out to be the oldest bus in the fleet, much to the annoyance of the driver. The drive to Nelson was fairly uneventful.

Nelson’s prominant tourist attraction appears to be the geometric centre of New Zealand, which is situated on the top of a hill overlooking the town. I was a little sceptical of this. It’s not obvious how the geometric centre of a shape as complex as a pair of islands can be calculated definitively (I can think of several different methods, which would all give you different answers), or why it should correspond exactly with the summit of a hill. Nevertheless, the view was well worth the climb, and we watched the sunset from the top.

The hostel was a nice little establishment, as practically all non-Base hostels seem to be. However, they were a little narky about me eating my own food in the outdoor restaurant area. I had to retreat several metres to the outdoor hostel eating area, which is (as far as I could tell) on the same property and owned by the same people.

Wellington

Wellington is a smaller but more interesting city than Auckland (the Kiwi Experience brochure describes it as the “cultural capital”, as well as being the actual capital of course). I and a large number of my fellow travellers spent Christmas Day and Boxing Day there. The bus skipped one of its normal stops – “River Valley” – because the “adventure lodge in the middle of nowhere” wasn’t doing anything for Christmas, and… well, it was in the middle of nowhere.

Christmas Day began with me in the YHA kitchen mixing and frying pancake ingredients purchased in Taupo. The trouble with buying food while travelling is that supermarkets won’t sell you, say, only three cups of flour, 3/4 cups of sugar, three eggs and exactly the right amount of maple syrup, which means you have to carry around extra random food items for the remainder of the trip. Pancakes are delightfully easy to make, even with the dubious cookware that you find in varying states of disrepair in backpacker hostels. They went down rather well among the group I invited to get rid of them. The YHA reception was enlisted to finish the leftovers. The pancake breakfast merged into the hostel’s own “Champagne breakfast” a little while later.

Lunch (because eating is an important part of Christmas) was a little less well-planned. I’m still not sure whether it was a bad joke or just ignorance on his part, but we’d gotten the impression from our bus driver that Kiwi Experience and/or the hostel was organising a cheap meal. It turned out, after we’d made our way to the given location, that this was for the homeless of Wellington, not for the kind of people who might, for instance, spend a thousand dollars or more travelling from other parts of the world to get there. We gave up on that venture in a mild state or disgust and wandered over to the Te Papa museum instead.

Te Papa was exceptionally well designed and run, but we were mostly a little too exhausted to take much of it in. To be honest, I’ve never been good with museums, no matter how interesting, and after about two hours (punctuated by a very nice “sun-dried tomato wrap” at the cafe inside) my feet were hurting and my brain was in stand-by. Still, it’s certainly a must-see in Wellington.

To round off the unconventional food situation, we had ate junk food at the beach in lieu of dinner. Some of the group decided suddenly to go for a swin in what predictably turned out to be absolutely freezing water.

The following day I was left to my own devices to wander the city and take in some more of the sights. It took me quite a while to find the start of the cable car leading up to the botanic gardens overlooking Wellington. The view wasn’t overwhemling, compared to the other high-up places you get to in New Zealand, but it was nice.

One random thing that struck me about Wellington was its overhead tram wires, running along some of the main streets. In my two-and-a-bit days in Wellington I never saw any vehicles that actually used them.