Sunday, 20 January 2008

11-13 January - the long journey home

11 January

We said a sad goodbye to Jo who'd been our hugely knowledgable tour guide for the past three weeks - and who was about to embark on another crazy journey back all the way down the whole of New Zealand to start a new job in Invercargill two days later!

Thanks Jo!

Then Matt and I were on our own. We drove into Auckland to the Domain (huge public park) where we went to the Auckland Museum - a beautiful building which serves as a national war memorial. It was massive, so we only had time for a few exhibits and we chose to visit some stunning Maori galleries filled with art and artefacts from their culture, and a brilliant exhibition about New Zealand natural history which particularly highlighted volcanoes and the impact of an eruption in Auckland (quite likely!).

We then drove to Parnell Road for a scrummy lunch and quick wander around the pretty arty shops there. We found a cute little jewellery shop and Matt bought me a beautiful funky ring there for my birthday :-)

All too soon, it was time to head back to the airport for the start of our long journey home. The first leg of the journey was to Los Angeles - a 12 hour flight. It was a surprisingly pleasant flight - I slept through a great deal of it and felt pretty good when we landed in LA at the start of another 11 January - very confusing flying across the date line!

We caught the super shuttle out to Santa Monica to our lovely hotel where Matt had a quick nap (he hadn't slept so well on the flight) and I called into work for a chat with Tom who's about to head off on a long holiday to Japan!

Once we were rested, we headed along the boardwalk for an Italian lunch overlooking the Pacific and then to the 3rd Street Boulevard - a really pleasant pedestrianised shopping street - much nicer than the normal US malls. We wandered around, slightly annoyed that our completely packed suitcases meant we couldn't take advantage of the cheap prices! But I found just enough space in my case for a lovely new iPod!!

We enjoyed a sunset glass of bubbly before going to the movies to see "Sweeney Todd" (brilliant!).

12 January
We had a very lazy morning, sleeping in and enjoying a massive American breakfast of pancakes before going for a walk along the beach. Then it was time to head back to the airport to say goodbye. Matt's back to Bogota for another couple of weeks work, and I'm back to London to get back into life at Imperial :-(

13 January
After an uneventful flight home, and a lovely lift back from Heathrow from my parents, I'm back home with two massive bags of laundry and the prospect of work tomorrow :-(

But what a great trip - I'm off to watch "the making of Lord of the Rings" so have a look at all the locations we just visited!!


8-10 January – Magnificant Milford Sound

8 January

Well….no rest for the wicked, so after only a few hours sleep, we were back outside watching the dawn and waiting for our transport to Milford Sound with a local diving company. It was a beautiful drive out to the Sound, although we struggled to stay awake to enjoy it!

When we arrived, we left Jo at the Milford Sound Lodge as she’d sadly hurt her back on the Routeburn Track and didn’t think lugging tanks around was a particularly wise idea. Matt and I then headed onto the dock and onto the dive boat. There were only 5 of us diving, so it didn’t take long for us to get onboard and speed out into the Sound on the boat. The journey to the first dive site was stunning – it was so early that there weren’t many other boats out and the water was still and calm. We were joined for part of the journey by a pod of dusky dophins which was a nice surprise.

The first dive site was St Anne’s Point – just inside the Sound where it meets the Tasman sea. Milford Sound is an amazing place to dive because it was a really pronounced thermocline which makes for some interesting life. This is due to a layer of tannin-stained fresh water, which lies on top of the warmer salt water, filtering out much of the light. Therefore, corals and fish that would normally be found at depth live in much shallower water underneath the thermocline.

Our first dive was absolutely beautiful – it was pretty cold, but there was so much to see, I didn’t really notice it. There was so many fish – including plenty of wrasse that followed us all and kept pecking at our masks. And the rocks were covered in loads of starfish and sea urchins.

In between dives we warmed up a bit with some soup and had a look at some New Zealand fur seals sunning themselves on some rocks in the Sound. Our second dive was further into the Sound where the thermocline is much more defined. It was so surreal diving through it – as you descended through the first few metres of water, it was bright and clear. Then, suddenly, at about 5m depth, the water becomes totally oily and its almost impossible to see the people you are diving with. As quickly as it starts, you are beneath it, and the visibility goes back up (thank goodness!).

All through the second dive, we saw amazing black coral fans (we didn’t take this picture – found it on the web and wanted to show you what the coral looked like!) as well us ugly jock stewart fish, blue cod and crayfish.

On the way back into the dock, we stopped on a tiny beach and trekked (in our wet suits and booties) through some woods to a beautiful clearing with some pools and a huge waterfall. We played around in the water and watched some completely bizarre tiny fish that were swimming up the falls!

Once back at the docks we met up with Jo who’d been busy planning our afternoon activity - a much more leisurely cruise around the Sound with no wetsuits in sight.

After a very late and long lunch, we headed out on the cruise boat to enjoy the late afternoon sunshine on the beautiful sound. We enjoyed getting close to the huge waterfalls that tumbled down the massive cliffs surrounding the Sound. The highlight of the trip was yet another dolphin encounter – but one of the best yet. Several pods of dolphins joined us as we sped across the Sound, playing in the wake of the boat and jumping at the bow – we were completely surrounded for what felt like an eternity. Matt and Jo exhausted their digital camera cards with the dolphin displays!

With massive grins on our faces, we spent a lovely evening in the only restaurant/bar in Milford Sound, sampling more lovely New Zealand wine, before retiring to our dorm at the lodge

9 January

Bit of a lie in today – we weren’t being picked up until 8.30am – what luxury!! Today was the last activity day of our trip – and we saved something pretty spectacular till last. We spent the day sea kayaking in Milford Sound.

Matt and I were in a boat together (with me in the bag controlling our direction!), and Jo buddied up with a really nice American girl. We were in a small group of four boats with a great guide. We started off getting comfortable in the boats in the calm waters around the fishing dock - but then we headed out into more open water. It was a pretty windy day and so the seas were quite rough. It was pretty hard work staying close together and I must admit, I found the waves pretty scary and was kind of looking forward to returning to the shore.

We followed the coastline closely for an hour or so before our guide decided it was getting a bit too choppy so we should head back in. Then we did something that none of us have done on kayaks before - we created a sailing raft! We got our four boats together, and actually opened up a massive sale and let the wind take us back into more sheltered water. We raced another raft made up of a different kayaking group out on the water, and took only about 10 minutes to get back to where we started - it was brilliant fun.

We sailed right onto a sheltered beach where we stopped for a delicious lunch and cup of tea before getting back out on the water to explore some still, beautiful and completely green creeks. This was much more up my street than the choppy sea kayaking and I thoroughly enjoyed the peaceful afternoon.

All too soon, it was time to get off the water. It was quite a tough paddle to get back to our starting point - and I knew we'd all be aching later that day, but we raced back to the docks and helped the guys pack up the boats and kit before driving back to Te Anau. It was a fun drive during which we stopped plenty of times to look at views and visit a stunning chasm.

In Te Anau, we had a quick meal in a bar, before getting on an ancient tour bus back to Queenstown. We joined a group who'd been on the bus all day and none of them looked particularly happy about it! Thankfully the incredibly dull driver/guide stopped talking and put on a movie for us to watch during the journey.

Finally we made it back to Queenstown where we checked into our motel room (which felt like luxury after the bunkhouse) and cracked open our last bottle of New Zealand wine - a delicious sparkling wine (which I might try and source for our wedding this year).

10 January

We had a quiet morning packing up our bags before checking out and hitting Queenstown. Jo took us to a cool diner for breakfast before she headed off to an internet cafĂ© to get on with some job applications (UK deadlines for doctor jobs fast approaching) and to visit a physiotherapist about her back. Matt and I enjoyed a couple of hours of shopping – buying plenty of outdoor gear to take home and a few last minute gifts/souvenirs.

Then it was time to go to the tiny airport for our flight back to Auckland. The weather was beautifully clear so we had a stunning flight with the captain pointing out tourist attractions as we went. We had a great view of Mount Cook and the glaciers - and it was fun to see the route we had taken down the South Island from the air!

Back in Auckland we headed back to Jo's brother's house to catch up with her family and get ourselves ready for our final departure from New Zealand the next day. We took Jo out for a delicious last supper at the beach in St Helliers before going through all our photographs and looking back on a fantatic trip.


Sunday, 13 January 2008

Jan 5th-7th - The Routeburn Track

Saturday 5th marked Pamela's 30th birthday, and the beginning of our tramp in Southland. The Routeburn is one of the nine 'Great Walks' in New Zealand. It lasts 3 days and starts near the head of Lake Wakatipu, with 32km of track across Mount Aspiring and Fjordland National Parks ending at the 'the Divide' (on the highway crossing the Southern Alps on the way from Te Anau and Milford).

5 January

Having driven to Queenstown late on Friday night, we spent Saturday morning picking up the tickets and essential gear (sleeping bags and walking poles) we were hiring from a particularly well-equipped outdoor-activities shop, and splashing out on the odd piece of walking goodies to make our trip more comfortable. Then we caught our bus for the 90 minute ride out of Queenstown that would take us to the start of the route, stopping en-route to take in the incredible views over Lake Wakatipu.

Shortly after 2pm we were on the trail, which started with gentle gradients and frequent river crossings on wobbly swinging bridges over the Route Burn. We stopped for the first proper rest at the edge of the Routeburn Flats, on the bank of the river looking over this pretty valley floor. From here, the path climbed steadily through a beech forest and across avalanche paths where the trees had been ripped away in the slips, and small rocks lay strewn across the path, larger boulders resting precariously on the slope below.

Before too long we'd made it to the hut where we were staying for the night. These are very different to Scottish bothies or some of the bunkhouses attached to campsites in the UK I've stayed in before, and instead these are modern, well designed and built buildings maintained and (in the Summer) permanently staffed by NZ's Department of Conservation. This hut had two partitioned rooms of 24 bunks, a large combined kitchen and dining room with plenty of gas hobs and sinks for running water - most impressively, it also had flush toilets! And of course, it also came with tremendous views into the valley; a few steps away was the Routeburn Falls which we strolled to before dinner. I think we must have been the envy of many trampers in the hut with our dinner, which consisted of a pasta meal with chicken and fresh vegetables we'd brought with us.

And then the piece de la resistance...accompanied by the customary singing from us and several other trampers, Jo brought out a lemon and poppy seed muffin (carefully packed for the journey) with a candle on top to serve as Pamela's birthday cake. Well done Jo for sacrificing valuable space and weight - unfortunately a bottle of champagne wouldn't have travelled so well, so it was washed down with a mug of tea instead! Like all proper camping trips, we played cards until late before heading to bed when the lights were switched off. And then, like all proper camping trips, sleep was restless and broken by neighbouring snoring and then daybreak at 5am.

6 January

The next day we were treated again to more beautiful weather. After forcing down instant 'creamy porridge', we set off on the day's trek, climbing up past the waterfall and above the tree line into sub-alpine vegetation such as ferns and cushion plants. The climb lasted about an hour and a half up to the adjacent Harris Lake and Harris Saddle. Here Jo and I left our heavy bags for a quick scramble up the top of a nearby peak, Conical Hill, whilst Pamela - feeling the effects of a headache from lack of sleep - took advantage of the sunshine to relax, medicate and sunbathe instead. Once up on top of Conical Hill, Jo and I could see back over Lake Harris to see where we'd climbed during the morning, whilst in the other direction we got great views out across the Hollyford Valley through to Lake McKerrow, Martins Bay and the Tasman Sea.

Returning to Pamela after our detour, we set off again skirting the Hollyford valley for a couple of hours before our first sighting of Lake Mackenzie, and the hut which would be our night's accommodation. To our great annoyance, the path then climbed up steeply, but then came the long descent we'd been expecting. Lots of switch-backs and a gentle gradient meant it took a while to reach the lake, and the last 30 minutes were spent back amongst the trees again; trees covered in moss gave the walk an entirely green backdrop, which provided contrast with the colourful bush plants and flowers we'd spent the rest of the day walking amongst.

At last we made it to the hut, which was in the most beautiful setting at the end of Lake Mackenzie, where snow-caps could be seen off in the direction of our earlier walk, whilst in the other direction, towards the end of the lake, two peaks loomed over the creek and saddle above the head of the lake. Dumping our rucksacks, we were soon outside to sunbathe and paddle in the shallow water, and later Pamela and I trekked round the side of the lake, fighting through dense trees and brush until we tumbled out of the forest at the head of the lake to see the reciprocal lake views. On the return journey, we also took in a viewing of 'split rock' which is - as I think you can guess - a large rock, split its full height, such that you can see daylight between. In typical NZ superlative style, it's probably a 'world famous' split in the rock, but not too much to see here!

Back at the hut, after another cracking dinner, the hut warden appeared, to give a part familiarisation/safety briefing, part stand-up routine. This was all jovial, until he mentioned the 'severe weather warning for the next day...

7 January

Wet outside... It had rained all night, but that didn't stop there being more available for today's walk. Amongst us, we only had limited wet weather clothing, but we knew it wasn't too far to our exit point so we weren't too concerned, and I even opted for shorts! However the rain started to come down with real intensity for a while and all our clothes, whether covered in waterproofs or not, were all soaked anyway.

Early attempts to keep our feet dry were soon all for naught, as the streams we had to cross (strengthening with the extra rainfall) soon made the path their bed to became streams we had to wade through.

Compared to the previous day, there was little to see apart from the mist, but after walking through the 'Orchard' ("an open grassy area dotted with ribbonwood trees" according to the guidebook) we could see four impressive waterfalls in the distance. We soon realised though that these would eventually need to be crossed, and we were aware that not all of the rivers had bridges. The biggest waterfall - Earland Falls - had an 'escape route' with a bridge lower down the hill, but we ignored this and gingerly approached the face of the falls nevertheless: initially just to get a close look at the monster, but then we supposed it should be possible to cross in front of it on the original path. As we walked in front of the landing zone for all that powerful water, the spray itself created a strong wind that buffeted us as we crossed the narrow bridge over the torrent and the spray somehow infused every piece of clothing - seemingly even through our waterproofs - to ensure we were thoroughly drenched. The rest of the rivers were crossed by wading through, with much concentration and use of walking poles to ensure our footing wasn't swept away, but in truth, we weren't at any real risk at any point.

We stopped at a shelter for a while, where we knew there was only another hour's walk to go, so we didn't change clothes despite the diminishing rain. Instead we just ate lunch and dripped over the seats and floor for a while, before venturing back into our waterproofs and out into the elements. We ate up the remaining kilometres in a quick hike that let us to the shelter at the Divide, where we joined 20 or so other earlier arrivals to wait for their bus pick-ups. At last we could change into our remaining dry clothes and eat our remaining food. For some reason, the others had managed to book earlier buses to their destinations, so we were left at the shelter for longest, with nothing to do but play cards, swat sand flies, and reflect on a classic walk, full of variety and challenge, whilst still providing a wonderful level of comfort.

Finally our bus to Te Anau arrived, and we sat dotted amongst exhausted, moody tourists, who were ending their full-day trip to Milford with a 4 hour bus ride back to Queenstown. Back in Motel accommodation, we dried ourselves out and awarded ourselves the 'fush and chups' supper (washed down with beer/diet coke) we deserved after all that effort and all those packet pasta meals and porridge!


Saturday, 12 January 2008

Jan 4th - Wanaka

Okay, so we're behind in telling you about our adventures - and thanks to those of you who've said their actually enjoying them! - so we'll try and catch up over the next day or so: the one advantage of airports and international flights...

Jan 4th - Wandering in Wanaka (Pamela)

Before we headed into the hills on the Routeburn Track, we had a great day in lovely Wanaka. Matt and Jo braved canyoning (more on that later).... whilst I had a day to myself. After a leisurely breakfast and nice chat to my mum, I headed off on a really pretty walk along the shores of Lake Wanaka. It was a stunningly clear day so the white mountain peaks were vivid and the lake water completely clear (unfortunately the water was freezing so I didn't brave a dip)! After an hour I reached "waterfall creek" - couldn't find any waterfalls, but did enjoying watching lots of locals launching little speed boats for a day on the lake - looked like a wonderful way of life!

On the way back I spotted some vines and so made my way through them to the very cute and beautifully situated Rippon vineyard. I worked my way through 10 different varieties - all of which were delicious :-). Found that their London supplier is just done the road from my office which was good news! Had a lovely chat with the girl who was running the tasting - who turned out to be the main organiser of the 2009 world winter games in New Zealand! She was trying to persuade me to work on the games with her....!!

I wandered back into town for a late lunch and some shopping before meeting up with my travelling companions that evening :-). Over to Matt for tales of his canyoning experience....

Jan 4th - Canyoning from Wanaka (Matt)

Whilst Pamela was meandering around Wanaka, Jo and I set ourselves up for a day with considerably more adrenaline when we booked a trip canyoning on the Niger river - or 'Big Nige' as it was billed - in Mt Aspiring National Park. An hour's drive out of Wanaka, we parked up next to an innocuous-looking stream that gently trickled across an alpine meadow. But 50 metres away the meadow turned into a steep hillside, which we started to slowly trudge up in the blazing sunshine once we'd kited up - wetsuits, harness (with a strong PVC gusset!) and knackered old trainers. The long slog up the bill was made easier by our guide, James, allowing us frequent stops to catch our breath whilst he explained about the geological formation of the valley, the farming practices that had led to its current population of flora, the background to the political battle between the farmers and the New Zealand government as some of their leased land is returned to the Department of Conservation.

It must have taken a full hour to climb up to the start point where we re-familiarised ourselves with abseiling techniques. As well as Jo and I, there was an American couple in our group, and all of us had some abseiling experience (although my last go must have been at least 15 years ago!) but none of us had tried this with the added complication of running water!

The first abseil as just a simple slope down into the canyon down a dirty, rocky slope - no running water yet(!) - but cooling off in the river, we could see - and definitely hear - our first waterfall. Clipping onto the safety lines on the side of the canyon as we waited for the abseil line to be set up only added to the tension, but it didn't diminish Jo's bravado and she stepped up to be the first of us to abseil into a waterfall... I watched her safely clip into the ropes, lean back into open air, then play her abseil rope out to move with quick calm efficiency 20m down to the bottom of the waterfall and onto a flat rock where she signalled to us she was okay. Now believing this was going to be easy I rushed to be next. I soon realised though, as my feet moved from dry rock to bare rock with water flowing over it, and then to slimy algae-covered rock, that concentration was important to avoid a slipping and tumbling into the rocks at the side or underfoot (although a safety rope on us ensured we were never at risk of falling to the bottom). And I certainly wasn't as quiet as Jo on my trip down - within a few feet, the abseil route brought my head into the path of the flow of the waterfall, when the heavy blast of cold water helped me instantly recall that this river was fed by snow-melt rather than spring water or rain. Some played out rope and a few more steps further down though - and by the way its hard to choose your footing when a waterfall in your face makes it hard to see - the angle of the rock changed and the challenge changed to maintaining footing on the slippery rock and judging when to reach over to the flat rock at the bottom. The two Americans followed us down with their fair share of bumps, slips and squeals, and then the four of us waited whilst James rigged a new knot for himself and then bounded down the waterfall with just two effortless jumps. With us still watching open-mouthed he then gave a sharp tug on the rope until it suddenly slackened and he could then pull and recover the same rope he'd trusted to hold his weight just moments ago.

In fact, one of the things I enjoyed most about the trip was that James wanted the day to be more than just an 'experience' and that we should learn something as well. So he was keen to explain tricks like recovering ropes (I think it was some kind of overhand knot that's jammed in a figure-of-eight, and apparently it's very important you check you're abseiling down the right end of the rope!), or alternatively how to do a double rope abseil. He also complimented us when we spotted and fixed our own mistakes when setting up the abseil, or on our technique as we descended.

The rest of the morning we made slow, careful progress as we prepared and tackled different abseils down new waterfalls. One required us to turn round mid-abseil, and then control the abseil whilst sliding down on our bottoms and backs! The next required us to jam our feet into a crack and lean into a side wall. Another needed us to place our feet into eroded holes in the rock hidden by the overflowing water. And another required us to cling to the side of the rock whist changing abseil ropes mid-decent, then almost invert ourselves whilst resting our feet on the top of an rock overhang, before swinging free and descending in free air. Each drop had a different challenge, and after each one we had the satisfaction of looking up 20m back up to the top to see what we'd accomplished, whilst the sunlight breaking through the leaf canopy beamed back at us.

We stopped for a quick lunch of biscuits and hot herbal tea - quite strongly stewed by now - before continuing with the second half of 'Big Nige'. We now tackled the abseils with more speed and confidence, but there were still surprises waiting for us. Once we had to jump the final metre of the abseil into the water. Another time, as we descended on our backs again, we found that the abseil rope we were using was shorter than the abseil and all of a sudden we slid out of control into a pool below! And on one abseil we were offered the choice of jumping 12m into the pool below instead! None of us took up the offer though!

There was also more variety in the afternoon, with more slides and jumps as well as abseils. Where the water had carved its way through a mix of hard and soft rock, it had formed a natural water chute, and though the distances were usually short, by mixing feet first and head first approaches - and poses for the waterproof camera and video James brought along - we laughed our way down to the exit point of the river. But even then there was one final surprise waiting for us - after we climbed out of the canyon, we got to cross back to the right side of the canyon on a zip-wire so we could access the path we'd taken on the climb in.

All in all, we'd been in the canyon for over 5 hours, giving us a full day of adventure, and a yearning to try some of their other expeditions on more technical canyons with more water. Well, I'll have to save that till I come back one day...


Friday, 4 January 2008

Goodbye 2007 - Hello 2008!

Sorry we've not posted for a while....been completely away from computers and internet for a few days, which I must admit has been heavenly!

But we're back in civilisation - or at least a very small town with a phone signal and internet cafe - lovely Wanaka. Its been a busy few days, so I'd better rewind to 31 December when we last posted to fill you in. No pictures yet as I don't have the camera on me, but we'll add some when we can...

31 December 2007

New Year's Eve started with a little bit of a disappointment - rough seas meant we couldn't head out on our planned whale watching trip from Kaikoura...but yesterday's dolphin encounter meant that we weren't too down about that. After a leisurely breakfast and a bit more dolphin spotting from the beach, we set off for Christchurch.

As soon as we arrived we headed to the International Antarctic Centre. Christchurch is the base of the US Antarctic Programme and about 140 flights leave for Antarctica each year from the it prides itself in being "the gateway city to Antarctica". The International Antarctic Centre houses exhibitions about live on Antarctica - from animal life and weather, to what its like to work and live there as a human. It was a great museum, although largely aimed at kids so there wasn't as much science as we were hoping for. But we did enjoy donning big warm jackets and experiencing an "Antarctic environmnet" - where we entered a room which was about -8 and then experienced strong wind chill which dropped the temperature considerably - brrrrrrrrrrrrr. We also watched the local penguins being fed there - all of them were rescue penguins who had been injured on the NZ coastline and were enjoying retirement and regular feeding at the centre. Our favourite was "Elvis" the penguin, who was completely blind and so had a very cute way of getting around.

Once we'd had enough of being cold, we drove into Christchurch and checked into our quirky hotel - the Windsor Hotel. An old student hall of residence, it was a very bizarre but comfortable place - kind of an up market youth hostel, but with luxury things like individual bathrobes and slippers to wear and a full breakfast.

After a restful afternoon, we enjoyed a delicious and vast dinner at the Arts Centre restaurant where they had an Irish jazz singer and free bubbly for New Year's Eve. We chatted for so long that it was 11.30pm before we left the restaurant, so we rushed to Cathedral Square to join in the city's New Year celebration. There was live music in the square with about 5,000 revellers - but unfortunately the music wasn't quite good enough to persuade those around us to join us in some dancing. Time flew by and it wasn't long before we did the usual countdown, watched fireworks and sang Auld Lang Syne. It did feel quite odd celebrating new year so far ahead of everyone in the UK, but it was an excellent New Year's Eve :-)

1 January 2008

We started the New Year with a long day of driving to the West Coast - but first we had to swap wheels...we dropped of the car we'd been driving South for Jo's friend at his place in Lyttelton and picked up a lovely new hire car in the city for the last part of our journey. It was a scenic drive as we headed for Arthur's Pass in the Southern Alps. We stopped at the Pass for lunch and a lovely walk out a stunning waterfall.

Then we continued to western New Zealand, stopping again in Hokitika which has a beautiful beach and buzzing greenstone industry. The town produces gorgeous jewellery and ornaments in a bright jade coloured stone. Lovely Jo let me pick a necklace for my 30th birthday present, so we chose a funky shaped one that apparently represents the kumara (sweet potato!) and means friendship - quite appropriate we thought :-)

Singing along to my iPod (poor Matt), the last couple of hours of the drive passed quickly and we arrived in Franz Josef Glacier village in the early evening. After an alarming few minutes when the motel couldn't find any record of our booking, we finally got into our little apartment. We were all tired after the long drive, so we cooked up some cous cous and settled down to watch a movie in the motel.

2 January 2008
Today was an exciting day for Matt and I. My parents, brother and sister-in-law gave Matt and I helicopter flights over the Franz Josef Glacier for our 30th birthdays...and today we got to use them! We opted for a helihike tour where we were flown around the glacier and then deposited at the top for a 2 hour walk on the glacier. Because we flew up, it meant that we weren't at the bottom of the glacier with all the other multiple walking groups, and also that we were on whiter cleaner snow and ice. The flight was brilliant - it was incredible to see just how vast the glacier is and how dramatic the terrain on it gets - something just not possible to see from the village side of the glacier. Plus we got an amazing view of the coastline and interior Southern Alps - stunning. We had grins like cheshire cats by the time we landed on the ice.

For the glacier walking, we had a great guide and a small group, so we covered a long walk and managed to find caves to climb through. I loved walking in crampons - it made the ice so easy to walk on. The ice was beautiful - so many colours and shapes. Every so often, we heard the crack of the ice shifting or a mini avalanche, so we were regularly reminded of how volatile the area is - the ice where we were walking moves up to a metre and a half every single day! All too soon, it was time to fly back down - in an even smaller helicopter, which had a rather alarming tendency of the doors opening mid flight. Thankfully I was well strapped in, so that didn't matter too much! Thanks everyone for that fantastic present - we absolutely loved it!

Whilst we were high up on the glacier, Jo attempted to go kayaking but the inept company didn't notice her waiting and departed without her, so she headed to the coast for some beautiful walking and photography (will get her to add a snap here and perhaps an account of her adventure!).

We met in the centre of town for a quick sandwich before driving out to the face of the Franz Josef Glacier. After parking, we walked along the river bed to the glacier face and were struck by how many large groups were trekking along with us to go on walking tours of the glacier - it made us appreciate even more the heli-hiking experience! It was great fun clambering over the large boulders and we saw some lovely waterfalls along the way.

Back in town, after stocking up on some new books to read, Jo and I headed to a bar to sample yet more NZ Sauvignon Blanc whilst Matt downloaded his full camera memory card onto a DVD. He drove us back to our cute motel for pizza and more wine.

3 January 2008
This morning we were supposed to get up shockingly early to get to Lake Matheson in time to watch the dawn (one of the picture postcard shots of New Zealand) - but much to Jo and my relief, Matt's weather check at 4.30am indiciated that it was cloudy so we opted to sleep for a few more hours - phew!! When we finally ventured out later that morning, it was raining heavily. We still went to Lake Matheson, and Matt and I did a one hour walk around the lake, but the cloud was too low and the water too disturbed by the rain for us to get any pictures of the famous mountain reflections in the lake. It was still a nice walk, made even better by the great cafe and breakfast at the end of the trail where we met Jo.

We then drove at a leisurely pace over the Haast Pass into Central Otago, stopping along the way for numerous short walks to waterfalls, beaches and blue pools. We had our first encounter with the evil sand fly that day, and we are all nursing multiple bites from the horrible creatures! As soon as we drove through the Pass and to the otherside of the mountains, the weather completely changed and we were back to blue skies and HOT HOT weather :-) When we reached Lake Wanaka, we stopped for a beautiful walk on the shores of the crystal clear lake. We all wished we had kayaks.

We finally rolled into Wanaka and checked into our gorgeous motel (2 bedrooms - what luxury!) We wandered into town to the famous cinema (where instead of regular seats, there are sofas and wacky seats, and where you're encouraged to take in wine and beer). Unfortunately the evening film was sold out, but we booked seats for a late live music performance by a jazz/blues guitarist.

Evening entertainment planned, we went back to the motel for a couple of hours of planning for our 3 day hike (lots to plan when you have to carry everything you take yourselfs), laundry and mexican takeaway (yum). Before long, we headed back to the cinema for the show. It turned out the guy was from London, so we were a weeny bit disappointed we weren't watching local talent - but it turned out he was an amazing guitarist and singer, and had a unique style. Can't remember his name, but if I do, I'll add it - the acoustics weren't brilliant in Wanaka, but I bet in a better room, he'd be pretty amazing!

4 January 2008
I'm writing this on 4th January whilst Matt and Jo are off canyoning and I'm enjoying some lovely walking around Lake Wanaka (and some lovely wine tasting in the local vineyards!). Tomorrow I celebrate my 30th birthday and we set off on the 3 day Routeburn our next post is likely to be when we return to civilisation after that...

Hope you're enjoying our blog....see you all soon

Monday, 31 December 2007

Dec 28th & 29th & 30th - From Taupo to the South Island

28th December

Waking up after the Tongariro Crossing, we all felt a little stiff, but there was no stopping Matt and Jo who headed straight for a crazy high ropes course just north of Taupo. After a quick belaying lesson, they were off, negotiating some alarming looking challenges – walking along logs and high wires about 20m in the air. Thankfully I was on the ground as resident photographer capturing their achievements on film.

When they were feeling confident at their aerial abilities, Matt and Jo tried the trapeze jump which involved leaping from the top of a ridiculously tall log to reach a trapeze above them. Matt managed to cling on, but complained about aching arms for days afterwards. Jo did manage to grab it, but sensibly opted not to cling on thereby saving her upper arm muscles!! To top the morning off, they braved the high swing which was a plummet followed by a bungee style rope swing – a little too much whiplash inducing for my liking!

Following this rather adventurous morning, we drove into Taupo for a bite to eat before driving out to Huka Falls on the outskirts of town. The Huka Falls isn't in fact a waterfall, but is where a massive amount of water is forced from a wide river into a really narrow gorge – causing some incredibly strong currants and white water. We spent some time considering possible routes through it in a raft or kayak, before deciding that it was significantly safer on land! We also tried to play “Pooh sticks” but the water was just too strong for us to monitor our own sticks.

When we could drag ourselves away from the Falls we began our long drive down to Wellington ready for our ferry to the South Island the next morning. Whilst the drive was several hours long, it passed really quickly – both because of our spectacular in-car renditions of Les Miserables classic tunes and because of the beautiful scenery.

29th December

It was up early the next morning to travel the final few kilometres into Wellington to the ferry terminal. After a slight disagreement about whether we had booked a ticket for the car (quite easily sorted out) we loaded up onto the ferry and found out way out to the deck to admire the view. It was a beautiful morning – blue skies, sunny, warm for 7.30am and without a breath of wind (very surprising for windy Wellington). The ferry crossing was incredibly calm and the views, especially as we cruised through the Marlborough Sounds, were spectacular. The only disappointment was the quality of the coffee.

Once off the ferry in Picton we rapidly drove down to Blenheim in order to check in to our motel and prepare ourselves for the afternoon activity: Wine Tasting. We were picked up by a little minibus and whisked off to our first winery of the afternoon. On the way we picked up 3 fellow wine tasters – they had been at it since 11am, and were very talkative and merry. Through the afternoon we visited 4 wineries: Cloudy Bay, Nautilus, Forrest Hill and Villa Maria, tasting between 4 and 8 wines at each stop. Pamela and I were giggling by winery number 2, and I rapidly gave up drinking all the wine (Matt covered for me by drinking his sample and then mine). It was a fairly large quantity of wine overall, and most of it drunk very quickly. Pamela seemed to particularly enjoy a number of the fizzy wines, and spent some time looking organised and efficient finding out who the UK supplies were and what it would cost to export (there were mentions of wines for the wedding…). We came away with 1 bottle of Sauvignon Blanc, 1 of blubbly and 2 Pinot Noir, which I think is quite controlled considering the usual purchase-encouraging effects of alcohol. Of the full-day wine tasters 2 outdrank us all (they had the tolerance of elephants!) whilst the third started vomiting in the back of the minibus – very classy!

Back at the motel we were struck down by a severe case of the munchies, and an emergency supermarket shopping foray was rapidly undertaken by Pamela and me. We covered all the necessary food types – crisps, dips and chocolate – before retiring to the motel for a quiet evening and some sobering up.

30th December

The advantage of early afternoon drinking was clearly demonstrated by the complete absence of hang-over this morning. We made a leisurely exit from Blenheim and started the scenic drive down to Kaikoura (about 100km). On our way out of town we passed kilometre after kilometre of vines, some of which were obviously young – clearly the wine business in this area is still growing.

About half way down to Kaikoura (which means place to eat crayfish in Maouri: Kai = food, Koura = crayfish) we came out onto the coast, and the remainder of the trip was along a windy coastal road. The scenery was spectacular and there were multiple sightings of fur seals.

We arrived in Kaikoura late morning and having been unable to book a Whale watching trip (they were all full for the day) we headed down to the beach (a 2 minute walk from the motel) for a picnic. Once again it was a glorious day – blue skies and lots and lots of sunshine. Kaikoura describes itself as the place where ‘the mountains reach the sea’ and the views were stunning. Whilst we were on the beach a pod of 10-15 dolphins swam by and Matt and I headed in to the water to take a closer look (it was only later that we read that it is a very dangerous beach with bad undertow and rip currents and swimming isn’t recommended – luckily we escaped without drowning). The dolphins found us very interesting and spent about 25mins swimming around us, getting close to check us out and then swimming away at speed. It was amazing, especially because we were the only people in the water, and there were only 2 other people on the beach beside Pamela. The dolphins were very small with rounded dorsal fins, we later identified them as the very rare Hectors dolphins. We were suddenly very glad we hadn’t been able to get on the Whale Watching trip.

Eventually we left the dolphins to it – they were obviously just spending the time cruising up and down the beach and weren’t in a hurry to go anywhere. We then headed out to the Kaikoura Peninsula for a look at the seal colony and a walk. The walk took us along the cliff top of the Peninsula with amazing views back towards the mountains and up and down the coast. Despite being after 4pm it was still very hot and sunny. For the return to the car park we cut down from the cliffs to sea level and came back along at sea level. We passed 2 bird colonies – hundred of red-eyed gulls on nest with plenty of fluffy chicks and brown-speckled young birds, and a seal colony as well as a gaggle of geese (!) and a few snorkellers out catching supper (mostly paua – a NZ shell fish, also called abalone - I think).

We decided that it was time for a nice dinner out and got a recommendation for a sea food restaurant just outside Kaikoura. After delicious prawns, chowder and venison (not sea food I know) for starters we then had the entertainment of watching Pamela tackle half a crayfish for a main course (with intermittent ‘I’m beginning to freak out’ and ‘somebody cover the eye’ and ‘look at all those legs’ comments). The food was delicious (ending up with a sumptuous backed cheese cake) and the wine very tasty – Kim Crawford Pinot Gris, a local Marlborough wine (Matt had generously volunteered to drive). All in all a fantastic day.


Thursday, 27 December 2007

Dec 26th & 27th - Rotorua and Taupo

Dec 26th - Rotorua - White water rafting
(Jo's turn to join the blog and tell the true story of Pamela and Matt in NZ)

Boxing day in Rotorua meant White Water Rafting for us. Rotorua is surrounded by many rivers suitable for white water rafting and kayaking, and we picked a trip down the Rangitaiki - a 14km, 2½ hour trip down grade 3-4 rapids with some beautiful scenery. We were collected from our motel at the civilised time of 10.30am for an hour drive to Murupara, where we were kitted out in our flattering wetsuits, lifejackets and helmets. At the river we had a brief 'here's how to white water raft' tutorial and then we were off down the river. Unfortunately after just 5 minutes we had to do a 50m portage as there was a rapid too dangerous for us, but after that we loaded back into the boat and were off. Matt had been delegated to the back of the boat, with Pamela in the dry spot in front of him, and me directly behind the raft guide (one of the wettest spots!). One of the first rapids was the biggest of the day, a grade 4 rapid, and from the grin on Pamela's face she was clearly enjoying herself, despite some initial mild trepidation about her first rafting experience.

The journey down the river continued with plenty of rapids to be navigated. In the middle was a calmer section which allowed for a short swim/float. The water was a 'refreshing' temperature and also incredibly clear - it was possible to see some huge trout on the river bed. Then it was back into the boat and back to the business of getting through the rapids. It was great fun with the hardest thing being remembering whether I was on the right or the left when instructions were being shouted like 'back paddle right'.

It was all over too soon and we returned to Rotorua on the bus. We picked up the car and after a short stop in Rotorua (we saw a sea plane land on the lake) we headed south to Taupo. We checked into the seventies-decorated 'Chevron Motel' in central Taupo and carbohydrate loaded for the activities of the following day and packed bags ready for an early night.

Dec 27th - Taupo - The Tongariro Crossing
(still Jo!)

Alarm clocks went off at 5.15am today, to ensure we were outside our motel by 5.40am waiting for the bus to pick us up and take us to the start of the Tongariro Crossing - billed as the best one-day hike in New Zealand. The sun was just rising and we could see the snow-clad mountains in the distance - there had been an unexpected white Christmas in Tongariro National Park.

As the bus drove closer we caught glimpses of Mt Ruapehu and Mt Ngarahoe (better know to the rest of the world as Mount Doom). Our 17km walk started at the Mangatepopo valley, the location of filming of the approach to Mordor, and after a gentle stroll up the valley floor we began to rapidly ascend (faster in Matt's case than Pamela or I) into the snow. The aptly named 'Devil's staircase', a 200m climb over volcanic boulders, was challenging to the knees, calves and thighs but was successfully completed. The side track summit route up Mt Ngarahoe was closed due to the snow, so we pressed on across the South Crater. The weather was stunning with vivid blue skies and only occasional clouds. We could see all the way to Mt Taranaki (on the West coast, approximately 150km away), which was first even for me, despite multiple trips to this part of the North Island.

The walk continued across the volcanic landscape. Our next climb was up to the highest point of the walk, the Red Crater, at 1886m. This gave us our first glimpse of the 3 emerald lakes - named for their colour, a result of minerals and acid from the mountain. The ground under our feet was warm to the touch, and from a variety of places steam was rising with the smell of rotten eggs. The scenery and colours were starkly contrasted against the white snow on all the surrounding rocky outcrops.

Many photos later we descended down the scree slope to the Central Crater for a tasty lunch break (it was only about 10.30am but we'd been up for hours and felt in need of sustenance). A final short climb brought us to the side of the Blue Lake (known as Te Wai-whakaiata-o-te-Ranihiroa in Maori!) and then the descent started down past Ketetahi Hut and the Ketatahi Hot Springs. The views now were to the north including the whole of Lake Taupo and the nearer Lake Rotoaira. After some initial irritation with endless switch-backs without any apparent loss of altitude or gain in distance towards the Hut, we made it back into scrubs and then verdant forest. Our final destination, the bus pick up point, was attained with time to spare for a quick snooze on the grass verge, then back to Taupo for take-away and an early night. An awesome day!