Our bus driver, Sean, was a mine of useful and interesting information. No doubt all of the nuggets that he passed on to us had been delivered to his passengers on hundreds, if not thousands, of previous occasions, but it was all new to us – so you’ll have to excuse me if I feel the need to share some of them with you too.
Unless you want to spend weeks wandering on foot through the forests, or you’ve won the pools and can afford to take a helicopter or seaplane, the only way to get to Doubtful Sound is by a 50 minute boat journey from Manapouri. The journey takes you to West Arm where, between the late 50s and early 70s the New Zealand government spent 40 million dollars burying a hydro-electric power station 230m down in the heart of a granite mountain in order to capture the force of the lake water as it rushes down into Doubtful Sound and then on towards the Tasman Sea. The result is something that looks like the set from a 1970s James Bond film whilst producing 14% of New Zealand’s electricity supply.
A 20 minute bus journey over an unmade road (according to Sean it cost $2/cm) takes you to Doubtful Sound (which it turns out is actually a fjord) and from there it’s another 90 minute boat journey out to the sea. According to Justin (who drove the boat and had almost as many nuggets to impart as Sean) the sound/fjord was named by Captain Cook who discovered the entrance but thought better of sailing in as he considered it ‘doubtful’ that he’d be able to sail out again. He would probably therefore have been a little surprised to have seen the 15 deck high cruise ship that weaved (wove?) its way between the islands just in front of us……..still, that’s 200 years of progress for you.
For once Denise’s wildlife jinx didn’t come into play and we had seals and bottlenose dolphins a plenty. Note to self: when taking picture of fast moving dolphins remember to set the shutter speed to something sensible. Ah well…… a fantastic day nonetheless.
The drive from Kingston across to Te Anau wasn’t especially exciting. As we set off there was a thick band of low cloud lying in most of the valley bottoms and we only really popped out into bright sunshine on a few occasions during the 150 mile journey. You know that you’re getting into the back of beyond when communities of just one or two buildings start to feature on national maps, but the few small towns we passed through looked pleasant enough. As we swept through the metropolis of Athol (maybe 20 homes?) we were tempted to hang around for the advertised ‘Fun Day’, but as the highlight of the event promised to be a display of vintage tractors we decided to give it a miss.
Te Anau sits on the edge of the Fiordland National Park and it’s not difficult to work out why they called it Fiordland as there’s nothing much other than lakes, mountains and forests for mile after mile after mile. This afternoon we walked about 16km of the 70km long Kepler Track which runs through the Kepler Mountains on the western side of Lake Te Anau, lovely paths through lush forests of tall trees and tree ferns…. but as usual with our wildlife spotting luck, no Kiwi birds.
Tomorrow we’ve booked a place on a trip up Doubtful Sound which along with the more widely known Milford Sound is a popular destination for those tourists who (like us) want to feel that they’re getting a little bit off the beaten track. The package includes a trip through one of New Zealand’s largest hydro-electric plants which was apparently built specifically to produce power to smelt Australian bauxite. Fancy that – shipping ore all the way from Queensland to the shores of New Zealand (and then presumably back again as aluminium) to take advantage of cheap electricity ……. not quite my idea of ecologically sound practice, but what do I know?
Our journey south and west from Cromwell was pretty uneventful; it’s a sad fact that we’re now so completely accustomed to the fantastic scenery that we take it for granted – worse than that, we actually expect it and have the temerity to complain to each other when the views are anything less than jaw-dropping.
First stop was Arrowtown where, after the daily routine of coffee and cake, we wandered through the picturesque high street and then took a turn around what remains (or has been recreated) of the dwellings of some of the 10,000 Chinese workers who arrived in the 1860s to work the new gold fields. With the prospect of picking up roughly ten times what they could hope to earn in their homeland most stayed for a few years before moving on or returning home. By all accounts those who stayed didn’t have much of a life and were given a pretty tough time by the European settlers who needed their labour but were fairly intolerant when it came to ‘foreigners’.
Queenstown is buzzing. Much bigger than we expected and packed to the rafters with horribly healthy looking ‘kids’ between the ages of 18 and 38 it’s easy to see why it’s regarded as a mecca for those who worship the great outdoors and appreciate a good party. After a wander through the beautiful botanic gardens, taking in the stunning backdrop of the Remarkables, we moved swiftly on ………… it must be an age thing.
Bit of a quiet day today. After breakfast and before getting underway we spent half an hour availing ourselves of the free Wi-Fi service kindly provided by the good citizens of Lawrence. They’re no fools …….by providing free Internet access to all comers they’ve guaranteed that every coach and data-starved tourist will pause for a few minutes in the town to check their e-mails and perhaps buy a bite of breakfast or lunch whilst they’re about it. Their cunning plan seemed to be working well whilst we were there.
Our route north took us through Alexandra which, according to our Rough Guide, sprang up during the 1862 gold rush and flourished for about four years before turning itself into a quiet, prosperous service town for the fruit growers of Central Otago – and believe me, there are a lot of them, with every imaginable variety of fruit being grown on the hundreds of estates that fill the valley floors. Whether by luck or good judgement we managed to miss all of the ‘tourist attractions’ to which the town lays claim, but we did enjoy our (now routine) mid-morning coffee and muffin whilst sitting in the sun and watching the world go by. It’s a nice place.
Today has been Waitangi Day which commemorates the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840 between the UK and the ‘United Tribes of New Zealand’. In theory the treaty was supposed to protect the right of the Maori peoples, though there seems to be more than a hint of suspicion that it was just as much about keeping the French out of New Zealand – something for which we should all be grateful!
Our stopover tonight is at Cromwell, which sits on the banks of Lake Dunstan and has the distinction of being about as far from the sea as you can get in New Zealand. A bit like Banbury I suppose…….
The wind was blowing a hooley when we woke this morning, which was particularly noticeable because the van was perched on a cliff top overlooking the bay and rocked noticeably each time the stronger gusts hit the shoreline. Well, that’s our story anyway.
First stop was to visit some weird spherical stones sitting in the sea at Moeraki – it reminded us of a science fiction film in which old folk were rejuvenated simply by sitting in the water alongside the objects – we sat in that bloody freezing sea for at least an hour, but nothing happened!
As we drove down the coast the countryside started to become a little more familiar – still beautiful, but a little tamer and there were definitely fewer ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ as we made our way towards Dunedin. Aside from a brief stop to re-stock the larder we didn’t stop in the City, but made our way out onto the stunning Otago Peninsula in pursuit of wildlife. Truth to tell we’ve not done too well so far this holiday with our nature studies – Denise didn’t manage to spot a single roo in Oz and neither of us now believes that koalas actually exist in the wild anymore. Since arriving in NZ we’ve seen plenty of cows, sheep, deer and rabbits; we’ve even seen reindeer grazing – but have we seen a Hobbit yet?
Although the penguins had apparently taken the day off to go fishing, we did at least manage to see some seals and what I can confidently claim thanks to the new binoculars (great choice Jonathan) to have been a Royal Albatross swooping elegantly across the ocean.
Our overnight stop this evening is at Gabriel’s Gully, a couple of km out of Lawrence on the road up to Alexandra. This is another freebie site, but this one has a bit of a history having been one of the key centres for the Otago Gold Rush in the 1860s when 10,000 gold-hungry prospectors literally tore this beautiful little valley apart on their quest for instant wealth. Not many signs left now, but there’s an interesting trail you can follow which tells the story for those who are interested.
If this is Omarama this must be Tuesday morning. Refilling the van’s water supply and emptying the portable toilet isn’t necessarily the ideal way to start the day, but with that small but essential task completed we started the drive back down towards the Pacific coastline. More fabulous scenery interspersed with some pretty impressive dams and massive canals – all part of the country’s irrigation and hydro-electric scheme; very obviously the works of man, but done in such a way that it actually adds to the splendour of the landscape.
According to the Rough Guide, Oamaru is noted for its well -preserved Victorian architecture – I’ll take their word for it. When all is said and done, if I want to see Victorian architecture I can visit just about any town in England; still you can’t blame the locals for wanting to capitalise on their nice buildings, and I’m sure that the slightly ‘theme park’ approach that they’ve taken to the old harbour area will appeal to some of the many visitors from Japan, China and Korea. We had a coffee and moved swiftly on – bah humbug!
The evening was spent at Campbell’s Bay; a tiny seaside community a few km south of Oamaru. Although there are plenty of well-equipped campsites available to the intrepid van-dweller, the New Zealand Department of Conservation has sensibly recognised that there are also plenty of tight-fisted Europeans who prefer not to pay for their overnight stop if they can possibly avoid it. They’ve therefore listed a whole load of sites throughout the country where self-contained vans/caravans (i.e. with their own toilet and washing facilities) can stop overnight without charge.
The site at Campbell’s Bay was virtually empty and perfect for a one night stay. We walked the length of the two mile beach and back without seeing one single item of man-made flotsam or jetsam – not so much as a single plastic bottle or discarded flip-flop. Wonderful!
Last night we went stargazing. As Lake Tekapu reputedly has the second darkest skies in the southern hemisphere it’s perhaps unsurprising that it’s a place where people spend a lot of their time looking up at the heavens. So last night we went out to a small observatory just outside town where two very nice, but very nerdish, young men entertained us for a couple of hours by letting us handle their 12 inch instruments. Live long and prosper.
Today we ‘did’ Mt Cook/Aoraki – at 3,724 meters it’s the highest mountain in New Zealand and pretty spectacular from wherever you happen to be perched. We took the 50km road up along the side of Lake Pukaki to Mt Cook/Aoraki Village and, after a coffee and a slightly overdue Skype call to son Thomas in Canada, decided to trek up the Hooker Valley to the glacial lake at the foot of the mountain.
More spectacular views and even more pictures – I have a feeling that the slideshow in the Village Hall is going to run to a couple of evenings!
Footsore but more than a little smug at having overtaken loads of people half our age on the trail up and down the mountain in temperatures over 30 degrees, we climbed back on board our covered wagon and drove the 70 or so km to Omarama. Another hard day at the office!
Monster photograph day! In the good old days of 35mm film we’d have needed a small trailer to carry all the rolls of film that we’d have shot today. Fortunately with a 32gb memory card in the camera it seems that I can take another 3,000 or so photos today before it starts to fill up – unlikely, but possible given the current rate of snapping.
Fortunately, or unfortunately depending upon your point of view, it’s the sort of country where every corner you turn makes you want to stop and take a few dozen more snaps so that you can be sure of capturing the beauty of the place. The sad thing, of course, is that no matter how clever the camera may be, it simply can’t compare with the Mark One Eyeball when it comes to capturing the very best view possible. Never mind – just think how many slide shows we’ll be able to give in the Village Hall when we get home (book now to avoid disappointment!).
Lake Tekapo is truly beautiful. Our campsite is about 50m from the water’s edge, so as I sit here waxing lyrical I have a perfect view over the lake to the mountains beyond. This afternoon we walked the five or six miles up to the Mount John Observatory and this evening we’ve shelled out on a ‘night sky experience’ – Tekapo has some of the clearest skies in the southern hemisphere , so a little stargazing through one of the big telescopes sounds seems like a good idea.
The rain didn’t last long. By the time that we’d made it to the outskirts of Christchurch the drizzle had stopped and the sun was starting to peep through the clouds. Our chariot is a well-used VW T35 camper which has 200+km on the clock and will probably double that before it reaches the end of its working life. Having spent a few minutes this evening working out how best to store our goods and chattels in the van’s various nooks and crannies (what is a cranny?) we’re sure that it’s going to make a perfectly comfortable home for the next five weeks.
First stop of the day was Ashburton Cemetery to call in on Great Uncle George. About a decade ago some kind soul kindly sent me a photo of the grave, so fortunately we were able to recognise it pretty quickly and didn’t have to traipse past too many headstones in order to track him down. Ashburton is quite small now, but judging by the number of folk who were buried there in the first few years of the 20th century it must have been quite a lively place back then (not, of course, for them!). Anyway, the gravestone has stood the test of time for the last century and looks like it will continue to do the job for a few more decades. He was 21 when he died in 1913 – it must have been heartbreaking for his parents to bury their son in a distant, foreign land knowing that they’d never see his last resting place. His sister, my grandmother, lost two husbands and two brothers in less than 7 years; that’s hard.
Getting back to the land of the living we moved on to Timaru which is another 60km or so further down the coast. We didn’t go all the way into the town but had a wander around Caroline Bay and paid our respects to the Pacific Ocean before moving on to Pleasant Point – at which point it was time to pull the waggons into a circle and set up camp for the night.
It’s tragic – the 2011 earthquake has left the centre of Christchurch in a terrible mess and the process of putting it all back together again is going to take years. Whole city blocks have been levelled in preparation for rebuilding and there are still large numbers of large buildings standing empty, presumably waiting for demolition of for someone to decide what to do. What must have been a very attractive city has been hit very hard and it doesn’t take much imagination to recognise that it will be five to ten years before it starts to be a destination once again. That said there are some bright spots still remaining – the Botanic Gardens are lovely, strolling along the banks of the River Avon you wouldn’t really know that anything had happened; no surprise that nature has been faster at the repair process than man.
We woke this morning to ….rain! It doesn’t seem quite fair to have left Australia roasting in temperatures in the high thirties and for Christchurch to welcome us with 19 degrees and ….rain. No matter, we pick up the Van later this morning and start heading down the coast where the weather should apparently start to improve. First stop Ashburton cemetery – admittedly not your usual tourist destination but the last resting place on my Great Uncle George who emigrated to New Zealand in the early 1900’s and sadly died within a few years of his arrival. More than a hundred years on this will be the first time that a member of the family has visited the grave – must go, can’t keep him waiting!
….holiday blogs, motoring obsessions and a general account of life in the Ewbank household…..