Queenstown and Te Anau

From Lake Tekapo we backtracked south through the Mackenzie Basin, over the Lindis Pass and then on to Queenstown on the shores on Lake Wakatipu. This is one of New Zealand’s most famous resort towns and as a major base for adventure sports, sight-seeing and winter sports it’s popular both in the summer and winter and almost permanently busy. The approaching roads are clogged with coaches, crowds of people stop only for a few hours and an awful lot of construction lends the place the half-finished air that many expanding resorts seem to have. Consequently, Queenstown isn’t as beautiful as the stunning mountain-lined lake that forms its backdrop.

[Sunrise over Lake Wakatipu]

Perhaps I’m being a little harsh, we didn’t spend much time there at all. Queenstown is popular with those looking for a bit of nightlife, and it’s a handy base if you don’t have the luxury of time. Day trips to all sorts of places can be arranged there – many people do a day trip to Milford Sound from Queenstown but, as this means four hours each way on the coach, I’d recommend heading to Te Anau if you have the time. Right on the edge of the Fiordland National Park, Te Anau is a quieter and less brash base for many of the activities there. Not to mention being quite scenic in it’s own right. And cheaper, too.

[Snow-capped mountans beyond Te Anau]

We spent three days at Te Anau with the aims of a trip to Milford Sound, a day on the Kepler Track (we don’t have the necessary gear for multi-day tramping), and a day spent with our feet up. We managed to do all three, with varying degrees of success. The weather held up for an excellent trip to Milford Sound – more on which to come in another entry. The second day started well when we got the morning boat over the lake to the foot of Mount Luxmore with a plan to hike up as far as the first hut on the Kepler Track before turning around and walking back into Te Anau.

[Lake Te Anau]

We made it as far as the treeline, where we were defeated by high winds and decided to turn around early as condtions were worsening and we didn’t fancy being stuck any higher on the mountainside. As we descended back through the forest the rain set in, and by the time we reached the first signs of civilisation a few hours later we were completely drenched. Still, even in the rain the forest holds some great sights.

[Rainbow over Mount Luxmore]

At least the long hike and the soaking meant that we really appreciated the next day when we sat around and did really very little indeed. Nice.

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Over the Lindis Pass to Lake Tekapo

Our initial plan had been to head to Mount Cook from Wanaka – we’d had such bad luck with the weather in Franz Josef we thought we might try the mountains once more. As it happened, all the accommodation within our price range was booked, so we decided to visit Lake Tekapo instead.

From Wanaka we followed the same route we would have had we been heading for Mount Cook. A short hop west to a tiny little place called Tarras, which is little more than a shop and a cafe, then north along State Highway 8 and over the Lindis Pass, down to Twizel then a hard right for Lake Tekapo, which lies somewhere in the Mackenzie Basin en route to Christchurch.

[The Tarras Store]

Neither of us really knew what to expect from the journey, but it turned out that the Lindis Pass particularly beautiful in a sort of desolate and remote way. I found myself half expecting to see the Riders of Rohan galloping over the hills in search of some Uruk Hai to slaughter.

[The Lindis Pass]

The Mackenzie Basin looks a barren and empty land but it is in some ways a large engineering project. Most of the lakes and rivers are linked into a hydroelectic power scheme by vast canals which mostly remain invisible from the road. Every so often the supporting walls become visible, and the extent to which humanity has marked this area becomes apparent.

[Canals and dams stretching away fromLake Tekapo]

As it turned out, the lack of accommodation on Mount Cook was fortuitous – Lake Tekapo was fantastic. The eponymous town is a small ribbon of buildings on the edge of the lake itself. The water is a striking turquoise colour, so garish it resembles a badly touched-up seventies postcard. The colouration is caused (so I am told) by the fine dust washed down from the glaciers at the sources of its tributory rivers.

[View of Lake Tekapo]

Most people stop to take a few photos of the bright waters and the picturesque Church of the Good Shepherd on the edge of town. However the area deserves at least a day or two to explore properly and the lack of overnight stayers means that you can walk through the forests and hills surrounding the lake and meet pleasurably few others.

[Chruch of the Good SHepherd by Lake Tekapo]

The views from the top of nearby Mount John are well worth the hike to the top, and there’s a track down the far side which does a long loop away from town and then back along the shores of the lake that makes for a great hour or two. The views towards the mountains just make you want to carry on walking and really get away from it all.

[View from Mount John away from Lake Tekapo]

We only spent two nights at Lake Tekapo; you could certainly spend at least twice that and probably more if you had a car. It’s perhaps not the sort of place you’d enjoy if you like to party every night, but it the peace and quiet is great and the clear nights mean the stars are particularly bright and clear (the altitude helps here, too).

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Wanaka

From Franz Josef, we headed directly for Wanaka. This entailed a long bus journey south down the west coast and then across the Southern Alps over the Haast Pass. The journey itself is worth a few notes as we passed through some spectacular country on the way. We got a brief glimpse of the Fox Glacier and saw some beautiful coastline before turing inland at Haast up the river valley to the pass.

[The River Haast high in the Southern Alps]

The road over the Haast Pass has only been sealed all the way through since 1995. The area feels remote and sparsly populated even now, it must have really felt a long way from anywhere before the roads were completed. After we crossed the mountains, we headed down towards lakes Wanaka and Hawea via a tiny place called Makaroa, and got our first taste of the spectacular views of New Zeland’s lake country.

[Lake Hawea]

Wanaka itself proved to be a pleasant little town, just as we’d been told by various people. We caught it at a good time as it wasn’t too busy – a peaceful lull in between the summer crowds and the skiers and snowboarders of winter. We spent an enjoyable few days walking the shores of the lake, eating in good restaurants (of which there a several) and generally relaxing.

[Sailboats on Lake Wanaka]

We did a good walk up Mount Iron, just outside the town to the south, from where there are some great views over the lakes towards the Southern Alps and the rest of the surrounding country.

[View north over Lake Wanaka from Mount Iron]

At the foot of Mount Iron, about twenty minutes walk out of town, is an attraction called Stuart Landsborough’s Puzzling World. This started life in the 1970s as a wooden multi-level maze and has since proven so popular that it’s been expanded to include a variety of brain twisting attractions including false perspective rooms, a gallery of holograms and a room where all the visual cues for horizontal and vertical are wrong, which does some seriously strange things to your inner ear. This might sound a bit odd, but it is well worth a visit.

[The maze at Puzzling World]

There’s lots more to do in Wanaka, too. All the usual adventure sports, water sports on the lake, climbing in the mountains, ski-ing and snowboarding in the winter, heli-biking … I could go on. But it’s also a nice place to chill out for a few days, which is what we liked most about it.

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Franz Josef – utter washout

Of the two larger and most famous of New Zealand’s glaciers we decided to stop at Franz Josef rather than Fox for no particular reason. It is said that there are differences between the two, but that neither is intrinsically better or more interesting than the other. Some travellers we encountered seem to rate Fox over Franz Josef, but I suspect that this is more down to backpacker snobbery as the former is less visited and thus no doubt mysteriously purer or something due to the lower number of coach parties. I even met one person who enthusiastically argued for the merits of Fox entirely on this basis, having never actually visited either. But I digress.

Unfortunately our brief stay has left us none the wiser, as the clouds descended and the rain didn’t cease for the entire period. The west coast is renowned for it’s high rainfall, averaging well over 200 millimetres every month of the year. The driver on the bus assured us as we came into the Franz Josef village that we were experiencing average conditions and that the chance of seeing vistas like those pictured in the brouchures was roughly equivalent to winning the Lotto.

[Cloud shrouded slopes near Franz Josef Glacier]

Nonetheless we attempted to view the glacier, getting thoroughly soaked and becoming closely aquainted with the inside of a cloud in the process. There were still tour parties being led up onto the ice despite the rain, but the returning trampers looked so invariably miserable it didn’t seem worth the effort to get any closer.

[The Franz Josef valley, obscured by cloud]

Still, the environment was pretty awe inspiring anyway as there was so much rainfall that water was cascading down the cliffs on all sides. Here’s a last photo of cloudy mountianside and waterfalls just to make sure you understand just how wet it was up there:

[Waterfalls in the Franz Josef valley]

So the stopover wasn’t entirely futile even though we missed out of the main attraction. If you want to see the glaciers, then perhaps it’s better to allow a bit more time in case of similar conditions, although the problem with this is that the accomodation is limited and tends to get booked up very fast.

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Punakaiki

Punakaiki is a tiny place sandwiched between the rugged west coast and the Paparoa National Park. Most passers by only stop for a few minutes to take a look at the Pancake Rocks and the blowholes – eroded rock formations where the spray from the breakers is forced up through holes in the rocks and emerges in spectacular spouts.

[Pancake rocks and blowholes at Punakaiki]

These aren’t the only attractions in Punakaiki. The coast in general is rugged and beautiful, and so sparcely populated that it always feels quiet and isolated.

[Punakaiki coastline]

As the town is also one of the gateways to walks in the Paparoa National Park, there are several tracks you can take that meet up with the Inland Pack Track. These trails also make pleasant shorter walks if you don’t fancy a longer trek – the walk up the Pororari River is particuarly beautiful, running between great limestone cliffs clad in tree ferns and Nikau Palms.

[Pororari River valley]

The Nikau Palm is a distinctive tree, quite common along this stretch of coast, and particularly notable as the only species of palm native to New Zealand. It is quite a stange sight when in flower – long thin pink tendrils extend from the juncture of the trunk and the leaves and look more like some kind of parasite than an actual part of the tree itself.

[A Flowering Nikau Palm]

There’s a great hostel in Punakaiki named for the palm – the Te Nikau Retreat. Located near the Truman Track about 3 kilometres north of the Pnacake Rocks, it comprises a series of cabins scattered through an area of thick forest.

[The Jungle around the Te Nikau Retreat]

It’s simple but comfortable, and a great place to relax in for a few days if you enjoy being away from it all – the place is 3k’s out of a town which has no cellphone access, no shops, no bank and no broadband, but the scenery is spectacular, the locals are welcoming, the daily homemade bread and muffins are great and by all accounts it’s a nicer place to stay than anything either Greymouth or Westport, the area’s larger towns, have to offer.

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Christchurch and the TranzAlpine

It was nice to be back in a city again, even if it was only for a day or two. Although New Zealand is a lovely place, it can sometimes be difficult to find a lot of goods and services as the population is spread so thin. Once you get away from the major urban areas, everything from bread to bandwidth swiftly becomes scarce and expensive.

We were a little sad that we didn’t budget another day or so in Chirstchurch as it seems, in the main, to be a friendly and attractive place. As we approached the city limits, our driver informed us that it is reputed to be perhaps the most “English” of New Zealand’s cities, and looking through the weeping willows at a punt approaching down the Avon, you might well be inclined to agree.

[The river Avon, Christchurch, complete with Punt]

Of course, the city is more complex than that. We felt a more continental European feel in the city centre where tramlines run through pedestrian areas and for a few moments we were reminded of Amsterdam as we looked this way and that in our efforts not to get run over by one or other form of transport.

[A Christchurch Tram]
[The Arts Centre, Christchurch]

Athough some of the city’s architecture reminds one of Oxford or Cambridge and the roots of the place, other areas bring forth memories of, say, Melbourne, and even Paris. Unfortunately this effect quickly dissipates when you reach the edge of the older central areas where a depressingly familiar sprawl of carparks, malls and large roads takes over. But it’s a modern city so that’s to be expected, and I was just commenting about the lack of facilities elsewhere in the country I probably souldn’t be complaining. It’s just another reminder that you can rarely, if ever, have it all.

We enjoyed our brief stay, and would go back given the time to explore a bit more. But as I’ve said before, you don’t visit New Zealand to marvel at the country’s cities, so we weren’t too sorry to depart for Greymouth on the TranzAlpine. This is reputed to be one of the world’s great railway journeys – certainly one of New Zealand’s which has only a few, a fact we reminded of when the taxi driver, on the way to the station, asked which train we were getting – North or West.

The journey didn’t disappoint. Some might say that the views in winter would be more impressive, when the Southern Alps are covered in snow, but the summer has it’s own beauty and the occasionally desolate-looking mountains towered above us and remained suitably impressive. The journey begins by passing through various nondescript towns on the Canturbury plains before the mountains start to appear over the horizon and it all suddenly get a bit more picturesque.

[The Southern Alps from Springfield]

Alongside the spectacle of the mountians themselves, there are several impressive viaduct crossings and numerous tunnels, fast flowing rivers and glacier-carved valleys, and a brief stop at Arthur’s Pass where everyone gets off to take photographs of the station sign (Arthur’s Pass – tick, and a photo to prove it. Still, I took one, too). The territoty on the approach to the pass is said by some to be Moa country…

[Moa Country]

This came out during some of the running commentary provided by the train’s staff along the way, normally the usual mix of factoids covering local history, economy and mythology. We were particularly lucky, it seems, as there was a local character along on our trip who was allowed to provide some frontier anecdotes of his own. Particularly interesting were his claims to have been one of those who saw Moa in the area some years ago. Widely believed to be a hoax, these sightings by a local hotel owner and his friends were successful in boosting takings at said hotel for the following season. (He was even awarded an unofficial marketing prize by HANZ.) Still, as I like to think of myself as a bit of a fortean, I kept an open mind and my camera at the ready, but in the end had to be content with photos of the scenery, minus cryptids.

[Mountainous terrain]

We were blessed with good weather for most of the journey, especially the spectacular approach to the mountains and it wasn’t until we began the descent to the west coast that it began to rain. But by that time we’d seen most of the sites and were content to settle back and read for the remainder of the trip. Well worth it, and far more comfortable than the trains back home, too, with plenty of leg room and good tall windows for admiring the scenery. I liked the observation car at the front of the train, where you can stand outside and get the wind through your hair and the light to your camera lense. Only slight drawback was the popularity.

But that’s just me finding something to snipe about, so don’t pay too much attention.

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Kaikoura

Kaikoura is famous for one thing – Whales. There’s a deep trench just offshore here which is a feeding ground for male Sperm Whales (particularly during the summer months) and as a bonus the coast is on the migratory routes of various other species, notably the Humpback and the Orca. Dolphins are also frequent visitors to the area and just to add icing to the cake, there are several seal colonies nearby – plenty to keep the visitors happy should the Whales proove to be shy.

[Sperm Whale's dorsal fin]

Not only is the area home to all this marine life, but it’s pretty spectacular too. The land rises quickly from the coast, so that on a clear day a range of snow-capped peaks forms an impressive horizon. The low vegetation and grey sands lend the place a wild, windblown aspect. Human impact is extensive, but blends well into the landscape – despite the volumes of tourists who pile through daily hoping to catch a glimpse of the Whales, Kaikoura retains a fairly untouched feel.

[Kaikoura view]

There seems to be only one company doing Whale watching boat trips (although you can also do areoplane and helicopter trips) – Whale Watch Kaikoura. But it’s got to be done, and it was worth it, all $110 per person. Although we didn’t see any Orca or any Humpbacks, we did see so many Dusky Dolphins that they filled the sea for what seemed like miles on each side of the boat.

[Dolphins, dolphins everywhere!]

They were incredibly inquisitive, splashing and surfing in the wakeof the boats and coming right alongside. Amazingly gaceful, and so fast.

[Dolphins alongside the boat]

We also saw three Sperm Whales (actually, two of the sightings were of the same individual, some time apart). The boats are forbidden by law to get much closer than 15 metres, but we got great views of them venting and the classic tail in the air as they dive for the next hunt.

[A Sperm Whale's tail breaks the surface as he dives]

One thing that allegedly attracts the Sperm Whales to hunt in the Kaikoura Trench is the known presence of the Giant Squid, Architeuthis Dux, deep below (and what about the Colossal Squid, Mesonychoteuthis hamiltoni?). Althouh no live specimins have been sighted, they’re existence is known due to the sucker-marks found on Sperm Whales and because every so often a dead one is washed ashore.

Unfortunaltely we didn’t become the first recorded people to witness the surfacing of either the Giant or the Colossal Squids, but we did see some Albatrosses up close, as well as some seals.

[An albatross]
[A seal yawns]

All in all, a good trip and a fine way to spend an afternoon. Nature, as always, provides some of the best entertainment available.

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Nelson and the Abel Tasman National Park

Nelson

First impressions of Nelson weren’t favourable. We’d been led, by various and sundry folk, to believe that the city was a lovely place. Arriving on the InterCity Bus from Picton, we thought we’d driven into one large concrete industrial estate. However, first impressions are often wrong, and we found a few redeeming features – like the flowers in the Queen’s Garden – enough so that we enjoyed spending a couple of days here wandering around.

[A Lily at Queen's Gardens]
[A Lily at Queen's Gardens]

In a way, the cathedral sums up our experience of the city. From a distance it is a grey, modern-looking structure which might lead one to share the less than impressed opinon of whoever wrote the Nelson section of the Rough Guide to New Zealand. But as you get closer it becomes apparent that there’s more to the building than that – the tower is the only unashamedly modern section, the rest being in a more traditioanl style reminiscent of many larger churches in England. It’s got a colourful history; construction began in the 1920s and continued in fits and starts until it was finally completed in the 1960s. In between came wars, economic woes and a major redesign after half the thing had been built. The end result is the melange of styles you see today, unusual and distinctive, whatever you might think of the colour scheme.

[The Tower of Nelson's Cathedral]

The city is better appreciated away from its centre. Just on the edge of town is a hike to a hilltop advertised as the centre of New Zealand. Apparently it might not be so, but there good views to be had of the harbour, the city and the lands beyond.

[The nice face of Nelson]

The Abel Tasman National Park

[Anchorage harbour form the hills]

Rather than do one of the trips out to the Abel Tasman from Nelson we decided to get the bus out to Marahau, right on the edge of the park, and go walking independantly. We were never going to do the multi-day walks as we don’t have the kit with us – at a minimum you need a sleeping bag and cooking gear – but we wanted to get some walking done, so it seemed sensible to be as close to the park as possible.

[The Marahau Estuary from the start of the track]

The Park didn’t disappoint – for once we were somewhere which actually looks like the picutres in the brochures. It probably helped that the weather was good, but the Abel Tasman really is beautiful. The tracks are well maintained but not too big, and although it’s a popular place and there are plenty of people around it is still quiet enough to feel like you are away from it all. The beaches are wide and golden and the sea is a beautiful clear aquamarine.

[A beach through trees]

A pleasant way to see a bit of the park if you don’t plan on camping is to get one of the water taxis to drop you off a few miles up the coast and spend the day walking back. It’s a good compromise and you get to see a fair bit of the coast. It’s an easy walk if you stick to the coastal track and the bush provides plentiful shade from the sun, although there are plenty of opportunities to soak up some rays on the beaches if you stand the sandflies.

[The beach at Anchorage]

The park is beautiful at night, too. The moon over the tidal flats at Marahau was particularly cool, bringing out lots of colours that my photography doesn’t really do justice to.

[Night time on the tidal flats}

It’s beautiful, well worth a visit. Already, the South Island is living up to expectations.

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Farewell Wellington

We’ve really enjoyed our months in Wellington, it’s a pleasant and friendly place to live. Here are some final pictures:

Lambton Quay: view from the 16th Floor of the ASB Bank Building.
(Hello MFish!)

[Lambton Quay]

City To Sea Bridge (detail): designed by the Maori artist Para Matchitt

[A giant carved fish]

Typical Wellington skyline: houses nestling between the trees on the hillside.

[Three house and tree clad hills]

Cuba Street Fountain: You can never quite be sure how the water will cascade through the system of paddles. This fountain is guaranteed to keep small children entranced, and is rarely without an audience of them gazing up at it in wonder.

[Sculpture-cum-fountain on Cuba Street]

Our last view of the Wellington Skyline from the deck of the InterIslander:

[Wellington from the Harbour]

There you go, a last taster of Wellington. Next up, the South Island!

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