A month in New Zealand - 2007 (South Island)

Link to Travel Diary (Melbourne).

5th January - Christchurch

Wulcume tu thu cuntry thut uses thu vuwul 'U' ull thu tume. Gotta love that accent. I only have on day in Christchurch before heading off around New Zealand so I set off to take a look around. Christchurch is called the most English of the antipodean cities and I can see why, but I'd call in more of a market town than a city. Cathedral Square, loads of parks, the River Avon (which is more of a stream) some traffic free streets and the tourist tram. Inside 2 hours I've pretty much seen it. It all seems nice enough and I'm sure it'd be a nice place to live but as a tourist there's not much to separate it from any other place.

In the afternoon I set off on a suggested walk from the Lonely Planet. I headed off out of town to The Sign of the Takahe restaurant. From there I walked the Harry Ell Walkway up to the Sign of the Kiwi. A pretty decent walk with views back across the Canterbury Plains to the Great Dividing Range. I could see as far as the snow topped Mount Olympus. I then climbed on further to the top if the hill giving views all around. The view over the otherside was quite unreal. The hills the beautiful blue waters of the inlet and the sea beyond.

And New Zealand is green, a colour I'd not seen in Australia. In some ways that's good as it looks far better but it does mean that it rains a lot here, and I'm on the dry side. In Queenstown where I'm heading next week they get 6m of rain a year and January is the wettest month. Wet weather gear on standby!

6th January - Kiakoura

The first day on the Kiwi Experience. Up and on to the bus at 7:30 and we head off north towards Kiakoura. Kiwi Experience is a hop-on, hop-off buss thingy around New Zealand. The idea is that the driver doesn't just take you from A to B he gives a bit of a commentary, stops at viewpoints, helps you book trips, sorts out your next night's hostel bed as basically makes travelling around a lot easier. Today's drive was good, Smiley our driver is entertaining, we make a couple of stops to take in the views like the one opposite which shows Kiakoura in the foreground and one of New Zealand's many mountain ranges behind.

We've only got 1/2 a day in Kiakoura before moving on tomorrow so things happen quickly. On the bus Smiley finds out who wants to do what, whale watching, swimming with seals or what I fancy swimming with dolphins. Kiwi have places pre-booked as this time of year things are fully booked. He phones ahead with our names and we're sorted. Bus pulls in at 12:00, quickly drop off our bags and I'm down at Dolphin Experience by12:30 putting on a wetsuit.

Off of Kiakoura we're told there's a pod of about 2000 Dinky Dolphins and we head out on a boat with our snorkelling gear to find them. Unfortunately in the morning a Killer Whale had passed through and scattered them but we still found some small groups of a dozen or so at a time. We all sit on the back of the boat ready to go, the boat gets close to the dolphins and in we go. It really is amazing the dolphins get right up close swimming right below you. If you duck dive down they swim right around you. But soon they head off, the siren goes and we head back to the boat. In all we jumped in and climbed out 7 times and saw loadsa dolphins.

After taking off our wetsuits and drying off a bit we sail around a bit more and watch the dolphins from the surface. They are great and so playful. swimming around the boat, and making jump after jump. Forward flips, backward flips, twisting in mid-air, as you can see I even managed to get an action shot. All in all a great first day on the trip.

7th January - To Nelson

Today's a bit of a travel day. We head out of Kiakoura and the first stop is Picton where half the bus get off for the ferry to the North Island and a new lot travelling down from the North Island get on. We also swap drivers, the new one is Eoman. As we head out of Kiakoura we stop at a seal colony. And there sure were a lot of seals. It must have gone on for about 3 miles and the rocks were pretty packed. Where we stopped they were on the rocks quite close to the road. Some were swimming, some lazing and the two at the centre of the picture either kissing or fighting it was hard to tell!

We then headed on the Nelson. Which is the gateway to the Abel Tasman National Park which is supposed to be beautiful. Quite a few people with more time on their hands than me will be staying on here for a while but for me it's busy, busy, busy and just an overnight stop.

8th January - Westport

We start out down the West Coast. For the next 6 days the make up of the bus will stay pretty much the same, we don't expect anyone to stay on anywhere longer then the bus does. The group is fairly young but not as young as I expected. About half English, a few Irish and the rest German, Danish and Scandinavian. A few straight out of Uni but most in the 25 to early 30s range. There are a couple of people older than me. We're heading for Westport but we make a couple of stops along the way. Firstly a supermarket to buy lunch and then down to a lake where we do a 1/2 an hour walk and have a picnic lunch.

On the bus we're offered a few activities for the afternoon. Horse riding, quad-biking and jet-boating. I plump for the jet-boating. I also did it in Sydney Harbour but I'm glad I held out till now.

Eoman drops us off at the adventure place and takes our bags on the the hostel. We then suit up in the wet weather gear and jump on the boat (which is on a trailer behind a tractor). After a 10 minute drive we reach the river and he drops the boat back into the water. We're going out on a jetboat. There are no external working parts. The propellers are internal, it sucks in water and forces it out to get propulsion. It can force out 1 tonne of water in 3 seconds. It's 820 bhp and can travel up to 50kmh. And in total manageability and the ability to operate in just 8 inches of water and you've got a fun boat.

We're taking our ride on the Buller River which at it's peak flow is the second biggest river in the Southern Hemisphere (after the Amazon). But we were on it after a fairly dry period so it was only about 1.5m at it's deepest. Doc (the driver) said that 3 weeks ago it was 16m deep. The river was about 100m wide 3 weeks ago it was 2km!

The plan is to do a 40km round trip, we cruise up river get a bit of info as we ride up. Then on the way back cameras away and hold on tight as we do spin turns, power braking, travelling over shallows and up against the rocks. But he sets off at top speed and throws in a few sharp turns straight away just to show off his toy. The videos below were taken on the cruise up the river.

We reach the top of our trip and he shows us the high water mark from last month, he takes all the group photos and then tells us to hold on. Off we go. Flying down the river getting close to the rocks, doing 360 spins on the spot, throwing the jets into reverse to stop it inside a few metres. It was great fun apart from the girls screaming in my ear all the way back ;-)

9th January - Lake Mahinapua

We head off down the coast. Scenery spectacular. The West Coast Road that stretches 435kms along the rugged Tasman shoreline. The road winds through diverse landscapes, the Southern Alps, the rain forest the rugged coast. We stop at Cape Foulwind seal colony, do a couple of rugged walks have luch and do a walk at the Punakaiki Pancake Rocks Blowholes. The strip of land between the Southern Alps and the sea is simply referred to as the West Coast. The strip of land is quite narrow and it's wild. Men are men and sheep are worried. It's mainly bush and rainforest. The warm winds from Australia pick up the water from the Tasman Sea and they dump it on this area. About 3m of rain per year at the coast, 16m on the mountains. It rains 2 out of every 3 days. There are palm trees and rain forest with vines and everything right down to the coast. And what a coast rugged as hell with high cliffs and rocky outcrops.

The Pancake Rocks shown on the right are layered rocks that funnily enough look like stacks of pancakes. Geologists have no idea why they look like that but it's impressive.

In the evening we're staying in a real Western Pub. The old bloke who runs the place has put sheds and portacabins at the back and he takes in the Kiwi Experience Bus each night. We're the only ones staying there and so tonight is fancy dress night. The theme the letter 'P'. We have a quick stop in Greymouth for props then it's over to the pub for happy hour and some dressing up.

We have punks, pirates, police women, a pussy cat, a princess, pimps, prostitutes and a poof. I went as a Pommie at a Pool Party.

Eoman on the very left of the picture went as a present and next to him the guy went as a poo stain! Tone for the evening was set nice and low ;-)

10th January - To Franz Josef

Today we head to the Franz Josef Glacier region. On the way we make a stop at a Bushman Centre and we watch a video of the history of deer hunting and farming in the West Coast region. It is well put together and I really enjoyed it although it wasn't everyone's cup of tea. There are no native mammals in NZ all were introduced by the 'White Man', mainly to provide sport for the rich land owners. The trouble was the deer, red deer especially did a little too well and were destroying everything. So hunting permits were issued. Helicopters were used to get to the remote regions. There were early videos of guys hanging off of the helicopters shooting the running deer. In the 50s they found a market for the venison in Germany and hunting became big business. Then someone had the bright idea of farming deer.

But they had to catch the deer. This is where the real fun was. Before they had stun darts and net guns they used to stand on the step of the helicopter, the chopper would fly low over a deer and the guy would jump off and rugby tackle the deer to the ground. They had some great videos. Some successful and some not so successful. One showed a guy grappling a deer as they rolled down the mountain, he didn't let go though.

We arrive in Franz Josef and get dropped off at the activity booking centre. 1/2 day and full day walks up on the glacier, ice wall climbing, scenic helicopter flights and helihikes where they fly you up onto the upper parts of the glacier and you do a 2 hour hike around. The forecast for the next couple of days is wet so I book onto a helihike heading out in about an hour. But the weather is closing in and just before we're going to get called up to go they cancel the trip. They could get us up there but fear they won't be able to get the helicopter in there 3 hours later to get us out. So I switch onto a scenic flight in about an hour's time.

The weather is closing in, but they get us out to the helicopter for the last ride before they stop flying for the day. We climb in buckle up and take off. My first time in a helicopter. We fly for about 3 minutes and the weather is getting worse and worse. So bad in fact the pilot aborts and we head straight back. We get our money back but after all the messing around the whole afternoon is wasted. Worse still with the weather forecast to get worse I might not get up on the glacier at all. I could do the hike but I strained my foot on the walk out of Christchurch and I don't fancy doing an hour or so going up an ice staircase to reach the surface.

In the visitor centre I find out about the glacier. At the top about 20m of snow falls each year, the sheer weight compacts this into ice. The ice glacier then slides down the mountains. The rate of travel of about 8m a day. So the top reaches the bottom in about 15 years. Usually glaciers flow at about 1m a day. Because of the speed that is travels it gets lower and closer to the sea than any other glacier. At the bottom the glacier is just 200 metres above sea level and amidst the greenery and lushness of a temperate rainforest.

11th January - Franz Josef

It's raining again. Helihike cancelled again. In fact no helicopters went up at all today. I wasn't booked on to any organised hikes so I decided to get the shuttle bus up to the glacier car park and do a few walks from there. The first took me right up to the bottom of the Franz Josef Glacier itself. About 1/2 hour walk along the riverbed ignoring a couple of don't go any further signs (they were out of date the river had subsided although the path had been completely washed out). The picture shows the river running out of the glacier, in the river were large chunks of ice that had been carried down.

The second walk took me to a some pool surrounded by lush bush with a great view up the valley to the glacier. The view was obscured by the clouds that were getting lower and lower but still a great view.

12th January - Wanaka

Started the day off with another disappointment. Again I almost went up in a helicopter for a scenic flight around the glaciers. Lovely clear skies when we woke up. But the first available flight was at 10:05 and by 9:30 the clouds were rolling in so I cancelled, jumped on the bus and we headed off towards Wanaka. It was about a 6 hour drive but that included loads of 20 minute stops for little walks to waterfalls, pools or just great view points.

The journey took us over the Southern Alps, when glacier cut valleys, tree covered hills and snow topped mountains. It really was the best scenery of the trip so far.

Once we got to other side of the Alps the weather was instantly better. All the rain gets dumped on the west side of the range and Otago side is a lot drier. Wanaka is a lovely place. Situated right on Lake Wanaka with the usual hills and mountains in the background.

The late afternoon arrival gave us time for a little look around, a great Thai meal (my first decent food in days, down the west coast the scenery may be great but the food is crap, everything deep fried and with chips!)

If I was coming back for an activity based holiday this would be a great place to stop. All the usuals are on offer but it's a lot smaller and less hassled than Queenstown. The locals fear though that it is slowly going the way of Queenstown and it will one day be taken over by the backpackers.

13th January - Queenstown

Today we did the short trip from Wanaka to Queenstown. The drive down is spectacular running along the river in a narrow deep gorge. On the sides of the gorge are the remains of Gold Mining towns from the 19th century.

The main activity for the day is the stop at Kawarau Bridge 'The Home of Bungy'. The first commercial bungy jump, the A.J. Hacket original. I had decided well before I got there that I was not going to do one. Never really grabbed me, I could have done it to say I'd done it but there are a lot of other things I rather do. Anyway about a dozen people from our bus did the 47m jump with an elastic band attached to their ankles.

We hit Queenstown at about 3pm. The weather started to close in again (the sunshine could never last) so I turned it into an afternoon of paperwork. Booking the buses, hostels and stuff for the remainder of my time in New Zealand.

We may not have had great weather in our trip down the West Coast but it didn't seem to discourage the sand flies. The little ankle biting bastards. They're only small and you don't notice them on you until you feel the bite. I've got off quite lightly with a dozen or so some people have a lot more. The bites don't flare up the same way that mosquito bites do but they still itch like hell for a day or two.

14th January - Dunedin

The Edinburgh of the South with a climate to match. The drive across from Queenstown took up half the day but to a few on the bus it seemed like a lifetime. Last night was the last night together for our group on the bus down the West Coast before we all head off in separate directions, so a few brevvies were consumed. I was feeling pretty good this morning but Dave, Cat and especially Alma were in a pretty bad way. In fact we had to make a couple of unscheduled stops for Alma ;-)

The scenery changed from rugged mountains around Queenstown to more rolling hills as we went through Otago to Dunedin. A bit like a trip from the Higlands of Scotland to the Lowlands. We're on a smaller bus for this trip. A mini-bus of 20 rather than than the bus of 50 going down the West. 20 is manageable maybe I'll get to know some names rather than calling everyone Mate.

Once we go to Dunedin our driver did a little City Tour to get our bearings and show us the sites. We're leaving again early tomorrow morning so not much time to get a feel for the place. We made a stop at Baldwin Street. According to the Guinness Book of Records, 'The World's Steepest Street'. We jumped out and walked to the top. Every year they have a race to the top and back down again. The record is 1 min 54 sec. We took a little longer. The street is 161.2 metres long and rises 47.22 metres. (1 in 3.41) But at its steepest it is 1 in 2.86.

After checking in we had the choice of a Cadbury World Tour or a Speight's Brewery Tour. We the majority of the group still feeling worse for wear Speight's was a non-starter. So Cadbury World is was. Cadbury have a near monopoly on chocolate and confectionary in NZ. 80% of all sweets eaten over here are Cadbury. The tour covered the history of chocolate (first made by the Mayan people) and the process of making chocolate. A glass and half and all that. Being Sunday the factory wasn't actually producing anything but we did get to see a huge chocolate waterfall and do a bit of product testing.

Notice that on the sign the corner of the chocolate is a map of New Zealand, quite clever I thought.

15th January - The Catlins

The Catlins area is the accessible stretch of the coast line at the very southern most end of the South Island. Next stop Stewart Island and then it's Antarctica. A couple of months ago a 3km long iceberg came within 50kms of the coast! We had amazingly good weather but there was still an icy wind blowing, and it was really blowing. First stop Nugget Point (see picture). Pretty little spot, very rugged, fur seals on the rocks etc. We did a couple of walks along the coast, walked up to a waterfall and into a small lake. Just soaking up the scenery and checking out the wildlife. I loved it but some of the short attention span 'kids' got bored. 'There is nothing to do down here' etc.

The area is also the main sheep farming area of New Zealand, about 10 million of them in the area. There are everywhere. To think New Zealand had no mammals at all until the Europeans came, it must've been a very empty place back then.

The Curio Bay stop was fantastic. One of the best places we've been so far and we were so lucky with the wildlife. Curio Bay is famous for 4 things. A pod of Hector Dolphins (the smallest type), fur seals, yellow eyed penguins (the rarest in the world) and a fossil forest.

First up we spotted a couple of Hector Dolphins, playing in the surf. Riding in on the waves. A few days before the guys on the bus went into the water and the dolphins swam around them. We were going to get changed and jump into the freezing cold water, but by the time we were down to the water they had disappeared so we aborted that plan.

So we headed off with a local guide down to the fossil forest. It is an ancient forest that was engulfed by a volcanic eruption which must've been at the perfect temperature so it didn't burn the forest down. Instead it encased the trees. After tens of thousands of years of earth movements, erosion etc the fossilised trees are now exposed amongst the rocky shoreline. Amazing.

Just as we got down to the beach we saw a yellow eyed penguin jump out of the sea, take a look around and start walking up the beach towards it's burrow which was also right up towards us. We sat down a watch it waddle and hop its way up the beach and over the rocks. There are only 6 breeding pairs in the area so we were so lucky to see one.

We then walked along the beach and there was a fur seal basking in the sun. We got quite close and then sat and watched it for a while. Now and again it would stand up, turn over or have a huge yawn. The only problem was that we were down wind of it and its breath stinks of fish!

Fur Seal Video Yellow Eyed Penguin Video

We spent the evening in Invercargil. They call it a city over here but it was the most dead place I have ever been to. We hardly saw a car, hardly saw a person. The place was deserted. It really was as if there had been a volcano warning or something and everyone had left town. But the evening wasn't a total write off as I got my first decent western meal in New Zealand. So far all we've had has been pretty awful. Stopping in one horse towns where everything is deep-fried and served with chips. But tonight it was a couple of roasted lamb shanks with some herby mash and veg. It was gorgeous.

16th January - Te Anau

Today we had a pretty lazy day. We took a leisurely drive from Invercargil to Te Anau stopping now and again to jump out take a few photos and be blown all over the place. Today the weather was really good, clear skies, quite warm etc but down in the Deep South you always know which way the wind blows. Along the way we saw loads of huge fur tree hedges which are planted alongside properties just to protect them from the prevailing westerlies. But a lot of those were leaning with the wind and the windward side was weather burnt. Te Anau is a lovely place, a bit like Wanaka. A nice little town on the edge of a beautiful lake with mountains all around. It's only real purpose is tourism. It is the gateway to Milford Sound which we are doing tomorrow.

I took the opportunity to get away from the group and have a nice laze in the sun. So I walked around to the side of the lake found a nice spot sheltered by a big tree and did a bit of sun bathing. Lovely.

17th January - Milford Sound

We had overnighted in Te Anau so that we could spend today in Milford Sound. Lets get the geology lesson out of the way first. Milford Sound isn't actually a Sound at all. A sound is created by a river that then floods back from the sea. This is a fjord. A glacier cut gorge that runs out to sea. But who cares it's bloody gorgeous whatever it is.

The drive from Te Anau took about 3 hours with quite few stops for photos and the drive was amazing in itself. Driving through a valley with steep hills and mountains either side of us. Rivers, waterfalls and snow capped peaks. We were still on the East side of the mountains and the weather was perfect, not a cloud to be seen, but we still had our fears as we know how different the weather can be on the west side. To get across the mountains we go through the Homer Tunnel. About 1270m long and runs at an angle of 1:10 downwards. We soon hit the other side and the weather was still gorgeous. Weather Gods I forgive you for what you did to us in Franz Josef.

At 12 we jump on our boat for a 2 hour cruise around the Sound (Fjord). Tree lined rock faces, hills, mountains, a seal colony, the highest mountain in the world that comes straight out of the sea (Mitre peak rises 1692 m above the sound) and a clear blue sky. Amazing. I just have to let the pictures do the talking.

Look carefully in the picture and you can see a tiny looking boat in the water in the centre of the picture. That is a 3 storey cruise boat. That's how big these mountains are.

After leaving the boat we were offered the chance to take a helicopter up to a glacier and then back to Queenstown (which involves driving back through Te Anau and then on for another 3 hours!) well I didn't need asking twice. It was a bit pricey (NZ$510) but what the hell I'd missed out on Franz Josef.

What a ride. Along the Sound, up a valley, up over the rock face, over some big hills and we dropped down on a glacier. Rather than the usual 2 minute stop for a scenic flight we were given as long as we wanted so we stayed for about quarter of an hour. The views were surreal, mountain after mountain, after mountain. From there we flew back to Queenstown, all in all we spent about 50 minutes in the air. The area was used for a lot of the Lord of the Rings filming and most of the locations were only assessable by helicopter. This is one of the few untouched wildernesses left. We were told that back at the turn of the last century they released some moose for hunting but when they started to cause too much damage they were culled off. But recently some explorers found some moose hair and moose shit in the forests so they assume some survived and have lived there for 100 years without being seen. The place is big and wild. Notice the mini-icebergs in the mountain lake.

18th January - Queenstown River Surfing

Despite my Mum saying 'no don't do it' when I talked to her last week, I signed myself up for River Surfing. Which basically means putting on a wetsuit and life-jacket and then jumping on a boogie board and throwing yourself down 12kms of river through a series of Grade 3 rapids. It's described as a proactive activity which basically means the guides tell you where you should be aiming to put your board, but your life in in your own hands! It was great fun once you get over the initial apprehension. By the end we were duck diving and barrel rolling into waves, hitting the rapids full on and riding the river like pros.

The scariest part for me was when we stopped on the side of the river and all climbed up an 8m rock to jump back into the river. The highest I've ever jumped from was about 4m from the boat in Halong Bay. 8m is a bloody long way up jumping into a river. Anyway I'd like to say that I did a perfect jump off the rock and into the water. But, I didn't. I went to jump, but my legs just went to jelly so I sort of jumped / come fell off into the water. But what the hell, I did it ;-)

The whole time we were being filmed by a one of the Queenstown River Surfing crew so I've got a Dvd to prove I did it, hence my owning up over the rock jump as it's on the Dvd. One girl actually had 4 refusals before jumping, they're all on the Dvd too.

The day was fun, but bloody knackering. My arms ache from hanging onto the board (a bit too tightly properly), my legs ache from kicking out with the fins to get to the right places in the river and I was mentally exhausted from everything that I did today.

19th January -To Christchurch

Today was a long day on the bus. About 600km from Queenstown to Christchurch. Some more great scenery and a lunch stop at Lake Pukaki which gave great views across to Mt Cook the highest mountain in New Zealand. The lake was a deep turquoise colour like many of the lakes over here. This is due to the rock flour. The lakes are filled from the glaciers high up in the mountains. These glaciers are moving and grinding away the rock. The small particles (rock flour) get washed down the rivers and into the lakes.

Link to Travel Diary (New Zealand South Island).