Monday, November 30, 2009

The end of the other end of the world

And that´s that. Two thousand km's or so of an awesome time! Sad to leave, but itching to return to South America. Hard life...

New Zealand - the final leg...

From the Fox Glacier we drove south to Wanaka in the lake district. This proved to be the most stunning section of our whole NZ trip. Leaving behind Mount Cook, we drove through thick fern forest, past battered seashore and back in land through the Haas Pass. This latter part took us along sharply windy roads through sheer, green valleys. Bubbling rapids rushed past untouched forest. Every so often we would stop to take it all in.
The mountains then opened up to the lakes and panoramics to dream of. However nice these pictures are they simply can not to it justice. I don't care if it sounds corny, but staring at these unreal views took me to different place. One I like very much.


We spent only a night in this chilled out lake side town. As we walk along the lake shore beach, the reflections of snow strewn mountains in Lake Wanaka are broken by the odd yacht and occasional duck. If only I had more time I could spend a while in Wanaka, but we don't and I can't.
Our limited stay does though include watching Tarantino's “Inglorious Basterds” at the uber quirky cinema. Complete with rows of worn old sofas, arm chairs, cushions and even a VW Beetle, an old style projector, cookies and beer entertain the limited masses. What a film to take our German friend to. A plot not too far from how nastily we can torture and kill a whole lot of Nazis. Luckily Uwe has a great sense of humour and all our darker sides enjoy the finlae of an angry Jewish guy firing dozens of bullets into Hitler's fast mutilated skull!

Only a few kms down the road and the last step on our Kiwi adventure (except quaint little Arrowtown with its odd abandoned Chinese settlement). Fitting therefore that Chris and me take in the a bird park and have the privilege of seeing kiwis with our own eyes along with the unavoidably fascinating tuatara - a living dinosaur with a separate family tree to lizards, snakes or turtles, it even has a basic third eye on its forehead to sense bird shadows!

I like Queenstown with its laid back atmosphere and spectacular setting. A cool place to wander, have a bit of party and work out what great outdoor experience you want to throw yourself into next. Like an alpine resort, minus a dollop of pomposity and plus a relaxed Mediterranean feel.
After the last week of walks, it was fitting that Chris, Uwe and I should choose to lumber up the hill to the look out point rather than take the cable car. The views from the top are breathtaking. Below, jutting out into Lake Wakitipu, is Queenstown with all its neatly laid out streets and tasteful buildings. Beyond this the lake stretches in an “L” to the right and to the front. Far to the left and in the missing bit of the “L” (the bit where an inverted “L” would be) are high rugged mountains. The last snows of winter are clinging in the ridges of these aptly named “Remarkables”.
We sit, have a hard earned beer and reminisce over the last couple of fantastic weeks on the road. Uwe has been a top traveling buddy and we suitably see out our departure with a night on the town. I have no doubt we will cross paths in the not too distant future, probably over a wiess bier in the alps.
(The less said about our farewell Nevis bungee being canceled due to high winds the better. Grrrgh. As if I did not already have reasons to return.)

How to sum up our time in NZ?

Half a month here has not been enough. There is more concentrated jaw-dropping scenery in New Zealand, and in particular the south island, then in any other place I have visited. Lakes, mountains, beaches, fjords, volcanos, glaciers, ocean.... It is so beautiful that touring round it as we did, your mind goes into a mild sensory overload. There is too much to take in. In short, it bowled me over.

As this was what everyone had told me to expect, I suppose it did not surprise, but rather fulfill. What did surprise me were the New Zealanders. Their combination of mixing British attitudes from more sedate times with a rich Maori heritage and a modern cosmopolitan tinge is very endearing. It is though their attitude to nature and the land which most struck a tone with me. There exists a heightened sense of the fragility of New Zealand's natural environment and our responsibility to look after it which goes beyond that of other countries. It showed me that people can on mass give a shit and make a difference. I just hope other larger, more environmentally monstrous countries can follow New Zealand's lead.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Into Thin Air

Loads of people talk about and indeed do a skydive. When I was 19 I did one and thought I had “done one”. Tick it off the list and all that. It was good, I might even stretch to very good, but not better than that. For years I have been banging on about how much better the BIG bungee's are. I've had a go at looking round the world for big things to jump off with a bit of elastic strapped round my feet but largely forgotten about the whole thin air experience.

On listening to the legions of “having jumped” in NZ I decided this comparison needed another test. This was a VERY GOOD idea.

What I sought was the most stunning place to do it and what I needed was the weather to play ball (far from a given in this part of the world as in mine!). As would luck would have it, these circumstances coincided near Fox Glacier.
Yup, skidding along a grass runway in a little propeller plane. Eventually the bumps of the ground diminish until you are gently soaring into the air. Round, round and up. Over grassy hills to snowy peaks. Feeling every gust of wind, the five of us squeezed in our tiny plane (pilot and two sets of tandem jumpers) flew up and over the giant snow and ice basin from which the glaciers of this region pour.
The highest peak in Oceania, Mount Cook sours to its heights within touching distance as we circle for more altitude over the Fox Glacier, pouring down from the roof of New Zealand. An exhilarating and wonderful experience.

Once we reach 12,000 ft we manoevre to our jump zone. Door flings open, with a touch of “what in the **** am I doing!” I fling my legs out, smile for the camera and with a pat on my head, cross my arms and am spinning downwards.
A yelp of pure joy as the world spins and spins. The plane above shrinks fast, but for the first few seconds the ground below appears no closer in its immensity. I look all around and give Mount Cook a gaping, if fleeting grin. The ground begins to rush towards me in spiraling magnification.

After less than a minute in which time dissolves, the parachute opens and we rise (or in fact slow) with a jolt. Awesome. Some time to take in all the majestic scenery as we glide downwards. The guy even lets me take the controls and I make a couple of sharp loops to one side and then the other. Brilliant.
Then came the scary bit. Last time, and I understood usually, you land gently on your feet. Due to some high winds we take the bum skidding route. Yes, at however many miles an hour we skid on to the ground with a thud and slide in on my arse. Not the most graceful experience but pretty cool none the less.
I take it all back. Bungees and sky-dives are both as awesome as each other. This could become an expensive habit....

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Rock and Ice.

The core and for me best part of our time in New Zealand involved four or five days mostly taken up by walks and climbs through some of the most spectacular scenery that I have been lucky enough to encounter.

Arthur's Pass

Heading north-west from Christchurch Christina, Uwe and I drove through the mist and rain towards New Zealand's highest road pass. The weather cleared up just in time to allow some "bouldering" at Castle Hill.
With a backdrop of some serious mountains, a hill covered in large gray boulders is a playground for excitable Kiwis. We paid more attention to the scenery then the bouldering (an activity which involves cambering over seeming un-clamberable stones) before heading on to the highest pass... Arthur's Pass has a small village full of very serious looking people with gore-tex multi-level gear, well gear. Uwe felt quite at home having lived amongst similar folk in the German alps while Chris and I found it all quite funny. On the first afternoon we undertook a three hour climb up to a university ski-chalet and back down again. Basked in the sunshine we all had smiles on our faces as we criss-crossed our way to better and better views of the mountains across the valley. With huge satisfaction we made it to the snow level and did the only thing appropriate - our first NZ snow fight.
The next day we climbed up to something just below 2000m to the summit of Avalanche Peak. A great ramble of slowly dwarfing scenery. First through thick fern and lichen hung tree forest. Then into the thinner stuff with startling views of a 100 odd metre waterfall on a not too far-off face before the trees disappeared all together and we hit tussock grassland.
At this point we met our inquisitive friend - the Kea (or mountain parrot). Very intelligent creatures , apparently with the cognitive ability of a three year old child, that followed us all the way to the top. As we became less at home as the snowfields encroached they were more and more happy.
One even kept Chris company for almost an hour while Uwe and I climber over some steeper rocks and transversed a ridge or two to the summit - as always a great feeling!
Uwe and a "summit kea"
To the Tasman Sea

With only a couple of aches, we jumped back in the Timmie (the car) and crossed the rest of the mountain range. Back to the sea and past some scary looking small towns, we shot straight to Franz Josef Glacier (or Frans Hosev if you go with Uwe's explanation of Austrian pronunciation). This is glacier country!
Rather than pay a really quite large amount climbing a small way up the glacier, we took one of the trails up the side of the mountain overlooking Franz Josef Glacier. It was not a mistake. We missed the creaking cracking, slippery experience of being on the glacier (a great feeling, but one I have had a number of times before), but were blessed with some eerily fascinating flora and top-notch views. The glacier (along with some 200 odd in this area) pour down from the highs of the Southern Alps towards the Tasman Sea. Searing its way through a mountain (and hence back and forth through the valley it has created as it proceeds and then recedes in succession over the centuries), Franz Josef Glacier is one of the largest and a sight to behold.
This sight is witheld from us by a number of hours of clambering along a windy and slippery track through dense forest that looks like it has come straight out of a dinosaur movie. All fern, loping tree and moss. At times you can feel the chill from the glacier as you go around a corner before crossing the inevitable rope bridge over ravine after ravine - not Chris's favourite moment (having vertigo and all).
Not that it needed to be, us all enjoying the trek as we did, but the view at the end was awe-inspiring. A giant river of ice (for that is literally what a glacier is, encroaching cm by cm) flowing with awesome power down from the clouds to the valley below. The valley that it has cut and gouged is sheer and domineering. We chill and enjoy the setting while a couple more kea say hello.

For a closer look we also do the walk along the river bed to the base of the glacier which shows the towering white and brown face in all its glory. A sight none of us is likely to forget.
With a tad of regret we are back in the car (the way of road trips I suppose) and off to southern lakes. Via a skydive.....for me at least...

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Penguins and Oblong Balls

Christchurch was a very pleasant surprise. A day and a couple of evenings showed us a laid back pretty cathedral/university town much like many in southern England. This is not surprising I suppose when you consider it was a church settlement meant to be just that. Still it has nice buildings, a laid back cafe scene, some good bars and a gentle pace of life for a city of its size (something like 300,000). A sunny Sunday morning stroll was embellished with a walk round a charming market and one of the nicest city parks I have come across. The botanical gardens have it all, ornate openings, a cricket pitch and, best of all, quiet woodland full of native tree and fern. Rugger Bugger

What India is to cricket and Brazil is to football, New Zealand is to rugby. The country is obsessed with its oblong shaped balls and we had got our hands on tickets to the provincial rugby final – Canterbury v Wellington. I shall admit that it was not that hard to get tickets with locals explaining that, for the first time, there is something of overkill rugby style with international, Super 14's and provincial rugby vying for interest and littering the calendar with fixtures. Despite this I was so excited.
I was not disappointed. Canterbury ran out winners in a high quality match that kept us all entertained. The fans were civil and comic. A Wellingtonians shout of “Rather be a politician then a sheep-shagger!” (an insinuation as to the spare time habits of those from the Canterbury region) was met with laughs and friendly retorts. There was real pride in the local team lifting the cup, but understated as Kiwis generally are, there was no mad riot on the streets, but rather contented wandering to the nearest watering hole. Dirt tracks to penguin countryside
Chris and I ran off on our own for a day out to the Banks Peninsular, a gorgeous mass of rugged land thrusting out of the Pacific Ocean to the south of Canterbury. The scenic route meant that and much else. After some windy roads past holiday houses overlooking turquoise bays, we were left with little choice then to take a 20km dirt track over the spine of the peninsular with our little two-wheel drive car. I say little choice, but we could have turned back. Sod that. A bit of skidding on the more precipitously steep parts only added to the adventure of a stunning route. It took us something like 45 minutes to do this little trek and against the odds we even saw another car (a four-wheel drive). Loads of fun, but Chris and I were a touch relieved to make it back on to a paved road and launch it towards Akaroa.

A picturesque fishing village originally settled by the French and more recently by tourists. The Gallic influence is still strong with good food and the occasional flag. Throwing potential rest to the wind we signed up for the penguin eco-tour and soon found ourselves being whisked up and over the rim of the large volcanic crater that creates the setting for Akaroa. The road soon resembled those of our early adventures but we had nothing to fear with our local host chugging round the corners and pointing out abundant areas of interest and beauty.

The family that run the tours own most of the surrounding sharp valleys and hills. The land they do not own, has been given or entrusted by them to the government as wildlife reserve. The rest is devoted to sheep and the constant problem of exterminating bright-yellow flowering gorse – some Scot had the bright idea of throwing some seed on settling – even when you cut it all up you have to stay vigilant for a 30 year period in which seeds can germinate.

The lady taking the tours discusses everything with a toned down passion. Arriving at her farmhouse down by the penguin bay she has to stop for a few minutes to hand feed a small black lamb that was abandoned in a storm. The thing follows us round like a puppy for the rest of the afternoon. We are each kitted up with combat jackets (to confuse the penguins) and binoculars before heading along small paths that wind their way along the steep hills that rise out of Flea Bay.
We are on the watch for little white-flippered penguins. I do not use the term “little” as a descriptive or derogatory terms, although they are very little, but in giving you their actual name. They nest in burrows up to 600m up the hillside. That sounds like a lot, but it is simply a monumental distance to hop up a steep incline when you are of little penguin proportions. To aid their breeding, the guides have added wooden boxes to the hillside. This means that (a) more chicks are born and (b) vitally, they can check how the breeding is going. Fundamentally this is a conservation project and it is a delight to go along the hillside checking nesting boxes for eggs and chicks.
The next hour or so is spent at various hidden view points. Our first glimpse of the penguins on mass is in groups of a few dozen swimming rather like ducks out in the channel. At first it is hard to see any and then, swiveling the binoculars across the water you pick up one flock after another. An exhilarating experience. Moving to another hide we have great views of the first penguins hopping ashore.
As you can probably tell, this was taken through the binoculars...
As dusk falls we watch a last few waddle into view before heading back to the base of the valley. It is important we are out of there before they start the major climb up the hillside otherwise, being shy creatures, they will just stay on the rocky shoreline and the chicks will go hungry.

I have to say just how impressed I was with this tour and the people who run it. They go to extensive efforts to aid the penguin population including hundreds of traps aroun the perimeter of their land to keep out feral animals such as stoats, which the penguins have not evolved to contend with (there were no land mammals in NZ before the Maori started disembarking circa 1000 years ago).

Off with the camo gear and back along the rugged road in the dark. A possum (Aussie rodent type thing) pops up to remind us of the feral breed and I can see our host wants to run it over, but holds odd for our benefit. There is a movement to eco-fur here where “cute” feral mammals are killed and skinned for the benefit of the native animals and local economy – this one looked like it would make a nice hat...

Off back to Christchurch and ready for the push across the mountains. We were in the mood for some tramping!

Monday, November 23, 2009

The North of the South...if you know what I mean...

The south island of NZ has a way of expressing itself!I've not typed a word for nearly a week now, the reason being a touch of chronic tooth ache. Thankfully that has now past, but those of us who have had such things know there are few bodily complaints so effective at blocking out good vibes from the brain. Anyway, back to positivity and a few very recent recollections from New Zealand...
...Pulling out of Wellington harbour on a shrill blustery morning. So blustery in fact that Uwe and I had some enjoyable but embarrassing Kate Winslet Titanic moments (of the leaning against the wind rather than the sinking variety).
Impressive views of cliffs crashing into the sea, our last sights of the north island, gave way to even more impressive views to the south. As we entered the Cook Straits proper, a lonely snow-capped mountain rose on the horizon and foretold of what we were to see in the next couple of weeks.

Dozens of sea-birds swooped through the gale on either side of the sturdy Scottish boat. A sea-stack fostering a colony of some type of gull showed the subtle entrance to Marlborough Sound. A place that I'd not even heard of took my breath away with its stark beauty. Fjord-like green hills diving into the glittering blue sea. A base pleasure to sail through its meandering channels to the little port town of Picton.

A simply stunning walk up and over one of those hills gave us high panoramic views of the coastal corrugation. Everyone had said that the north island is nice, but the south island something else and within an hour or so I was speechless in agreement.

It was bonfire night – for those not of a British persuasion, this is when we set-off fireworks and burn straw “Guy Fawkes” to celebrate Guy's failure to blow up Parliament many a moon ago. Some cheep vino and crumble added to the atmosphere of Villa (a truly top-notch hostel), where the owner tried to explain the oddly blood-thirsty traditions of this night to confused people from the four corners of the earth. He was a bit stuck on why they still celebrate it in New Zealand, but heh, any excuse to have fun and bring out the inner-paromaniac.

Wine Country

A day to remember started rolling out of Picton to the Marlborough wine region, world famous for its sauvignon blanc. I would have thought the south island of New Zealand would have been one of the last places to grow award winning wine, but these are hardy clever folk and the nosh is good bosh (I am so sorry for typing that)...

Hills rising on each side, once you have driven through the fairly non-descript town of Blenheim the vineyards multiply on all sides. I think we visited five in the end with numerable sips and gulps at each. You can't help but enjoy pretending to know what you're doing – tilting the glass, sucking the oxygen in and muttering shit about a buttery taste or the slightest hint of gooseberry. This is half the fun. I am quick to admit that I am largely ignorant on the wine front, but they had some beautiful Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and, of course, sauvignon blanc to lubricate the smiles of the day. A quite delectable lunch at an Austrian vineyard surrounded by worry-melting scenery gave me a warm glow inside (or was that the wine....) that required another couple of winery tastings.... I think my favourite was Cloudy Bay, but a special note has to go out to Grove Mill for their boules pitch right out in the basking vines.

Coastal road

The road out of the valley, cutting across the rolling sheep-filled green hills and along the coast to Kaikora was accompanied with numerous groans of satisfaction and amazement at the vistas. Part of this was, no doubt, the twenty plus different types of wine swishing around our arteries, but looking back at the pictures our's seemed like a fair reaction (plus Chris, as the driver, was sober and also made sounds of awe though perhaps with slightly less extenuated enthusiasm then the rest of us).

Towering snow-capped mountains falling to mile upon mile of black volcanic beach between rugged headlands. At one view break, Uwe and I had to go and do a silly jumping a rail track to run to the ocean thing and at the next we had the best surprise of the day.....fur seals.
Not true seals (but that it is meant that they have outtie ears and are, along with the sea-lion, part of the dog family rather than the cat family like “true” seals – an amazing bit of animal trivia), but had to pinch ourselves to think that we were so up close and personal to the large playful aquatic mammals. Awesome.

Round a few more stunning bays and we rocked up to the big bit of jutting out peninsular rock that is Kaikora. Backed by the same snow-capped ranges, this is quite simply one of the most captivating places on the planet. Seeing the mountains taint red as the sun disappeared was a joy and Chris and I celebrated with spicy crayfish pizza.

A bright and sunny morning promised much for sperm whale watching. Far to early we awoke and boarded a vessel in search of these majestic creatures. To cut a rather frustrating story short we were one of the only 2 per cent of boats that did not even see one. So rare indeed that every local we mentioned it to did a sort of double take of surprise. Oh well, you can't have everything and we were lucky enough to see some albatross and fur seals right out in the open blue.

Our sense of disappointment was massaged away by a great walk over and around the peninsular lined with its squawky bird colonies and down-right showing off fur seals.

To Christchurch...

Out and away again we headed a couple more hours south. It was Saturday and we had tickets to a rugby final in the land of rugby...