30 Mar 2012

NZ - South Island - pt 2

We were headed for Lake Manapouri, where we parked Queeny and boarded a boat that took us across the lake, the start of an amazing few days into Fiorland (as the Kiwis spell it). Fiordland is the wilderness proper in the very south west of the south island, a series of fiords that cut inland from the Tasmin sea walled in by granite peaks, remote as remote can be and barely accessible, or at least not until recently when tourism drove the need.

Most people (half a million a year) visit Milford Sound – they are all called sounds but are technically fiords – which is the only one with a road to it over a pass which is in itself dramatic.

It also has an air strip and regular flights bring hoards of Japanese cameras. We did the drive and the day trip boat and it is stunning, not to be missed stuff, and not as busy as the above numbers sound.

However, we also invested in a 24hr excursion to Doubtful Sound, further south and only accessible by boat across the aforementioned lake, then a bus across a pass (that’s all the bus ever does), then another boat along the Sound.

Doubtful - so named cos Captain Cook got no further than looking at the entrance from the deck of the Endeavour sat in the Tasmin sea, unsure if a sailing boat could ever get out again - is 3 times the length of Milford and 10 times the area, its massive, its granite from water to peak covered in forest where the trees clings onto moss that clings onto the granite.

As well as amazing scenery there is wildlife (dolphins, birds, sea lions) and waterfalls, everywhere, or at least there was when we were there as it had rained, as it does much of the time - circa 8 metres per annum. Being granite everywhere many of the waterfalls don’t last longer than a few hours before all the water has run off.

All in all a real highlight of NZ, if not this entire trip. If ever you are in NZ then this is a must do – Real Journeys.

Not far from Manapouri is Lake Te Anau and the town of the same name. The lake is reputedly the biggest body of fresh water in Australasia, our helpful captain put that into perspective - if the population of the planet (7 billion) drank 2 litres of water a day from the lake it would take 15 years to drain it dry - and it is so pure that it wouldn't require any filtering or treatment.

where did we put the toothbrush!

We were not here to drink the fine waters, but to go see the glow worms caves on the western shore, which meant entering the underworld, climbing along gangways over the underground river/waterfall for several hundred metres then getting into a small barge – by this point in the pitch dark – and then floating along on the underground lake for 50 metres or so where the cave roof is covered in glow worms. A weird and wonderful sight.

We then headed for Queenstown, the south island’s epicentre of all things action and partying. You name a sport or activity and you can do it here from winter skiing in the ‘Remarkables’ to bungy/ski diving/white water rafting/clubbing etc in the summer. 

We white water rafted and jet-boated (again) as the first trip has been so good. The rafting was very cool, could have been much more hectic but due to a lack of rain this summer (not where we have been) the river was relatively chill, but we still saw some crazy rapids moments - unfortunately no photos due to the wet conditions.

The jet-boating was the same mix of insane driving, passenger terror and lots of fun, the party piece this time was to roar through a narrow gorge a few millimetres from sheer rock face at 85 km/h – brilliant!

This seems like a good moment to bring up a minor contradiction in the kiwi approach to life. Nature and the environment are major components of the kiwi lifestyle. We have not yet seen a country anywhere on the planet that does national parks and conservation better than NZ. 'DOC' (the Department of Conservation) are the most active public body of this focus, what they do is absolutely fantastic and whether you are walking, wildlife spotting, fauna enjoying, camping in the wilderness or anything else outdoors, DOC are ever present with assistance, information, education for the punters whilst preserving the surroundings and encouraging their natural inhabitants to flourish - a complete credit to the nation. Plus all the locals that we met think DOC is a brilliant thing which they fully support and they don’t mind paying taxes for.

But there it stops. With regards to the choices they make as individuals there is a complete disconnect. Most kiwi’s drive monster vehicles not only to get to the beaches and national parks but the shops/work/airport/helipad as well, whether it be in a 4x4 or a muscle car Holden (Australian GM version of  Vauxhall Vectra with a 4 litre engine) and many of these are towing boats and/or caravans.

Then there are the helicopters. I have no idea of the numbers but the ratio of helicopters to people must be amongst the highest anywhere. Then silly tourists like us turn up and encourage them (doesn’t take much) to thrash 5 litre jet boats down picturesque rivers no doubt causing irreparable damage. 

And there lies the crux of it of course, we are all involved one way or another, the same tension between good public intention and bad individual behaviour (from an environmental perspective) exists in every country, it’s just easier to see the fault when someone else is doing it - bloody kiwis.

Not far from Queenstown is Arrowtown, which couldn’t be more different. An incredibly picturesque little wooden clad town originally built to support the local mining community. Today it is the polar opposite to Queenstown, positively genteel and for us on the way to Wanaka where we wanted to sky dive.

Wanaka is another ski station with runs called ego alley, nice n easy platter, easy rider, freefall and solitude, to name but a few. For us it rained, a lot, so Ben got a bad haircut and we moved onto Omarama. All the scenery in the south island is beautiful, but the road from Wanaka to Omarama is definitely worth a special mention, simply stunning.

Omarama is world renowned for gliding. It sits on the central plain of the south island surrounded by mountains - the main range being to the north which includes Mount Cook (NZ’s highest at 3,755mts) along with 22 other peaks higher than 3,050 mts - which makes for the perfect landscape for the art of soaring.

We both enjoyed flights of 2 hours, Ben managed to do some aerobatics, the scenery was incredible and we both returned wearing enormous grins.

upside down!

We then drove 750 kms with only a few hours sleep en route (you can only do that in a camper) all the way north to the Abel Tasman national park (the most visited in NZ) to meet our guide and go swimming with seals the following morning.

Unfortunately, due to the previous week’s heavy rain the water was murky which combined with the mama seals being suitably protective of their calves meant that everyone kept a polite distance, but it was cool being in the water a few metres from these graceful creatures. 

We then kayaked around the coast with another nature guide (most excellent) into various coves and bays along this stunning coastline. Then back into Queeny following another amazing road and by nightfall we were in a motor-camp just outside Blenheim - a crazy but fabulous 2 days.

Blenheim is right in the middle of Marlborough wine country, the natural home of NZ sauvignon blanc and the now world famous winery Cloudy Bay.

We visited, we drank and we discovered that CB is now owned by Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy and is one of 142 wineries in this area making great sauvignon blancs as well as pinot noirs.

Also, the original wine maker (Kevin Judd who also takes amazing http://www.kevinjudd.co.nz/photos) at CB moved on recently to set up his own wine label - Greywacke - so one to look out for. Another top tip is a winery called Bladen, a family run small affair making lovely products.

Just down the east coast from Blenheim is Kaikoura, THE place to go whale watching in NZ. We were v lucky with the weather which was clear and calm, and we saw 4 sperm whales perform admirably along with some friendly hector dolphins and some graceful albatrosses.

Last and by no means least we returned to Christchurch where we stayed in prison, the old gaol house that has been renovated as a hostel, its fab.

Very sadly Christchurch as we all know has suffered several major earth quakes over the last 18 months and despite hearing all the news and speaking with locals before we arrived, we were still totally unprepared for what little we could see of the city centre. 

As you enter the city you wouldn’t know anything has happened, all the houses look fine, the roads are busy, the shops full, but then you get to the central square mile. The whole area is cordoned off as demolition of the remaining but unsafe buildings takes place - reconstruction is still a long way off. You can see from a distance that the cathedral is no longer there and what used to be a bustling cafe culture is deathly quiet, apart from the odd pneumatic drill in the distance. The heart of the city has literally stopped.

But this wouldn’t be New Zealand if there wasn’t a happier note to end on. The city centre has been transplanted a little distance away where a new-town of mobile homes and converted freight containers is the new office, cafe and small shop zone, for this is a pioneering country where when there is the need, invention quickly follows and a solution is creatively found.

And so endeth our time in NZ, we dropped off Queeny (mixed feelings) and then caught a flight to Auckland and another to Melbourne. 

As you may have gathered we had an amazing time in this beautiful country inhabited by wonderful people, it is a true delight and we will be back for more for sure.