Monday, 23 January 2012

10 days on South Island, New Zealand

As promised, here's a travelogue of our recent trip to New Zealand.  We were actually there for 2 weeks altogether, but the last few days were spent relaxing with our friends who live in Auckland.  The weather in the North Island was appalling, but we really didn't mind, it was just great to spend time with friends, drinking lots of cups of tea, sleeping in a 'real' bed and enjoying hot showers!

So this is our journey around the South Island.  To put the trip into context, we were in a camper-car (as you'll see from the photos) and we were there from December 18th to 28th.  10 days was simply not enough to see everything, but we think we chose a pretty amazing route, covering loads of incredible scenery, so you could definitely do worse than to use this as a basis for a trip.  I've included details such as the route numbers, in case you want to read this whilst looking at a map.  Information is easy to find about accommodation and sights in New Zealand.  Both Auckland and Christchurch airports had loads of free leaflets, booklets, maps, etc, that you could pick up as you walked through, and indeed these are what we used to find campsites most nights.

We began the trip by flying into Christchurch (via Auckland).  We had looked at other options such as flying to Queenstown, but Christchurch was the cheapest option.  It was on our planned route anyway, so made no difference to us.   We didn't venture into the city when we arrived, just picked up the car and drove.  At this point the weather was unseasonably cold and drizzly, and we were beginning to feel rather depressed about 10 days on the road...  We took the 'Inland Scenic Highway' (Route 73, then Route 77) for an hour or so until we reached a village called Methven.  Apparently Methven is buzzing in the Winter, being a centre for snow-related-sports, but on a drizzly Summer evening it really didn't have a huge amount to recommend it... aside from 2 very cosy-looking pubs!  We popped into both (imaginatively named 'The Blue Pub' and 'The Brown Pub') settling eventually on the Brown, due to its roaring fire.  Here is the only shot from day 1 - a rather grainy 'phone photo, but one that includes the essential elements of the evening, the fire and a beer (Rob's of course - a 'dry' holiday for me).

The food was great, the fire blazing, the atmosphere convivial, and after supper we crawled into the van (wrapped in fleece blankets) at the local campsite for a much-needed night's sleep.

The next day dawned...  damp and drizzly yet again.  This was NOT what we had had in mind!  However, we hit the road, crossing fingers and sending up prayers for an improvement in the weather.  Well, something must have worked, because by the time we reached the pretty village of Geraldine a mere hour from Methven, the clouds were beginning to part, and we headed off on the road up into the hills (Route 79, leading to Route 8).

We had a quick lunch-stop by the side of the road.  We ate out several evenings, but lunches were picked up in supermarkets - raw veg, hummus, crisps, etc, and always large amount of L&P, the iconic Kiwi soft drink!

It was at this point in the journey that we began to notice the lupins.  Now in the UK I had only ever seen lupins growing politely in people's garden, but here they were everywhere, rampaging through the countryside.  We later found out that they are an invasive 'pest' and stifle the growth of many native plants, but somehow I couldn't bring myself to mind about that too much, they're just so stunning.  This was the perfect time of year to see them.

The scenery up until now had been pleasant, but from here on it it was quite simply incredible.  Of course the wonderful weather helped, but driving round a bend to be faced with our first view of Lake Tekapo was a real "WOW!" moment...

The lake really is that blue.  An effect caused by the 'rock flour' in the water brought down by the glaciers which feed the lake.

We popped into the Lake Tekapo chapel, which boasts an incredible view through the altar window:

We spent a happy hour or so wandering around with our cameras before driving on to Lake Pukaki, another turquoise lake but one without a village attached, hence most people drive straight past.  We quickly popped into the nearby town of Twizel to stock up on provisions, then drove back to Lake Pukaki for our first 'wild camp'.  OK, we were parked in the lakeside carpark, so it wasn't exactly 'wild' - only in the sense that there were no showers (there were public toilets though!) and we didn't have to pay (extra bonus).  Amazing really, I'd pay a fortune to wake up to a view like this:

Pondering the view...

Cooking supper in the van.

6:30am the following day, pyjama-clad gazing at the view across the lake, the snowy peaks of Mount Cook in the distance.

From here we did a day's detour up Route 80 (Mount Cook Road) which runs along the West side of Lake Pukaki and ends up in Mount Cook village.  It's a dead-end road so we came back down it that afternoon, but we could easily have spent a few days doing some of the walks from the village.  As it was, we settled on a 3-hour walk up the Hooker Valley, for which we were rewarded with some beautiful mountain-scape views.

That afternoon we drove 2.5 hours from Mount Cook Village, to Wanaka (Route 8/8A all the way).  We stopped off again in Twizel to use the free wifi in their library, and met someone there who was a good friend of a colleague of mine here in Brunei, who used to teach in Twizel school!  Small world.   Anyway, we decided against stopping for the night in Omarama as it looked to be rather a one-horse-town, so pushed on through consistently lovely scenery until we reached Wanaka.

Wanaka was pretty much our favourite town in NZ.  We stayed at a 'Top Ten' campsite (a chain of campsites all over NZ) and enjoyed an evening stroll along the lakeside before heading into town for the most awesome burgers ever, at a small independent place recommended in the Lonely Planet called Red Star.

Amazing burgers, and Kumara fries.  (Kumara are like sweet potatoes).

Wanaka lakeside, the snow-capped mountains of Mount Aspiring National Park in the distance.

We had a relaxing start to the next day, going for a beautiful walk around the West side of the lake.  Rob had a 'bracing' morning dip, and then late morning, we set off towards Queenstown.  There are 2 routes to Queenstown from Wanaka, the faster main road (although this is a slightly longer route), and the more direct, but slower and more scenic Cardrona Valley Road.  We took the scenic option of course, but there are times of year when this would be inaccessible due to snow and ice, and perhaps we wouldn't have been so keen to take it had we been in an enormous RV-style camper van?  

Cardrona itself is a small settlement, although one that I suspect is busy with skiers in the Winter.  However, it's worth a quick photo-stop for the historic Cardrona Hotel.

The views along the entire road were stunning and we picked an excellent picnic-spot where we were able to look down over acres of vineyards, Queenstown and the lake in the distance.

As we descended into the valley we took a quick detour to visit Arrowtown, a historic gold-mining settlement which has been preserved and restored in a very picturesque way.  It's very touristy of course, but with good reason.

We knew that we wanted to spend some time in Queenstown, but we also knew that we would be coming back that way in a couple of days, after we had driven round to Te Anau and Milford Sound - a must-do trip, we had heard.  We hadn't booked anything on advance for this trip (apart from the car) so we were free to drive where we wanted, as the fancy took us.  We tended to choose where we spent the night purely on where we were when it was about 5pm each day.  We reckoned that we still had time to drive many more miles, so bypassed Queenstown at this point.  We drove down the Eastern edge of Lake Wakatipu (Route 6) stopping for photos pretty often - a feature of the entire trip really!

We turned off onto Route 94 which took us to Te Anau (driving time between Queenstown and Te Anau - approx 2 1/4 hours).  Te Anau was a nice little town perched on the edge of Lake Te Anau, but fortified by our previous night in a 'posh' campsite (with, you know, hot showers and flush toilets - luxury, eh?) we decided that we'd drive a little further on to a more rustic 'Conservation Campsite' about half an hour's drive up the lakeshore.

The site was beautiful, although spookily deserted.  The sites were in woodland, but right beside the lake.  We had a lovely evening relaxing on the shore, reading our books and enjoying another gourmet campsite meal:

However, it was late evening, when the breeze had died down, that we had our first introduction to a very irritating native of New Zealand... the sandfly.  We have sandflies in Brunei,  but this was a different creature altogether - what we used to refer to as 'blackfly' in Canada.  They seem sluggish and slow-moving so are easy to kill when you feel one biting into your leg, but faced with several thousand of them you're fighting a losing battle!  We retreated to the van, then spent an amusing 20 minutes trying to kill all the flies that had flown in with us.  Before long the roof of the van was covered in bloody spatters!  The flies were still surrounding the van when we woke up the next morning, so after a speedy trip to the 'composting toilet' (inhabited by some of the largest mosquitos I had ever seen) we decided to get an early start and drive to a breezier spot to eat breakfast...

The road from Te Anau to Milford Sound (Route 94) is said to be one of the most beautiful in New Zealand.  You could drive it in just over an hour, but I'd definitely recommend allowing at least twice that time as there are many places to stop and take a short (or even long) walk, and take photographs - you won't be able to resist!  Unfortunately this area of New Zealand gets an astonishing 7 METRES of rain every year, so the weather conditions are bound to be a bit of a gamble.  We were incredibly fortunate that it was blue skies and sunshine all the way for us.

Mirror Lakes, just one of the scenic stop-offs.

Kea (native parrots) on the snow.

The road is winding and narrow in parts, and you need to bear in mind that most of the tour-buses from Te Anau (or even Queenstown) arrive in time for the 1pm sailings on the Sound, so it's best/quieter to tackle this road in the early morning.  

We arrived at Milford Sound late morning and were pleasantly surprised to find it practically deserted.
There's not much at Milford Sound itself apart from public toilets, a cafe and a huge ticket-centre for the many boats that do daily sailings around the Sound, but not much else is needed - the stunning views just speak for themselves:

 View across the Sound.  It's hard to convey how vast it is, the huge boats are simply dwarfed by the surrounding scenery.

The trip round the Sound (out as far as the Tasman Sea, then back) takes just under an hour, and all the boats pause to see the seals basking on the rocks, and also nose the boat into one of the waterfalls, just so you get drenched!

We were in a 'Jucy' car, so got a hefty discount (50%) on the 'Jucy' cruise ship - it was smaller than most of the others, but they all do exactly the same route, in exactly the same time, so there's really very little to choose between the different companies.  Ours offered free tea and coffee, so we were happy!  Be warned, whatever the weather it is windy and COLD on the water.  We were wrapped up in fleeces and waterproofs and still needed the free coffee to keep warm.  Many people were shivering inside the cabins in their shorts and t-shirts, not able to go on deck to appreciate the trip properly.

We spent another couple of hours driving in a leisurely manner back to Te Anau, enjoying more photo-stops and more short walks.  We stayed that night in a 'Holiday Park' in Te Anau, enjoying a very breezy meal of 'fush and chups' (sorry Kiwis, can't help but laugh at that!) on the lakeshore.  The local seagulls were most interested...

The next day we drove back to Queenstown.  As ever, we took our time and relished the journey - this is what a road-trip is all about.  The roads were consistently pretty quiet throughout the entire trip, despite the fact that this was meant to be 'peak season'.  I think it may have got busier from Boxing Day onwards as I guess many New Zealanders stay at home for Christmas itself and then head out on holiday afterwards, but it was just perfect for us.  No trouble getting spots on campsites, no queues of traffic.

As we drove towards Queenstown we passed a beautifully restored railway station, and then saw a sign for the 'Kingston Flyer' steam train.  We took a short detour off our route and were delighted to find it sitting in the station in the village of Kingston.

We arrived in Queenstown soon after lunch so were able to spend a pleasant few hours wandering around this lively town.  I liked it a lot, it had a real 'buzz' to it, but it was more a place for the teenage adrenalin-junkie than the pregnant woman - mind you, pregnant or not, there's no way I'd be taking advantage of the many ways to have 'fun' in Queenstown, most famously bungy-jumping.  Bungy-jumping was invented in Queenstown and of course thrill-seekers have pushed the boundaries ever since, so now you can bungy-jump in every imaginable way - in a chair, on a huge bungy-swing across a canyon, at night, the run-and-jump, etc, etc.  No thanks!  We didn't even bother with the famous (and very sedate) gondola (cable-car) up the hill in the middle of town.  I'm sure the views would have been spectacular, but we weren't short on spectacular views on this trip, and several friends had described it to me as 'a rip-off'.  Instead we had a great meal in one of the many eateries in town and enjoyed the atmosphere of wandering round a lively bar-filled town in a beautiful setting.

After a night in Queenstown (in a new site, Q Box, reasonably-priced, v nice toilets and showers!) we headed back across the Cardrona Valley Road, and stopped again in Wanaka for a lakeside lunch of a McGregor's Pie.  We can smell a good pie from a mile off, and these were superb.  I had steak and cheese, while Rob had a Mutton Pie that made him wax lyrical about the joys of the Scotch Pies of his childhood - and this was proclaimed to be just as good.

From Wanaka we drove north on Route 6, over Haast Pass, and through Mount Aspiring National Park...

 until we reached the West Coast.

The van meets the Tasman Sea.

We actually enjoyed this section of the trip the least - although it was still amazing, it's all relative!  Don't get me wrong, the West Coast is beautiful, but it's not as stunning as, for example, the Pacific Coast Highway in California (ooh, get us, seasoned travellers!) as a lot of the route (Route 6, heading north) is slightly inland so you don't get to enjoy driving along the coast.  Still, there were some good viewpoints, but nothing provoked a "wow!" from us like, for example, Lake Tekapo, or Mount Cook. 

It was Christmas Eve by this point, and we camped that night in a Conservation Campsite next to Lake Paringa.  The evening began well with the site fairly quiet, but before long we realised that this was going to be another insect-infested night...  added to that we discovered that there was no running water in the only sink on the site, and that there were no lights in the toilet block.  Then, as night fell, a car screeched up and out poured the campsite-neighbours-family-from-hell - screeching mother, yelling father and FIVE children, all crying and whinging.   They proceded to erect their tent in the dark, didn't put any money in the campsite honesty-box, and the yelling and whinging went on all night!  I couldn't help but feel a bit sorry for them - they were clearly not having a relaxing holiday - but I'd rather they'd not been camped right next to us!  Thank heavens we had packed our earplugs...

The blackflies were surrounding the car when we woke, so we didn't even open the doors, just clambered over into the front seats and drove off in our pyjamas to find a more peaceful breakfast spot where we weren't so likely to be eaten alive...  Happy Christmas!

Christmas Day improved dramatically from here on.  We spent the day in 'Glacier Country' exploring both Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers.  Fox is the smaller and slightly less imposing, but you can get fairly close to it, and it's amazing nonetheless.

We initially thought that the warning signs were a little melodramatic, but then read that in 2009 2 tourists had climbed over the fence to 'get a better view of the glacier', and been crushed by chunks of falling ice as big as cars that had sheared off the face of the glacier.  

Later that morning, a short detour off Route 6 near Fox Glacier took us to Lake Matheson where there is a well-known walk around the lake which can give you incredible reflections of Mount Cook.  Unfortunately this walk is best done in the early morning or later afternoon before the breeze causes ripples on the lake, so we missed the reflections.  However, it was still a lovely hour + long walk along a beautiful path round the lake.  And of course there were still some amazing views.

Views of Mount Cook; enjoying the walk.

Christmas Lunch (a picnic) outside the (closed) Lake Matheson cafe.

After lunch we drove on to Franz Josef.  FJ Village is lovely with several nice shops, cafes and restaurants, plus a supermarket (although of course they were all closed on Christmas Day).  We found an excellent campsite, the Rainforest Retreat, that offered a wide variety of accommodation in a beautiful setting, right in the centre of the village.  The clouds had by this time descended on the mountains so we didn't bother going to see FJ Glacier at this point, just spent a pleasant few hours reading our books and relaxing by the van.  The clouds did lift in the evening so we took a quick drive up to the glacier before supper, but didn't stay long as we thought we'd return the following morning.

Boxing day dawned bright and sunny (again!) so we packed up the van and headed straight back to Franz Josef Glacier.  We walked as far as we could up to the glacier's face and were wowed by the views.  Several glacier-walk groups passed us, heading up onto the glacier itself (with well-trained guides!) and had we been able to book this (the office was closed on Christmas Day), we would have been tempted.  Friends of ours did it last year and it sounded like an amazing experience.

From Franz Josef we did possibly our longest day's drive of the trip - about 3.5 hours.  We continued up the coast highway, stopping briefly in the town of Hokitika.

Then, at Kumara Junction we turned east, inland on Route 73 towards Arthur's Pass, and ultimately Christchurch.  We dithered at Kumara Junction, wondering whether to continue up the coast to Punakaiki Rocks, but eventually decided that we didn't have time (something to see next time we come to NZ perhaps?). 

The road over Arthur's Pass is dramatic (aren't they all?!) and we continued our pattern of photo-stops (once for some very tame Keas!)

Just past the village of Arthur's Pass we found another Conservation Campsite (we had picked up a leaflet detailing all of these) called Klondyke Corner.  This one was free (yippee!) and by far the nicest we had seen.  We drove along a track away from the main campground and parked up by a gorgeous clear river, surrounded by lupins.

The following day - our last full one in South Island - we took a leisurely drive straight along Route 73 to Christchurch.  We only had one stop-off en route, at a place called Castle Hill Rocks; we saw them and just couldn't resist pulling in for a short walk.

These stunning rock formations are sacred to the Maori people, and in more recent years have featured in various films. 

Our final destination was Christchurch itself.  Already devastated by the earthquakes of 2010 and early 2011, Christchurch was once again hit by some major quakes just before Christmas while we were on South Island - indeed, Rob even felt some tremors while we were in Queenstown nearly 500km away.  We weren't sure what we would find when we ventured into the city, but hoped we weren't being too 'ghoulish' in wanting to see the place, and hoped there would be some local businesses to support.

What we found was upsetting, and yet uplifting too.  The city centre is a mess, many streets fenced off and inaccessible.  The historic buildings have suffered the most, and inevitably some have either been pulled down, or will be.  There were some almost Pompeii-like scenes in some shops and restaurants as shoppers and diners had clearly simply run out of the buildings as the quake struck.

So what was uplifting about it?  The sight of life going on despite the destruction of Mother Nature; people in town shopping, chatting, socialising; the torn-down shopping mall replaced with a 'pop-up mall' of funky portacabin-style shop-units; the hopeful and positive attitude of the people to whom we talked - excited by the future regeneration of Christchurch as a city even more beautiful than before.  There's a huge job ahead, but I wish them all the best; Christchurch deserves to rise again.

We spent our final night in a holiday park a mere 5 minutes' drive from the airport.  Our flight up to Auckland was mid-morning so we were able to drop off the van and be at the airport in good time. 

Our South Island Adventure was over, and what a fantastic trip it was.  Although we were incredibly lucky with the weather, and I think did it at a perfect time of year, I'm sure you could follow the same route at any time and still have a wonderful tour.  However, if tackled in the Winter be aware that some of the roads we travelled could be closed due to snow - the road to Mount Cook from Lake Pukaki for example, and the Cardrona Valley Road, plus possibly the Te Anau/Milford Sound highway.  We spotted many signs pronouncing the roads to be 'Open' - indicating that there are times of year when they are not!  We were in a small van, but I think we would have chosen something slightly bigger had we not been so naively confident that it was Summer therefore the weather would be great (wow, we were fortunate on that front!).  I also think that I would have considered hotels/motels/B&Bs in the colder months - there was plenty of accommodation around and most of the campsites have cabins and motels on site too - as the fact that there was snow around in the height of Summer suggests there's a heck of a LOT of snow around in the Winter!

I trust that this lengthy blog-post might be some help if you're planning a trip to South Island - and if you're not planning one I suggest you think about it, you won't regret it!

Sunday, 15 January 2012

Here's to 2012!

So many blogs that I follow seem to have started their most recent posts with apologies for neglecting their blogs recently.  Well, I'm not going to apologise, sometimes life just gets in the way of blogging, and of course that's exactly how it should be - at least it gives me something to blog ABOUT!

So since my last blog-post we've been very busy...  partying at the Loan Service Bollywood Ball:

Meeting new babies:

Hello Esther!

Spending a day in Singapore...
en route to our most amazing holiday ever, 2 weeks in New Zealand:

Much more to come about New Zealand (I'll write a more detailed post about our itinerary soon, I'm positive evangelical about the place!).  We spent Christmas there, arriving back in Brunei on New Year's Eve.

All this, and announcing an impending new arrival to the world...

I'm already 2 weeks into the new term at school and so far 2012 is flying by.  This is the year when we'll be saying goodbye to Brunei and returning to the UK for good (although we're still not quite sure when...) so one thing's for sure, 2012 is going to be a busy year.

I hope yours too is full of wonderful things.