Thursday 25 March 2010

misty mountain hop....

We’ve now been in New Zealand for something like 13 days, so I’m not even going to attempt a detailed narrative of what we’ve done so far.... although given that I seem to be incapable of brevity here, I’m sure that I’ll still manage to cobble together a few thousand words of our highlights so far.

After a month in Australia and specifically a couple of weeks spent in Queensland, probably the first thing to note about NZ, as we came out through the clouds on the approach to Christchurch airport, was the climate. It wasn’t so much that I was sorry to escape the heat and humidity of an Australian summer, it’s just that stepping out into a cold, pissing wet day on South Island wasn’t something that made my heart sing. I knew the weather would be cooler here, but given than I’m English, it’s funny how quickly you forget how much constant drizzle wears you down, and it’s funny too how little rain it takes to remind you. Still it is easier to stay warm in a campervan than it is to try to stay cool, so before we picked up the van that we were going to spend most of the next month in, we made sure we picked up a few essential items: a duvet, a down-filled undersheet, some more warm merino layers (soon to be supplemented with some merino-possum products. Possums are definitely cute, but they are a pest in NZ and also make exceedingly soft and warm hats and gloves....)

Christchurch itself grew on me. Initially it seemed like a small provincial outpost with a pissy climate, but a closer inspection revealed lots of fantastic little coffee shops and pubs that brewed their own beer.... it wasn’t all just souvenir shops selling All Black t-shirts and bone fishing hook pendants. Perhaps it helped that we were staying in another nice hotel, this time a brand new novotel in Cathedral Square. Well, we had some airmile vouchers to spend, and as we were about to spend the next month sleeping in an unpowered camper, a couple of nights in the lap of relative luxury didn’t feel like a bad idea at all (although I’m sure the valet parker gave us a funny look when we handed over the keys to our new van....)

We didn’t really have much of a plan for the trip other than to cruise around both of New Zealand’s main islands. Our big decision was whether we headed north out of Christchurch towards Kaikoura and worked our way anti-clockwise around South Island, or if we headed south towards the Banks Peninsular and headed clockwise. In the event, we took the latter option and cruised out of Christchurche on Highway 1 towards Akoroa.

This is rapidly going to get boring when I say this about everywhere we visited, but Akoroa is stunning. It’s the main town on the Banks Peninsular, a really magnificent piece of volcanic landscaping, with lots of beautiful coastline, craggy peaks and pretty lakes and inlets. This is apparently New Zealand’s “French Village”, having been settled by some French whalers who hadn’t fully understood the terms of the treaty that meant that this was a British colony.... and when reminded of that fact, they merely shrugged in a Gallic way and elected to stay. It’s got some French street names, some tricolores and a handful of French restaurants, but it’s a pretty enough town. We could probably have spent a few days here, swimming with dolphins, kayaking with seals and so on, but we have lots we want to see and feel need to get moving. We go on a lovely walk above the coast, stay at a very well-appointed campsite and ship out early the next morning to head towards Mount Cook.

New Zealand is on a completely different scale to Australia, but we’re still spending large amounts of time in the car. It’s not just that the distances between stops are all that far apart, it’s just that the geography of New Zealand, and especially of South Island, means that you often have to travel quite a long way around mountains and lakes and things to get to your destination. Still, unlike some of the driving we did in Australia, where the landscape barely seems to change and the roads are long and arrow straight, at least the scenery here is pretty stunning. As we head towards Mount Cook, the Southern Alps quickly start to dominate. These were the Misty Mountains in the Lord of the Rings films, and it’s not hard to see why. We are blessed with an absolutely perfect day when we stop at the astonishingly blue waters of Lake Tekapo and gaze out at the tall peaks from the top of Mount John (they want to turn the skies above the observatories here into a UNESCO world heritage site, and it’s really not hard to see why – light pollution out here is minimal and the stars are staggering).

As we head up towards Aoraki itself, the weather takes a sudden turn for the worse, and the great mountain is soon veiled with cloud and we are battered by howling winds and sleeting rain. Well, New Zealand isn’t called the land of the long white cloud for nothing, I suppose. We were hoping to do some walking and to get some viewpoints of New Zealand’s highest peak, but in the end we have to content ourselves with a walk up to Lake Tasman to marvel at the icebergs that float here having broken off a whacking great big glacier at the end of the lake.

The weather is now so foul that we bin our plans to stay in a Department of Conservation campsite on the side of Mount Cook (which is very basic), and scarper inland towards some nicer weather. I’ll be honest at this point and say that some of the landscape is not what I was expecting. The Waitaki valley we drive through on the way back to the east coast is covered by bare brown hills and irrigated pasture. Once the big mountains are behind us, it’s really not all that much to look at. We stop in Oamaru for the night, and the initial impression is of a small town that services the farmers and has seen better days. Almost for want of anything else to do, we hop on a small tourbus of the town and I’m forced to change my opinion of the place. Yes, it’s seen better days, but the town is clearly trying to move with the times, and our clearly very proud bus driver takes us on a trip around some of the old town buildings and then out to watch the Yellow Eyed Penguins returning home for the night and on to a sanctuary to watch the little Blue Penguins returning home. The weather is still pretty foul, but it’s magical, particularly watching the little Blues come home, forming a raft of many birds until they are close to the shore, at which point they make a break for land and it’s each penguin for themselves.

From Oamaru, it’s down through Rohan (it's hard not to get the Middle Earth names confused with the actual names, although I don't need to go on a tour and dress up as an orc, thanks....) to Dunedin, and another town that gives an initially downbeat impression, but gets better and better upon acquaintance. The indie scene is thriving here, and each pub seems to have a venue. Not only that, but they really know how to make a good coffee here (there are lots of shops that sell nothing else, not even food....) and once again I stumble across a pub that sells beer brewed in a tiny local brewery (Emersons – very tasty, and with a barman who is not afraid to give out generous samples of the same....).

We book onto a wildlife tour out on the Otago Peninsular, and it’s magical. We go to an albatross sanctuary and watch at close hand Royal Albatross with a wingspan of 3m soaring through the air and returning to the nest to feed their chicks. We walk out to a fur seal colony and spend time looking at the seal pups in their nursery rock pools and to watch the adults basking. We walk along a beach and look – from a distance of about 3m – at some 400kg adult male sealions jousting with each other. There are only about 140 sealions on mainland NZ, so to stand so close to five or six of them is awesome and a little bit scary (these guys can run at 20km/h and would easily be able to haul me down). It gets even better later on when we stumble across a female sealion hiding from the males. Of NZ’s 140 sealions, only about 20 of them are female, so it’s a real privilege. We then head further down the beach and spend some time looking at some more Yellow Eyed Penguins at close quarters. These are the second largest type of penguin, and they are also the rarest, so it’s impossible not to feel lucky to get so close. It’s a magical day (even if I have to ignore the moaning of a family of English tourists and some grumpy and ungrateful old ladies who don’t seem to understand that the reason the tour finishes so late is because penguins only come to shore AT NIGHT....)

From Dunedin, we drive across the island to Te Anau, the gateway to fjordland. Our plan here is to go on an overnight cruise on Doubtful Sound (so called because Captain Cook was doubtful that if he sailed his ship in that he would be able to sail it out again) and to kayak on Milford Sound. The first part of the plan works beautifully, and we spend a fantastic 22 hours on Doubtful. Captain Cook may not have liked the look of the place, but I certainly do: it’s not as well known as Milford, and it’s a little bit out of the way (you can drive up to Milford, but to get to Doubtful you have to get to Manapouri, transfer for 1 hour across the lake there and then take another hour’s bus ride on the other side down to the Sound itself. It’s awesome. It’s three times the size of Milford and has something like 10 times as much volume. As any geographer worth their salt could tell you, it’s not a Sound, it was formed by glaciation and is a fjord. The water here is over 400m deep in places, and sheer rock walls rise up towards the sky with rainforest somehow clinging onto the sides. Given than up to 16m of rain falls here every year, and Doubtful averages something like 200 rain days in every 365, it’s perhaps not all that surprising when it’s raining as we board the boat. Far from being upsetting though, this means that waterfalls are cascading from the rock walls everywhere you look. It’s stunningly beautiful. We cruise up the sound, go right out onto the Tasman sea and look at the fur seal colony there, and then cruise back to one of the quieter arms where we tie up and then kayak, swim and generally chill out on the calm waters. It’s a wonderful spot.

I was very much looking forward to kayaking on Milford, but it wasn’t to be: our little campervan was rocked by an enormous electrical storm on the Sunday night, and our early pickup to Milford was thwarted not far along the road by hundreds of meters of treefalls. We’re forced to turn back, and although we try again the next day, it turns out that the road to Milford has been washed out and won’t be open for several days. Reluctantly, we have to move on. Next time, eh?

We plan on hitting the glaciers next, but to reach them, we have to head back across the mountains to the East and then head back across the Haast Pass. Needless to say, it stops raining as we cross the mountains towards Queenstown and then starts raining again as soon as we head back over to the west side. The problem is that wet air crosses the Tasman Sea, and when it hits the mountains on the west side of South Island New Zealand, it just dumps all that moisture. It’s hard to be too cross when it is this very climate that created all this magnificent scenery, but it can’t half be a touch depressing when you’re trapped in an unpowered campervan and you need to pee. A long driving day takes us through to Franz Josef glacier. The weather is so pissy that we contemplate just heading straight out of town, but the rain stops and we spend a very happy couple of hours walking up to the face of the glacier. It’s hard not to be impressed by a wall of ice that is still carving its way through the valley, and you can hear the ice creaking as it moves, as well as watch the torrent of water pouring out underneath in a stream that carries ice and boulders down towards the sea.

Just as we leave, the rain starts up again, and it doesn’t stop until we have driven right up the West Coast and popped back across the mountains at the Lewis Pass and dropped down into Hamner Springs. Our spirits are soon revived by a plunge in the hot springs, a pub quiz we help some randoms to win and by the presence of several cats who all seem to want a quick tickle. It’s a nice town, but we’re on our way to Kaikoura on the east coast........ and the further east we travel, the more the sun seems to shine for us. Here’s hoping it sticks around for the next couple of days as we go whale watching and swim with the dolphins, eh?

New Zealand is lovely. I’m very glad to see the sun – after a month of feeling as though I’d packed too much, I now feel like I’ve been wearing every single item of clothing that I own (thank goodness for merino wool and down jackets) - but even if the sun hadn’t come out at all, how could you not be in awe of the landscapes here and the wildlife it contains?

So there you go. 2,500 words of brevity with a couple of weeks in New Zealand still to go!

I've not chosen a favourite beer yet either. Speights and Macs I could take or leave, but Monteiths, Emersons and Twisted Ankle have all been pretty good. Plenty more to try, anyway.


  1. God, that penguin walking ahead of the sheep looks incredibly sinister. But incredibly cute as well. It all looks and sounds amazing, glad you're having such a great time.

  2. The sheep was (predictably) utterly amazed by the penguin, and watched it approach, stand in front and then tracked it past until long after it had gone. Mind you, I imagine sheep are easily surprised, on the whole.....

  3. Awesome: really took me back there when I read it! Lovely pics too. South island especially can get damp, esp that West Coast, but it IS spectacular and its nice to see so many familiar sights!

  4. Love that camper!