A week in New Zealand’s South Island (historical)

It’s time to return to another of our past trips overseas, this time to New Zealand’s South Island in January of 2003.

Our wonderful honeymoon in Paris had instilled in both of us a desire to see more of the world outside of Australia. However, we had a new house to move into, furniture to buy and many other expenses, making 2002 the only year of no overseas travel since our wedding.

With the dawn of 2003 our savings were not yet high, but the desire was strong. So we picked somewhere nearby to Australia, yet very different scenically. Somewhere with no language difficulties (or so we thought) that would provide an easy holiday. No doubt also guided by a certain trilogy of movies, the first two of which had been released by the end of 2002.

This was the first trip where we had our own digital camera, a Canon IXY200 2.1 megapixel device, a wedding present imported from Japan.

Arrival at Christchurch

I found it amusing that we were departing Australia on Australia Day, most unpatriotic of us. The flight over to Christchurch was unremarkable until we crossed over the Southern Alps. There I felt some predictable turbulence associated with mountain waves.

The Hertz car hire desk was understaffed and we waited ages until we could collect the key to our black Toyota Corolla. This was the first and only time, until Malaysia, that B felt comfortable driving in another country. After all, their road rules were the same as ours, except for the give way to turning traffic at an intersection rule, which is the opposite of Australia.

For accommodation we had prepurchased a series of Golden Chain vouchers from the STA where we booked the travel.

We drove directly to our motel, an olde Englishly floral kind of place outside of the Christchurch CBD called the Ashleigh Court. After dropping our bags we then continued into the city, which has a one-way ring around it. The CBD felt rather sleepy, except for student hangouts. Our first New Zealand meal was in a Asian place. Then back to the motel to rest.

Except that I couldn’t sleep. I amused myself by watching the Australia – England one day cricket final on delayed telecast from Australia.

Christchurch to Franz Josef Glacier

Rather than the normal Arthur’s Pass route across the Alps to Greymouth on the west coast we decided on a more northerly route via Hanmer Springs and the Lewis Pass. Initially the scenery was nothing remarkable, flat plains with the Alps to the west. The rivers seemed interesting, milky blue with many big grey pebbles.

As we turned west and into the foothills the countryside felt more like northern Victoria and there were even stands of eucalypts. John Farnham’s “Your the Voice” played over the radio, further adding to the Australian feel.

Then our perspective changed as we got further in towards the mountains and began driving alongside the big Waiau River. To our right was a turn off to Hanmer Springs while a jet boat raced across the river, showering spray.

Hanmer Springs is a small holiday village nestled into pine plantations that give the impression of Europe or the US. We paid the entry fee to the host springs complex, the town’s main attraction. It seemed too early, and the air too cool for a swim, but neither of us had bathed in natural hot springs before. They were hot, up to 39 degree Centigrade! We could only stay in the hottest pools for a brief time, partly due to the strong stench of Hydrogen Sulphide. However, it was very relaxing, and the effects of a near sleepless night were washed away in the steaming waters.

From Hanmer Springs we drove up into the mountains, the forests changing around us. I had brought the first two Lord of the Rings movie soundtracks with us to listen to on the car’s CD player and they were wonderfully appropriate for this trip. I could imagine elves outside happily existing in the beautiful forests.

We drove past the source of the Waiau River and then as we crossed through the pass came to the source of another river flowing in the opposite direction, towards the West. To abuse a sporting cliche, the South Island is truly an island of two halves.

At this stage the river was just a pretty little stream surrounded by wildflowers and forest. Further on it became more dramatic, looked down upon from steep slopes and tall trees.

Eventually the road wound down to the coast. The skies were now dark grey. We discovered another peculiarity of New Zealand. The one-way shared road and rail bridge. These were quite scary, though I daresay there aren’t many trains per day.

The rivers of the South Island were a beautiful aquamarine colour due to the very fine glacial particles suspended in the water. Unfortunately, whenever we stopped to admire them we were set upon by nasty biting midges.

We reached the western coastline at Greymouth. The cities along the coast possessed this unusual, almost eerie quietness, a stillness under a grey-golden sky. The light along the west coast was different just as the light of Asia differs from Australia, and gave the scenery a dreamy air. I loved both the light and the solitude.

At Greymouth we stopped at a jade factory which also did glass blowing, bought some souvenirs. The west coast is where most of New Zealand’s jade is sourced from. Being summer the days were long, so we continued south. Along side us the waves of the Tasman sea crashed into the lonely beaches.

We stopped again at Hokitika, another quiet town, admiring some interesting jewel stones, but purchased nothing. Pressing onwards, we made it to the Franz Joseph motel, a little north of the township of the same name. This large room contained cooking facilities, so we drove into the township, which mainly caters to backpackers and glacier tour operators, to find food.

The choices were pretty disappointing with a few expensive cafes and a limited range of groceries, so we ate tinned spaghetti and packet noodles that night.

The Glaciers to Arrowtown

If yesterday belonged to the Elves, then today it was Orcs and Men. We departed our motel early, driving past the townships towards our first stop, Franz Josef Glacier. Throughout the morning, Howard Shore’s music for the Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers provided an appropriate soundtrack to the scenery outside. As we drove up the gravel road to the glacier the sight of dead trees eerily combined with the Mordor sounds of The Prophecy from the car speakers.

After walking through damp forest under some brief showers we were presented with a view of Franz Joseph Glacier, the first that we had ever seen.

Returning to the car, we drove out of the glacier environs and stopped at an information centre to learn more about these rivers of ice. About 25 kilometres south of Franz Josef is a second, and more spectacular glacier, Fox Glacier. Here, we were able to walk up from the carpark almost to the base of the glacier. Temporary waterfalls fell from fog shrouded valley walls, forming rivulets into the main flow from the glacier. We stepped carefully across the moonlike rocks until we reached the blue ice face of the glacier. It was as if we were on another world. The truth is that I was actually reminded of the scenery in the Doom computer game.

When we returned to the carpark we found a pair of kakapo. Then it was south along the coast, stopping to admire some interesting coastal rock formations, then driving on under the strange skies listening to Gollum’s Song.

On this trip I learned how cranky B gets when she is hungry. We did a quick u-turn after passing a salmon farm on the right of the highway. There we had the most fantastic comfort food. Rich, cheesy, creamy smoked salmon pasta and a salmon chowder with soft hot bread and washed down with Lemon & Paeroa. I still dream of that meal.

After crossing the single lane bridge across the mighty Haast river it was time to head inland again and across the Alps through the Haast Pass.

The sky had turned ominously dark, the mountains menacing, the tight, winding roads following the Haast River’s course a struggle to climb. Suddenly, the Haast turns into a raging waterfall and we are at the pass.

Then, as we cross to the other side of the Alps the spell is lifted, the sun returns and we have entered the most breathtakingly beautiful of lands.

Looking firstly backwards and then along the Makarora River you can see the difference in the weather. Then the river opened out into Lake Wanaka and we were left speechless with its beauty, silently mouthing “Wow” over and over again. Surely, it was the most beautiful of sights and we were saddened when the road turned away from the lake.

Sad, until we crossed over the hill and another lake appeared before our eyes, Lake Hawea, and we could not believe that we had found something more magnificent than Wanaka. Our breath was taken away by the grandeur and the scale of the scene before our eyes. Incredible.

Eventually, the road returned to the shores of Lake Wanaka and to the township of that name. There we decided to take the scenic “shortcut” via Cardona to Queenstown rather then the highway. After driving through damp glacial forests and lake scenery, we were surprised by the dry grassland of this winding route. It was stressful driving and we were surprised to see a tourist bus parked at a lookout near the end of the drive. Grateful for a chance to rest, we pulled over for a scarily high view of Queenstown from above.

The last few kilometres of the drive were the worst, with many blind and narrow corners without side barriers, accidents waiting to happend should an incautious party be on the road. It was with great relief that we made it to flat land.

The nights accommodation was at the Viking Lodge Motel in Arrowtown, a historic gold-mining village on the outskirts of Queenstown. The A-frame units were very cosy and another new experience for us. With evening yet to come we set off into Queenstown proper to explore.

Neither of us liked Queenstown much. There were tourists everywhere, the whole city centre seemed tourist oriented with lots of adventurewear shops. Fortunately, the stores were open late, so we had our first chance to engage in some New Zealand shopping, but were rather underwhelmed by the experience.

Lake Wakatipu, on whose shores Queenstown lies, is rather pretty. We took an evening stroll along the shores, photographed the steamer which runs tourists around the lake, then returned back to the motel for a well earned rest.

Queenstown to Te Anau and Milford Sound

Arrowtown was a quaint gold mining village and far more attractive than Queenstown. We regretted not eating dinner there instead of Queenstown.

Our next destination was Te Anau at the foot of a lake of the same name. As we departed Queenstown I couldn’t help but think that the range of our left might be fencing in Mordor. Snow clouds still dusted the tops of the hills, even in late Summer. We passed a vintage steam train pulling tourists along through the valleys. It would have been a fun and very scenic journey for them.

We had the radio on while driving along and there was very little of the Kiwi announcer’s thick accent that I could understand, except for the “dubdubdub” whenever he announced the start of a url.

On reaching Te Anau and the Anchorage Motel we were quick to unpack and book a Milford Sound cruise though the reception. Not stopping for lunch, we set out towards this famous part of the Fjordland National Park.

The park’s entrance is into yellow grassland at the base of a river valley. Grey clouds lay ahead on the towering mountains, and we hoped they wouldn’t cause problems. We carefully wound our way upwards along single lane roads and bridges, into forest, to find ourselves at Homer Tunnel, a narrow, but long, unlit pass straight through the mountain. On either side of us, snow. We drove through, not knowing what lay beyond.

Beatrice was feeling sick from the winding paths and a lack of lunch, so we pulled over, precious time passing. Below us, the road wound tightly and steeply down the mountain side, with patches of snow at the edges. The weather was wet and the air foggy, the Alps splitting the South Island’s climate in two.

We had made it that far, there was no sense turning back, so we continued into the gloom, hoping there would be something to see at the end of it. Somehow we got to Milford Sound, early enough that we could partake in a meat pie from the cafeteria, but soaked from the pouring rain that lay between there and the car.

The boat set off into a grey gloom, the famous landscape obscured by fog and rain, and Beatrice fell asleep on my arm, worn out from the driving and never very good on boats. It was rather disappointing after the effort we made in travelling to the sound.

The return through the mouth of the fjord marked a change in our fortunes. The cloud lifted and an astonishing landscape was revealed. The same rain that had hidden our view was now streaming down the mountainsides as temporary rivers and waterfalls, something we would have missed on a sunny day. We stood out on the boats decks and felt the spray of a waterfall and watched the seals on the rocks.

When the boat returned to the dock it was time to return to Te Anau. Freed of the need to arrive at a certain time, we took the return trip at a more leisurely pace, enjoying the scenery, the water cascading down the sides of the dark, bare grey flanks of the mountains and into forest streams. The unlit Homer tunnel was just as terrifying to drive through as on the way in, the drive up to it as motion sickening. We stopped again on the other side, snowbanks visible on the side of the road.

The landscape kept changing the further along the road we drove. Mountains coated in greenery, lakes and forests of different trees, until again we arrived back in the grassy valley floor, surely a place for the horse lords! At this point we were quite concerned, for we had not looked closely enough at the petrol tank earlier and it now read just above empty. The warning light had been on for a while by the time we made it back to Te Anau.

We had another scare in the town when I discovered my wallet was missing. We searched the places we had stopped, eventually finding a note posted up on the light pole near a previous parking spot. A Japanese tourist have found my wallet on the ground and brought it into a nearby shop. I thanked the kind owners and found in their store a suitable snow dome to bring back to Beatrice’s family, who collected them. We had hunted quite hard for that, so it was a happy ending all round!

Dunedin and the Taieri Gorge Railway

After the beauty of the South Island’s Alpine regions, the remainder of the trip was a bit of a let down. The rolling country grasslands just could not compete with the magnificence of the mountains, forests and lakes. We left Te Anau and drove westwards to Dunedin, passing through small towns and sheep farms, not too different from some of my favourite parts of rural Australia.

Arriving in Dunedin early in the afternoon, we checked into the Aberdeen Motel, then drove back through the university city to the historic and ornate station. From there, we boarded the Taieri Gorge tourist train, a diesel hauled collection of heritage and custom built panoramic carriages that follows the Taieri River for a distance of 77 kilometres, although our trip was only up to Pukerangi, 58 kilometres from Dunedin.

The entire journey was supposed to take four hours. However, we were late leaving Dunedin as the initial mainline track out of station had to first be checked for warpage due to the heat, the limit an incredibly low 22 degrees Celcius! We made it out past the end of the mainline and off on to the tourist track spur when the locomotive broke down, stranding us for another hour. The train’s staff were very helpful, giving out free drinks. Meanwhile Beatrice stopped looking out of the window and became addicted to the Scrabble game on my PDA. Eventually an alternative locomotive was found and we began our ascent up the gorge.

I would have said that the scenery was impressive, but for the fact that we had just come from the Southern Alps. That said, at least we could sit back and admire the view through an open window or from the balconies at the carriage ends.

Pukerangi was simply a set of passing loops beside a platform and couple of residences. While the locomotive swapped ends we took the opportunity to wander around before we began the return journey. Fortunately, this was less eventful than the trip out.

Beatrice was desperate for an opportunity to try some New Zealand seafood, so we spent the evening searching for a suitable restaurant. We initially tried Dunedin’s beaches, but that proved fruitless, except for the beautiful evening views. Eventually we found a restaurant in the CBD and ordered a seafood platter for two at a very reasonable price. It was huge, with crabs, prawns, fish and mussels. So many mussels, that Beatrice swore off the shellfish. A full day, and a very full night!

Larnach Castle and Christchurch

We began the day with a drive out along the Otago Peninsula, stopping to take in the magnificent views of Otago Harbour from atop the brilliantly green hills. Our destination was Larnach Castle, the 19th Century home of banker William Larnach and some very tragic tales of suicide and unhappy relationships. Set in a classic English garden, the castle-like house is full of furnishings from across the world, the interior workmanship and materials a wonder to behold, as is the view from the tower.

On the way back from Larnach Castle we stopped off at Clifton Farm, who specialise in sheep with naturally coloured wool. We purchased a beautiful grey-brown sheepskin from their wooden shed full of woolen products. Then it was back to Dunedin for some lunch and a chance to look at the impressive bluestone architecture of the city.

Then it was time to complete the circle around the South Island with a drive northwards back to Christchuch. Much of it was quiet yellow countryside, some pretty, but quiet, seaside views, the odd town. We stopped by one roadside fruit store that sold the most delicious strawberries (it was the Strawberry Trail, according to the tourist signs).

On our last night in New Zealand we ate dinner on Cambridge Terrace, where Christchurch’s nightlife is concentrated before retiring to the motel.

Christchurch, Akaroa and leaving for home

Our final day in New Zealand, but we still had much to do. After our honeymoon we were a sucker for anything French, so we headed out early to Akaroa, a small French settlement on the Banks Peninsula. More winding roads, though the scenery was drier than further south. Still attractive, still quiet. At Little River we stopped to look at the craft shops, buying some tiny moccasins as a gift for a friends soon-to-be-born baby.

Akaroa was a quaint little town, full of the usual craft shops that abound in such places. It gave us a chance to look for last minute gifts for family members. Lunch was a tasty local fish and not so good half a lobster from a popular fish and chips shop. There was an interesting paua (abalone) shell and blue pearl display on the main wharf. Apparently, the paua are haemophilic and will bleed to death if cut. This makes harvesting the pearls very difficult.

The return drive seemed even more attractive than on the way out. I must have a dirty mind, because I thought that a couple of hills looked like giant breasts.

Back in Christchurch we took the opportunity to wander the city and take a ride on the tram that loops through the CBD. It’s an informative little trip and good introduction to the city’s attractions. Unfortunately, we were limited in time and soon had to return the car back to the airport.

The need to check in early for international flights left us with plenty of time to waste at the airport and little to do. Unfortunately, we did not realise that the adjacent Antarctic centre was open to the public until 8pm, as it had been strongly recommended to me by a friend who had spent a year at the South Pole. There was also the issue of paying a separate departure tax, a practice I believe has now been eliminated.

Our delayed Qantas flight home had been substituted with a 747. The good thing about it was that we now had seatback entertainment, thought there was barely enough time to watch a complete movie, though I succeeded with the childrens movie Thunderpants.

Soon after take-off I enjoyed the entertainment of the New Zealand landscape outside of our window. Through the clear skies I could see the route we had driven across the Alps to the west coast.

This flight also marked the genesis of my fear of turbulence. It was rough, and for the first time that I can recall, the seatbelt light was switched on. Subsequent flights saw the fear increase and it has taken me six years to overcome it.

Our New Zealand trip remains one of the best that we have had. The scenery was absolutely spectacular, the pace relaxed despite the amount of driving. It was also so nice to listen to music while watching the landscape unfold. Even now the music of Lord of the Rings takes me back to the real Middle Earth: New Zealand.