Tuesday, 21 February 2012

The Journey Home

My last day in New Zealand dawned with clear skies and the promise of hot sunshine.  Goodbyes are always hard and it felt sad to say farewell to people I’d lived closely with for the last nine days.  But time never stands still and a holiday wouldn’t be a holiday if it didn’t end.  

My flight wasn’t until 8.30pm that evening so after checking out I left my luggage safely in the hotel and went into the centre of Christchurch.  Despite the good weather, the CBD still felt depressing.  The only shops were temporary ones housed in containers.  The bus driver complained about roads closing, suddenly, without warning, making her job stressful.  

I wonder what will happen to this city still in a state of devastation one year on from the earthquake.  I didn’t stay for very long but caught another bus to the Westfield Mall where I bought a few bits and pieces and then returned to the hotel to enjoy a last few hours in the warm, sunny gardens before the long flight home – Christchurch to Auckland, Auckland to Hong Kong and Hong Kong to London and home.

Sitting now on the last leg of the journey, brain confused by shifting time and aeroplane sleep or lack of, I’m glad I wrote this travel blog to look back on and remind me of all I saw and did, the different places I visited, the contrasts both vast and subtle between each place I visited, North Island and South Island, Hong Kong and New Zealand, the colour, culture and nature all so different to home.

There were so many highlights it’s not easy to pick favourites but three stand out in my mind – Cape Reinga at the very tip of the North Island, the penguins at Dunedin, Milford Sound, the Fox Glacier and the Kauri and tropical rainforests. London will seem very ordinary in comparison.

Sunday, 19 February 2012

New Zealand Day Twenty Four – Hokitika, Greymouth and Trans Alpine Train from Arthurs Pass to Christchurch

Last day of the tour and a relatively late start much to the relief of most of the group as we weren’t leaving till 9am.  Fox Glacier is a tiny place of about three streets; mostly pubs and hotels with one little supermarket and a petrol station. There were however a few nice walks so as I had plenty of time and it was sunny but cool I decided to do 20 minute one.  It was lovely, taking you through rainforest but their twenty minutes turned out to be more like ten..

Our first stop on the way to Greymouth was in Hokitika, to look at the Jade factory.  It was also an opportunity to go down to the beach, which being on the West Coast of New Zealand is the Tasman Sea.  Unlike most of the beaches I’ve been to, this one was very stony, interspersed with black sand.  There were also some very intriguing sculptures made out of dead branches.

From Hokitika we went to Greymouth where the Trans Alpine train departs.  I’d decided not to get on there but join the train at the next stop Arthurs Pass.  I’m very glad I did because the coach actually went over the pass whereas the train goes through the tunnel.  Also when we stopped at a look-out point to see the viaduct we’d just travelled on, there was a group of Kea (alpine parrots) who weren’t in the least bit camera shy and took rather a fancy to a bright pink car.  When that moved away they started to peck at our coach.  They are very colourful – green with red bright red on the underside of their wings.  We spent ages taking photographs and even Marty, the tour director, had his camera out.  In the excitement, I almost forgot to take photos of the view and had to get off the coach again to capture the imposing mountains and deep ravines.

It was quite chilly at Arthurs Pass which is about 735 feet above sea level.and the train was late.  It was well worth the wait as it wound its way through high mountains that looked down on deep river valleys and dense rainforest.  The rivers were cloudy blue, carrying glacial minerals and most of the rivers were braided, which means there was a wide expanse of grey scree riverbed and narrow channels of water.

The train driver gave commentary throughout and had a very dry deadpan sense of humour, mostly at his teenage daughter’s expense but it was entertaining.

We went through a series of tunnels and then suddenly the mountains disappeared, the land became the flat expanse of the golden Canterbury Plains and the weather turned grey and colder.  It felt very drab fter the drama of the mountain landscape.

There was just enough time to grab suitcases and buy a drink in the bar of the hotel before dinner was ready.  Our last meal as a group.  It was a shame the hotel put us on small tables instead of one big one as it would have been nice to all sit together.

After eating we headed back to the bar, including the driver and tour director for one last evening together.  I was glad that my flight was at a sensible time.  Some of the Aussies had to leave at 4am the following day.

Saturday, 18 February 2012

New Zealand Day Twenty Three – Arrowtown and Fox Glacier

After two nights in one place it was time to get back on the coach and say goodbye to the buzzing, hilly Queenstown.  As soon as the cases were loaded we were on our way to Fox Glacier, stopping on the way at the small goldmining town of Arrowtown, though to describe it as a town probably gives the wrong impression.  It was more of a village with more tourists walking down the main street than residents at the place. It was pretty and I am guessing there were lots of nice walks in the surrounding mountains.
We drove through very mountainous, barren landscapes and then suddenly the scenery changed and we saw wineries and lots of fruit farms, stopping at one to taste the cherries, apricots, kiwi fruit and a selection of dried fruits.  Of course I couldn’t resist buying as well, I can’t survive without fruit and my supply of apricots bought in Dunedin had been eaten a few days ago.

Our next stop was at the Thunder Creek Falls to see a waterfall high in the rocky mountain face.  As we got back on the coach we saw another attraction across the road but this one wouldn’t be found on any tourist map.  A couple of middle aged ladies, wearing bright pink tops had paused in the bush.  One was acting as lookout while the other disappeared into the bush.  I’m not sure who was the doziest – the lookout for not warning her friend she was in full view of a coach load of people, or the lady caught short for not finding a bigger tree.  We, however had a splendid view of her rather public convenience and waved at them as we pulled out and drove past just as she was pulling up her white shorts.

Still laughing, we drove over the Haast Past and followed the Haast river to the Glacier.  It is quite sobering to see the markers where the glacier reached a hundred odd years ago, fifty odd years ago and now.  It is retreating too quickly and one can’t help wondering if our abuse of the planet is hastening the glacier’s disappearance.

Because some people were booked onto helicopter flights over the glacier and had a set time, we couldn’t have as much time as I would have liked to walk up to near the edge of the ice.  We were told the walk takes an hour but were only given half an hour there.  Four of us set of at a cracking pace and made it there and back within the allotted time and even managed to take photographs.  It was definitely worth the exercise to get that much closer.

I had imagined the ice to be white or grey but there was a lot of turquoise blue interspersed with the white and it really is a river of ice.  Also I hadn’t expected the area around to be made up of so many grey stones. Nor did I think the surrounding area would be covered in rainforest.  It was also warmer than I had imagined and I didn’t even need the extra jacket and gloves.

Once we’d dropped of those who were doing the flight we went to the hotel.  Dinner was a sit down, three course meal  (I might need two seats on the plane home) and afterwards our tour guide, Marty, brought his guitar to the lounge and we had a good laugh singing along to his playing, accompanied by our resident drummer, Paul alias the driver, playing the stainless steel salad bowl.  It was fun. A few of us stayed chatting once the jamming session was over and then moved to the pub when the bar shut.

Hard to believe tomorrow is our last day of travelling and seeing the sites.  The month has gone very quickly; too quickly.

Friday, 17 February 2012

New Zealand Day twenty two - Queenstown

No early alarm call this morning as we weren’t moving on but spending the day in Queenstown.  There were activities that could be booked but I decided it was time for a bit of exercise to work off all those three course meals I’d eaten this week.  It was also a chance to do some laundry.  Naturally everyone had the same idea but I was in the laundry room when it opened at seven this morning so managed to get in first.  

Clothes washed and dried, I set off to walk up the mountain behind our hotel.  It wasn’t too difficult to find the start of the marked walking trails up to the top of the Gondola ride but the first trail I tried wasn’t well signposted and I ended up very confused so retraced my steps to find a different one.  Second problem – that one was closed.  Eventually, I found a third trail and began the steep ascent.  Good thing, mountain goat is my middle name as it was very steep and narrow in places with tree roots as steps in places. Still, it could have been worse - near the top where the path was wide but steep, one guy was struggling to cycle up.  Personally, I would have dismounted and pushed the bike, walking at that point was far quicker.

It was well worth the climb for the fantastic view over the town, lake and mountains. I sat for a while watching people hurtling down the luge and bungy jumping.

The descent back to Queenstown was a lot quicker than the ascent.  Two hours up and about forty minutes down.  I sat by the lake to have lunch and then found a café, where for the price of pot of tea I could have free internet access for a long as I wanted.  Lots of other people had the same idea.

Then it was time to go back to the hotel and get ready for a gondola ride and dinner at the skyline restaurant.  It was a buffet but with so much food, so many choices.  Starters were soup, lots of fish and seafood, salads, cold meat.  Main courses included a carvery, hot chicken, venison, vegetables, potato bakes, pasta, pad thai.  Dessert gave a choice of cakes, sticky toffee muffins, pavlova, ice cream, fruit salad, jellies, crème brule and a cheese board.  I think I was quite restrained compared to some others who had two or three starters, a big main, cake and cheese board.

Everyone staggered back down the gondola and onto the coach to the hotel, full and contented.  Tomorrow’s wake up call will be at seven.

Thursday, 16 February 2012

New Zealand Day Twenty One - Milford Sound and Queenstown

Our cruise across Milford Sound was booked for 11am and was well worth the early morning start.  Prepared with lots of layers and lunch bought the day before, we left Te Anau and headed for the Milford Road, the only route to and from the Sound.  On the way we stopped at the Mirror lake, which fitted its description perfectly.  The backdrop to the journey was impressive.  Tall granite mountains covered with scree, scrub, bush and at the very top snow.  It was hard to know whether to look to the left or right.  There were a couple of hold ups, the first was the tunnel, cut through the mountain as it is only single lane and controlled by traffic lights.  Then further along were road works, which held us up for ages.

Finally we reached the boat and went aboard.  Despite my recent experiences of freezing when on open water, I headed upstairs to the front of the boat and I’m glad I did.  This trip wasn’t as cold as the others I’d done, though as usual my fingers went numb – not good for taking photographs but bearable.

The view can only be described as spectacular - a long deep fjord flanked on each side by towering granite mountains that looked majestic and contrasted dramatically with the deep clear water.  Just before we reached the point of return, where the fjord became the Tasman Sea, we spotted some dolphins and though they moved to quickly to photograph, were a thrill to see and watch them leap out of the water and dive back in again.  We also saw brown fur seals basking on the rocks and the most impressive waterfall that tumbled from a great height.  There was just time at the end to grab a free cup of lovely hot tea and eat my sandwich.

Then began the long journey back the way we came to Queenstown, with a short stop to look at the Chasm (an unusl waterfall that was in a chasm) and another brief stop in Te Anau.

There was just enough time when we got to the hotel to take off my walking shoes and a few layers then go down for dinner, which was a buffet that included the best vegetable lasagne I’ve eaten in a long time.
After eating, I decided to take a wander into the centre of Queenstown.  The guide said it would take 30 mins but going down hill, actually only took fifteen to twenty minutes.  There was a beautiful sunset over the mountains and later myriad stars in the sky. I've never seen so many at once.

As I was walking by the lake I heard some singing coming from the Irish pusb – a couple of guys with guitars.  They sounded great so I went in and spent the evening listening to the music.  It was also happy hour so the beer was reasonably priced - Speights of course.