January 2010

The interesting aspect of travelling is that you never stop learning, about yourself, your companions and the places and people that you meet. You end each trip saying, well that was good but I won’t do X again, or rethinking how one packed or the books or itinerary. Even more than Paula, I can be an indefatigable traveller – sometimes just a walk in a strange and distant land is enough.

This time, we had our travel plans shaped by the boys. Liam is a pretty good traveller, but Dom tires more easily and finds the contingencies Paula and build in hard to get used to. Constant change is not his thing, but he coped well and had a good time.

Sadly for Paula, her wings were clipped by her ankle injury (that metaphor is not working, but I like the lack of logic so it can stay). I wonder what else we might have done with four good legs between us!

Highlights? Queenstown, Milford Sound, Franz Joseph Walk, jet-boat, Fergburger, Guilty, that first meal in Christchurch, the view from the windows in Lake Hawea, peaks and rivers on the road through Haast Pass, luge and nice Kiwis.

Lowlights? Jetstar, lack of wi-fi (come on, NZ), fuel prices, rocks on the road, rain, tv, Lake Tekapo, Christchurch -sorry – and stiles.

Not bad, really! And close to budget. Back to reality on Monday.

Queenstown continued to deliver in the morning. We had a leisurely check-out and wandered in to town. A bit of souvenir shopping, and we off up the gondola to the peak for a view and some luging for Liam and me.

We probably didn’t have as much fun as the sheep that defied gravity on the sheer slopes on the way up, but we certainly gave it a shot. Both of us got the carts airborne and lifted wheels in corners, though Liam claimed victory each time. That explains the doubling in Paula’s third-party insurance now Liam is driving!! Fast enough is good enough for this old fart.

We were sorry to leave Queenstown: we probably should have booked a later flight and driven right through the day on Friday. We mourned the fact that we had experienced only one Fergburger meal: even better than our home-made ones, which will be enlivened but better seasoning and aoli in future. As for the addition of blue cheese – inspiring!!!!

In contrast, the road back to Christchurch was deadly dull and Lake Tekapo an expensive and uneventful rip-off. It was an anticlimactic end to a great trip and a wonderful day.

We were sorry to leave Te Anau, although there were definite limits to what Paula could have done has we stayed. Just looking at the walks around there was enough, and I am determined to go back and do the track one day. Doubtful Bay also looks amazing: there is an overnight cruise there which includes sea kayaking – I don’t want to be too old to enjoy it! As always, there are plenty of incentives for staying fit, although there may need to be some post-Christmas remediation when I get back to the gym.

Once we reached Queenstown, we realised that we had probably not given enough time to an amazing spot. The apartments we stayed in were about ten minutes walk from the town, although we did taxis to save Paula. They had an amazing view, as you can see from the photos and, while a little older, were large and comfortable. We had a bedroom and en suite upstairs, with a second bedroom and shower for the boys, although Liam decided to kip downstairs. Again, we could have cooked, but decided to take advantage of the town for one last night.

There was very little time to appreciate all this, however, because we dashed out the door to meet the shuttle out to Skippers Canyon for our jetboat adventure. Every outdoor company in New Zealand promises the best, the biggest and the most thrilling – I can’t judge the truth of these, although I am warming to a bungie jump next trip, just to show there is still life in the old bastard – but Skippers Canyon really delivers! The bus was four wheel drive and I wondered why until we left the ‘main’ road to Coronet Peak and headed along the world’s narrowest and most precarious track to the absolute back of beyond. It was first and second up and down the mountains, with literally a hundred foot drop to he right as we drove in.

Once in the canyon, we were just amazed at rhe speed of the river and the desolate landscape. The early pioneers must have been pretty tough characters: the south island is much less populated than the north, and Queenstown must have been totally cut off for most of the year in the early days. Even now, I’d rather fly in than drive in!

Jet-boating is just one of those mad activities which is simply crazy fun, and when done in such surroundings might be justifiable because of the scenery and the wild river. We all had a huge time, just skirting shoals and rock walls in the obligatory manner, getting soaked and shrieking at the mandatory 360s. After that, driving out along that access road was just more scenery, rather than the near death experience it was on the way in.

Dinner was a triumph – a good meal in great surroundings. The Guilt is in Queenstown’s old court house, but it was better to sit outside and listen toast really good singer in the long cool twilight. We stayed and enjoyed until late.

I think that the best way to enjoy the South might be to base yourself in Queenstown, which is a short flight from Wellington. We missed so much of Otago, from wineries to adventure activities, so there is much to come back for. One can also do the glacier trips from here – the road geography is pretty circuitous because of the mountains.

I grabbed a couple of late evening shots and hoped for better sunshine in the morning, but the height of the Remarkables makes for interesting viewing in all kinds of conditions. I’m just happy it isn’t raining.

The other great thing about today was how much fun Dom had. You never know with that one, but whenever we have done things, he has had a great time, the one exception being that ill fated walk. He just needs a push every now and then.

It would be ridiculous to pretend that you could describe the Milford Sound area in words. Even a photo essay of any detail would require days. I stood in the boat amazed at the opportunities for landscape photos as well as the chance to take family pics, every shot filled with the possibilities of different light. To be here at dawn or sunset! What would winter bring?

We have been really lucky with the weather and when I can upload from the camera card, you will see why. It has been a great cruise, good victuals, good commentary, great visit to the underwater observatory, and all of us in good form.

We’re sitting on the steps outside the tour terminal, waiting to board our cruise boat for a trip up the sound. The sin is shining and we are surrounded by the steep-sided walls of the fjord.

I drove in, as this is Paula’s first day in a shoe. It is advertised as one of the great Alpine drives on the world, and I’m not going to argue. We will have the slowest trip home, because I am determined to pull over and photograph everything that I glimpsed and marvelled at momentarily on the way in.

The range of scenery was breathtaking. A cinematographer would have had a field day with the light filtering through the dense forest.

One had to take care: the South Island is actually the land of the Long White Camper Van. Every now and then, someone would pull over suddenly for that must-have photo.

The whole route is quite extraordinary and we would love to do the track and perhaps the overnight cruise and kayak option in the future. A chance to walk into the gorges with those pristine streams, such a turquoise blue…

Sunday night found us in Lake Hawea. About 80 minutes from Queenstown, the two lakes and their towns, Hawea and Wanaka, are absolutely beautiful. We were trying to make comparisons with other sights in our travels, and Austria and the Lakes District both come to mind, but nothing really matches the scale and colour pallette.

The drive along the lake was a relief after the steep mountain roads, so remote and narrow that only the video and photos can really show it. I really missed an uninjured Paula today, she is still only comfortable in the back seat, so our normal travel conversation is missing and the video shots are limited to the car.

The view from our motel last night was simply amazing, both from the restaurant and from our room. We didn’t close the curtains, but watched the light changing until ten o’clock.

I finally got a run in this morning, along the lake shore for a couple of kms. This helped with the fact I’m a bit drived out – originally, I only wanted to drive if Paula split duties with me, because I find that one sees less and enjoys it less when one drives more.

We drove out Lakeland by Queenstown, the temperature dropping as we drove. It was windy with rain squalls, but the glimpses I caught of the steep hills and white-capped water was worth it.

They must make them rough and tough in the Southland. Even more isolated than Franz Joseph – after all, you can be in Christchurch in less than four hours in good weather – the valley floor around the road south is flat and fertile, but must be bitter in winter. On the horizon are always the ranges, growing in height as we drove to Te Anau.

All is good with the unit and the food, but the town is full of apologetic Kiwis selling winter stock to despairing travellers like us, who didn’t bring enough warm tops. I’m starting to appreciate the quality of outdoors gear: a pair of bush pants is probably better for travelling than a pair of jeans.

We’ve found some good deals on fleecy tops, done some washing and caught up with the emails. I’ve finished ‘The Whisperers’ and ‘The Road’, both fantastic reads and good brain food. I’m going to bash through ‘Gormenghast’ as we head home, because I’ve a bucketload of work to get through.

Tomorrow is a highlight for me: I’d love to come back and do the track and some sea kayaking, but some photos and the cruise will do. Some sun would go down nicely, Lord.

We had already abandoned any idea of helicopters as we looked out at a flooded scene this morning. 300 mls of rain were flashing to the sea down the swollen rivers. Whole branches and small trees were whirling in the chocolate swhirls.

We said goodbye to Tim and Vanessa, the owners, and headed in the rain. Once over the township’s hundred metre long crazy Bailey bridge, we got half a kilometre south towards Fox Glacier before coming the the ‘ROAD CLOSED’ sign.

Around we went, and after a brief and non-too-encouraging discussion with the lady at the information office, we shot back to the cottages. The Gibbs very kindly let us camp back in the cabin while we waited for the road to clear. As they cleaned around us, we chatted and it turned out that Vanessa’s sister lived in Allambie Heights and her sone was a St Augustine’s student – Chris Readman.

By the time the Gibbs had returned from Church, the news was better and we were able to leave, rather late, a bit tense, but in much less rain than before.

It was soon clear why the road had been closed. In the steeper sections, landslips and overflowing gutters had deposited stony debris over the roadway – and I was already a bit tentative about the tyres! As we drove on from Fox, the real damage became apparent: washaways, with on section of road completely destroyed. We picked our way through the machinery and workers and drove south.

Gradually the weather improved, but the road remained narrow and often enclosed by the forest walls. Dark, mossy and impenetrable, it was certainly atmospheric but made for claustrophobic driving.

Sorry, Haast, but you gouge travellers! Fuel was $1.90 per litre and a very basic lunch ran to $50. On the other hand, in an area so remote, what else is there?

The drive through the Haast Pass was utterly memorable but quite demanding driving. We have some good pictures and video, but I need to upload a week of entries now, so more later.

Our arrival at Hawea marked an improvement in our weather – still not summer, as the poor Kiwis kept telling us.

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