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Journeys on the South Island

Christchurch, New Zealand

Our first night on the South Island was spent in a real dump of a campsite in a place called Blenheim, about ½ hour south from where the ferry landed. We had a train track about 20 metres away from our van and the site itself looked a bit like Glastonbury festival on a rainy year. Fighting our way through the sludge, we ambitiously decided to make pancakes for breakfast the next morning, having managed to melt the spatula on our first attempt earlier on in the trip. Proving that having a degree doesn’t equate to having common sense, we put the first experience down to bad luck and used the now semi-molten spatula again. And again it started to melt. Well fed on plastic pancakes, we decided to head across the north coast to Abel Tasman National Park before beginning the journey south. I’ll admit that my Abel Tasman knowledge is slightly sketchy, but what I am fairly sure of is that he was an explorer and probably Dutch, and from where we were in Abel Tasman National Park, you’d have to say he’s done pretty well in the ‘naming things after himself’ stakes. (Abel Tasman National Park looks out onto the Tasman Sea, over the other side of which lies Tasmania.) Though the park is New Zealand’s smallest, it must be amongst the most beautiful; with secluded beaches and bays, waters ranging from turquoise to emerald, and a resident colony of seals.

We decided to do a half-day kayaking tour of the park, which involved getting a speedboat to drop us off at one point and pick us up at another, with a couple of hours of kayaking in the middle. What somehow hadn’t really occurred to us was how much colder it would be kayaking in New Zealand than it was kayaking in the north-west of Australia. And we managed to forget my camera. Besides that though, we had a really good time, and Angela particularly enjoyed seeing the seal pups. (Luckily, I had the foresight to remove any clubbing equipment from her bag beforehand.)

We then had a 7 hour drive down to the Mt Hutt ski field near Christchurch, which took us past some amazing coastline and the top of the Southern Alps. We had time for a day’s skiing before my mum and dad joined us for the rest of our time on the South Island. Neither Angela nor I had been skiing for a few years, so we were both a little unsure as we stood at the top of the ski field at the top of a massive mountain, but after a lot of pride-swallowing snow-ploughing, we managed to inch our way down the slopes more and more quickly as the day went on. We only fell over once each, and mine was on the last turn of the day when I was getting a bit too cocky and promptly landed on my ass.

The next day Mr and Mrs J landed in Christchurch after more than a few problems on route from England. (for greater depth, see my dad’s blog.) They still had one more issue on arrival - the place they’d booked their campervan from had decided to close early, so they had to make do with a chalet on our campsite and hope that it’d get sorted before we wanted to set off the next day. Luckily their campervan company pulled out all the stops in the morning, and after a taxi to the office, they quickly upgraded the olds before dad had a chance to get shirty. Now travelling in convoy, we headed to Oamaru to do some more bonding with nature. We got seats in a little stand, and watched as blue penguins (the smallest type in the world) came ashore at dusk and waddled with various speeds to their nests after a day frolicking in the pacific. Apparently the frolicking was not limited to time spent in the water, as we’d managed to catch the penguins in mating season, so we had the dubious pleasure of seeing our little exhibitionist friends go at it with wanton abandon. Unsurprisingly, given the adult content of the ‘show’, no cameras were allowed in, so unfortunately we have no images of this to share with you. However, we can show you a picture of the Moereki boulders, which we saw the next morning. These are just big round boulders half buried in the beach, and no-one really knows how or why they’re there. They look pretty good in photos though.

We’d planned a trip in Milford Sound, which is just one of dozens of fiords in the south-west of the South Island. As we arrived at the campsite the night before we hoped to leave, it was pouring down with rain, and had apparently been doing do for some while. This meant that the road to Milford Sound was closed due to avalanche risk - we were offered a trip on Doubtful Sound instead, which was meant to be just as beautiful but without all the tourists. This sounded like a load of crap to me, but seeing as it was all that was available we booked on for the next day. We went up to Queenstown and spent the day seeing the sights there. We caught the gondola up to the top of a mountain which overlooks the town, and gives amazing views of not only the town; but the lake by which it lies; and the surrounding mountains, the Remarkables. Angela and I went on a street luge track at the top of a mountain; surprisingly, Mr and Mrs J gave this a miss. My dad did, however, get his long zoom lens out on his camera and get some good shots of me zooming around the track (and almost managing to fall off,) with Angela slightly more sedate behind me, holding up a few nippy little Koreans.

First thing the next morning we caught the bus from our campsite down to Doubtful Sound. For some reason unknown to any of us (even the middle-aged ones), the first part of the tour was to take us around some power station (powered by the water of the lake.) It kind of felt like one of those school trips, where you weren’t allowed to do the fun stuff until you’d done some boring ‘educational’ bit first. This involved being driven deep down under a mountain in a rickety old bus, while the driver explained that we’d just stay down in the power station as long as we all wanted to. I looked around the bus and tried to guess who it’d be that would make us all wait down there. Odds on favourites were a Belgian group, who looked easily capable of absorbing as much power-station information as New Zealand could throw at them. The most interesting part for me was hearing that the engineers that designed the tunnel (only 40 years ago) through the mountain had ‘allowed’ for 50 deaths in the construction, so it was really quite good that only 16 people had died. When it was explained that the tunnelling process consisted of the not exact science of blowing holes in the rock with dynamite, in the dark, this began to make more sense. I came to the conclusion that engineering degrees at Kiwi universities couldn’t be very competitive. Then came the fun part - we were taken to the bit with the big noisy machines, where some woman shouted over the noise to give a lecture about something or other. In the end, the Belgians surprised me by being the first out after me and Angela and some weird American girl that insisted on taking picture of absolutely everything (including many of the inside of the rickety bus, in the dark, as we made our way in and out of the tunnel.)

When we did finally get out onto Doubtful Sound, we saw what all the fuss was about; dramatic landscapes with vast sheer mountains surrounding us, dipping their feet into the maze of waterways in which we chugged along. We were taken right up into the mouth of the fiord, where it became the Tasman Sea; and there we saw another colony of seals on a rocky island. On the way back through the fiord, we stopped to see some giant waterfalls cascading down the mountainside, before beginning the journey back to civilisation.

All that was left on our loop back up to Christchurch was a flying visit up the west coast, where we stopped to sea Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers. Both had carved out huge valleys before them, but clearly were now nowhere as near as impressive as they once were. Apparently they had bucked the global trend by actually advancing between the 1960’s - 1980’s, but had since begun retreating again.

Angela and I got one last taste of dramatic kiwi landscapes as we cut through the top of the southern alps on our way back to Christchurch, where we were saying goodbye to our campervan, and temporarily, my parents too. Unfortunately, the campervan place had a little surprise for us on our return, as we were told that we’d scratched the side a little and chipped the windscreen. A few days later we got a bill for $250. There was a small silver cloud though; we were on our way to Sydney.

permalink written by  olliejohnson on August 11, 2007 from Christchurch, New Zealand
from the travel blog: A Brit and a Canuck Down Under
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