Saturday, 19 April 2003

"Happenings" Number 5 - 2003

Touring New Zealand 2002/03

For more than a century at least, according to our historical gleanings, this nation’s people have referred to New Zealand as ‘GOD'S OWN COUNTRY’, and frankly, the more we see of ‘Aotearoa’ the more we’re inclined to understand where they’re coming from.

New Zealand is scientifically acknowledged as being the only country in the world that experiences all climatic conditions. It’s simply awash with scenic beauty, has no snakes or other ‘dangerous bighties’ whatsoever (other than one venomous spider species rarely ever seen), and with a multitude of rivers, forests and year round snow capped peaks, plus it’s an angler’s paradise to boot, with a fascinating history and culture, we can readily accept why ‘the land of the long white cloud’ has been selected by the authoritative travel guide group ‘Lonely Planet’ as the world’s No. 1 tourist destination.

It all sounds so long ago now, but we spent a lovely Christmas festive season in Auckland sharing it with our local friends, and around the same time purchased a used Mazda panel van which we converted to a Campervan, complete with refrigeration, gas stove, queen size bed, hidden storage, a tent fly awning and 2 canvass fold-up easy chairs & camp-table. Though hardly luxurious, it is quite eminently suited to both budget and requirements.

Come early January we were doing 2 and 3 day discovery tours out of Auckland in all directions to places of interest around the North Island, including the orchard belt, several historical towns and places of special interest, rich sheep and cattle grazing country and the famous giant Kauri forests with some huge 2000 yr old trees whose size belies imagination; and all of it very scenic.

Two of our early observations involved flora and fauna. The North Island should be renamed Agapanthus-land to acknowledge the overwhelming saturation of these plants which grow just about everywhere along the roads, countryside and domestically. Australian Possums, protected by law in OZ, were introduced to NZ many years ago and have thrived alarmingly, to the extent that they are a serious pest to native flora here and considered public enemy #1, and their high road kill numbers are indicative of their abundance.

One thing we have learnt here has to do with weather, or more specifically, its unpredictability. We now very much understand the old adage – ‘If you don’t like the weather, just wait an hour or two’; from sunshine to rain and back again, and again, and sometimes rain all day, often with big heaps of wind thrown in for good measure, day or night makes little difference. Not a cloud in the sky and next moment it’s raining. Such is a maritime climate as opposed to the continental climate that we in Australia are used to. (Here endeth the lesson in meteorology).

By late January we were ‘chomping at the bit’ to commence our South Island experience, so, with an inter-island vehicle ferry booking confirmed, “Envy’s” two intrepid adventurers departed their floating home in Auckland’s West Park Marina to become land gypsies for the next couple of months.

Saturday afternoon 1st. February 2003 found us crossing boisterous Cook Strait, notoriously one of the rougher ferry crossings of the world, but we arrived cool and unruffled at Picton 3 hours
later and $190 poorer. Neptune smiled on us that day for it had been blowing 115km/hr (70mph) in ‘windy Wellington’ all the previous day, and that wind (speed) against tide would have resulted in a very rough crossing a day earlier.

We had agreed that as part of our South Island adventure we would not stop overnight in ‘paid’ campgrounds unless we wanted to, but rather ‘freedom camp’ in most places, we hoped, tucked away in a variety of scenic nooks beside streams, at ocean foreshores, or along wooded tracks, which is quite the done thing with campervans on the laid-back South Island. So our first night was spent beside the sea near Kaikoura, in company with other vans, and awoke next morning to discover a colony of fur seals sunning themselves on the rocks only metres away.

Then on to Christchurch, New Zealand’s third largest metropolis, a lovely garden city with its expansive town square, superb Cathedral and renowned private schools, with the lovely clear Avon River flowing through it. Here we enjoyed the hospitality of wonderful friends before heading west below snow capped peaks of the Southern Alps through Arthur’s Pass, across the stunningly deep Otira Gorge viaduct, and free camped that night at Hokitika Beach, facing the Tasman Sea. To our amazement the 200 metre wide beach was considerably covered with old driftwood, a phenomenon we were to discover all along the west coast, where trees are washed down rivers and out to sea and eventually end up as smooth bleached driftwood on the beaches.

Continuing southwards we explored the old gold mining town of Ross, now a sleepy village steeped in history, then visited both the Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers and marvelled at their magnitude and frozen beauty right there at the ice face.

The South Island’s mountainous west coast runs back to distant snow capped peaks of the Southern Alps and offers a montage of scenic beauty in its clear, fast flowing rivers, high cascading waterfalls, steep winding roads through gorges and mountain passes opening onto fertile highland valleys with wildflowers including the attractive orange blossomed Montretia, and the commonly called ‘red hot poker’, a striking orange and yellow wild flower of bulrush appearance. We enjoyed some excellent freedom campsites along this coast at beaches and alongside clear running streams, though the sandflies were always quite active around sundown wherever we went.

Leaving the coast we ventured inland through the Haast Pass, alongside beautiful Lake Wanaka and on to Lake Hawea where we had a perfect lakeside campsite, and swam in its surprisingly warm, pristine clear fresh water, before continuing on over the scenic Crown Range Road which has the highest elevation of any road in NZ, past the isolated Cardrona Hotel (famously, the nations oldest existing hotel), before negotiating a seriously steep razor-back descent into the stunningly attractive resort hub of Queenstown.

Here we took the Gondola cable car up to the mountaintop overlooking Queenstown and its Lake Wakatipu, a view that is truly awesome and one of the most attractive sights we’ve ever seen. Little wonder it features so often in international Kiwi tourism promotions. Then Bruce, ever the big kid thrill seeker, took the ski chair lift even higher up the peak and rode ‘The Luge’, (it’s like a small one person ‘go-cart’) flying back down the winding mountain track, similar to its namesake in the winter Olympics. Great fun! But not as big a thrill as our next little escapade, when, the following day, we rode the rapids through the canyons of the famous Shotover River in a seriously fast Jet Boat, purposefully screaming along just a hair’s breadth away from the entombing rock canyon walls, and only centimetres above stony shallow rapids, then doing full-speed 360 degree ‘thrill spins’ that took your breath away and showered you with ice-cold spray, and of which we’ve got photos to relive it! Some people never grow up…

Our 110th day since arriving in NZ (late October) finds us on the uninhabited 121km long, slow, winding, mountainous, isolated road into Milford Sound on a cold, grey, drizzling day with snow capped peaks all around and driving in and out through low cloud cover, and we’re about to experience what will undoubtedly become one of our absolute ‘life-long memories’, the ‘Saga of Milford Sound’.

It’s around 5pm and time to call it a day, so we drive up a two-wheel track for half a km along Cascade Creek looking for a suitable overnight camp site, stop, then decide to look elsewhere, but the Van won’t start! When it does finally go, we (and our stress levels) decide to continue on to the safety of a Milford Sound garage, along the remaining very slow, totally mountainous 45km, which includes the 1.25km long Homer Tunnel high up in the cloudy Southern Alps.

Up the steep incline and into the Homer Tunnel we go, perhaps 50 metres or so in, and whooa !!, can’t see a thing, slam on the brakes and out shoots the van in reverse! We check that the headlights are working OK, and all the time concerned the engine’s going to conk out in the dark, unlit tunnel, but back in we go again. Still can’t see a thing; bloody frightening!! Stress levels rising! Wham..! On go the brakes and back out we shoot once again, just like a cartoon at a kid’s movie matinee! (Thankfully no other traffic around). Bruce then discovers he’s wearing his sunglasses, so off they come and, with lights on and wipers going, back in we go for round 3.

No one told us the tunnel was rough hewn, unlined, unlit, barely wide enough for two vehicles to pass and that at the entrance it continues to rise upwards for a short way before its steady decline for over a kilometre in the dark. But the main problem was that the tunnel was full of cloud, which the headlights could barely penetrate, as with thick fog we could barely see past our noses; there was water dripping through the rocky roof veins overhead almost like rain in places, it was eerily dark & gloomy and a long, slow 2nd gear downhill grind for those 1250 metres, and all this virtually in the dark, underscored by an engine that would not idle and much preferred to stop dead at the first unattended opportunity and cause an Autobahn style pile-up in the wet, cloudy tunnel. Thankfully there was no one behind us through the tunnel and we shot out the other end like pilgrims to the Promised Land! Phew!!

To our dismay we discovered there is no garage in tiny spectacular Milford Sound and the inclement weather added little to the whole affair, so after a restless sleep wondering whether the motor would start and how many millions of $$’s it would cost to fix, (the van’s done 329,000 km) a somewhat surprisingly better natured engine started next morning and had us retracing our steps of the evening before, and we were delighted to find the Homer Tunnel clear as crystal in the fresh morning air. Later that morning, 10 minutes and $15 after arrival at a Te Anau garage, the problem caused by incorrect points gap in the distributor was fixed, and we were back on the road again.

The ‘deep south’ lured us on and we discovered Riverton on the far south coast, a production centre for Paua Shells, which are NZ Abalone shells ground and polished to reveal their striking natural hues of blue, green, silver and turquoise and which, together with carved and polished greenstone (jade - prized by early Maori above gold) and white (bovine) bone, comprise the three most popular ornament items in the country. We had been gifted a number of ‘raw’ Paua shells by a coastal farmer and had them polished in Riverton. This whole area east of the Fiordlands and right down to the coast, including the greater Invercargill district, is quite fertile undulating farmland, used for dairying and crops, and has a most interesting coast of cliffs and sandy beaches.

After a look around Invercargill, an attractive big country town whose city centre streets were still festooned with Santa Claus and Christmas Decorations in mid February, we left our van in Bluff and took a high speed catamaran ferry 22km across the Foveaux Strait to picturesque Stewart Island with its pretty bays and scenic walks, staying 3 days at Jo & Andy’s quaint Bed & Breakfast in Oban, and also celebrated Bruce’s 59th birthday with a great local seafood dinner in the Boardwalk Restaurant above the wharf at Oban’s Halfmoon Bay, while Penguins swam around outside. Down here at 47ยบ South, only Cape Horn and Antarctica are below us, but if you kept out of the wind, the days were quite hot in the sun.

Returning to Bluff and Invercargill, we took the Catlins scenic route across the Island’s south- eastern corner to the staunchly Scottish city of Dunedin, imposingly set in the hills around Otago Harbour, with its stately stone buildings and grand architecture which are arguably amongst the finest in the nation. Unfortunately the good weather we’d been enjoying turned otherwise, but it didn’t dampen our appreciation of this striking city, which like so many other southern towns, boasts magnificently colourful and well kept flower gardens that evidence and credit civic pride.

We then headed inland through the high country past Raes Junction to the Roxburgh Hydroelectric Station, going as far as Cromwell, then back through the open beef cattle grazing country of Ranfurly to the coast beyond Palmerston, where we saw the Moeraki Boulders, man-size spherical stone marbles on the beach, whose pre-historic origins are of world geological acclaim. Continuing on up the coast, Oamaru offered much interest with its many well-preserved late 1800’s limestone buildings around the old port area. Limestone was mined locally and comparatively inexpensive during that era, hence its widespread use within the south-eastern towns between Invercargill and Timaru, with their strongly Scottish character.

Our itinerary called for a return to the snow capped Southern Alps, but on the eastern side to visit famous Mt. Cook, so we headed up the mighty Waitaki River valley stopping to gaze in awe at the huge Hydroelectric Stations at Aviemore and Benmore Dams with their extensive colourful lakes, the latter having the second largest rock fill dam wall in the southern hemisphere. As we passed through Omarama and Twizel, steadily gaining altitude all the way, we watched very black storm clouds build, then down came heavy hail clattering on roof and windscreen while buffeting winds shook the van around. The storm quickly passed but misty rain and light snow took its place as we arrived at Mt. Cook, somewhat limiting our views of the nations highest peak, and easily being the coldest we’d felt in NZ. Glacial sediment colours the waters of the lakes and hydro canals a most brilliant turquoise hue, and both Lakes Pukaki and Tekapo are simply stunningly attractive. The historic small stone ‘Church of The Good Shepherd’, built on the shore of Lake Tekapo with its total clear glass wall behind the altar, offers a post card vista to equal almost anything, anywhere.

Having purchased some smoked salmon from the Mt. Cook Salmon Farm on Tekapo’s hydro channel, we returned to the coast at Timaru and drove up to Christchurch to again stay with friends and rediscover real beds! After a few days ‘holiday’, and the opportunity to organize hundreds of digital photos on the laptop, it was back on the road again.

This time we took in the hot thermal village of Hanmer Springs enroute across the Alps through Lewis Pass, another very scenic route of mountains and river valleys, through the old gold town of Reefton, the first town in the southern hemisphere to have electric street lighting in 1888, which they boast, was even before London or New York. We visited coastal Greymouth, stocked up with the nation’s best venison salamis in tiny Blackball, and inspected the nearby infamous Brunner Coal Mine, site of NZ’s worst mining disaster, killing 63 men and boys in 1896.

Further up the coast we watched the Tasman Sea at play in the blowholes at Punataiki’s Pancake Rocks, on our way to Westport, before our road took us away from the coast and back up into the mountains once again, where we shared the Lyell D.O.C. campground with several other foreign campers and several million sandflies. Next day found us continuing through the mountains with all the scenic panoramas of clear stony streams and rapids of the Buller River, plus its two gorges, and half tunnels gouged out of the cliff face. Throughout the Alps, almost every corner offered a striking new vista, and no doubt the slower travelling cyclists enjoyed the greatest views.

No matter where we went, the number of touring cyclists, and their stamina, never ceased to amaze us, especially here in the South Island (or ‘the mainland’ as they love to call it with their good humoured parochialism); we would come upon couples pedalling their bicycles, sometimes in the rain, laden with heavy saddlebags and packs up the steepest mountain roads that our van groaned up in 2nd gear out of 5! Girls and guys, mostly Germans by their flags, but Brits, Yanks and others as well, some on two, and three wheeled laid back ‘reclining’ bikes, others towing young children in little trailers, couples on tandem bikes, but mostly traditional custom made touring bicycles, usually with 27 gears. ‘Me dips me lid to ‘em!

We drove up the fertile Motueka River valley with its mixture of dairying, sheep, beef cattle and deer to the coastal town of the same name, then took a look at beautiful Kaiteriteri Beach, by far the nicest seaside spot in the South Island, with its golden sands and very attractive setting. Then came the seriously high and winding road from the Riwaka Valley through to Upper Takaka, which offered more lovely views and no doubt considerable brake wear, but we made it alright and continued our way up to Puponga at the western tip of the Island adjacent to Cape Farewell, enjoying an excellent beach front campsite at Pohara’s Ligar Bay enroute, with its natural stone archway covering the roadway, and hilltop ‘Abel Tasman’ monument, partly supplied by the Dutch Royal Family to acknowledge this famous son of the Netherlands and commemorate his discovery of New Zealand.

Our South Island adventure was in its last few days as we skirted around Tasman Bay zipping past orchards of mainly apples, sizable vineyards and hop fields on their high wire trellises, as we travelled on towards Nelson, another pretty downtown area full of multi-coloured hanging flower baskets suspended from the footpath awnings, with the magnificent Cathedral above ‘The Town Steps’ imposingly overlooking Trafalgar Street and the city heart. New Zealand’s first game of Rugby was played here in 1870 and the hilltop behind this acclaimed rugby field officially marks the North/South centre of the nation. (How’s that for trivia!)

So we moved on to Blenheim and up the coast road to isolated White’s Bay, where the historic old Cable House still stands from its heady days of 1867 when it was the end of the first submarine cable which linked NZ’s North and South Islands. That evening we stayed with new friends on their Marlborough farm near Blenheim, where they are establishing a vineyard, and have a variety of olives trees from which they press olive oil. Fascinating.

On our last day we took a trip up the somewhat remote and rugged Queen Charlotte Peninsular to the pretty little landlocked bay at Portage, before returning to our departure point in Picton at the head of Queen Charlotte Sound, to await our departure back to Wellington on the big Cook Strait vehicle ferry early next morning.

There were so many highlights during our five weeks’ South Island adventure that to mention some at the expense of others would seem almost impolitic, but for us ‘banana benders’ from the flattest, driest and almost hottest place on earth, the majesty of the snow capped Alps contrasting the tranquillity of turquoise lakes, cloud shrouded Milford Sound and the rugged grandeur of the ice glaciers were all spectacular for us, as was Mt. Cook with its cold sleety snowfall, and the serenity of sparkling Queenstown with our high eagle’s eye view from the Gondola. The myriad of well maintained walking tracks rate a special mention, as does sleepy, picturesque Stewart Island tucked away down below, and the beautifully colourful inner city flower gardens of most S/E coastal towns add a further dimension to their outstanding old stone architecture. But people make the country, and the easy going southern Kiwis certainly uphold this tradition. They were simply great to us.

Now its back to Auckland for a few weeks of yacht preparation to get ready for further adventures.