Previous segments of this blog post:
The drive from Kaikoura to Christchurch was uneventful, and pretty boring compared to the epic nocturnal drive along moonlit Mythos coastline heading from Nelson to Kaikoura.
Arrived to Christchurch in the rain, which actually made it quite lovely. Very English kind of place, beautiful city in fact. Went to Christchurch Cathederal where there was an art exhibit called “The Last Supper” by John Badcock. Stunning display, thirteen canvases arranged in a row, each one metre wide by two metres tall. It’s the intensity of the eyes in each painting that grips you.
Walking around the city we found The Honey Pot cafe, which became our focal point, a couple cups of coffee turned in 8 glasses of wine and a meal. We were both glad we liked the place because the end of our trip to NZ involves us coming back here.
Next day we parted company for the morning, she took in the Arts Centre, I headed out the city to the International Antarctic Centre – if you have a passion for Antarctica like I do then this place is a must to visit. Had a great breakfast there, explored the exhibits and rode a five-tonne Hagglund tracked buggy. It was like something from the movie The Thing (1981).
West through the Southern Alps – Arthurs Pass
We met up for lunch then began the drive towards the West coast which involves crossing the Southern Alps, first stop Arthurs Pass.
The drive across the Canterbury plains from Christchurch is tedious but necessary. In the distance a dark smudge running along the length of the horizon starts to expand and take shape. A vast range of mountains marching left to right. Heading into Arthurs Pass you find a small settlement, a couple of lodges, a hotel, a gas station – where we ate a meal of steak pie, washed down with coffee and a bar of chocolate for dessert. Not much going on. We went to the hotel for after dark drinks. There was a hint of The Shining about the place. Then went back to our lodge to sleep – it was so cold that the sheets were stiff where dampness in the air had frozen them nearly solid. It wasn’t a terrible experience, just quirky.
We did not stay at the hotel, the guide book warned us about the ‘iffy’ restaurant, a remark that did hold true in so far as the Fawlty Towers characters that made up the staff, but it was friendly and had a great roaring open fire.
Next day we warmed up and started a one hour walk to Devil’s Punchbowl Falls, it turned into a sometimes hair-raising scramble over jagged rocks trying to avoid tripping up on cable-like tree roots lying across the track with sheer death drops ready to welcome those who fall. Really good fun and worth stopping to do it.
Leave Arthurs Pass, drive to Franz Joseph
Leaving Arthurs Pass after our hike the drive down to the far west side of the Southern Alps and along to Franz Joseph was just lovely. Great roads.
The moment we arrived in Franz Josef we knew we were going to love it; one main street with several side roads, blazing sunshine, great looking cafes and restaurants; you could tell how popular (the money) the town was by the fact there were four helicopter companies in one road.
Our motel was a luxury apartment; we grabbed some coffee in town then drove out to Sentinel Rock where you can look back across the valley to see the glacier in is frozen spillage down from the mountain crests – crappy photo above.
Next day we drove over to Fox Glacier (people told us it is less popular and less crowded) – our Guide drove us out to the bottom of the glacier, then we spent over an hour climbing up the side of mountain and down again to enter the glacier from the side. Donning crampons and picking up sticks, we followed our guide onto the ice; he swung a big pick axe like it was nothing in a smooth circular motion, chopping small steps for our crampons to latch onto as we climbed up. There crevasses either side of us, most only dropped down 30 metres or so, but a few, that had water gushing through them, drop right down a hundred or more metres, not much chance of you getting out if you fell into one of those.
Our guide was called Abel; found out he was an ice-climber, perfect, I’ve been looking to interview one for the novel ‘Edge’; I asked him and he was happy to do it so after the Glacier walk we went across the road and did an interview for his character.
Drove back to Franz Josef, only 22km’s but some of the most convoluted roads we’ve been on, steep cliff faces to one side and vertiginous drops on the other; I put on Frankie Goes To Hollywood – Relax & Two Tribes and had one of the most fun drives ever; the car headlights hugging the double yellow line in the centre of the road.
Next day joined Fergal’s Kayaks on Lake Mapourika; a fantastic mirror lake, incredibly deep leaving the surface utterly still. Around the edges is dense rain forest, paddling out there you are alone with your thoughts and the view. One of the people in our group was Nico, a dutch medical fitness instructor who simply outpaddled all of us; when we turned back to return to the jetty, Nico got there ahead of us and we watched him pull his kayak onto the shore, then saw him strip off and dive into the lake. Although the air temp was 10 degrees, the water was 22, lovely.
After Kayaking we bought Nico lunch back in Franz Josef (he made a wonderful gesture by offering to share his food with all of us back at the backpackers he was staying at); then we drove South towards Wanaka.
Leave Franz Josef and head south, to Wanaka
Leaving Franz Josef we headed South then cut East, passing through Haast (earlier plans had suggested we might stay there a night but the place was not even a street – although there was one helicopter). We reached the northern end of Lake Wanaka and the road began following the shoreline. It was an incredible journey, passing through pockets of woodland very close to where the Ring Wraiths chased Frodo; then the sun begins to set across the lake and the colours and reflections force us to stop the car to get out and just loooook!
Arrived at Wanaka at night to find everywhere fully booked; I was gutted because it looked like a lovely place. Driving out we passed a wooden structure tucked away amongst trees and shrubs called Wanaka Lodge, more importantly I saw the words VACANCY. We grabbed the last room, most expensive place we had stayed at so far but worth every NZ dollar. Our room was again built outside the main structure, with our own balcony; a gorgeous outdoor spa pool. Although exclusive and very uniquely furnished establishment, they had built it around a communal theme: there was freshly brewed coffee in the communal kitchen, the bar was based on an honesty system, take a classic bottles of wine from the rack (40 or 50 NZ dollars) and write it down on a notepad against your room number; two lounges, one down stairs filled with books and puzzles (Wanaka is puzzle town of the World), and another lounge upstairs with internet, sky TV and collection of DVDs.
We checked in and chilled out. Two bottles of wine and a cosy night in the upstairs lounge. Fab. And – this is the night I discovered Casablanca. I know. Legendary classic movie and not until the age of 32 do I finally watch it. Blew me away.
Wanaka’s fantastic PUZZLE WORLD. If you’re even just passing through Wanaka do yourself a favour and go here, it is so much fun. Apart from the 3-D holographic artwork, interesting, there is a room that is very HP Lovecraft when he talks about walking into rooms that are at the wrong angles, characters becoming dizzy or disorientated by the non-Euclidian geometry of a place – Jo and I walked into this room and nearly fell over. It looks like a normal room but there is a steep incline hidden by the design so that you find yourself toppling steeply to one side. Very clever.
Best of all in Puzzle World was the maze.
Huge outdoor structure, walls made of wood; a tall tower at each corner and several bridges that carry you from one part of the maze to another. Memory of starting and thinking ‘this will be easy’; a few moments later realising I was already lost! Memory of climbing up into a tower and spotting Jo some distance away, I called out to her knowing I was in a tower she had not yet found, she span round and did the V’s then walked on; I laughed for ages. Memory of reaching the open cafe in the centre of the maze before Jo, sitting there supping a coffee and grinning with delight when I saw her crossing a bridge above me still lost in the maze.
It was early morning and Oj and I were looking to get to Milford Sound to enjoy the stunning fjord-like scene with epic waterfall, a location used in the Lord of the Rings movie. We’re looking down the barrel of a 7 hour journey via Te Anau just to get there. The girl running the breakfast kitchen at our lodge said, “Why don’t you just charter an airplane?”
I laughed and said, “Yeah right!”. She smiled and rang the local airport. Spoke to some pilots. Scored us a nice deal with Dean who flies a Sinclair C5 with wings. So we drove out to the local airport, met our pilot and were given a 45 minute private flight direct to Milford Sound.
NZ – Circling around Mount Aspiring (Southern Alps)
The pretty amazing thing about having your own pilot was when he said, “Look over there to your right. That’s the peak of Mount Aspiring poking up above the clouds.”
Cue lots of oooos and aaaaahs from Jo and I.
Then he says, “Wanna take a look?” And he twists the rudder controls and we swing into this wonderful arc as he flies us around the peak of the mountain. We come full circle and then continue along our way to Milford Sound.
Our pilot flew us right down Milford Sound from the mouth to the back end where there’s a small town, car park and landing strip. After touching down he handed us tickets for the next boat cruise and said, “I’ll meet you two back here when you’re done.”
We did the boat cruise. Saw the waterfall. It was stunning. Seriously worth the trip. Met a lot of folks on the boat. They were equally impressed, but each and every one of them were also weary and complained about the 7 hours or more of driving ahead of them to get back to civilization. On cue, I said, “Yeah, that’s a real shame.” Then told them about our plane waiting to take us back to Wanaka. I tried not to rub it in too deeply.
These cliffs are 1 mile high. The water is 1 mile deep. The whole encounter was jaw-dropping, riveting and humbling.
Racing the sun back to Wanaka. Dean was there by the airplane with a smile on his face that only mirrored our own. We clambered back into our small charter and he flew us back, racing the sun, back to Wanaka with some stunning scenery along the route.
Our pilot gave us a real tour on the way back, zig-zagging his tiny plane this way and that and along small valleys and between giant obstacles to give us the best view (for our money). Top bloke.
Touch down. Hugs and handshakes and smiles all round. Dean is a fantastic pilot but also went that extra mile to make sure we had a good time. Oj and I drove back to mainside Wanaka and retreated into the luxurious bliss of Wanaka Lodge – drinking wine and lounging in the outdoor hot tub. If you go to Wanaka do yourself a favour and check in here: http://www.tewanaka.co.nz/