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Published: December 23rd 2009
View from gondola arrival platform
790 metres above sea level, Queenstown (snow-capped Remarkables mountain range in the distance)
(P) As we left Stewart Island, the furthest south that we would travel, we realised that our grand tour was coming to an end.
We caught the Stray bus to Queenstown
where we had previously spent a little time back in March, but now this time we allowed ourselves several days to soak up this town “fit for a Queen” and also to allow us to have Nick’s birthday present in of a day’s snowboarding lessons in the nearby Cardrona valley 😊
Born out of the gold rush, mining in the Shotover River first attracted settlers to the area in 1860 (58 kilos was the most discovered in one day!), the Shotover became the second largest gold-bearing river in history after the Klondike in Canada. Nowadays, adventure tourism is the main draw, and Queenstown has rightly earned its name as 'Adventure Capital of the World’
- it boasts “more adventure options per square metre than any other similarly-sized town in the world!” Probably the most well-known site is Kawarau Bridge, the world’s first commercial bungy site. The creators were inspired by, among others, the Oxford University Dangerous Sports Club back in the 1970s; today you can leap out 43
metres above the Kawarau River if the urge takes you…get a feel for it here
We began our self-guided walking tour of Queenstown in the hope that the low cloud of the day would lift, which it eventually did to reveal snow-capped mountains and the city in all its glory. We strolled around Queenstown Gardens
, noting the Frisbee Golf Course
(perhaps the tamest of Queenstown adventure activities). We took a tea-break at The Bathhouse, complete with a tacky-sounding but surprisingly tasteful crown adorning its roof, originally built in 1910 by the swimming area on Lake Wakatipu
to commemorate George V’s coronation. It has been through a few incarnations since then and survived near-demolition but now is a great place to stop and watch the lake go by. Then onto the cable car (or ‘Skyline Gondola’
), rising nearly 800 metres above sea-level. The sky was now clear so we enjoyed great views over Queenstown and the snow-capped Remarkables
mountain range (now also famous since starring in ‘Lord of the Rings’ by Kiwi director Peter Jackson). That evening we felt tremors of an earthquake measuring 7.8 on the Richter Scale, which lasted at least a whole minute (a long time when
you don’t know if it’s going to stop!); thankfully the epicentre was 90km out to sea and little damage was caused. On a fault line, New Zealand is said to record more than 14,000 earthquakes a year, but the large majority are not felt and fewer than 10 actually cause damage...
The trip to Cardrona for a day's snowboarding was fantastic. At that altitude, the bright sun in the clear blue sky bounced off the dazzling snowy peaks. We had a couple of hours of lessons, then a lunch break (we really
noticed how cold it was when we stopped moving just to eat a sandwich!) then went back for more lessons. Nick was keen to ride the cable car to the highest point just for the views but the instructor thought he wanted to snowboard down the principal (big and steep) piste. The instructor obviously thought the group had made enough progress, so he took us all to the cable car, for a ride that seemed to go on for an eternity as we slowly rose higher and higher. We jumped off at the top and it was a real blast to come down a 'proper run' instead
of the nursery one. We reached the finish just before the sun went down and the bus departed. Tiring stuff! We had a great night out on the town, which had a real alpine feel, especially enjoying the roaring fires, live music and decent beer of course.
Saying farewell to Queenstown, we continued north-eastwards to Christchurch past Lake Pukaki and Lake Tekapo
, stunning as the sun shone on the bright blue water, which was so coloured from ‘glacial flour’ flowing down from the glaciers around Mount Cook.
A one-day return trip on the TranzAlpine train from Christchurch to Greymouth
was next. Cross-country and the Southern Alps, the first part was very flat over the Canterbury Plains, then mountainous almost to the West Coast. The one-way journey is 231km long and takes in 16 tunnels. We stopped at the highest point of Arthur’s Pass
, 737m above sea level. The road alongside the track is the highest of only 3 that cross the Alps; Maori first used it to cross to the West Coast in search of precious pounamu
(greenstone). The Otira tunnel enroute, when completed in 1923 was the longest railway tunnel in the British Empire.
Sunrise from the TranzCoastal train
Christchurch to Picton (east coast, South Island)
TranzAlpine journey is well recommended, we both felt that the next day’s TranzCoastal
train (northwards from Christchurch to Picton
) offered even more beautiful views. The train left before dawn, so we didn’t think much of the scenery for the first hour, but then the sun slowly rose and for the next half-hour or so the skies on both sides as far as the eye could see became a rich pink and orange colour, it was the best sunrise we have ever seen (and we have been up at sunrise a lot
over the last couple of years!). Well worth the wait and, we concluded, worth hauling ourselves out of bed at 5.30 a.m. for.
We passed the Kaikoura ranges, Lake Grassmere’s shallow lagoon (nearly half on NZ’s salt comes from here) and arrived at lunchtime in Picton harbour, deep in Queen Charlotte Sound. The 3-hour ferry took us across the Cook Strait
(between NZ’s North and South Islands) and past Captain Cook’s Lookout (Arapawa Island), taking the first hour or so to weave around the Marlborough Sounds, then straight across the Strait to Wellington. They say sometimes whales or dolphins are spotted from the boat but it was not
Leaving Picton and NZ's South Island
Crossing the Cook Strait to Wellington
to be that day.
Although Auckland is home to around a quarter of NZ’s population, Wellington
is its capital. Right at the bottom of the North Island, it is well known for its frequent cold winds, but fortunately we caught it on a calm, clear day, taking the Cable Car up and walking back down through the Botanic Gardens (still pretty impressive despite it being Winter). A tour of Parliament was quite interesting actually - we saw how its foundations have been reinforced to do a 'controlled wobble' in the case of an earthquake (a major fault line runs through the city centre and seismic activity is high, even by New Zealand standards); we also sat in on Parliament where the politicians (including Prime Minister John Key) were discussing the responsibilities of NZ towards the less developed nearby Pacific Islands. The décor looked quite English, including a grandfather clock which was a gift from Britain (the guide taught us that large clocks in public places became widespread following the introduction of a British ‘Clock Tax’ in 1797 that taxed people per timepiece they owned; the law ultimately failed!).
Wellington is a pretty walkable city - you can walk
Wellington's Cable Car
Caught on a fairly rare clear and sunny day!
from one side of the centre to the other in around half an hour. One of its highlights is Te Papa, NZ's National Museum, housing art as well as many interactive displays on how Maori culture and immigration has influenced the NZ of today. Other places to note were the Botanical Gardens, Queens Wharf and the Mount Victoria lookout with great views across the Bay.
One evening we found a fantastic speciality beer bar/pub that sold Oyster Stout
that Nick had been searching for since reading about in a magazine article (apparently when stout first came onto the drinks scene in the 18th century, oysters were a popular food served in pubs; NZ was the first place in the world to use oysters in the brewing process). It may sound iffy, but it was actually very tasty. See article
. We also caught a film (Coco before Chanel
) at the grand old Embassy Theatre, the location of Kiwi director Peter Jackson’s "Lord of the Rings" World Premiere.
By this point the weather had already turned to torrential rain and didn't really stop before we left, however it did not stop us hiring a car and venturing off around the said-to-be
Next to a "Charleston Chic" clothes boutique, Napier
(on a sunny day, I'm sure...) highly picturesque coastline to Lake Ferry
. Flooded roads meant we had to go via Martinborough
- famed for its wineries - so it wasn't all bad. Yes we did sample. Petone
, another recommended seaside town did not keep us, not having much to offer amidst heavy downpours!
A 5-hour bus journey north-east from Wellington took us to the colourful Art Deco-style town of Napier
. Napier was devastated by an earthquake in 1931 and rebuilt in the decorative styles fashionable at the time. In keeping with the Art Deco theme, many shops sell ‘Charleston Chic’ and related-style crockery, furniture and decorations. The town’s charm is that it feels lost in time. Kindly given a day-tour by Eddy, a family member of one of my work colleagues, we passed through the suburb of Marewa and spotting the Art Deco architectural influences even in the McDonalds building in Taradale, we came to Hawkes Bay
, home to 50 wineries and the largest red wine producing region in the country. Craggy Range was our favourite,and once again in an awe-inspiring setting, with mountains towering over. I couldn’t help but notice road signs for the ‘Silky Oak chocolate company’,
Aratiatia dam, Taupo
Causing rapids downstream, creating hydroelectricity
not least because our Napier hostel owner had told us that the hot chocolate with chilli was “not-to-be-missed”. We won’t mention that when we got there for our end-of-day treat, the café had closed for the day…oh, I just did...maybe next time…
A couple of hours’ bus ride west of Napier lies Lake Taupo
; pretty much in the centre of NZ’s North Island, it is the largest freshwater lake in Oceania and lies in a caldera caused by a huge volcanic eruption in the area about 26,000 years ago. The most recent eruption was in 180 AD, making the sky turn red over Rome & China, which gives some idea of the power of the geothermal energy below ground.
We took a bus about 5km out of town to see the daily opening of the gates of the relatively modest Aratiatia Dam
. This may not sound like the most exciting outing, but we enjoyed joining the small crowd and literally watching the floodgates open. NZ makes much use of its natural resources, and hydro power is generated here twice a day when the gates open from the lake, causing rapids to gush downstream. We spent the day walking
Nick takes a breather
Relaxing in the naturally hot (and free!) hot pools, Taupo
back to Taupo town, along a narrow country path between thousands of plants and bushes, and through a small forest at one point (where we got a bit lost). The highlight was the impressive Huka Falls
, where on average 160 cubic metres pass over the Falls every second. As in so many places, the water was a brilliant turquoise, and its force made a frothy commotion as it fell into river below.
The following day, the rain was still beating down which meant we didn’t sit and appreciate Lake Taupo’s beauty for too long, but otherwise the best attraction by far were the natural hot springs
which we took advantage of when there was a let up in the deluge. Geothermal energy causes puffs of steam to rise from the ground in various parts, and linked to this there are many naturally heated pools and streams. They were a 20-min walk from our hostel and, at various points along a little stream, you could strip to your togs and sit in the equivalent temperature of a hot bath - all for free! Very relaxing.
Then it was back to Auckland, where we visited the popular French market La
Cigale at the weekend with my work friend Sharelle and fiance Pete. Lovely stuff. But our time in NZ is now almost over. Just a week in the Cook Islands still to contend with, before returning back to Blighty.
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