A Kiwi Roadtrip

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December 2nd 2016
Published: December 2nd 2016
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Giday all from Christchurch. After taking a short holiday from this blog, we're back, as three fantastic weeks on the South Island of New Zealand come to an end. This presents two immediate challenges: (i) to summarise around 3000km of driving and everything we've done en route in less than 800 words, and (ii) to try and find enough superlatives to describe the simply awesome sights this country has to offer.

After bidding a teary farewell to our trusted campervan in Queenstown, we set about exploring on foot. Despite being the adrenaline sports capital of the world, we weren't tempted to chuck ourselves out of a plane, but instead ascended by gondola to the 'Skyline', a viewing point with stunning panoramas over the town and Lake Wakatipu. Apart from getting shoved around a bit by scores of selfie stick wielding Cantonese tourists, and being overcharged for our drinks in the bar, at the summit we raced down a luge ride and watched a short Maori show. Here, Dom was called up by the chief to take part in a Haka demonstration, where he was able to look as macho and scary as if he was part of an All Blacks line up at Twickenham. Unfortunately, the resulting video suggests otherwise.

After spending an afternoon on mountain bikes in the pouring rain, and then most of the evening recovering from a bad Indian that made us both poorly, we were relatively glad to say goodbye to Queenstown. It's a lovely spot, however we thought other scenery in the country was just as comparable, and that the place has lost some of its local character, having been overrun by the inevitable international tourist scrum.

Even so, we remained on the tourist trail for our next stop, which took us along the windy and magnificent Haast Pass to the Franz Josef and Fox glaciers - two of the most famous in the world and certainly one off the bucket list. The former, discovered by a German and named after the Austrian emperor at the time, provides a text book lesson in glacial geomorphology and also climate change, illustrated by the quite dramatic retreat up its valley since the ice stopped advancing in 2008. It was fantastic to be able to see all of this in real life, given the number of times it has been referenced in countless geography essays written over the years.

Continuing up the rugged west coast, we stopped and wandered an interesting heritage trail around the town of Hokitika, a settlement brought about by New Zealand's gold rush in the mid-nineteenth century (see more below). From there, we continued north to Greymouth, the west coast's largest town (population still less than 9,000), and hired some bikes from our hostel to ride some of the West Coast Wilderness Trail. This proved to be an apt description, as we cycled in the drizzle parallel to the roaring Tasman sea, feeling the spray from the huge swell. To regain the calories lost, that evening we took an enjoyable tour of Monteith's, the town's brewery and one of the main beer producers in New Zealand. We particularly enjoyed the free beer we were served, along with some sumptuous platters.

At just under seven hours, the journey from Greymouth to the north west corner of the Abel Tasman National Park was our longest day's driving, but it was worth it on arrival. From leaving a chilly, drizzly and grey industrial wasteland, we arrived in a Caribbean-like Abel with the sun shining and turquoise, calm seas lapping white sandy beaches. We were blessed with blue skies for our three days there, and hiked part of the Abel Tasman track, a fairly steep coastal path that takes four days to complete end to end. In Abel, we stayed in the home of Neville, a retired school teacher who is now blind. In the absence of his wife, who was away on a walking holiday, we got to know him well and enjoyed learning about the area as well talking about New Zealand and the UK more widely.

One of the real highlights of our time on the South Island was touring the famed Marlborough region, where sunnier and warmer climes create perfect conditions for grapes to be grown and wine to be drunk. Lodging in a hostel run by Pat and Paul, a charming couple in their eighties, we based ourselves in the village of Renwick and spent a day on bicycles touring some of the many vineyards in the Wairau Valley. Whilst the region has around 150 wineries, with vineyards covering the equivalent of 26,500 rugby pitches, we managed to visit seven, tasting 35 varieties, including Alan Scott's (drunk frequently chez Elliott), Cloudy Bay (good heavens, snooty!), No. 1 (champagne for everyone!) and Wairau River (eight tastings later, the rest is a little hazy...). Rather than the household names we recognised from our kitchen table however, we found that the most enjoyable tasting experiences came with the humbler cellar doors, the last of which (Bladen's) we enjoyed so much that we spent another hour chatting with the owner and sent half a case home.

The recent earthquake required us to alter our original itinerary, so instead of heading south for whale watching in Kaikora, we headed back west to check out some of New Zealand's gold mining heritage, staying the night in the crusty old town of Reefton. Initial discoveries of gold in the early 1850s prompted a huge influx of prospectors across the country, and many settlements were quite literally founded on it. This was no more clear through our tour of Waiuta, 30km south of Reefton, where a burgeoning small town was built in the early 1900s around the discovery of a gold reef. Complete with a huge mine shaft, hospital, school, playing fields, swimming pool and barber shop, the town's population plummeted from over 600 to 20 in only three months, after the shaft collapsed in 1951. Today, only ruins and a couple of cottages remain, and it was eerie to walk around this now deserted, overgrown and silent place.

Our continued journey east took us over a dramatic alpine region through Arthur's Pass, where we stayed the night in an old railway worker's cottage with Renée and Geoff, two very down to earth South islanders, the latter of whom acts as a strategic adviser to New Zealand's equivalent of the RSPB. The following day, driving from cold, pouring rain to bright, hot sunshine, we looped over the top of Christchurch to the village of Akaroa. A highlight en route was stopping at the award winning Sheffield pie shop, whose produce would rival the best we've tasted in the place's namesake back home - both in quality and price. Situated on the Banks Peninsula, which was formed following two giant volcanic eruptions, Akaroa was the country's first French settlement. The place still holds this "joie de vivre", and we enjoyed sampling the town's French restaurants, heading out on the water to watch Hector dolphins (the world's rarest) in action, as well as taking a long walk in the surrounding peaks with stunning views over the little bays that extend out from the peninsula's centre. Garth and Robin, our hosts there, warmly invited us into their newly built home, which had beautiful views over the bay below.

The final stop of our adventure has taken us to Christchurch, traditionally an English city that is still very visibly rebuilding after the 2010 and 2011 earthquakes ripped the heart out of the place. Indeed, the city's cathedral, still lying in ruins, is a sobering sight. By chance, our visit here coincided with the World Bowls Championships, where Sam and Sophie, two of Vicky's extended family, were competing. We dropped in to say hello, and as neither of them were playing we had a good catch up after previously seeing them compete in the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow two years ago. We wish them well for the next week. A look around the interactive international Antarctic centre and the city's Earthquake museum rounded off a brief but worthwhile stay.

If you're still reading, poor you! They've always said I write too much. Count your blessings, I've still missed out a fair bit which I won't go on to detail here. Being so physically and culturally stunning, we have grown to love our New Zealand leg and would thoroughly recommend it to anyone contemplating the long journey down here. The people are lovely too - all of our hosts have been nothing but down to earth, interested and extremely welcoming. We would love to come back at some point (another sabbatical anyone?), but for now, Australia awaits.

D&V xx


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