Beauty and the Fen

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January 29th 2011
Published: January 30th 2011
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27 January 2011

It seems that I may have underestimated myself when I gaily announced that my status as a morning person was likely to be confined to Manly. This morning, I was up and raring to go even before 7am. Our first night of free camping was a success and, as expected, it was impossible to sleep significantly past dawn. I didn't look at my watch when I first squinted out of the window but the sun was just coming up and one of the many camper vans that we had parked amongst the previous evening was on the move. I swear that several had already gone. Nonetheless, I elected to try to grab a few more precious moments sleep before waking Gregg.

That brings me back to before 7am when we pulled out clothes on and headed off to find some public conveniences (quite crucial when living out of a camper van, we are discovering) before making a plan for the day. The plan developed somewhat which I mean, slowly and point by point. First off, I wanted to see Kaikoura by day. It is a pretty little seaside town but not somewhere that we felt the need to explore on foot. Eventually, and quite by accident, the road wound round to Point Kean which (I now note) is marked in the guide book as being home to a seal colony, so we sat looking out to sea for a little while whilst taking photographs.

By this point, we were feeling in need of breakfast so headed off to find a spot to get the gas bottle out and boil a kettle. We found a picnic site by the sea (albeit behind some dunes) and settled in for a hot cup of Early Grey and some forward planning. We decided that we would loop back down past Christcurch and head in the general direction of Dunedin. There are two main roads linking Kaikoura with Christchurch - the coastal one that we came along yesterday and the inland route which winds up into the Seward Kaikoura mountains. The scenery was just stunning and we had to stop numerous times just to take photographs, eventually we found ourselves in the small village of Waiau where we stopped for petrol (at a petrol station that looked like it belonged firmly in 1950's England) bread and an ice lolly each. We sat in the van and had a break for a while before I wondered off to find a bin and discovered a Presbyterian Church and 1850's-1860's cottage museum which I thought might make an interesting visit. Unfortunately, in the summer, it only opens between 2pm and 4pm and it wasn't even lunch time so we had to knock that idea on the head.

On we wound south in the direction of Waipara (THE Marlborough wine producing hot spot) and beyond back in the direction of Christchurch. Several more yelps of "wow" could be heard from each of our lips as we travelled onwards. The landscape in the Marlborough region is simply jawdroppingly beautiful as you will, we hope, see from some of the accompanying photographs. It is difficult to actually say anything other than 'beautiful' over and over again when describing this area. I once read someone else's blog of a visit to the Angkor Wat temples (remember when we were there in Cambodia? - I barely do!) which said something like "too stunning for words. I have attached lots of photographs so that you can see for yourselves". Having a penchant for verbosity, I haven't been able to leave it at that, but, I have attached lots of photos so you can see for yourselves.

Eventually, we arrived back on the outskirts of Christchurch and decided that this would be a good opportunity to re-fill our gas bottle having failed to find the garage that the lady from Escape (the camper van company) directed us to yesterday. We eventually (with the assistance of a call to The Lady From Escape (having now become a proper noun) found a garage that would re-fill our bottle. Gregg was duly dispatched to complete this most 'blue' of blue tasks only to return shortly afterwards saying that he had just had a lesson in how to look a completel tool . The bottle was so full that the machine had refused to fill it! In his defence, The Lady From Escape had told us that we would need to re-fill it on our way out of Christchurch and we had used it twice since so it was reasonable to imagine that we would need to refill it on our way back through Christchurch.

Whilst the journey north of Christchurch is stunning, the journey south is reminiscent of the great East Anglian Fens. Without wishing to sound fenist (there must be someone out there who can see beauty where I can see only 'ugh'), it is quite simply boring - mile after mile of flat, flat land punctuated by rows of trees looking suspiciously like the also great East Anglian poplar. We reasoned that we might have found this landscape stunning had we seen it before the Alpine vistas of Marlborough but, frankly, having been born in Wisbech I would suggest that I am destined to be unable to appreciate Fen as long as I shall live. Just so you know, I don't have webbed feet.

Lunchtime passed somewhere around Christchurch and we therefore set about searching for a suitable place to stop for a cuppa and a sarnie. One of us noticed a sign to 'Crichton Lake', so we thought we would give it a try. I am not entirely sure that the lake was actually open to the public (but I do think it was probably man made) but we stopped long enough to re-fuel and then headed on having decided that tonight's destination of choice was to be Timaru.

We arrived in Timaru around 4pm. It is an industrial town with a very helpful Tourist Information Lady who pointed us in the direction of the only free camping site in town and also gave us some pointers on tomorrow's tour. Off we headed to a carpark near a beach and the quay for an early dinner and an early night.

After we had eaten, I wondered to the ladies and came across a sign which seemed to indicate that the carpark that we had been sent to was not to be used overnight by camper vans, although the language used was a little difficult to interpret. So, we decided to go for a wonder in order to establish whether they might, perhaps, be another carpark near by that we should be using. We wondered through a short underpass and out onto a grassy area in front of the beach (and nature reserve - which seems very common here) and a site for use only by self-contained campers complete with outdoor showers. Again, the information at that carpark seemed to indicate that we shouldn't be staying where the van was parked. Mmm, what to do. Upon returning to the van, our suspicions seemed confirmed as the other van that had been parked there had gone. We decided that we had better find an alternative location for the night, but first, Gregg wanted a shower. I thought he was both silly and brave (it is not Asia or Australia hot here, you know) but when he returned saying it wasn't as bad as he anticipated I decided to take the plunge myself. It was perishing cold but it was wonderful to feel clean.

By this time, the light was fading and we decided to head off in the direction of Mount Cook (which is on tomorrow's route suggested by the Helpful Tourist Information Lady) where we hoped to find somewhere to bed down for the night. There were lots of trees out there and it was dark so I got scared and we ended up checking into a proper campsite in a place called Fairlie which was blissfully quiet, had showers and free wifi. Unfortunately though, our netbook was starting to fade and we were only able to upload the photographs for our two most recent blogs and not label them (by the time that you read this one, or shortly thereafter, the missing labels should have appeared) before the battery died completely, thus signalling that, since it was past 11pm, we really should turn in for the night.

28 January 2011

Somehow, we managed to sleep in until nearly 9am. Since the site office was closed when we arrived last night, we had no idea how much it had cost us to stay on this proper site or the time by which we were expected to check out, so we hastily got up and went off to find out the answer to both questions. There was a site warden about, just not at the office but there was an information sheet confirming that check out was 10am. Hasty showers were had, we found a site warden to pay on the way out, and we were off in the direction of Mount Cook. The Helpful Tourist Information Lady had slightly let us down yesterday but we we decided to follow her suggested route inland to Mount Cook and back out to the cast at Oamaru nevertheless. The Helpful Tourist Information Lady had suggested that we first stop at Lake Tekapo and then Lake Pukaki, she told us that it was unlikely that we would be able to see Mount Cook and if it was not visible from Lake Pukaki there was no point trying to get closer to see more because we wouldn't be able to see more.

First stop, then, Lake Tekapo. Without wishing to sound like a broken record, Lake Tekapo is absolutely stunning. The water is a bright shade of aqua and the mountains surrounding it are snow capped. Perched on waters' edge is the Church of the Good Shephard. A tiny little sanctuary with giant glass windows at the rear giving panoramic views of the lake beyond. Just beyond the church is a staute of a collie dog - a tribute to the breed that apparently helped to develop this part of NZ, known as Mackenzie Country.

Beyond Lake Tekapo, as advised, we veered off the main road onto the canal road. This road was built for use by the trucks and lorries that built the canal (which, the Helpful Tourist Information Lady, told us is deep enough for the inter-island ferry to use it - if not wide enough). Just like Lake Tekapo, the canals are brimful of aqua water (caused by suspended glacial sediment (silt to you and me) refracting sunlight) making these man made waterways strangely hypnotic.

We quickly surmised that the canals purpose is not to carry freight or, indeed, any kind of vessel. In fact, as we drew on towards Lake Pukaki, the passage of any kind of vessel was blocked by huge Salmon Farms - so what could the purpose of these huge man made tributaries be? The penny dropped - it must be to keep the something to do with maintaining the water level of the lakes (hence the presence of dams). Why would you need to do that? To harness the energy of the water perhaps? It transpires that the hydroelectric power plants here make the most signficant contribution to the national power grid of New Zealand.

As we arrived at Lake Pukaki - which is enormous (and aqua!) we thought that the highest cloud topped mountain that we could see might be Mount Cook but decided to head into the visitor centre (they are known as i sites here) just to check. We were right and, just like the church at Lake Tekapo, the visitors centre had panoramic views, this time of Lake Pukaki. Since we couldn't see the top of Mount Cook from this point, we decided not to take the two hour detour, hoping that the Helpful Tourist Information Lady had given the correct advice - apparently we "have another shot at it" as we travel up the west coast.

A slight digression - at the i site we discovered the meaning of the word Paua (the name of our camper) - it is a type of shell (shell fish I suppose), a member of the abalone family / Mother of Pearl or Ormer(to a Sarnian).

Our route turned around at a town called Twizel - the primary purpose of which was to house the construction workers who built the hydroelectric power station during the 1960's and 70's - and headed back towards the east coast. Turning off the main route, we got some great views of the enormous dams that are part of the hydroelectric process and even some sheep into the bargain.

Oamaru, being our final destination for the day, is a small town full of unusually ostenatatious architecture. A short film about the town shown on loop in the i site told us that the reason is that the town experienced a short lived boom in the late 1800's (refrigerated-meat shipping and the gold rush) when it was about the same size as Los Angeles of the time. When the gold rush ended and the town suffered a drastic lull in fortunes, alcoholism became rife and eventually the Presbyterians church saw their opportunity to take the town leading to prohibition.

We stopped for a hot chocolate in a little time warp of a cafe and then decided to take our chances and try to see the smallest penguin in the world - the Blue Penguin. We weren't willing to pay $45 each to watch them exit the ocean at dusk but did pay $6 to see some nesting in the visitors centre. Photographs of these little mites are strictly prohibited so I bought a postcard instead.

We then had a little wonder along the coast in search of a spot for the night before heading back into town to purchase fish and chips (at the bargainous price of £3.70 for fish and chips twice). We took our cheap eats along the coast and sat eating them with the camper door open and the salty air flooding in. I took a few shots on the beach and we made our last move of the day towards a site we had spotted earlier and where we hoped to spend the night. Others had already had the same idea as us, so we settled down for the night happy in the knowledge that it must be ok to free camp at this particular spot.

NB on free camping

The first time that I heard this phrase was when we were chatting to a fellow traveller in a cafe in Hanoi who told us that she had just spent a week free camping in Greece. I nodded in understanding not wanting to look naive but, in truth, had no idea what she was on about. As she chatted away my mind was doing somersaults trying to establish what this 'free camping' might be. Given that Greece is hot and the girl seemed vaguely arty and hippie, I conclude that she must have been referring to some kind of nudist camp.

For the record, we are not frequenting nudist colonies. The word 'free', obviously, means not paying. Oops, silly me,

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