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Published: November 1st 2005
Rum Doodle (42000ft)
The big question was "Would it go?"
After the Irish, New Zealanders must be the friendliest people in the world. I was going to add the caveat 'English Speaking' but to be honest they are probably near the top of all nationalities in the being open, chilled and pleasant to newcomers stakes. With that in mind we found the strange South Island policy of denying access to those desperately in need of toilets all across the South Island very bemusing. To keep people awake on New Zealand’s long and often empty roads, a charitable organisation offers free tea and coffee and a roadside chat. I attempted to stop to use the facilities at one of these places and was faced with the by now familiar barrier - "Toilets are for customer use only". This is some kind of dark twisted logic, whereby unsuspecting motorists are filled full of complementary diuretics but all access to relief is firmly denied. I peed round the back of their cafe. After our Irish Bar in Tasmania that denied tap water to refresh the revellers, the Irish Bar in Wanaka, complete with a warming motto near the door stating that all humankind are most welcome, also denies access to the little boys room
in bold black letters. This time I just ignored it and stared challengingly at the bar staff as I walked out. If the Irish government were a large American brewer we might by now be seeing a branding war waged in the courts, as these imposters clearly do not have that special something that makes Ireland the most welcoming country to visit bar none, and are therefore 'diluting the brand values' of Ireland. When I raised the question to a local they thought the slightly unfriendly attitude may be related to the fact that the local councils tend to avoid spending money if they can, and hence free facilities at roadside stops are few and far between and the onus is on the cafe owners, who no doubt pay healthy rates, to fill the gap.
Truth be told we had a fantastic time touring South Island. We arrived at places in anticipation and left with regret that we weren't staying longer - or forever. Late in the trip I had the following conversation with Andy Simpson, who we had accidentally bumped into cycling the other way on the Queen Charlotte Track with his trusty sidekick Jules:
"We've been told Queenstown isn't that nice."
* Me: "Hmmm. We've also heard that from several people. I guess it's true in a sort of 'Queenstown is the place in the world I'd most like to live' sort of way."
I guess Queenstown does have some drawbacks. The unsuspecting may find themselves victim of the tourist equivalent of the beer monkey (he who bangs you on the head, steals your money and craps in your mouth). Wander down Queenstown high-street a little too casually and you'll suddenly find yourself dangling upside down on the end of a rope at the bottom of a deep canyon with your wallet a couple of hundred dollars lighter.
Intelligence both from locals and other travellers suggested the presence of anti-terrorist hobbits has led to steep price hikes in New Zealand in the last few years. This certainly seemed to be the case, with prices similar or greater to those in Australia, although there are many bargains to be found if you take the time to look.The now legendary furry-footed folk perform the twin function of marketing the stunning landscapes to be found in these far Southern Lands and preventing terrorist insurgency. The
Between Queenstown and Christchurch
BBC, no less, reports that the great and the good are fleeing to New Zealand to escape the possibility of retribution and to discover peace and mind, leading to countrywide price rises. Locals are skeptical, but there can be no douting the astounding number of rented campervans and RV's that now cruise the sheep-strewn roads, from companies such as 'Celeborn's Charabangs', 'Legolas' Luxury Liners' and 'Gimli's Gadabouts'. It seems mobile accomadation is the only way to go in Middle Earth these days.
Extending our lucky run of backpacking the easy way, we were collected from Christchurch Airport by Roz and Andy Clayton, Buckley family friends and well known to Orienteers in the UK - for those of you too young to remember Roz was a stalwart of the British Orienteering team for many years and became World Champion in her age group at WMOC 1999 in Denmark. Andy and Roz had taken the opportunity to do a weekly shop. On the way back up we passed many wineries, and eventually we stopped at Waipara Springs vineyard for Roz to stack up on Asparagus and for Andy to stock up on wine bargains for Christmas. A pleasant introduction to the
Hanmer Springs is a small resort town tucked away in the mountains about 90 minutes drive north west of Christchurch. The focus of the resort are the Thermal Springs themselves, which were recently named the Top Tourist attraction in New Zealand. Of course, to obtain the moniker of 'town' in this part of the world you have to have at least two jet boat operations and a reputable quad bike business. Hanmer lies on a wide flat flood plain and is completely surrounded by mountains ranging from 700 - 1400m from the valley floor. Being in an earthquake zone the narrow bridge that links the town with Christchurch could go at any moment, cutting the place off for as long as it takes for the hobbits to come and rescue the stranded tourists. Roz and Andy have now sold their Outdoor Education business and are effectively retired, dividing their time between vegetable growing, Mountain Rescue, Civil Defense (feeding the trapped tourists), helping run the local gym, building bike trails, organising races, poisoning wasps and occasionally driving the school bus. Oh, and looking after itinerant poms. As in many towns in South Island the entrepenurial locals seem to
West Coast, 20km from Fox Glacier
have their fingers in as many pies as possible, both from necessity and desire. A nice way to be really.
Always keen for a new project, the pair started us on a two-day intensive fitness regime. In Queenstown this would have cost us a good $200+, but we got it for free (well, the ten dollars to enter the thermal pools at the end). Day one involved climbing the local summut of Ben Lawyers, at around 1300m. We took the locals trail up, a narrow path, seldom used other than by hunters and trappers after valuable possum skins, climbing steadily up a narrow valley, Here the vegetation and rocks were moss covered and the noise of the nearby mountain stream reverberated in the dampened silence. After a couple of hours of steady climbing we passed beyond the tree-line and crested the ridge proper, to be greeted with our first stunning panorama of New Zealand's snow-capped mountains.
Peter Jackson has a lot to answer for. As we strode along the ridgeline I had to continually remind myself that Andy, Roz and Kim were not hobbits in my charge, I was not an Elf, nor even an actor playing an
West Coast floodplain
Lots of schist on the South Island
elf, and Lesley didn't really fancy me.
Day two heralded a tag team approach as Roz and her friend Wendy took us for a mid-morning run in the local woods, early morning having been shifted to mid-morning ater some serious round-the-table negotiation. After a hearty lunch Andy did his bit by showing us the intricate singletrack bike trails that are steadily being built in the local plantation forests, including some nice stuff built by Andy and Roz themselves. Given a large selection of steeper areas there is real potential to make a decent bike park in the area, as long as the local forestry companies remain willing. The day finished with an hour in the hot springs and we skipped between very hot pools, medium hot pools and then back to the very hot ones, along with a few locals and a lot of holidaying Kiwis.
To aid us in our travels around South Island, and anticipating a summer of visitors, Roz and Andy had re-aquired the 'beep-beep' car back off some friends. This old Toyota Corona Diesel Estate had previously been fitted with a speed limiter that beeped when you passed 100km/h. Thankfully it had been removed,
Lightning strike? West Coast
and, piled full of eskies, water carriers, folding chairs, tarps, boxes of food, camping gear and rucksacks, served us incredibly well in our 4000km trip.
We set off for the West Coast with the threat of miserable weather, and we were to learn that Kiwi forecasting is pretty accurate. Our first three days became rather depressing, as we spent long hours driving through stunning scenery without being able to see any of it. It was difficult to come to terms with the fact that we were missing out and it was costing us a lot of budget to do so. There were highlights. We visited both Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers, albeit briefly, and weren't all that impressed. However at Fox township we spotted that the weather was looking a bit brighter on the coast and drove the 20km along dirt road to Gillespies Beach to see if there was to be any sunset. In the end it didn't really matter - it was dry and the cobbled beach, strewn with dead trees, had a wild feel to it. After ten minutes or so Kim was approached by a young fellow who had lit a fire and asked if
we wanted to join him and his girlfriend. At the time I was taking pictures and Kim was trying to resurrect the pyromaniac skills learn't in Africa by using the embers of a burning mattress to light her own fire. After a while both activities were yielding diminishing returns, so we went to join the local firebuilders. They were named Jo and Martin, and had left jobs in Christchurch to tour some of their local country for the first time. We sat round the fire, sharing wine and beers as the stars came out and they filled us with great tales of the beauty to come, as well as some useful tips on where to stay. After a while we realised the clouds covering the two giant mountains, Cook and Tasman, had lifted and through the darkness we could just make out the snow-capped summits. Next morning I rose before dawn to make the trip to Lake Mathieson, where these majestic peaks can be found reflected in the lake. However a look out of the hostel doorway confirmed my suspicions - heavy cloud and rain.
We moved on down the coast to Haast with a view to waiting out
the bad weather and perhaps exploring some of the wilder bits of coast if the weather improved the next day. A coldish night was spent in the cheapest hostel in the area, populated by whitebait fisherman who were merrily ribbing a young pommie motorbiker whilst down bottles of Vodka in the true Mongolian way. One fellow loudly and repeatedly claimed his ancestors came on the fourth boat, and anyone after that wasn't a true New Zealander.
The next day dawned reasonably sunny, and we found we were surrounded by big mountains covered in snow, glistening in the sunshine. We opted to shun the coast and head inland to Wanaka over Haast Pass, stopping at some of the roadside attractions on the way. The route was spectacular and by the time we arrived at Wanaka we were feeling a little happier. With good weather forecast we planned to do an overnight tramp in Mt Aspiring National Park, but when we arrived at the Department of Conservation (DOC) office at 4.00pm on a Saturday we, along with lots of other frustrated tourists, found it was closed. It was closed all Sunday as well. In out of the way Haast DOC are
open seven days a week, yet in touristy Wanaka they work short hours at the weekends when they are likely to be busiest. Go figure. We consulted our tramping book and decided to head on to Queenstown as there was a good prospect for a day walk.
Many visitors to New Zealand are attracted to the great walks - the Milford Track, the Routeburn Track, the Abel Tasman etc. Whilst these are fantastic they are also very busy, partly because there seems to be a policy of promoting them over other wilderness areas. I guess this is good for the locals as it means many of the jewels of New Zealand remain relatively under-explored. However if you are traveling in New Zealand in the summer and want to be on your own you may wish to look elsewhere. In view of this I can highly recommend the excellent “South Island Weekend Tramps” by Nick Groves from Craig Potton publishing. It details more than fifty two-day tramps, many of which can easily be shortened to a day, and others that can be extended to more than two days. The accompanying photos are excellent and really give you a feel for
Ben Lomond (1746m)
A three hour walk straight up from Queenstown.
the area so you can choose what floats your boat. Browse a copy in a bookshop if you can’t justify buying it.
As well as overcrowding, another issue with the promotion of the great walks is the fact the backpackers and long-term travelers will do them. Whatever. That is whatever the weather, whatever their equipment and whatever their experience. My general principle relating to wilderness is that venturing into is risky, and that risk is part of the experience. As the excellent New Zealand periodical “Wilderness” attests, there is a steady attrition rate of both the under-skilled and under-prepared, and of the skilled and prepared. However in our brief times in the New Zealand huts we saw two very different sides. At the popular, well-known and touristy Mueller Hut in Mt Cook National Park we shared the hut with six others. Through a combination of choice and misinformation from DOC none had cooking gear, and we had to lend our stove and precious gas to one couple so they could actually eat. The next day, as we climbed up the frozen slopes of Mt Oliver in our motley assortment of boots and trainers, one girl slipped and fell thirty
Ah, Ben Lomond
Looking across Lake Wakatipu to the Remarkables
feet, hitting a rock on the way down. Thankfully it was only a short tumble - in most places on that climb such as slip would have led to certain death. After recounting this to Andy and Roz later in our trip they told us the a few days afterwards that four backpackers had gone missing at the hut after we had left. Contrast this with the people tramping on Mt Arthur, a place known to few tourists but many Kiwis. From what we saw almost everyone was well equipped. I guess there is not a lot to do really. Every year many backpackers will attempt these multi-day tramps and a small number will need rescuing and a smaller number will be beyond rescue. However if you are a Kiwi don’t start winging about it as it is your tourist industry that is promoting these activities and tempting these people into the wild under-prepared.
Of course the flip-side of this coin is also happening. Reading back copies of Wilderness magazine established that kayaking New Zealand’s rivers kills a fairly regular number of locals and tourists alike. This is of course a tragedy, but people who kayak should be aware
From Ben Lomond, looking north west.
Mount Aspiring is in this picture somewhere.
that both rivers and the sea are fickle things, and I’m sure most are. However following the second drowning at a boulder called “Rock A” the government report put some of the blame on the local body that manages the rivers in that area. Worried about litigation that body then determined to drive a bulldozer through 18km of pristine native bush to actually remove the boulder from the river. They had already erected a clear sign on the riverbank warning about Rock A, and the equally dangerous Rock B just downstream. The clear problem here is of course where do you stop. Some tragedies will just happen and there is nothing anyone can do to prevent it. Why should a government body accept responsibility for a kayaker who has died kayaking a river through their own choice?
Anyway, we chose to walk up Ben Lomond, a 1700m peak just behind Queenstown. This had been recommended in Nick Groves book but was also fairly popular - we met a good thirty or so people on the 3 hour climb to the summit. The walk is to be very highly recommended, as there is a stunning 360-degree panorama from the top,
taking in the Remarkables to the East, the edges of Fjordland to the South West and Mt Aspiring range to the North West. Following the advice of the guidebook rather than descending back to Queenstown we tramped off over the back, down to Moonlight Valley, the upper reaches of the Shotover River and Arthurs Point, where we had left our car earlier in the day. On this part of the walk the crowds disappeared - we didn’t see a single person from leaving the col on Ben Lomond to reaching Arthur’s Point. Bliss.
That night we finally found the campsite in nearby Arrowtown that we had been looking for but failed to find the previous night. If Queenstown is too noisy for you, or the expensive prices are not to your taste - we were quoted 85 NZD for a double room at the YHA in the centre - then look up this place, only twenty minutes drive away. Arrowtown is a lovely little tourist town where the original historic houses have been preserved although the main street now has a bit of a Disneyland feel to it. The campsite offered us a comfortable and quiet private cabin for
One for Wardy
The Moonlight valley, over the back of Ben Lomond, nr the Shotover.
only 40 NZD.
A word about backpacker hostels in NZ. They are not generally the cheapest form of accommodation. Most are in some form of chain, YHA, VIP or BBH. Most prices quoted are the discounted rate if you are a member of that chain. In the case of BBH membership is 80 NZD, and we wouldn’t have saved that money. Without membership rates, already not the cheapest, are even higher. Many NZ hostels do offer excellent facilities and services, and if you are prepared to sleep in a dorm room most are extremely good value. However if you have your own transport, sleeping and cooking gear with you then you might want to avoid the hostels like the plague, and seek out campsites. Most will offer multi-bed cabins, which rarely cost more than 40 NZD per cabin and will often sleep three or more. In busy season’s you will need to book ahead as space tends to be limited. Bear in mind you may well pay more than 20 NZD to park your campervan or pitch your tent at the same site.
The other accommodation type to look out for is the hostel that isn’t really a
hostel. Essentially many campsite, motels and hotels have realized they can capitalize on the backpacker market by offering cheap bunkrooms with minimal facilities. We stayed in a number of such places and they were all cheap and all good - you just aren’t likely to be sharing your room with a sexy young Swedish lass upon who you may have designs.
After our stunning day on Ben Lomond the weather forecast was again bad, so we took the chance to drive down to Te Anau on the edge of Fjordland. When we got there we couldn’t see the view but Kim had spotted some cheap accommodation in nearby Manapouri so we drove down to investigate. After a bit of hunting we were installed in an old motel room with a musty smell and a fantastic panoramic view over Lake Manapouri, a vista that is far more dramatic than that offered at the larger and more-visited Te Anau. To round things off the kitchen was only five feet away from the door of our room.
We stayed there two nights, rowing across the river to the walking tracks along the shore of the lake (if you are looking for
Fjordland, from the Luxmore Hut (1085m)
First hut on the Kepler Track in the anti-clockwise direction.
an easy multi-day tramp with kids or people who aren’t used to carrying heavy rucksacks it may be worth investigating the huts in this area - they look easy to reach and I would imagine the locations are both secluded and spectacular.)
The next day was supposed to be a good one, so we decided to walk to the Luxmore hut, the first waypoint on the Kepler Track. The alpine crossing on this track was closed due to heavy snow, so Mt Luxmore was as far as people were being advised to go. As it was the day dawned still but with low heavy cloud hanging over the lake. Kim wasn’t feeling well so we lay in the room and read for the morning, until at about 11.30am the cloud suddenly cleared and the bright sunshine emerged. I quickly gathered my stuff, leapt into the car and sped to the carpark at the start of the track. With the late start I decided I had best travel quickly and so jogged the first 5.8km along the lakeshore to start of the climb. I walked quickly up the climb, jogging when it was flat, and so reached the hut in
around three hours, having stopped a couple of times to take photos. The views were tremendous. Feeling sorry for Kim I sped down and got back to the car-park in less than two hours, having covered around 29km.
Underfoot the route was very good gravel track, almost a small road, and this started me thinking that it must be fairly easy to do the four-day track in a day. Now I haven’t done it so if you chose to attempt it don’t blame me if you get stuck. However I reckon I could have managed it jog-walking in something between 8 to 12 hours, carrying my heavy camera gear, warm kit including duvet jacket and a couple of liters of water. If you want to shorten the crossing you could get the ferry at the start across the lake (something most day-walkers seem to do) and get picked up at the first place the track emerges near the road. I would guess this would save a good ten to fifteen kilometers of dead running.
An annual mountain race is held on the track, starting and finishing at the dam, with the men’s record standing at four hours forty
minutes and the women’s about another hour longer. Sometime back in the late nineties Yvette Baker ran it in six hours, coming tenth overall in the race, husband Joel combating the boredom to manage a very respectable six hours and seven minutes. So there’s the challenge - can you beat Yvette!
With another bad day forecast we embarked on the long and dramatic drive from Te Anau to Milford Sound. Low cloud and rain shrouded the mountains but this enhanced the mood somewhat. There is no petrol on this road so make sure you fill up in Te Anau. Arriving at the Sound itself we determined the weather was too bad to take a cruise, and with good weather predicted the next day we decided to find accommodation and wait.
To my knowledge you have two ‘budget’ accommodation options in this part of Fjordland. Near the sound itself is a small lodge which offers dorm rooms at a reasonable price (around 27 NZD each person I think) but this was more than we wanted to pay. It was also very busy, even in shoulder season. Much better is to drive back through the tunnel and down into the
The Chasm, Fjordland
On the road to Milford Sound
Holyford Valley to Gunn’s Camp, named Holyford Camp on the signs.
Gunn’s Camp comprises as set of original 1930’s workers cabins, nestled in dramatically scenic and relatively rarely visited Holyford Valley. Electricity is provided from a generator, and each cabin contains the original range on which to cook. Wood and coal is provided and Kim rose to the challenge producing some fantastic creations with only a couple of small Trangia saucepans. New Zealand’s third term Prime Minister Helen Clark is a regular visitor. Octogenarian owner Murray Gunn, after whom a nearby peak is named, has fallen on a bit of bad luck although apparently he is now recovering, so the camp is currently under the administration of Helen and Bill Ellis, who are a pair of the nicest people you will ever meet. I think the best expression of the place comes from the tale of a visiting pommie. He had been told by his Kiwi mates they were going to stay at a Lodge. In NZ this word is associated with top-end accommodation, fine dining and luxury spas. When he arrived at Holyford his face dropped big-style. However after twenty four hours there, listening to the birds singing
and the river gurgling they had a hard time persuading him to leave for his overnight cruise on Doubtful Sound. We felt the same.
Late in the afternoon the clouds started to lift, and inspired by the scenery I decided to run to the nearby Avalanche Lake. The three hour return track took me 65 minutes to run, although the track is one of the mosty rocky, rooty, gnarly, slippy, ankle-twisting knee-smashing I have come across so I wouldn’t attempt to run it unless you enjoy that sort of thing. Near the start of the track are some boardwalks that follow the side of the steep boulder-strewn stream that flows down from the lake itself. The foaming waters and large moss-covered boulders are worth a look, and I suspect there are some good photographic opportunities in the area, although I had neither my camera nor the time.
Next day we took our Milford Sound cruise, choosing the smallest boat of the extensive fleet that operates in the area, and the longest cruise. Cruising Milford Sound is one of the must-do things in New Zealand, even if you are Norwegian. Put the crowds out of your head and stare
Emerging from the tunnel
On the road to Milford Sound
in awe at the dramatic peaks rising almost vertically from the sea. Keep an eye out for dolphins that often surf under the bow waves of the boats, and you may also be lucky enough to see penguins and seals. We had desperately wanted to dive in the Sound but the price was too steep. Apparently the narrowness of the sound causes a thick layer of freshwater to sit on top of the saltwater. This has the effect of reducing the light that reaches the depths and tempts those shy creatures of the dark that cannot normally be seen to rise too much more accessible depths. Because of this an underwater observatory has been built, but again we declined to go for budget reasons, which in fact was probably a mistake.
Having taken an early boat in the morning we took advantage of the good weather to attempt to walk to Gertrude’s Pass in the afternoon. This was another day walk recommended in our trusty guidebook, right in the heart of Fjordland and promising spectacular views. The first hour of the walk is up a flattish u-shaped valley, amongst moss-covered boulders and trees covered in straggly mossy beards -
this part is to be recommended to even the most sedentary of people. At the dramatic head of the valley you turn left, and climb steeply past some dramatic waterfalls heading for the saddle. Here we started to encounter problems, as we watched many avalanches cascading off the vertical back wall of valley and the soft spring snow deepened. In the end we didn’t quite make the saddle, more from the fact that we just weren’t enjoying wading through the thick snow than any real avalanche risk. However we enjoyed what we did of the walk immensely. The guidebook suggests that you can continue further up from the saddle to summit a nearby peak, which I suspect must be a fantastic walk on a fine summer’s day.
After another pleasant night at Holyford we headed back to Queenstown the following day, which was fine and sunny. We picked up a young English hitcher who was working his way around the great tracks. He had done the Milford track and had just come back from a week on Stuart Island where he had done the main track there. We dropped him in Queenstown as he was heading off straight to
do the Routeburn, but only after he had showed us the knife he was carrying to protect himself after the murder of a German backpacker whilst hitching. What was interesting is that he had never done any walking or tramping in the UK, having started this new pastime only in New Zealand. Good on him.
In the afternoon we drove up to the Remarkables ski area intending to do some running. However there was still a lot of snow around so our hour run turned into two hours of scrambling along steep rocky ridges and snow slopes, but the views were tremendous so we didn’t mind.
Back in Queenstown Kim did an excellent bit of stalking, tracking down old friend and ex-Kiwi international orienteer Antonia Wood in the following manner: first she asked a chap in a bike shop if he knew a ‘Tone’ who did a bit of biking. It turned out his girlfriend worked with her. We got the girlfriends number, phoned her and got Tone’s number. However we were informed she was working at a concert that night and wasn’t answering her phone so we were a bit flummoxed. About to give up and drive
From a boat. Although it looks like it I haven't just pasted Kim onto the picture in Photoshop.
back to Arrowtown, Kim suddenly realized the concert was probably at the prominent Concert Hall, so we drove there and asked the door staff if she was there. Sure enough she was, but she was busy. Not wanting to push it Kim left a note and we retired to our campsite. Good on the lass though as after a long day at work she drove out to meet us late that evening and we shared a couple of glasses of wine and a chinwag in a swanky Arrowtown bar. Very pleasant.
We had to stop in Wanaka, even though we weren’t sure what we were going to do there. Kim wanted to stay in a campsite on the Lake shore, about ten km past Wanaka towards Mt Aspiring National Park. So we did, and it was very pleasant. On the way there we stopped at the rather pleasant Chard Farm Winery, a small vineyard in a dramatic riverside location, producing a pretty decent selection of wines including some good high-end Pinot. We also stopped at the award-winning Gibbstown (I think) but the wines they gave us to taste were rubbish. They do make an excellent selection of cheeses however.
After a pleasant evening and morning of doing nothing by the lake - well, Kim went for a long run - we headed North to Mt Cook National Park with the intention of staying at the stupendously scenic Mueller Hut. Surrounded by the 3000m plus peaks of Mt Cook and Mt Sefton this large modern backcountry hut, at 30 NZD per night, was the most expensive place we stayed during our trip - and the gas wasn't turned on. At least there was electricity powered by efficiently by solar panels. Apparently it is a common experience to visit the hut and see very little of the surrounding mountains which are likely to be covered in cloud, but we were extremely lucky to have stunning weather on both days. The three hour walk to the hut is pretty steep, particularly the first section up to the popular Seely Tarns. The final clamber over the ridge was a steep soft snow-slope, where my narrow-lasted Walshes and extra weight seem to condemn me to falling through up to my waste on almost every step. Finally, nursing frozen hands, we crested the ridge and climbed the last kilometre or so up to the
hut. For a few blissful hours we were entirely on our own, lying in the sun and staring at the mountains, with large avalanches crashing down of the steep ice walls of Mt Sefton nearby. Then the peace was broken by the two groups who arrived later, but sharing such a special place with only six others still seemed pretty good.
After a stunningly beautiful sunset I arose early in the morning before sunrise and with only a slight breeze blowing I was able to scoot quickly over the frozen snow, the studs from my walshes providing enough extra friction to ensure I wasn't going to slip. I was treated to an astonishing spectacle as the warm sunlight lit up the surrounding peaks, and yet only one other person from the group rose to witness it. However after ninety minutes out in the snow both I and my camera batteries were so cold, despite wearing all my gear, that further photography became impossible and I retreated to the hut for a welcome cup of tea.
After climbing Mt Olivier we waited around for a couple of hours in the sun whilst the snow on steep slope at the
Surfing under the bow wave of our boat
top of the descent softened and became safe enough to tackle. We perhaps waited slightly too long, so the best way down was sliding on your backside. On the first section I made a schoolboy error, leaping up onto my feet to stop my descent, and my left leg promptly crashed through the snow whilst my momentum and the heavy backpack catapulted my body forward down the slope. With Kim giggling away above me I struggled like an upturned beetle to get my centre of gravity above my trapped leg. Even after managing this it took me several minutes to free the leg as it was deeply trapped. I was a lot more cautious how I went about slowing subsequent slides. Once the technique was mastered we quickly descended about 200m until the snow gave out, nursing cold wet behinds for much of the rest of the descent. Getting down the rest of the track was not trivial however, the extra weight of the pack finally causing Kim's legs to give way and go into spasm near the bottom.
That afternoon we left Mt Cook National Park and drove to a delightful camp ground on the edge of Lake
Benmore, about ten kilometres East of Omarama, where we booked the only cabin, an ensuite. Whilst Kim lazed around in the sunshine reading and sipping wine (after unpacking and sorting our gear), I drove the 40km South to Lindis Pass to see if could get any nice sunset photos. This pass is the main link between Queenstown and Christchurch, and whilst many drive through few stop, even though there are some delightful grassy hills to play in.
With a day of only average weather we tackled the long drive North to Christchurch, giving the car an oil service on the way. We were heading for Akaroa on the hilly Bank's Peninsula just South of the South Island's largest city. We drove through the tiny tourist town, contemplating staying there, but we found even this tiny place a little claustrophobic after the remote people-free locations we had been in. Following the BBH hostel guide we kept driving, past the end of the town right to the end of the road where we were greeted by the friendly folk at the farm hostel there. This hostel was based on a large sheep farm of around 2000 sheep and is the start
of the multi-day Bank's Peninsula track. It is sufficiently far from Akaroa that it keeps it's air of quiet seclusion when the multitudes of 4WD's descend on Akaroa from Christchurch. After watching sunset from the end of the peninsula we retired for a pleasant night of wine and beer with the hostel's owners and the other guests.
Kayaking in Akaroa Harbour was the pleasant distraction the following morning, and we paddled up the harbour coastline inspecting caves, seabirds, kelp and an unseasonal dolphin that came to play. After saying more reluctant fairwells we took the narrow and tortuously winding scenic drive to Christchurch that lasted a hard couple of hours. We spent another couple of hours wandering round the centre of the city before leaving just in time to sit in what must be South Island's only ever traffic jam, heading North out of the city at rush hour.
A word on population. New Zealand comprises just over 4m people of which 1.5m live in or around Auckland. The capital Wellington is only 300,000 as is Christchurch. The wild and rugged mass of South Island only has 1m inhabitants, although during the summer months this must rise considerably
with the influx of tourists. There are a lot of sheep, although apparently the population is declining as many are emigrating to Australia where salaries are higher, but so are taxes. Interestingly I read that 92% of Kiwis are employed in small to medium-sized enterprises (SME's), which contribute some 60% to the GDP. Depending on who you believe much of the political agenda is set by multinationals who of course generally don't have the interests of the average New Zealander at heart.
After a couple of nights recuperation at Roz and Andy's we set of again on the Friday of a long and sunny Bank Holiday weekend. We headed four hours North to climb Mt Arthur in the Kahurangi National Park. We found this charming two day bushwalk in our guidebook and decided it was unlikely to be too busy as it was quite off the beaten track. The first day was a fast three hour tramp through native bush along an old road and a good trail to Salisbury Lodge, which stands in an elevated clearing with panoramic views of the Mt Arthur Range. After a pleasant evening with only two others in the hut we did the
long day back across the high ground, over Bennet's Pyramid, across the broken limestone plateau and up Mt Arthur itself. Once on the ridge we met lots and lots of people, and when we got back to the carpark the intentions book revealed that there were 53 people in the area trying to overnight in a total of four huts with space for only 57. Most of these people were trying to stay at Salisbury Lodge so it was going to be a nice cramped wilderness experience for them. To cap it all it started to rain and my left (bad) knee started to hurt on the descent - too much carrying heavy rucksacks up and down steep slopes methinks.
If you are into trail running Mt Arthur would make an excellent 12km return run direct from the carpark - there is a good track along a ridge all the way and you climb steadily through rather pleasant native bush for the first 3km before getting excellent views for the second 3km.
That night we stayed in a pleasant cabin near the seaside town of Motueka, and watched telly with a better than average budget Barossa Shiraz. They
showed the cult NZ movie 'Scarfies', a kind of "Shallow Grave" involving New Zealand students in a house-share in the southerly city of Dunedin. Worth a look if you get sick of fighting the legions of Mordor.
Intent on escaping the Bank Holiday crowds we decided to head for the rarely visited far North of South Island, Farewell Spit and Wharariki Beach. The former is a 30km sand-spit famous for multiple whale strandings. If you fancy it you can attempt to walk the length of the spit, but I guess few do. Nature tours run down the length of the spit to look at the extensive local birdlife. The DOC carpark has a nice cafe with pleasant views over the spit. We wandered down the beach along the inland side for a couple of kilometres and at the first clear sandune headed straight inland in an attempt to cross the spit. We were greeted with an extensive and wild area of dunes, that became visually quite compelling as we neared the far side. Sadly with the strong wind I didn't dare attempt to get my camera out, mindful of all the problems I had getting it sand free after
Murray Gunn, proprietor at Gunn's camp, presents New Zealand PM Helen Clark with a memento after she decided maybe free-trade in nuclear arms with the US may not be the most beneficial thing for NZ after all.
the Gobi Desert. If you visit this area I would recommend doing the walk in a clockwise direction, rather than anticlockwise, as the most interesting parts are on the North side and you may wish to explore them first.
We had found nearby Wharariki Beach through browsing a Craig Potton calender and I fancied trying to see if I could get the same shot. When we got there I realised his shot was taken when the tide was in, and the tide was now a fare way out and heading out further. This beach is delightful, with multiple caves, arches, tunnels and rocks to climb up, over and around. At high tide you can't walk the length of the beach without climbing inland through the thick coastal scrub but at low tide exploring is a joy. I spent a couple of hours exploring whilst waiting for the sun to go down and then Kim joined me near sunset. Sadly, after a long day, we left slightly too early, so that as we climbed up the sand banks behind the beach we looked back to see the horizon a deep red with the sky and water a deep blue, venus
Red Tussock Grasslands
Between Te Anau and Queenstown
poking out and whispy cirrus clouds gently stroking the brightest stars. Delightful.
After a night in Collingwood we had planned to catch a water taxi and walk a lengthy section of the Abel Tasman track, but with my knee still sore we thought discretion was the better part of valour. Instead we headed down the coast, through the pleasant seaside city of Nelson to a delightful campsite at Linkwater, in the Marlborough Sounds at the start of the Queen Charlotte Track.
This track is a four day walk along the ridges that line the beautifully scenic mini-fjords of Marlborough and is one of the few DOC-managed tracks that allows mountain bikers. We rented bikes from the campsite and headed off, through the idyllically perfect seaside village of Anakiwa and onto the track itself. The riding was proving good, wide singletrack with enough obstacles to provide interest for decent riders but not too many to stop beginners. We stopped at small sandy bay and I was just pondering the similarities and differences between biking and bikers in NZ and the UK when we heard two bikes coming down the trail the other way. From the sounds they were making
I thought they sounded like decent riders. Kim was just getting her bike out of the way when the first rider came round the corner and stopped. The pair started at each other for a good ten seconds before any noise was uttered by which time the second rider had arrived. It was our favourite dynamic duo, Andy Simpson and his brother Jules, good friends of Kim and her brother from the UK. I tolerate them.
They had taken a package from nearby Picton, which involved taking a boat to the start of the track and doing the track from South to North as a two day supported ride. Their partners Toni (AndyToni
) and Becca were also doing the track, but had skipped the tough hilly section that started at Portage. We agreed to meet them at our campsite later in the day.
Kim and I rode as far as Portage, doing the first section on the track and the second section on the road. We had our butties in a lovely sandy bay with perfect blue waters lapping at our feet, before Kim headed back along the same route. I had decided to tackle the tough section
The endemic South Island parrot, inquisitive and mischevious, they grow up to 50cm long.
back from Portage, but having no map I immediately got lost and climbed 300m up the wrong hill before being forced straight back down. Everywhere else in South Island it is impossible to miss the 'big walks' as they are signposted so well. On the Queen Charlotte the signing once on the track is excellent, but to get to the track there is no signing at all. After correcting I pushed my bike up the 400m climb out of Portage in the hot afternoon sun and my back started aching. Sadly I took no joy from the awesome descent down the other side as my back was so sore I had to keep stopping. It took me three hours to limp back from Portage to Anakiwa via the wrong hill, mostly in a lot of pain, but once rested and showered and with a beer in hand I felt better.
Roz and Andy joined us at around five pm as we had arranged to do an overnight kayaking trip with them and Andy had cooked an awesome chilli that morning for our tea, and around sixish Andy, Toni, Jules and Becca all rolled up, and we had a jolly
chat well into the night.
We spent two days kayaking on Queen Charlotte Sound covering a total of about twenty miles. It is a damn site easy to make progress in a kayak than on a mountain bike. We camped in Mistletoe Bay, right by the water, and the great thing about 'tramping' with sea kayaks is that you can pile in lots of food and drink, weight being much less of an issue. We saw no seals or dolphins but did come across several tiny penguins swimming around the boats, which were great to watch, hovering on the water's surface scouting for fish, before darting of in pursuit of prey as fast as bullets.
Mindful of forecasts of strengthening wind on the second day we finished early, giving us the excuse to head down towards Blenheim and the world famous Marlborough Wine Region. Courtesy of Adrian at Food and Fine Wine
we were staying on Walnut Block
vineyard with our friendly hosts Clyde and Helen Sowman. Even though we had never met them before, in true Kiwi style they gave us all a warm welcome and prepared a cracking steak dinner. We had a great evening and can't thank them enough
for their hospitality. If you are looking to stay somewhere swanky in the region you could do a lot worse than the new open plan 'cottages' that they are building, which look straight onto the vines and the eponymous Walnut tree. Each of the two units has around 30ft of wall to ceiling glass panel facing west so evenings in the region's sunny climbs will be a real treat.
And what did we learn about wine. Well we visited eight vineyards in total excluding those owned by the Sowman's - Framingham, St Clair, Nautilus, Matua, Villa Maria, Wither Hills, Mudhouse and of course, Cloudy Bay. We were surprised to find many of the Sauvignon Blanc's on offer were a bit ordinary. Also worth noting is that newly bottled whites tend to be quite acidic, at least to my taste, and it can be worth waiting six months to a year after bottling for them to calm down a bit. Apparently Kiwis like them like this.
Nautilus Pinot Noir 03 at $35 was really excellent, and was ranked second of the region's Pinot's by Cuisine magazine. Mud House Riesling was very good, and we loved the ever so slightly
oaked Le Grys Sauvignon Blanc from the same vineyard. Matua offered a good Pinot Shingle Peak Inovator 03 at $19.95 and their Bull Rush Merlot 03 was the best of that grape we tasted. St Clair also offered good Pinot's in the same price range.
Villa Maria was the big surprise to me. This is a large winery well known in the UK but in fact most of their range was very good. If you go up from the Private Bin range and look at the Reserve and Single Vineyard offerings there are some great Savs and Pinots, although the latter are overpriced compared to their competitors. They have also launched a range called Northrow which are aimed at NZ restaurants, where people are apparently getting bored of ordering the main brand. The Northrow Pinot 03 at $28.95 came top of the Cusine rankings, but whilst very good I thought the Nautilus edged it.
Whilst Clyde is out tending his vines, Helen Sowman works at Wither Hills, another large vineyard which sells in the UK through the likes of Waitrose and Oddbins. They also had a very impressive range, the 04 Chardonnay is very good, and will get
better. The 04 Pinot was also excellent, whilst the slightly more mature 03 had lost almost all roughness and was perhaps the smoothest Pinot we tasted. Drinking perfectly now it ranked fifth in the Cuisine list although I expect many would rank it at the top. Without doubt the swanky, architecturally stunning, modern chateaux of the Marlborough region were very hard to tear ourselves away from but Roz dutifully dropped us at the Picton ferry for the three hour boat ride to Wellington, where were set to visit an unholy Trinity of couples who have emigrated from the UK.
Meeting us from the ferry was Bill and his two sons Kieran and Oli. The ferry was an hour late so they'd been to play in the local park. As many of you will know Bill is my old oppo from Sheffield and it is his old house that I now own, and is being house-sitted by Kim's brother Alastair. As his office is still in Sheffield, until we started travelling he would reappear on a regular basis to reclaim his armchair in the prime location in the living room, to enjoy the simple pleasures of British TV and a
logically made cheese and chutney sandwich. His Kiwi wife Susan was away on a training course learning how to look after lots of babies for the nursery cooperative that she is involved in, so we watched in amusement as Bill tackled the twin tasks of feeding the lads whilst catching up with us, something it seems he might need a little more practice in.
Bill is still a keen orienteer and despite now being a veteran still managed to beat at least one member of the British team in every race at a set of World Cups earlier in the year. He had entered us into a three hour rogaine set in the steep hills to the West of Wellington. Having done a fair bit of walking in Tasmania and NZ we thought we would be fit enough to get around. However that evening Bill dropped the bombshell that it was a team event and we would be running with him. Golly.
Rogaining is a slightly odd derivative of orienteering, where competitors run around a set of hills navigating using a map and compass to checkpoints marked on the map. Each checkpoint has a certain points value, and
the aim is to collect as many points as possible in a fixed time. Points are deducted for every minute late and penalties are steep. Originally races were 24 hours in length but they have been adapted and now six hours or three hours are more common. In our case most of the Kiwi locals were doing the six hour course, the shorter three hour course being reserved for invalids, poms and sheep. I thought the two competitors who passed us and said to Bill "Are these the English sausages?" were rudely referring to my girth, until after a few minutes I worked out he had entered our team as "Cumberland Sausage".
I had always thought rogaining was a bit daft but in fact, having experienced the steep rugged terrain around Wellington I can see that the format is ideally suited to the area, which struggles to support more traditional forms of orienteering as it is just too tough. Both Kim and I enjoyed the event immensely and there were cracking views of the rugged coastline of South Island from the hill tops. Thanks to Bill's long legs and experience in the local terrain we even managed to win
the short course somehow, actually tiring him out somewhat in the process (he did a fair bit of pulling us up the hills). His fatigue was nothing compared to ours, however. We could hardly walk let alone run by the end.
On the way back Bill dropped me off at Will and Mickey's. Will worked with both Bill and I on the same programming team sometime in the dim and distant past, before the calling of the games industry, his passion and his muse, became too strong. He now works as a contract game developer
, mostly for European-based companies. I was left behind to burn some DVD's but stayed for a lovely tea and a demonstration of his 300ft widescreen TV. We compared the pro's and con's of Powerdrome, the latest game he has written, with Burnout 3, a game written by my old company, took a look at Doom 3 so that I could understand what all the fuss was about, and finished off with a bout of beach volleyball, where skimpily clad girls fight it out on a tropical island, the winners claiming even skimpier bikinis. With polygon counts and the artist's efforts going into the characters themselves the
results were worryingly realistic. The game was a hit with Will's wife Mickey, who seemed to enjoy the fact that you get to go shopping when you've earned enough points.
The next night Susan cooked up one of her trademark feasts and Will and Mickey joined us for a pleasant dinner party, which ended sadly a little too early as I particularly just couldn't stay awake. On our third day in Wellington Bill took us for a tour of the city and a drive around the coast, and very pleasant it all was too - particularly the rugged coast. In the early evening he dropped us off at the house of Kim's mates Yvette and Joel Baker and their son Oli.
Since I've mentioned Roz became a veteran World Champion in 1999 I guess I had better mention that in the same year Yvette became the open World Champion at Middle Distance orienteering. What more fitting reward for a lifetimes dedication to international sport at the highest level than to be groped on national television by Jonathon Ross in the 'Feel the Sportsman' section of the popular BBC show 'They Think It's All Over'. We spent another pleasant
Lake Wanaka shoreline
evening catching up and the next day, after Kim and Yvette did an hours run in the hills, Yvette took us for lunch to another of Wellington's pleasant seaside cafes, this one on the Miramar peninsula which had been oft frequented by the cast of Lord of the Rings.
And so here we are, back at Bill and Susan's, about to go to one final evening sprint race before spending two days flying to Bolivia tommorrow. Something tells me it is going to be a shock.
Photographers. Craig Potton
Craig Potton is the big daddy of New Zealand photographers and now runs an extensive publishing house. For a long time his postcards and posters have defined New Zealand’s most visited places. Andris Aspe
He has also been taking photos of New Zealand for a long time, and publishes some of his work through Craig Potton. His website has an extensive collection of beautiful images, many in the panoramic format, that will really get your mouth watering if you are intending to visit. Rob Brown
One of my favourites from the current crop of Kiwi landscape photographers, Rob Brown’s style is closer to that of Tasmanian legend
Peter Dombrovskis. Sadly I cannot find any web site for Rob but this image of Key Summit
at the start of the Routeburn track is one of my favourite images of his, and is typical of the postcards that we saw by him.
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