New Zealand: The Closing Chapter

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April 6th 2014
Published: April 18th 2014
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On our lift back to Queenstown after our last Great Walk, we went through Glenorchy, a small town (probably large by kiwi standards) in spectacular surroundings. The driver owned the shuttle service, but was most busy with Lord of the Ring and Hobbit fans wanting to see where the Olliphants paraded through and the mountains of Isengaard. It was interesting hearing about the film production and how he helped in a set where the footage was beamed through to Peter Jackson so he could direct several scenes simultaneously.

In QT Becks and I had a celebratory feast and then hit the town. It always astonishes me how much fun we can have as a sole duo and we did a classic backpacker pubcrawl. Highlights were sipping cocktails in an ice bar out of ice glasses on ice chairs and then playing ice ice hockey onto dancing away to cheesy 90's tracks with full boy and girl band moves. The night came to an abrupt but suitable end when a circle formed on the dance floor and people took turns to do their best moves in a mass dance off. We stayed out until I suggested the double worm as a winning combo. It probably would have blown the competitors out the water if I hadn't over spun to my right knocking Becky.... causing her chin to hit the floor... and form an almighty chin bruise but thankfully save her teeth. The crowd, unsurprisingly, didn't love it.

A trip to Queenstown is not complete without doing a few adrenaline fuelled activities. We had budgeted carefully for this and splurged out on a jet-boat ride, a canyon swing and the luge. The shotover jet was something I hadn't really considered doing before thinking it must be a bit over hyped, and not all that scary. I had been on one on the Wanganui where the driver was over cautious about damaging his little boat. Royalty in the form of Kate and Wills (probably not George) were due to visit QT in a couple of weeks and that was the big thing they were going to do. So we thought we would give it a go... Incredibly exhilarating! You truly appreciated the manoeuvrability of the boats and skill of the pilots as they hurtled up the canyon at 80kph missing the canyon walls and rocks by inches as they pulled off hairpin turns and 360degree spins. The best bit was for 15 quid you could do it all again! Becks and I were the only ones that went for this and chose seats next to and behind the driver which made it even scarier on top of the new driver being young, the least experienced and far more reckless!

If that wasn't enough thrills for one day we had the canyon swing booked for the afternoon. Becks had never done a bungee before whereas I have done loads (three) but we were both pretty nervous as we walked along the narrow path at the top of the gorge to see the highest swing currently in existence. We went for the swing as you were harnessed from your waist so could therefore do a lot more stuff than a bungee. You could drive a tricycle over the edge, wear a bin on your head, tip off backwards in a chair, pin jump, you name it. We opted for a 5 star extreme rating backwards tandem. We leant out...there was a countdown... then we jumped. I screamed like a girl from the moment we started falling, Becks couldn't utter a sound until we were swinging back over the canyon. It was great to get the buzz of someone else's nerves and then the relief after as we gently rocked above the canyon. We took in the beauty of the gorge together rather than dwelling on quite how thin the rope was slowly pulling us back up to safety. As with the shotover jet it was a very cheap go again price which everyone wanted to do. To save time we went tandem again... This time with a jump known as "gimp boy goes to Hollywood". We were each given a teddybear (strangely decorated in tape and chains) then we were suspended upside down facing the canyon wall. We were very much at the mercy of the instructors as they counted us down to zero... and we didn't drop... the next we heard was "oh s***, I forgot to attach the..." before we plummeted head first into the canyon for 60 metres until the swing kicked in, as it always does. Out of all bungees I have done the surreal view of canyon wall, metres from your face gave the best ground rush and probably made it top the rest. The video and photos (which we didn't buy) were funny as they showed Becky kicking her legs all the way down with pure glee. The following day a lift up in the skyline gondola and 5 rides on the luge were our salute goodbye to Queenstown as we raced each other down the tracks, getting more and more competitive and faster and faster with each go. I pulled off an excellent overtake which I am very pleased with, although probably more pleased that we both came away without skinning ourselves in a crash.

To make things a little different and continue our haphazard route around the South Island we headed down to Milford Sound. Again. Its not a short drive, especially not in a van and may seem a little insane considering we were there a few days before. The reasons are a little insane but all in the spirit of adventure and trying new things and one thing neither of us had tried before was running naked for 1300 metres through a tunnel. The Homer Tunnel Run had been an annual event in Milford Sound village for a decade or so and involved a race through the highway road tunnel in the buff. The fastest man got a naked Ken doll and fastest woman a naked Barbie. We were there as casual competitors and preferred to soak up the bizarre experience rather than go for gold. A good bit of fun... And I've got the T-shirt.

Asides from the legal opportunity for gratuitous nudity, I loved being back in Fiordland, some of the most beautiful wilderness in the world. It was also the first time I got to see Mitre Peak without a big cloak of cloud and we used the run as an excuse for a prime campervan spot right on the shore which is normally heavily policed by DOC. On the drive back I revisited the sites of mirror lake and large glacial plains which I had seen 5 years before, but not with the blue skies we were lucky with today. Unfortunately Becks had been brewing a cold (the tunnel run probably didn't help) and spent most of the time napping as I pulled over and dashed in and out of the van taking photos of the scenery. Unfortunately it was doing this that led me putting my camera case down somewhere, which wouldn't be too bad a loss if it didn't also contain a pancake lens, flash and spare battery. Bummer.

We headed onto Christchurch but had to go via a spectacular Mt Cook sitting grandly at the head of a lake. The mountains and surrounding glaciers got more and more impressive as we drove towards them and we walked up to the blue lakes, now green with algae, and viewpoints to the glacier. The visitor centre was very inspiring and excited us over the prospects of climbing high mountains in the Andes. It was incredible to see the gear that people used to conquer New Zealand's highest peaks in compared to what we have now. Tweed and flax rope does not seem the best idea anymore but used to be all the rage pre GoreTex days.

On our way up through Canterbury I got a message from Jamie a long lost friend from Leeds Uni, who had been doctoring in Australia with his girlfriend and had just arrived into Christchurch. They had rented a van (after deciding against buying olde Lisa) and had set up in an inner city campsite. After changing out plans of hoping to find a old car park or derelict building site to rough it for a few days we rocked up at the campsite in the bay next to them. It was great seeing Jamie again as it had been a couple of years and we had a merry few evenings cooking spag bol or a BBQ and reminiscing on old times and adventures at festivals, Joh O'Groats to Lands End and muddling our way through Africa.

Becks and I had maxed out our NZ budget, had a load of administration stuff to sort out and both had full blown colds so unfortunately we were not able to explore Christchurch with Jamie and Rachel. When we did wander into town after dropping Lisa off at a storage car park for 6 weeks of safe keeping (our friend Keith having vowed to sell her) we were pretty shocked at the site of everything. I had been in Christchurch 5 years before pre-quake where I stayed in a hostel next to the cathedral. A year ago "the red zone" cordoned it off with the majority of the city centre whereas now the barely recognisable shell of the cathedral stood broken as a memorial and stark reminder of the devastation caused. Artwork installations surrounded the square trying to give messages of hope and recovery but 3 years on I couldn't help but feel they were a little over-optimistic. A lot of the centre had been pulled down since i was last here, and it was clear from the restoration work involved in a saving a listed building that we saw that it was cheaper and easier to pull it all down and start again. To add to the blitzed rubble, graffiti was scrawled over any remaining walls giving light to "smashed window theory" that squalor only escalates. To combat this security cameras watched every corner and a makeshift police HQ sat supportively next to the cathedral.

A nice touch to fill the shadows of the demolished buildings was in the space-fillers. Some ingenious ideas had been put in motion to fill these gaps until construction begins at the sites. We visited a few of them, ranging from giant furniture made out of astroturf to a giant chess board to musical instrument area made out of building supplies. Our favourite though, was a washing machine which had been rigged up to a music player and four lights at the corners of a large platform. Above the centre of the platform was a silver disco ball. We approached it curiously and followed the instructions to plug an ipod in and insert a coin into the washing machine. It burst to life and out boomed Paulo Nutini's New Shoes as we danced away in the middle of the platform in the rain with some very puzzled onlookers. Kiwi ingenuity wins again, maybe there is enough optimism to keep the city alive until it is rebuilt. Our jolly mood turned to that of quiet reflection as we headed to the cardboard cathedral. This was a temporary replacement made from sheet plastic, wood and indeed cardboard (supported by iron girders) to take the place of the old one. Opposite it was a very moving and effective memorial made up of 158 (I think) chairs all painted white facing the same way, one for each person killed in the earthquake. The baby seat was particularly poignant.

With our long to do list finally ticked off we spent the last night in New Zealand in the tent. I was awake until the early hours with enough thoughts and memories from 16 months in New Zealand being enough to make me hardly notice Becky's little snores. I had loved my time here, living some of the best moments of my life so far and somewhere I would really miss. It is a goodbye for now, but not forever and with that philosophy the excitement of South America and (some) pastures new I was able to turn the sadness of leaving into happiness for the times ahead and the adventures to come; travelling and back in the UK.

Jamie and Rach gave us a lift to the airport and before we new it we were on our way to Santiago.

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