29 May 2012

New Zealand - South Island

New Zealand - Oh so scenic, South Island

Ferry crossings can be a nightmare for those of us who suffer from motion sickness but luckily our trip, from North to South Island was fairly calm after a very windy day in Wellington the day before. We collected our next rental car and set off towards Christchurch, the gateway to South Island and the 2nd biggest city in New Zealand. The drivers seemed to drive faster here than on North Island where we sometimes felt we were hardly moving, being used to the long, straight roads in South Africa. I think the Germans would have difficulty sticking to the speed limits in NZ given their very fast driving on their autobahns! A happy medium would be great - not so slow but not quite so fast either. The route from Picton to Christchurch is mainly farmland with sightings of sheep and cows plus some twisty roads to keep one awake.

Our visit was prior to the huge earthquakes that hit Christchurch in 2011 so we were lucky to enjoy the beauty of the city before this huge disaster struck. The city is being re-built and our favourite spot, Cathedral Square should be opened again later in 2012.

A Punt Ride along the River Avon is a must. Started in 1986 as a tourist attraction, these Edwardian Punt rides are a 30 min leisurely punt along the river and one feels under-dressed in jeans or shorts! Where are those beautiful long dresses that were worn so long ago? Christchurch is known for its beautiful gardens and the river banks are pretty and the punters interesting. Rugby, and all sports, are favourite topics of conversation with any Kiwi and with many links to South Africa on the sports front, James was never at a loss for conversation openers! As a Teddy collector, what better to buy than a NZ Rugby teddy who now holds fort in the lounge whenever rugby is viewed on the TV. As it is on most Saturdays in our winter....!!

We met an interesting chap from Turkey on one of our tours around the city - he was telling us that his very first apartment in Toyko was mere 10sq m. It seems unbelievable but living in Toyko where space is at a premium and expensive, he most probably just had bed and loo space! He admitted that the Japanese are work-a-holics but do like to travel so he was in NZ organising schedules for Japanese tourists.  One hopes that he has become very successful and that his apartment is now much bigger!

The TranzAlpine to Greymouth is a superb ride and an experience not to be missed. Unfortunately we ended up with a coach full of kids on a school outing who were so noisy we could not hear ourselves think! We MOVED!!
The train crosses the Canterbury Plains and follows the Waimakariri River then climbs via a series of viaducts into the Alpine regions. The scenery is spectacular and one just wants the rail journey to go on and on. Arthurs Pass has the cutest little station and this area is great for nature lovers, hikers, snow boarders, mountain climbers etc as the mountains are right there. The children also got off at this point - HURRAY!  The next experience is chugging through the long Otira tunnel (about 14 mins ride - 8.50 km) after which the train starts descending through rain forests and eventually onto the West Coast and Greymouth. 

Greymouth is the largest town on the West Coast and was known for it's coal and gold mining. The River Grey runs into the sea here and it is indeed a wide and grey river! Forestry took over as a major industry once the gold mining declined and fishing also plays a role in the area. Greenstone, a form a jade is also found in this area. The return journey to Christchurch was even more scenic and rather jolly as we had some rather merry Kiwi's plus an Aussie who kept us entertained with their antics after maybe one too many drinks in Greymouth! The local beer from Monteiths Brewery (established since 1868) may have been the cause! There were a number of signal faults on the way back so we were somewhat delayed.

Queenstown - what can one say? Lake Wakatipu is truly beautiful and Queenstown must be one of the prettiest towns around plus it is THE place to be for any sort of action sport. The younger set flock here as do the families on skiing holidays. It's a bustling town, small enough to wander around on foot in the centre. We met an ex South African lady who landed in Queenstown on a skiing holiday over 20 years ago, settled and married and loves the town. She could still pick out our South African accent and it was great chatting to her about her life in NZ. It is always interesting to hear stories from ex South Africans. A teacher friend who applied for a "cleaning" job just to be employed until he could find a teaching post, was told he was not "qualified to clean" What sort of qualifications does one need to clean? Mind-blowing! Luckily, he did eventually obtain a teaching post.
We took the Skyline Gondola which is the steepest cable car lift in the Southern Hemisphere and offers spectacular views over Queenstown and Lake Wakatipu - it's just one of those "must do's" The Bungi jump is fascinating to watch (if you can't pluck up the courage to do it yourself!) and the screams of those hurtling down can be pretty chilling. However, all the jumpers seem to enjoy the thrill - just take your dentures out first as you may well lose them on the long way down!! If you have any, of course.

Arrowtown, built on the banks of the Arrow River saw a gold mining boom in the 1860"s when gold was discovered in 1861. By 1862 the town had 1500 miners camped along the river. Approx. 340 kgs of gold was escorted out of the town in 1863. The boom did not last too long and most minors moved on by 1865. The town has preserved many of the old buildings and it's worth a wander to soak uyp some history. If history is not your passion, there are numerous walking/hiking trails from Arrowtown. If skiing is your pastime, the ski slopes of Coronet Peak (20 mins) or the Remarkables (45 mins) will give you that much needed enjoyment on the slopes. With long opening hours, you can impress friends and family with your skiing expertise or just take time out on the beauty of the mountain. Night skiing is available July to mid September on Fridays and Saturdays.for those who need to catch another run before dinner!

If you spot a car with no ski racks in this part of the world, you will realise that the occupants are crazy South Africans who have no clue how to ski. Who skis in sunny South Africa? Not many people - we sun-tan and spend time on our glorious beaches! I must say, I did feel rather jealous of the ease in which some skiers came flying down the slopes - it looks so effortless! But we did also see many limping persons so it's not all effortless and pain-free!!!

Queenstown Gardens beckoned us on a beautiful, warm afternoon. These gardens are beautiful and the views are spectacular. With tennis courts, bowling green, ice hockey etc, they are a focal point for local activity. The founder of the gardens was born in Haverford West, West Wales, much to James' delight. The Welsh sure do get around!.
 William Gilbert Rees, the first settler and founder of Queenstown arrived with his family in 1860 by whaleboat. A  plaque in the gardens is dedicated to him.

A drive to Kelvin Heights showed us some stunning properties running right down to the lake. With barbeque's and boats visible, this seems a wonderful lifestyle in one of the the most scenic areas of the world.

If you want to view the sights where "Lord of the Rings" was filmed, take a drive to Glenorchy. This area is also spectacular and offers much in outdoor activities for the energetic. Be prepared to find some gems stuck in the middle of nowhere. We found an artist who had recently returned from living both in London and Johannesburg, South Africa. Whilst working as a beautician, it seems art and New Zealand life called her back to the family farm and her lively border collie. We enjoyed lunch at a cafe in Glenorcky which filled up rapidly - perhaps due to the sunny day.

South Island is an endless stream of stunning scenery and outdoor activities - the beauty of one's surroundings are such that one wishes the sun would never set - then our eyes could feast for hours on end on the landscapes. It's something that has to be experienced - it's a photographers dream. Our next trip was to Milford Sound - this meant a 05.30 start - horror of horrors! The road is very windy, breathtakingly beautiful and we did a number of stops (with many other coaches!) If you want a more peaceful experience, try Doubtful Sound. We stopped for breakfast in Te Anau, the 2nd largest lake in New Zealand. The largest lake is Lake Taiupo in North Island with Lake Wakatipu in Queenstown being the 3rd largest.

Milford Sound is extremely beautiful and we went right up to a number of waterfalls and saw seals swimming around in the crystal clear water. Unfortunately, we shared the trip with a large group of Japanese tourists who could not stop jabbering very loudly, the kids were running riot and this spoilt the calm and peace that should have prevailed in this awesome fjord. Even with this irritation, it was well worth the early morning start!

On last leg of our journey we took the Alpine route us to Wanaka across the mountains. Along the West Coast there are many rain forests, the area is lush and green, the beaches are deserted and it seemed like we were the only folk around. We stopped often for walks amongst this verdant greenery, to admire the many ferns and trees before reaching our stop for the night at Fox Glacier. The hotel seemed deserted so we headed to a local cafe which was buzzing and lively and turned 3 tables while we were there. Quite a feat in such a small place. A decadent Mud Pie completed the evening!

Fox Glacier is fed by four Alpine Glaciers, is 300 m deep and it runs for approx. 13 km to the coast. A "walk" up the glacier is a must but be warned. It's not a walk - it's a hike!! For the very fit, yes maybe, a walk. After donning extra socks and boots, we set off uphill. I was drenched in sweat in no time, despite the cold. The leader refused to allow me to bring up the rear so everybody had to walk at my pace. I felt rather embarrassed to be holding the fit 20 yr olds up, but what the heck, the brochure did not elaborate too much on the fitness level required. Once we reached the ice, we had to put on our crampons for the walk down the glacier. Glaciers are always so beautiful with their deep blue crevices ( don't ever attempt this without a guide) There are many rocks on top of this glacier so it looks black and is not as pristine looking as the Athabasca Glacier in Canada. Our guide was very informative, as fit as a fiddle and very accommodating with my speed - or lack thereof!!. All in all, it took us 3.5 hrs - great exercise even with my back muscle in spasm from lifting a heavy suitcase the  previous night.

Lake Matheson is a mirror lake and offers many beautiful reflections of Mt Cook and Mt Tasman, the highest peaks in New Zealand. Formed about 14,000 yrs ago by the retreating Fox Glacier, this lake can be circulated in about 1.5 hrs. The organic material from the surrounding forest gives the water it's dark brown colour. The reflections are world-famous and grace many place mats, posters, photographs and paintings. You do need a windless day though!

Gillispie Beach was reached via a stunningly beautiful rain forest with amazing bird calls, peace and tranquillity. The West Coast of NZ  has so much rain that the foliage is incredible but perhaps living in  this area is not so great when you are in it every day! We just loved the forests, ferns and birds but would not enjoy rain, rain and more rain throughout the year. It's a great journey though and certainly worth a visit. Gold was discovered here in 1865 but it was never the most successful of mining operations and many of the mining machinery relics can be seen in this area. There are also graves of  about 17 persons who died between 1867 and 1896. These early pioneers were a hardy lot and could most probably teach us a thing or two today, living as we now do in comfort with all mod cons! The stories would be amazing - so much history in such an isolated place.

Our last drive was over Arthurs Pass, very twisty and windy and interesting as we had done this on the Trans Alpine Train earlier. We reached Christchurch all in one piece, having survived the Glacier climb and the sparsely populated West Coast. Our friends managed to find a physio for my, now aching incredibly, back and  full marks to the NZ health system. As I had injured myself lifting a suitcase in New Zealand (my own stupid fault!!) I did not have to pay anything for the ultra-sound treatment. I was treated with respect and have only praise for the NZ system. My back improved dramatically and we were able to set off on the last leg of our journey to Sydney, Australia.

South Island is truly beyond words - the adjectives just do not do justice to the spectacular scenery so if beauty talks to you, visit South Island New Zealand. It's a photographers dream, a place of mystical beauty and a truly spiritual journey. The adrenaline junkies are well catered for so this island offers it all.

Young or old - there is something for everyone.

Book your tickets now!!!

© Judelle Drake

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