Sunday, September 14, 2008

New Zealand (South Island)

Another soggy greeting awaited us in Picton as we docked in the South Island Ferry terminal. We stayed the night in at a nice hostel in the town so we wouldn't have to drive any distance in the dark..

We'd booked a whale watching tour in Kaikora a couple of days later but the weather wasn't playing ball at all so we ended up driving to Christchurch earlier than expected. It was a particularly dicey drive. The so-called main roads in New Zealand are little more than sealed single carriage ways. When the rain hasn't stopped for several days the hills at the side or below the road often give way and either cover the road with debris or leave gaping holes where the road once was! Several times we were forced onto the opposite lane to clear such obstacles. Flooding also made the drive interesting, thankfully we were in a rally bred Mitsubishi Lancer Station Wagon and it coped superbly with all nature had to throw at us! The road was closed the day after we got through so another stroke of luck meant we weren't stranded in Kaikoura for days!

We only stopped a night in Christchurch before following the better weather reports further south and west to Queenstown via Lake Tekapo. The weather still didn't play along with our plans, Lake Tekapo was covered by a low level cloud that totally obstructed our view of the famous Mount Cook and neighbouring mountains. The drive to Queenstown wasn't quite as tough as the previous day but it was a long one (about 6hrs). There were a few hair raising moments as we crossed the Lindis Pass thanks to ice and grit on the road. As we got closer to Queenstown the weather started to clear and it continued to be fine for the few days we stayed there.

Queenstown is NZ's capital of adrenaline junkie sports, there are untold options to nearly kill yourself and part with bucket loads of hard-earned travel cash. We took the fairly restrained approach and went skiing for two days. Anna hasn't skied much at all so she took lessons the first day, while I took myself around the Cardrona ski area. The runs were really good and not too overcrowded. After two days we were seriously tired and stiff thanks to no preparation and two hour round trips to the mountain.

As the good weather was continuing we decided to head to Te Anau, the gateway to Fiordland National Park. We took our time the next day driving the 2 hours up to Milford Sound to catch the last boat trip of the day to avoid the bus tours from Queenstown.

We spent a night in Wanaka after Te Anau, but there wasn't a lot going on there so we continued the next day to Franz Josef. On the road there the weather turned again for the worse and it didn't stop raining for the next 3 days, which was all the time we could realistically spend waiting to climb the glacier... So with a single sad glimpse of it through thick cloud we continued up the West coast to Greymouth. We stayed at a lovely big old hostel called Noah's Ark which was warm, welcoming and deserted, so we chilled out with the hostel's golden retriever puppy with full control of the TV (a real coup when staying in hostels!).

To get to our next stop, Hamner Springs, we had to cross the snowy Lewis Pass. After stopping for a quick snowball fight we warmed ourselves up in the thermal hot pools that Hamner is famous for. We spent the evening in the cosy hostel playing board games with a group of kiwi and aussie girls.

As the weather forecast was looking good in Kaikoura we made a beeline back there to re-schedule our cancelled trip. When we awoke the morning of the trip it was a glorious sunny day, not a cloud in the sky. We checked in for the trip. Then came the announcement 'The Boat Captain has cancelled the 10:00 and 10:30 trips due to wind and large swells...'. It looked like we wouldn't get to see whales after all. Gutted. As we were collecting our refund the lady suggested we try 'Wings over Whales', which was only $15 more than the boat trip. So we headed to the i-Site, booked ourselves on the 11:00 flight and sped to the airport for take-off.

The 8-seat prop-plane, took off and began its search pattern almost immediately. Looking down on the vast expanse of ocean below us covered in white crested waves I wasn't convinced we'd see any whales. After nearly 10 mins of the 30 min flight we still hadn't and I wasn't hopeful until the pilot pointed into the distance where two helicopters were circling. Our plane joined the dogfight over a black streak in the water. Finally, a sperm whale! I wonder what they must make to the flying circus above them every time they surface? We stuck around long enough for him to dive back into the depths. Then almost immediately the three fliers joined again in a spiral over a second whale. This time we didn't wait for the dive, there was a third just a bit further away. The helicopters stuck with the second so we had plenty of time over this one on our own. We had to wait a while until he eventually dived to feed again. It was a great experience to finally get to see these amazing creatures.

Satisfied, we drove down the coast to Christchurch for the remainder of our time in NZ. We had a nice day out to Akaroa the French colony and spent an afternoon at the Arctic experience with the Little Blue Penguins, a mock arctic storm room which was chilly to say the least.

5000+ kilometers and a month since we picked it up we gave the car back to the lovely people at Backpacker Campers. Even though the weather has been rubbish and we've not been able to do all we wanted to, it's safe to say New Zealand is an amazing place and we look forward to returning. Next time will be in the Summer!!

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