Monday, 15 February 2010

New Zealand Day 7 to 10 – Auckland

K was speaking at / taking part in a community development and social enterprise conference for the latter part of our time in NZ so I'll spare you the boring details! Only thing to note is really that from what I can see, Auckland's not worth sticking on your itinerary for a trip to these parts – I guess we've been a bit spoiled living in Sydney but having done the 'bus tour' of Auckland's top 14 attractions, I'm not sure I'd go out of my way to spend much time here. We did go to a very nice beach on our last night for dinner with some of the conference folks, which included a pretty trip over the Waitekere Ranges – hilly bushland with lots of lush trees etc – but other than that, not much to report!

All in all though, I'm really glad we made it down to the South Island and got a taste of the wildness of the country, and I'd love to come back some day to spend more time in the other parts of the country we didn't get to see (just not Auckland!)

New Zealand Day 6 – Queenstown

A quick morning walk and then another beautiful day for our journey back to Queenstown and a chilled out afternoon there including a trip up the gondola to take in the panorama (we couldn't be bothered walking up the hill to get there – figured we'd done enough walking!), another scenic drive out to Glenorchy and back, then dinner at a harbourside restaurant and a few beers in one of the backpacker bars where we caught the news of Scotland's 'group of death' draw for the Euro qualifiers – sigh!

New Zealand Day 5 – Lake Manapouri / Kepler Track

Today, as part of my ongoing campaign to persuade K that he really does want to do a multi-day & night walk some day, we did a section of the Kepler Track, another of New Zealand's many walking tracks (or tramping tracks as they're called here). The walk was mostly through forests, skirting along the side of the Manapouri River and ending up at Lake Manapouri and the site of one of the overnight huts on the Kepler. Apparently some scenes in Lord of the Rings were filmed here, although don't ask me which ones – K reckoned maybe the scenes where Sean Bean gets killed in the first film. We didn't see any orcs or trolls or elves though. The weather was a bit cloudy today and cool enough for us to get our fleeces out for the first time – exciting (!)

New Zealand Day 4 – Milford Sound

Well, just when we thought the scenery couldn't get any more amazing, we took a trip up to Milford Sound for the day. It's about 115km from Te Anau and is a bit like driving into a scene from Lord of the Rings, especially early in the morning with wisps of clouds lingering at road level – who knows how many orcs might be hiding in there! Mountains, mountains everywhere as you drive up and then over a winding pass, before heading down into the valley and the head of Milford Sound itself. Apparently it shouldn't really be called a sound, it should be called a fiord, as sounds are carved by running water whereas fiords are carved by ice. Again, we'd left a bit on the early side, so had about an hour or so to kill before our pre-booked 'nature cruise' departed at 10.30am. Postcard purchasing, coffee drinking and then meandering onto the foreshore of the sound/fiord all passed the time (although the latter was cut short by K being surrounded by sandflys with a mean look in their eyes – he didn't seem to appreciate me taking time to set up my arty picture of the mountains reflected in a pool of water with a duck swimming across the middle!)

The cruise up and down the fiord was simply stunning. It took us a couple of hours to travel up the water to where it meets the Tasman Sea, and then back again, lined on both sides by sheer rock faces, waterfalls plunging into the water, seals basking on rocks and the occasional pod of dolphins popping up for a bit of a playaround. We seem to have been incredibly lucky with weather recently as apparently Fiordland in general, and Milford Sound in particular, is one of the wettest places on the planet. It's all to do with the mountains forming a barrier against the Roaring Forties, a weather system that brings water-laden wind along the fortysomething latitudes, a collision which ends up with 7-10m of rain being dumped on the land each year. It rains most days but didn't today!

We had lunch onboard and then once we got back to dry land, we headed off for a bit of a walk up Key Summit, a peak in the middle of the mountains that's fairly low at 900m but sits in the middle of a basin surrounded by peaks of up to 2000m. Once again, words fail to do justice to how gorgeous the views were.

The return journey to Te Anau was, of course, beautiful and then once we'd freshened up, we sampled another Italian restaurant before heading to the only place in town to be on a Saturday night – the Moose Bar. A guest covers band called Rogue were playing (all the way from Invercargill!) and to be honest, they were a bit shit. But we clapped and whooped enthusiastically anyway!

Link to photos in top right above.

New Zealand Day 3 – Lake Te Anau & Milford Track

Today we'd booked seats on the daily ferry from Te Anau to the starting point of the Milford Track, a 3 day / 4 night walk that runs 54km from the head of Lake Te Anau into Milford Sound. It's one of NZ's most popular walks and if I'd had my way, we'd have been doing it! But as K is still hampered by a bad back, the concept of carrying gear and food all that way wasn't popular with him, and as I hate walking in groups, the concept of paying thousands of dollars for the guided tour option where they carry all your gear, wasn't popular with me! So we settled for simply doing a day walk along the first part of the track and back, before getting the ferry back at the end of the day.

The ferry trip takes around an hour and it was a real highlight of our time in NZ. In the morning, the clouds were still sitting around the surrounding mountains like fluffy shawls on their shoulders, the air was crisp and fresh and the lake was incredibly still and calm. On the return trip, the weather had picked up slightly but it was still a beautiful trip.

The walk itself was mostly shaded and meandered along the side of the river that feeds into Lake Te Anau, with only a slight ascent and stunning views up to the mountains on either side of the valley. This whole area was formed during the last ice age with the onset and then retreat of huge glaciers chundering down from the mountains that have been formed over millions of years by volcanic activity. The speed of the glaciers here was apparently faster than most, which is why the sides of the valleys are so steep, and where they retreated, there left behind channels which became huge and fast rivers which flow into the lakes and, on the other side of the mountains, into the sea. This part of the world gets a lot of rain and apparently Lake Te Anau can rise by up to a metre in just 24 hours thanks to all the rain flowing down from the mountains along the riverbeds of glacial debris (you can tell I paid attention to the commentary on the ferry!)

We walked in for about 5.5 miles and then turned back, with a brief stop by the river for lunch. Only later did we realise that sandflys are a major hazard in these parts! Well, when I say 'we'....for some reason K's blood is far more attractive to any form of bloodsucking and biting creature than mine is (haven't tested this theory with vampires mind you) which means that he tends to get savaged by mosquitoes, midges and, now we realise, sandflys, while I barely get nibbled. He ended up with 30 bites – and I got none! Oops...

Anyway, it was a good long walk and although fairly flat, my feet were aching by the end of the 11 miles. We'd been told that the lake was great for swimming in and although we hadn't brought our stuff, we plunged in in our walking gear anyway. A perfect way to end the walk!

After the boat trip back, a quick shower and a quick bite to eat (pizza and salad, yum), we then headed off on the evening's activity – a trip round Te Anau Glowworm Caves. Although the 'guided tour' element of this was a bit tortuous (I just hate being prodded from place to place like a sheep), the glowworms themselves were very impressive. The tour involves wandering through the caves and then finally getting into a little boat and being guided into the pitch black of the caves where you see thousands of glowworms doing their thing – glowing, that is.

Interesting glowworm fact learned – after feeding for several months (the glow attracts insects which then get caught in stringy mucus and eaten), the glowworm then does the butterfly/moth thing and morphs into a fly. But the fly they become has no mouth, so can't feed, so only lives long enough to mate as much as possible (well if you can't eat, you might as well have sex) before dropping dead. Seems like a bit of a design flaw to me, but hey, they're very pretty while they're glowworms!

So, fully informed about glowworms, we headed home with an amazing sky full of stars overhead to keep us company. I even saw a shooting star!

Link to photos in top right corner of blog home page.

New Zealand Day 2 – Auckland to Te Anau via Queenstown

Earlyish start to get to the airport for our short flight down to Queenstown, the self-proclaimed “adventure capital of New Zealand” and more importantly, the gateway to the southern alps and fiords. Auckland's morning rush hour traffic meant that it took us a while to get to the airport but as I always build in contingency time onto contingency time, we were still there nice and early! (K loves this habit of mine – not!)

The flight took about 90 minutes and the latter part of it was spectacular – flying down the west coast of the South Island among the snowy peaks and jags of the mountains below, and then landing in a valley nestled among them. The first thing you see when you step off the plane is a massive range of almost vertical mountains called the Remarkables – gorgeous.

We sorted out our hire car and then headed into Queenstown for some lunch before our drive on to Te Anau, and then we were off. The weather was perfect – barely a cloud in the sky and close to 30 degrees, but without any of the sticky humidity of Sydney (and Auckland too). After about 10 minutes of jaw-dropping scenery, we stopped saying 'wow' every 30 seconds and settled into just simply enjoying the view. It's the tail end of peak season here but the roads were really quiet, and although the occasional campervan or truck slowed us down from time to time, it was pretty quick driving for the couple of hundred kilometers to Te Anau and our home for 4 nights, the Fiordland National Park Lodge, which is about 20 minutes north of Te Anau itself and looks out over Lake Te Anau. The Lodge is the kind of place you find in the Scottish Highlands that bus tours stop off at – fairly big and fairly functional, but with good views etc. This meant that dinner and breakfast were only served on the days and nights that tour groups were visiting, so over the next few days we became pretty familiar with the road in and out of Te Anau, but as it was a beautiful drive, that was ok! (K did feel a bit alcohol-deprived by the end of it though!)

After checking in, we had a look at the Visitor Centre to check the weather forecast, get walking maps etc, and then sorted out our plans for the next few days including booking boats and that sort of thing. We strolled along the lakeside for a bit before a cheap and cheerful dinner, then the drive home, stopping off at various points to take pictures of the shadows and light being thrown up by the sun setting behind the mountains. Bliss.

Pictures via link in top right corner.

New Zealand Day 1 – Auckland

Touching down in Auckland, we got our first distant glimpses of NZ scenery – an appetite whetter!

Weather on arrival was warm and a bit sticky, but still pleasant compared to Sydney's 30+ degrees and excessive humidity at this time of year. We jumped in a shuttle bus to take us into the city, figuring that we might as well save a few cents. Good enough service but took ages as we weaved around the outer suburbs of Auckland, dropping various people off at their destinations. A couple with a baby had decided to use the bus although I'm not sure why, as they spent the whole time complaining about the driver's driving, worrying about whether the baby was safe on their laps (!) and generally whinging. Given that they appeared to live in one of Auckland's wealthiest areas, not sure why they didn't just get a cab!

Anyway, the upside was that we got a good look at Auckland before arriving at our serviced apartment just off Queen St in the city centre. We'd booked last minute and got a 2 bedroom place for about $120, bit of a bargain.

Headed out for a wander as it was about 5pm by now and soon found ourselves ensconced in a great tapas bar called Mezze, where we sampled the local beers (Monteiths Original for me, a very tasty pale ale, and Monteiths Pilsner for K, which he reported as being very good), and had some excellent tapas – prawns in garlic, spanish meatballs, slow roasted tomatoes on grilled bread and spanish omelette, all extremely good.

For some reason (possibly the 3 beers and our 6am start) we were both pretty tired, so we headed back to the apartment where K finished off some work emails – tsk, we're meant to be on holiday! - and then did some ironing – his favourite hobby, I sometimes think! I slothed on the couch and sampled NZ telly, which manages to do what I thought was impossible and be even worse than Australia's!

About 9pm, just as we were about to go out for a walk and a drink, I noticed that water was pouring through the ceiling of our bathroom from what looked like an overflowing bath upstairs – eek! The management sorted it all out very quickly though and soon had us transferred to an even bigger room, this time with two bathrooms.

I can report that Auckland on a Wed night doesn't hold too much in the way of excitement other than teenagers vomiting on the pavement, but we enjoyed a quick drink at My Bar, sampling some more local beers – this time, an Epic pale ale for me and a Tuahara pilsner for K.

And so to bed...