On our way up the West Coast, we briefly popped in to see Pancake Rocks. The rocks are near Punakaiki, a town that reminds tourists that “there’s more to see and do here than [see the rocks]” and pleads with them, somewhat desperately, to “stay a while”. We ignored their begging and stayed about an hour to just see the main sight. Apparently, scientists do not know how the mysterious stone layers of Pancake Rocks were formed, but that’s not really the reason people come here, fascinating as they are. Tourists flock here to see the blowholes. At their best, the blowholes fling sea water 20m into the air. We tried to capture some in photos and video and got a little wet in the process – we hope you appreciate the sacrifices we make to bring you these clips…
My birthday started with breakfast in bed and some pressies, including a parcel from the UK which had a very convoluted journey to the camper van and which involved numerous secret phone calls to DHL, my recruiter (Annie), Annie’s cousin, Annie’s cousin’s secretary, Alex, and of course Julie who it was from. Needless to say, I felt very very spoilt 🙂 I felt even more spoilt when I returned to the van to find it filled with balloons and a cake with candles. I think Alex nearly passed out trying to blow the 10 balloons up in the five minutes I’d been gone! All of that meant that I wasn’t too disappointed when our heli-hike planned for later that day was cancelled because of the rubbish weather. Instead we decided to move on further up the coast to Hokitika. We went on a short walk to a gorge there and for a treat we spent the night at a campsite with a spa and, after a run across the car park (the showers weren’t hot in the spa block) had our first hot shower in several days due to Queenie Simon not having one (we’re not admitting to how long it had been!).
From Queenstown we headed north to Fox & Franz Joseph Glacier, stopping only a few times to admire the views, pick up a hitch-hiker and to fill up with fuel & water. We spent our first night at Lake Matheson. It was here we discovered that our little camper ‘Queenie Simon’ leaks on one side when it rains heavily. Fortunately, a plastic bag and repositioning seemed to keep us and the inside pretty dry. Our poor Canadian neighbours in their ‘jucy van’ with its rear boot access cooker, were not so fortunate. Feeling pleased (and a little bit smug) we invited them to eat with us in our now rain-proofed van. Either the thought of eating what we cooked horrified them, or they didn’t trust our rain-proofing efforts as instead they opted for re-plumbing their cooker to work from inside their cramped little van. We stuck our heads out a few times to check they hadn’t gassed themselves and when they joined us later for drinks they seemed fairly coherent (at least initially) so I guess they avoided gas poisoning.
The views on the walk round the lake the next morning where as stunning as ever and we managed to also fit in a walk to Fox Glacier and plan for the next day- my birthday when we hoped to do a heli-hike to Franz Joseph Glacier.
There are so many things to do here to get your heart pumping that it was hard for us to decide what we should do. We ruled out things either of us had done before (paragliding, parachute jumping), things that involved jumping off or out of things at great height for my benefit (bungee jumping), things that meant being cold (for Lizzy’s benefit) for a long time (river surfing) and were left with 2 options – hang-gliding or canyoning. In the end we opted for canyoning as the cheaper option and booked onto a morning of that. What, you may ask, is canyoning? Well it’s scrambling up and down canyons in wet suits, jumping across and into water of varying depth. We both really enjoyed it, but actually found it rather tame and not that action-packed (by nature of there being a group of 10 of us and only 1 person could do each thing at once). For once Lizzy was the chicken as she refused to do the highest jump (8m down into not much water- which she claims she avoided because the previous jump she’d pretty much landed on her face & didn’t want to be face slapped again) which I did several times. (Normally I’m the chicken when it comes to heights – I had to climb down from the top of a 60m-high building last because I couldn’t jump off it with a rope attached to my back, even though 12 others had done so quite safely). Unfortunately no photo evidence of this activity though – you’re not allowed to take your own camera and they charge rather a lot for the photos they take. A good morning of entertainment and something we’d like to do again, but perhaps in a smaller group.
Queenstown is in a lovely setting on the shores of a massive lake – I imagine it is beautiful year-round. Whilst we were here, I had to secretly collect a package and hide it from Lizzy… but all will be revealed about that in a later entry.
We spent day 3 driving towards Milford Sound, enjoying the stunning scenery changing as we headed into Fiordland. We stopped en-route at a couple of places for lunch and for some short walks and eventually arrived at Milford Sound in the evening. Unfortunately, there’s no-where to camp in Milford Sound is itself (which the Lonely Planet unhelpfully fails to mention) so when we arrived in the cafe car-park/Ferry Terminal area, we spent a while debating whether we should ignore the ‘no overnight camping’ signs or drive 70km back to the nearest campsite with spaces… we chose to risk the $400 fine on advice from a helpful bar tender who told us that in the 18 months he’d worked there, the wardens had only moved people out once and without a fine. It turned out to be the right decision as we were able to get the first boat out the next morning which was not only cheaper but also very quiet.
The views were spectacular as you can hopefully see. We were also incredibly fortunate as the weather was unusually dry and sunny. The fjord has an annual rainfall of over 7m and there are over 200 days of rain here per year. As well as that we also saw three different schools of bottlenose Dolphins! If it hadn’t been so cold, I’d have been very tempted to jump in and swim with them- they’re amazing :). We also saw some seals but having been brought up predominantly in Norfolk near Blakeny, they didn’t wow me as much- though they are pretty cool.
After a slight mix up with the campervan (we’d mistakenly put to pick up from Christchurch city not airport- oops!) we set off towards Timaru where we were planning to spend the night. Not a particularly picturesque place but it was en-route to Mt Cook where we were heading toward the following day. After waking up with cold faces the next day, we headed out. En-route we stopped at Lake Tekapo and Lake Pukaki- both incredibly beautiful even in the gusty wind. We’d planned to spend a couple of nights at Mt Cook and do some treks but unfortunately the weather was terrible and forecast to remain bad for another few days. Instead we settled for a short walk up to Lake Tasman where we saw our first ever Icebergs, and decided to move on and get a bit ahead of our planned schedule so we continued southwards. We stopped overnight at a Lake Dunstan, which reminded us both of the reservoir near Snake Pass en-route to Manchester. It was stunning waking up in the morning and having breakfast overlooking it with not a soul in sight.
Since Auckland will be our home for the next year or so, we were keen for it to make a good first impression on us. Unfortunately we arrived in the grey & drizzle after having got up at 3.45am for our flight from beautiful Sydney… probably not the best way to enter our new country! Fortunately there was a familiar face to see on that first evening in the shape of Lizzy’s ex-colleague Nick who made us feel very at home and even took the brave move of introducing us smelly backpackers to some of his friends. They seemed to not notice our odour and were really friendly & positive about NZ. We went back to our hostel in better spirits that night.
Over the next few days we took care of practicalities to do with banking, tax, jobs, phones, housing and many other boring things (and exciting things like signing up for a Subway loyalty card!). I was amused as we did some shopping in the supermarket – the brands of fabric conditioners were Fluffy, Cuddly and Snuggly (or similar)… I figured I could come to like a country where things had such cute names! Whilst exploring areas to live (in North Shore City – a part of Auckland, cunning on the shore to the north of the city) we did manage to scout out the beaches at Takapuna, Castor Bay and Milford, which were nice (if a little windy on the days we saw them), but will have to be explored more thoroughly in the months to come. We have settled on a furnished place in between Milford & Castor Bay which has access to a pool & hot tub as well as all the usual stuff. It’s in a very quiet area (not a great thing when wanting to meet people) and a bit of a slog back from the beach (30 mins uphill), but it’s fine for the time being.
On the Sunday we popped to a local church where some people from our church back in Nottingham are involved. We not only caught up with them briefly, but met another couple of people from Nottingham – one of whom had actually lived in the same house in Mapperley – in fact the same bedroom – as Lizzy had done, just a year or so later!
With our feelings about Auckland gradually improving, we headed off to the airport to catch our flight to Christchurch where we’d start our 17-day exploration of the south island.
We had a fantastic time in Sydney, catching up with friends (Karen, Jill, Lou & Jake) all of whom took it in turns to be our tour guides & hosts. Jill took us for breakfast and then on a walk from Darling Harbour, round to Sydney Harbour Bridge, the Rocks (where we stopped in a museum with the best air-con we found all day), Circular Quay and then the Opera house which are all really impressive. We decided en-route that Sydney is our favourite city so far. Karen & Matt took us on a walk round the North Heads and also a costal walk from Coogee to Bondi and cooked us our first Aussie Barbie which was lovely. We also went up to see the view of the city from Karen’s office on the 37th floor which has got to be better than we’d have seen from the Skytower as the buildings closer to the harbour. And poor Lou and Jake had to put up with us for the five nights, cook for us, chauffer us around and take us out for dinner ;). We also made it down to Manly where we spent an afternoon on the beach. It turns out though that spending time with friends and enjoying Sydney made leaving for Auckland harder than we imagined…but that’s another post.