Wednesday, 11 March 2009

Arthur's Pass and back to Christchurch

Today was our last full day in NZ. We crossed back across the Southern Alps from Greymouth via Arthur's Pass and onwards to Christchurch. The tops of the mountains had received fresh snow since we last crossed by train some weeks ago. The run back into Christchurch was uneventful and the car duly returned to Avis as tomorrow is our last day here. In all, we did 6211kms of driving and it was a great trip. Tomorrow we fly to Brisbane for a few days to visit Chris's father-in-law Larry.

We leave NZ with great memories of a truly beautiful and unspoilt country from the top of North Island to the far south of South Island. We will for ever remember the warm and friendly welcome we received everywhere.

Pancakes and breakers

After visiting the glacier area, we moved on further up the west coast, initially to Hokitika, which is famous for its jade factories and shops, and the on north
to a small B&B called "The Breakers" in an idyllic setting some miles north of Greymouth overlooking the sea and an isolated beach. From our bed we could look out onto the Tasman Sea and see waves crashing onto the shore in the moonlight. Places visited included the Pancake Rocks and blow holes at Punakaiki (impressive in high winds and with an incoming tide) and a short but delightful walk in the rain forest down to the beach called the Truman Track. The blow holes are a result of wave action on soft eroded rocks which have formed into an unusual layered "pancake" structure. The waves at times reached 10m above the cliff tops through the blow holes when we were there. We then went on to Cape Foulwind, so named by Captain Cook, where there was a large fur seal colony. This part of the west coast appears to have a fair share of wekas or woodhens. These birds look like a cross between a kiwi - some people think they have seen a kiwi when they see these birds - and a partridge. They can be quite tame and approachable.

Sunday, 8 March 2009

The Glaciers

Yesterday and today we visited the Fox Glacier and Franz Josef Glacier. Both are impressive, although both glaciers have receded considerably in the last 200 years. These are relatively unique in that the glacier comes right down to the rain forest and stops only a few kms in from the coastline. We were also able to see Franz Josef Glacier from Lake Matheson, the "reflections lake", which is a few miles from the Franz Josef township. There is a lovely 1.5hrs walk which we took around the lake through truly beautiful forest and bush. This was just after a downpour so everything was wet, lush and "alive". We also managed a helicopter flight up over the Frans Joseph glacier. Unfortunately we were unable to land as the wind was too strong and clouds had set in on the top of the mountain. The pilot decided it was unsafe; nevertheless it was an awesome experience!

Queenstown to Haast

The drive from Queenstown to Haast covered an amazing range of scenery including lakes, mountains, waterfalls and temperate rain forests. What never fails to amaze us is how delightful ALL the countryside is even between the places one expects to be good. Lakes Wanaka and Howea looked a remarkable turquoise blue from the salts washed down from the mountains above.

We arrived at Haast in the early afternoon in pouring rain and checked into our hotel. Haast is very remote: the nearest petrol station after Haast is 120kms north or 90kms southeast. There is zero mobile phone coverage, just one radio station and the fire brigade takes 2 hours to reach the place. Nearest shopping for essentials is at Wanaka some 1.5 hrs away. We drove to an even more isolated place, Jackson Bay, some 49kms along the coast to the south. From here the nearest settlement around the coast is about 300kms away near Invercargill. The road to Jackson Bay feels very remote indeed, with temperate rain forest and mangrove swamps along the road side and very few cars. At Jackson Bay we were surprised to find a little hut called The Cray Pot which served tea, coffee and fish meals. This must cater for the local fishermen and the occasional curious tourist that turns up. The coffee was very welcome.

This area is good for birds, although we did not spot any new species not already seen. From our hotel room we had good views of spur winged plovers, which are plentiful in NZ.

Thursday, 5 March 2009

Queenstown and Arrowtown

We travelled from Te Anau to Queenstown through ever beautiful landscapes in brilliant sunshine yet again - we have been so lucky this week. Queenstown is a larger centre, but is a very attractive, vibrant and cheerful place, along the side of beautiful Lake Wakatipu. A range of mountains called The Remarkables are a stunning backdrop to the lake. Our hotel room window (at The Heritage) overlooks both the lake and these mountains.

Our first day in Queenstown has been a restful one with a trip out to the old gold mining settlement at Arrowtown and a trip on the TSS Earnslaw, a steamer dating from 1912 which plies across the lake to Walter Peak, a high country farm. There we saw sheep shearing and had delicious tea and cakes, overlooking the lake in the sunshine. The steamer preserves its early 20th century charm and there was even a pianist on deck so people could sing along as they might have done 100 years ago.

Arrowtown is delightful place, set in a quiet valley with a feel not unlike that of an attractive New England village - lots of greenery, clapper board houses and the like. It was once the centre of the gold rush with many Chinese workers brought in to help. When the peak of the gold rush moved elsewhere, it became a sleepy place with a large Chinese population. Today the shops and small cafes there cater for the tourist but it is unspoilt and has a distinct character that photos do not convey too well. The remains of the separate Chinese settlement are still there and some of the homes of the early Chinese miners have been restored. The photo shows three of these set into the hillside.

Outside the hotel in Queenstown I noticed another nice bug - a 45mm long longhorn beetle called a huhu.

Tuesday, 3 March 2009

Doubtful Sound

If you are reading this Sue and Ian, you are right: Fiordland in NZ is unbelievably spectacular. Today we completed a 24 hour overnight cruise on Doubtful Sound, a remote fiord extending out into the Tasman Sea. To get there involved a 20 minute bus ride, a 1 hour trip by boat across Lake Manapouri, then another 30 minute drive along unmetalled roads and high passes to the remote head of the Sound where we boarded our small cruise boat. The trip down the Sound right out into the Tasman Sea was stunning. The weather was perfect: bright clear blue skies on the first day and atmospheric skies on day two.All the views along the way were just unbelievable. At the entrance to the fiord we spotted 3 rare Fiordland crested penguins (the first seen there in 3 months) and several Buller's mollymawk (small albatrosses).

The highlights were (a) seeing the Southern Cross and Milky Way in a totally clear and unpolluted sky, (b) hearing a kiwi call in the forest in the night, (c) being in a fiord with all the boat's engines off in total silence and hearing nothing but the sound of birds, waterfalls and insects. Until you experience this, you don't realise all the sounds which pollute - distant cars, aircraft, etc.

Milford Sound

We have been staying at a hotel on the water front in Te Anau, a delightful little town which is quite chic in appearance. We met up with Marie Yeardley, a cousin of Lis who happened to be in Te Anau on holiday at the same time as us. She comes from near Darwin in Australia and is touring South Island with a friend.

Milford Sound was a stunning 2 hour drive away, through highly majestic and varied scenery. Milford, at the head of the sound, is a tiny place with little there apart from a cafe and sand flies. However, the view down Milford Sound toward Mitre Peak and beyond exceeds expectations.

This is a view of the delightful lake at Te Anau.