The Land Where The Ground Moves

(158 Days In)

 

Ok, so at the end of the last post we had just left Australia, having spent about 13 hours in and around airports and their various oddities. When we first landed in the barbeque capital of the world, we had been surprised at how similar it was to home in every way except the temperature (and accents, spiders, metric system etc… yes, OK, it’s not just like home). But then we landed in New Zealand – Christchurch to be precise – and immediately realised that, in the country furthest from our one of birth, we couldn’t get closer.

Low Lying City
From the airport we excitedly jumped into a cab and made our way to our first stop, All Stars Inn on Bealey Avenue. It was a hostel sadly, but we had a private room which allowed us to just chuck our stuff all over the place and get some much-needed sleep. We had landed at about 1 in the morning, a perfectly reasonable time for a decent night’s sleep. The next morning was blissful, as having left the tropics we didn’t need air conditioning, the sun wasn’t tearing at my pasty flesh and we were in no rush to get out of bed. With a large window open we could feel a crisp breeze that was almost too cold after Australia, but not quite.

One of the first things I realised from our view was that Christchurch must be very short, as we were just one floor up but none of the surrounding buildings climbed any further. Of course, we could have just been in the residential area of the city and I fully expected to get a bus into town and find those typical cityscape skyscrapers. What I had failed to understand was that New Zealand gets a lot of earthquakes, and Christchurch had had quite a big one in 2011 (registering 6.3 on the Richter scale) that they are still rebuilding from. So when we made it into the heart of the city, it was bereft of the huge sprawling metropolis I was used to. A few buildings maybe reaching 6th/7th floor but that was it, leaving a beautiful open sky above us. We had a brief walk around the town, a spot of lunch in the first pub we could find and had a quick peek at the Cathedral which had suffered in the earthquake, losing its tower and a large section of the west wall.

From there it was time to pick up yet another trusty steed. This one would see us through both the South and North islands of New Zealand and, no doubt, would be better than the one we had just left in Cairns. The gentleman at the check-in desk seemed greatly interested in our route and previous travels, giving us some excellent advice and trying hard to convince us that NZ would be better than Australia (we’ll reserve judgement for now). Then we were introduced to a Nissan Tiida, silver and saloon in shape. With a proper automatic gearbox, air-con and power steering, it was a lot better than what I was expecting. Megan had been managing expectations and reminding me that the rental was A LOT cheaper than the previous one and the description on the site had been ‘Old Super Economy Car’ but either way, it could have been missing a wheel and I would have still chosen it over BB (final time I’ll bring that up).

Now with four wheels below us we decided to have a quick nip out to a small French fishing town called Akaroa. And it was every bit as picturesque as we expected, a stunning bay surrounded on all sides (M: except the one that led out to sea) by rolling hills and beset with rowing clubs, bungalows, coffee shops and even an old lighthouse that has been standing for 137 years (although moved in 1980 for its own preservation). A few photos and a coffee saw us then making our way back to Christchurch and turning in for the night.

The next day we made our way to another small town (this place is full of them) called Fairlie, where we found a quaint little restaurant called Red Stag and I tried veal for the first time (turns out it’s just like beef. And went well with a red berry jus).  Our accommodation for the night was an old hotel with a (likely original) faded fifties décor throughout, sash windows, floral bedspreads and all.

On our way to our next stop, we detoured to take in the sights of Lake Tekapo, Lake Pukaki and Mt. Cook, the latter a training ground for Sir Edmund Hillary before his famed Everest conquest. What this did was cement our previous expectation that New Zealand is a beautiful country, full of rolling hills, pristine lakes, blooming lupine and sheep – so many sheep. I love a good mountain and even though we are well into summer here, Mt. Cook still had snow covering its peak making it all the more stunning.

I believe I’ve mentioned the caffeine addiction previously and we ain’t no quitters, so a quick coffee stop was made once we found the end of the road.

Further Than We’ve Ever Been
Just like Fairlie, the next town on our list was tiny and used mostly as a rest stop for people travelling through (M: reminiscent of a lot of the towns we stayed in in the US which comprised a gas station, a diner and a motel). It was called Twizel and we stayed in a place that still had a VHS tape player AND a copy of Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. We were now in the home of these movies, so we chucked it in, rewound to the beginning (oh the nostalgia) and watched a far from HD version of orcs being slain. This was all whilst we got through some budgeting and booked a few more venues (and I, of course, mean the royal ‘we’…).

After a fun night in Twizel that included being bombarded by moths and Megan getting up in the middle of the night to turn off a persistently annoying sprinkler, it was finally time to venture to the furthest city from home: Dunedin (pronounced done-eden). Although it is the furthest city from London, you could have taken me there blindfolded and told me it was just a small town in the south of England and I would have believed you (after questioning you about the 23 hour blindfolded flight). As you might have guessed from the Scottish sounding name it is twinned with Edinburgh and has a stone atop Signal Hill that came from the very same castle still resting in the Scottish city. We had some gorgeous scenery to take in from the top of that hill, with views covering the whole of the city, its bay and the surrounding countryside. We took the ‘furthest point from home’ a bit further as we ventured out onto the Otago Peninsula that juts out into the Pacific and has at its end an Albatross sanctuary (M: the only mainland nesting colony in the world). Although as the crow flies it’s only 10kms, the winding road kept us taking it steady so by the time we arrived, an early lunch was in order. We decided against paying for the NZ$55 tour as we overheard the staff say that at this time of the year the albatrosses are just nesting and very rarely take flight. I’m no bird expert so I think without a smaller bird to compare one of these goliaths to, it would just look like a large seagull and for $55, I’ll take my chances just seeing a large seagull somewhere else.

After a spot of breakfast we took a detour back to the main city and headed to Sandfly Bay – a hotspot for spotting the yellow-eyed penguin. For anyone who isn’t aware there is an insect of the mosquito family named ‘sandfly’ and we both assumed that the beach would be so named for an abundance of these things. What we found out, however, was that its namesake was a lot more literal, and once we had made it down the steep sand dune to sea level we had our legs and faces sandblasted. We continued our streak of bad luck with the native wildlife and didn’t manage to find any penguins, although we did see a male fur seal enjoying the afternoon sun. Feeling like a piece of metal ready for a fresh layer of paint, we made our way slowly back up the soft sand dune. What was childishly entertaining on the way down was a lot trickier on the way back up and we kept reassuring the passing strangers that a) no we’re not dying just yet and b) it’s a hell of a lot less fun on the return journey.

Eventually of course we made it back up the ridge and after a brief breather and litre of water each, we made our way onto the next stop – The Catlins.

The Catlins is a large, sparsely populated area covering the south east of the South island with a few points of interest. The first was the Cathedral Cave, one of the largest sea-caves in the world with a ceiling reaching 98ft high! It’s not incredibly deep but enough that you need a torch to see the back of it, it then links up with another entrance and back onto the beach. It’s only accessible during low-tide and you have to trek through a kilometre of native Mauri rainforest to get there. This was a kilometre downhill I should mention, but the walk back was a lot easier than the previous day’s sandy hike.

The next was Curio Bay, a petrified forest further south than the caves. I was a tad underwhelmed by this attraction, I don’t mind telling you. Had I researched it at all I would have known exactly what to expect but the name sprung images to mind of a large woodland area turned to stone by a mythic gorgon or in some way preserved, but still standing. What it was in fact was a large area of beach land that is littered by the remains of ancient fallen trees, petrified by volcanic activity and replaced by silica to create fossils across the ground. That is still pretty cool, but I managed to ruin that experience for myself before it even happened (M: shocker).

Our final stop was Slope Point, the southernmost spit of mainland before Antarctica. It was (supposedly) a half hour drive from Curio Bay, made all the harder by unfinished gravel roads and building machinery all over the place. A dozen or so kilometres down the track we eventually made it to a ‘Road Closed’ sign that had us turn back without getting anywhere near enough to our destination. Disappointing.

The Alpine Experience
Onwards from The Catlins we headed over to the western edge of the island. With a brief stop in Invercargill for lunch we then arrived at our stopping point for the night: Te Anau. A pretty little alpine village set next to Lake Te Anau and shadowed by hills and mountains (like most of New Zealand). We managed to conjure the spirit of home and brought a lot of rain with us. The view wasn’t completely spoilt but at points it was hard to see the other side of the lake, or the road for that matter.

We had one full day in Te Anau and we were determined to make the most of it. First up: glowworm caves. We were up early and made the short walk to a jetty on the lakeside which had a large catamaran moored. I’m surprised at how many of these we have been on now on this trip as they were common in Fiji and the usual mode of transport for commercial boats in Australia (if you don’t count the huge cruise liners). We had a nice 45-minute cruise around some islands crafted into domes by passing glaciers and onto another jetty, all the while marvelling at the surrounding protected land. Once there we were escorted into a hut and given a short safety briefing about the caves we were about to go into (with an entrance so low even Meg had to crouch).

Once in the cave we were guided by a metal gangway and a torch-wielding tour guide. We were shown a couple of the geographical features the cave had to offer; a hole leading straight up to the rainforest floor, a waterfall carved into the limestone by the constant rush of water and the only stalactite in the whole cave which measured a whopping 2-inches, due to the cave’s relative youth. Once we had reached the back of the cave we were instructed to be silent (a suggestion that one couple took no heed of, much to Meg’s annoyance) (M: I shushed them and everything, to no avail – should have thrown them overboard, who would have known?) and were guided onto a small raft. Our guide then turned off the lights, leaving us in complete darkness – very disconcerting when the boat is rocking from side to side.  He navigated the craft by pulling on a chain rail, edging us closer to the main cluster of these shining bugs. We had seen a couple up in the dark corners of the cave but nothing like this. In the encompassing darkness we grew more disorientated, gently rocking and floating toward what look like star clusters trillions of miles away. We got up close and personal with some of these creatures, being mere inches from our heads, and yet they still looked as distant as other galaxies look in our night sky. Ten minutes of dizzying amazement and we were slowly pulled back to the gangway and left to ourselves to leave the cave, again practically crawling under the low ceiling. Once back in the welcome hut we were given a short presentation on the creatures, their habitat and their miniscule lives – with a free cup of tea – then herded back onto the boat for a short jaunt back to shore.

Our next activity for the day was in the form a tour cruise through the nearby fiord named Milford Sound. Now, when I say ‘nearby’ I of course mean a two hour drive away from our hostel, through gorgeous but uninhabited rainforest. We had been advised that there is only one petrol station in the entire park and that it was at the opposite end, so we topped up the car, filled our flasks with tea and headed in. Just like the previous day we had managed to summon the rain gods and as we made it further and further, so the rain got heavier and heavier. I have to admit that this did add to the experience as we were flanked on each side by either sheer cliff face or steep, thick woodland and because of the torrential downpour there was a waterfall almost every 10 metres. I can imagine that in winter, when the area is caked in snow, it would feel much like driving through the Alps including the mile long, single lane tunnel that we had to wait at some lights for. Two hours of winding, climbing, crawling roads (some of which were a lot more fun than others), we reached the end of the line, a small harbour where a number of different tour companies operated from.

(M: At this stage the rain was coming down in sheets, to the extent that I asked the sales rep manning the desk whether we could actually expect to see anything.  “Oh yes,” he lied, “this is actually the best weather to see the Sound in.  It is, after all, a rainforest”.)

Megan had booked with a company called Mitre Peak that promised the most intimate experience of the landscape as they used a smaller boat. And although almost every company there promised the same thing, a quick glance across the vessels moored along the water front proved she made the right choice. Once fully boarded our ship had maybe fifty people on it, whilst all the others would have held over a hundred, but to my dismay, no catamaran this time. The weather had started throwing a lot more at us by the time the ship set off, the mist had descended, and the wind had reached herculean proportions. We were assured that we would still get to see all the sights on the itinerary as the boat would get close enough to pierce the fog. This did not fill me with confidence as that special little boat was also being thrown and battered by the wind, meaning a closer look at the rocks seemed like the opposite of a good idea. The captain was delighted to inform us that it was the first proper storm that Milford Sound had seen in about a decade (M: and that they’d had a month straight of sunshine up until the preceding Monday) and that if we had been on the cruise a single day before there wouldn’t be nearly as many waterfalls for us to see. Yay for us. He also managed to give us a brief warning before he took the bow of the ship directly under one of these gargantuan columns of water (on purpose), allowing any who wished to to stay outside but all others to go inside and shut the doors. No one stayed outside – we were all sodden through from just the rain at this stage and didn’t need the added soaking.

Now, the original route for this cruise had about eleven points of interest for us to see, two of which were actually out on the open ocean which would be the turnaround point for our craft. As we were nearing this section of the tour however, the wind had continued to increase in strength. So much so that some of the smaller waterfalls weren’t waterfalls at all; the water gushed over the edge and, picked up by the wind, just misted into the sky. This resulted in the captain deciding not to take us out into the sea – being in a smaller and more intimate ship does have its drawbacks. But he did give us a demonstration of the storm’s capabilities by taking us head on into a 4-metre (12-foot) wave, with the drop it caused reminding me of certain theme park rides.

Once we were on the way back the weather started to dissipate and we were treated to a friendly pod of Dusky Dolphins escorting us some of the way. Whether it was because of all of the complaints about the weather or not I’m not sure, but the captain told us that it was extremely rare to see them within the Milford Sound fiord, made even more special by how many there were and the acrobatics that some decided to display. After a brief encounter with some seals jostling for prime location upon a large rock we were then safely deposited back on the shore. I am prone to some travel sickness but had become used to boating around over the last couple of jaunts – however, after being on a small boat in the strong wind and high waters for a couple of hours, I was glad for firm ground. Following a further two-hour drive back to our hostel (during which the weather cleared up dramatically and we could see a lot more than we could on the drive in) our time at Te Anau was almost done. Just time for a pint and a burger before bed – perfect.

The Adventure Capital of the World
Our next stop was Queenstown, a town nestled beside Lake Wakatipu and backed by the Southern Alps. As the title of this section would suggest, it boasts itself on being the adventure capital of the world, with a huge array of activities to participate in for any aspiring adventurer. It is also the birthplace of commercial bungee jumping and it was this activity that piqued my interest. The town itself is a hotbed of tourist activity with innumerable restaurants, shops and cafes around every corner as well as a gondola that takes you up the mountain side to a bar and luge track.

The previous day I had booked to do the Nevis Bungy Jump with AJ Hackett Bungy – the original bungee jumping company founded by one of the fathers of the activity. This is a 134-metre drop, the biggest in New Zealand, with 8.5 seconds of freefall. I’ve wanted to give bungy jumping a go for a long time and thought I might as well find the biggest I could to start off with. So, the morning we awoke in Queenstown, I put on my brave face and checked in to the centre for my jump. There were quite a few of us doing it, most either with a partner or, like myself, with a smarter partner who came along just to watch (M: NZ$275 to chuck myself out of a cable car attached to a bit of elastic?  No thanks.). We had to bundle onto a small bus that would get us to the location, as it was through private land we weren’t allowed to drive ourselves there.

I have to admit that I was feeling incredibly anxious that morning, which I don’t think is unexpected, but I had mostly calmed down by the time we reached the jump point. My brain just gave in to the fact that it was going to happen and felt there was no need to worry anymore. A tinge of nervousness crept back in when the gentleman who sorted my harness out admitted he’d only been doing it for a week, but either way, I couldn’t back down now (not without being laughed at anyway). After a quick weighing we were escorted, six at a time, to the jump station – a cable car that had ben suspended between two valley peaks at what I assumed was higher than 134-metres – which we had to get a smaller, more rickety cable car out to. And even though I was one of the first across, because of the way they go up in rope sizes (and because of poor dietary and exercise choices on my part) I had to go last. This meant I watched every single jumper who came into the pod get strapped in, briefed, photographed and then ‘encouraged on their way’ out of the open side of the pod. This was annoying but did have an upside; I had been worried about bailing at the last minute, about getting up to the edge and bottling it at the last acceptable moment, but seeing everyone else getting their adrenaline rush and living to tell the tale gave me a huge amount of confidence. And finally, with my toes out over the edge of the abyss and my brain unable to comprehend what the next thirty seconds would be like, when the operator gave the final countdown I jumped. Just as I was told to, a swan dive, arms out to the side, legs straight and a big push away from the platform – a ‘Pocahontas jump’ was the exact term used.

Thinking about it now brings a lot of emotion back and it was certainly the longest 8.5 seconds my brain has ever gone through. The first couple of moments were my mind coming to terms with what just happened – a chorus of “well that was stupid” and “well that’s us knackered”. And then the screaming started; I wasn’t sure what I was going to say as I jumped (I wanted it to be cool) but when push comes to shove I opted for the good old “ARGGGHHH” of a man who’s thrown himself into a ravine.

I was floating on somewhat of a high for the rest of the day, only hindered by the enormous headache I had afterwards as all the blood slowly drained back out of my skull. But we celebrated my accomplishment with a beer and a curry, and everything was right again.

 

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