MistyNites

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Archive for the tag “New Zealand”

Mount Richardson

It is a good 1.5hr drive north-west of Christchurch, to the car park that is effectively in the middle of nowhere. In February, I was still in training for the upcoming Kepler Track, and was making use of the good weather on weekends to get some walking in. I had read about this walk and was keen to get up there. In the Waimakariri District north of Oxford, lies the Mt Thomas Forest Conservation Area, within which lies Mt Richardson. The track starts at the Glentui Picnic Area, a hilly grassland surrounded by bush at the end of a gravel road. By the time I got there mid-morning, there were already several cars parked up.

 

The only toilet on the walk is at this picnic area, and the typical back-country drop-toilet is well hidden amongst the trees. The walk itself starts off as a stroll through forest land, along the same path initially as a loop track that stays lower down in the valley. After a brief walk, the two paths go their separate ways and after a while, the Richardson Track starts to climb upwards. The path is rocky and uneven in places as it continues upwards, and the forest is thick, hiding away any view of how far up you’ve climbed. In February, still in summer, the wasps were everywhere. They buzzed round my feet as I walked, and flitted round my head and body as I continued uphill. This is not a walk to be done if you are afraid of wasps, at least not in the summer time anyway.

 

Eventually the trees open up a little and a first glimpse over the Canterbury Plains is seen. The path flattens out for a while in a false ridge, making a nice break from the tedium of climbing uphill. From here on in, it was fantastic. The trees were more open allowing the sunshine to beam down from above, and allowing more of a view of the surrounds. Where it hits the final incline, the path is particularly unstable – not a big deal on a good day, but worthy of caution after a rainfall. Finally the treeline broke open and I was at the summit, at 1048m altitude. The plant life was noticeably alpine, but still quite thick, and there was a slight chill even on such a sunny day. I soaked in the view whilst enjoying my lunch. The only other people I came across on the walk were some hunters who appeared at the summit at the same time as me, dressed in camouflage, carrying a rifle, and with their retriever dog in tow. This was not a typical pig-hunting dog, so I’m not sure what they were in search of, but they merely passed by and headed down the track.

 

Looking west from the summit, the Lees Valley and Puketeraki Mountain Range provide a stunning backdrop, and the mountains roll across the horizon as far as the eye can see. A few of the distant peaks had a splattering of snow following a recent cold front, or Southerly as they are referred to here, that had passed through. From the summit there are a few hiking options: return the route you came up, or continue along the Blowhard Track, coming out at an entirely different road, or splitting off from this track, down the Bypass Track to return to the Glentui picnic area. The Blowhard track started off initially through similar forest, but quickly it changed into a drier, almost desert-like soil with sparser vegetation and some steep sandy slopes to negotiate. In a few places where the soil had eroded down steeper sections and plants didn’t grow, the true path was a little bit ambiguous. In one particularly eroded section, someone has created a stone arrow to indicate where to go. When I reached this intersection, I was down in a dip and did not immediately see this sign, but on the bank it was clearer.

 

Further along the lower ridge, the view was mainly over the Canterbury Plains to Pegasus Bay in the far distance and the vague outline of Christchurch’s buildings evident through the low haze. This section is a pleasant exposed track and continues like this for some time until the tree line is reached again. Those trees near the summit contained a large quantity of Old Man’s Beard, which of all the lichen species, requires the purest of air to grow. Shortly after returning to the trees, the turn off for the Bypass track is found. This is the steepest part of the whole walk, and the reason that it is recommended to do this circuit in a clockwise direction. It is through forest the whole way down, and eventually joins up with the Glentui loop track. From the intersection, you can head back to the car park in either direction of the loop. I chose the longer route which involved a bit more incline as it looped along the embankment. It seemed a poorly worn track in this section, and at one point there was a rather large fallen tree blocking the route which had to be climbed over. Eventually, it cuts down to the river where a bridge crosses over it, and then there is a final winding climb back up to the bottom of the picnic area.

 

On various websites, I read quite a variety of times for this walk. The Department of Conservation signs can be variably generous with their guides on what to expect time-wise. I took 2hrs to summit, and completed the whole walk in 4hrs, including a lunch stop. On the DOC website it recommends allowing 4-6hrs for this walk. I enjoyed this hike, and preferred it to Mt Herbert, probably because I found it an easier walk, although the views from both are equally fantastic.

Stories from the South Island

Surprising people is immense fun; the looks on people’s faces when you turn up unannounced or the shocked silence on the phone when you call to say you are not far away makes up for the days and months of keeping a secret and covering your tracks. In 2012, I managed to keep a trip back to Scotland a secret from my family and friends for 10 months. I was immensely proud of myself for managing 10 months of keeping in touch with people without a single lie coming out of my mouth, all the while tactfully dodging the truth about my plans. I also spent a week in February 2012 pretending to my partner that I was going to be in Wellington, when in fact I was booked on the ferry to Picton and had a romantic weekend booked for us in Kaikoura.

The sailing across the Cook Strait couldn’t have been more perfect. Notorious for some foul weather and rough seas, the day I crossed the sea was as flat and calm as glass, and it shimmered under the early morning sun that gleamed with pride from a clear blue sky. Over an hour of the crossing is spent sailing through the beautiful and majestic Queen Charlotte Sound, made up of multiple islands nestled amongst the finger-like peninsulas on the north coast of the South Island. I spent the whole sailing standing on the top deck breathing it all in. Picton nestles quaintly into one of the deepest parts of the Sound, and from here I transferred to the Coastal Pacific train, part of the Tranz Scenic rail network. The first thing that struck me on the journey south was how brown the South Island was compared to the North. Trees were being felled for large stretches of the early parts of the track, and the landscape was of brown rolling hills rather than the greenery I had been accustomed to up till now. By the time Blenheim was reached, green pastures and mountains in the distance had started to appear, and this was more like the South Island that I had been expecting, and have come to love.

 

Cutting past pink salt pans, a sight I never expected to see in New Zealand, the track cut to the east coast and took us south on the shore of the Pacific Ocean, waves rolling gently at our side in the sunshine. The Kaikoura ranges shot up to the right of the train, towering above us, and New Zealand fur seals sunbathed on the rocks on our left, ignoring the passing train. At 3.15pm on such a beautiful day, the train pulled into Kaikoura and I stepped off, ready to embrace something new. After a day of silence, I finally made the phone call to my stunned partner to tell him where I was, and after he got over the shock and realisation, he jumped in his car and made the 2.5hr drive north from Christchurch to meet me.

What the town lacks in size, the location makes up in grandeur. Sitting out on a peninsula, it sits at the base of the Kaikoura ranges, and is surrounded by the Pacific Ocean. Not far off shore is the Hikurangi Trench, an immense sea trench reaching depths of >3000m, which brings an abundance of marine life and an ecosystem that supports one of the largest creatures on earth: the sperm whale. As an avid cetacean enthusiast, I take great passion from getting out to sea to watch whales and dolphins frolicking and surviving in the world’s oceans. On a return visit to the town for our anniversary, we took a flight from the nearby airport which headed off the coast in search of sperm whales. Spending most of their lives feeding at great depths, they spend only 15mins at the surface re-oxygenating their blood in between dives. It took a bit of time, but eventually we found one, and it was fantastic to get an aerial view of a mammal that I am used to seeing from sea-level. It was beautiful, and we circled above it until it arched its tail and dived to the depths in search of giant squid.

 

The following day, we opted for the sea safari. The weather was squally, and there was a high level sea sickness warning. Determined to get closer than the plane had allowed, we opted to go ahead with the trip. I normally have a pretty iron stomach out at sea, having spent months in South Africa doing regular trips out to watch whales, and various sailings in all sorts of weather, but stupidly I doubted myself on that day. Shovelling a herbal sea sickness remedy and some ginger candy down my throat, I almost immediately felt a burning sensation in my throat. This escalated when we got on the boat and headed out to sea, and it wasn’t long before I was throwing up. We stopped to watch some dusky dolphins, and 3 sperm whales, but I could only stand so much in between curling up on the deck and filling sick bag after sick bag. It was not the whale watching trip I had imagined.

 

Walking from the town of Kaikoura round the peninsula, takes you to a carpark from which New Zealand fur seals can be seen everywhere you look. The peninsula walk itself is lovely, following the coast round to the south side of the peninsula and back into town. If you know where to go in New Zealand, the fur seals can be found in abundance on both the east and west coasts.

 

Another favourite place of mine is the French town of Akaroa on the Banks Peninsula. A 1.5hr drive out of Christchurch, the road winds round then over the rim of what used to be a volcano, until the remains of the volcanic crater, now filled by the sea is visible, and within this lies the beautiful Akaroa. It is a small settlement, but like Kaikoura, it has the draw of wildlife. Reached either by 4×4 over the hills, or on a harbour cruise, there is another colony of fur seals just outside of the harbour entrance. The real draw here though is the Hector’s dolphins. Found only in New Zealand’s waters, they are one of the smallest cetacean species in the world, and unfortunately, they are endangered. On a sunny day, the water around Akaroa is so clear, that it is easy to watch these little dolphins even when they are below the surface, and they are always a joy to behold. On my second trip out on a harbour cruise, I even saw a little blue penguin out fishing.

 

I will always have a slight soft spot for Timaru because I spent a few months there working, but most people would drive through it without giving it a second glance. The beachfront at Caroline Bay with the park behind has been lovingly maintained, and I spent many an hour wandering through here and the coastline around. Further south, the next big tourist draw is Oamaru. It has a few pretty old-fashioned buildings, but for me it held 2 draws: the large blue penguin colony that lives nearby, and as a base to see the Moeraki boulders. In the not-too distant past, the blue penguins came ashore every night to burrow into the hillside by the sea, on the edge of town. Many penguins were killed by drivers and dogs, as they negotiated the road, the railway line, and anybody who came along at the same time. As a result, an area was artificially created to allow the penguins to get to burrows without having to risk crossing traffic, and also to keep nosy people from scaring them. So as a result, you now have to pay to see them come ashore, but it is worth it. My partner and I were there in the dead of winter, and we sat on a viewing stand in the cold dark of an early night, the slipway from the sea illuminated by infra-red light, allowing us to see the penguins, but keeping us in the dark to them. After a bit of a wait, a single penguin negotiated the waves and came running up the slipway only to come across a fur seal that was asleep on the grass. The fur seal didn’t move, and the penguin slipped past and headed towards a burrow. Shortly after, a ‘raft’ of 6 penguins appeared. They hustled each other up the slipway, but this time at the top, the fur seal moved and sent them scattering, 2 towards the burrows, and the other 4 back down the slipway. It was amusing to watch them renegotiate the route back up again, taking small steps then pausing, looking at each other and nudging each other. It was as if they were daring each other to go first. They spent about 10 minutes with this game before eventually they made a run for it. This time the fur seal didn’t bother itself, and they all made it into the burrow area.

 

Immediately south of Oamaru is a beach where the rare yellow-eyed penguin comes ashore. We had been told to go at sunset to see them come in and sunrise to see them leave. We headed to the lookout and waited and waited and waited. After nearly an hour, not a single penguin had appeared so we headed off. The next morning, we headed out a little late, and met a local who reported that the penguins had arrived shortly after we left. We proceeded back to the lookout and sat for a while, but the sun was already quite up by this point, and we left having seen none.

About 40 mins south of Oamaru is the Moeraki boulders, a natural phenomenon of wave erosion on the local mudstone that exposes near-spherical rocks that then appear to march towards the ocean where they break apart. No two visits to the beach are the same as the structures change shape and form as time and sea break them down. The beach is littered with them, and it was bizarre to wander along and see a newly emerging one appearing out of the cliff. Some were small like footballs, and others were as big as a person, and those that had cracked like an egg were big enough to climb into.

 

Dunedin is referred to as the Edinburgh of the South; having been to both cities, I have no idea why. It is supposed to have an overwhelming Scottish influence, but aside from 1 restaurant that served whisky and haggis, I can’t say that I saw a lot of that influence myself. Nor was I ever aware of a lot of Scottish people living there, although there are a few Scottish surnames hanging around in New Zealand as a whole. I personally can’t say anything exciting about the city itself. My Scottish friend recently emigrated to Dunedin from Aberdeen, and she seems happy there, but I was not overly fussed with the city myself. What I do love about Dunedin though, is its location, because the Otago Peninsula is just beautiful. Following the coast road round inlets of perfectly still water, beside rolling hills, takes you eventually to Taiaroa head at the tip of the peninsula where the only mainland place in the world to view Royal Albatross is. When I visited in winter, there were several fluffy white chicks being catered to by their parents who came soaring in from the Pacific Ocean beyond.

 

In the lowering mid-winter sunshine, I headed onwards around the peninsula to Larnach Castle. Heralded as New Zealand’s only castle, it is more like a mansion, but it sits atop a ridge of the Otago Peninsula and commands a stunning view from both the gardens and the rooftop view point. At the southern edge of Dunedin is the suburb of St Clair which commands a view out onto the wilds of the Pacific Ocean and has a beautiful stretch of beach to wander along, as well as some good cafes that are always crammed full of people. Even on a cold winter’s day, I loved pounding the beach, my hair whipped around my face as I breathed in the sea air.

 

Leaving Dunedin train station is an old-fashioned steam train that travels through the Otago countryside and up the Taieri Gorge. Across viaducts and through tunnels we travelled through some beautiful countryside. In winter it is a 4hr return trip, but the summer offers excursions which allow the train ride to link up to the start of the Otago rail trail, a 150km bike trail cutting an arc through the central Otago landscape. Having regained a love of cycling (something which I used to live for growing up but as an adult had become the stuff of annual jaunts whilst on holiday) since living in Christchurch, I am looking forward to riding the rail trail in the summer of 2014.

Queenstown is generally famous the world over for its adrenalin inducing activities and for Fergberger. I remember laughing when my partner insisted that I had to go there on my first trip to the town in 2012, but on arrival I was astounded by the lengthy queue out the door every day, be it lunch time or dinner time. Soon realising that there was no quiet time there, I joined the masses and quickly became a devotee. Anybody who has eaten there knows that there is no burger like it anywhere else in the world. They are hands-down the most scrumptious meal-in-a-bun that you will ever eat. Another favourite eatery was Patagonia. Having travelled in Patagonia a few years previously, I knew just how decadent ice cream was from that part of the world, so I needed no persuasion to visit this ice-cream parlour-come-coffee shop. Several days of my trip included a fergburger for main course and some delicious Patagonia ice cream for dessert.

 

Short of eating an extra few inches onto my waistline, I was keen to see what Queenstown was all about. The day I arrived in early March 2012 it was 28oC and the small beach on the shore of Lake Wakatipu was packed. 2 days later I awoke to snow on the ground – I couldn’t believe the transformation. Lake Wakatipu is a long, sinuous lake stretching for 80 km. Getting out on a boat cruise barely covered a tiny patch of this lake, heading from the harbour in the town centre, and round Queenstown gardens before heading up the Frankton Arm of the lake towards the Kawarau Rd bridge. Overlooking the town itself is a number of hills and mountains. The most visited is Bob’s Peak which is accessible by hiking trail and by gondola. I accidentally picked the mountain bike trail to hike up and was quickly yelled at to get out the way. The route was so steep that the bikes were zooming towards me at immense speed and I was in danger of causing an accident. Hiding my blushes, I headed on up the steep slog to the viewpoint at the top of the Gondola. It wasn’t the sunniest of days but the visibility was still great and the view over the lake towards the Remarkables Mountain range was spectacular. Never one for taking the easy route down, I had signed up for the zipline experience to ride 6 flying foxes back down to the town. This was as much splurging as I could afford at this point in time, and it was worth every penny. Each ride we got to try a different maneuver such as riding upside down or flipping positions and it was a new way to experience the forest, feet above my head and staring straight down at the leaf litter below me as the trees whizzed past my ears. Queen’s Hill is also a rewarding hike starting in the back streets of town. The summit offers an alternate view of the lake, but unfortunately, the heavens opened when I reached the top, and the cloud cover came down obscuring a lot of my view.

 

In winter, Queenstown is all about skiing. The surrounding mountain ranges look pretty in glistening white, and there’s plenty of choice. Within easy driving distance is Coronet Peak, the Remarkables and Cardrona. In July 2013, my partner and I spent a long weekend in Queenstown enjoying the food and the mulled wine which was served almost everywhere. The weather was not in our favour, and the propeller plane we flew down on nearly wasn’t able to land as the clouds were so closed in. With lots of rain, we experienced the indoor life that the town has to offer. The Fear Factory is a new haunted house that has opened up on Shotover Street. In pitch black, you follow a maze of red lights whilst things grab at you from the darkness or leap out at you in a flash of light. The Caddyshack Mini Golf near the Gondola was also a surprise delight. We stumbled across it by chance, but it was full of 18 holes of electronically controlled fun. Embracing the cold weather theme, we spent some time in 1 of Queenstown’s two Ice Bars, Below Zero. Maintained at a chilly -8oC, we enjoyed cocktails out of an ice glass surrounded by ice sculptures. In one of the few gaps in the weather, we managed the scenic drive round Lake Wakatipu to Glenorchy, a cute little village at the head of the lake. The views were stunning even in the low cloud, so it will be somewhere to head back to in the warmer months.

 

To this day, Wanaka remains one of my favourite parts of New Zealand. Like the more developed and commercialised Queenstown, it is nestled on the shore of a large lake, but Wanaka offers everything I love: peace and quiet, fewer people, less commercialism, and reams of hiking trails in every perceivable direction. I spent several days here after my time in Queenstown, in March 2012, and the weather was generally perfect. I hiked east round the lake one day, taking in the ever-changing vista of water and mountains, up one of the rivers towards Albert Town, and then back to Wanaka via Mt Iron for an impressive panorama of the town and the surrounding countryside. The following day I hiked west to Glendhu Bay where my hand was savaged by a portaloo (a scar that I still bare to this day!) but I was rewarded with my first glimpse of the glacier streaming down from Mt Aspiring. The weather turned on the long walk home, and I limped soaking into a Greek restaurant in town for a tasty dinner and some well-deserved wine. Having imbibed a little too much wine, I took a slight detour on the way back to the hostel to climb a tree as the sun set.

 

My favourite hike in Wanaka headed west round the lake as the day before, but detoured half-way to head up the impressive Roy’s Peak. It was a hard and steady slog, winding zig-zagged up a rather steep incline. It was a gorgeous sunny day, and the hike was very popular. From quite early on, the view was stunning. The higher I climbed, the more of Lake Wanaka and the surrounding mountain ranges I could see. The lake has several islands within it, and every where I looked was a disappearing expanse of greenness. The view from the top trumped it all though. Nearly the full extent of the lake was visible, with Mt Aspiring in one direction, and a stream of mountains in many others. The town of Wanaka itself looked tiny, and even Mt Iron which I had hiked a couple of days before was easily dwarfed. I ate my lunch amongst a cluster of other hikers sharing the summit, and I got great joy from an up close and personal encounter with a couple of falcons who flitted about the summit mobbing each other. On my final day in Wanaka, I opted for the water’s view of the place, taking one of the excursions out to one of the islands on the lake. The area reminded me so much of Cairngorm National Park in my home country of Scotland, and its grandeur took my breath away.

 

The MacKenzie District will always be a special place for my partner and I. In winter 2012, we headed inland to take up a deal at the Hermitage hotel in Mount Cook Village. Like a little alpine village in Europe, it is nestled in a valley surrounded by towering mountains including New Zealand’s highest: Mount Cook, or Aoraki in Maori. There was plenty of snow as we travelled up the west bank of Lake Pukaki and the village itself was white, with plenty of snow to tramp through and skid on as we negotiated the surrounds of our hotel. The hotel was fantastic, and our ‘cheap’ room included a balcony view overlooking the village and the behemoth of Mt Cook across the valley.

 

The unfortunate effect of the snow was that a lot of the local tours were cancelled as some of the roads disappearing through the valley were classed as treacherous. The only thing still running was a glacier flight. Mt Cook village sits nestled on the eastern valley of the Southern Alps. Directly west of there sits the Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers in all their icy glory. We opted for the cheaper flight which took us on an aerial view around the glaciers, but when we got to the airfield, due to numbers, we got upgraded to the longer tour which encompassed the same scenic flight but included a snow landing on the ice field at the top of the glacier. From the airfield, we headed up and over the Tasman Glacier with its lake, and headed towards the ridge line of the alps. The sun shone for us and sparkled on the glistening snow behind us, and we gawked at the view towards the peak of Mt Cook, and the west coast beyond. The plane circled above Franz Josef glacier before heading up Fox glacier’s ice field to land on the powder. First out the plane was a petite woman and her feet disappeared to her ankles in the snow. My partner got out next, expecting a similar experience, only for him to disappear down to his knees. I fared little better, and we laughed at each others’ struggles to negotiate the snow, and ‘walk’ about the ice field. The sun beat down on us from above, but it was the middle of winter, and with the altitude we were both freezing, neither of us having dressed for the occasion.

 

Lake Tekapo neighbours Lake Pukaki in the MacKenzie District, and we spent a few nights there over Easter 2013. The relatively new Spa Pools were a delight to soak in of an evening, enjoying the delightfully warm (though crowded) pools in the fading light. At the top of Mt John behind the Spa Pools is the Mt John Observatory. The whole region around this observatory has been declared an International Dark Sky Reserve, one of only 4 in the world. The light pollution is so low here, that it is an excellent place to go stargazing, and the Milky Way is often visible above the township. We took a guided tour to the observatory with Earth & Sky and the guides were so passionate. It was amazing to see Saturn’s rings through the telescope, as well as Jupiter and an amazing close up of the moon.

 

Within a reasonable drive from my home in Christchurch is Hanmer Springs. The main reason for visiting here are the amazing geothermal pools. I could sit in these pools for hours, happily becoming a prune, and there are varying pools of varying temperatures to satisfy the relaxation needs of adults, whilst a water park area serves the kids. Attached to the pools is a Spa offering massages and private hot pools. Aside from several trips to the hot pools, on our last visit, my partner and I opted to go on a quad biking adventure out of town. On the drive into Hanmer Springs is a bungy jump centre, and they also offer quad biking through the nearby river valley. Having driven quads before from my younger days as a milkmaid, I started off confident, keeping up with our guide. Unfortunately, within 20 minutes, I took an embankment too quickly and drove head-first into a tree. I did my best impression of Superman over the handlebars, and the tyre of the quad was punctured on a branch. My pride was just as hurt as my limbs were, and I sported some amazing bruises for several weeks after as well as an injured wrist that still gives me problems nearly 6 months later. On the day though, after my quad bike was replaced, I continued with the ride, albeit at a much more timid pace.

 

The Tranz Alpine train runs from Christchurch to Greymouth via Arthur’s Pass and Lake Brunner. Part of the Tranz Scenic rail network, we took the ride west in July 2012, hoping to see some snow on the mountains. We had previously driven to Arthur’s Pass and enjoyed a walk through the trees to a beautiful waterfall, but this time we could sit back and enjoy the scenery. The train speeds across the flat of the Canterbury Plains before snaking through the Southern Alps through river valleys, gorges and through tunnels in the mountains. Passing the side of Lake Brunner, it continues west towards Greymouth. It was a beautiful trip, and we spent the weekend at Greymouth before heading home on the train. There are so many beautiful vistas from the train, but even the road from the west coast is spectacular. Driving along side glacier-fed rivers, and rolling hills, and across a viaduct, this is the land of Kea, mountain parrots unique to New Zealand. They are cheeky and bold birds, that will chew attachments to vehicles if given half a chance. Resembling a scene from the Lord of the Rings movies, Castle Hill is a boulder-strewn hillside that is worth a wander around. Not far from there is Cave Stream Scenic Reserve, a cave system that is open for unguided, at-your-own-risk exploring. The day we visited we had come unprepared, not knowing of its existence, but now the owner of a wetsuit, I intend to get back here one day and go caving.

 

The north-west corner of the South Island is a mass of National Parks, and the countryside and coastline are overwhelmingly beautiful. In January 2013, I spent my summer holidays road-tripping from Abel Tasman National Park down the west coast. Spending several nights in Kaiteriteri on the edge of the National Park, it was an easy boat trip from the beach up the coast to a variety of bays to allow exploring such a beautiful area. The sea was blue, and home to New Zealand fur seals, and the land was lush with thick vegetation. The first bay, Halfmoon Bay, was home to Split Apple Rock, the most photographed piece of rock in the National Park. We hiked from Torrent Bay to Apple Tree Bay as well as from Tonga Bay to Bark Bay, both sections of a multi-day hike. From Bark Bay we kayaked south to Anchorage, negotiating strong winds to make it back in time for the ferry back to Kaiteriteri. It was an amazing few days, and I loved it there. Along the coast is Golden Bay and Fairwell Spit, a large sand bar projecting north into the Cook Strait. It is infamous as a common stranding zone for whales that get disorientated and stuck on the expansive sand flat.

 

It was blowing such a gale and pouring with such rain, that we did not spend long in Nelson. Cutting from the north coast to the west coast meant heading deep inland across hills and through reams of farmland and forest, eventually linking up with the Buller river and following its course to Westport. The whole drive was in torrential rain, so we didn’t stop much, managing a zipline across the swollen river in a brief lull in the otherwise incessant rain. There isn’t a lot to Westport, it is an old town that housed gold and coal miners, but on the western edge of Buller Bay is Cape Foulwind where there is a colony of New Zealand Fur Seals. The day we visited there were lots of seal pups on the rocks below the viewing area, and the males were making lots of noise and throwing their weight about.

 

For most of the drive south to Greymouth, State Highway 6 hugs the stunning coastline. The Tasman Sea is rough and unforgiving, the coastline scattered with weather-beaten cliffs and rocks, and dotted with stretches of beautiful sandy beaches. The mountains rose to our left, including those that supported Fox glacier, and the vegetation was thick. Tropical plants vied with temperate plants near sea level, and the only breaks in the tree line were where rivers coursed through. The surprise for me though, was Pancake Rocks, so called because of their resemblance to stacks of pancakes. These limestone formations are most evident near Punakaiki, and in several areas the erosion from the sea underneath has created caverns which become blowholes when wave conditions are right. It was a blisteringly hot day when we were there, but I could have happily spent a lot of time here ogling this unique coastline.

 

From Greymouth, we headed further south to Hokitika at the mouth of the Hokitika river. Another township founded due to gold mining, it is famous now for its jade, with multiple shops catering to this market. South of here, we drove to the newly opened tree top walk. Having gone on one in Victoria, Australia, we went there with high expectations. We were mainly disappointed with the exorbitant entry price, but something just seemed lacking compared to the one in Australia that we had done the year before. Having said that, it was a nice viewpoint east towards the Southern Alps. To the east of Hokitika towards the mountains, was the Hokitika Gorge. Here, the river is fed from the glaciers and mountains above, and on a sunny day, the waters are a deep aquamarine. Unfortunately, after days of heavy rain, the river resembled more of a milk bath, with immense quantities of silt having been washed downstream. It was still a great sight, but I can only imagine how beautiful it would look in all its glory.

 

After nearly 18 months in this country, I have explored so much. However, there is still so much to see. Milford and Doubtful Sounds are two big draws that have so far eluded me, mainly due to their distance and relative inaccessibility. Also due to time and planning constraints, I am yet to hike any of the Great Walks, something which I hope to rectify over the next few summers. The lesser-visited island of Stewart Island is also a place I long to visit too. My New Zealand adventures are a work in progress…

New Beginnings

As circumstances have prevailed, I have found myself making a new beginning in the city of Christchurch. When I arrived here over a year ago, I was shocked and a little bit dismayed at the state of my soon-to-be home city. Sixteen months on, and I am now proud to be a part of the city’s new beginnings whilst I strive through my own. It seems somewhat fitting to make a leap of faith with a new country, a new lifestyle, and a new partner in a place that is making itself new too, albeit after a much more dramatic upheaval than my own.

I arrived in New Zealand with no set plans of where I would end up, how long I’d stay, or how easily I’d get work. As I travelled round the North Island of New Zealand, another story to my life was unfolding, only this one was unplanned and unexpected. For this one was a love story. I had been in contact with an Aucklander, thanks to a mutual friend, who had moved to Christchurch prior to me arriving in the country. As time went on, our communications evolved into a meeting and a shared life in this changing city.

In September 2010, Christchurch was rocked by an earthquake which was followed by a series of aftershocks, the most devastating of which struck at 12.51pm on February 22nd 2011. Multiple buildings collapsed, trapping and killing people within, and bringing the city to its knees. Over the successive 2 years, the city has battled to restore order and business to the devastated city centre and crumbling suburbs amidst a mess of red tape, cordons, and dissatisfied people.

When I first arrived in Christchurch, it was an overcast, rainy day in February 2012, and honestly, I thought I’d made a big mistake by agreeing to live here. My tour guide and new partner, drove me round the edge of the ‘red zone’, the cordoned-off city centre, and out to the suburbs to show me the damage. I was shocked and unprepared to see the empty plots of land, the half-demolished buildings, and the abandoned houses overgrown at every turn. There were pot holes and cracks in the road all over the place, and streets that were supposed to be flat were full of uneven humps and bumps. Even the bridges were out of alignment.

 

Those first few months, the aftershocks were very regular and took a bit of getting used to. They varied in strength and depth, and many of the first ones were early in the morning, so I would be woken by the bed shaking gently from side to side. As time went on, I got used to the little ones, but every now and again something stronger would rock through the ground, and it was more unsettling to be sitting on the couch when the television and the balcony doors started rattling whilst the couch jerked underneath me. I haven’t experienced anything stronger than a 4.8mag aftershock, but after starting to work in the city, I regularly came across people with all sorts of stories from that day in February. Even the gentle shake created by a truck driving past was enough to set off palpitations in some people.

When I first arrived, the ‘Red Zone’ encompassed a large part of the city centre. I could see through the fences, but not very far, and having never seen the city before, I had no idea what was gone, or what I was missing out on within. I was very curious though. Looking at images on Google street view and relaying that onto what I saw in real time, didn’t help me. One of the poshest hotels in the city, the Crowne Plaza which stood domineering the corner of Durham St and Kilmore St, began to be demolished a couple of months after my arrival. Not yet having a job to go to, I spent many days at the fence line watching it being nibbled away by ‘Twinkle Toes’ the largest ‘claw’ of its type in the Southern Hemisphere. A year later, and it is hard to remember how it looked when it was entire. In its place, the large empty foot print has been converted into a quirky bar and cafe, made out of wooden palettes. At the time of writing, a large archway had just been constructed on the site too.

 

In August 2012, the Newstalk ZB building became the first, and to date, only building in Christchurch (and indeed New Zealand) to be brought down by implosion. After its neighbouring buildings were demolished, an auction was held for charity to win the right to press the button that set off the charges. It was a cold, grey Sunday morning, but myself and my partner joined the massive crowd that gathered to watch New Zealand history in the making. It was a proud building where it stood, but it took only seconds to slide gracefully to the ground in a pall of dust, its crumpled shell looking mournful where it lay. It was the most people I had seen in one place within the city, but amidst a quiet jabbering, the crowd dispersed afterwards into the surrounding streets like a mist.

 

The ‘red zone’ shrunk in little patches, each new area being filled with nosy citizens wandering in a daze through streets they no longer recognised. Many of the empty areas have become temporary car parks, and thanks to a charity project called Gap Filler, temporary art works pop up in various spaces to give colour and interest and joy to the beleaguered people of Christchurch. Where once there was a building there would appear a football pitch, or a mobile dance mat, or a sculpture, or a painting, or a square from a Monopoly board. Where once there was a business, there appears mobile cafes and takeaway trucks to offer somewhere to eat when many eateries are closed or out of reach.

 

Initially, there was no way to see inside the ‘red zone’ but in the winter of 2012, a tour bus was allowed exclusive access. On signing a disclaimer, it was possible to go ‘beyond the cordon’ and drive through the deserted streets of the city centre. It was eery, and strange. Many locals were on the bus with me, and I could overhear them discussing their sadness about one business or another being missing, or how they couldn’t orientate themselves without the usual landmarks or street names to guide them. Then we reached Cathedral Square, the biggest issue of contention with the rebuild. The Christchurch Cathedral is the iconic building of the city, and probably the building who’s future has caused the most debate. When I first saw it (albeit through a fence), the tower had lost its top. The second time I saw it, on the bus tour, the tower had been nearly completely pulled down. Before anything else could be done, the political debate had flared up so much, that the demolition was halted whilst the various parties fought it out. A year later, and there has been no perceivable progress. The experts can’t agree on the safety of the building, and the safety of a rebuild, and there are those traditionalists who want it restored brick by brick. Then there are those who want a tasteful replacement built that will be safer whilst still providing the city with an iconic building.

 

In 2013, things have progressed so much that the ‘red zone’ barely exists anymore. Most of the streets are now open to at least pedestrian access if not traffic as well. There were around 1900 buildings earmarked for demolition in the city, and now the city is a patchwork of empty ground and lonely buildings stood solitary where once it had neighbours. I can’t imagine this city in any other way, and in some little way, I feel sad that the city is to become built up again, as it is currently nice and ‘open’. Part of the plans for the rebuild involves keeping buildings capped at a 7 storey maximum, and there is to be a lot more green space created within the city limits, so I for one, hope this is enough to keep some fresh air in the place, and allow light to get into the streets below.

 

Every few weeks, myself and my partner take a walk round the city centre to see the progress and the changes. Some streets are so empty now, but finally, the hotels are starting to reopen and businesses are returning. Cashel Street was previously one of the main shopping precincts. Half of it is now devoid of buildings, and the other half has been transformed. Christchurch is known as the Garden City, and its two city icons were probably the Cathedral and Hagley Park. Now, the city is famous for cranes and shipping containers. Where once the skyline was dominated by tall buildings, it is now dominated by tall cranes, and in many places, shipping containers have been collected for use in all sorts of ways. Cashel Street is one example. When there were no buildings to trade from, shipping containers were stacked together, painted in vibrant colours and kitted out to allow a shopping ‘mall’ to be created, and this is the Re:Start Mall on Cashel St. Here, you can buy food and coffee, and shop for souvenirs, clothes and homewares. On weekends, there are often street performers drawing a crowd, and it has become a popular place for locals and tourists to go.

 

Away from the city centre, the shipping containers have been used as storage, but more importantly, they have been used for ballast and support. On the road to Sumner, a beach side suburb round the coast, the cliff crumbled during the earthquake, taking homes and large rocks with it. Parts of the cliff are still unstable, and so the roadside is stacked high with shipping containers to protect road users against any falling debris. Many of these have been painted with murals to detract from the ugly reality of the container’s presence and purpose. Within the city, some of the facades of old-fashioned buildings are currently being supported by these same containers whilst the building is resurrected behind them.

 

The housing situation is an entirely different matter. Whilst, in my opinion, the city centre is progressing, the reality of suburban rebuild is causing a lot of distress. I have driven down ghost streets, where every house has had to be abandoned, or streets where only solitary houses remain where all its neighbours have fallen down or been pulled down. There are streets in the suburbs of Christchurch which look like the Apocalypse struck. The term liquefaction was a word I had never heard before moving here. Having spoken to people outside of New Zealand about it, it appears to be a little known effect of earthquakes in the general public. Most people think of the ground shaking causing cracks and buildings to fall down, but in areas such as the eastern suburbs which were built on marshland and sandy soil, they suffered another problem: liquefaction. Water-saturated sediments in loose soil fragments act like a liquid in an earthquake, and essentially push up through the path of least resistance to bubble or pour up through the ground. The result is pools or waves of silty thick liquid coating the ground in surprising depths and then drying like clay. It also undermines the ground surface creating hidden sink holes that claimed many vehicles. People had to dig out their homes and cars afterwards. The sewage, water, and storm pipes took a hit, and many people were left for months without plumbed-in sanitisation, having to empty their toilets into silos in the street, and to this day, many of the drains still struggle on a rainy day leading to flooding. The water table also shifted. Christchurch has two large rivers flowing through the region, and under the ground are multiple streams. On an aerial view of the city, you can almost map out the path of these underground streams based on the pattern of damaged buildings. In the suburbs, the river bed rose, and the banks dropped, meaning that many streets now sit below the water table. This can be seen on a drive round the streets that line the Avon river where many of the houses sit on a lean.

 

Things are starting to return to a level of normality though. Homes are being fixed, new homes are being built, and as much as buildings are still coming down in the city centre, new buildings are finally going up in their place. There are now more and more cafes, bars and restaurants to visit. Businesses are slowly beginning to return to the city centre, and whilst roadworks are still the norm, traffic is finally starting to move through the city centre again. Importantly, the tourist attractions are re-opening as well. In Cashel St is Quake City, a relatively new museum set up to commemorate and inform about the earthquakes of the region. The Gondola up the Port Hills to the south of the city reopened earlier this year, and the view from the top is amazing. On one side is the beautiful Banks Peninsula with Lyttelton harbour, and on the other is the expanse of the Canterbury Plains with Pegasus Bay, and the Southern Alps on the horizon. It is a popular site for paragliders. On the ride up, it is possible to see some of the damage created by rockfall from the earthquake, and at the summit are various walking routes to explore.

 

In the city itself, there are now various guided tours around what used to be the ‘red zone’ giving the history of the place. The river Avon offers the chance to go punting, and the magnificent Hagley Park with the Botanical Gardens are perfect on a sunny summer’s day for a wander or a bike ride. The Gap Filler mini-golf is a city-wide golf course, taking you on a wander through the city whilst playing some ridiculous holes of mini-golf, 1 of which is creatively made out of material to resemble the rebuild of the city. Outwith the city is the fantastic International Antarctic Centre, all about Antarctic exploration as well as a blue penguin rehabilitation centre, and beyond there are all sorts of parks and recreation areas such as McLeans Island and the nearby Orana Wildlife Park. There is plenty of reason to come to Christchurch, and with an ever-evolving city centre, and an optimistic blue-print planned for the new City of Christchurch, I am hopeful and excited for the future of the city that I now love and call home.

 

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