MistyNites

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Archive for the tag “Queenstown”

No Kiwis in Queenstown

I’ve never made a secret of the fact that I’m not a great fan of Queenstown, New Zealand’s adventure mecca in the South Island. Don’t get me wrong, the place definitely has its virtues: after all it sits by a massive lake flanked by mountains so there’s definitely beauty and outdoor adventures on its doorstep. But the town itself does not enthrall me, being targeted towards garnering the tourist buck, and too busy for my liking (and heaven help you if you want to park anywhere!). So whilst I wouldn’t say no to a visit there, it’s not a place I feel the need to rush off to on a regular basis. Having not visited for sometime though, when I noticed in January 2017 that flights to Queenstown for Christmas 2017 were dirt cheap, I took the opportunity to book a long weekend away there. Then in February 2017 my brother announced he was flying over to visit me in November 2017 and wanted to do a road trip, and so when that Christmas break came round, I found myself in Queenstown just 5 weeks after I’d been there with him.

After finishing work for the day, I headed to the airport for an afternoon flight south from Christchurch. Queenstown airport was packed and it took a while to get the travel pass that would allow me to use the local bus network. The bus network had only been overhauled in the weeks running up to this visit and now there was a convenient and cheap bus service into town from the airport at neighbouring Frankton. It dropped me off almost opposite the hostel I was staying at which was just back from the lakefront and I checked myself into a private room. It was a nice afternoon so I didn’t take long to head back outside and wander along the promenade on the shore of Lake Wakatipu. These days, Queenstown is busy year round, but being the Christmas weekend it was especially busy. I didn’t hear a single Kiwi accent though, with tourists everywhere. Even the shops and eateries seemed to be staffed by travellers. It felt like the locals had abandoned the place and up and left, and in some respects I couldn’t blame them. It does feel a little bit like a tourist town run by tourists for tourists.

 

It was warm enough to have a little paddle in the water and I took my time meandering. At the beach, I found a spot to myself and sat down, ready to do a bit of people watching. Within minutes, a guy joined me and started chatting away. I’m a very introverted person and enjoy my solitude. I also enjoy watching the world go by at times without actually taking part in its goings on (which is why I prefer countryside and quiet places over thriving cities and large groups), so I was initially reluctant to engage too much, but eventually his persistence wore me down and I found myself passing quite a bit of time chatting. He too was travelling solo and was just looking for some company, and I had nowhere particular to be.

After a while, we parted ways, and I took a wander along the beach for a bit before turning back and heading to Fergburger, the town’s famous burger joint. Both because of its popularity as well as the increasing tourist numbers to the place, it often has a line so long as to be off-putting. My brother hadn’t wanted to join the queue whilst we had visited in November, but I was prepared to wait, and wait I did. I started quite a bit of the way up the street, and queued for about 40 minutes to get to the head of the line. Then it was about a 20 minute wait to get the food, but I knew that what was coming was worth the wait. I also always have to make at least one trip to Patagonia, the ice cream and chocolate shop, when I visit Queenstown, so I got dessert and ate it on the way back to the hostel. I’d spent the last few weeks doing a distance learning course at university, so I had to sit my last assessment online that night before retiring to bed.

 

The following day was Christmas Eve, and with this to be the best day of the long weekend for weather, I slogged my way up to the summit of Ben Lomond. I returned via the Gondola building where I caught my breath a little over looking the lake and town below. By the time I hiked down to the town via the Tiki trail, things were starting to close up and it took quite a bit of wandering to find somewhere open to grab some takeaway. My partner was working over the Christmas holiday which was why I was on my own. I didn’t so much mind that day, but this was to be the first time I’d spent Christmas day on my own in about a decade. Even on Christmas Eve, all I could see around me were families and friends. I might be an introvert, but sometimes even I can get a little lonely.

 

I woke to torrential rain on Christmas morning. In the hostel kitchen, a large group of friends were having a party, so after eating, I retreated to my room and read a magazine. Before I knew it, I had fallen asleep and when I awoke, it was dry and the morning was gone. By the time I forced myself to go outside, the sky was blue and the clouds were dissipating and suddenly it was a glorious Southern Hemisphere sunny day. People were out having picnics and being social and relaxing everywhere. The green spaces and beach were covered in people chilling out. Kids paddled in the water, and there was a man on a jet pack performing in the lake nearby. I could see a crowd of people on the main beach in town and it turned out that the backpacker buses had got together and arranged a backpackers party on the beach. The numbers increased as time wore on and I could see santa hats mingled with bikinis and rubber rings and floaties on the water as the party spilled over into the lake. I bypassed them to reach the Botanic Gardens.

 

The TSS Earnslaw made its regular passage to and from the waterfront, and I joined the steady stream of people out for a stroll along the foreshore. The clouds never fully retreated but the sunshine was still able to beat down for the most part and after soaking up the views and listening to the music drift on the wind, I found myself at the far end of the peninsula, stepping down onto some rocks and duly falling asleep. It’s rare for me to be lazy when I’m way from home, so it was a nice change to just doze under the sun and rest up after the previous day’s exertion. When it eventually grew cooler, I continued round the peninsula and cut up to the gardens, wandering around the blooms before eventually cutting back to the beach where the backpacker party was still in full swing. Taking my time to return to the hostel, it was soon time to enjoy my Christmas platter and wine.

 

Boxing Day was a rather moody day with a bit of wind and clouds in the air. The beach seemed so quiet compared to the day before but the streets and eateries were bustling. I found a table in a cafe away from the lake and enjoyed a tasty brunch before wandering around the crammed shops with their Boxing Day sales, and back to the lakefront where I hovered for a while. The sun had returned and people were spilling out on the streets as the hours passed. Eventually it was time to head back to the airport and return north to Christchurch and work the next day. I may find the town’s crowds a little suffocating, but I had achieved a summit that I had wanted to hike for some time, and I’d also caught up on some much needed relaxation, so perhaps the place can’t be all that bad really.

New Zealand’s Ben Lomond

The inevitably of New Zealand being settled by the British is that there are a lot of common place names between New Zealand and the United Kingdom. When I discovered that there was a mountain called Ben Lomond, it seemed only natural that I should hike it when the opportunity arose, even though at the time I hadn’t even summited its Scottish namesake. In 2016, I made it up to the cloudy and wet summit of Scotland’s munro, and finally the time came in December 2017 to summit New Zealand’s version which dominates the skyline over Queenstown in Otago.

My original plan had been to hike up on Christmas Day. By this stage 6 years into my life in the Southern Hemisphere, it is still a novelty to have Christmas in the summer, and with my partner on shift work through the holiday season, I was spending the festive days on my own. But the weather forecast wasn’t the best for Christmas Day so I made the decision to hike on Christmas Eve instead and I was rewarded with a glorious day for it.

The track starts a little past the YHA Lakefront hostel where I was staying, almost immediately before entering Fernhill. A track and road cut away from the lakeside to reach a historic power house. From here, the One Mile track begins its zigzag through the dense forest, and this is also one of the routes up to the Skyline Gondola. I’d walked this track already with my brother the month before so it was familiar and for the most part well marked and obvious. The day my brother and I had walked it last time, we’d cut down to a waterfall and ended up having to rough it a bit to rejoin the track. I made sure not to make the same mistake again.

 

At a small dam on Wynyard Creek, the track turns upwards towards the mountain bike park, and from here onwards, the mountain bike trails criss cross the walking track at regular intervals meaning having to keep your ears open to avoid being taken out by a zealous rider. The forest here reminded me greatly of some of the cultivated forests in Scotland, the trees bare of leaves and the ground littered with pine cones. It is so different from the wild bush that I’m more accustomed to when out hiking in New Zealand. The forest opens up a little where the service road to the Gondola cuts through it and soon after, the Ben Lomond walkway begins and I was plunged back into the forest once more. The view was a little monotonous until eventually the tree-line was reached and from here onwards I was totally exposed to the elements.

 

Now, the summit of Ben Lomond was in sight and as I worked my way up the track, it became clear that it was going to be a populated hike. After a few bends, Lake Wakatipu came into view behind me, and some distance later, a side-track to the Skyline Gondola cut away. Then the long slog began as the curve of the mountain was followed, the lake growing larger behind me and Ben Lomond being a constant at my side. Despite the ever gain in altitude, the summit failed to look like it was getting any closer, and as the time passed, I came to realise how much I’d let my general fitness slide. I’m an avid hiker, but the last couple of years I hadn’t done as much summer hiking as previously, and I’d allowed myself to gain quite a bit of weight. Even before I was half-way up, I was sweating buckets and feeling like I was making slow progress.

 

After a few lower ridges of increasing altitude, the track finally reached the saddle at 1316m (4317ft) where the track makes a T-junction: the Ben Lomond summit track to the left, and the Moonlight track to the right. There was a bit of a congregation of hikers here, and for the first time, I could see over into the valley and mountains behind Ben Lomond. This is a world that is very much hidden from Queenstown and all I could see was the mountains of the Southern Alps stretching into the distance. Now I turned to face the summit push, and watched the dots of people in the distance grow smaller and smaller.

 

The summit track was tough going and I was finally realising that I needed to work on getting myself back in shape. But the view was spectacular with the mountain ranges to my right, and Lake Wakatipu to my left. Initially the track followed the brow of the ridge but eventually at about 1600m (5249ft), the track skirted behind the summit and became much more rough under foot. Most of the hike till now had been following a wide path, but here it was narrow, and where people came the other way, it necessitated balancing off the track to let them pass. I could see a large boulder field grow nearer and before I knew it I was amongst them, diligently following the route to the other side.

 

Now the dark water of Moke Lake came into view and as I curved round a little below the summit, Lake Wakatipu popped back into view as well, and finally I just had the last little incline to reach the busy and rocky summit of Ben Lomond (1748m/5735ft). The summit was so busy in fact that it was hard to find a spot to take a seat and people were wandering around taking photos, with bags strewn around the place. I ended up with a great view over Frankton and Lake Wakatipu to enjoy my lunch. Queenstown itself was almost totally hidden from view but I could see the tiny shape of the TSS Earnslaw steamship ploughing the waters between the town and the station on the far side of the lake. I took my time at the summit, enjoying the sunshine and the view. I normally hate busy trails but this time I actually quite enjoyed listening to the chatter and the buzz from everyone who was at the summit. It was a real mix of seasoned hikers who’d found it relatively easy, and those who were so proud of themselves for making it to the top when it had been tough for them.

 

The descent to the saddle was relatively quick despite the still steady stream of people hiking upwards that necessitated pausing on the trail. I didn’t linger at the saddle too long before retracing my steps back down the mountainside. This time I took the side track to cut across to the Skyline Gondola. I was tired and my legs were sore, and this section felt longer than it probably was. I was relieved to finally reach the Skyline Gondola terminal where hordes of people were everywhere ogling over the famous view. After pausing here for a while, I took the steep Tiki trail back through the forest down the hillside. My legs were really feeling the steepness and I was a little jelly-legged by the time I made it back into Queenstown about 8hrs after I left it, but I was thoroughly satisfied to have ticked another New Zealand summit off my list.

Spring Roadie: Mount Cook to Queenstown

My brother and I awoke to a sunny morning, however the mountain tops were nowhere to be seen. Mount Cook village is nestled amongst some of the tallest mountains in the country, close to the west coast, and as such, the area is privy to its own weather system, and at the mercy of the cloud systems. Luckily my brother had had plenty of opportunity to see Aoraki/Mount Cook the previous day, because we were not to see it again on our trip. I love this part of the country because it is surrounded by mountains, littered with walking and hiking trails, and due to being at the end of a very long dead-end road, it feels secluded and a bit less touristy than some of the rest of the South Island. I’ve visited a few times previously, including a visit where the village was surrounded by snow. The most recent visit prior to this one with my brother was to attempt to hike up to the Mueller Hut, high up in the mountains above the village, but I was a bit early in the season to go up, and wasn’t prepared for the snow in the upper reaches, thus being thwarted.

With an action packed 10 days of South Island driving to get through, my brother had selected the Hooker Valley track as his walk to do in the National Park. It is one of the country’s most popular walks, leading across alpine vegetation from the village to the lake at the base of Aoraki. We left the village in sunshine, but the clouds were falling over the mountain tops all around us, and it was clear the weather would close in as we progressed along the hike. There were plenty of other people on the trail that day, and we made good time treading along the well-maintained path. Some of the alpine flowers were starting to bloom, which along with the glacier lakes and nearby river, were a ready distraction as we hiked. As we neared the final rise at the end of the trail, spots of rain began and accompanied us as we reached the viewing area of the lake and Aoraki. The bulk of the mountain was hidden behind the cloud, which was a shame, but there was plenty of iceberg activity below to look at.

 

A path leads down the scree to the lakeside and this is the place to go for a close up of the icebergs. The rain was driving into us a little here which made it cold, so we hid in the lee of a large boulder whilst we had a snack, popping out briefly to take photos and pick up shards of ice. This was my brother’s first experience of icebergs, and it made me realise how much I’ve gotten used to the New Zealand landscapes in the 6 years I’ve lived here. I certainly don’t take it for granted, ever in awe when I see the glacier lakes, the towering mountains and the braided rivers, but I’d certainly forgotten what it was like to see these things for the first time. Whilst New Zealand has many similarities to Scotland, there are enough differences to make you appreciate you’re somewhere different.

 

By the time we had returned to the village, the clouds had closed in a little more. I had wanted to take my brother to the nearby Tasman glacier lake, but it was clear as we passed the turnoff that there would be nothing but cloud to see if we went, so it wasn’t worth wasting any more time. We had a few hours driving ahead to reach Queenstown, so by late morning we were on the road. Down the long stretch of road past Lake Pukaki, and onwards to the south, we had lunch in Twizel before continuing. There is a definite change in landscape as you follow the inland road south, and a somewhat desert quality starts to creep in. A little north of Omarama, I drove off the main road and headed along a dirt track, past an honesty box at the gate onto private property, and onwards to the Clay Cliffs. I’ve driven past the sign for these every other time I’ve been through this way, and so this was the first time I’d actually visited.

From the car park, an obvious track leads up to the base of the cliffs which stood distinctively like pinnacles against the blue sky. We had returned to sunshine, and meandered into the gaps between the peaks. It initially looked like there was an obvious path to follow, but after an initial climb and slide up loose scree, it became quite clear that the path petered out and became vague and loose under foot. Some people ahead of us sent a wake of loose stone in our direction and we did the same to those behind us. In the end, we backtracked a little, picked a different route through then once again reached an impasse. It felt like we were in some kind of foreign desert landscape and I was glad to have finally visited. My brother enjoyed squirrelling around the place also, and we found more paths to follow, away from the main track, as we slowly made our way back to the car park.

 

Continuing south, we cut through Omarama and onwards to Lindis Pass, one of the many mountain passes that New Zealand has. At 971m (3186ft), the Lindis Pass is the highest road pass in the South Island. The vegetation here is rather scrubby, which makes the view a little uninteresting to me, but at the top is a viewpoint where you can stop to look back at the road already travelled. From here, the drive down the other side towards Cromwell is windy, and we snaked our way down the hill, eventually arriving at Lake Dunstan which the road hugs all the way to Cromwell. We stopped briefly by the lake shore and also the giant fruit in Cromwell’s town centre, but the shadows were already starting to lengthen, accentuated by the steep mountain sides that flank the Kawarau Gorge on route to Queenstown. I’ve never had the opportunity to stop anywhere in the gorge before, and didn’t really know where was worth stopping at, so apart from a brief pull-in near a power station, we pushed on, arriving in Queenstown by the late afternoon.

 

Nestled around the shores of the large expanse of Lake Wakatipu, Queenstown is an odd place. The main settlement is sandwiched between the lake and the mountains and as such sits in shadow for the latter part of the day. Kelvin Heights across the Frankton Arm of the lake is better situated for sunshine hours. Queenstown will always be an immense drawcard for many, with nearby ski fields for winter lovers, adrenalin activities on its doorstep, water sports and hiking within easy reach and a plethora of bars and eateries to choose from. I however, am not one of its fans. I’ll happily visit it from time to time, but it is overcrowded and eager to part you with your cash. We were staying along the lakeshore away from the main drag which was great, and it was a pleasant walk along the lakefront as the sun was lowering. We went for dinner at The Cow, one of my favourite places to eat in town, and afterwards, I always find it impossible not to visit Patagonia, a chocolate and ice cream shop that sells divine ice cream. I didn’t need it, but I sure did my best to shove the cold chocolatey delight down my gob.

 

The next morning was one of sunshine, and we had another morning hike planned. Although Queenstown has a gondola, it is also possible to hike up the hillside to the viewing platform, rather than pay the fee for the gondola. So as we are both avid walkers, and by way of saving money, we left our accommodation that morning and picked our way up into the forest behind the hostel. Ironically, before my brother had announced his visit to New Zealand, I’d already booked to fly to Queenstown for Christmas, in order to hike Ben Lomond, the tall mountain immediately behind the lake. So a month before I’d be back to hike it, we found ourselves on the Ben Lomond track which eventually joins up with the road up to the gondola building. Some old pipes litter the track and as we found ourselves at a waterfall, the route became a little unclear. I discovered when I was back in December that we had taken a wrong turn, but we did eventually make our way back to the proper path.

The route eventually breaks out into the mountain bike park that is scattered across the hillside. Here the Ben Lomond track separates from the road to the gondola building and we had to keep our eyes and ears open as the bike tracks regularly cut across in front of us. There were plenty of bikes out on the trails, whizzing past us at speed at regular intervals. Finally, the familiar view of Queenstown and Lake Wakatipu opened up below us, and we were back amongst the crowds jostling around the viewing spots. With the ziplines, luge and bungy jump, this was a good example of how you could spend a lot of money here, but we simply meandered around and watched as people either raced down the tracks in their little carts or chucked themselves off a platform. At the time of visiting in November, there was plenty of work being done here to upgrade the facilities and this made a couple of spots extra busy, but we did manage to get some spots of grass to ourselves to soak up the view.

 

We hiked down via the Tiki trail which brought us out at the back of town. Picking our way through the streets, we stopped for lunch at a cafe overlooking a square, and then headed into the Queenstown gardens. The blue skies had been replaced by clouds, but the mountain tops were still clear so despite the change in outlook, we still had a great view over to the summits. It is a lovely walk along the lake foreshore round the little peninsula, and is another example of a free thing to do in Queenstown. In fact, if you don’t mind using your own two feet, there are several free things you can do here. Once on the far side of the peninsula, overlooking the Frankton Arm, we cut up onto the hill in the middle and into the compact Botanic Gardens. Being springtime, there were plenty of flowers in bloom to look at and we both found plenty to take photographs of.

 

We walked back to the car parked far around the lakefront and although we didn’t have enough time to drive all the way to Glenorchy, I took my brother to Bennet’s Bluff lookout about half way there where there is a stunning view across the lake. The cloud detracted from it a little, but the steely colour of the water was still stunning and it was worthwhile taking the detour. We weren’t to see any sun for the rest of the day, and on return to Queenstown, I drove through it and out the other side, cutting across the Kawarau river bridge tracking south. Hugging the southern arm of Lake Wakatipu for some distance, we hit rain as we continued onwards on our South Island road trip.

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…

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