So. Where to start? At the very beginning, where else?
Arrival & Hanmer Springs.
As they did 2 year's ago, Emirates delivered us safely and quite smoothly to Christchurch Airport on 9th November. Ace Rentals united us with our first car (for a mere £9.50 per day) and we were off for our 2-hour trip up to Hanmer Springs, taking it somewhat steady after 37 hours in transit.
On our first day, as usual, we tried to shake off the jet lag with a walk, only 3 hours this time; Irene was quite kind to me!! Hanmer is a lovely wee town where we enjoyed the coffees, the banter and the Sunday Market but, oddly perhaps, not a relaxing dip in the Hot Springs themselves – Irene wanted to get her pedicure done instead.
The North West.
Body clocks adjusting, we set off to Cape Foulwind on the west coast, through stunning scenery, a mix of rugged mountains and rolling pasture, with small conurbations and farms dotted hither & thither in the heart of the island. We took a stroll break at the Buller Swing Bridge Reserve and coffee breaks at Spring Junction and Inangahua Junction, both with a fuel station, a café, 6 or so houses and the usual friendly Kiwi welcome.
Coffee, indeed, cafes, are something that the New Zealanders do really well (like playing Rugby, I guess.) Privately owned & run, they serve great coffee in a very comfortable & relaxed atmosphere and the grub is just too tempting for words. Isn't that the way all cafes should be?
The Charming Creek Walkway, Cape Foulwind itself and the famous Pancake Rocks were the attractions for us on this part of the west coast, with its magnificent seascapes & crashing breakers. Pancake Rocks, in particular, exceeded our expectations, stunning rock formations that give them their name, the regular thundering of spectacular blowholes, stunning views to south & north, blue skies, sunshine – what more could we want? Apart from Postman Pat's Van!!
14th November and on to Greymouth, where we bade farewell to our Toyota and boarded the Transalpine for our train journey over the spine of South Island back to Christchurch. From our comfy seat, it was just like watching a tourist board advert as the scenery slipped past our picture window. Alluvial agricultural plains, raging river crossings, damp and threatening rainforest, snow-capped Alpine vistas, rolling farmland, horse liveries, oh-so-tall windbreak hedges – you get it all in one journey. And, because I wasn't driving, I was able to enjoy it too. Good choice, Irene.
Back to Christchurch.
Bathed in the early evening light as we pulled in, Christchurch looked at peace with itself once again. They are doing remarkably well after the 2 earthquakes on 2010 & 2011, though most of the city centre is still a no go zone. There are some superb examples of the get up & go spirit including the shopping centre that has re-opened and is thriving in a collection of containers, and a joyous Thai eatery whose owners' City Centre restaurant was destroyed by the quake.
They had no insurance but, instead of sitting back waiting for handouts, they found a plot of land on the corner of a busy road, rented it and set up shop in a caravan and container. You sit at trestle tables, eat out of the carton with plastic cutlery but the food is simply superb. Mmmm. It was also just 2 blocks from our motel, good planning, or what?
Up early next day and back to Ace for our next car - this time a Nissan Sunny with a tender 200,000 kms on the clock and none the worse for it. Negotiating the "rush hour" traffic, we worked our way out to Governor's Bay where we were duty bound to stop off for a late brekkie at She Chocolat, as recommended by Ralf & Karin, guests of ours. Albeit grey and overcast, the vista over the hills and bay as we sipped our beverages was delightful.
Volcanos & Dolphins.
On then to Akaroa, one of the delightful small towns in the dormant volcano that is the Banks Peninsula. An almost perfect circle when viewed from above, the "Banks" is a series of deep lush valleys nestling between spines of hills that radiate down from the former rim to the sea. Like spokes in a wheel. Driving from one to the next, whilst avoiding the softies option of the main road, comprises challenging stretches of unsealed road that clamber up and down over the spines. Driving skills to the fore, we were mightily relieved not to have met anything coming the other way. Folk who live there, earning their living from the land, must get used to some of the steeper & narrower sections. Such fun!
Akaroa is very French in style – guess who settled there 200 or so years ago, having had to buy it off we English because we got there first!! A delightful little place in the Spring, no doubt a good bit busier in the Summer, it was here that we celebrated this year's Anniversary, our 15th, with dinner at Vangioni's - their Mediterranean fare was the closest I could find to Irene's favourite, Italian. I'd managed to keep the booking a secret too – a rare event.
Next day it was off for another "training" walk, this time up to the crater rim, into the cloud, wind, drizzle and cold. After clambering up through long wet tussock grass and heather, we were sodden below the knees – we looked just like a Rich Tea biscuit half-dunked in a cup of coffee!! As we crested the top, though, the weather relented and the cloud started to lift, revealing the azure blue waters and sun-kissed rooftops far, far below.
That afternoon saw us enjoy a spur of the moment choice, undoubtedly one of the highlights of our trip, as we jumped aboard one of the Black Cat Wildlife Cruises. Meandering down Akaroa Harbour and on out into the Southern Ocean (next stop the Antarctic), we enjoyed birdlife too numerous to detail here, a pod of dolphins which obligingly came to play alongside and a truly excellent and informative commentary. A must do for any of you planning to go.
Rakaia & Fleur's Place.
Heading ever southwards, we shunned the main drag and chose instead the Inland Tourist Route. This gave us the chance to fit yet more walk training at the Rakaia Gorge, a not so gentle, 3 hour amble alongside the azure River Rakaia, all set against the backdrop of those snowy topped Alps.
Later, back in the Nissan, beating our way towards Moeraki, we (and everyone else) were engulfed in the mother & father of rainstorms. The wipers, even at their fastest, struggling to shift the torrents battering the windscreen, Stomp doing one of their virtuoso performances on the roof, we joined the slow moving convoy of traffic, crawling along at no more than 10 kph. The storm passed after 30 mins or so and I'd love to say that the sun came out, but it didn't!!
Moeraki is a tiny former fishing village, perched at the end of a short spur of land, famous for its Boulders and for Fleur's Place. This glorious restaurant, where we "Anniversaried" 2 years ago, is one of Rick Stein's favourite places to eat in the world. It does not disappoint.
After a very early start next day for me to watch the All Black playing Italy on TV while Irene slept on, we enjoyed a very relaxing Sunday in Oamaru, immersing ourselves in a Victorian Celebration, with stalls, dancing, musicians, old carriage rides and sideshows, including a glorious Punch & Judy – rather odd with the Kiwi accent!! We were amazed at just how many folk turned out in Victorian Costume – they numbered in their hundreds and looked truly splendid.
One of the main attractions, a tradition unique to Oamaru, I understand,was a stone-sawing contest. Apparently, the local white stone, when quarried, is quite soft and simple to fashion by hand. Time and the weather harden it, of course, and the many Oamaru buildings constructed from it are still in magnificent condition.
Penguins & Chocolate.
Our next stop was the Otago Peninsula for a visit, at Portobello, to our second Penguin Café, we'd visited the first, up in Pohara, on our trip 2 years ago. Anyone who knows my enthusiasm for the music of Penguin Café and its forebear, the Penguin Café Orchestra, will know why I dig these places out – a bit of a pilgrimage, if you like.
Otago is also home to Nature's Wonders, located right at the tip of the peninsula. Owned & run by the delightfully eccentric Perry and his good lady, we very much enjoyed the sheep shearing demo, which followed our Argocat Tour. These great little 8-wheelers took us out to bits of Perry's spread that no ordinary vehicle could reach and we got up close & personal with fur seals, blue penguins, the very rare yellow-eyed penguins and shags (cormorants to polite folk). Albatrosses soared overhead as we zoomed up hill & down dale. A mighty fine afternoon.
Next morning, though, got off to an even more perfect start with a tour round................Cadburys in Dunedin. Yum yum, you can never have too much chocolate!!
The Deep South.
No, not that Deep South, but the Catlins, one of the very quietest parts of South Island, with just a scattering of tiny towns, there is still plenty to make a trip well worthwhile. The main road through to Invercargill was only tarmacked a few short years ago which does make travel a tad easier.
Slope Point, the southernmost tip of South Island, but only just over halfway between the Equator & the South Pole!, has the craziest angled trees we've ever seen, Curio Bay has the petrified remains of an ancient forest, which are surprisingly easy to pick out, while Nugget Point has its magnificent lighthouse. We took a rewarding stroll through one of the last stands of the oldest trees in New Zealand and earned brownie points with the locals for helping to get a stray bull back into its field.
Papatowai is home to the Lost Gypsy Gallery, housed in an odd looking old bus and run by a guy who makes homemade automata from recycled stuff. We supped coffees at the Whistling Frog Café and at Niagara Café, where we were privileged to see 3 London Olympic medals, won by the café's Paralympian owner and her partner!!
Based in a cosy motel in Owaka (pop 360), which surprisingly has 2 restaurants – both of which met with our approval – and a pub, we'd invested 2 days exploring the Catlins before heading cross country to our next stop – Alexandra.
About halfway, we came across a tiny place called Beaumont - so small they can't even afford "one horse"!! It does, however, have a Millennium Walk - guess where we went!! 3 hours, at pace, working up a good sweat on a very still & sunny afternoon, just what the Doctor ordered, Irene told me!! The Beaumont Inn offered us a nice cuppa plus the usual friendly chat – though perhaps the landlady was grateful to have a reason to break off from her book-keeping!
One of the great things about Alexandra, apart from the big clock on the mountainside overlooking the town, is that it is on the Otago Rail Trail. Once a thriving railway during the heyday of the goldfields, it is now a cyclists' and walkers' paradise. We hitched a lift out to Auripo and cycled the 40 odd miles back, 2 long dark tunnels, 3 very high bridges and glorious views unfolding beneath our tyres over the next few hours. The bit about "saddle sore"? No, not me, guess who? No training by her, no sympathy from me.
Queenstown - the ups and downs.
24th November saw us heading off to Queenstown, our base for the next few days. Returning to 33 Lomond Lodge, it was good to meet Lauren and her boss, Lee, again and to settle back into the room we had 2 years ago. The next 2 days saw us putting in place all the bits of the jigsaw for our Routeburn Tramp in a Day for Maggie's Cancer Care.
We confirmed our 3 bus bookings, checked with the DOC about track conditions, closely studied the weather forecast, stocked up on water & provisions, then drove our car up though Glenorchy to the Routeburn Shelter where, if all went well, it would be to welcome us 2 days later. Back down to Queenstown on the bus.
The following morning, another bus took us round to Te Anau, a wonderfully peaceful, lakeside town, where we discovered more things to do – next time. An early night followed a bite to eat, then out of bed at 05.30, ready for our 3rd bus at 07.00. No turning back, we were off to The Divide, the jumping off point for the Routeburn Track.
This is one of New Zealand's Classic Tramps, usually completed over 3 or 4 days, stopping off in huts or lodges en-route. We were going to do it in a day – yeah, right! 11.5 hours later, after a glorious, if sometimes arduous, 10 hours, 10 minutes of walking, we were back at the Shelter and and our trusty Nissan Sunny. The tramp was something else, I can tell you, even Irene said that it was at the top end of what she's OK with and she's the much stronger walker of the two of us. We felt very pleased & proud to have knocked that challenge on the head.
A very careful drive back to Queenstown, sun setting over Lake Wakatipu, a quick visit to the 4-Square for rolls, ham & cheese, then back to Lomond Lodge, a hot shower, some repairs to my leg (I'll tell you if you ask me!), a ham & cheese sarnie and then...............sleep.
My challenge the next day was far, far easier on the body, I have to say. All it comprised was:- enjoying brekkie, getting into a minibus, changing into a onezie, putting on a harness, leather helmet & goggles, attending a briefing, then doing exactly as I was told, clambering into and subsequently falling out of an aeroplane at 15,000 feet. Whoosh - out we went! Adopt the banana position, look for the cameraman, smile, breathe – they're all harder than you might think. Despite all that to think about, I did remember to enjoy the view which was, wait for it, breathtaking!!
64 seconds after leaving the security of the aircraft and at what they describe as the "Terminal Velocity" of 200 kph, my Jumpmaster pulled the ripcord. A semblance of tranquillity was restored and the landing field, with Irene, in signature red, gazing upwards, hove into view. Legs up, feet forward, the perfect landing. I remembered my lines to camera, "Shaken not Stirred" and my jumpsuit was unzipped to reveal my DJ & bow tie - James Bond-style, thus earning Maggie's an extra £150.00 – my thanks to Grace Fullerton and to Alan Parr!!
Both Maggie's Missions accomplished with no major damage to report. Kindle & cuppa time that afternoon. Perfect.
We broke the journey back to Christchurch Airport at Tekapo to undertake the Night-time Observatory Tour on our last evening. Sadly, it was cancelled, we were defeated by cloud cover, drat.
En route though, we had diverted to the Edmund Hillary Centre, up near Mount Cook. In the time we had available that afternoon, we could not do this splendid place justice – we shall be back.
Emirates did their job again, via Sydney, Bangkok & Dubai, as usual and we landed back in Glasgow on a bright, chilly day, 2nd December.
Looking back, our trip was superb. Apart from the Observatory Tour we ticked all our boxes, we completed our two challenges for Maggie's, we discovered a few things that were not in our Rough Guide and, perhaps just as important, unearthed a lot more things for us to do on our next trip.
New Zealand, be afraid. The Englands will be back.
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