Sunday, 30 January 2011

New Zealand Part 3: The West Coast of the South Island

We awoke to a clear blue sky and glorious sunshine: perfect weather for catching the ferry to the South Island, which on a bad day has quite a reputation for being a particularly bumpy crossing. Luckily for us the Cook Strait was flat calm and the journey through the Marlborough Sounds was more like a scenic cruise than a simple ferry crossing. Well, it is supposed to be one of the most beautiful in the world.

Once off the ferry we noticed how different the landscape is from the North Island - and it's exactly how we'd imagined New Zealand to be: very pretty, mountainous and with clear rivers and turquiose seas. Our first stop was a little campsite by a rocky beach in a little inlet called Robin Hood Bay. Access was via a twisty, single track gravel road, steep enough in places to make us wonder whether we made the right decision taking the van that way, but still, we made it and were rewarded with a pretty and quiet little campsite where we could fall asleep listening to the waves on the shore.

We decided on an anti-clockwise loop of the South Island as our itinerary, so our next stop was Nelson, driving through the Marlborough wine region on the way. We'll save the wine tour for the way back up though as we're still well stocked with wines purchased during our Hawkes Bay wine tour.

Nelson is quite a nice little town with a big cafe culture. We found a lovely church that had been converted into a nice pub and then treated ourselves to a tasty curry in a charming Indian restaurant across the road, whilst sampling some of the local pinot noir.

From Nelson we made our way over to the west coast, traversing mountains and scenic forests en route. We spent a night camping in the Buller Gorge, an old gold fossicking area with views of forested mountains and a fast-running river below.

Since arriving in the South Island we've had to step up our game in the war against flying, biting insects. One night we opened the van to go and brush our teeth and accidentally let in a swarm of twenty or so mosquitoes. We've also encountered the dreaded little black sandflies, which although we had been warned about them, are far worse than we imagined them to be! At one point I resorted to tucking my trousers into my socks and zipping my fleece up to my chin - and even then they went for my hands, face and hair! They're a total menace - much how I imagine the midges to be in Scotland, though I've never been.

Up until we hit the west coast proper we had been blessed with perfect summery weather. Now, the west coast of New Zealand is just across the Tasman Sea, off the east coast of Australia, so when the weather suddenly changed to torrential rain and high winds it should have been no surprise. Fortunately it was just a front passing through though and the fine weather returned the next day.

The conditions were pretty dire when we arrived at Punakaiki (reminiscent of driving through Rockhampton in Australia) so we found a nice campsite just off the beach and parked up for the night. However with the Pancake Rocks just up the road and with new, as yet unworn waterproof trousers in our bags we decided to take a stroll. Despite our best efforts to stay dry, however, our waterproofs just weren't up to the job in this rain, but still we persevered as there's only so wet you can get!
The stacks of Pancake Rocks did look especially impressive amongst the stormy, high seas but the horizontal rain meant we could only look downwind - the wind and rain combo was painful, stinging us on the face and hands if we tried to look north! Sadly this also meant we couldn't take any photos for fear of the camera being drenched! Lucky for us the the storm passed overnight so the following morning we were able to see the Pancake Rocks and blowholes in glorious sunshine with a backdrop of stormy, high seas so you can look out for the photos on the blog later!

With the weather renewed to its former, summery self we continued down the west coast to Franz Josef Glacier and did a couple of walks to take in the sights. Our first walk was to the foot of the glacier, then on the following morning we set off on a 12km walk to a vantage point looking out on the glacier about half way up.

A thirty minute drive away is Fox Glacier (not sure if this has anything to do with Fox's Glacier Mints?!) The pathway out to the glacier had been washed away in recent flooding so I stead we did a walk around a nearby lake, affording us stunning views of the glacier.
We camped by a pretty pebble beach that was covered with so much driftwood I can only imagine the kind of storms they must get here on a rough day. Huge weathered tree trunks had washed ashore, making the wide beach look a bit like a graveyard for dead, sea eroded trees. In the background were the snow-capped peaks of Mount Cook and Mount Tasman and the Fox glacier in between.

From Fox Glacier township we travelled down to Haast and visited the picturesque sleepy fishing cove, Jackson Bay, before continuing across the mountains down into adventure and adrenalin capital Queenstown! I'll let you know what we got up to there in my next post.

Love, Sarah and Kev xx

Monday, 17 January 2011

New Zealand Part 2

Taupo is just a short drive down from Rotorua and like Rotorua, boasts a wealth of geothermal thrills, adrenalin-fuelled activities and natural beauty. We camped next to the fast-flowing Waikato river, which feeds into the impressive and powerful Huka Falls a bit further downstream. The water is so clear and blue, making it a really beautiful setting for a campsite, and even better that it was free to camp here.

We spent a couple of days taking in the sights of the mountains (Mount Doom for 'Lord of the Rings' film fans) behind the enormous Lake Taupo (which is the same size as Singapore in terms of surface area). Before leaving town I decided I just had to do a bungy jump, falling 47 metres over the Waikato river in what is New Zealand's highest 'water-touch' bungy jump - and couldn't wait any longer. You will already have seen the video on the blog, no doubt.
Despite a few initial nerves, I absolutely loved it! I had asked for my fingertips to touch the water at the bottom of the jump, what I got however was a full head and shoulders dunk into the river, but I loved it all the more for it! I now can't wait until I get an opportunity to do another one - and I hear Queenstown in the South Island has some great jumps, including the world's highest, so watch this space and cross your fingers that my budget will stretch to it!

Next up we headed to the Hawkes Bay region on the east coast, in what forms the beginning of the wine-trail that continues down to Marlborough and Otago in the South Island. We arrived first in Napier, in which all the buildings are decorated in an art-deco style having been rebuilt following a devastating earthquake in the 1930s and when art-deco was in fashion. We really felt it resembled a British seaside town too, so not a massive amount to be impressed by!

With not a lot to do in Napier itself we booked on to do a wine tour of the Hawkes Bay region - with NZ wines being some of our favourites - and especially after thoroughly enjoying our afternoon of wine tourism in the Hunter Valley in Australia. Famous local wineries that you might have heard of include the Mission Estate and Church Road, amongst others, but the best ones were the boutique wineries - including one which claimed their wines don't give you a hangover! We'll get back to you on the truth in their claims!

Leaving Napier behind we headed down the highway to Wellington where we spent an evening catching up with some friends. There was quite a crowd of us in the pub that evening: Kev's friend Sacha who's originally from Devon but now lives just outside Wellington; Jojo who I did my massage training with and who I last saw when our paths crossed in Vietnam; and Anita who I know from my tumbling class back in London and who has recently moved back home to New Zealand. It's nice to be able to go to the other side of the world and still be able to get a group of friends together in the pub!

Next on our itinerary is the South Island - I'll try and blog again soon.

Love, Sarah and Kev xx

Friday, 7 January 2011

New Zealand: Back on the Road

So, on to country number eight, the penultimate of our grand tour, and one of the ones we've been looking forward to most.The flight to Auckland from Sydney was less than three hours but after getting up at three am to get to the airport we felt pretty jet lagged by the time we arrived. Our camper van wasn't due for pick up for a couple of days so we checked into a hostel (which suddenly felt very basic after our lovely, four star hotel in Sydney) and spent a couple of days hanging out in Auckland, shopping in the Christmas sales and seeing the sights in the city centre.

We booked our camper van with a different company to the one we used in Australia and since we wanted a fifty-day hire we just went with the cheapest one - except that the cheapest is a company called Wicked Campers and they garishly spray paint all their vans with embarrassing pictures and slogans - so we're not exactly inconspicuous when on the road (or trying to find a quiet spot to camp). It's amazing how much people are pre-judging us based on the van design and brand, and we're experiencing a lot more hands on horns and dirty looks from other road users, even when we're driving considerately and safely! That said, we do seem to get a lot of respect from the younger, backpacker types! On the plus side we did get a complimentary upgrade to a bigger van, so it's not all bad.

From Auckland we headed north, arriving in the Bay of Islands on New Year's Eve. Finding a campsite was really challenging as it's the Christmas holidays and all the Kiwis are on holiday too. We ended up parking on someone's front lawn for a small fee - cheaper than any campsite and right in the centre of town so we were brilliantly located for the fireworks at midnight and only a few minutes from the cafes and restaurants of the town centre.

We had a bit of an unconventional New Year's Eve celebration this year: instead of taking to the streets and joining the revellers in their mission to get drunk, we had an early night - or, rather, a pre-fireworks nap! Kev was suffering from a bit of a cold and I was just recovering from one so none of us was feeling great. Upon hearing the fireworks start at midnight we woke up, ran down to the beach and watched the spectacle over the water, then back to bed again!

Sticking with the unconventional theme, on New Year's Day I booked in to do a a tandem skydive over the Bay of Islands, which included a 30 minute scenic flight, then 70 seconds freefall before the parachute opened. We awoke to glorious sunshine and not a cloud was in the sky by the afternoon, making it perfect skydiving weather. Although I was a little bit nervous in the plane going up (and ultimately sitting in the door of the plane, about to jump), I absolutely loved it! I don't think seventy seconds has ever passed so quickly!
Kev, on the other hand, wasn't quite so keen to throw himself out of a plane and was quite content (albeit nervously) on the ground taking photos of me. Post jump, however, having seen me survive a skydive he's not quite so averse to the idea so watch this space!

Before heading back down south (of the North Island) we did a loop around northern New Zealand to take in some more of the scenery. We passed the pretty Hokianga Harbour and then drove down through the Kauri forests, including the enormous Tane Mahuta - a kauri tree that's thousands of years old and features in Maori legend. The roads are so twisty here it takes ages to get anywhere, but it certainly keeps you alert (if not car sick!) and there is some stunning scenery along the way.

Our final campsite north of Auckland was amidst a big kauri forest. As darkness fell we did a walk through the forest with red torches to try and spot kiwis (we're talking the flightless birds here, not the local residents). They certainly make a lot of noise, snuffling and scuffing about in the undergrowth, but despite hearing them I didn't get a glimpse of one. Kev however did see one, but only as it was moving away into the bushes.

Our next stop was Rotorua after a day's drive south. Home to Maori villages set amidst extensive geothermal activity: boiling, bubbling mud pools, flowing, steaming mineral pools and errupting geysers.The village we visited cooks all its food in geothermal pools and in 'steam ovens' a pit dug in the ground and covered with a wooden lid, so the vapour from the hot springs cooks the food by steaming it. We tried some corn on the cob that had been cooked in a muslin bag lowered into a hot geothermal pool - delicious!

The whole town smells strongly of sulphur, especially on a cloudy day - and it's a smell that you can never quite get used to, but worth persevering with in order to take in all Rotorua's sights and activities. The campsite we stayed on had four thermal pools, with water straight from the ground at a consistent temperature of 38 - 41 degrees Celsius, lovely for an early morning or evening soak before bed!

There's also an abundance of things to do in Rotorua and surrounds. I managed to resist the temptation to do bungy jumping (I'll save that for later on in the trip) and skydiving (to be done again if funds permit) but we did have a go at luge and white water rafting, plus I did 'Skyswing': a bungy style swing which swings you off the side of a mountain at a speed of 150 kilometres per hour!

Our rafting experience was good fun, but rather nerve-racking as we went over the highest commercially rafted waterfall in the world! It wasn't so much the 7 metre drop that was scary, more the risk that the raft capsises and we might all fall out! Fortunately it passed without incident!

Next up we continue our journey southbound: onwards down the 'geothermal highway' and through wine country.

Sarah & Kev xx