Sunday, 20 February 2011

Glacier trekking and other frolics

After our amazing skydiving trip in Abel Tasman, we drove for a whole day south to get to Fox Glacier, and the next day we went glacier trekking! The glacier is a 13km-long, slow-moving river of ice running down the valley. Snow falls in the mountains and then presses down and compacts into ice, which then flows slowly downhill under its own weight before melting at the bottom (it takes years for ice at the top to reach the bottom). We had a gorgeous day for it - crisp and sunny - and the views in the mountains were fantastic:

We went with a guided group so that we could actually get up on the glacier itself. After a walk up to the first section of ice, we stuck crampons on our walking boots and started climbing up a stairway that had been cut into the ice. The glacier is always moving and parts gradually fall away into chasms, so the guides are always having to find new routes through it. Our guide went ahead of us, scouting a route through and hacking at the ice with a pick axe to create footholds.

It was a really amazing day, and a very memorable experience. Plus we had some silly moments too:

After the glacier trip we headed to Wanaka, which is set in the middle of some of the most beautiful lakes and mountains I've ever seen:

We all really enjoyed Wanaka: it had really nice cafes, a great ice cream parlour, lovely walks, and a brilliant little independent cinema full of sofas where you can get a pizza in the interval! (We went there to see 127 Hours - not for the faint-hearted!) We started our first day in Wanaka with a walk around Mt Iron, and we also spent a couple of evenings swimming in Wanaka lake:
The next day we went to 'Puzzle World' - brilliant fun! It's just outside Wanaka, and they have a two-storey maze with towers and a bridge which was genuinely difficult to figure out:

They also have a sitting area where you can while away hours doing puzzles, and they have whole set of illusion rooms, including this one (demonstrated by Stu and Dan):

We really could have stayed longer in Wanaka, but we are on a schedule so we pushed on to Queenstown. (On the way we stopped for tea at quaint Arrowtown, a lovely old gold mining town which reminded me of Lewes back home.) Queenstown is most famous for being the adrenaline-junky capital of New Zealand - you can do pretty much any variation of throwing yourself off bridges and out of planes. We had already done a bit of that sort of thing and, since it's quite pricey, we gave it a miss. Luckily, Queenstown has lots more to offer. It's a really nice little town to walk around, with lovely lake and mountain views and plenty to see. Stu and I had had a hankering for mini-golf for a while now, and we spent a happy hour or two on a very elaborate mini-golf course, complete with electronic 'effects' that lit up/played music/took your golf ball up a ski lift. Here is Stu making like King Kong at the golf course:

We also made sure we had a burger at 'Fergburger', which is something of an institution in Queenstown, and it totally lived up to the hype. I think I'll stop there and leave you with the above image, because I like the idea of it lingering in the minds of our friends and family across the globe...

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

From North Island to South: Wellington to Abel Tasman

Just when I think I can't love this country any more than I already do, it gets even better!

We are now on New Zealand's South Island. The four of us have elected to spend slightly more time here than on the North Island, following advice from friends and other travellers. So far I've enjoyed the whole thing, it's hard to choose a favourite place!

Our last stop on the North Island was Wellington, the capital city. We didn't spend a huge amount of time in the city for one reason or another, but I liked it! We stayed one night in a very odd campsite just minutes from the inter-island ferry. I say odd, because it wasn't bad, it was just basically a car park with some clean toilets and showers. It was weird though, sleeping in a van, right in the city centre.

So our stand-out experiences of Wellington were: 1) a weird place to sleep; 2) a nice South Indian meal (we treated ourselves to a rare trip to a restaurant); and 3) best of all: the Weta Cave! Weta (named after a native NZ bug) is the home of the company who do all the amazing models, weaponry, special effects and other digital awesomeness for such films as the Lord of the Rings trilogy, District 9, Avatar, King Kong and ooh, loads of others! The Cave is basically a tiny museum and shop with lots of collectables for sale. I was in heaven seeing all of the LOTR paraphinalia, especially this guy: Ania also met this fighting Uruk-hai: a massive orc from LOTR! This is the actual outfit and actual size. The guy playing Lurtz (for that is his name) would apparently sleep while this make-up was put on him, before filming for up to twelve hours a day!
The staff were all really enthusiastic and let Ania and I pose for some photos with the alien weaponry from District 9! Wow! Whilst in Wellington we also checked out a more traditional kind of museum called Te Papa, which had some fun exhibits.

On 8th February we caught the inter-island ferry. It's a three-hour ride from Wellington to Picton on the South Island. We spent a night at a campsite near Picton and did their 'farm walk' the next morning, finishing up at a spectacular waterfall.

Our next stop was the nearby Marlborough Wine Region. 75% of NZ's wine is made here, according to our guidebook. I can now testify that it's gooood! The area's huge number of wineries are mainly found in two towns: Renwick and Blenheim. We arrived in Renwick in the afternoon and drove to four wineries, taking advantage of the free tastings (Dan drove, he's not so keen on wine: lucky for me, Ania and Sarah!). The next day the four of us hired bikes and spent the day cycling around different wineries, tasting as we went! We made it to five cellar doors and a brewery. For some reason it got harder to pedal as the day went on! At home Ania and I are usually red wine drinkers, but it's been the whites that have impressed us here. We've had some really nice Riesling, Gewurtztraminer and Pinot Gris. Yum!

Cheers! Outside Mahi winery, with their vines in the background:
After saying goodbye to Marlborough, we drove to the Abel Tasman area, in the north west of the South Island. We stayed for two nights on the driveway of Sarah's friend Fiona (in our campervan!). There's a National Park in the Abel Tasman and the whole area is really beautiful. We stayed in a town called Motueka with Fiona and packed a few activities into our short stay.

On 12th we got up early and went sea kayaking! We set off in a group of six: us four plus our guide Caitlyn and another traveller called Mitch. They were both from Canada. Within the first few minutes of setting off we saw an island with lots of seals basking on the rocks and playing in the water. There were adults and also pups, they were very cute!

After a morning of kayaking, we had a beach picnic and then the four of us parted ways from Caitlyn and Mitch and did a two-hour coastal walk. It was incredibly beautiful. We could have been in Thailand on one of the islands!

Picnicing on the beach, with a nosy, unusual-looking duck:One of the many amazing views from our coastal walk:
A gorgeous beach where we chilled out and had a swim, whilst waiting for our water taxi:
In the evening we did a skydive! Fiona works for Skydive Abel Tasman and organised some jumps for us. We went in twos: Ania and I first, Dan and Sarah second. I paid to have a DVD made of my jump, so we had five people in our little plane: me and Evan (my tandem guy); Ania and John (her tandem guy); and Kev (my cameraman!). We climbed and climbed to 16,500 feet, taking in the amazing views on the way up. The five of us were squashed in sitting on the floor of our tiny plane, right next to the door that we would soon leap out of! And leap we did! I will never forget the sight of Ania saying, 'I love you!' and then just... falling! Amazing! Kev was out next and stood on the side of the plane as me and Evan got ready. A few photos for the camera mounted on the wing and we leapt! I'm grinning as I remember it now. What a feeling! We were free-falling for a whole minute, which was great. Kev was with us, taking photos and video as we rushed towards the ground. Then suddenly, Evan pulled the cord and we were floating gracefully towards the ground. We could see fields, the sea, mountains and the sun: all below us (or so it seemed when it comes to the sun!). I'm really pleased with my DVD too, they did a great job! I'd recommend it to most people, it really was one of the best days of my life!

Ania and John, jumping from 16,500 feet:
Kev's view as he clings onto the side of the plane. Ev and I are about to jump out!
Ev and I, falling!

Monday, 7 February 2011

Stinks, treks, and underground adventures...

Our next stop was Rotorua, which is famous for being in a volcanic region full of geothermal activity and sulphurous smells. Dan and I visited Wai-O-Tapu, a 'geothermal wonderland', and I can honestly say that I have never smelled a nastier stink than the devilish stinks I smelled there. It was also thoroughly fascinating, and absolutely beautiful. The geothermal activity and hot volcanic springs create the most incredible natural colours in the rocks and water, as well as many areas where hot, stinky steam belches out of the ground (some of these phenomena have been given names such as 'The Devil's Home'). Here are a few of my favourites:
The 'Champagne Pool', with steam boiling over it:
A lake that has a natural lime green colour because of sulphur in the water:
Bright yellow sulphur:
Dan and I then met back up with Sarah and Stu, and the four of us went round the corner to visit some boiling mud pools (otherwise known as 'The Bog of Eternal Stench'):
That evening we fled the smells and drove to Waitomo, ready for a caving adventure the next day! The Waitomo region has 310 known caves - the majoriy of the caves in New Zealand - and we went caving in the Mangawhitikau cave system. Our group consisted of the four of us, plus two really nice Danish girls and our lovely guide, Scott. Dressed in a fabulous ensemble of wetsuits, wellies and helmets, we started with a 29-metre vertical abseil down into the mouth of the cave to the river at the bottom.
Here is Stu, decescending into the drop:
The huge entrance chamber to the cave:
Once down there, we switched on the lights on our helmets and waded upstream into the dark! There was plenty of clambering and caving, and even some proper spelunking (which is the name given to the 'sport' of squeezing yourself through claustrophobia-inducing rock tunnels)! Some of the tunnels we went through were literally so narrow that you have to shuffle through on your tummy with your arms above your head, because if you had your arms by your sides you would get stuck. It's mostly an exercise in self-control - it takes some serious 'mind-over matter' not to panic in such tiny rocky spaces (but we all succeeded admirably, I hasten to add)! Stu and Dan even managed the very narrowest tunnel (Sarah and I took one look and opted out)!
Stu and I underground:
One of the main reasons we visited the cave was to see the New Zealand glow worms, which hang from the rock celining in their thousands, glittering and glowing like a really bright, close night-sky. The glow worms are actually the larvae of a gnat fly, and they live on the ceiling and hang lots of sticky 10-15cm long 'fishing lines' down to catch any insects in the cave. They glow to attract their food; insects are attracted to the light and become ensnared in the sticky lines. (We also saw some cave eels in the water.) Here is our group sitting in the underground river. If you look carefully, you can see the glittering glow worms in the dark above us:
After having a good close-up look at the glow worms, we each grabbed a big inflatable donut ring to sit in and went 'tubing' (also known as black water rafting) - floating down the river looking up at the glowing ceiling with our lights off. Here is Stu tubing over a mini-waterfall:
After a quick stop for a snack of chocolate and hot squash, we made our way back upstream (taking the time to leap off some rocks with our inflatable rings) to the entrance chamber. We then did a fairly easy rock climb back up out of the mouth of the cave. Here I am emerging, with Stu, Dan and Sarah down below:
Back at base camp, we had much-needed hot showers and a hot mug of soup - aaah! It was an absolutely brilliant day!
After the caving we drove to Taupo, which has the biggest lake in NZ ('Lake Taupo', of course). The views were lovely, and the next day was a bit more relaxing. In the (late) morning we went to The Honey Hive, just outside of town, where we learned about honey bees and tasted lots of different kinds of New Zealand honey, as well as mead and clover honey cream liqueur! We also had honey coffee and honey ice-cream at their little cafe.
In the afternoon, Dan and Sarah went for a walk to a waterfall, while Stu and I went to a hot springs park which was attached to our campsite. The water there is naturally hot from the volcanic springs, and is full of lots of minerals. It was very relaxing, and also fun - they had a brilliant water slide that we went on about twenty times, as well as giant chess!
We then drove to Tongariro, because the next day we had an early start: we did the Tongariro Alpine Crossing! New Zealand is big on treks, or as they call it, 'tramping', and the Tongariro Alpine Crossing is reputedly one of the best one-day tramps in the country. It is 19km through mountainous terrain. For any LOTR fans, the Tongariro National Park is also where Mordor was filmed! We got up in the dark and rain and got dropped at the start with our backpacks and waterproofs. The weather was not good at all, but at least it wasn't too hot! There was a heavy mist, so it looked really eerie. The ascent started fairly easily, trekking through rocky scrubland past trickling streams and waterfalls, but soon it gfot tougher as we approached 'The Devil's Staircase'. Here the track got much steeper and the landscape started looking much more like Mordor - black volcanic rock and less and less vegetation as we got higher up the mountain. Just as we were getting really worn out, we got to the South Crater, which is a huge flat area, and a short break from climbing uphill. The mist was so heavy that we couldn't really see the sides of the crater - it felt like we were in some sort of alien landscape. Then we were out the other side and going up again, with the track getting gravelly and looser so our feet slid out from beneath us as we tried to walk uphill - it was really tough going! The rock and sand was black with chunks of red thrown in as we approached the highest point of our walk: the Red Crater. We stopped for lunch at the top, surrounded by mist. Just over the crest of the hill the fog cleared enough for us to get a view of the reddiush crater behind us and the Emerald Lakes below.
Stu in the black rocky landscape:
In the South Crater mists:
Here I am washing my legs in one of the lakes after tripping over and getting covered in black gravel!:
The downhill part of the walk was longer but not such hard work, and as the fog cleared and the sun came out we really started to enjoy the views:
We tramped down from the Mordor-esque landscape, through scrubland and past some stinky sulphur vents, and finally the last part of the trek was through a forest. By the time we reached the end we'd been walking for six and a half hours, and we were all aching! Nevertheless, we pushed on with a bit more driving to get to Wanganui, where some friends of Sarah's live. John and Judy brought us some delicious cakes and home-grown strwberries at our campsite, which was just the ticket at the end of an achy day!
Here's a slice of van life:

Judy and John kindly showed us around Wanganui the next day, and we were all exhausted and incredibly grateful to them for giving us such a relaxing day. They have a traditional Kiwi 'bach' (beach house) which they let us stay in. It was wonderful to relax and just read a book with a gorgeous view of the sea. And that brings us up to date! Phew!

On the Road and Off the Grid in New Zealand

Hello again, everyone! Let me start by apologising for the lack of blog action in the past week or so. It's not easy finding a computer when you're on and road and living in a campervan. Our days have been action-packed too, which doesn't help blogging but has been loads of fun for us. Last you knew we were in Auckland I think, so I'll start there...

We arrived in Auckland on 25th January and Ania and I spent a pleasant few days at a lovely hostel called City Garden Lodge, in a posh bit of the city called Parnell. We ventured into the city centre a few times and saw some sights including the famous Sky Tower, which looks a bit like a massive syringe. And talking of doing drugs, if you are on them you can bungee jump off this thing! We are in the country that invented a lot of extreme sports after all!

The Sky Tower. Want to jump off it? You can! Clean underwear not included.

We're doing another campervan road trip around New Zealand with our friends Dan and Sarah, who we met in Australia. They were both arriving in NZ a few days after us, so Ania and I spent a few days relaxing in Auckland. We got ourselves to the cinema a couple of times, to see The Kings Speech and Black Swan, both of which were excellent (I especially loved TKS).

On the 29th the four of us picked up our new van! We've got another Jucy (same company Ania and I hired from in Australia, recognisable from their *ahem* tasteful green and purple exterior)! This time we've gone for a much bigger vehicle called the 'Condo'. It's really good! We've got a proper fridge, a two-ring gas stove, a TV/DVD player and two double beds!

For those of you who don't know the geography, New Zealand is made up of two islands, the North and the South. Auckland is nearer the north of the North Island, so we decided to head... you guessed it: north first, to see the extreme tip of the er... North Island. Our first night in our new home was spent at a D.O.C. (Department of Conservation) camping ground in a place called Uretiti. We had to take some detours on the way because of flooding (what is it with floods, everywhere we go?!), but we made it to a nice place to stop right next to a beach. We arrived pretty late, so didn't appreciate how incredible the beach was, until we started our day the next morning with a brief visit, where we took some good photos:

Next we set off to a lovely little town called Russell, in the extreme North of New Zealand, in a place called the Bay of Islands. We had a walk around this pretty little seaside town and drank some good beer outside a pub right next to the wharf. The barman was from Grays in Essex (right near where I'm from) so gave us a locals' discount! I guess technically he and I are locals! We ate some great fish and chips, or fish and 'cheps' as the Kiwis pronounce it. Ania got some kumara chips - that's the NZ name for sweet potatoes, which are very popular out here.
Having a drink at Russell Wharf at sunset:
Fish and cheps!The next day we spent the morning in Russell and booked ourselves a boat trip to see all the different islands that make up the Bay of Islands. The four of us went on a boat called 'The Excitor', which is pretty fast and tours a few of the islands in an hour and a half. You don't get off the boat, but you do get to see some great scenery and take some photos. It was a great trip! They whizz along at a good pace playing loud music as you crash through the waves, bumping up and down in your seat. I remember particularly enjoying The Sultans of Swing by Dire Straits and Love Shack by the B52s! We saw some great views, including the boring-sounding but actually-quite-interesting 'Hole in the Rock', which our boat drove right through.
Ready for 'The Excitor'!
It's a hole. In a rock. What more do you want?!
After leaving 'The Excitor', Ania and I went to an interesting museum called Pompallier. Ania was interested because they have a pre-Industrial Revolution printing press there. The whole place was a Mission house that produced prayer books in Maori, set up by Catholics to convert the Maori population. The books were all made by hand, so the house has two printing presses, a tannery (to make leather to coat the books) and some beautiful English gardens. The two Maori guides who walked us through the place were excellent. We also learnt here that Russell was the original capital of New Zealand!
Ania with the press, being carefully watched by the Virgin Mary(!)

That same afternoon we did a massive stint of driving south, going past Auckland to Hot Water Beach. As the name would suggest, this place has hot water on the beach! If you take a spade and dig below the sand there's geothermally-heated water! It's boiling hot in places and needs to be mixed with cold sea water to get it to a tolerable temperature. We went at 10 o'clock at night: it was like sitting in a sandy hot tub in the dark. Lots of other people were all around us doing the same thing, it was fun! On our way to and from the beach it was pitch black and we found some amazing phosphorescence in the sand. Our feet were lighting up the ground like the Michael Jackson video for Smooth Criminal.
Ania, Sarah and Dan, dancing on the lit-up sand at Hot Water Beach:

On 1st February we drove to a place called Matamata, which ten years ago would have been best known for it's cattle farming. These days, however, it's a pilgrimage site for Lord of the Rings geeks like me, Ania and Dan! It's where they built Hobbiton, The Shire and Bag End: home to Bilbo and later, Frodo Baggins. Sarah wasn't so interested so she chilled out in our van while us three went 'There and Back Again'. Now before I go any further, I must tell you that we were all made to sign a confidentiality agreement because the set is about to become active again for filming of The Hobbit. All I will say is that it was a massive buzz doing the tour and seeing The Shire locations. The tour was really great too and if you like LOTR, I thoroughly recommend it. We have loads of photos, which we will show you when we get home!
Hobbiton is actually a sheep farm, so weirdly, we started the tour by watching a shearing demonstration and bottle-feeding some lambs: Ania's going to fill you in on the next few days of our trip, so I'll finish my post by saying how much we're all enjoying New Zealand. The people are SO friendly. Just walking down the street everyone says hello and there's a really nice atmosphere everywhere you go. If you can find the time and the money, do yourself a favour and visit when you can!