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Saturday, 11 March 2017

#NewZealand17 Queenstown

I got up early to claim my free breakfast at the hostel, and then spoke to the lovely ladies at reception who hooked me up with a 10% discount at one of the many local bike hire shops. I hired a mountain bike for four hours, and shortly after 9am I pedaled off, heading for Arrowtown, a satellite of Queenstown, known for its autumn beauty.

I had chosen to cycle a shortcut not recommended by the cycle maps. Gorge road was steep going but quite scenic. It would be a good location for shooting car adverts I think.
My shortcut got me to Arrowtown in just over 90 minutes - more than two hours ahead of schedule. I stopped in the sunny little town, how I imagine North-East Us to look, just long enough to buy a scone from the bakery (as advised by a blog I have since forgotten) and sat in a park, eating it in the sunshine. It definitely wasn't the best scone I have eaten, but that familiar feeling of fabulous well-being was back. Life is good.

I decided to cycle back the scenic route as I had time to spare. I had originally planned to get a specialist taxi back, but had two hours to spare.

The scenic route was amazing, and I understood why the gorge road wasn't recommended on the tourist maps. The dirt track wound along the river Arrow, through wooded areas and around mountains, before climbing through a deer farm, with some fun descents and hairpins down to the shotover river 

You can see from my stupid grin how much I was in my element doing this

You can just about see Queenstown in the background. It was a long route back, but absolutely worth the effort!

I took the old shotover bridge before I finally ran out of time and had to call the bike taxi. I took some photos of the stunning Shotover river (which I had also taken the opportunity to drink from further upstream) while I waited.

I returned the bike about forty minutes late, but in typical kiwi style, the hire guy didn't even check my details, so I had no fine thankfully! 

This was fortunate, as the taxi had been very expensive for the short journey into town.

I met Blake at the hostel, and we took a gondola ride up to get this spectacular view of the Queenstown area.

Then we rode luges (like plastic toboggans on wheels) down the tracks, racing each other, which was super fun (I won twice, and Blake once, but both times I won were because he had stopped at the beginning for me to race him - he could easily have won all three). We got a chairlift up to the top after each race, and then took the gondola back down to the bottom after, which made Blake feel ill, so he went back to bed whilst I pottered around Queenstown, gift shopping and planning tomorrow's activities. Finally, I joined the queue for Fergburger

I queued fifteen minutes to order, and waited twenty-five for the burger to be ready, but amazingly it was worth it. Despite having had nothing since my morning scone, I struggled to finish my "holier than thou" tofu burger! 

I took another photo of the sunset over Queenstown, and booked myself in to go rafting at 8 the next morning.

Thursday, 9 March 2017

#NewZealand17 Milford Sound

We awoke at horrible o'clock. For once, my Jetlag had let up, and Blake was awake earlier than me, despite the fact I was fast asleep before he even got in the night before! It was still dark when we hit the road, and I drove the first leg whilst Blake drank the iced coffee and ate one of the breakfast muffins I had bought the night before.

As the sky began to brighten we drove into low cloud, so visibility actually got worse, but after about 90 minutes it began to improve, and Blake took over driving.

 We arrived at Te Anu (famously the last station before the long drive to the sound) earlier than expected, so treated ourselves to breakfast and some gift shopping at the tourist centre. A long, low white cloud hovered over the valley below is, so it was also incredibly picturesque.

We returned to the road, with Blake driving and I taking photos as we headed north. The drive from Queenstown to Milford Sound is a horseshoe shape due to the mountainous terrain - roughly south for a hundred kilometers or so, then east to Te Anu, then north to Milford Sound. Luckily the scenery was fabulous the whole way, but especially for the last third:

We drove through an exciting tunnell which was very raw - not tiled like those in the UK but bare rock on the walls and ceiling. As we emerged, we also encountered a Kea, a rare mountain parrot found only in New Zealand! It was a beautiful creature and very friendly. 

Finally we arrived at Milford Sound an hour early. The weather was still pretty bleak, the cafe was overpriced as expected (I think most things are delivered by helicopter here as the road is so long) and the biting sandflies were out in force - they were like midges but painful instead of itchy, which I had no tolerance for. On that basis, we shut ourselves in the car and had a lovely hour long nap before boarding our easyjet boat

(The boat is totally unrelated to easyjet, it just has a common colour scheme). Blake quickly bagged the comfiest seat (pun intended), and we headed out into the gloomy sound.

Photos cannot explain the scale of Milford sound. It makes you feel atom-sized. It is rugged and lush and untouched by humans, absolutely my kind of beautiful.

It is also populated by fur seals! We watched one fishing below our boat before passing his lazy (or less hungry) colony sleeping on the rocks. Fur seals were pushed near to extinction because their habit of sleeping exposed on rocks during the day made them easy prey for hunters, and lots of them became coats.

The sun came out at about this time, lighting up the characteristically New Zealand Azure blue water, throwing shadows across the craggy mountain faces, and illuminating the bright greenery clinging to the steep slopes.

Magical. New Zealand continued to awe me every day, but for the second time in just three days, both Blake and I were left absolutely stunned.

The drive back was also beautiful, I managed to catch a sunburst over lake Wakatipu, just outside Queenstown.

We arrived in time for sunset, so whilst Blake returned to the lake beach to catch up with his friends, I took my camera for a walk along another bank, recording the sunset on the west facing facets of the surrounding mountains, and climbing up a tree for the hell of it, much in the manner of yesterday's scramble down the river bank en route to Wanaka.

It was a lovely evening, but I was hungry, having not eaten since our lunch of fish/spring rolls and chips on the boat. 

A friend had advised me that I had to sample Fergburger, a famous Queenstown burger joint, but when I arrived to find this queue, I resigned myself to give it a miss, and cooked a supermarket pizza instead.

How good could these burgers be anyway?

#NewZealand17 Franz Josef to Queenstown - Roadtrip day 3

After a day off from driving, we departed early from Franz Josef,to Lake Matheson, less than an hour's scenic drive south. Everything was scenic here. The mountains were gorgeous and relentless. The rivers were cloudy with rock flour or stunningly blue, and the vegetation varied from for trees to palm trees, all filled in with prehistoric ferns and mosses.

Lake Matheson is famed for its perfect reflection of Mount Cooking it's still, moody waters. However, when we arrived, it was rippling so much that you couldn't see any reflection at all, so we didn't hang around long before returning to the road. It was exciting to get our first glimpse of Mt Cook - New Zealand's biggest mountain though.
I only thought to use my camera phone on the walk back to the carpark.

We carried on driving for about another hour or two before coming to signs for a salmon farm. I was driving and jokingly asked Blake if he fancied it. He called my bluff, so we popped in for a quick smoke (them, not me) and a salmony breakfast. 

As we ate we were joined by the couple who had shared our helicopter ride the day before! It was a bit strange, but there are so few roads in New Zealand, it's not really surprising to find yourself making the exact same journey as someone else!

We also spotted a white heron, who was eyeing up the salmon!

We continued on until we were struck by more spectacular scenery. I couldn't tell you where this mountain river was, and there were hundreds like it, but it was so beautiful we had to stop, have a smoke, and I scrambled down to the bottom because I couldn't think of a good reason not to, and then had a lot of fun climbing back up on all fours.

Spot the Sophie.

Finally we arrived at Wanaka. I had heard great things about this place, and in hindsight I regret not spending longer here. A huge, beautiful lake surrounded by mountains was what set this town apart from its neighbours, and I bought all my postcards here. We had planned to trek mount iron, I had done some research into it and it would be my first proper hike of the trip, but after all our breaks, we simply didn't have time, especially as Blake was keen to get to Queenstown ASAP to meet his friends.

I took some selfies whilst we had a quick supermarket lunch, and we were soon back on the road.

We arrived in Queenstown quite early, and checked into another Sir Cedric's hostel, this one was a pod hostel, and without question the nicest of the whole trip. Free breakfast, soup, popcalorn, Netflix, genuinely comfy private beds in capsules (so no creepy faces in the middle of the night!), and lovely staff.

I joined the boys for one drink in town before heading back, refuelling the car, and buying breakfast items in preparation for a big day tomorrow...

Sunday, 5 March 2017

#NewZealand17 Franz Josef

I will describe Sir Cedric's "Chateau Franz" as a luxury hostel. Free soup, free breakfast, charging points by the beds, a hot tub, and curtains around your bunk. The mattresses were even comfortable!

At 5am I woke up to a funny noise. I opened my curtain and there, less than a metre away, was a haggard white face, looming out from under a dark hood, looking directly at me. How I didn't scream, I don't know. The elderly Scottish man in the bunk below me continued to look at me for perhaps half a second, before ducking into his bunk, I assume removing his hood as he did so.

I did not really sleep after that, but soon daylight came and I scampered out to get my free breakfast.

I waited an hour and a half for the boys to come and join me, by which point I was getting unusually hangry, and fighting the urge to smash my empty plate over the heads of everyone in the queue in front of me. Luckily I resisted, and in time I got to the waffle machine, where I made the most pathetic sloppy breakfast waffle known to man (and eaten anyway). Two slices of toast and a better cooked waffle later, Max headed out on his big trek, while Blake and I began a leisurely wander around Franz Josef village.
Franz Josef is just beautiful. This is illustrated by the view from the petrol station. The fact that a view like this is wasted on a petrol station demonstrates that this is a village where such a privilege is taken for granted.
The village is small, and Blake and I soon came to the hot pools, where we decided to spend the morning. 
It was very indulgent but so relaxing. There were three pools, at 40°, 38° and 36°. The last feeling barely walmer than the hot summers day around us, and the first feeling like walking into a dreamy bath, instantly relaxing (although I couldn't stay in it for long.) All of this was shaded by huge canvas sails, but there were no walls, so the ferns from the forest around us leaned in over the pool, and all around we could hear cicadas. It was absolutely beautiful.

We couldn't stay all day though, as this was a big day, with the first of our major excursions of the trip! At 12.30, Blake returned to the hostel to change, and I went to the only shop in town, to buy us a tear and share bread for lunch. I also bought icecreams, which was a mistake, as I had underestimated how long Blake would take. Then when he did return, I realised that the bread I'd bought was stuffed with meat, so I had to exchange it for a herb bread, and we had a piece each (and our melted icecreams) before checking in for our glacier hike and helicopter flight.

We had to wear their special boots (which for some reason made me very anxious) and little bags with crampons in, with little room for anything else. Blake and I had brought suitable coats. Everyone else had to borrow those as well, and some borrowed waterproof trousers. When we were all kitted out, we had a safety briefing and then went to our helicopters. I took a little longer than the others putting my bag away, and when I joined the group someone slapped a pink wristband on me and told me I was in the front seat! I began to ask if Blake was too but the man had gone. Blake explained it was to do with weight distribution and he would be in the back. I had never forseen that we would be seperated.
 I was just overwhelmingly excited. I wasn't really nervous. I figured it would be a great way to die if anything went wrong! Blake had told me the helicopter would be really jerky so I was braced for the worst.

As the pilot started up the machine, our guide (who was unsettlingly similar to an old flame of mine) buckled me into the front seat, and soon we had the amazing sensation of taking off in a helicopter. So much smoother than a plane! We flew over beautiful mountain scenery, following the glacial stream up into the mountains above Franz Josef, to find the previous group's helicopter was still parked in our spot, so we were taken on a quick tour of the mountains. The pilot circled at what felt like a 45° angle which was so much fun, and we flew over a hiker outside a bothy which looked like a dolls house, before eventually landing (again much smoother than expected) on the ice.
 I have put a lot of text in this post, so here are some pictures to break it up:

It was absolutely fantastic. Blake said he's only ever had three experiences which have bowled him over like this glacier hike did. I would like to thank my grandparents who gave me holiday money towards it. If they hadn't I think I would have been put off by the expense and I'm so glad I didn't miss out!

When we returned, Blake and I enjoyed some more of his birthday cake in the hot tub, and then I dfied off and went for a walk out of town to see the glacier from the ground. It was a pleasant walk with scenery like this
Apparently it is one of New Zealand's best short walks (1 hour each way). I also got to wander through some New Zealand forest, which I think is awesome:

 And the hike ended at what should have been the end of the glacier.
However, in the last nine years, since 2008, the glacier has shrunk by the same amount as it did in the previous hundred years. Therefore there was barely any glacier to be seen from the viewing point.
An information board showed the Glacier's progress as it shrank up the mountain, and the predicted size for the year 2100 looked almost exactly the same as what I saw before me.

Our guide told me that 95% of the world's glaciers are in decline. I found this quite disturbing.

I walked back as the sun set over the mountains, stopping to drink from the river on my way. Apart from the volcanic, sulphurous rivers, almost all of the rivers in New Zealand seem to be good to drink from.
I returned to our hostel where a campfire was burning. I made myself up a pasta dinner and we were shortly joined by a wild possum!

It was extremely cute, but they are not a native animal to New Zealand, and cause havoc for ground nesting birds, including kiwis, so are regarded as a pest to be killed at any opportunity.

We had two in our camp that night but I'm glad to say both survived.

Saturday, 4 March 2017

#NewZealand17 Westport - Franz Josef Roadtrip Day 2

We woke late on Blake's birthday. I called and provisionally booked the three of us in for surf lessons, but ultimately Blake wanted to spend his birthday as chilled out as possible.

We went to the supermarket and bought prossecco and cheese to toast the "champagne birthday" which is the Australian notion that when you turn 26 on the 26th (for example), it must be celebrated with champagne.

Our first stop off was to see the fur seal colony at the beautifully named Cape Foulwind. From up on the viewing platform we really did see some seals, there appeared to be only half a dozen at first, but as you watched, more and more could be spotted, playing in the waves and on rocks out to sea.

 As we watched, I felt something tickling the back of my arm and brushed away what I thought was a hair, only to feel a large insect, which immediately caused me a lot of pain.

I didn't know whether I'd ben bit or stung, and luckily the boys had seen enough of the seals, and I'd already decided to splash out and have icecream in honour of the special occasion, so I asked the lady at the kiosk (luckily a native) what was wrong with my slightly swollen arm. She assured me it was nothing to worry about, that I had been stung by a paper wasp (Max had seen the perpetrator and given her a description) and she gave me a block of ice to soothe it. I was very grateful, and we enjoyed our icecreams before returning to the road.

Next stop down the west coast was Punukake pancake rocks. These were a pretty impressive bit of geography where the cliffs looked like this:

And in typical NZ style formed just a part of a stunningly scenic panorama
As a birthday treat I bought Blake and I lunch in the pancake rocks cafe, which felt really special after several days of supermarket bread. Excitingly for me, the cafe offered pancakes, so I celebrated shrove Tuesday early and in style!

From Punukake we continued south down Route 6 towards Franz Josef, experiencing a terrifying rail bridge with a single track shared by trains AND cars, in both directions... I nearly had a meltdown when Blake joked that a train was coming
This should not be a thing.

In Greymouth we picked up a lovely frenchhitchhiker called Floriane, who chatted away in the back to Max, and agreed to come with us when we stopped off at the Kiwi centre in Hokitika.

Unfortunately we weren't allowed to take photos of the kiwi birds (and we did see two of these very strange creatures!) But we could photograph the aquarium, which was a fun bonus

These eels are all 80-100 year old females. The sign on their tank said that this was so that they didn't breed. I had to delicately explain to Floriane what the word 'breed' meant.

Blake got a birthday kiss from a very friendly fish

It was a long hot drive, but eventually we arrived on the outskirts of Franz Josef, where we stopped to take in some more epic scenery, in particular a spectacularly blue River,

 before dropping Floriane in town and checking in at our hostel.