30 January 2011

Wanaka & Franz Josef Glacier

Lake Wanaka
On our first day in Wanaka, it rained constantly. Not that we were too bothered; we spent the afternoon watching the Australian Open, cheering on Andy Murray in his quarter-final match.

At night, it was still raining, so we continued our lazy day and watched 'The Kids Are Alright' at Cinema Paradiso, Wanaka's art house cinema where you can watch the movie from a sofa and enjoy freshly baked (huge) cookies during the interval.

Every cinema should serve these!
The following day, we went to a place called Puzzling World, where we were awed by holograms and various optical illusions, including a room where everything was slanted at an angle which messed with my head (and sense of balance!) After that, Pam and I attempted the Great Maze and, after getting completely lost several times, eventually completed it in a time of 65 minutes (the average time was supposedly between 30 and 60 minutes!)

At Wanaka Beerworks
On the way back to the campsite, we stopped in at Wanaka Beerworks and enjoyed samples of their three finest products in hobbit-sized pitcher glasses!

Still on a high from doing the Nevis bungy jump in Queenstown, I decided to do my first skydive with a company in Wanaka. My efforts to persuade Pam to give it a go fell on deaf ears, but she agreed to come and watch. Luckily, the rain from the previous two days had cleared and the sun was shining.

The nervy wait before the jump...
Both Pam and I were much more relaxed in the build-up to the skydive than the bungy jump, but when I walked towards to plane - adorned in my rather fetching jump suit and harness - my nerves started to jangle!

On my way back to solid ground!
The plane took off, and as it climbed, I could make out the peaks of Mount Aspiring and Mount Cook in the distance. Down below, I saw the bright blue Lake Wanaka and waited nervously until the plane reached a height of 15,000 feet.

When the plane was high enough that the fields below looked like match boxes, the door of the plane suddenly slid open (at this point, I really hoped the instructor who I was attached to hadn't forgotten the parachute). Before I knew it, I was hurtling through the air, woohooing my way back to the ground! With my arms held out wide, it felt like I was flying! I could feel the wind through my shoes and I had time during the 60 second free fall to look around and take in the spectacular scenery.

Exploring the glacier
When the parachute opened (which, to my disappointment, was bright pink), I breathed a huge sigh of relief! The instructor let me have a go of controlling our descent and before long, we were standing on the grass where Pam was gratefully waiting for me!

In one of the deep crevices on Franz Josef Glacier
Feeling a bit flushed after all the excitement, we foolishly decided to swim in Lake Wanaka, but quickly changed our minds after wading in belly button deep into the freezing water.

From Wanaka, we drove up the West coast to Franz Josef Glacier, where we had signed up for a full-day trek on the ice. Kitted out with our thermal jacket, walking boots, woolly hat and crampons, we definitely looked the part, though standing at the base of the glacier, we wondered if we would be able to keep up with our super-fit guide.

Thankfully, we did, and when we reached the glacier, it felt really strange to be able to walk on the ice without slipping around (though Pam still managed a couple of falls!) After a steep climb up the hard-packed ice, we explored the huge crevices. The biggest one we climbed in was called 'Blue Ice', where the walls of ice either side of us reached up to 40 metres high! Our guide told us it took a week to fill in the crevice and that chainsaws had to be used.

The day was a real highlight of our time in New Zealand, made all the better because our ticket included entry to the local hot pools where we could soothe our aching limbs!

James

Franz Josef Glacier

24 January 2011

Bungy, burgers and beauty: the wonderful Queenstown

On route to our campsite
Ah Queenstown... I really can’t praise it enough, but I will have a go anyway! We arrived in the city of extreme sports on a sunny Thursday afternoon after a picturesque drive along Lake Wakatipu and are still here five days later - our longest stop by far in any one place on our road trip.

Being in Queenstown meant one thing to James - the chance to do something crazy! A sky dive was considered, as was a canyon swing but James being James decided that if he was going to do any of the extreme sports on offer, he may as well do the most famous and scariest one - Australasia’s highest bungy jump.

The nervous wait...
We had a two-for-one voucher but after a brief attempt to persuade me, he realised he was not going to get anywhere - there was no way I was jumping off a platform 134 metres high! Rather than think it over, he went for the ‘book it straight away’ approach for the following day, giving himself no chance to back out!

On the cable car to the jump pod (Pam's white knuckles just out of shot)
We were driven up in a 4x4 truck up a narrow cliff side track (I was already refusing to look down by this point) and when we reached the top of the summit, you could smell the fear in the bus as the small group prepared for their crazy jump.

Crazy man!
We were given harnesses and taken across to the bungy pod by cable car… and then it was time to jump. I was the most nervous person there (and the only one spectating). James was playing it cool, although I reckon he definitely had the fear factor in those long minutes prior to the jump.

As they called his number, he was taken through to the ledge where he was attached to the rope. I briefly peeped my head over and saw the drop towards the river below. My hands were shaking and I could feel the tears welling up, and yet when I looked across, there was James smiling at the camera and walking calmly towards the platform. And then he did it: three, two, one… and he was off!

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I watched the jump on the TV screen and was relieved when he flipped the right way around and began the ascent back to the pod… and he was still smiling!

One of Queenstown's café-lined streets
 After the eventful afternoon, I put in a request for a large glass of wine and we enjoyed an hour in the sun beside the harbour absorbing the dramatic day!

In the beautiful Botanic Gardens
Aside from the bungy, our visit to Fergburger has to get a mention. As we wandered around the town, we couldn’t help but notice the ever-present crowd around the local burger bar. Before James took part in a Sunday afternoon’s backpacker football competition, we decided that a visit to this local icon just had to be done. Let’s just say that we weren’t disappointed! It was the best burger I have ever eaten in my life. Even James agrees which is really saying something, as he has certainly devoured a fair few thousand in his lifetime!

At the holiday park: Barney sandwich!
There always seemed to be something happening in Queenstown. In the Botanic Gardens one afternoon, there was local theatre in the park, and, just a five minute walk away, a skateboard competition was in full swing. Queenstown really is such a nice place, perhaps even our favourite place we've been to so far. It has the buzz of a big city but the beauty of a small town.

Our next stop is Wanaka, via Arrowtown and the Gibbston Valley, where James is already contemplating a skydive - here we go again!

Pam

At our spectacular (and slightly more spacious) campsite just outside Queenstown

20 January 2011

Lake Te Anau & Milford Sound

The beautiful Lake Te Anau
After a night in the rainy Catlins (where the green rolling hills are very pretty but there's virtually nothing to do) we drove through Invercargill and arrived at Lake Te Anau. Although it lacked the immediate impact of the turquoise Lake Tekapo, it was very beautiful and the town reminded me of Banchory: quiet, friendly and picturesque.

Miles Better Pies: yes, they are!
Following the advice of our trusty guidebook, we ate at Miles Better Pies, which certainly lived up to its name. I had a tasty pepper steak pie that could easily have fed two people. In fact, every place we've been in New Zealand, we've had massive food portions (and who am I to complain?!)

One of many Milford Sound waterfalls
The next morning, we drove through the mountains on the famous 119km Milford Road. The scenery was just incredible and we stopped several times to take it all in. One place we stopped at was The Chasm: where a river runs through eroded rocks and falls down a narrow chute. Waterfalls either side of the winding road made it hard to focus on driving, as did the swooping parrot-like birds, which we later learned are called Keas.

Sleepy sea lions
As our luck would have it, as soon as we arrived at Milford Sound, the rain started lashing down. The area does get 6m of rain annually, so we weren't that surprised. Along with scores of other tourists, we were forced indoors, where we recharged all our gadgets and booked a trip down the famous Milford Sound for the following day.

Directly underneath the Stirling Falls!
Rudyard Kipling described Milford Sound as the eighth wonder of the world, and after we took a cruise along it, I can see where he was coming from; it really is stunning. Because of the previous day's rain, there were hundreds of temporary waterfalls streaming down the huge rock faces. Although Mitre Peak (one of the world's highest mountains that rise directly from water) was covered by cloud, we did see sea lions lazing on a rock and had a very close encounter with the 146 metre Stirling Falls. As Pam and I eagerly prepared to take a photo from directly underneath the waterfall, the boat moved closer into the spray, resulting in a brutal clash of heads and a good soaking!

Soaked through!
Sea lions and waterfalls in the stunning Milford Sound
The ferocious Milford Sound sand flies were as annoying as Scottish midges, but they didn't detract from a really fun day, which was made all the better when, during a pit stop on the drive back to our campsite, I entered a pool competition at a pub in Te Anau... and won! The prize was a $50 bar tab, which we split with the friendly locals.

We are now heading to Queenstown, where I'm trying to work up the courage to do a bungee jump. Pam, on the other hand, is working up the courage to watch me do it!

James

     

15 January 2011

Oamaru & Dunedin

When climbing Baldwin Street, don't lean back!
Following our stay at the beautiful Mount Cook, we set off in Barney towards Oamaru, passing some of the country's fine landscape on our way to the coastal town.

We pulled in at the local information centre where we were told of the perfect spot to park up our van and advised on the area's best  tourist attraction - watching the yellow-eyed penguins (the world's rarest breed) swim to shore.

Because of the approaching stormy night, we wrapped up and headed towards the beach. After about 45 minutes at the windy cliffside viewing point, we saw a group of people pointing towards a section of the beach where, sure enough, the tiny penguins were waddling along the beach back home for the night. It was a great sight, even though we were both blue with cold!

Taking a break on the journey to the summit
That night, we parked at another beach and watched the waves roll in as the sun set - this time from the warmth of the van!

This shows just how steep it is!
After Oamaru, we continued our journey south towards Dunedin (the Gaelic word for Edinburgh), a city soaked in Scottishness! James's Scotland football top was admired and people were able to understand and spell 'Tulloch' correctly for a change! We even learned a thing or two, as we were told all about the famous Kiwi racehorse of the same name.

We booked in at Dunedin Holiday Park  for two days, to have a day break from driving. As soon as we parked Barney, James ran off, Snickers bar and apple in hand, towards the nearby golf course... worryingly, it reminded me of a certain family member!

James's caddy for the day
Unfortunately, there was a golf tournament on, so his game was postponed until the next day; a blessing in disguise as we awoke to a beautiful blue sky. The links course was stunning, especially the views of the Pacific Ocean that presented themselves as we climbed up to the green on the 8th hole.

On the 8th tee, with the Pacific Ocean in the background
Another interesting stop in Dunedin was Baldwin Street, the world's steepest. We decided not to attempt to drive up it for fear of failure, but took to it by foot and watched in awe as other cars struggled to the summit! Let's just say I am glad I don't live on a street like that! Our legs still hurt!

We are learning all the camping tricks, or more to the point, once we do it wrong, we know how to do it right! Like attempting to cook eggs for breakfast next to a windy beach or making up the bed only to discover that your toothbrush, book and shoes are in the drawer underneath... Oh well, we'll learn as we go!

Pam

Robert Burns monument
Dunedin Railway Station: New Zealand's most photographed building

12 January 2011

Lake Tekapo & Aoraki/Mount Cook

Our campervan!
Well, we now have a campervan! It's very small (I can just about perform a pencil roll in it) and is our home for the next seven weeks. Pam has nicknamed the van 'Barney' because he matches the colour scheme of the children's television character.

Before now, the furthest either of us have driven is between Banchory and East Kilbride, so the prospect of driving all around New Zealand is quite daunting, but one that, so far, we've loved.

The beautiful Lake Tekapo
After we picked up Barney in Christchurch, we spent ages trying to get out of the city (just to practise getting lost, obviously) and ended up staying at a campsite nearby to get unpacked and get a rough idea what route we were going to take. The next morning - after a very comfortable first night in our mobile home - we decided to head about 150 kilometres inland for Lake Tekapo.

Church of the Good Shepherd
Following a well-timed recommendation, we stopped off at Geraldine where we paddled in the local swimming spots along the river and realised that New Zealand was fast becoming one of our favourite places on our trip. Everywhere we look is postcard-worthy!

With Pam as navigator and I as chauffeur, we hit the road again and had a true 'wow' moment when Lake Tekapo came into view. The water is turquoise blue - the sort of colour you usually only see painted! It was like nothing I'd ever seen before. The campsite we stayed at would surely be the most scenic we'd come across?

Our campsite at Aoraki/Mount Cook
Actually, it wasn't. The following day, we drove to the campsite at Aoraki/Mount Cook, the highest mountain in Australasia. Well, it couldn't have been any more stunning with the clouds drifting around its snow-covered peak.

Mount Cook and the Tasman River
At around midnight, I had the misfortune of needing to go to the loo (a downside of our van is that it doesn't have one) meaning I had to make the walk in the dark to the public toilet. When I stepped out the van, I looked up and saw the darkest, clearest night sky I've ever seen. I woke Pam to come and see it and when she looked up, she immediately saw a huge shooting star... while I was looking elsewhere - typical!

James

By the bright blue water of Lake Tekapo

8 January 2011

Christchurch

Cathedral Square
Arriving in Christchurch, New Zealand brought a tinge of nostalgia as the British-like surroundings transported us back home.

The beautiful Botanic Gardens
Our hostel was right in the middle of town, overlooking the beautiful Arts Centre and a stone's throw away from the Botanical Gardens. We had a relaxing four days in the South Island's most populated place - making us realise just how much of a­­­­­­ contrast this country would be to its rival neighbour.

Christchurch is nicknamed 'the City of Gardens' and we certainly took full advanta­­ge of the nearby Botanical Gardens, escaping every night away from our south facing room (which had no air con or fan) for a cooler spot outside, only returning back once James's stomach made the cry for food!

It's an oar, James, not a pummel stick!
We used our time in the Gardens to plan our South Island route, taking advice from friends, fellow travellers and the trusty Lonely Planet thrown in for good measure about where to go and what to see.

Although we are a little nervous about how to survive in our tiny campervan (which we pick up tomorrow and really is just a big car with a mattress), reminding ourselves that we'll have the freedom of being able to easily get to all the places we want to see puts us solidly back in the camping mood! I will get back to you on whether or not our optimism continues!

Baby ducklings
A highlight of our stay in Christchurch, apart from the perfect weather, was canoeing along the River Avon. It was good fun once we both managed to row in the same direction (completely not my fault) and was nice to take in the surroundings, especially all the baby ducklings swimming alongside us.

The next time we blog it will be from our teeny weeny (am I emphasising enough just how small it is?) green campervan, as our new toy - our internet dongle - will help keep us in touch with the world!

Pam

4 January 2011

Fireworks & Fog

New Year fireworks from Sydney Harbour Bridge
Celebrating the start of 2011
Our New Year's Eve flight from Melbourne to Sydney with Tiger Airways (Australia's equivalent of Ryanair) thankfully left on time, meaning we wouldn't have to spend our last night of 2010 stuck at the airport! After a quick journey on the underground, we hopped on the ferry to Manly, dumped our luggage at our hostel and then made a U-turn to catch the ferry back to the city for the famous fireworks display.

Packed in like sardines in a tin!
We had been told by several people that in order to get a spot near the harbour for midnight, we would have to get there at midday to contend with the crowds. Well, they were right about one thing: the sheer number of people was overwhelming. However, after searching for about half an hour, we came across a great viewing area almost directly underneath the Sydney Harbour Bridge with a view of the Opera House and decided to set up camp!

video

The family fireworks show at 9pm was brilliant in itself, but as the crowd grew in number it was clear the midnight show was going to be something special. As we all chanted the ten-second countdown to 2011, cameras were raised skywards - and with good reason. Right on midnight, fireworks from the bridge lit up the entire sky in bright colours. From where Pam and I stood, it felt like they were going to land on us, we were that close! The explosions were so loud, we had to shout to be heard. The show ended with sparks falling from the bridge and wild applause from everyone who had fought for their place in the crowd.

More people than grains of sand!
After the standard January 1st lie in, we did something we had never done before and went to the beach on the first day of the year! Unfortunately for us, it seemed that every other tourist in Sydney had the same idea! As we had done the night before, we claimed a space and relaxed in the sunshine: definitely not a typical New Year's Day!

With only a few days until our flight to New Zealand, we decided to travel inland to see the Blue Mountains; so called because of a rising blue haze from the many eucalyptus trees on the mountains. Annoyingly, when we arrived there, there was a fog so thick that visibility was less than 100 metres! We contented ourselves with wandering around Katoomba, the town where we were staying, and hoped for better weather the following day.

The puddles were no match for Pam
...It didn't. Not to be deterred, we set off on the Prince Henry Cliff Walk, dodging huge puddles in our flip-flops and enjoyed beautiful foggy views! Our choice of footwear left a lot to be desired, but we completed the trail, just in time for the fog to lift long enough to make out the Three Sisters rock formation from Echo's Point. It was pretty amazing watching the fog rolling up the mountain to reveal the spectacular sight.

Tomorrow, we leave Australia and fly 'over the ditch' (as they say here) to Christchurch in New Zealand. We'll be in the country for seven weeks - six of which will be spent touring the North and South Islands in a Jucy campervan! Here's hoping Pam and I don't get cabin fever and are still talking to each other by the end of it!

James

Fog, fog, go away...
At the cloudy Blue Mountains
Horror movie, anyone?

Patience rewarded! The Three Sisters!