Saturday, 9 March 2013

The Return

"All good things must come to an end".  Personally, I think this saying is rather unfair, and often inaccurate - after all, just because something is good doesn't mean it should therefore be time limited.  Unfortunately for those of us who aren't millionaires, holidays are one thing that do tend to fit into this category.

I was welcomed back to London with some typical British weather - cloudy, rainy and a chilly nine degrees - I could feel my tan fade and recoil from the grey skies.  As the Piccadilly line got gradually more packed with commuters heading into central London for work, reality began to hit home.  Fortunately I had a few days respite in which to recover (and cling onto the last remnants of holiday bliss) before going back to work.

My flight got in around 7am, and at 4 in the afternoon, jet lag (or possibly sleep deprivation) hit.  I battled through until 8, then headed to bed and crashed out for a solid, blissful nine hours.  Even when I woke early I refused to get up until the vaguely reasonable hour of 6.30am at which point my belly was demanding food.  After about four weeks of little exercise, it was time to discover just how much fitness I lost, so I headed to an exercise session in the park - this is the first (and most probably the last) time I have made an 8.30am session on a Saturday morning!  It felt hard - not so much physically, but I felt totally drained of energy.  Still, I figured any exercise was good and it would help get my body and sleep patterns back to normal.

Oh, how wrong I was.  I headed to bed early again, and woke just after midnight for a call of nature (and to let in my housemate who had forgotten his key...), then went back to bed.  And from then on, I tossed and turned.  My stomach was saying it was starving, so I got up and ate - it said it was still hungry, so I ate again (honestly, I'm sure eating your way through jet lag is not healthy).  I surfed the net for a bit, then tried again - and miserably failed - to get back to sleep.

So here I am, at 6.45am, awake and bright as the proverbial button.  I suspect at some point today I am going to crash, and getting through until this evening without sleep could be the biggest holiday challenge yet...

Thursday, 7 March 2013


Christchurch marked the end of our tour of New Zealand, and my viewing of this city in flux was slightly marred by my sadness at having to leave this wonderful country with its many beauties. Still rebuilding following the devastating earthquakes of 2010 and 2012, a large part of the city centre is still cordoned off. You can do tours of this 'Red Zone', but they had finished for the day when we arrived so we did out own tour round the barriers and 'No Entry' signs.

There are still many buildings which bear the evidence of earthquake damage, and a lot of areas where demolition has already taken place, but this is clearly a city on the mend. We stopped by the container shopping mall - an ingenious idea that will hopefully continue even when the city centre has been redeveloped.

We had booked into Jail for the night - Jailhouse hostel that is - an old jailhouse whose cells have been turned into a hostel. As it was our last night, we decided to go out for dinner, and on the recommendation of one of the hostel staff headed to the Pedal Pusher pub. One cocktail, several glasses of wine and some good food later, we sadly packed our bags for the last time and locked ourselves in our cell for our last sleep in New Zealand.

Back to the mountains

Leaving the Catlins was hard, but with just a few days remaining of our holiday, we were keen to explore more of New Zealand. We drive up the coast, passing through Dunedin and stopping for a quick look at the Moeraki boulders further up the coast. These amazing round boulders look like beach balls part buried in the sand - giraffe-like patterns form on the surface of some, where the crystalline calcite deposits have broken through the shell of the boulder. Elsewhere on the beach, boulders have split open, looking like cracked eggshells. We were not the only ones stopping to view these geological phenomena - we see more tourists on the beach than we saw in two days in the Catlins!

Back in the car we drive north to Oamaru, then inland on Highway 83, stopping off to see some Maori cave paintings and at a place called Earthquakes (professional curiosity...) where a dramatic cliff is actually the result of a landslide, not an earthquake. We had lunch at Elephant Rocks - a fantastic playground of large limestone boulders set in pastureland, with a mountain backdrop. Out came the rock shoes which had been festering in my pack, and I spent a happy half hour on the pocket-covered boulders whilst MizHB patiently took photos and made friends with the local sheep.

Sadly we still had some miles to go, so we got back on the road and continued our drive inland, up through Twizel to Mt Cook village. The views of Mt Cook on the drive up to the village are spectacular, though when in the village, the big one is hidden and it's neighbouring Mt Sefton that provides the snow-covered backdrop. There is just time for a short walk through the forest, with a good viewpoint of Mt Cook, before we check in to our hostel, have dinner and squeeze in a quick session in the sauna before bed.

Next morning dawns bright and clear, and we headed for a half-day walk up Hooker Valley. The good track meanders gently up the valley, with great views of the surrounding mountains, to the Hooker glacier terminal lake. We then drove round to the Tasman Valley, where a short walk led to a viewpoint over the glacier and glacial lake - famous for its icebergs. It was difficult to get an idea of how big these were until the appearance of some Zodiac boats gave an impressive sense of scale.

It was a short drive from Mt Cook to Tekapo, where we were spending our penultimate night. We had been looking forward to the Tekapo hot pools throughout our visit and they didn't disappoint. Almost empty at the end of the day, we lay back and relaxed I'm the warm water, watching a beautiful sunset and the first stars appear in the sky. A relaxing end to a busy couple of days.

Monday, 4 March 2013

The Catlins: sea lions, sea views and swimming with dolphins

Deep, relentless forces
buckle this layered land

Hiding bays and beaches between
long, low folds of mountains

With rugged rocky headlands
butting into the sea

The Catlins is a part of New Zealand often missed off tourist's itineraries. It's tucked away in the south east corner of the South Island, away from the backpacker buses and doesn't have the dramatic mountains of fjordland, or the bungy-jumping antics of Queenstown. What it does have is a softer landscape of rolling pastoral farmland and windswept forests, a coastline of rocky headlands and beautiful, deserted beaches, and some of the best wildlife New Zealand has to offer.

And it has a lot of weather - often of the windy variety. Whilst I still can't quite get my head around the fact that it gets colder as you head south, it was finally time to pack the vest tops away and to get out the layers. Yet the wild weather enhanced the landscape with dramatic vistas of waves crashing onto beaches and headlands.

Fortunately we had a cosy bolt hole from the winds at the Catlins Beach House - a lovely, small, backpackers place set right on the beach at Porpoise Bay. The photo below was taken from the back garden- not a bad view to wake up to! We only had a couple of days in the Catlins which was not enough to do it justice, and there was a lot we left unexplored. The first highlight of this area was arriving at Waipapa Point - where a lighthouse is the legacy of a tragic shipwreck which claimed 131 lives in 1881 - to find two sea lions play-fighting on the beach. Whilst keeping the advised distance (sea lions can move very fast when they want to...), I got some great photos and we were amazed to see them so close.

Next stop was Slope Point - the South Island's most southerly point - and the obligatory photo in front of the South Pole / Equator sign (the South Pole was nearer!). McLean Falls was next - a lovely waterfall reached by a short walk through the forest. Feeling the need for some refreshment we stopped for a coffee at the Lost Gypsy Gallery, a quirky house-bus filled with gadgets and gizmos, which had us chuckling all the way to Nugget Point. Here, you walk along a ridge off rock leading out to a lighthouse with breathtaking views out to sea over the 'nuggets' (sea stacks). On the way back we deviated to spy a yellow-eyed penguin waddling out to take a swim in Roaring Bay.

The next day, we decided to give Sunny (our rental car) a well deserved rest, and explore the Curio Bay area. Heading out onto the beach, we walked up Porpoise Bay towards the headland, looking out for the pod of Hector's dolphins which come into the bay to feed. We soon spotted the tell-take fins out to sea, and watched the dolphins surf the waves. Heading round to Curio Bay, we had a wander round the petrified forest - a fascinating fossilised remains of a Jurassic forest, that was preserved by volcanic ash 160 million years ago. We also spotted a lonely yellow-eyed penguin sitting grumpily with his back to the audience!

Heading back along the beach for lunch, we instead decided to brave the chilly temperatures and cold water to take a quick dip in the sea. Normally a person who is disinclined to wade straight into cold water, once I got to knee-depth, a wave quickly swept me off my feet and dunked me in the washing-machine surf. Once soaked, the only way was in I managed to get behind the breaking waves and floated in the calmer waters. Which was when the dolphins came over to take a look. I have had many fantastic experiences in New Zealand, and this definitely ranked in the top few. I hardly dared move, watching in amazement as these beautiful, graceful creatures frolicked and dived, just metres away. A true privilege to be guests in their environment.

I could have stayed there all day, but the water was gradually numbing parts of my body so ran up the beach and back to the Beach House for a hot shower! After a late lunch, we wandered round a local art exhibition and the fascinating museum of local history at Waikawa. Of course, no day is complete without a coffee stop, and today's cafe of choice was the Niagara Falls Cafe - an excellent cafe and restaurant in an old school house.

MizHB had tentatively booked a surfing lesson for the evening, but the wind had picked up and when she rang to check it was still on, it was unfortunately cancelled. We headed out for a walk along the beach and soon saw exactly why it had been cancelled - the crashing breakers were for experienced surfers only! Returning windswept to the Beach House, we settled in for an evening in front of the wood burning stove, listening to the wind raging outside - the forces of nature continuing to shape the rugged, Catlins landscape.

Friday, 1 March 2013

A night on the Sound

Milford Sound is arguably the South Island's number one 'must do'. The guidebooks even suggest flying to Queenstown or Te Anau specifically to 'do' Milford Sound if you are on a tight timescale (but perhaps not so tight budget). There are currently two schemes vying for permission from the New Zealand government (and vermently opposed by environmental campaign groups) to create new transport links to Milford Sound so that tourists can get from Queenstown to Milford in just a few hours, rather than the current 5 hour drive.

Though I'm sure there are valid arguments for and against, you do rather feel that any attempt to make Milford more accessible would then detract from the experience of visiting it. Part of the adventure of visiting Milford Sound is that it lies at the end of a long and winding road, that takes you on a journey through spectacular mountain scenery. Milford Sound itself is simply the pearl at the end of the gold chain, the culmination of your journey through a landscape forged by ancient glaciers.

The drive from Te Anau where we had spent the night (at an excellent backpackers / homestay called Rosie's) is around two hours, though fortunately we had allowed time for plenty of photo stops, as they were more than justified. We also stopped off to do the Key Summit walk - a three hour (well, two hours for Team Speed) return walk up the other side of the Routeburn track to a hill which gave spectacular views of the surrounding mountains from an alpine garden of plants and mosses. By the time we arrived in Milford Sound it was almost an anticlimax.

On the recommendation of a friend, we had splashed out and booked an overnight cruise aboard the Milford Wanderer. We boarded the boat just after 4pm, and drove out of the sound to seal rock, where there were about twenty fur seals sunbathing on the rocks. Once everyone had taken enough photos, we carried on round the Sound before returning to a sheltered bay, where we moored up for the night. Out came a small motor boat and a pile of kayaks - MizHB and I both opted for Spassky around the bay in kayaks. There were about fifteen of us who went out in the kayaks and we only lost one person to the water, so not bad going! A good incentive to keep paddling were the sand flies, who swarmed you if you stayed still for more than ten seconds.

Once everyone had been fished out of the water, dinner was served! Ate far too much, but I do have a weakness for apple crumble... We were only interrupted once, when some rare Fjordland Crested Penguins were spotted in the shore. Best seen through binoculars or telephoto lens! Finally we settled down to bed in our little cabin, with the gentle lapping of the water outside our porthole.

Breakfast next morning was at the early hour of 6.45am. The reason for this became clear as we started steaming out towards the mouth of the Sound, and as a glorious red sunset spread across the sky, most people abandoned their food temporarily in favour of going up on deck. We headed to the open sea, and did a loop around before heading back in. From the sea, it's easy to see how Captain Cook missed this inlet on his explorations round the coast - it was a Welsh seal hunter who eventually discovered it, and named it after the Pembrokeshire town of Milford Haven.

As we headed back in, we got more close up views of seals playing in the water and some beautiful views of the surrounding mountains, including the famous Mitre Peak. Coming back into shore, we passed the day trippers going out on the boats and couldn't help feeling lucky to have experienced this beautiful, peaceful, wilderness at night.