Monday, 25 January 2010

The hills are alive with the sound of music

Stewart Island totally rocks... with birdsong. Not to mention some awesome (and deserted) walks through glorious scenery. This is New Zealand's third largest island, but comparatively little visited, with the result that it's wonderfully unspoilt. There are about 300 hardy souls living there full-time, and the township has one hotel/pub, one restaurant and one fish-and-chip van. Oh, and a boutique selling high-quality merino wool goods (I know, surreal!). The rest of the island, apart from fishing, is taken up with birds and walking.

I went to see the birds on Ulva Island, on a guided trip with a botanist/biologist who could actually tell me what I was looking at (like cars, I pretty much tell them apart by colour and size alone). There was a dedicated twitcher on the trip (carrying a camera as big as my head), and he seemed pretty impressed so I think we got our money's worth! We saw Stewart Island robins (white-breasted instead of red, but just as cheeky and inquisitive), saddlebacks (incredibly rare) and weka (about the size of a large pigeon, flightless, and, now that they've rid it of stoats and weasels, the island's most dangerous predator; this could perhaps explain why so many of New Zealand's bird species are extinct or nearly extinct - they're frankly weedy, as they had nothing to defend themselves against until the Europeans brought all sorts of mammals over. First it was rabbits, to hunt, then stoats and weasels to contain the pestilential population explosion of rabbits; possums for their fur, mice who hitchhiked across, then cats to catch the mice... It's like the old woman who swallowed a fly, with about as much success.) There were numerous others too - but my favourite of all (apart from the weka, who came over right to our feet to find out what we were and what we had to offer!) was the yellow-eyed penguin, which we spotted on the boat ride over - he hung around for ages right next to the boat, preening and diving and posing for photos. And these are supposed to be shy birds, the tart!

The walking was fabulous, too - most of the trails were deserted, and around almost every corner you could stop at an empty and picturesque beach or bay. I wish I could capture the sounds for you as well as the sights - part of the glory of the experience is not just what you see, but the gentle lapping of the waves on the sand, or the buzzing of bumblebees, or the wind in the trees. It was all good training for my ultimate walk too - I've booked a multi-day tramp through Queen Charlotte Sound (it's the only New Zealand Great Walk where you can have your luggage transported to the next night's accommodation, rather than carrying tent, gas stove and all on your back. Vital for me, particularly when some days there are 23km sections and 1000m ascents!

Tomorrow I rejoin the Flying Kiwi bus, so I'll be out of range till the end of January - it's all tents and patchy phone connections as we head into the wilds of Fjordland. But I'll have much more to tell you then - so au revoir for now!

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

The Edinburgh of the south

I've been spending a very happy few days in Dunedin, where a bunch of Scottish emigrants set up shop in 1848 - presumably because the changeable weather and tearing winds made them feel at home! In all seriousness, it's a lovely little city, designed to mimic Edinburgh (even the name is the Gaelic version), right down to its street names. As a result, the architecture is chock-full of lovely stone buildings, with St Paul's Cathedral particularly pretty, made of creamy Oamaru stone and with an airy vaulted ceiling inside.

In addition, they've got a solid art collection (including my new favourites Rita Angus and C F Goldie), plus some seriously avant-garde temporary exhibitions - a photographer of hidden America, Taryn Simon, I thought was great; another chap, whose oeuvre seems to consist of words painted on cardboard, not so much. Plus there's a gorgeous National Trust-like manor house from 1904 called Olveston, which was willed to the city by its final owner in the Seventies. After the city had been forcibly dissuaded from turning it into flats for students, conservationists set about restoring it and now take guided tours round this perfectly preserved Arts & Crafts country house - lovely.

But lovely as it is, it couldn't compete with the Royal Albatrosses on the Otago Peninsula. I took a nature tour down there the other evening - it's the only mainland-based breeding area in the world - and we saw dozens gliding in on the updrafts, coming in to land. It was an experience I'll never have anywhere else, and I feel very privileged - as I did to see the incredibly rare and shy Yellow-Eyed Penguins, a little later on the same tour. The company I went with have exclusive access to a private beach, where the farmer who owns it has planted penguin-friendly grasses for them to nest in on the headland, and as a result the population has stabilised where elsewhere they are nearly extinct. We hunkered down in hides and saw parents and chicks, plus adults surfing in to land before beginning the long hop up the hillside (up to 100m) to their homes.

And in between all this I've been having a wonderfully sociable time, hanging out with the ladies in my dorm (Ruthie, the 64-year-old free spirit, Sarah, a Canadian who's about to start teacher training at Otago University, and German Anna, who's just finished six months as an au pair and is now kicking over the traces) and doing stuff like the brewery tour with them (highlight: tasting six varieties of ale!). Plus I've been made to feel incredibly welcome by a friend of a friend and her husband, and it was very special to be part of a family for an evening, just spending time in someone's home. Thera, if you're reading this, thank you!

So after such a great time, I'm all set up for the next adventure - remote and wild Stewart Island, which is free from predators so New Zealand's defenceless flightless birds can thrive there! More when I get back...

Sunday, 17 January 2010

The calm after the storm

Thankfully I had time to recover after the white-knuckle ride, with the next few days being more about the scenery than the thrills!  We headed mountainwards, to visit Lake Tekapo - which is a wonderful turquoise colour thanks to the microscopic rock particles in it, which react with the glacial meltwater and the sunshine to make this beautiful, startling colour.  And after that it was Aoraki Mount Cook, New Zealand's highest mountain and - as ever - amazing to look at.  

Sadly the weather was a bit against us, with the clouds covering much of the mountains around us, but we did a 3-hour alpine walk that more than made up for it.  It had everything from grey shingle to green marshland, rock climbing to rock hopping over streams and bogs, mountain views and lakeside paths...  Journey's end was Lake Hooker, a glacial lake with actual icebergs in it, right at the foot of the mountain.  In winter, apparently, there are avalanches, and even in summer, as now, the ice came right down to the water.  The only things that bothered me were the swingbridges - flimsy suspension bridges strung over roaring rapids.  I felt like Indiana Jones, but not as brave.  And without the bullwhip.

After that, we headed into Oamaru, the whitestone city.  Much of the historic district is built from a local whitestone, which is apparently soft when freshly quarried before hardening into a marble-like effect. This was meat and drink to the Victorians, naturally, who carved it into grand whitestone columns and pilasters, with leaf decorations on every free surface.  Even the local paper is housed in one of these grand buildings - Independent, eat your heart out!  Sadly we weren't there for long enough to explore Slightly Foxed, a second-hand bookstore downtown that looked like a treasure trove.  Though perhaps it's just as well, given that my luggage already weighs a ton.  

And now I'm in Dunedin for a few days, having hopped off the bus to explore a bit more on my own.  I'll be heading out to Otago Peninsula tomorrow to see the albatrosses and yellow-eyed penguins, and soon after that heading down to Stewart Island to go kiwi-spotting (the birds this time, not the people!).  With any luck the weather will pick up again - now I know why Crowded House (NZ band) wrote "Four Seasons in One Day".  I'll let you know how the twitching goes (and the brewery tour - it's not all clean living out here!).

Water torture

I've stopped at Dunedin to catch my breath after the first few days of my backpacker bus adventure, and it's been action all the way!  There were 32 of us on board, 26 of whom had been together since Auckland.  Stepping on the bus was a little intimidating, but a couple of hours in I'd got a few names and faces sorted out, and after a wet night under canvas we were all bonding like nobody's business.  And the bonding continued the following morning, when we went white-water rafting down Rangitata Gorge...

This was an extraordinary experience.  We were squeezed into wetsuits and thermal clothes, and then bussed down to the river and divided into four rafts.  On mine were Matt (terrified of water, poor chap - he was talked into it by his mates), Lina from Sweden, Ros from the UK, Jimmy, our Flying Kiwi guide, and Ben, the rafting guide.  Off we headed onto beautiful calm water, and were given lessons in what to do once the water got choppy (hold on and get down, and paddle for your life were the main instructions).  And the first two rapids were cool - water in the face, bounced around, getting the blood flowing...  However, these were only Grades I and II, and there was more to come.

The next one was Grade III, and we hit a wave wrong and the three of us on the left-hand side of the boat went into the water (me, Matt - now scarred for life - and Lina).  And that was OK, once you clawed your way to the surface - we were all wearing life jackets and helmets, and all you had to do was float on your back with your feet facing forward until someone could come by and haul you onto the raft again.  Easy as.  But the Grade Vs were yet to come...

The first one was a cinch - we stopped beforehand and were given the choice as to whether or not to continue, and it was only 60m long and frankly didn't look as bad as the Grade III, so we headed back onto the raft and went through it beautifully, without a single mishap.  At the next stop, Lina and Matt got out, but I stayed on, figuring that I'd already been in the water once, so how bad could it be?  Very, I discovered, as I bounced out at the top of the 350m Grade V rapids and went down on my arse, sans boat, for the rest of them.  Bloody terrifying - particularly the waterfall, which I could see coming!  No one was able to throw me a safety rope until the end, by which time I was a sorry state - all snot and hyperventilation, though the rush of wellbeing once I was on dry land again was incomparable.  I think the appeal of these adrenalin activities is not so much the activities themselves, as the enormous relief once they're over and you're alive!  People were very impressed with my calmness - I even held onto the paddle, for heavens' sake - and I'm glad I've done it, but I will never do it again.  And just for your viewing pleasure, here are a few of the photos - the rest are on Flickr (I'm in the green helmet, heading into the water).  God bless dry land!

Wednesday, 13 January 2010


I've just spent another lovely few days in Akaroa, a beautiful harbour town near Christchurch, reached via a precipitous road over the volcanic mountains hereabouts. This was very nearly French territory way back when, after a French sea captain bought the land from a local Maori tribe, and hurried home to gather up emigrants to populate it. Sadly for him, before he returned with his 50 odd settlers, the British had signed the Treaty of Waitangi with the Maori, which effectively gave them control over both islands, and moreover it turned out that the local tribesmen had in any case sold the land eight times over. After coming all that way, however, they decided to stay and Akaroa became a French town in all but name.

Today, of course, it's all a bit more touristy - the French flag flies over fish restaurants, and all the street names are in French, but that's about as far as it goes. However (and I think I'm spotting a theme here) it's as charming as all the other small towns in New Zealand, with gorgeous views, cute harbour, gentle walks and plenty of photo opportunities. Plus trips out onto the water to interact with Hector's dolphins, one of the most endangered marine mammals in the world. The first day I was due to go out dolphin swimming the trip was cancelled because of a gale - and with the waves reaching six foot in the harbour itself, never mind in the open water, and the water iron grey and frankly uninviting, I was rather relieved. I spent the day in the tiny local cinema instead, chatting about sci-fi films with the enthusiastic owner and in between times watching subtitled movies in a lovely 12-seater, sipping fresh coffee and generally feeling that all was well with the world.

And in any case the next day dawned fresh and fine and we headed out in our wetsuits (no photo opportunities here) to look for dolphins. Sadly they were still a bit unsettled by the storm, and more interested in feeding than playing, but we still managed to get into the water with a pod of three, who circled us for a short while before swimming off to find someone more interesting! Even so, I feel very privileged to have swum less than 5ft away from a dolphin, and because they didn't stay long we got a partial refund as well, which I thought was very generous considering it's entirely up to the dolphins what they do!

And now I'm about to join my backpacker bus for a trip round both islands. I'm hoping that because it's all very rugged (camping out and cooking over a fire and so on) the clientele will be a bit older and more staid, but we shall see. Whatever happens, we've got some great stops on the way so who cares?! I'll write more when I get some internet access again, and in the meantime I hope everyone's well and surviving the snow...

Saturday, 9 January 2010

Love story

Well, it's happened - I've fallen in love with New Zealand. Up until now our relationship has been like Jane Bennet and Mr Bingley - rather shy of each other and tongue-tied - but passion has now definitely blossomed beneath the muslin (or, being a modern girl, beneath the lycra-mix T-shirt). Christchurch is charming, but it's once you get on the road that NZ's real beauty strikes you. I could try to get all lyrical about the mountains, and the long grass rippling over the hillsides like some great beast's fur in the wind, and the amazing, endless sky... but words (and photos) can't really do it justice - only something like (and I know this is a cliche) The Lord of the Rings can show it off to real advantage. Nonetheless I shall try!

My first outing was to Hanmer Springs, a tiny alpine resort with hot springs, and crisp, clean air, nestled in the mountains. The springs themselves are quite commercialised (at least in comparison with Dalhousie Hot Springs in the Simpson desert), but since this is NZ that still means they're not too crowded. I spent a very happy few hours soaking myself in sulphur springs (and more filtered pools too) at 38C or 41C, and looking up at the mountains towering around me. It must be wonderful in winter, with snow on the ground.

The next day I spent on foot, exploring some of the area's many walking tracks. With some difficulty I got to the top of Conical Hill to see the amazing views (I have a long way to go before I'm at NZ levels of fitness; still, I've got a few months to get there!), and then through a forest of newly planted Douglas fir, with the only sounds being a distant saw and my only companions the bumblebees doing their thing in the sunshine. And there were some beautiful woodland tracks too, dappled and cool, with springs trickling nearby. Wonderful.

In fact, the only downside to the trip was the bus journey home, which - despite every precaution - I spent in fiery, desperate need for the loo. Old age, eh? Who needs it? Like my dodgy knee and the shin splints, it's one of the growing list of jokes that Mother Nature is playing on me! Anyway, bodily decrepitude aside, I'm overjoyed to be here, and looking forward to the next trip, to Akaroa on the coast, where (weather permitting) I'll be swimming with dolphins...

Thursday, 7 January 2010

New beginnings

I may not sound very coherent on this one - I've just finished The Children's Book, A S Byatt's epic saga of the Edwardian age, and three families torn apart by the First World War, and it's devastatingly good. But having blown my nose and generally mopped myself up, I wanted to write about my first days in New Zealand, before I head off to Hanmer hot springs tomorrow!

So far it's all been very gentle and dreamy. Christchurch is amazingly pretty, with faux Gothic greystone buildings at every corner, and a crystal clear river trickling through the centre of town, populated by ducks and men in boaters punting the tourists about. I've pottered through the Botanic Gardens in the blazing sunshine taking photos (apologies to those of you also following on Flickr - there will be a heap of flower pictures sometime soon!), and sampled the Arts Centre (once Canterbury College, built to look like an Oxford college, quadrangle and all, and now full of bijoux little art shops and a cinema in the cloisters; I went, of course, and saw The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, a violently bloody Swedish thriller based on a bestselling novel - not the most appropriate to the setting, and it appeared to surprise the elderly couple sitting behind me too, but there you go!).

I've also checked out the art gallery, which is a fantastic modern building amid the stone, all wavy lines and glass frontage, and with a great collection of New Zealand artists. Plus there's Canterbury Museum, which is a little provincial - lots of kitsch dioramas of
big-breasted Maori ladies weaving cloaks and plucking moa - but very endearing, and some of the exhibits are stunning, including the wood carvings from various whare (meeting houses). And just to make me feel really at home, the hostel is lovely, very cosy and friendly, with a herb garden we're free to plunder, spotless rooms, and its own house cat and two guinea pigs, who run around the lawn during the day, squeaking at each other. Adorable. (I should perhaps mention that this is a women-only hostel; I'm not sure the blokes would be so bowled over by guinea-pigs!)

So tomorrow is Hanmer Springs, before a few days back here, and then off again. I'll keep you posted, and in the meantime, good night and sleep tight...

Friday, 1 January 2010

Road trip

Happy New Year everyone! I didn't quite spend mine on the Great Ocean Road, but it was a near-run thing. I got back from tour at 1opm last night, and once I'd unpacked and cleaned my filthy body (my trip, as ever, was like a tour of duty!) it was about time for the bells to chime. All very low-key, then, but nonetheless it was a good start to the new decade. I say this every year, but things are on the up, I'm sure of it!

The tour itself was a bit of a mixed bag. The Great Ocean Road - built by returning servicemen after the First World War to create employment - is simply spectacular, and we had wonderful weather for it too. Time after time we stopped at a lookout to see amazing limestone cliff formations, or wild surf beaches bristling with damp young things in wetsuits, or just families at play while the sun baked boardwalks all along the coast. The highlight, naturally, was the Twelve Apostles, towers of limestone balanced precariously in the sea. It's the tourist mecca of the whole drive, and rightly so. We saw them with all the crowds, but also got to wander alone down a little-known stretch of beach where you could see them towering above you.

From the sublime to the ridiculous, the camping was a different kettle of fish. I was bunking in with a lovely Irish couple, Yvonne and Mark, camping novices who aren't going to be converted by this experience! The first night was OK, but the second had no showers, and we were cooking in a semi-covered kitchen with thousands of flying bugs. That night's chilli con carne had extra protein in abundance, and those of us who were helping with the cooking had to keep stopping to comb them out of our hair and retrieve them from down our clothes. I'm pretty hardened now, but that was horrifying! Afterwards we retreated to the bar (it was an odd mixture - no running water for campers, but a place for them to drown their sorrows in beer), before grabbing not many hours' shut-eye. We were a sorry bunch the following morning, for sure.

However, the Grampians was the next stop, and despite the heat this too was fantastic to look at. We visited the main tourist stops again - MacKenzie Falls, and the Pinnacles - but they were remarkably quiet. At times during our walk up to the Pinnacles, and particularly on our way down through a rocky landscape that looked like something out of a sci-fi movie we were completely alone. We finished the day with trips through the mining towns of Ararat and Ballarat, with commentary from our guide Peter (a great storyteller). And that, I guess, is my last tour in Australia. I'm sad to be going, but excited at the prospect of exploring another country, and happy that I have so many good memories. The next time I write it'll be from a different time zone - 2010 really is starting with an adventure!