Riding The Back Of A Giant

Trip Start Nov 16, 2007
Trip End Aug 2008

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Flag of New Zealand  ,
Saturday, January 5, 2008

A short walk and a shuttle lead to the ferry terminal in Wellington and the route to the South Island. After a really simple check in, it's straight onto the Akarua. Picking up speed, we pull out of Wellington Harbour and into the Cook Straight, following the coast for an hour before darting across the channel. The passengers onboard are mostly families heading to the south with their cars during the summer holiday. Soon we sight the South Island and start weaving through glorious channels with rich green sides and clear blue water. Another hour and we reach the port town of Picton.

With an afternoon to kill before the bus leaves to Nelson, I explore. There isn't much to Picton, a pretty harbour with yachts and a very clean beach are uncluttered with the crowds you would expect in the UK. The town's main street has a few restaurant, a bank and the odd pub, but that really is it. I hole up in a cafe, writing and enjoying the view before it's time to hit the road again.

The road to Nelson passes through another tree lined, mountain park; the road dropping and spiraling like a fairground ride. The lower population in the South and its less developed past is noticeable, with many areas showing a ragged, untouched face. On arriving in Nelson, I get settled in the hostel and arrange activities for the coming days before going off on a little wander in the evening.

Nelson lies at the heart of one of New Zealand's best wine growing regions and also close to some of its best and most accessible parks. This gives it a very gentile mix of wide leafy avenues and great shopping and restaurants. Exploring the centre of town I get to see this mix, as well as the lovely art deco Cathedral, set up on a hill in the centre of town. In the afternoon, I watch the New Zealand and Australia cricket matches in a pub, trying out the local beers. Mac's Gold Malt Lager is definitely worth a try. The warm sunny evening makes for a pleasant setting to have dinner in a local bistro.

Up early and another glorious day. The target for today is Abel Tasman National Park. One of New Zealand's most popular and beautiful parks, it occupies the North West part of the South Island sticking out into the Tasman Sea. After an hour bus ride, we arrive at the tiny village of Kaiteriteri, with its untouched sandy beach. Then onto a small inshore speed boat taxi. We bounce over the waves up the coast, passing the famous Split Apple Rock and beautiful secluded bays. I disembark at Bark Bay. After watching the boat crash away, I turn and head into the woods, on the path that follows the coast.

Mile after mile of wide sandy beaches, hidden forest rivers and deep gorges, all fringed with a lush, moist rainforest. Even though this is the high season, the huge park swallows the crowds to give an amazing feeling of solitude and peace. I pass Torrent Bay and have lunch in Anchorage Bay after paddling along its 2 mile stretch of clear sandy beach. There is little or no road access to any of the park, so the main transport is the little taxis you see zipping up and down, and the larger cruising boats mixed in with the local yachts.

After 6 hours of walking, I reach the tiny village of Manuaka where the bus back to Nelson leaves. Time to have a rest, a drink and watch the little boats head up and down with fresh tourists. Back to Nelson and a rest, eating in a local Italian.

The next day brings rain and with it a chance to rest the legs and get some washing done. I head to a pub in the afternoon to watch the exciting (and controversial) end to the Australia/India test in Sydney. The evening is still gloomy so the local cinema makes a nice venue, watching the new zombie classic, 'I am Legend'. I finish the night chatting with my dormmates, an American/Canadian couple living in Australia. Different routes through New Zealand give useful information.

Recent storms have been causing havoc in Queensland and this front has now hit with avengance. The next morning, I catch the 7am bus south to Franz Josef and the glacier. Rain upon rain, inundated roads and stormy coastal views. The driver is a very cheerful chap, throwing a chortling "I can tell you" at the end of every sentence. He describes what we would be seeing without the clouds and points out local interesting facts. At Pukekaika, I dash down the path to the cliffs to catch a look and a photo of the famous pancake rocks and blowholes. Coming back with sopping wet jeans, the driver asks if it was worth it. I'm still not sure.

Passing through the small town of Greymouth and down to the centre of the jade industry at Hokatiki. Beautiful examples of the carved green stone with the factory out the back open for visits. Then south again to the tiny stop of Pukekara, population 2. The husband and wife team run a restaurant and shop, serving up 'Pete's Possom Pies' and showing their hatred of the imported Australian pests with the offensive posters and possum fur seat covers spread through the building. A final push through the rain and we arrive at Franz Josef. The mountains are shrouded in heavy clouds and I arrange a walk on the glacier in a couple of days, hoping the weather will clear as forecast. I finish a long day watching a local film, the deeply moving 'Whale Rider' which highlights many of the problems the Maori society is struggling with and also the relationship of a grandfather and granddaughter.

The new day brings better weather and I make for the park surrounding the glacier to climb a peak called 'Alex Knob'. This starts as a gentle, well packed gravel path where you can view the millpond still Lake Wombat, before heading up onto the main ascent. This is a much harder proposition, a series of traverses extending higher and higher through first coastal rainforest, then thick alpine woods and finally stretching into grassy alpine scrub. The path was heavily waterlogged from the previous day and a number of trees had fallen to block the path.

After 3 hours of solid climbing, I finally emerged at the peak with a view of the clouds shrouding the peaks. A shame about the view but definitely worth it for such a rewarding climb through untouched rainforest. On the drop back down (1300m to 200m) the weather has improved enough to get a good view of the glacier from Rata lookout. It is an awesome sight even from this distance. A great hulking mass falling into the valley it has carved bare in previous surges and floods. I wander back along the road by the bubbling river, swollen with rain and ice melt. Large chunks of ice float their way down towards the sea, piling up where they meet a bend in the course. Back at the hostel, I make use of the sauna and rest my legs for the next day's glacier hike. In the evening, the clouds disappear to give a beautiful view of the mountains covered in snow at the top.

A bright sunny morning greets the arrivals at the glacier tour centre. We get passed through the process to get our raincoats, crampons and boots, then packed on a bus to the glacier car park. Once there we divide into groups based on ability, thankfully I get into the first group as that was quite slow enough a pace. A 3 km hike, including ladders and ledge walks to avoid the river, leads us to the glacier face. After fitting our crampons, our guide, a really nice American named Thomas, leads us up the ice steps the guides have cut in the front face of the glacier. The face is almost vertical and about 30m high. Pitted with rocks dragged up from below and with a huge hole in the front from which the river sprouts.

Once at the top of this ice staircase, we pick our way through the crevasses and caves that scar the surface. Deep blues and brilliant white contrast against the steep rocky slopes surrounding the iceflow. Near the end of our walk, Thomas leads us to an ice hole that he found the other day. He disappears down and after a bit of struggling, appears on the other side. We follow through, some with difficulty at the end as the 5m tunnel narrows dramatically (sometimes it's good being small). Great fun. We proceed back to the bus. The glacier disappears behind as we head away. An awesome creature, it is 11km long and moves at around 100m per year, one of the fastest in the world and also one of the closest to the sea.

An evening of packing and relaxing, and off to bed for the early start. In the morning, I board the bus back to Greymouth to catch the train across the mountains to Christchurch. A different driver puts a slightly less jolly (and less irritating if I'm honest) spin on the history and points of interest of the West Coast. This time I have one of Pete's Possum pies for breakfast. An interesting meat, quite gamey but with a texture like chicken. For lunch another local delicacy, whitebait omelette sandwich, an interesting mix although I think I prefer the 'friture' style. Eventually we get to Greymouth and I'm on the train.

The west side of the Southern Alps is lush and green from its regular watering from the prevailing westerly winds. We pass through endless green valleys, climbing up to the tunnel and then pass that takes the train to the east. At Arthur's Pass, we start the winding drop down to Christchurch. Passing over huge viaduct drops and passed valleys hemmed bu the vast mountains. The conductor points out interesting features. My favourite was the front entrance to the largest private property in New Zealand, a sheep ranch owned by the White family which stretches 73 km to the back entrance. The east is noticeably less green with its annual rainfall of 75cm compared to 5m in the west. We pull into Christchurch station after four and a half hours, back onto the Pacific coast.

After finding a shuttle to the hostel, I settle in  and chat for hours with my two dormmates, a Canadian girl here on vacation and an English girl traveling through from Australia. I grab some food and off to bed, ready to explore Christchurch in the morning.
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