South Island of New Zealand - Winter's Wonderland

Trip Start Feb 02, 2006
Trip End Aug 09, 2006

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Flag of New Zealand  ,
Monday, June 26, 2006

Imagine, if you will, the following scenario:
You are sat aboard your Air New Zealand flight NZ206 at Brisbane airport awaiting take-off when the pilot makes this announcement: "Good morning ladies and gentlemen, welcome aboard. We should be underway in just a few minutes, heading east out over the Tasman Sea and flying into Christchurch". And then "I'm not 100% I'll actually be able to land today, they seem to be having problems over there with ice. But it's a good three hours until we arrive, so we'll take off anyway and just hope for the best. Do have a good flight."
WHAT?! Suddenly the prospect of 'flying into Christchurch' took on an altogether more catastrophic meaning.

But with a communal sigh of relief from passengers and crew alike we were able to land safely into Christchurch. And into a blustery, snow covered winter. Overnight much of the central south island had been hit by a freak blizzard bringing 8 inches of snow and the bus ride into town was filled with those familiar scenes of the first day of snowfall: cars slowly slushing tracks in the road; uncompleted snowmen scattered across front gardens; school kids throwing snowballs at us as we passed by. It was all fabulous and we were filled with that nostalgic yuletide fire in our bellies. But when the bus deposited us in Christchurch's deserted Cathedral Square and we struggled to locate our hostel, the realities of winter soon hit us. It was -2 degrees and we were very, very cold. That afternoon we emerged from our hostel sporting every item of clothing we possessed to embark on a hurried yet determined exploration of Christchurch, but before long the winter's chill beat us back to the comfort of a bar, and World Cup highlights.

The blizzard which had threatened our landing the day before now threatened our route out of Christchurch. Our intention had been to head inland towards Lake Tekapo and Mount Cook, but we only got as far as Pleasant Point, a town with no dentist, pharmacist or optician, but two taxidermists, before we met a dead end. The kindly, if slightly retarded, young lady at Transit New Zealand informed us that the road was closed due to snow, and that we might have more luck getting to Tekapo from Omarama, 40km south, so off we set. But with the direct road closed it was a 260km drive to Omarama, and by the time we arrived the light had gone and we were now stranded here in a village of 350 people where the downtown consisted of two petrol stations and where the only backpacker's hostel had closed for winter. We drove a little while along SH8 until we found, quite by chance, a sheep farm offering rooms for the night so we pulled in. This area of New Zealand, like much of the South Island, is farming country where men are men and sheep are scared, but if ever we have been blessed with good fortune tonight was it because the Buscot Station, and Tony, provided cheap, faultless accomodation and excellent conversation for the night.

We had more luck the following morning as our friend at Transit New Zealand happily informed us that SH83 was open, so we bid Tony and his sheep farewell and made with haste for the country's highest peak. The drive was devastatingly beautiful as the Southern Alps glistened in the morning's sun, and Mount Cook stood grand and imposing at the end of the windy road. We felt compelled to stop at every available opportunity to take photos but were repeatedly frustrated that we couldn't caputure the magnificence before us. This is the problem with New Zealand, though, no words or photos ever come close to conveying the true magic of it's natural beauty. We had fallen in love.

After a long drive from Mount Cook it was late afternoon before we arrived into Queenstown, the self-titled 'adventure capital' of NZ. Our friends from home, Lucy and Quinn, just so happened to be in Queenstown that night too so we arranged to meet up for a drink. Well, I don't think any of us took a breath all night we talked that much! It was great to see them both and we had such a good time hearing about all the things they had done so far. The next day we took the 'Gondola' up the mountainside to ride The Luge which is great fun - like driving go-karts down the side of the mountain on a race track. When night fell we did our first bungy jump - 'The Ledge' - with Queenstown lit up beneath us. They harness you up, tell you to take three big steps back and then you take a running jump off the edge. It was great fun, very scary and very quick but what an adrenaline rush! Sweet As!

The following day I was due to jump 'The Bridge' (43m) and both Brendan and I were jumping 'Nevis' (134m - in other words very very high). All I can say is that I've never been so scared in my life. The Bridge wasn't so bad because like The Ledge I didn't really have time to think about it, they just harness you up and it's time for your jump. But for Nevis, 15 of us went out to a pod suspended over a valley from where you jump. Being the last jumper gives you a lot of time to think about what you are about to do and by the time my turn came I was petrified. I stood on the edge, clinging to the guy harnessing me up. One look down and my heart was in my mouth. You cannot believe what you are about to do. Suddenly its the countdown: 3,2,1 and you just do it. The fall felt so long, like time had slowed down, and then after the first bounce you feel completely weightless. It is amazing. I screamed the whole way down without stopping - I didn't know my lungs could hold that much air. What an incredible feeling. I would definitely recommend bungy jumping to anyone without a heart condition!

From Queenstown we headed further south to Milford Sound, a mountain-hedged fjord on the South West coast. It is the starting point for the popular Milford Track, a five-day hike through the Fjordland, though in winter much of the track is out of commission. We had planned to walk some of the shorter trails on offer but in the morning we woke to thick snow - the first at ground level here for two years - and our plans were quashed. As an alternative we settled for a cruiseboat tour of the fjord, an interesting though expensive exploration of the surrounding mountains and waterfalls. The next day we had more luck, however, and were able to walk the untouched, snow-hidden trail to Lake Marian, an utterly breathtaking ramble. We were completely alone, knee deep in fluffy snow. It was just like Narnia; a winter wonderland of fantasies. It doesn't come any better than this.

After two days in the Fjordland it was time to head back north via Wanaka to the Glaciers of Franz Josef and the pristine beaches of the Abel Tasman, but this will have to wait...

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