Crossing the Alps

Trip Start Sep 23, 2004
Trip End Ongoing

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Wednesday, December 27, 2006

We were driving from Christchurch to the West Coast. The journey was meant to be an experience in itself, as we would be crossing the Southern Alps through Arthur's Pass. We started off across the Canterbury Plains; a huge flat expanse populated largely by livestock. Contented cows grazed the plentiful green grass, but we had our eyes set on the mountain range dominating the skyline. Eventually we began to climb up twisting roads, as the cloud billowed around us, and the landscape became rocky and rugged. Every so often the skies would lift and lighten, and we got glimpses of the mountains surrounding us. A few small communities cling to life on the mountain slopes; in the winter they will come to life as ski resorts, in the summer they mainly serve as bases for trampers exploring the Alps.Waterfalls gushed down the sheer mountain sides, bringing the cliff faces to life. 

We stopped by a river running through an alluvial plain. The grey shale was covered in vivid purple lupins with the occasional golden splash of a gorse bush. All noxious weeds here, but the colours were stunningly intense against the grey slate of the sky. We drove on to a view point which looked out on a multitude of waterfalls cascading over and under the road, into the glacial blue rivers below. A viaduct swept its way above the valley floor in an epic feat of engineering. The lookout was also inhabited by kea. These are alpine parrots, a cheeky species who fill in the evolutionary niche of destruction and mayhem usually occupied by monkeys in warmer countries. They will steal your sandwiches, filch the laces from your shoes, and run away with the shoes too if at all possible. Not even your car is safe- many a rental vehicle has been returned with kea damage to tyres, windscreen wipers and seals. They are even capable of undoing zips- and could probably pick locks if their tin-opener-like beaks didn't render locks useless around them! They get away with it because they are cute- rather like a naughty five year old school boy.  

We emerged from the pass onto the West Coast and headed south towards the glaciers. We stopped off at the Bushman's Centre in Pukekura. Declining the offer of possum pie for lunch, we went to meet the residents: a huge wild boar, some magnificent stags with velvety antlers, a couple of ugly eels and- the baddies of the piece- possums. These were about the size of cats, with luxuriously furry coats, and very sharp claws. They are public enemy number one in New Zealand because of their tendency to eat the eggs of native birds, bringing many like the kiwi to the edge of extinction. Even staunch vegetarians are known to swerve across the road in a bid to squash them. The Bushman's Centre featured an interesting museum- not for the faint hearted, it contained exhibits on the history of hunting in New Zealand, for food, fur and pest control. Most interesting was a video detailing the development of live capture techniques by the venison industry- starting with people leaping out of helicopters and trying to land on the deer! This could have seriously reduced the male population of the South Island, but luckily an enterprising Kiwi invented the net gun, developing a capture technique now used in wildlife reserves around the world.
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