Onward to New Zealand - first stop, Mount Cook

Trip Start Jun 15, 2007
Trip End Jun 27, 2008

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Sunday, April 20, 2008

The pain of being in Australia without Jethro was too much to bear so without further ado we headed straight over to Cairns airport to try and get a stand-by flight to New Zealand.  We made up some cock and bull story about an old aunt in NZ being very ill but it was all to no avail as we soon learnt that airlines don't do stand-bys and haven't done for the last 15 or so years.  Oooops.

So, rather than heading back to Cairns and running the risk of bumping into Jeffers (as he was affectionately known - do you think it is possible that we may have gotten a little too attached to the van?) we decided to get on t'internet and book a last minute flight.  Within an hour we had a flight booked to Christchurch via Melbourne.  It meant an overnight sleep at Melbourne airport but what the heck - that is all part of the fun of travelling right?

Before you could say 'worst nights sleep ever' we were on the plane and heading for NZ.  NZ has always been a number one 'must see' place for Pat and his excitement and lust for the country was heightened when we caught our first glimpse of the South Island - albeit from 30,000 feet.  We just happened to be flying on one of the clearest days and the views we got flying over Mount Cook and the Southern Alps were just amazing. It is surprising that the plane didn't tip over as pretty much everybody was craning their necks to see the view through the right hand side windows.  The tip of Mount Cook was just poking through a slight cloud covering but beyond that you could see all of the mountain range and the surrounding lakes shimmering the most clear blue you could imagine.  Stunning.  Plus we had only had three hours sleep the night before so were a little trippy at this point due to caffeine overdose.

At 3pm we landed in Christchurch and were hit full on in the face with what I can only describe as the biggest shock we have ever experienced. COLD WEATHER!!! Oh. My. GOD!! We have been fortunate enough to follow the sun for the last 10 months and have kind of got used to being toasty and warm.  You have never seen two English people go into shock like us two.  Basically we went from 30 degrees up in Cairns to 8, yes 8, degrees in Christchurch all within the space of 24 hours.  And as we have been following the sun we are not equipped with cold weather gear.  WE FROZE TO DEATH!!

But, in saying all that, we soon found some comfort in the cold.  As we have not had a winter this year (due to everything being upside down here in the southern hemisphere) it was actually quite nice to feel the nip of frost in the air and to be sat in front of an open fire.  Only problem was that it felt like it should be Christmas yet here we were in the middle of April.  Within in an hour of landing we were booked into our hostel and in the pub drinking proper beer (not lager) in front of a roaring fire, eating proper pub grub.  Ah bliss.

After a couple of days meandering round Christchurch and booking multi stop bus tickets etc etc we were on our way to Mount Cook via a little town called Twizel (pronounced Twy-zel and not Twizzle).  Back in September when we were in Laos we got talking to a guy there who had been to NZ and recommended a wonderful experience where you went to Twizel, and for want of a better way of putting it you are treated like a cannibals dinner. Huh? I hear the faint scratching of heads..... let me explain. there is a tin bath that sits outside with the spectacular backdrop of Mount Cook watching over in the distance. Then a fire is lit underneath the bath to aid in heating the water, for you to finally submerge yourself within and experience outdoor bathing with snow capped mountains as your curtains. Alas this was not to be as when we arrived and enquired, we were greeted with vacant looks and 'well I've lived here all my life and I've never heard of that?' Hmmmm.

After a rather cold overnight stay in Twizel, a disappointing bowl of cornflakes and a shower that made you wish you hadn't bothered, we headed off on our bus to Mount Cook. Excitedly we boarded and met an equally eager driver wanting to share all of his knowledge of the area. We learnt that within spitting distance of where we had spent the night was, among many places in NZ, where they filmed Lord of the Rings! Wow. We saw the battle ground that features in the final scene of the third film, quick photo stop then off to the next stop where we take in even more spectacular views of lakes and the ever impressive Mount Cook in the distance. with each corner turned there seemed to be a better view than the last, how could this scenery get any better? The addition of rich autumn colours and crisp clear days gave this place a real magical feel. 

It wasn't long before we arrived in Mount Cook village and checked into our wonderful, and I mean wonderful hostel there.  A real alpine feel to it with warm rooms and open fires. We headed out to explore the village and ventured up to the famous Hermitage Hotel.  Mount Cook and the surrounding peaks are where Sir Edmund Hillary (first man to climb Everest back in 1953) learned his trade as it were - being a native NZ'er these peaks were right on his doorstep.  He had very close links with this area and this was clear in the Sir Ed Alpine Centre located in the hotel.  Pat had recently read his autobiography so was very excited to see all the memorabilia and photos of the big man and a life size bronze statue outside watching over the mountains.

Next day and first days walking - to the Hooker Valley and the bottom of the glacier. This was supposed to be a simple 2 - 3 hour stroll but as Nicola was being silly all the way it took over 5 hours.  The whole walk was done under the shadow of Mount Cook and the further we walked the closer we got to the mountain - it really is an impressive sight.  The walk was beautiful and the scenery just breath taking.  All day we heard the distant rumble of avalanches and land slides - some sounded a little too close as they echoed through the valleys and the first few seconds of trying to work out where the noise was coming from were always exciting - then huge relief once we realised they were far enough way to do no damage.
Us being us we decided to set off on this walk with no food (yes we really are that stupid) so by the time we had finished we were starving so it was straight into the Old Mountaineers Cafe for late lunch and beer - best of all another roaring open fire which was very welcome on a crisp day.  This cafe would become our home for the next few days and also where we would have some very interesting conversations. First up was Warren from Vancouver.  Warren (or Wazza as he soon became known) was staying in our hostel and was cycling in NZ.  When we told him of our plans to cycle the Otaga Rail Trail (more to come on that) he seemed very keen and by the end of the night we had agreed that we would go on this little adventure together.

A rest day followed and then on the 24th we decided to do a longer walk.  Our original goal was to only do a 4 - 5 hour walk but once we got into our stride we kept going and going and before we knew it we had climbed a 1933m mountain.  This time we had brought provisions in food and water so were 'up for it'.  The walk started with a 4 km gentle walk out of the village then it was up up and up.  But it was worth it - absolutely worth every single painful thigh burning step.  The views over the valley and to the lakes were just amazing.  We are finding already that we are running out of words to describe NZ.
We soon passed our original destination and kept going on up to the top of Mount Oliver and then to Mueller Hut which is a popular overnight place for mountaineers and such like - it is basically a tin hut on the top of the mountain that apparently is in its 6th rebirth due to the previous five huts being wiped out by avalanches; needless to say we didn't stop there. The walk down was a lot less rewarding and a lot more painful than the up and the gentle 4 km walk back to the village felt like 100km and was excruciatingly painful.  But, we made it to the Old Mountaineers Cafe again, limped our way to the bar, ordered beer and got sat down in front of the fire and got talking to an American ex-CIA agent that specialised in interrogation methods.  Nice.  He even bought us a beer without having to hold under the water to get us to agree.

We decided that would be the last of our walking as we were due to do a gentle four day bike ride the day after next!!! Why do we do this to ourselves?
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