A Fine Start

Trip Start Jan 16, 2008
Trip End Apr 27, 2008

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Thursday, March 13, 2008

Our travels in New Zealand have got off to a fine start, in more ways than we intended.

We went to pick up our campervan early on Monday morning and, to our initial disappointment, hadn't been allocated the Batmobile which we'd hoped for. However, when we finally saw what was to be our home for the next 17 nights, we were more than happy. Our camper has been decorated with characters from 80's cult film Labyrinth, starring David Bowie. Or so that's what everyone has been telling me - I've never heard of the film, but the goblins look pretty cool. People have come up to the street and commented on our camper and made reference to the film - I've just smiled.

On our first day we drove 450km North West to the city of Nelson via the mountainous Lewis Pass. The roads are empty and we drove for hours barely seeing any other road users at all. Wide rivers and steep mountains lined the road and it was a pretty stunning start to New Zealand. Having not set off until the early afternoon, we didn't arrive in Nelson until sunset and drove the last few kilometres to our final stop at Kaiteriteri in the dark - the gateway to Abel Tasman National Park.

The next morning I took the opportunity to get my first glance at the national park from the skies, with the help of a microlight. Microlights are pretty much hang gliders with an engine strapped to the back, except you sit down rather than lie down. The takeoff happened really quickly and soon we were soaring 1000ft over the beaches and forests that make Abel Tasman famous. There were great views of the tidal sand flats, kayakers paddling between the bays and even stingrays way down in the water below. The pilot (who controls the machine with a few cables) flew through me through steep valleys and low down over the bays to get a brilliant view and put the whole area in perspective. After 40 minutes we came in to land - the microlight came in really steeply and then at the last minute levelled right out to come to a smooth stop on the grass.

We then took the camper into the national park and hopped onto a speedboat to do a quick tour of the bays. It looked a little like going back to the Whitsundays with long sandy beaches and blue, clear and turquoise waters all mixing together. The boat also took us close to seals sunbathing on the rocks.

The following day was another long drive - 425km, to get to the West Coast. We left around 10am and our first stop was at Buller Gorge, the site of New Zealand's longest swinging bridge. It's 110m long and, although it's only about 25m above the river, it really does sway when you cross it.

We carried on West and arrived at the town of Greymouth for a lunch stop. Parking was scarce and so after driving around for a while we spotted a space and slotted in. After lunch we returned to the camper and saw a piece of paper flapping around under the wiper. Hoping it would just be a flyer, on closer inspection we'd been fined. The offence - parking the wrong way around. Apparently in New Zealand you have to park in the same direction as the traffic travels on that side of the road.

Grumbling, we drove down to the town council office where a nice lady behind the counter read the fine and obviously noted we weren't local. After a lot of puppy dog eyes, "sorrys" and Lotte's "we've learnt our lesson", she went off to see what she could do and came back with the good news that she could let us off, blaming the rental company for not letting us know.

With new found happiness, we continued our journey South along a coastal road. We stopped at Franz Josef Glacier along the way and did the short walk to the viewpoint which provided spectacular views of the glacier's terminal face, and then carried on driving for another 20km to our stop at Fox Glacier where we are at the moment.

This morning we awoke to grey skies and Lotte set off early for her glacier walk while I kept my fingers crossed that the heli-hike would still be going ahead. At midday I found at that it would be and that I was quite lucky - only 50% of the tours scheduled to helihike the glacier go ahead due to the inclemency of the weather in the valley.

After donning thick boots and several layers of clothing we jumped in the helicopter and took the stunning 15 minute flight up onto Fox Glacier. Within minutes, thoughts of the grey skies in the village below were gone as blue skies opened up all around us bathing the glacier in sun. We soared over the jagged ice below and the pilot skillfully flew the plane up close to the valley sides, at one point nose-diving towards a waterfall which disappeared beneath the ice. The strangest thing is that the glacier ends where rainforest begins, it's a really odd sight.

We soon came into land on the ice and crawled out from the helicopter when we strapped crampons onto boots and started the walking tour. The ice where we were standing was 250m deep and, despite generally retreating since 1800, Fox Glacier is currently advancing. We took a two and a half hour walk over the ice, through ice caves and past moulins, where the water falls down through tunnels over 200m vertically into the glacier. We got a closer inspection of Victoria Falls, where the helicopter had already taken us close to, and saw the 100m waterfall disappearing into the ice below us.

The whole tour seemed to fly by and before I knew it we were crouching down on the ice again, with the helicopter landing and spraying ice in all directions. The weather had begun to close in and on the flight down we dropped through the cloud and discovered it had been pouring down in the village for hours. Weather in the mountains can change just a few kilometres away!

The glacier heli hike is without doubt the highlight of my trip so far and one of the best things that I can ever remember doing. Getting so up close and personal was an amazing experience and ever since, Lotte and I have been comparing things we learnt on our tours - admiring these things isn't just a geography thing!
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