Tuesday, November 15, 2011


Picton to Wellington

If you ever wanted an example of how familiarity can breed at the very least indifference, then the ferry crossing from the South to North Islands is it.

The seasoned and regular travelers on this route shuffled and hustled to find themselves a spot to nap or watch television, while we, with the space station on wheels safely loaded and secured below, made our way to the deck to watch the ferry leave the Picton dock and move out into a misty morning. As we slowly pushed out into the waters of Marlborough Sound, fog, wispy cloud, and wake settled behind us, our trail preserved like a gigantic snail, albeit temporarily.

Marlborough Sound - Leaving South Island
With no escape route in sight, the ferry weaved its way slowly out through the hills of the sound, lefts and rights, snaking its way away North-Eastwards. Then with one maneuver the ferry was no longer encased in mist and fog but was being struck by a laser like sunbeam shooting through an opening. The closer we edged the larger the opening became, and within what seemed like just seconds, the vessel was out of arms of Marlborough Sound and into the seemingly unending waters of Cook strait.

1st glimpse of Cook Strait
Drowned in sunshine we powered onwards for a couple of hours through the waters of the strait, until land again formed part of the horizon. Like the escape from Marlborough Sound, but in reverse, we navigated what was seemingly a small opening and sailed into the open arms of the huge natural harbour at Wellington. Within moments it felt like a gate had been closed behind us and we were gliding across the flattest lake imaginable, with the hills of Wellington’s suburbs rising up from the shoreline all round us, and the city itself sparkling and basking in the reflection of the harbour’s glasslike surface.

I’ve paid good money in my time to sightsee far less dramatic land and seascapes, so if this was just a commute for our fellow passengers it makes them the most obliviously lucky people around.

A trundle off the ferry and 20 minutes later we were plugged in at the camper park in the hills just North of the city centre, and a quick taxi ride later we were back in the centre.
Smooth waters of the harbour

It hits you immediately - Wellington is a warm, friendly, and  welcoming place. You get asked how your day is going when you buy a coffee, you’ll have a  half dozen conversations with a half dozen strangers if you enter a half dozen shops. Maybe I’ve lived in the Netherlands for far too long but the novelty of having a stranger strike up a conversation with you on the street when they notice your kid, or camera, or the paper you’re reading is something I love and want more of.

We had walked for maybe 10 minutes along Cuba street when we decided that our next destination was going to have do without us and we were going to stay longer in Wellington. Cuba street and that whole area is filled with hipster, arty and student type cafes , bars and restaurants. You can easily eat whatever the hell takes your fancy, although the selection is somewhat curtailed when all the toddler with you fancies is a bread and butter sandwich.

Snoozing among the waterfront traffic
Over the next few days we walked in the sunshine around the government buildings and the beehive, along the shopping mile of Lambtons  Quay, we took the delightful cable car up the Botanic gardens where you  get wonderful views of the city and harbour below, and we walked again and again and again over and back along the waterfront.  The waterfront is fantastic, with parks & playgrounds, bars & restaurants, open air venues, museums and galleries it in itself is an attraction, but due to being possibly the quickest route from one any part of the city to another it constantly has a flow of office workers in runners, roller-bladers, roller-skaters, joggers and cyclists. Not one of which ever tutted, yelled, cursed, or rang a bell at the curious toddler who made the entire path her own on numerous occasions.

The city looks great, a huge natural harbour that every street in town seems to lead to, a smart, crisp centre, and the green hills of the protected city belt on all sides serve as the residential suburbs, beating blocks of flats or housing estates any day of the week.  

Again we saw how national heritage and culture should be preserved for people in the form of Wellingtons Museums. The Wellington city & sea museum is again a great place, and again it’s completely free.  It houses lots of interesting stuff on the city’s emergence, alongside it’s European and Maori settler history. The highlight of the museum though is the exhibition on the Wahine disaster of 1968, when over 50 people died as a ferry sank in a storm, right there in the harbour, with a city watching on helplessly.

Wellington & harbour from the hills
Any other city in the world would be happy to settle for that, a wonderful city museum, but not Wellington. On the waterfront lies ‘Te Papa’ - New Zealand’s national museum.  6 floors bursting with artifacts, exhibitions, and interactive displays, I can’t think of anywhere I’ve ever been that would be more interesting to, or more geared at kids of school age.  We visited Te Papa on our last morning in the city and we left at closing time, not having even reached the top two floors. The cost of visiting this gem? Nothing. Donation boxes are there for those inclined and able, but once again New Zealand’s heritage, culture, and history is freely accessible for anyone who wants to experience it.

'Solace in the wind' on the waterfront
Art is dotted all over the city, especially along the waterfront, some pieces more abstract than others Some hitting perfect tones.

It’s hard to put a finger on any one thing that sets Wellington apart from other cities, it’s big but compact, it’s bustling but never rushed,  it’s pretty but not vain. It epitomizes what I found about New Zealand in general, people are proud of the place, they enjoy it, they use it, they preserve and promote it, but they are never boastful or arrogant about it. It is always, without fail - homely.

We didn’t want to leave, and truth be told I’d go back tomorrow if circumstances allowed, but with time ticking far too fast, the time came to move on from our camperpark in the Wellington hills and move on to a much shortened stop in Whanganui.
I love this city...

Thursday, November 3, 2011


Franz Josef to Picton
After the drama of the morning in Franz Josef, we packed up in the afternoon to head to Greymouth a couple of hundred kilometers further up the coast in the hope of cutting some time of the following day’s journey to Picton.

We left Franz Josef in glorious sunshine and blue skies and by the end of the afternoon we had arrived in Greymouth that was living up to its name. The rain lashed down from the dirtiest of skies, grey clouds blurring the lines between skies and the ocean horizons.  Maybe we caught it on a bad day, maybe I’m being unfair, but Greymouth looks like a town that time has forgotten.  A 1920s seaside down that has been deteriorating ever since that heyday. 

We walked the streets in the rain looking for somewhere to eat, and it’s no exaggeration to say that we walked them alone, not a soul joined us in braving the admittedly shocking weather. After declining the culinary delights of a couple of pubs that had seen better days, we settled on the only place that didn’t look like a fire hazard. A quickly scoffed meal later we headed back to our van that was taking a battering beachside to take shelter for the night - as much from the eeriness of Greymouth itself as the weather.
Not so bright but definitely early the following morning, we packed up and hit the road again, North East away from the coast, towards Marlborough and onto Picton.

We finally had a journey that didn’t mostly comprise of a rally course. While some stretches of highway were even straight, that didn’t take away from the drama of the surroundings. Once we pulled away from the mountains we were into wine country, acres and acres of vineyards left and right, in front and behind, as far as the eye could see.

The sun and blue sky returned just as the countryside turned to velvet. Rolling hills of various shades of greens, yellows and browns guided us all the way into town.

Picton itself is lovely.  If I were to be mean I could say it is what Greymouth should be. It’s a port town, spic and span, with plenty of life about the place. Only having the evening there before the ferry crossing in the morning, we made a bee line to the port and its park to let Sanne have a well deserved run around.

While we were tending to our daughter’s needs as if she were a cocker spaniel we struck up a conversation with a man pushing his daughter on the swings. If there ever was an example of how open and chatty the Kiwis are it was this, within 10 minutes we had his life story, not long returned after 10 years working in Australia, he now had sole custody of his 2 and a half year old daughter after her mother had just upped and left. It was one of those meetings that you think back on ten or twenty years later and wonder how their life will have worked out.

We settled down for the night once again after a day and a half of driving, happy in the knowledge that with the exception of a getting the van on and off the ferry in the morning, we had a few days on solid ground ahead of us.

Tomorrow we would leave the epic South island behind and cross the Cook Straight to New Zealand’s capital – Wellington.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Franz Josef

Queenstown to Franz Josef

 The expected long drive to Franz Josef started just after 10am on a sunny Sunday. The route soon got longer when we decided to stuck to the highway instead of Mr Google’s suggestion of some arse backways ski slope route. The highways themselves can be less than easy driving around these parts so I didn’t fancy driving the village on wheels up any unsealed mountain tracks.

The journey was a slog, ridiculously stunning once again, but a slog. Around Lake Wakatipu, followed by Lake Hawea, then Lake Wanaka. Each one bluer than the one before.  (Technically I reckon Hawea was by far the bluest but there’s no phrase for that, anyway...). We trailed on through Mt Aspiring National park, along lakes Moeraki and Paringa, and into Westland National park. 

The last 25kms into Franz Josef were the craziest, twistiest, uppest and downiest I have ever driven bar none.

After far too many hours driving it was nice to pull into the campsite and get our feet on solid ground. A mile long walk back into the Frans Josef township (population 220) for dinner and to make a booking for tomorrow’s adventure and we were ready to crash out for the night.

 The following morning was glorious. Blue sky, warm sunshine, with the gentlest breeze for company. We walked back into to town to see if we could go ahead with our plans, the tour company had enough names and we were on, a helicopter flight up and over the Franz Josef and Fox glaciers.

Nestled into the chopper, with shades, headphones, and toddler in place, we lifted up and over to the front face of the Franz Josef with its remarkable ice sheet coming to a dead stop in the valley. Up the snow covered mountains we flew towards Mount Tasman, before circling and landing on a flat ledge God only knows how high up. Out we climbed onto the cleanest snow, with higher snow covered peaks around us on 3 sides, and the glacier below, followed by the bare valley and its path to the Tasman sea.

Walking around on 350 metres deep of undisturbed snow, it was once again, just stunning.

The time came to climb back on board and we flew out over the Victoria Falls and the Fox glacier that it rushes into below it. The half hour went too fast and within what seemed like just a couple of minutes we were back on solid ground in the township after a genuine once in a lifetime experience.

Glacier tours are pretty much all Franz Josef has to offer a passer-by, so we decided to forego a second night there and get a head start on the long trip to Picton the following day by spending the night a couple of hundred kilometres further up the coast in Greymouth. 

Tuesday, October 18, 2011


Te Anau to Queenstown
The time came to leave Te Anau, the town Jessica Fletcher forgot, so after a morning strolling around the shops we headed back the way we came on highway 94, before heading North again on highway 6 to Queenstown.

The drive to Queenstown was supposedly a short one of about 2 hours, or it might have been had we not ended up following the 'Devil's Staircase' - a ridiculously winding, twisting, turning-back-on-itself cliff road along the shore of Lake Wakatipu. If I had done my research I might have avoided that road, but heh, you haven't lived until you've driven a supermarket on wheels down a cliff road. Such is the lay of the land, you can see Queenstown from miles and miles away as you descend the mountain to reach it.

Queenstown is a funny old spot, a big town, the extreme sports centre of New Zealand, solely inhabited by the under 35s all wearing flip-flops, shorts, and hoodies, all milling around from bungy jumping to happy hour somewhere and back again for a skydive.The preferred mode of transport is the 4x4 jeep. What else would you use to carry your skydiving gear in?

Sanne making the most of the wet
Our first full day there was a washout. Grey clouds and lashing rain followed us around town all day long. Regardless, rain doesn'y dampen Sanne's spirits, and she made the most of the wet down by the lake with just the ducks for company.

The following day was exactly the opposite. Fresh and sunny we headed up the famous Skyline Gondola for the best views of the city. And the lake. And well, everything else for a good 50 miles around.
Lake Wakatipu from Queenstown
That afternoon we took a drive with a guide up into the mountains. Again, it was tremendous. Winding roads, cliffs, lakes, and forests.She pointed out all the local sites of note, and was even able to identify the filming locations for a half dozen scenes of 'Lord of the Rings'. We saw where the Oliphants fell, the path Gandalf took to meet Saruman, and Isengard itself. We also supposedly stumbled across a location bring set up for filming of 'The Hobbit'. That said, it could have been someone repairing their barn.

Every turn in the road revealed another postcard shot, mountains and lakes acting like supermodels vying for pole position in every scene. One of the finest was the view known locally as the 'million dollar view', Kiwi dollars admittedly, but worth every penny.
The million dollar view
Getting covered entirely in toddler motion sickness puke on the way back was a back-to-reality check end to our fantasy and fantastic afternoon.

Tomorrow, on the road again back to the West coast and the township of Franz Josef.