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.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Milford Sound

It was time to let someone else do the driving. And, if you are going to have someone drive you this route then it might as well be someone who has driven it 2,612 times previously. Jack, our guide, has counted every single trip he has taken to Milford Sound and back, and after 17 years he still brings a camera every single day. He failed to mention that no camera could do justice to what lay ahead of us today.

The Milford road is about 120km of New Zealand 'highway' that runs from Te Anau to Milford. Milford is the only part of the 1.2 million hectare Fiordland National Park that is accessible by road, and what a road it is. Starting at 200m above sea level, it climbs to a peak of 940m at the nerve testing Homer tunnel, before winding all the way back down to the shore at land side of the Milford Sound.

The rain fell steadily from the grey sky that seemed closer than normal as 5 of us all told clambered into the van and headed up the Milford road. We drove along the lake shore for half an hour before forking away and winding upwards through open forest and around smaller ranges.

About an hour in we stopped at a rest stop at the wonderfully named and remarkable 'Knobs flat', a spirit level flat area of the Fiordland National park amongst all the mountains, with an ecosystem all of it's own. We hopped out to answer the call of nature and I had let Sanne trot around and stretch her little legs when a bus load of Korean visitors pulled up. Rather than go ahead and do their duty they circled the child and 'oohed' and 'aahed' and clapped at her for ten minutes before being ushered back onto their bus. Either they thought the child was a species unique to Fiordland or there is a tiny cult operating in Korea with a teeny mop-haired leader.  

Waterfall along Milford Road
We continued on upwards, the road getting steeper and the gear changes lower. Every bend in the road revealed another marvel. Temporary waterfalls caused by the heavy rain littered the cliffs above us, rushing down onto the road. Where the cliffs and forest cleared, we were left with looking down on the whispy clouds circling the mountains below us.

At the highest point in the road we reached the Homer tunnel. Dug out of the mountain 150 years ago, this 3/4 mile long one-lane yet two-way tunnel is a sight to behold. Pitch black and only 3.8 metres high at it's highest point, the tunnel uses a traffic light system in the Summer, but in the Winter when the danger of avalanches is high, it's every vehicle for itself, get through the tunnel as fast as you can, and by no means hang around outside it's mouth.

From there we started our descent down to sea level, one kilometre in ten, right down to the wharf at Milford sound.

We clambered onto the boat and with a bit of food and hot coffee in our bellies we pushed out into the sound.

This is where I started shooting with the camera at a rate of knots.Necessary, but worthless. There are no photos that I've seen that do Milford Sound justice. Sailing out from the shore with cliffs looming either side of us, we moved into the rain, mist, and cloud. Out of nowhere a huge black form rose from the water in front of us, triangular in shape wearing the clouds as a shawl. In seconds, Mitre Peak emerged from the water like some sea monster from a B movie, standing in the way of any sailor to come it's way, a guardian of the sound.

Mitre Peak
All around us cliffs stood sheer out of the water, some higher than the eye could see, some taller than the mind could comprehend, all draped in waterfalls provided for our entertainment by the rain. The sound has permanent falls also, some named, some not, such are the quantity of natural wonders on display. All are dramatic, either in the distance they travel, or the roar they make as they collide with the sound, or both.

Stirling Falls - Milford Sound
Temporary falls at Milford Sound
And all the while, as we sailed just 6 of the 14km of Milford Sound, the rain fell, the mist rose, and the clouds continued to shroud everything on display. Ancient and epic. The only things missing were a few Lord of the Rings characters, and an Enya soundtrack.

On our way back to Te Anau we stopped again shortly before the Homer tunnel to take in the encore that Milford was performing, snow swirling around the grey rocks spiralling above and below us.

Pulling into Te Anau on our return there was no doubting the score; Mother Nature 1 Everything else 0.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Te Anau

Dunedin to Te Anau
From the sublime to the ridiculous we go.

On Tuesday morning we hopped on the only stretch of motorway I've seen so far in New Zealand and followed it for it's entire 5 kilometres until it's 2nd lane vanished and it became a lowly highway once again.

Hwy 94
We followed highway 1 South for about a hundred miles until we reached Gore, leaving the Otago region behind and cutting into Southland, hopping onto highway 94 to trek inland towards Te Anau.

This route is a great example of how the need to get from A to B is nowhere near as powerful as the might of the landscape. The road falls where nature allows. The view en route is ridiculously beautiful, almost to the point of being unfair on the driver who has to waste his time with trivialities like watching the road ahead. Of course the remedy to this comes in the form of many roadside stops to take it all in and stretch the legs, and lungs...
Sanne beneath the Murchison mountains

After about 4 hours drive we coasted into the gem of a town that is Te Anau, on the South Eastern shore of the colossal Lake Te Anau. The lake has over 500km of shoreline, and spills it's way amongst both the Kepler and Murchison mountain ranges.

With the sun and blue sky out in force, it is borderline insane how quiet and not overrun this town is. Such is the lack of tourist bustle, you can instantly hear the Tui birds calling in the trees near the shore.

The same sun set reluctantly over the snowy peaks leaving Te Anau, the town and lake, in peace for the night.

By dawn the rain was falling. Hard and relentless, but ominously exactly what I wanted, because that is exactly how I imagined travelling the road we were to take today - the Milford road to Milford Sound.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011


If a couple is used to driving a Skoda and a hair-dryer 7 days a week, what else would they choose as their mode of transport around an unfamiliar and rugged country other than a yacht on wheels. On Sunday we left Christchurch and it's rumbling earthquakes behind, picked up the hideously sized campervan and headed South on highway 1 towards Dunedin.

Christchurch to Dunedin
For the first half of the journey to Timaru you are accompanied by the Southern Alps to your right, like a scene that's been copy/pasted from one of Heidi and uncle Peter's adventures. From Timaru Southwards, the highway hugs the coast and every 5 minutes you get a living postcard in your face as the jade Pacific ocean pops over the horizon.

As a tip, I'd say if you plan to pull into a picnic area to take in the view, then watch out for oddly placed railings, alternatively make sure you have fully comprehensive insurance. I heeded one of these warnings.
Surveying her new home on wheels

About 6 hours after setting off we arrived in the steepest town on the planet in a campervan that looked like a the victim of a shark attack.

Dunedin is the old commercial centre of New Zealand, settled and heavily influenced by the Scottish and superbly located. It has the pacific on one side, mountains on two others and the city itself rolls down to the Otago harbour. No camera can do the views justice, they are simply sublime. You'd have to ask do the people who live there realise how lucky they are.

As we strolled around the town we started to wonder if we were in some twilight zone where people regularly approach you and ask if you are alright as soon as they see you consult a map. Maybe Holland has ruined us, but the Kiwis are super chatty.

Dunedin - A long way from everywhere
If Dunedin had any drawbacks they were the fact that the settlers museum was closed until late next year and the third degree burns I received from a questionable shower control at the camp site.

With severe wind warnings to accompany us on our way, on Tuesday morning we set off on the 4 hour drive to Te Anau, the gateway to Fiordland.

Friday, October 7, 2011


Friday was a strange day.

Christchurch has the bluest skies you can imagine. It plays the confidence trickster with visitors, fooling us into thinking that it’s not really that bloody cold.  It really bloody is.

Barrier to the CBD
Definitive information about what is up and running in the city is hard to come by, a ‘fluid situation’ is the term used. Week by week businesses and attractions reopen to the public, and week by week others close again, unable to cope with the fall off in customers.

We visited the recently reopened museum, and yet again it was a great example of what every city should make available for inhabitants and visitors. The ‘Hearts for Christchurch’ display is especially poignant.  After lunch we walked through the botanical gardens, winding along the river Avon, passing gigantic thousand year old trees, wondering what it would be like to see or feel this entire setting shake around you. From the peace within the boundaries of this place it’s hard to imagine what went on outside them.

Just two blocks away you don’t have to imagine. Buckled footpaths lead the way to the metal fencing that surrounds the centre of the city. Signs warning of extreme danger obscure the view of ragged buildings just beyond, with occasional flowers or notes of tribute dotting the metal perimeter.

This is a town that was hit by a force of nature, no one’s fault and nowhere to lay the blame, making it all the more tragic. In a physical manifestation of irony, the bridge of remembrance – the city’s tribute to fallen New Zealand soldiers is unapproachable. It looms large and proud yet unadorned a good ten metres behind a metal barrier that itself is now a place of remembrance, with wreaths, flowers, and poems marking loss of life. I read one note simply telling a daughter that she is missed every day, left by her dad.

The Bridge of Remembrance

Outside of that centre, life goes on, exactly how I’ll never know. Plans are underway to demolish and rebuild, some 12,000 homes may never be inhabitable again. Reminders are never far away, today the town should be bustling with Irish and Welsh rugby fans for the world cup quarter final, but the games have been moved to other cities.  New Zealand’s party continues, elsewhere.

We made the arrangements to come here back at the beginning of February, and it seemed only right not to change those plans after the quake. Today we’ll rest up, before picking up the camper van in the morning and moving on to Dunedin.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011


Easy peasy.

We made it to Kuala Lumpur with a minimum of fuss, deep vein thrombosis, and functioning television equipment. There, in what is surely the planet’s quietest airport we had a much needed stopover to stretch and freshen up before squeezing back on board for the 2nd leg of please-don’t-start-screaming-child-fest 2011.

With the exception of 5 minutes on that 2nd flight, Sanne was brilliant, and in fairness, there was more than one point during those 30 hours travelling that I wanted to scream my head off so I’m going to call it a success. Having left bizarrely balmy Holland on Friday tea-time, we arrived in a wet and blustery Auckland at Sunday lunch-time.

The first thing you notice there? They don’t mess around with bananas, or any fruit or foodstuffs for that matter. You would have an easier time getting into the country with a half dozen heroin filled hand grenades in a handbag labelled ‘Cocaine’ than with a granny smith neatly packed away amongst your underpants. 

In a complete blur we made it to the hotel where we flopped around and slept and flopped around some more all the way into Monday. The 2nd thing you notice here? The combination of (the nowhere mentioned in any guidebook) hills of Auckland and jet-lag is a bastard. A leg sapping, wanting to fall asleep on a park bench at 2pm bastard. By Tuesday, everyone’s body clocks started to act less like the cast of ‘True Blood’ and more like irritatingly early starters.  

Auckland is a pretty normal cosmopolitan city; mocha chinos, food courts, iPhone wielding hipsters, half dozen Irish pubs, and hop-on, hop-off tour busses. What makes it abnormal, and unique, are the city parks that have sprung up out of volcano craters, the simply glorious Waitemata harbour and it’s islands (more bloody volcanoes), the sight of rugby balls being thrown across street intersections, the brilliant city museum, and the fact you can get a life story from anyone that sells you a bottle of water. 

Sanne has taken picking and choosing which locals she deems worthy of being called ’nice!’ to their face, which get the double ‘hi!’ & ‘bye!’ waves, and which don’t get a second glance. I got to taste my first TimTam, the biscuits that Aussies seem more proud of than Kylie Minogue, and I’ve news for them, they are just penguin bars, we’ve had them for years.

A couple of more days here would be nice, acclimatising swallowed up too much time, but the fact it’s 4:30am and the child is still asleep is a small price to pay. 

From the tourist filled, festival vibe of Auckland, we leave today for Christchurch, recently hit by an earthquake, with no idea what to expect. 

Curiouser and curiouser, said Alice.

Waitemata harbour cruise - Sanne couldn't get enough of hanging over the sides.