Tuesday, 29 July 2014

The glorious Coromandel

After a month on the road in the South Island and a 5 day break housesitting we fly to Auckland to pick up another van. When we got the behemoth for the first leg of our journey we thought it was a little on the f****king huge side but after a short while got used to it and hoped that we might be fortunate enough to get another upgrade with the new van. Unfortunately we went for behemoth to Juggernaught and 6 birth double cab giant they gave us was a bit too much. We tried it for one night but the additional height, width, length and thirsty, underpowered automatic engine just didn’t feel right. The extra size was mainly unusable – double cab and extra bedding area and consequently the working space was smaller than before. so the following morning, after phone calls and a small monetary adjustment we backtracked the 70km to pick up the same sort of vehicle as before – weirdly this seemed like a mini in comparison but the way Rachel hugged the familiar sink, seating and sleeping areas with a huge smile on her face was testimony to us having made the right decision.

We headed off from the rental place once more and in no time found ourselves on the Coromandel – a small peninsula with off lying islands a couple of hours from the sprawling city of Auckland which houses over 25% of the country’s population. Oh how lovely to be once again away from all that brick and be surrounded by tree’s, hills and rolling countryside. The Coromandel is beautiful and is soon wowing us with its loveliness. We camp in a DOC site at the end of 3km gravel track and ramp up the heating and pile on duvets and hats to keep warm as the temperature plummeted under the big clear sky. The good news, however, was that the following morning was glorious and we set off on 5 hour trek through the native bush. We had hoped to walk to some huts deep in the outback but without sleeping bags and suitable trekking gear had to abandon the idea. Still, there’s always next time and the trek we did was a joy anyway.

We have decided to scale down the miles for the second part of our journey and have selected a few areas we want to see in more depth rather than rushing through. The first two night stop is in a charming town of Coromandel (principal town of the peninsular). It’s all wooden, Victorian styled houses and turn of the century solid looking buildings that were once the court houses, banks, assay offices and the like. The principal trade of the town is fishing and oyster farms and consequently there are lots of little restaurants selling seafood. We had to have a powered site the first night as we both had skype interviews for teaching jobs in Japan and hopefully by the time I get to publish this post we might have some news. I hope so. As fab as NZ is it has still not quite usurped Japan as our favoured destination to stay. But, we haven’t completed our second leg yet and who knows what we will think by the end.

Had a great day today. Parked up at Whangapoua and before setting off to find the isolated and unspoilt New Chums Beach we asked two lady walkers the way. We had a very animated and jolly 5 minute chat and ended up arranging to go for a drink and meal with them in another town 40km away that evening where we watched the rugby, had a few drinks, laughed a lot, and slept in the council car park. Heather and Jen (our new best buddies) were good company and have invited us to stay with them for a couple of days when we get up to Auckland again. Testimony once again that if you are open and friendly then good things come your way. I do think we will take them up on their offer and are looking forward to another evening (we forgot to pay attention to the Rugby!). Anyway New Chums Beach is reached by walking along a beach, wading a stream, jumping from rock to rock over a further 500 metres until a glade of some NZ trees, palms etc is reached. You follow a little track through this until you suddenly behold what

is said to be the 7th Best beach in the Southern Hemisphere (Who puts these lists together?). It’s lovely. White sand, steep rocky outcrops covered in dense vegetation that stop egress from above and clear blue water that slowly slopes away into the pacific. Its deserted and the sun is shining and it’s the middle of the NZ winter so we strip off and run down into the surf naked for a very (I mean very) short dip in the icy water before lounging on some rocks like a couple of basking seals – basking seals who happen to like sandwiches and a bottle of pop.

Next day we travel a bit further down the coast to Hot Water Beach where, along with about 30 other people, pick a spot on the beach, dig a hole in the sand and after waiting a few minutes jump into the shallow, very hot pool that has seeped through the sand. I am sure we looked wonderful with me wearing my trunks and Rachel, for reasons best known to her, opting to just wear her underwear. Once again it is a beautiful day and the slight chill in the air only served to make the whole experience better by keeping our exposed bits cold. After an hour or so we hand our pool over to a group of young things in return for them taking photos of us which they are to send via email. Tonight, as I am typing this, Rachel is just cooking our dinner “Curried Vegetable Thingy” I believe she called it. The sun has just set over the sea and we are atop a cliff overlooking the huge expanse of sea before us. My god life is good!

Bright and early we set off on a walk to Cathedral Cove. Small cove separated from another by an arched cave that will eventually become a sea stack. Its deserted and beautiful with the usual blues, greens and yellow of the sun. Back to the van for a full English and then off to Whangamate where we walked on yet another beach and camped beside a sparkling river where sat and read our books in the sun with a bottle of wine until it got dark and the vista became one of a million twinkling stars in the night sky. We hadn’t really thought too much about where we had parked and during the night the tide came right up to the van so looking out of the back window in the morning made us think that we were at sea.

Final day on the Coromandel Penninsula – a place that we will be sad to leave with its coves, stunning hilly scenery, charming towns and friendly people – and we spend the day walking along a trail that took in a gold mining gorge where we went through very long and very dark (pitch black) tunnels, along old rail tracks and over suspension bridges. We finished the day with a stroll on another beach about 10 metres from our van where we saw a seal then had a half hour bathe in a hot tub. Its tuff but someone’s gotta do it.

Thursday, 24 July 2014

Whale watching and Weatherall

Second time lucky. We went back to Kaikoura, after days of bad weather had stopped boats going out, hoping that conditions were favourable. And sure enough, they were. So we left from the offices in 'Whaleway Street', yep seriously, and were taken to the south harbour. I fought a young child to get off the coach first and get a good spot on the boat. I think I was just a little excited! The chap on the boat explained that it is such a prime location for whale watching in Kaikoura because 500 metres off shore the sea bed plunges from 200 metres to 2 kms (scary when you think about that too much) making it rich in food for the whales and dolphins. Anyway, whatever the reason it was absobloodylutely fantastic.

Dive, dive, dive!
They have a microphone that they hang over the side of the boat that picks up the whales cries so they know where to look. They pick up some sounds, look for the water plume of a blowhole and we speed across the water to get up close. We saw four humongous Sperm Whales. It was incredible. Unfortunately it just looks like the top of a submarine bobbing around until it dives back down to feed and then the shot everyone wants is the 'fluke'. We were all clicking away with cameras and waiting expectantly for it to submerge again. The crew were fantastic and knew exactly when it was going back down so it was all lenses ready. We had four attempts but were so scared about missing it and not knowing if we would see another that we fluffed up the pictures. The best 'Fluke' shot we could get is on the gallery.

Dusky Dolphins at Kaikoura
There was a spectacular treat in the middle of this in the form of a pod of over 100 dusky dolphins all jumping, twisting and performing in the water around us. It was incredible to see so many and in such a natural environment. The dusky dolphins are the best performers and they didn't disappoint. You could even hear them heavy breathing as they leapt along beside the boat. Truly amazing.

The boat ride back to shore was a bit choppy and several people were sick. I kept my eye on the horizon and, of course I had the best seat at the back of the boat after fighting the small child, so I was ok. We also saw a few Albatross. I thought we'd seen them before but obviously not. They are massive. They swooped around with their gigantic wings just skimming the top of the water. Pretty impressive for such a big bird. Another strange sight were seals just chilling in the sea. They were a fair way out and were literally floating around relaxing on their backs as they bobbed around. A great day and worth every cent. 

Chris, Mike, Mountains and Rocks
Next stop was catching up with Mike (surname Weatherall, that's where the blog name comes from). We met Mike over a year ago in Thailand whilst doing TEFL training and through the power of  Facebook stayed in touch. He lives about 40 kms outside of Christchurch and he offered to show us some sights. Unfortunately the weather had turned again but we wrapped up and went out regardless. We clambered over rocks where they filmed some of The Lord of The Rings at Castle Hill and tramped, that's a kiwi word for hiking, up a hill till snow made us abandon. And though the light was fading fast we even made it to Arthurs Pass which is a point of exceptional beauty. Mike showed us true kiwi hospitality and fed and watered us and let us watch the World Cup final on his huge tv. Thanks Mike. 

And final destination for our road trip of the South Island was Christchurch. A five day housesit gave us a break from the dirty camping and chance to see some of the City. We looked after the most laid back dog ever. We heard her bark once in the whole time and that was at a dog barking on the tv. Molly was some sort of terrier and looked like a giant cuddly teddy bear. Adorable. The two cats were a different story. Smooch missed the little girl of the house and would cry and scratch at the bedroom door for most of the night. Otis was your usual aloof cat and was just a giant bundle of ginger and white that would stroll in and stroll out again. 

The house was on the edge of the red zone, which is a designated area that was so badly damaged from the big earthquakes of 2010/2011 that the government bought all the land and they're making it into a park. The city itself is a bit of a sad sight. With about a third of the buildings in a state of disrepair, a third completely flattened and the rest still standing. The ongoing repairs of the roads mean so many routes are closed or one way with traffic lights. It is how I imagine London would have been after the blitz. But you can still see snippets of the old city and what must have been beautiful buildings and I am absolutely certain that in ten years time it will be back to its former glory. They are trying to make it more cheerful with lots of art pieces scattered about and a shopping centre that is stacked lorry containers all brightly coloured and the botanical gardens and glasshouse are pretty cool. We also managed to find a proper Greek kebab van, lush! 

Quake damaged cathedral
Onwards and upwards to the North Island to see what wonders that will hold. It's a tough act to follow but I have high hopes!

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

New Zealand, New Zealand, New Zealand. What are we to do with you? What more can we say about you? I have used "magical, awesome, wondrous, fabulous, incredible, staggering and I don't know how many superlatives and still you keep the loveliness coming. You know I spoke to my daughter the other day and she was not overly impressed by NZ when visited it years ago. She said she had seen better beaches, more impressive fjords, grander mountains, and wider plains. Now, that's as maybe but the thing is that there is a good chance that these all come a close second and uniquely, they are all in one small country and can be viewed virtually hours from one another.

Perhaps it would be best to just offer up one all encompassing sentence and just list places beneath... Nah, can't do it. You are just going to have to skip the blogs or get into the spirit that they are all written in.

Had our first open fire on a dry river bed in Maourika. We had tried a couple of times to set fire to slightly damp wood with insufficient kindling and seemingly fire proof paper. This time we were ready. We had collected dry drift wood of different sizes over the last few days and stored them in our copious storage places in the van and lashed out on some fire lighters. Result - a blazing fire around which we drank two bottles of wine whilst the cold winter moon lit the surrounding pine trees and the stars twinkled above. 
Cooking our spuds on an open fire
The baked potatoes were fabulous with our chille con Carne and warmed us through to the next morning where we discovered -4 temperatures, a thick frost and ice on the inside of our camper van windows. That said the world is a truly stunning place when covered in sparkly white diamonds.

The cold light of day
We move on up the west coast stopping here and there - cup of tea, piss, cup of tea, piss etc. Its all very dramatic along the coast with little diversions like Lake Ianthe to give us visual variations

 Lake Ianthe
We stay in Hokatiki and have Fosh and Chops (That's colloquial speak for Fish and Chips). This is, like England, something of a national dish but, I am sorry to say, much better than back home with the chips all cooked fresh per customer in clean oil with good potatoes and served in generous portions plus the outer wrapping is still in newspaper and not in a paper bag with a picture of a fish on it. We areholed up in a powered site - that means all heating on full blast to make up for the previous night's chill and wake to find that a tornado had ripped through the town about 1 km from where we were and torn up several tents and stalls at a Agricultural show. We thought it was a bit blowy! We take a huge detour (for us anyway) of 35km to go to the Hokatiki Gorge to see the exceptionally blue waters that pass along the gorge.

Hokatiki Gorge
Our next stop is Punakaiki with its Blow holes and Pancake Rocks. At high tide the waves crash into the caverns at the base of these limestone Rocks and spurt through small holes some 40 metres up on the top sending a spume of spray a further 30 to 40 metres into the sky. Its very impressive and the Consevation dept have done a great job (as always) with displaying the various holes, the cliff faces and the interesting stacked pancakes formations of the rocks.
Note water spurting upwards in the middle
of picture

Pancake stack formations
We head further north along the coast past The Truman Trail up to Cape Foulwind and stay on some cliffs overlooking Gibsons Beach where we are treated to a great sunset and subsequent sunrise.There is a seal colony here and we watch these adorable creatures lounging around on rocks and tackling worryingly large waves as they head out to sea.

Finally we start to heading east across country on the Alpine Route which sees the Mountains disappear a little and rolling pine filled hills take over and we follow the wide river beds on through towards the Hanmer Springs. However, rather than contend with hoards of other tourists (by hoards i mean maybe 20) we opt to stop at Maruia Springs. A place marked on the map as town but actually only consists of a hot springs establishment. We stripped down to swimwear and braving the very cold air dipped ourselves in the hot pools to be soothed by the algae invested and very hot waters. The algae is black, fibrous and jelly like in its consistency and, apparently very good for you. But then they would say that wouldn't they.

I will end this post to say that we traveled several hundred more km to find we couldn't ski in Mt Lyford and couldn't do the whale watching. One due there being no snow and one because of excessive rain. On the plus side we stayed at a lovely beach in a deserted bay, went to Blenheim and Picton, saw Dawn of the Planet of the Apes part two, took in more great scenery and joy of joys found a waterfall that baby seals had made into a kind of nursery. Above Kaikoura in Ohau there is a seal colony on the rocky coast with a stream that runs down from the hills. About 500m up stream, over large boulders and through thick vegetation, is a pool fed by a waterfall which is the home to maybe 50 seal pups who spend a few days here away from the colony every now and then to frolic in the waters. Its a joy to watch and amazing to see what good climbers they are. So that's it for now but next post is about our later successful whale watch, a few days with an old friend and our house sit in post earthquake Christchurch.

Seal in a tree
Seals where they should be - in water

Big Country

Blue skies, clear blue water, snow capped mountains and burnt orange scrub grass is the flavour of our journey to Queenstown. And after driving through the Homer Tunnel (a rough-hewn tunnel that cuts through a mountain from Milford) the drive, as always, is dotted with frequent stops for cups of tea and cries of wonder. This country has ever changing geography and now 

we are presented with thick moss covered forests and raging rivers pouring over smoothed boulders. We sleep in a lovely spot on a small, dry riverbed with a gentle, stony stream running through it that is surrounded by wood covered mountains. Some things need celebrating, whatever the celebratory method may be….

Morning has broken like the first morning
Driving on we find the Mirror lakes just as the sun reaches its zenith and reflects the majesty of the surrounding peaks. Set off against that wonderful sky it’s really magical and peaceful until suddenly three coaches, en-route to Milford, pitch up and we are surrounded by snappy-happy Chinese people and noise – yuk.

Mirror Lakes

It’s great being on this campervan road trip. We have a bed, kitchen and all the amenities we require as well means of transport. We really are free to go and do what we want, when we want it and for however long we wish. Our road time is never overly long and as soon as a hint of fatigue sets in we find a beautiful place to stop and have a cup of tea, a biscuit, lunch, a game of Rummicub or simply a a walk along one of the many signposted routes. We are so Rock n Roll.

Another night of freedom camping beside a disused railway line in a copse of trees then a spectacular drive along the wonderfully titled Lake Wakatipu gets us into Queenstown. This is the adventure activity centre of NZ with lots of very expensive options that drop you, dangle you, fire you, fly you, splash you and generally make you thank god you are alive at the end.

I have always loved this sort of stuff. And had always thought if I did get here I would bungy. I have sky dived, climbed, parachuted, rafted, canyoned, paraglided and generally exposed myself to some thrilling experiences. However, once here I discovered that I no longer yearned for any of the things on offer and we happily settled for a drink in a pub whilst watching a Blues band an outdoor stage and a few walks in the nearby hills – Not sure if this is the beginning of the end or simply sensible money management. I hope the latter.

There’s not much to report on Queenstown. It’s what you would expect with ski shops, bars and underdressed thrill seekers spending a small fortune to tick off their early bucket list entries. We head off the following morning through the quaint old prospecting village of Arrowtown and over the beautiful crown range. Even though it is pissing down and there are precipitous drops all around us this was, yet again, another fabulous stretch of road that showed another facet of the country’s geography.

Cardrona Bra Fence
We stay the night in Wanaka parked up in the small parking area overlooking the lake and are buffeted by the rain all night but…With the morning comes the sun and we set off to climb Roy’s Peak (1587m). It’s a bit taller than Ben Nevis and although the way is steep its grass covered.

Roy's Peak
Rachel’s dodgy leg (courtesy of Mount Kinabalu  a couple of years ago) starts hurting around the 1000m mark so she heads down to the van, warmth and tea (or probably wine) whilst I carried on – reaching the peak one and a half hours later in 10 inches of snow that was steadily being added to every second. The reward for reaching these peaks is found in both that sense of achievement and the feeling of standing on the shoulders of giants. In this case my reward was barely being able to see my hands and fear of getting lost in the low clouds (Graham Wood please note) up there on my own. Consequently I placed my stone, turned tail and literally jogged all the way down. How happy my legs were for the next few days!!!

Puzzling World. Rachel had been going on about Puzzling World for the last few weeks and I have to say she was right. It was bloody brilliant. We both like illusions and weird stuff and this did not disappoint although the huge maze was a bit tedious. Certainly star of the show is the “Alice in Wonderland Room”.  See Gallery for video. Essentially a room that is a giant optical illusion in size.

Makarora Morning
Our next stop is to be Fox Glacier but due to the road closing at Makarora we have to spend the evening on the wrong side of the Haast Pass ad enjoy a good evening around a log burner with Stu and his Phillipino wife, Immi, They both work on a road gang up in the mountain pass ($25 per hour to wave a lollipop about) and agreed to moony us if they saw us when we passed the following morning. Sorry to say we missed them and what would have been a surreal moment.

Franz Joseph Glacier
The Fox Glacier is pretty impressive and the pictures we took do not do justice to the ice floe. We later go to the Franz Joseph Glacier as well and both of these are similar from the ground. A huge river of ice moving down a valley. The Glaciers themselves, however, are actually retreating and its shocking to see the markers showing the speed it is doing so. Still, for now they are still there and in both spots we take a long walk up the shale covered valley floor to stare up and crumbling walls of blue crumbling ice. Very spectacular.