Tuesday, 25 December 2012

Christchurch, New Zealand

Christchurch feels like a ghost town. Looking at the still-evacuated security guarded buildings, empty car park like spaces, spire-less Churches and shops with fallen chairs and fluorescent light dangling down anyone would think this happened yesterday. It's horrifying to walk around - one can only imagine the terror. Being here on Christmas eve/day makes it even quieter - there's almost no-one about. But the spirit of the people to bounce back is very evident - pop-up things have popped up everywhere; old buses turned into bars; shipping containers turned into a mall; palettes turned into a makeshift theatre and gig venue; street corners into mini-golf! When I was there they'd just opened up the area around Cathedral square, with a view of the battered Cathedral and the promising plans for the future. It's going to take a long time but you can feel the optimism. I'm sure this is going to be a stunning city once again, but with a green and youthful edge.

Hope shines


Friday, 21 December 2012

Mount Cook, New Zealand

The entry into Mount Cook national park wasn't anything special - mainly because of the low, drizzle-dropping clouds.We past a glacial lake, which is supposed to be bluer than blue, but today was just blue (the coach drivers words not mine). Arriving at the YHA there was nothing to be seen around, and the rain was relentless so after a brisk walk about I retreated to the common room and did some reading. The hostel resembles an alpine chalet - and makes me think about dusting the snowboard off. I pop a few emails home to friends to see if any plans are afoot. There's a sauna - I've always wanted to like saunas but feel like I'm going to die. I can sit for about 2 minutes before gasping for cool air. It mocked me every time I walked past! 

Next morning I'm up at sunrise and out. The weather had cleared and the surrounding mountains were super-epic! The sun was scorching a hole in my head within two minutes, I had to break out the hat. I'd make a cheese sandwich and bought some peanut bars, and also stocked up with water. There's a nice walk up to the glacier face (or as close as you can get) called the Hooker trail. It reminded me of the trek up to Everest a lot - with cute bridges and rough scree-like terrain. It takes about 2 hours to get there. On arrival I was amazed to see an iceberg - I've never seen an iceberg before. It's was just there, sitting in the lake, looking kinda stuck on the bottom. I wonder how common they are. The other walk is called the red tarn, or tarn... I  forget. This walk's steep up, with some nice views. I would say the most scenic part of this whole area is on the glacial plains though - with the flowering lupins and the soft blowing grass you would be happy to lay in the grass and never wake up again :)

I wanted to do a stargazing tour, and the YHA had a poster with a 10% discount. They called for me but the company said the offer had been retracted. They had one space left on the tour and I asked If I could get that for the 10% off price - they said no. I decided to go solo and wondered off onto the plain. The stars pop out of the sky from everywhere - billions and billions! I didn't had a release or tripod to get the absolute best shots but here's my efforts;

Thursday, 20 December 2012

Queenstown, New Zealand

The Queenstown YHA is stunning, set in a big old building with a kitchen and communal area overlooking the lake. I hadn't pre-booked a room and (again) was lucky enough to grab the last bed. Also staying there was someone I'd met in Kaikoura - the backpacker world is a small world! Qneenstown itself is ridiculously picturesque. Everywhere you look is crystal clear water or rugged mountain peaks (the Remarkables, as made famous by Lord of the Rings). The town itself is tourist central, with pretty much every shop catering for one extreme sport or another. From here you can go parachute jumping, bungee jumping, rafting, jetboating, river-surfing, skiing, heli-boarding, mountain biking, water-skiing, diving... the list is endless. 

We opted for one non-extreme and one extreme. The non-extreme was a trip to Milford Sounds - the gigantic glacier-carver inlet on the west coast. We booked a BBQ bus. The driver had an amazingly dry sense of humour - very entertaining. The journey to Milford is about 4 hours - with a half-way stop for the BBQ. Cooked from a trailer at the back of the bus it took about 45 minutes, while we walked amongst the forest and sat by the river. Back on the road we snaked up the mountain past some incredible scenery - New Zealand must be the most beautiful place on the planet. At the top of the pass you go through a tunnel and pop out into the top of the Sound.

On the boat you get a real sense of the size of the Sound as the boat keeps close to the vertical cliffs. Occasionally you see seals basking in the sunshine. The boat gets to the sea and U-turns back to dock, via (almost literally!) some impressive waterfalls. 

Fergburger!  An institution in Queenstown. One of my top 3 burgers ever... totes. I opted for a smelly blue-cheese coated meat-fest. We ate these on the beach, and washed it down with some pear cider while the sun sets. 

I've been wanting to skydive somewhere beautiful for years. I've been refused several times due to bad weather conditions - mainly in Cape Town but also recently in Franz and Fox. Today was going to be the day! I booked with a company recommended by the YHA, with a discount. All was set and we paid, and got in the van - when 20 minutes into the drive the car radio blarted out that the wind was too strong to jump - foiled again! Back at the town centre they said that another company did jumps from a different area, and that we should try them. They were indeed still jumping and we got a slot on the next plane. The guy doing the safety briefing was a Brummie - it was reassuring to hear the accent.

The jump site was stunning, surrounded by mountains and people falling from the sky. The cameramen are insane - they have to get to the ground before the customers and swoop down, skimming the ground at incredible speeds. There's music, giant chess and toilets to ease you before heading out. You're put into a jumpsuit and harness, then greeted by your cameraman and tandem. The planes are tiny - you're attached to your tandem then slotted in for the order of exit. I have no fear of heights but the brain says "no, this is wrong" when you're balanced on the edge of the plane door, with the cameraman hanging off the wing. The tandem then holds your head back for safety and slides you out. Once out you're in a spin, you have no idea which way anything is for a second or two, until the tandem corrects it. Our fall was 45 seconds but felt like 5! When the chute opens you start to feel the adrenaline - I would love to do this solo, the buzz must be ridiculous! The tandem asks if you're ok - I was in wooping American mode so he did a few spins and spirals down to the ground for a feather-light landing. 

Monday, 17 December 2012

Franz Joseph, New Zealand

Once off the tranz-alpine train from Christchurch I considered getting a car for the remaining journey around the south island. This would be ideal and cost-efficient if there was two or more of us, but as it was only me the cheapest option would be $508, for 8 days - the most expensive quote was $1200! I ditched that idea as there's no guarantee I'd meet a hitch-hiker, or someone in a hostel going the same direction. Back to the bus then - I hopped on the intercity.

Franz Joseph lies at the foot of a glacier on the west coast of the south island. A tiny town - most of it geared to tourism. The YHA is big, with some large, busy rooms. Mine was a 10 bed dorm, and was populated by girls - mostly German. Sometime you have to pinch yourself to realise that you're not in Germany, there's SO many Germans here it's unbelievable. However, the girl underneath me was from Birmingham - so we had a catch-up making silly noises (the Brummie accent) at each other to try and drown out the Germans. In the common room everybody was busy behind a laptop - maybe 25 people all connecting to the outside world, but nobody connecting to the people around them. I sat and watched for a while entranced - then opened my laptop.

I walked up to the glacier, but as it's considered a hazard at the moment (they're blasting the face to make it tourist safe) you can only get within 2km of it (unless you take a helicopter). It's a good 3 hour walk from the town, though a forest area, with signs telling you where the glacier was 500 years ago. I was spotted a mile off (literally) by two Germans I'd met on the dolphin boat in Kaikoura - they said my red beanie was quite distinctive! I caught a 30 minute bus around to the Fox glacier for a look around. This one's much more accessible - you can get within 500m of it, and the walk up is much more impressive. You can also walk up onto this one with a guide - no helicopter required. Unfortunately there's no YHA in Fox, so my discount vouchers weren't valid.

Back in Franz I went to the Kiwi experience. For $30 (which goes towards the conservation) you get to see one of these super-cute little things - but as they're nocturnal you're in an almost pitch-black room with only red glowing lights. I really wanted to hold one, they're little balls of fluff - but their sensitive endangered nature doesn't allow handling - boo! There's islands in Marlborough sounds that have had all predators (cats, stoats) removed - and Kiwi's installed.

Photos coming soon - I haven't actually found internet fast enough to upload them yet

Sunday, 16 December 2012

Tranz-Alpine railway

After the brain-fart on the buses (you can call me Blakey) all was once again going smooth. The only hitch was that I didn't pre-book the YHA Christchurch early enough - there's still a real shortage of accommodation here since the earthquake. I stayed at a place called "at the right place" - also a backpackers. It was nice, apart from two English guys and one Irish who decided they would get exceedingly drunk in the common room while everyone was relaxed watching films. They fought with each other, called everyone in the room "gay", balanced bottles of Becks as decorations on the Christmas tree then knocked the tree over onto a poor French girl. Within 20 minutes everyone had gone to their rooms - god help the people that were in the dorm with them. I didn't feel like I was "at the right place"

I woke up excited the next morning, a journey on the tranz-alpine railway to Greymouth on the west coast - billed as "one of the most scenic train journeys in the world". Like an airport the bags are checked in and you take your seat next to a huge, and ridiculously clean, window. It's very comfortable, and quiet, and air-conditioned. There's a lot of older couples on the train - I think I was the only single person, and certainly the only backpacker. The train rumbles off through the beautiful flatlands surrounding Christchurch and the mountains loom into view. As soon as this happens everybody heads to the outdoor viewing car, which is great! The first part is stunning, the train grinding up to Arthurs pass, across the top of the alps. Snow-capped peaks, rushing rivers and flowery meadows breeze past, the air is so fresh, the body almost rejects it as unknown. The trains stops at various points on the way up, then at Arthurs pass at the top.

The food and drinks are reasonably priced - the cheese and steak pie was amazing! On the way down from the pass en route to Greymouth the scenery is still lovely, but it becomes bushier on the sides, and you get to see less. I spent most of the journey in the open viewing car - I didn't like being stuck in the sterile, quiet carriages - by the end of the journey I was craving the Asian style trains: open windows, noise, food sellers plying the aisles, uncomfortable seats and people on the roof - but that's just me. In hindsight I would hire a car and drive from Christchurch to Greymouth. It's a lot cheaper and the route is the same but you can stop where you like and explore, take pictures or grab some food.