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    Thursday, 25 February 2010

    Oohwie in the Coromandel & Auckland

    In a raincoat [Enlarge]

    Oohwie was a very lucky gorilla. He was going on his first ever road trip. He’d agreed to travel with two travellers for a while – they were going on a couple of road trips to the Coromandel Peninsular and to Auckland. He decided to go with them, see if he liked travelling, and then he’d decide as to whether he’d go on any further road trips.

    First of all the three of them drove off to Coromandel. Oohwie was very excited to see the ocean as he’d never been before. He decided not to go for a swim though – he didn’t want to get his fur wet, and he wasn’t really sure how buoyant he was. However, he did want to get a photo in front of the sea and in spite of a brief rain shower which was coming across, he still wanted a photo right then and there. He put on the raincoat which the travellers had made for him (at high cost) and posed for his photograph.

    Coromandel [Enlarge]

    Further on, the rain had stopped and the sun was shining. Oohwie was stunned by the views of the sea and islands near the town of Coromandel, and the travellers stopped and the three of them took in the stunning view of the deep blue sea, enjoying the gentle breeze on their skin/fur.

    Stony Bay [Enlarge]

    Past Coromandel town, at the very tip of the Coromandel peninsular, they visited the beautiful Stony Bay. This was unlike any place Oohwie had been before. The vast trees on the mountainside were very impressive and Oohwie yearned to swing in them like the wild beast he was. But he knew there was more to see, and so he stayed with the travellers on the perfect stones of the bay, watching the birds flying, the waves breaking and the humans enjoying the setting sun.

    Auckland [Enlarge]

    Oohwie had really enjoyed the Coromandel, but he wasn’t so sure about Auckland. Auckland had more people in it than he could imagine and he wasn’t sure whether he’d like them, or indeed whether they’d like him. So, it was with some trepidation that he journeyed to the largest city of New Zealand. Upon arrival he decided he definitely did not want to go out so instead he stayed in the house while the travellers explored the city with the people they were staying with. While in the house, he learned about kitchens, and food preparation.

    Lunch, Bananas [Enlarge]

    He also learned that humans eat a lot of bananas, and he helped himself to a few. He decided he was quite pleased with what he was learning, and that learning about how humans live was also a big part of his travel experience.

    Gorillas who garden [Enlarge]

    So, while in Auckland, he learned to garden. Here’s a marrow he grew (incredibly, in just 3 nights), while he was staying in Auckland. Amazing!

    To the South Island [Enlarge]

    Oohwie decided that he liked travelling. The travellers were going on a big trip of the South Island next. Oohwie knew that without the travellers, there was no chance of him ever seeing the South Island (as he couldn’t swim). He decided to accompany them – he had already learned about seatbelts, raincoats, the ocean and growing marrows, but there was obviously so much more out there to learn! Now infected with the travel bug, he just couldn’t wait to get going.

    Wednesday, 24 February 2010

    Mighty Milford Sound

    On the jetty, Te Anau [Enlarge]

    As we left Queenstown for the town of Te Anau I found myself wondering how the scenery of Milford Sound and Fiordland could possibly be any better than what we’d already seen. And yet by all accounts it was, and I couldn’t wait to see it. The drive from Queenstown to Te Anau was pretty flat, with a lot of straight and long roads – something we’d not been accustomed to while driving around the notoriously mountainous, windy roads of the west coast. There were still some pretty good views of Lake Wakatipu however. There were also sheep – a lot of sheep. The idea was to stay in accommodation in Te Anau, 120km from Milford Sound, and then drive up to the fiord itself for a day trip and a boat trip on the water

    We arrived in Te Anau, which I didn’t have particularly high hopes for as it was a tourist town. It was quite chilly when we arrived, even at midday, but it was a pretty little place with a bit of charm. Being on a lake, it was quite picturesque, and had a lovely backdrop of mountains and the wilds of Fiordland – there was a definite feeling of being on the edges of civilisation.

    Te Anau Downs [Enlarge]

    We booked our boat trip pretty quickly – we decided to go for a 10:30am boat, timing it so we would get to Milford Sound before the hordes of tour buses arrived at midday. We went with Real Journeys as we couldn’t actually find the booking offices for any other boat companies – Real Journeys definitely seemed to have the monopoly with their booking office right in the information centre!

    So, the following morning we were up bright and early and ready to go. We’d heard that Milford Sound itself (actually a fiord) was only half the attraction – the drive there was meant to be just as wonderful. So we were pleased that we were driving up there in the morning when the light was good and Mahmoud could take lots of nice photos! The only problem was that when we were ready to go at 6:30am it was still dark! We waited until 7am and then drove on out.

    Mirror Lakes [Enlarge]

    The first 45 minutes of the drive were relatively uninspiring, and it wasn’t until we got to Te Anau downs that the sun began peaking over the hills in the east and through the clouds. It was not a perfect morning in terms of weather as there was a bit of cloud about, but it was certainly atmospheric to see the sun coming up and shining through the low clouds that clung to the surrounding hills.

    Our first stop along the way were the Mirror Lakes. These were pretty impressive. They were perfectly still, and were literally like a mirror – reflecting perfectly the mountain range opposite. The upside down and back-to-front sign of “Mirror Lakes” was reflected by the water to read correctly when you looked at the lake surface, which I found quite amusing (not sure why). The only problem was a native duck which insisted on having it’s breakfast in the middle of the lake and spoiling the reflection for us momentarily – how dare it!

    Snow Capped [Enlarge]

    Further on and I began swerving off the road every few minutes so Mahmoud could take a few shots. The rising sun was shining onto the mountainsides and the low-lying cloud that was surrounding them, and as we slowly climbed into the mountains we also climbed into the clouds and then above them – this made it feel like the mountains were actually on the clouds. It was truly magical.

    Kea, Looking on [Enlarge]

    Along the way we pulled through some bush and into a carpark to have a look at the surrounding views. The sheer mountainsides across from us, covered with primary forests, were an amazing sight in themselves – and then we noticed the inhabitants of the carpark. All around us were kea, the notorious mischievous clown of the bird world and one of New Zealand’s few native parrots. They were on the ground, in the trees, perched on rocks, perched on the other two cars that were already parked there – and all screeching at the top of their lungs. The few that were on the cars were having a good look about – trying to pull off aerials, windscreen wipers – anything that moved.

    Naughty Kea [Enlarge]

    They looked like they were having a great time at the expense of the humans watching them, most of whom looked mildly concerned at the devastation the kea were apparently trying to wreak upon their cars, but too entertained to do anything about it. One or two landed on our car and tried to eat the aerial, but they seemed more interested in the other cars which had a few more interesting gadgets on them. We managed to tear ourselves away after a few minutes of watching – but I have to say, they were some of the funniest birds I’ve ever seen.

    Scenic Route [Enlarge]

    We continued to ascend as we drove north, and soon we were driving alongside ice and mini glaciers which littered the roadside. Vast waterfalls fell from great heights and their rivers flowed down valleys. Honestly, if you ever get the opportunity to do this drive, you can’t miss it. I can’t imagine anyone not finding it an amazing drive.

    Homer Tunnel [Enlarge]

    Reaching our highest point, we then drove into the mountains themselves – through the 1km long Homer Tunnel, and out the other side and into a vast valley with a small road winding down towards the village of Milford and Milford Sound itself. We arrived at about 9:45am – plenty of time left for us to get on the boat! We parked up and were immediately assaulted by sandflies. They came in droves, and for every slap that resulted in a dead sandfly, two more seemed to land and start sucking my blood. We sprayed repellent which resolved the situation, but it was amazing how many there were!

    Milford Sound [Enlarge]

    We boarded our boat, the Milford Mariner. It was quite a large boat which was strange, because we thought we’d be on a smaller one, but it was also the boat with the most character. It doubled as a sailing boat, and had massive furled up sails, lending it a feeling of a boat of real exploration potential! Well, it wasn’t – it just did the same route as everyone else (although slightly longer and slower as we’d paid for a 2.5 hour cruise instead of a 1 and ¾ hour cruise).

    Carving down the middle [Enlarge]

    The scenery from the boat was absolutely stunning. It was a chilly day and the weather was threatening us with rain – not unusual as Milford Sound gets about 7 metres of rain each year apparently – but rain didn’t actually happen and we got a share of sun, wind and cloud – making the place look very beautiful and atmospheric.

    Snow Caps [Enlarge]

    We sailed right out into the ocean, looking back at the rugged wilderness on the mainland. It looked like something out of the age of the dinosaurs – really wild, untamed land. We were told about its Maori and European history – of jade mining and tourism respectively. It’s fortunate that such an amazing place has retained it’s characteristics. Even though thousands of people visit it every year it looks like no one’s ever set foot there.

    Waterfall, Milford Sound [Enlarge]

    In the fiord itself, sheer cliffs plunged from great heights directly into the ocean. In the boat, we were able to get right up close to the cliffs, where we could see seals bathing in the sun and trees clinging to the mountainside, growing on what seemed to be sheer rock. Truly, an incredible place.

    Enjoying the view [Enlarge ]

    It was over all too quickly and then we were sailing back to the little port we’d started from, where we disembarked and got back into the car. The drive home was equally as stunning, but this time we knew all the places to stop and get some extra photos based on our previous experience. Without the low clouds, there were some clearer views of the mountains, leading to a different experience for our return trip.

    Takahe [Enlarge]

    Back in Te Anau, we had a bit of extra time. We did a couple of other activities – one was our visit to the Te Anau wildlife sanctuary. This place was sponsored by the Department of Conservation, and contained a few native birds – including an extremely rare (there are only about 200 left) and elderly Takahe. Her name was Alpine and she was so cute. At 25 years of age, she looked a little worse for wear, and was lying down looking kind of dead when we arrived, but as we moved up to the mesh of her cage she started making a sort of a regular clucking sound and then got to her feet and started foraging for food. She was incredibly cute and I wanted to take her home with me. So sweet, and such a shame there are so few of them left.

    Lake Manapouri [Enlarge]

    We also visited Lake Manapouri, not far from Lake Te Anau. This was a large lake which people do tours on to get to Doubtful Sound, on the other side of the lake and over the mountains. It was very pretty, but the highlight for me was finding lots of interesting looking rocks on the lakeshore. I’m convinced one has gold in it – it’s very sparkly and, well, gold. It’s probably fool’s gold, but I like it. I also found a lot of jade which I’m now carrying with me against my better judgement. My backpack’s heavy enough without carrying rocks around.

    Flowers and mountains [Enlarge]

    Feeling very satisfied, we left Te Anau to travel further south. We knew the scenery couldn’t get better than what we’d seen on the way to and at Milford, and that was fine. It was the best landscape I’d ever seen, no contest there. I’d absolutely recommend that, if you only have the time to do one thing in New Zealand – go to Milford Sound!

    Wednesday, 17 February 2010

    Road to Stunning Queenstown

    Full Queenstown Beach,[Enlarge]

    Queenstown was our next destination at six or so hours away with time for a few stops along the way. The drive would take us through the Haast Pass, past some of the larger lakes and over the highest sealed road in New Zealand. It was a drive I had been particularly looking forward to.

    Haast Past, New Zealand [Enlarge]

    We set off nice and early as the clouds hung low on the mountainsides. We were hoping that the good weather would follow us and that the sun would burn the clouds away. As we drove on that’s exactly what happened and the drive lived up to all my expectations. The first major sight on route was the Haast Pass, a great big valley completely surrounded by mountains of the Southern Alps in the Mt Aspiring National Park. As the clouds had cleared the peaks with their snow caps looked amazing.

    Thunder Creek Falls [Enlarge]

    Along the way were a number of waterfalls and we chose to stop at Thunder Creek. As it had been dry it wasn’t quiet a thunder, more of a rumble, but the falls were pretty cool. One thing I haven’t talked about yet is the sandflies. At Haast and then again at the waterfalls they became a real nuisance. Unlike mosquitoes they don’t carry disease but they do bite. You feel a little nip before you see them. Also they are pretty docile so a quick slap and they are dead. Thankfully for both of us, the bites last for a half an hour and then die down without too much itching. However I’ve seen fellow travellers who are not so lucky with blotchy legs and arms covered in bites.

    Crystal Clear Water, Blue Pools [Enlarge]

    We made our next stop at the Blue Pools, a nice walk through the bush to a pool of water which was blue. The pool was blue but paled in comparison to the water we’d seen at the Hokitika Gorge a few days earlier. As it was near the roadside and on the 101 things a Kiwi must do in New Zealand it was pretty busy. I personally thought it was over-hyped.

    Lake Wanaka, New Zealand [Enlarge]

    Lake Wanaka was our next stop for a quick scout around before heading to Lake Hawea. I’d seen a place for lunch on the map off the beaten track, meaning that you had to go along a dirt road for 20km. As we turned off up the road it looked promising, the lake looked beautiful. Halfway along I wondered whether the detour would be worth it along a very unkempt road. It was worth it, at the other end was an idyllic spot to have lunch.

    Swimming, Lake Hawea [Enlarge]

    The place was wonderful, the lake looked peaceful and the water looked really inviting. After a bit of lunch I jumped in and went for a swim. It wasn’t the warmest water but after a while I forgot about that and the swim was wonderful. I eventually had to drag myself out, as we still had a fair way to go before we got to Queenstown and needed to get back on the road.

    Reflections, Lake Hawea [Enlarge]

    The drive along the lake proved to be too magnificent and I had to stop a few times to capture the view. It was such a warm and still day and the reflection in the lake was amazing. Sometimes it’s really hard to keep your eyes on the road. In this instance it was lucky that Jono was driving.

    Highest Sealed Highway [Enlarge]

    We’d decided to take the Crown Range Road for our final bit of the drive as it took us to the highest sealed road in New Zealand at 1121m. Pretty high! It also passed the town of Cardrona, a ski resort in the winter which I was interested to have a look at. We didn’t stop and I didn’t see any signs of skiing paraphernalia like chair lifts so I wonder how the skiers get to the top of the mountains. I think it may have been hidden away down some side road.

    Cardrona, Crown Range Road [Enlarge]

    The view from the top really felt like standing in the clouds. I could see Queenstown in the distance and the winding road that would lead us there. The excitement levels on my part were high as it looked so picturesque, the town perched on the side of Lake Wakatipu and surrounded by the Remarkables mountain range.

    Queenstown sunset [Enlarge]

    Queenstown was given its name because it was stunning enough to be fit for Queen Victoria. We spent 4 nights there and I did fall in love with the place. It’s small but has a real buzz about the place. We also stayed in the best accommodation we’ve stayed in our trip, a beautiful apartment with great views. It was so luxurious that sometimes it was too easy not to go exploring for the day.

    Paragliding, Queenstown [Enlarge]

    We did however pack in a fair bit in the time we had in Queenstown and also just chilled in the buzz of the place. Queenstown is renowned for being the adventure capitol of New Zealand and you can get an adrenalin fix in many different ways. The two activities we’d earmarked on doing were the Luge and the Shotover Jet.

    Queenstown from above [Enlarge]

    A gondola ride got us to the Luge track. As we rode up we knew the view was going to be stunning, the day was clear and you could see for miles. I really want to see it at another time of year; I wonder if it feels the same or if the great weather we were having made the difference.

    The Luge, Queenstown [Enlarge]

    I’d had my first encounter with a Luge in Singapore. Compared to that Queenstown’s Luge was the Daddy. We had three pretty relaxed runs down the track and even got ourselves co-ordinated enough to get a picture together at the bottom. So impressed were we at our skill that we ended up paying for it!

    Shotover jet, Queenstown [Enlarge]

    The Shotover Jet was a less relaxed affair. It’s a boat propelled by two jet engines which the pilot using to full effect to scare a dozen people or so down the Shotover River. On arrival at the site you are given a poncho and life jacket and then take your seat in the jet boat. Once there a brief safety chat by the pilot which in essence says hold on and then you are off. The speed is immense and the manoeuvrability is amazing. Full 360 degree turns at high speed and hair-raisingly close to jagged rocks at the river sides. I loved it.

    Mountain views, Glenorchy [Enlarge]

    We did also venture out of Queenstown to Glenorchy and Arrowtown. Both were interesting for different reasons. Getting to Glenorchy was an hour’s drive hugging Lake Wakatipu. As we turned one corner my breath was taken away by the scene I saw in front of me. The mountains we shimmering in the afternoon light and just looked amazing.

    Pharmacy, Arrowtown [Enlarge ]

    Arrowtown was a living piece of history. It’s been restored to it’s heyday as a gold town with all the old buildings. Very touristy but pleasant all the same for a quick visit to get a feel for what New Zealand may have been like once upon a time.

    Sailboat,Queenstown [Enlarge]

    The trip around the South Island for me was getting better and better. I’d seen some of the best scenery I’d ever seen and Queenstown had been a real gem. What was to come was supposed to be even better but I couldn’t imagine how.

    Friday, 12 February 2010

    Hike on Franz Josef Glacier

    Road to Franz Josef [Enlarge]

    Our journey from Greymouth to Franz Josef was one full of the kind of sights that made us pull over every few kilometres for a photo or two. This included rivers, mountains and spectacular coastlines – all increased in potency by flawless weather and the anticipation of seeing the most iconic glacier in New Zealand at the end of the drive.

    Franz Josef [Enlarge]

    We were worried that we might not find accommodation in Franz Josef as we had not booked ahead (we rarely do) and it’s a popular tourist attraction, but on arrival it seemed that there was nothing but accommodation in town, so there were no problems there. We found a nice (and expensive) motel with good views of Mt. Cook towering above, and nice and close to the shops and other amenities in the tourist town. A quick scout of the town revealed a few shops and a place to buy not-so-cheap groceries. We also managed to book ourselves onto a half-day tour on the glacier itself – this involved getting right up on the ice with crampons on our boots and a guide to get us around and give us a bit of the detail on the glacier. We couldn’t wait!

    Franz Josef Glacier [Enlarge]

    Waiting paid off, because it was great. We got on an extremely hot non-air-conditioned bus which carted us and about 30 other people off to the glacier. It was such a roasting hot day, and as we had not yet actually seen the glacier I half believed that all the ice must have melted and there’d just be a rocky valley left behind. Not so, as we stepped between the trees into the glacial valley and saw the ice snaking down the mountainside towards us. It was truly immense looking, and even at a distance of 2km it looked very close owing to it being so large. We started to hike across the flat and rocky valley which the glacier had snaked along less than a century beforehand towards the ice.

    Waterfall at Franz Josef Glacier [Enlarge & More]

    On the way the ice got closer and closer, and soon we were walking alongside a murky looking river with bits of ice floating along it. This was the water flowing down off the glacier. Our guide explained to us that the glacier was a lot shorter now than it had been a couple of hundred years ago, but it was currently growing due to increased rainfall. It turns out the large amount of rain and snow that falls at the top of the mountain range causes the glacier to grow, and it melts mainly only at the bottom. In addition to the water coming out of the bottom of the glacier, there were also several waterfalls coming off the wall of the valley along the way. The falling water was beautiful and impressive, and it showed just how much water was locked up in the mountains.

    Climb up Franz Josef Glacier [Enlarge & More]

    There was a great sense of anticipation as we locked the crampons onto our boots and started the slow but steady climb up the rock-covered wall of the glacier. We were told to hold on tight to the rope running along the path which we did. I was surprised to find how well my crampons dug into the ice - even though it was melting and slippery looking, I didn’t slip once. About halfway up the back-half of the group stopped. We waited for them to catch up, and it turned out that one man had had a chunk of ice drop on his head. He had blood running down his head and onto his shirt! It was a bit scary and reminded us that we had to be careful, but he was able to carry on so it was ok!

    Kitted Out, Packed Ice, Franz Josef Glacier [Enlarge & More]

    We got to the end of that path, which also marked the end of the rock-covered portion of the glacier. We stepped onto the pure, white and blue melting ice. The view from up there was amazing – we could see for miles.

    Ice Peaks, Franz Josef Glacier [Enlarge & More]

    We climbed further up onto the ice, right up to our highest point. The view from the highest point that we visited was even better, both up and down the glacier. On the glacier itself we were able to get a better perspective as to how big it was – we barely scratched the surface in terms of ascending it, and the glacier seemed to snake up into the sky. The details up close were amazing – caves and windows dotted the ice, and everywhere water was dripping and running as the glacier melted.

    Slipping Through, Franz Josef Glacier [Enlarge & More]

    On our descent, we took a more interesting path. The path angled down through some crevasses, some of which got pretty tight. Put it this way, I had to squeeze through, so I think a pretty unfit person would have some real trouble getting through. The squeeze through made me pretty uncomfortable and claustrophobic. It was cold and wet too, which made for some pretty chilly squeezing! Mahmoud, however, seemed to really enjoy it!

    On the Way up, Franz Josef Glacier [Enlarge & More]

    When we got back to the bottom we felt a real sense of achievement. I think we would have both liked to have been on the ice for longer as the two hours we were up there went really quickly, but it was still a great experience which we would happily do again.

    Fox Glacier, New Zealand [Enlarge & More]

    The following day we headed off in the direction of Queenstown, but as the drive was a long one we planned to break the journey up by staying overnight in the small town of Haast. Along the way we stopped at a couple of interesting points. The first was the next glacier along – Fox Glacier. We stopped at the glacier and did the short 30 minute return walk to the base of it. Not quite as visually impressive as Franz Josef glacier had been, it was nevertheless an amazing sight to see the ice marching slowly down the mountainside, and melting at the bottom into a stream.

    Mount Cook, Lake Matheson [Enlarge & More]

    Further out from Fox, we stopped at Lake Matheson. This lake is famous for it’s pristine reflective views of Mt. Cook and the Southern Alps. Given the perfect weather, there were perfect views, but it seemed we were there a bit late in the day for the reflective views on the water of the lake. Even so, it was a good walk around the perimeter of the water, despite it being a hot and very humid day. I did manage to get munched on by sandflies!

    Bridge over Haast River [Enlarge & More]

    We made it to Haast in the late afternoon. It was an odd little place, and on arriving we didn’t really want to stay. It basically consisted of a few motels and shops, and not much else. Still, we didn’t really have much of an option – there was nowhere else around for miles. We did end up staying and had a pretty non-eventful night. It was worth it though – there were great things ahead in the next day’s drive, and our next destination – Queenstown!

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