Queenstown

Early start number 2

Franz Josef to Queenstown. 4 hours 20 minutes by car, 9 hours by coach.

This was a loooong day as we’re not used to travelling by coach. At the beginning and end of the journey the coach has to stop at various accommodations to pick up/drop off people, which does add time. We were worried about having travel sickness due to the journey the day before, but luckily we managed to snaffle two front seats, so had a great view of the road and scenery ahead.

We have to say that the coach drivers were great – Richard drove the first half of the trip and Paul the second. Both provided a funny and informative commentary and, apart from me thinking that we could have been in Queenstown a lot sooner to get on with some sightseeing, we did quite enjoy it. Sometimes it’s good to sit back, relax and not do the driving, or so Angus says – he doesn’t trust my driving on NZ roads ;0)

At 4.45pm we checked into the hotel (Copthorne Lakeview – with another free room upgrade), chucked our bags onto the floor of our room and marvelled at the view of turquoise Lake Wakatipu and the Remarkables mountain range (or the Mountains of Mordor for Lord of the Rings fans). Wow. Whilst gazing at these wonders of nature, we had a wee vote on what we should do over the next couple of days. It came down to the weather and how many more early starts and full day coach trips we could do.

We were due to go on a trip to Milford Sound the next day. An absolutely stunning area of the Fiordland region, but it meant another 7.30am start and not getting back to Queenstown until 7.45pm. Like with Franz Josef, we’re fortunate to have visited Milford Sound before, but never without a shroud of cloud.

The weather decided it. More cloud, chance of showers and a pretty cold 15 degrees. 15 degrees!! We’d acclimatised to low 30s after being in the South Island. It felt Baltic. So, the next day was a morning of pressie shopping, a walk along the lakefront trail and an afternoon of gourmet pizza, NZ wine and craft beer. You just can’t go wrong!

TranzAlpine

Early start number 1

The alarm went off at 6.15am and for a split second we thought we were back at home and getting up for work. We hadn’t seen this time of the morning for nearly 2 weeks. Thankfully, it was for something much more enticing – our first ever train trip in NZ.

The Tranz-Alpine train runs from Christchurch on the east coast of the South Island to Greymouth on the west coast and takes around 4.5 hours. You travel over the Canterbury plains towards the Southern Alps, which are the meeting point for the huge Pacific and Australian tectonic plates and backbone of the south island. You then ascend up to Arthur’s Pass and travel through the 8.5km Opito tunnel (I’ll be putting on a short post about that) which brings you out on the west side of the Alps.

Although there was some low cloud around the higher ground, we did have a beautiful sunny day and the train had an outdoor carriage, perfect for photos and video (which will follow soon).

It was such a scenic and relaxing trip that when we arrived in Greymouth we would have been happy to just chill out in the sun and have a wander around. However, we only had 45 minutes before catching our coach to Franz Josef, a town in the glacier region of the South Island.

Three and a half hours, 3 comfort stops (1 unscheduled) and some windy roads later we arrived in Franz Josef. We had 30 minutes to settle into our room at the Scenic Hotel (lovely place and we got a free upgrade!) before going on a walk of the glacier valley.

We sat on the bed, looked at each other’s slightly green-tinged faces (thanks to the windy roads) and decided that we would cancel the walk. It was 5.15pm, we’d been travelling all day, felt travel sick and just wanted to relax.

Luckily, we’ve visited Franz Josef twice before, so we’ve seen the glacier from the bottom and have also taken a helicopter ride to the top, so didn’t feel we were missing out on too much. It was also another 7.30am start the next day (shock, horror!), so we decided on an early night.

4 hours later we were sat in the Blue Ice Bar drinking vodka red bull. Oops.

Farewell Spit

North to south

I’m starting this post with a description about the image. Angus took this photo on our flight from the North to the South Island. The narrow strip of land that you can see is actually Farewell Spit – a 28km long sandbar, shaped like the beak of a kiwi bird, at the top of the South Island. It was at the base of Farewell Spit that Angus took the photo that won this trip :)

On Thursday 28th Feb we had to say goodbye to our campervan as it was time to fly down to the South Island (the flight was preceded by a night in an airport hotel in Auckland and a round of adventure golf – guess who won).

The South Island part of our trip was a new experience for us – a structured 6 day trip involving coach travel. It’s not something we would usually choose to do, but as it was part of the prize we decided to see it as a different sort of adventure!

Our first night was in Christchurch, at a motel in the suburb of Riccarton, which is an area we’ve stayed in before. It was good Scottish weather when we arrived, so instead of going into the city centre, we sniffed out the cheapest pub and got chatting to the locals.

The pub was a sports pub, of which there are a lot in NZ. It’s not like the sports bars we get in the UK, which have 15 big screen TVs showing football, but rather a pub with a few TVs showing horse racing, along with a counter where punters can make bets. Horse racing and betting is really, really popular in NZ.

We met Daryl, a hard working construction guy who liked to talk about the geology of NZ and also some of the other people in the pub – like the old guy who liked to bark at a woman who jogged past at the same time everyday and the local ‘bin jumper’ who chose to live on the streets and wear a dressing gown (or bath robe, depending on where you’re from). Then there was the photo wall of bar staff and customers in nude poses (from the back) in various locations, including Uluru (Ayres Rock). An interesting crowd.

Anyway, we didn’t stay too long as we had an early start the next day for our TranzAlpine train trip.

An interesting article

I just came across this article on the BBC website, which is really interesting given that we recently visited Hobbiton (and that the Oscars have just happened).

Does an Oscar really win Tourism?

In New Zealand’s case it has obviously had a big impact, which I think is down to the story and in what light the location is cast. For NZ, the Lord of the Rings films and The Hobbit are magical, atmospheric and the scenery is a huge part of these films about good vs evil.

Another film that spurred on my travel bug is ‘The Best Marigold Hotel’, which made me want to visit India and I planned out a fabulous itinerary that maybe we’ll do one day. The cinematography, and story, really drew me in and just made me want to be there.

I doubt that Trainspotting had the same effect on tourism in Edinburgh (not that the city needs any help with that). However, the effect of the Harry Potter films can be seen in parts of Scotland, particularly around Glencoe, and the Jacobite Train, now known as ‘The Harry Potter Train’, which travels over the stunning Glenfinnan Viaduct is synonymous with the films. I believe that J.K. Rowling had a big influence in where things should be filmed, so sometimes it’s down to the author of a novel and not just the film director.

Peter Jackson has been a great ambassador for NZ and I think the same ‘Oscar effect’ could be created for other destinations but it depends on the subject of the film, the passion of the director and, where applicable, the author of the novel.

Waitomo Caves

From one magical journey to another

Tiny green lights twinkled in the pitch black, like constellations of stars. The boat glided slowly and quietly through the water as we gazed at the hundreds of glow worms living deep in Waitomo Cave.

Waitomo is made up of two Maori words – ‘wai’ means water and ‘tomo’ means entrance or hole and the full translation means ‘stream which flows into the hole in the ground’, so Waitomo is an accurate name for this cave that has a river running through it, and under it.

We began our tour, guided by the great, great granddaughter of the one of the Maori men who first explored the cave, by descending down along a path and steps to an area called the Cathedral. We passed alien-like formations of stalagmites and stalactites, before arriving at a huge cavern, where you could see more weird shapes. The acoustics in this area of the cave are so good that opera singers have performed there and every year the local school children enter the cave to sing Christmas carols.

We wish we had some photos and video to show you, but it’s prohibited, so as to preserve the environment for the glow worms. Apparently, light can cause their glow to dim and it takes a few hours for them to shine bright again. However, you still always get some idiot tourist flashing a torch around or taking photos, almost spoiling it for everyone.

The display the glow worms provide is beautiful, ethereal and something that we’ll always remember.

You might be able to see some images at the following website – Waitomo Caves – to give you some idea of what we saw.

Time to drop off our campervan now (who we named Moe). It’s a night at an Auckland airport hotel before arriving in Christchurch (Friday 28th Feb).

The Shire

The idyllic Shire

Have you ever been on holiday somewhere and thought to yourself, ‘I could live here’? Well, that happened to me on our next trip after Rotorua.

Green hills, big oak trees, a tranquil lake area, cute houses, a big village green and what is possibly the most picturesque local pub I’ve ever seen. Yep, I wanted to live in Hobbiton.

We love the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit films, so for us to be able to visit the movie set was a real treat. The first time it was built, back in 1999, it was only temporary and was dismantled after filming had finished, as per the agreement with the film studio and the Alexander family, who own the farm. But when it was rebuilt for The Hobbit, they decided to make it a permanent fixture and market it as a tourist attraction. Makes sense!

Strolling along the paths and passing the hobbit houses, with their blooming gardens, built into the hills, it felt quite magical – just as it had appeared in the films.

The tour lasted around 2 hours and although there wasn’t a replica of the inside of Bag End (Bilbo Baggins’ house), the local pub, the Green Dragon Inn, has been built so we were able to enjoy a mug of ale by the big roaring fire, just as Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin did before their unexpected journey.

We could have stayed there all day, especially as the sun was shining, making the lake sparkle and the flowers seem brighter. But, we had to move on to the next adventure.

I know that fantasy novels and films aren’t everyone’s mug of ale, but J.R.R. Tolkien, and Peter Jackson, really did create something magical :)

Luging

Luge-tastic!

When we woke up on Tuesday we were like kids at Christmas. It was luging time! We had a go at this when we visited Rotorua before (and again in Queenstown in the South Island), and absolutely loved it.

We’re no adrenaline junkies by any means, but we defy anyone not to love this activity. What could be more fun than hurtling down a track surrounded by forest in a 3 wheeled cart, 2 centimetres from the ground?

We have a video on the site of Di speeding down the track.

After doing 7 runs, we managed to tear ourselves away and go and do some boring stuff, like buy groceries. Even that turned out to be a laugh.

Firstly, I was almost dancing on the checkout at Pac ‘n’ Save when the operator asked her supervisor if she needed to see my ID. My eyes lit up and I smiled smugly, only to be told ‘err, no’. Cue grumpy face.

Secondly, I went out to the car park expecting to see Angus in the campervan, but he wasn’t there. Next thing, I hear some whistling. I turn around and there’s Angus with Pete and David! We had a good chinwag (they were freedom camping for a couple of nights) and said we’d keep in touch before saying cheerio again.

We then retired to the holiday park for the night to try and charge up some of our tech equipment in the guest lounge (whilst watching a dodgy film with Antony Hopkins and a man-hunting grizzly bear).

One more trip in the campervan to go, to Hobbiton, home of Bilbo Baggins and then to see the Glow Worm Caves.

Champagne Pool

Smellyville here we come

Rotorua is at the heart of the volcanic/thermal landscape of New Zealand. What this means is that the air is thick with the smell of sulphur, or rotten eggs if that makes it easier to imagine.

The last time we visited, in 2007, the aroma was so pungent that I ended up stuffing tissue up my nose when trying to sleep. However, this time it wasn’t half as bad. Phew!

The landscape really has to be seen to be believed. Areas of it are where the earth’s crust is at its thinnest and all over you can see steam rising from the ground, and even through street grids. When you visit one of the thermal reserves and see the acidic water lakes and bubbling mud pools, you start to wonder what is going on underneath your feet.

Wai-O-Tapu is a thermal reserve just south of Rotorua and has a fantastic walking route of around 90 minutes through some impressive landscape. Smelly, but impressive. I’ll leave writing a wordy description and let the photos and video do the talking.

Once we checked into the holiday park, we enjoyed a cooling dip in the pool, followed by a soak in the mineral spa, before wandering into the town and sniffing out a local microbrewery pub called Brew (by the Croucher Brothers Brewery). Very tasty beers.

We didn’t stay out too late though, as we had some serious luging to do in the morning.