At the beginning of November I had the chance to return to Australia on business, for the third time this year. As usual, it was a very busy trip with limited opportunity for sightseeing, but on this occasion I decided to take a holiday at the end of it so that I could travel to New Zealand and do some exploring.
I’ve wanted to go to New Zealand for years, ever since one of my friends sent me a postcard that featured a range of stunning mountains, which up until then, I hadn’t known existed in New Zealand. Years later I saw the Lord of The Rings films, which compounded my desire to visit. An old London friend of mine, Carl, now lives in Sydney with his girlfriend, and he also had some time off, so we planned a small road trip together.
We flew from Sydney to Christchurch with Emirates Airlines, who’s economy cabin was about the best I’ve flown in, with really good food (I had lamb tagine), wine and a state-of-the-art entertainment system. When we landed three hours later it was a shame to have to get off. Christchurch is New Zealand’s second biggest city and the largest in the South Island. Christchurch was very badly hit by a large earthquake in February this year, which added to the existing damage done to the city in another large earthquake in September 2010, with the result that large sections are now completely closed down. We visited the central district and were shocked by the scale of the devastation, some 9 months on and the city is still cleaning up the mess, with large scale demolition everywhere and cracks and buckles evident in all of the roads. Many modern tower blocks have already been demolished others remain waiting to be destroyed, boarded-up and spay-painted with messages from the rescue crews who originally evacuated the buildings. One tower, a large hotel, 26 storeys high, stands at a visible lean.
Because of the large-scale reconstruction going on in Christchurch, we struggled to find anywhere nice to stay as all of the major hotels were in the area now closed off. As luck would have it, one of my colleagues in Tokyo is from New Zealand and suggested that we stay with his parents at their tomato farm, some 30 minutes outside of Christchurch. I wouldn’t normally dream of imposing on someone’s parents like this, but was assured that they wouldn’t mind, and apparently are used to random people turning up at their house and announcing that they’ve come to stay. Trevor and Dulcie were excellent hosts, collecting us from the airport, giving us a tour of Christchurch and stuffing us with food. Their small farm sits on a lush hillside overlooking a bay, with dramatic mountains looming to the rear. They produce tomatoes using a soil-free hydroponic system, with pollination provided by bumble bees and pest management via rather nasty sounding parasitic wasps. The farm also had rows of plum trees and the whole place appeared quite idyllic, until you spot the large wooden posts supporting a surrounding wall – a reminder that they too were badly shaken by the earthquake and have had to re-build parts of their house. Courtesy of Trevor’s great generosity with the wine, the next morning Carl and I headed back to the airport feeling slightly worse for wear.
We took a very cheap flight (£30) down to Queenstown, 300 miles (500 KM) SW of Christchurch. Queenstown has gained a reputation as the unofficial ‘action sports’ capital of New Zealand, as it caters to all manner of adventure activities and is an essential destination for all backpackers in this part of the world. We booked into the Crowne Plaza Hotel, right in the centre of Queenstown. It was a nice hotel and due to the favourable exchange rate against the New Zealand dollar, we found everything to be very reasonably priced, and our large, twin room worked out at about £45 per night each. Queenstown sits halfway along Lake Wakatipu, which at at 50 miles long, is the longest in the country, and is surrounded by spectacular mountains, including the appropriately named Remarkable Mountains, and it is this combination of water and high peaks that makes the place so appealing as a destination.
Shortly after we arrived we took the gondola (cable car) up onto Ben Lomond, some 800 meters (2,624ft) above the lake to paraglide down. Paragliding is a bit like parachuting with the notable distinction that when you become airborne the supporting canopy is already safely inflated. We took part in a tandem flight, meaning that we were strapped onto an instructor who would be controlling the flight. Paragliding has a very good safety record, but it was still nerve-wracking to step off the sheer drop of the mountain and out into thin air. It was a spectacular experience, flying so high with nothing to separate me from the elements and feeling the rush of wind and the pull of g-force as we banked and spiralled our way to the ground. My flight lasted about 7 minutes, 3 less than Carl’s, mainly because I enjoyed the aerobatics so much that I asked for more which meant a more rapid loss of height, although I did regret this request when we banked so sharply that we almost became inverted and I was able to look down on the canopy and the ground beneath us!
The next day, not satisfied with spending any more time than necessary on the ground, we chartered a private plane and flew to Milford Sound, a spectacular fjord that Rudyard Kipling once described as the eighth wonder of the world. Carl and I were collected from the hotel and driven to the nearby flying club and met with our apparently teenage pilot. We flew in a 4 seater Cessna propeller aircraft which reminded me a lot of the original Volkswagen Beetle, both in size and sound. Donning our headsets and pilot-style mics, we bounced across the grass to the runway and were airborne within moments of our pilot hitting the throttle. It had been many years since I was last in an aircraft of this size and I’d forgotten how low and slowly they fly compared to a jet. We wound our way along valleys and lakes, gradually gaining altitude as we approached the Southern Alps, a range of huge mountains that run the length of the South Island. As we reached the highest mountains we didn’t climb and fly over them, rather flew between them, meaning that we had incredible panoramic views of spectacular snow-capped peaks all around us, and at points, dangerously close to the ends of the wings. Our pilot informed us that these were the peaks featured in the Lord of The Rings films as the mythical Misty Mountains. After about 40 minutes we dropped down into Milford Sound, a spectacular glacial valley with near-sheer walls. We flew the length of the fjord and out to the Tasmin sea, banked around sharply and flew back down the opposite side of the valley to land on the tiny airstrip at the end. Our pilot escorted us to join a small cruise ship and we enjoyed an hour sailing the length of the valley admiring the numerous waterfalls, fur seals and the occasional penguin. Afterwards, we were met off the boat and walked back to our plane, which was parked in amongst many other small planes in what appeared to be a car park. Our flight back was not quite as dramatic as the small planes use a sort of one-way system for flying in and out of Milford Sound, so we avoided the taller peaks, but it was still a flight filled with awe-inspiring views. The whole trip took 4 hours and cost about £200 each, and was worth every penny.
The next day we rented mountain bikes and bought half-day passes for the gondola, which enabled us to take the bikes up to the top of the mountain and follow the custom-build trails back down to the cable car station and go up again. There were several trails to choose from, and like ski slopes, they were graded according to difficulty, we chose the basic route which proved to be pretty challenging and as technical as anything I’ve ridden before. The trail was very fast, and dropped down the mountainside steeply, meaning that we and the full-suspension bikes we hired got a proper hammering. Carl went flying at one particularly tight and steep corner, but fortunately suffered only cuts and bruises and we were able to ride the route a few more times. We were only in Queenstown for three days but managed to pack a great deal in, and I’d be very happy to return for more adventures, and for more burgers, as the local Fergburger restaurant (apparently world famous) was excellent!
The following day we rented a car and drove NW to reach the West Coast. The plan had been to stay at a small town called Haast that we’d spotted on the map, but when we got there we discovered that there wasn’t much to see and decided to push on to Fox Glacier. The roads in New Zealand were excellent, and the traffic was very light, so it was easy to cover large distances with very little effort. It seems that many people who visit the islands rent camper vans (you see them everywhere), and in planning our trip Carl and I did discuss the idea, but neither of us fancied sharing a fold-out bed, inches from a chemical toilet, and so the idea was quickly dropped. I’m very glad that we chose a car over a van, as the long, twisting roads that wound along the cliff tops and mountain passes were great fun to drive in our nippy Toyota, and I’m not sure I could have got the wheels on a camper van to squeal quite so loudly on the mountain hairpins.
The Fox Glacier and the nearby Franz Josef Glacier are the only places in the world where glaciers descend to meet temperate rainforest and so are a must-see on any trip to the South Island. There are many guided tours available in the area, but these require a great deal of time, equipment and energy to see the best of the glaciers, and so, in the manner to which we had rapidly become accustomed, we chose to take to the air instead. There are many helicopter tour companies in the area, but we chose Mountain Helicopters, a small locally-run operation, because they offered a flight taking in both glaciers as well as Mt. Cook, New Zealand’s highest mountain, and because they were the cheapest. We were driven out to a nearby barn that doubled as a hangar, got in the helicopter and took off. Just like that – there was no taxing out to the runway, no getting up to speed for take-off, our pilot just pulled back gently on the stick and we were airborne, it was great. The helicopter was very small and very noisy, but as we were crammed in the front next to the pilot, our view was amazing. We sped low along the valley floor and then right along the length of the Fox Glacier, climbing quickly up into the mountains and the snowfields that feed the glaciers. As we passed over the top of the mountain range the helicopter bounced around quite alarmingly and the temperature dropped quickly, but both Carl and I were having for too much fun to care. In the course of our 45 minutes flight we banked and swooped over the peaks and glacial valleys, circled Mt. Cook and Mt. Tasmin and, the highlight of the trip, performed a landing in the snow. The helicopter landed on a pristine bank of snow on top of one of the mountains, and with the rotor blades still spinning overhead, we jumped out of the cockpit and ran out across the snow to take photographs of the stunning views – definitely a great way to climb mountains and the best £140 I’ve ever spent.
We spent the next two days of our trip driving North along the coastal road up to the famous Pancake Rocks, an area of unusual rock formations on a craggy cliff top, before heading back inland and making our way East through the mountains. On our route we stayed near a small town called Arthurs Pass, which was home to a colony of Kea, a rare breed of Alpine parrot. The Kea themselves were large, fat-looking, green creatures that didn’t seem to be very elegant in the air or on the ground, and could be seen all over the town, squawking at tourists, flying clumsily into things and doing their very best to destroy parked cars with their formidable looking beaks. Whilst sat outside having coffee one landed on our table with a heavy thud and attempted to steal my cake, I was able to shoo it away, but not before it gave me a threatening squawk and managed to get its beak in the milk jug.
On our final day it was an easy 2.5 hour drive from Arthurs Pass back to Christchurch airport and to drop off the rental car. Although the various flying activities pushed the cost of the trip up, overall it felt like a very reasonable expense for all that we did, and it was one of the best holidays I’ve had in recent years. I’d definitely like to return to New Zealand as there was plenty more on the South Island that we didn’t see, and the whole of the North Island to explore, which has its own character and attractions. As a big fan of New Zealand wine I wish we’d been able to visit some vineyards, but that will be top of my list for the next trip.