This journey was made at a time of change. After almost 4 years of working in China, Mel was about to be asked to move across to another continent. This was again the result of dumb luck – ie being at the right place at the right time. And sensing that we would be out for quite some years, we were seeking to find a suitable place to explore before we packed our bags.
At the annual travel fair, we picked up a pair of fantastically priced Air New Zealand promotional tickets to Christchurch on the south island. This journey would be made entirely with public transport, as we were intent on taking scenic trains along the way joining up our journey circling the island.
So after a 10 hour flight, we arrived in Christchurch settling down in the city and taking a well deserved rest from the overnight flight. Well, not before Suan had the opportunity to walk the shops until they closed around 6pm…
No Whales in sight
We had signed up for a whale watching tour at Kaikoura. But on the day that we were due to depart, the seas were deemed too rough for the boats. So of all thing the tour operator did, they changed it to a scenic whale watching flight! Never since have we heard of this kinds of arrangements…
But once again the whales proved elusive, even as we circled in the skies for more than an hour!
So what were we to do? Well, our guide had a Einstein moment and guided the driver to a stretch of road hugging the sea. There they were! No, not whales but seals. It seems that a small “colony” of seals rests in that location every day. Fortunately for us they were there because it’s the high tide and they were not getting out to sea to hunt. You know from afar one can hardly make them out because the color of their skin looks so similar to that of the rocks that they were resting on! Talk about camouflage.
Watching the Birds
Leaving Christchurch, we took the Intercity coach bus towards Dunedin. It was almost the whole morning and we only the afternoon to explore town. If there is one thing to remember from Dunedin, it would be Baldwin street. At that time, already recorded in the Guinness book of records to be the steepest road in the world.
We happened to be here during the lunar new year and surprisingly the center of town was decorated out in a splash of festive atmosphere. There was even “hawker” fare!
But the highlight of our stop in Dunedin is to make the journey to the Otago peninsula. And for multi-fold reasons too. We had signed on for a bird watching trip that would bring us out to the wetlands that are frequented by Oyster catchers and colonies of Cormorants, nesting along the rocky outcrops along the coast.
The Albatross sanctuary which we visited was built facing a colony of these nesting giants whose wingspan can easily span six feet! But we were not invasive, as the viewing was only done through the glass gallery.
This restriction was in place when the Albatrosses are nesting, since they can be rather aggressive in defending their space and young. The handlers showed us how these birds reacted when approached and it was wise to have spent time watching in the relative “safety” of the gallery.
But that was not all. Nearby there was a private stretch of land that has been turned into a penguin sanctuary. Visitors get really close to the nests of the yellow eyed penguins by way of trench tunnels. Not only does this prevent the young birds from being imprinted with the presence of people, it also afforded viewing of the creatures from their perspective (ie at their level). We saw many chicks still in the process of molting and they were out about waiting for their parents to return!
Now to get to Queenstown we could have taken the Intercity bus once again. But then who should pass up the opportunity to ride the train through the Taieri area instead?
This 4-hour journey would take us to Cromwell, where we alighted and took the bus into Queenstown. The train journey took us through various gorges and over gullies with step drops. One can also take the scenic trip which is a 2-hour return to Dunedin. You just turn around in Pukerangi whereas we continued on. We checked in as if we would at the airport, leaving the luggage with train handlers and at the destination we picked up our luggage from the conveyor belt like we do at the airport.
Now Queenstown is definitely the capital of fun! Adventure fun that is.
Now if you think we’d run off bungee jumping or careening off a cliff, well we are NOT that adventurous. But we certainly did all the touristy stuff. Such as getting up on the skyline above lake Wakatipu and taking a slow ride down using the luge. While others raced down, we simply took our time slowing down to see the views. Did you know that New Zealand is also called ‘the land of the long white cloud’? That’s Aotearoa in the Maori language. Some literature suggest this referred to the north island, but came to refer to the entire country… whatever the referent term’s origins or meaning, the mountains here certainly had them nicely decked out for us to see.
Now you would all know about New Zealand wine by now. But did you know it all started from a place called Lake Hayes? Said to have started planting in 1981, we made a stop here for a tipple on the way to Arrowtown, a mini excursion out of Queenstown. Like many other parts of the “new world”, people came primarily to prospect for minerals. And so this was the same in Arrowtown too. Home to the gold rush of the 1850s, it was said to have more than 7,000 miners seeking a fortune during the peak of the gold fever!
And just so you know, we also got to the spot where the first commercially organized bungee jump was started in 1983. Yep this is Kawarau gorge where folks first started taking flight from the suspension bridge for a fee. Imagine that. Paying to go jump.
Now a few days in Queenstown cannot be without a “cruise” in the rivers. Fed by glacial melt, the waters are actually bluish, reflecting this component of the light because of all the fine crushed stone sediments swirling in the currents. As the glaciers moved down slope, their great weight and pressure grinds stone into fine powder. We were at the Dart river for a morning of jet-boating. For those who know, this was one of the must-do activities (back in our days anyway). Here the waters are only 4-5 inches deep we are told, as we skimmed the surface creating the inevitable splash with every sharp turn or twist.
Perhaps it was too much on the boat, for ours broke down and we had to wait for an hour for a replacement to come. During that time, Mel and Suan combed the rocky riverbed for “green stones” or Nephrite Jade. One might strike it rich with a valuable find! LOL.
Climbing Walls of Ice
Since New Zealand lies on the Pacific ring of fire, that should mean its creation was in huge part from the crushing of tectonic plates. Thus it should not come as a surprise to find mountain ranges across both islands. Now mountains generally retain snow, if they are high enough and especially when they are this far south in latitude.
Hence, finding glaciers here is definitely not surprising at all. And we were in glacier land. Getting to the western coast of the south island was no easy task and took quite some hours.
But when we got to Fox village, it was definitely rewarding. For in front of us was Mt Cook and Mt Tasman. First you have to know this: Fox village is just a small collection a few restaurants and motels/hotels along Haast highway. This sentence is accurate at the time we visited. That’s no more for today it’s more like Fox city!
The highlight of this segment of the journey however, was from up high.
The helicopter ride was fantastic! Costing us only NZ$160pp at that time, it was a steal as we looked at the views from the helicopter! Soaring above the clouds, we circled around the mountain range before settling down on a flat area of the mountain. The Southern alps are dominated by Mount Tasman & Mount Cook and the flight stayed grounded for about 15minutes to facilitate photo taking.
With the peak of Mount Tasman in the background, we are above cloud 9! LOL. That’s because we are closer to 3000m above sea level. We could not stay too long at this altitude because of the thin air and the pilot lifted off taking us around the alps once again. On this occasion, we saw the intense glacier patterns that we shall experience later.
This is also the first in the series of photos taken of Suan sitting in front next to the pilot. We were flying with another family with their small daughter and she definitely relished in this experience just as we did! A grand view of the entire valley for which the glacier is flowing downwards was the finale of the flight.
Then it was time to ‘hit’ the glacier. We were going on a hike which started with an uphill walk for about 30 minutes. Some parts of the walk were quite steep and required the use of chain links.
We were told that the glacier is retreating (see this was already happening more than 15 years ago). This means it’s getting further up the slope and melting more at the edges. Of course this is also about input-output. The reasons for glacier contraction are due to the reduced snow fall and greater melting. Sounds logical?
Now you need to know that Glaciers move at a rate of a few meters per day forward down the slope. But some may move at much higher speeds thus making them not suitable for hiking. Thus far, we had been trekking along vegetation on the side of the glacier. Now comes the exciting part. But before we can walk on the glacier, we had to put spikes on our heavy boots since it can be rather slippery.
The glacier itself exhibits the same bluish hue we saw in the rivers, again due to the rock “flour” created when glaciers crush the rocks. The glacier has numerous of channels and crevices which one sees as patterns from the air.
You will notice some crevices are steep and wide enough such that people can walk in them to get to another side.
Now ever so often one will also come across a crevice with water spiraling down into a seeminly abysmal darkness. One slip in there and it’s probably hard to find one’s way out. Thus it can be really dangerous to trek the glacier without a guide. And obviously it will be rather cold on the glacier itself, so best bring and put on your thick sweaters or coats.
It was a exhilarating trek and eventually we made it back down to the end of the glacier – also called its “face”.
Observe the gap in the facial wall. In some places they can be stable and large enough to be explored, but not here! Because here’s where a large amount of ice fall off and melt, thus creating a stream of water flowing into the sea. This is an experience not to be missed and will be remembered for all of our lives! Heheh. Ok we jest, but it was indeed memories of a lifetime.
All good things for our journey did come to an end, and the last segment was Fox Glacier – Greymouth, connecting to the Tranz Alpine railway. We were crossing the Southern alps back to Christchurch for our flight home. Although the views were quite good, the rail did not give much opportunity to take photos, though the scenic views did inspire us to ponder over the memorable days just past.
If there is one regret we had on this journey, it was not making it to Te Anau and the Milford Sound. We had the impression that it would be very similar to the fjords of Norway (fresh in our minds) and decided against making the detour. But we now know that this was a mistake! If only we can turn back time…
This journey took place in February 2002
Queenstown – Fox village leg cost NZ$172pp
Fox village – Greymouth leg cost NZ$71pp
All prices quoted are from more than 15 years ago. So we guess it would have risen a fair amount. But surprise, surprise!! It’s cheaper now. Can you believe it? And remarkable as it is, you can get NZ$1 fares too…if you choose the departure times that are later or arrives at the destination later. Sort of like the airlines…wow.