As we pulled away from Wellington harbour, we were filled with a sense of excitement as to exactly what the South island had in store for us. Pretty much anyone who took time to listen to our ramblings over the previous 9 months while we were planning this caper, mentioned how spectacular and wonderful the south island was. We had high expectations. We were not disapointed.
The ferry crossing from north to south, across the blustery cook straights, was a supremely slick piece of transportation as we were bundled into the RoRo ferry, all the while being greeted by the smiling, friendly faces adorning the loading crew. In fact, before we'd even boarded the ferry - as we were tucking into our picnic in the car park - we got a taste of southern hospitality when an eldery gentleman strolled over and commented on what a good idea our little feast seemed. After the obligatory "Ooh, a Spaceship... Ooh, its called 'Gonad', hee hee hee" part of our conversation was finished, he wished us well and retired to his nearby yute for a thermos of cha. Very pleasant indeed. As we boarded and took some time out to investigate our transportation, we couldn't help but notice that several of the more permenant fittings and notices were in French.... perhaps this vessel had been procured from a previous existence as a channel hopper? Either that, or the person in charge of putting the writing on the signs was a terrible speller.
One smooth and scenic crossing later, we took our place in the queue of vehicles waiting to disembark. It was then that we experienced a genuine twilight zone moment when, only one street after leaving the ferry following a line of traffic, we turned a corner and every single car just dissapeared. We slowed down and both mouthed a quiet "Whoa... what's happened to everyone?". It seems the interesting ability of New Zealand roads to swallow up and make all traffic on them vanish was not just confined to the North Island. With a clear stretch ahead and the sun shining down, we enthusiastically struck out to our first destination, heading down the east coast to the little sea side town of Kaikoura.
As we made our way down the coastline, the scenery once again metamorphasised into something completely different to what we had previously encountered. This time, it had a distinctly scottish highlands feel to it, with rugged hills, windswept flora and stunning vistas. It was all very "Lord of the Rings". A swift phone call en route confirmed our spaces on the principle reason we were heading to Kaikoura first, a whale watching trip. After the singular failure of our Californian shark diving expedition, we were determined to have another crack at close up viewing of substantial marine life so were more than a little keen to get out there amongst the big fellas.
Pulling into the our tiny destination town, we began to get a real sense of just how diverse the New Zealand terrain can get. As we strode out of the campsite onto the main street, it all looked fairly innocuous. Kind of like a mini British seaside town - a Chapel St Leonards or Walton-on-the-naze if you will - with no real outstanding features to it. Until that is, we turned 180 degrees and gazed upon the majestic snow capped southern alps looming over us from inland. The town was sandwiched snugly between the glorious opposites of this imposing mountain range and the south pacific seaboard, and somehow became much more attractive because of it.
One excited and slightly sleep-lacking evening later, we awoke early and made our way to the marina post-haste in order to check ourselves onto our trip and recieve our brief safety demonstration. A short coach ride later, and we boarded the catamaran which was to take us and a couple of dozen other eager whale-watchers out to the Kaikoura canyon, where we would spend the next couple of hours chasing Sperm whales around.
As the catamaran sped from the docks, we soon realised that part of the fun of the upcoming experience would be the exhiliarating speed the vessel travelled at as it hopped over some large-ish swells on its way from shore, giving our stomachs cause to leap around within our torsos on a regular basis. When we enquired as to why we needed to travel around so fast (at approximately 35 knots), we were informed that it would allow us to get to surfaced whales in time before they decided to dive. At first, this didn't seem like all that big a reason, until we found out that the whales dive for around 40 minutes at a time, and to a depth averaging over 3000 feet in order to hunt their prey and would surface only for 5 minutes at a time to catch their breath. The Kaikoura canyon, as it turned out, was awful deep.
There then followed a highly entertaining game of cat-and-mouse as the crew tracked the multitude of whales via hydrophone and top deck "whale spotters" while we were allowed to look out from the sides. Every now and again, the signal would go up. "Whale up! 1/2 mile starboard" or some equally nautical expression (We were prevented from declaring "Thar she blows" by the fact that all the whales around here were male and we didn't want to create any marine-mammal gender stereotyping), and the whole boat would swerve course and race over the choppy brine to catch up with our targets.
Along the way, we were frequently distracted by close up viewing of the bird with the largest wingspan on the planet, the wandering albatross. These impressive avians would casually drift past our boat as we stopped and stared. As interesting as they were to watch floating on the surface, they were much more fun to watch attempting to take off. One can only assume that trying to heave a 3.5 metre wingspan and body weighing many tens of kilos off the water is a fairly arduous task, so we respected them for that. Nontheless, the sight of such a large bird frantically flapping its way across the surface of the water, with its little legs running across the water in comical fashion before eventually taking to the wing, was certainly cause for much hilarity.
Seeing these magnificent if slightly languid beasts surfacing and taking in big gulps of air was certainly something that neither of us will ever forget, but even that paled before the views we got of them preparing to dive. With one last mighty effort, they would point themselves straight down and torpedo their way to the bottom, waving goodbye to us with a lazy flick of their huge tails and leaving the whole boat cheering and breathless.
Two hours and four whale sightings later, and our faith in marine life viewing was well and truly restored. To add extra value to the trip, we briefly diverted to where a large pod of dusky dolphins had been spotted recently, and spent an absorbing few minutes following these jolly sea creatures as they clowned around in front of our boat. Every now and again, Vickie would spot a juvenile splashing around, and would vocally declare her love for the cute little mammals. Again, yet another animal to add to the "I need one of those" list, which was now getting rather unweildy.
As if the day so far hadn't been eventful enough, we were soon witness to a gloriously farcical little scene when we returned to dock. Waiting on the jetty for our vessels' arrival was a TV film crew headed by none other than that pillar of childrens wildlife reporting and all round blond nature chick, Michaela Strachan. Suitably impressed by this, we were slightly mystified when, as we docked, she hurried past us onto the boat, before wheeling straight back and striding towards the jetty alongside other disembarking (and also slightly confused) tourists, happily and enthusiastically declaring to camera, "Well, that was an amazing experience, and seeing these creatures in their natural..... etc.". We stared like a pair of slack jawed yokels for a while, before Dunc whipped out the video camera and caught "take 2" on film for a piece of cinematic gold. We giggled all the way back to our van.
Still reeling from our encounter with the 4th largest animal on the planet, and apparently the largest fraudulant tv presenter around as well, we debunked to our next campsite to settle in for the evening. After the now customary nightly battle with the irritatingly persistant New Zealand sandflies, we tucked into our gourmet supernoodles and retired for the evening.
We awoke early the next morning to be greeted by a new friend. An adolescant Border collie had evidently wandered into camp, and, grasping a stick enthusiastically in its dribbling jaws, seemed to want us to play with him. Dunc threw the stick for him, then wandered off to take a shower, naivly thinking that would be the end of it. Not a bit of it as it turned out as this handsome but marginally over-intense canine then focussed its energies on the - now stirring - Vickie, and made clear its intentions by repeatedly placing the stick inside our van, then staring at it until she eventually cracked and threw it for him. Charming though this little fellow was, we were clearly no more to it than a couple of mobile "Stick throwing machines" so we figured it would have no bother finding someone else to pester, and gathering our things together to drive to the west coast.
Our cross-country journey was to take us directly through the middle of the southern alps and yet more unbelievable views. Dunc seemed unable to stop whistling the Lord of the Rings theme tune, as everywhere we looked, we could have possibly been driving through one of the spectacular backdrops used in the famous trilogy. Our journey took longer than we expected because of this, as we regularly felt compelled to stop and take pictures every couple of miles, before driving on, screeching to a halt, saying "Wow!" to each other, taking a picture and repeating the process until we eventually pulled up in the little mountain town of Arthurs pass - 800m up in the alps - where we elected to spend the night.
Ever since our encounter with the Kea in the bird sanctuary on the North Island, we'd been more than a little keen to see one in the wild. As we checked into our DOC campsite - our details taken by a local man with a truly shocking hairdo that Dunc was unable to stop staring at as we parted with our money - we were informed that they were quite the local tearaways, these fellows, and we wouldn't have to wait long before one came over and "Sized us up".
Sure enough, we had only been on-site for about 10 minutes when we noticed one of the little green chaps bounding across the campsite towards us with a look of feathery determination and curiosity emblazoned across his face. Vickie pointed him out to Dunc with shrieks of "Look, there's one!", "Oooh, he's so cute!", and sure enough, "I need one to keep!" (By the way, Vickies "Must have" list of animals now ran to: A Golden Retriver, a Border Collie, a friendly cat, a small water-melon eating gibbon, a horse, a donkey, some ducklings, a Kiwi, a baby dolphin and now an alpine parrot). Dunc played along with this show of enthusiasm, but drew the line when Vickie suggested he give his shoes to the parrot to nibble on while we took pictures.
As we crouched down and took pictures and film, the parrot seemed quite happy to oblige, cocking his head in a kind of avians "Man at C&A" pose to ensure we got his best side. Eventually though, when he sussed that we were (unusually) keeping to the rule regarding not feeding the Kea - partly because of Duncs mild concern that the mischevious little monster was quite capable of chewing up the side awning on our van should the desire take him - he decided to leave us to it and flapped off to find someone else to bother.
Being 800m up and surrounded by snow-capped mountains, we were tipped off slightly by how cold it was going to be at night, so we decided to head off for a walk to the nearby devils punchbowl waterfall. Feeling rugged and energized, we strode off with gusto. However, not 10 minutes later, and the wind was not blowing so strongly in Vickie's sails, as she resorted to climbing up the steps of the walk on her hands and knees, occasionally pausing to swig some water and complain about how it was too high and too cold. Dunc attempted to video this charming little vison of loveliness, but was shot with a glare that, had he ducked out of the way, would have set fire to the trees behind him, so he wisely decided to shoulder the camera and say no more about it.
When we returned to our van, after feeling distinctly non-plussed about the devils punchbowl falls - it was akin to a mini angel falls and us being such waterfall snobs these days, we looked at it, shrugged our shoulders, gave out a disinterested "Meh" and headed back down the mountainside - the cold was starting to bite. This necessitated the huddling together under the duvet instead of our usual routine of each trying to push the other one as hard up against the van walls as they could to create more room (bed sleeps three people comfortably our arses!), and the regular turning on of the engine in order to push some hot air through the cabin.
The following morning was crisp and clear and feeling surprisingly sprightly, we continued on our journey to the west coast and the small town of Franz Joseph
We arrived late in the afternoon, having taken our leisurely time getting there and once we'd swapped our Spaceship DVDs at the nearby travel office, we realised that time was shorter than we would have liked. Nontheless, there was sights to see, so we floored it over to the base of the famous Franz Josef glacier. New Zealand is quite unique in that it has two large glaciers whose terminal (inland) faces are easily accessible to casual walkers so this would just as likely be a rare opportunity for us to see such a striking natural feature up close and personal. An hours walk up a well-trodden path took us to within a few feet of the glacier, and sure enough, striking wasn't quite the word. The vast expanse of ice had carved out an incredible valley with its movements over thousands of years, and even though it was and is still retreating, it stood wedged between the two jagged valley sides like the worlds largest freezer compartment.
The walk to the glaicer took a little longer than expected however, when Vickie paused at a nearby babbling stream, and spent several minutes crouched down, fishing through the freezing water looking for shiny rocks. Dunc idly stood by, tapping his feet and huffing occasionally and when he eventually elected to say "Come on, it's getting dark!", she simply turned round clutching her favourite rock with a huge grin on her face and declared, "But look how pretty it is!". It was freezing cold, we were wrapped up in several layers, and Dunc had never found her more beautiful.
We spent several minutes prowling around the edges of the monolithic feature, taking pictures and casually remarking about how big a shame it was that there was all this ice around and yet we didn't have any Gin or Tonic. It was like a film set and it was only after we left, that we found out it was actually used for several scenes in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. We retired to a cheeky "campsite" by the side of the road next to a couple of other equally savvy campers and, chuffed at our first genuinely free night of camping, we watched a film and went to bed, but not before we were approached by another Spaceship renting couple wanting to swap DVD's. We had noticed that these vehicles were considerably more numerous on the south island, and the regular waving and DVD swapping were becoming quite the routine these days.
Next up was the nearby Fox glacier, some 20kms south of Franz Josef. This walk down to the glacier was enlivened somewhat by us regularly passing a rather odd german couple, who insisted on posing for each others pictures in the most unlikely and embarrasing fashion. This odd little hobby of theirs reached a surreal peak when the lady of the partnership requested that her man sling his plastic carrier bag over his shoulder and place his foot on a nearby rock in order to look like some sort of half-arsed teutonic version of a Canadian frontiersmen. We worked hard to surpress a screaming fit of laughter until safely past these people for fear of disturbing them out of their own happy place.
Once we had examined the glacier up close, and made the obligatory remarks about whether this glacier in a place called "Fox" and the famous sweetmeat "Fox's glacier mints" were somehow connected, we headed back to the van to continue our journey down the west coast. A mere 45 minutes of driving later, and we got a real reminder on just how quick the New Zealand landscape can change, when the mountains and glaciers fell away, to be replaced with lush and verdant temperate rainforest.
We marvelled at this dramatic change, and stopped frequently to take it all in. A spot of lunch at the gloriously scenic Kings Point and a brief stop in a beachy cove called "Shipwreck bay" later, and we arrived in the outpost town of Haast... the Sandfly capital of New Zealand. Needless to say, we hadn't planned on stopping long, and were only in town long enough to fill the car up, marvel at an angry sign on the supermarket denying entry to anyone covered in tee tree oil, and nearly run a cyclist off the road as we were turning the van around in a car park.
Immediately after Haast, we returned to the mountainous southern alps, and headed on our way to Queenstown. Our drive took us through the lovely Haast Pass road, and Vickie took advantage of the serenity to catch up on a missing "z" or two, before we pulled up in the tiny village of Makarora, where we made camp for the night and enjoyed the wonderful evening sun. As this was our first night in a "proper" campsite for a while, we made full use of the facilities, including the showers we were so desperate for, and bumped into a couple of Italian chaps we had met in Kaikoura, who were clearly on a similar route to us. Their friendly nature took us by surprise somewhat though, when upon their departure, they asked Dunc if he liked fruit salad, before presenting him with a tin the size of an old style dustbin full of the stuff. Dunc grinned politely, hiding his confusion well, before having to heft the tin (with both hands!) into the kitchen, where Vickie was doubled up laughing at the weirdness of it all.
Just before we headed off however, we had what amounted to quite a major episode when Dunc, who had been quietly packing the van up ready to go, accidentally shut a bee the size of a zeppelin in the van right next to Vickie. She shot up faster than a rat up a drainpipe, and somehow launched herself through the gap between the passanger and driver seats, and out of the passanger door, all the while hollering "Bee!! Bloody big bee!!". That little incident gave us more than enough adrenalin to complete our journey into Otago.
Our planned destination for the next few days was the adventure activity centre of New Zealand, if not the world, Queenstown. But first, we wanted to head over to its little sister town, Wanaka. Apparently, this lakeside village is due to be the next Queenstown with its gorgeous scenery, great winter skiing and varied summer activities. As we headed in to Wanaka to grab some lunch, we passed an intruguing place called "Puzzling world" and elected to stop and see what it was all about.
As it turns out, it was a supremely fun waste of a couple of hours as we set off to tackle the on site 1.5km long adult sized maze before heading into the multitude of "Puzzle rooms" scattered about the place. Surprisingly enough, we managed to complete the maze without a single piece of bickering or "I told you it was this way" style comments. Chuffed with ourselves at this feat of navigation, we barely noticed when we almost bumped into the same aged Newbury couple we had shared the wine tasting tour on the north island with. A brief conversation with the obligiatory "Well, what a small world" style jests followed, before we said our farewells and headed into the actual puzzle world building to see what it had in store for us.
Although a couple of the rooms were less than spectacular, the whole place had a wonderfully charming feel about it, and we were more than enjoying ourselves as we ambled through a multitude of hologramatic pictures, a room filled with famous faces that followed you as you walked around, and a room that gave the illusion of one person being considerably taller than the other, just by different sized doors and markings on the floor - apparently said room technique was used copiously during the Lord of the Rings trilogy to make the Hobbits appear smaller than they were.
However, the most fun to be had was in the tilting room, a genuinely disorientating experience where your balance was completely disrupted by cunning use of horizontal stripes on the carpet, mirrors and a floor that sloped at 15 degrees off horizontal. Its a little hard to describe the feelings this odd place brought about, but rest assured there was much hilarity to be had as we bumped into walls, fell over and watched snooker balls apparently roll uphill. Feeling thouroughly jolly and childish now, we sadly left Puzzle world and continued into Wanaka for lunch and to admire the views.
Leaving Wanaka, we decided to explore a bit of the regions Gold rush past, and headed off to Queenstown via the old gold heritage road instead of the highway. This windy and hilly effort took us up through the southern alps and back down the other side, where we were rewarded with a commanding view over Queenstown and its nearby neighbour, Arrowtown. Soon enough, we arrived at our destination and after taking a few minutes to suss out the town centre, we decanted to our campsite. At this moment, we'd just like to briefly digress again for a second and mention our campsite specifically. As we pulled up to it, we were a touch non-plussed with the conditions. Frankly, it looked like a slightly shabby and gravelly bit of bush and we were quite glad to be only spending one night there. However, when we had set everything up and Dunc was sat perusing the New Zealand rough guide we had with us, he noticed that the very ground we were on had been used in several scenes from Lord of the Rings. Not just little scenes either mind you, but sizeable epic jobs. This gave the whole area a new sheen of coolness, so we were now more than satisfied with our locale for the evening.
As Dunc was cooking dinner and Vickie was in the van doing the now routine sandfly swat, we were approached by a slender, whispering Dutch chap, who loped over to us and mentioned that his van was stuck elsewhere in the campsite, and could we perhaps help him shift it. In true bloke fashion, Dunc left Vickie in charge of dinner, and wandered off behind the Dutchman, who was now knocking on another door to procure some extra help from another camper. There followed a morbidly entertaining hour or so as several men from several different countried attempted to communicate effectively to free the stuck vehicle. We tried pushing it, lifting it, wedging stuff under the tyres, jumping on the back to attempt to add more traction, even shunting it from both sides with another vehicle to attempt to move it but it was no good. The thing was stuck and the Dutchman was looking at a long night in the swamp. After a time, Dunc sloped away from the confusion when Vickie told him dinner was getting cold (score!) and the rest of the gang were discussing jacking the whole back of the van up and pushing it off or some such craziness. Evidentally one of these hair-brained schemes was successful though, as the following morning the van was gone (although it could possibly have just been swallowed up by the mud during the night).
The following day, we briefly strolled around Queenstown town centre, deciding that we rather liked the place (despite it being crawling with Brits who seemed to have infested just about every tourist related job in the whole area). While we were there we also booked Dunc in for a bungy jump. This had been an activity that he had decided was on the list of "Must do's" while we were away, so the excitement was palpable as we went into the booking centre. Duncs enthusiasm was pin-pricked slightly though, when the chap told him that the site he was intending to jump from, the 102m Pipeline Bungy, was closed for upgrading and wouldn't be open until the following year. This meant that his options were, the slightly girly 43m Kawarawu river jump - incidentally the very first commercially operated bungy site in the world and already conquered by his brother-in-law, the 47m ledge bungy, or the behemoth 134m Nevis cable car bungy - the 4th highest bungy jump in the world at the time of writing.
The choice was clear and it only took a small amount of goading from the counter staff to persuade Dunc to go for the big one. An ashen-faced Vickie reluctantly decided to come along and watch from the launch platform, and spent the next couple of days sporadically and loudly asking Dunc what the hell he thought he was playing at. Just the booking of this event was an adrenalin-packed experience, so we decided on something a little more sedate to pass the afternoon (or so we thought), Kelvin Heights Deer park.
Apparently, this was a working deer farm that also housed a number of other cute sounding hooved animals according to the information sheet, so we figured it would be an endearingly absorbing waste of an afternoon. We headed up the mountains and procured a tin of animal nuts to feed the "tame" beasts on our way round and made sure we were full of "aahhs" and "how cute's" for the next couple of hours. Well.... it was nothing short of a white-knuckle bovine and equine ride of carnage we can tell you.
It all began sedate enough when we pulled up to be greeted by a couple of chirpy and friendly little Donkeys, which Vickie gleefully fed while making several Shrek references. Then it all went a bit pear shaped. The first enclosure we visited contained the miniature horses and pot bellied pigs, and Vickie hopped out enthusiastically and opened up the gate, clutching her feeding tin. One rattle of the tin and the horses frankly bolted over to us and swarmed around Vickie while Dunc filmed. After a few minutes it was all getting a bit boisterous when the horses started kicking and biting each other and knocking into Vickie in an attempt to thieve the food. Things were getting out of hand so Dunc grabbed the food tin from her, thinking that him being bigger and scarier might calm them down a bit. However, this was not to be as, despite him rattling the tin, they ignored him completely and carried on pestering Vickie. That is, until one of them (who Vickie had already mentioned had a crazy look in its eyes) launched itself at her and sunk its teeth into the top of her thigh, causing much bruising and teeth-marks. A firm kick to the bastards ribs from Dunc did little to calm it down, so we swiftly headed (and limped) to the exit. As Vickie inspected the damage, she loudly declared that horses were now struck off her list of "must have" animals. Tame indeed!
If we thought this was to be the end of the drama, then we were most mistaken. Bison were next up and needless to say, Vickie wasn't going anywhere near the giants. Nontheless, Dunc got out and was feeding them happily through the fence with Vickie filming from a safe distance. After a couple of minutes, Dunc looked over Vickie's shoulder and saw a large hairy, horned figure ambling towards them and, mistaking it for a Bison (it was actually a compltely placid and curious Tibetan Yak), swore rather loudly and told Vickie there was one behind her. Panic ensued, the camera nearly hit the floor and Vickie shot back into the car bellowing "I want to go, i want to go!".
One uneventful encounter with some skittish deer later, and it was time to hit the goats turf. These little fellows weren't in an enclosure, but were left to wander the park with impunity. They clearly recognised the fact that cars mean food as, no sooner had we turned off the engine and stepped from the vehicle, than Dunc was virtually covered in swarming bovines. They comically jumped up and attempted to steal the food and were getting quite carried away by it all. A couple of minutes of mobbing was enough, and he returned to the car. Only problem was, the goats were clearly not done feeding yet, and one of the smaller kids launched itself into the van before Dunc could close the door, and sat there merrily on his lap with its face in the food tin before Dunc could suss out what was happening and eject said goat.
Fortunately after that, it was only more donkeys and highland cattle to negotiate our way past. Nontheless, the afternoon had been rather more action-packed than we intended to be sure. Now our attention turned to the following days events. Namely Duncs bungy jump. A domestic morning in our campsite cleaning and washing stuff did little to quell the anticipation, and soon enough, it was time to meet our transport who would take us to the site. A nerve-jangling 45 min coach ride - which in fairness could probably be sold on its own as an adventure activity - took us to the canyon, where we spied the launch platform, a rather fragile looking cable car suspended 150m above the canyon floor.
We got harnessed up and, because they conducted the jumps from heaviest person to lightest, Duncs "ample" frame meant that he was second in the queue to go. No waiting around here then. A brief but intense period of anticipation followed, as heavy metal music blared out over the speakers, and Vickie jumped around the place occasionally looking down and screaming at Dunc that he was an idiot. It was time. Strapped up and ready to go, Dunc stuttered out to the edge of the platform - having been instructed that the company was filming him for a promotional video, so if he could look the part, that would be appreciated - and paused briefly for photos and one last declaration of love for Vickie.