Tuesday, 26 August 2008

Auckland, New Zealand

In Kaikoura I made the most of the sunshine and walked the Cliff Walk to the seal colonies. Some of it was a bit of a scramble as the path had been washed away but I joined a Scottish girl (from Aberdeen uni!) in tackling it so one of us could fetch help if the other fell off the cliff! I had fish and chips as a reward afterwards, as recommended by Mari. My only non-self-catered meal in New Zealand! It was blue cod and mild, flaky and buttery - really good. Of course the owners of the fish & chip shop were Scottish immigrants, but never mind! I really liked Kaikoura, and I heard on the news today that the roads to and from it are flooded, so I'm glad that didn't happen on my way up. The farmers are saying their lambs aren't likely to survive the weather, which is sad.
In Picton I did another scenic walk, to so-called Bob's Bay, and ate yummy baked goods from the Dutch "bakerij"! Bit of a flying stopover. Then I got the ferry to Wellington, which wasn't straightforward! On the Picton side I ended up having to walk with my heavy luggage to the Bluebridge ferry terminal because I didn't know there was a shuttle bus! I guess they forgot to mention that... Then I felt really sea sick on the boat, but the films they put on were quite distracting (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles!?). Three hours later in Wellington (Welly) I spent ages trailing around looking for bus platform 'J' (having looked up buses on the internet beforehand and reading that they went from that platform). After asking I was informed it didn't exist so I just hopped on another bus in that direction, but I overshot my stop as it was dark by this time and had to walk pretty far back (and it started raining just as I got off the bus!) so it wasn't a great journey at all. I had a good time in Wellington though. I took in a Hogarth and children's book illustrators exhibition at the National Library, went to the Botanics, City Gallery ( a good modern art show! for once!), and various little boutiques. I was greeted in one by a scruffy shop-assistant going, "How's it goin' man?"! I wanted to say "Yo dawg" to be sarcastic but I think he might have missed the sarcasm and started a discussion about gang wars in Welly. I also went to the national museum, Te Papa, which was really good. I learned that a Kiwi scientist called Bob took the time in 1984 to count all the roadkill he came across while driving up the north Island, and counted 281 possums and 188 hedgehogs (plus a few others). People take possum killing very seriously here! I also learned that there'd been four 3.8-4.5 earthquakes in New Zealand since I'd arrived, plus a hundred smaller ones... everyday stuff!
On the way from Welly to Napier we stopped at Mount Bruce wildlife centre and I saw a kiwi in an enclosure inside, where they used infra-red light to simulate night, as kiwis are nocturnal. He was just having his midnight snack, which he found by prodding everything with his long pointy beak (they have external nostrils on the end of their beaks!) and bobbing about. Then he slurped it all up, which was really funny to watch. New Zealand wildlife is so entertaining!
Napier was good fun too. I stayed in an 180-bed hostel with just 5 people staying in it, it being low season! We (Nao from Japan, Thorsten and Fabian from Germany) had a couple of beers (the Germans agreed that New Zealand beer is not as good as German beer) and taught Nao how to play Monopoly! I think we just confused her terribly but she survived a couple of rounds... Napier had been destroyed by an earthquake in 1931 or so and rebuilt in Art Deco style, making it an attractive (if slightly Miami-beach looking) town to walk about. After Napier I stopped in Rotorua, where I met a young Australian guy who had totally overspent and stayed in NZ far too long so had nowhere to sleep and was hanging about in our hostel in the hope that no one would notice him sleeping in the TV room... Boys! Apparently his parents had bought him a flight home but he wasn't sure if he could be bothered taking it! Luckily he didn't have a credit card to overspend on. Or he'd be in debt like me...!
Rotorua was pretty smelly from all the sulphury hot springs and geothermal activity in the area (the earth's crust is very thin there) and I got a massive headache after a while! I left for Waitomo in the rain, stopping in Cambridge to change buses, and arrived in the late afternoon to check into the YHA. The bed hadn't been made in the dorm they assigned me to so they put me in a twin instead, which was nice but kind of strange not to be lulled to sleep by collective snoring and wade through other people's piles of stuff on the floor. Soon after arriving it was time to get ready for my night abseil! Waitomo is famous for its glow-worm caves and they've been a tourist attraction since the 1800's. It really kicked off in the 1980's though when people started black-water rafting and abseiling there. My guide Ross discovered the cave we went to around that time, and had built most of the walkways and ladders out of it himself. It was just me (low season...) so luckily we had the same sense of humour and there wasn't a boring moment. I got kitted out in sexy blue overalls, white wellies and a helmet with a headtorch. My camera's flash chose not to work so sadly I only have one blurry picture of me before we went down. When we were putting on our harnesses Ross said, "Don't worry, I've done this before. I went down once last week.", which was reassuring. It was an 150feet drop and once I was attached to the rope and to Ross I got to sit on an iron bar and get my hands on the right places on the ropes. Then Ross kicked away the bar I was sitting on (aah!), and I expected to dangle about like a spider and possibly spin and crash into something. Ross thought so too so he warned me I was about to look stupid, but luckily I just sat in the ropes and didn't move much. To stop from moving I had to straighten out the rope and wrap it round my leg - that stopped it from slipping through the bobbin (or descender), and if I wanted to descend I'd bend my leg and slacken the rope with my right hand. I got praised for my smooth style which Ross said took most guides in training a week to master. Then he offered me a job to be trained as an abseil and blackwater-rafting guide in the summer season (November), which I jokingly accepted. On the first descent we left our headtorches on for me to get used to the abseiling, so we didn't see any glowworms. Once on the ground we walked through the cave with water dripping down on us and clambered up four or five big ladders to get back out. Pretty hard work! Ross didn't even get out of breath. We had to stop every so often to clip ourselves onto safety ropes in case we slipped and fell. On the next descent we switched our torches off and got to see the fairy lights. Absolutely beautiful - I'd seen glow-worms in a field in Austria but that was nothing like Waitomo. The glow-worms are actually gnat larvae and spend about 8 months as larvae, during which they devour as many of their siblings around them as possible. When they hatch they only live for about three days as gnats, as they have no mouths. They mate and then either starve to death or are eaten by their charming brood. Such gratitude. Seeing them in a cave was great because there are tons as they like the moisture and all the insects they can feed on there, and as it's so dark you can see them really well. It looks like a 3-dimensional night sky down there when you're looking at the clusters of lights on the cave-walls. Ross said one guy proposed to his girlfriend there once as he thought it was so romantic. She said no! Cannibalistic gnat larvae just didn't impress her enough. I was quite impressed though, and stood and looked at them for quite a while, with Ross telling me glow-worm facts and entertaining tourist stories.
Back in Rotorua I went to Wai-O-Tapu geothermal park (or 'wonderland' as they called it), which was pretty cool, with lots of differently coloured lakes and pools, depending on the minerals in the water. It was a gorgeous day too (but after that it rained again). I also went to the Agrodome, where I watched people bungy, swoop, zorb, and shweeb in the adrenalin area! Swooping is the funniest thing I've ever seen (apart from the wildlife here). Up to three people get strapped into 'hang-gliding harnesses' which look like sleeping bags and then get hauled up high. One of them then pulls the release (what a responsibility) and they drop and swing like a huge pendulum. The more people, the faster (they're attached to each other in a row). When they drop they start screaming but only for a second before the wind hits them. Once they've swung as far as they'll go they start screaming again, and then they drop back again for a couple of swings. It looked fun... but too expensive! I went and saw the considerably cheaper but also very entertaining sheep show, where we spectators were mocked by the presenter in the subtle Kiwi way. The Americans and the Chinese got the worst of it... One Chinese girl went on stage to milk a brown-and-white cow, and was asked whether she wanted chocolate or vanilla, and after choosing chocolate was directed towards its bum... She actually got some milk out of it though (not at the bum). There were also lambs, which the kids got to bottle-feed, and sheepdogs who were trained to leap over the sheep on stage (they had loads of different ones to show the different breeds) and then sit down on one. I bet that skill comes in handy.
On the way up to Auckland I stopped overnight in Mount Maunganui (obligatory Magic stop) which is famous for its beach scene so pretty uninteresting in winter. My plans for Auckland pretty much only involve taking the ferry to Devonport, one of the pretty seaside towns, tomorrow, and then probably sleeping at the airport on Saturday night as my stupid flight is at 5.50am and there's no cheap transport there at that kind of hour! It's going to be a long tiring, really really fun journey, stopping in Sydney from 7.20 - 10.45am and arriving in Hong Kong at 17.45 local time! I may get round to blogging in Hong Kong, but if not you'll get a Hong Kong-related entry when I'm back in Scotland... :-)

Friday, 15 August 2008

Kaikoura, New Zealand

I changed my plans about five minutes after my last blog entry and decided not to hang about in Queenstown on my last day but to take a day-trip to Milford Sound. I'd included it on my New Zealand 'wish list' but it was going to be pretty expensive with Magic, and I suspected the sea-kayaking I'd wanted to do there would probably be cancelled due to the weather. However there was a good winter deal with Mitre Peak cruises, to be driven over there for a boat cruise and back in a day, which a friend decided to do, and I joined her. It was a very long day, with a 6.30am pick-up in Queenstown and arriving at Milford by lunchtime. The bus journey was really scenic as we drove high up into the mountains. On the mountain roads our young driver decided to describe the sort of damage the avalanches that happened there regularly could do - basically if the falling boulders didn't crush your vehicle then the force of the descending snow could still blow all the windows out and knock it over. Lovely. The possibility of black ice was also elaborated upon, but we got there safely... The boat cruise was wonderful and we were really lucky with the weather (again!); it was very cold but sunny and clear. We didn't see anyone kayaking - probably too chilly! We saw fur seals basking on the rocks, and beautiful big waterfalls cascading down into the fjord, like cream dripping off a spoon. The journey back went well until we were an hour from Queenstown, and the bus stopped suddenly and the driver hopped off to investigate, and then report that the clutch was broken and he jokingly blamed our collective weight. Luckily they had snacks and DVDs to keep us distracted from being stuck in the snow and dark, as the replacement bus took well over an hour to arrive, with the result that it was almost 10pm before we got to Queenstown. So a very long day but am glad I saw Milford Sound after all!

Next morning I got the bus to Dunedin.On the way there we drove through the little town of Clyde, which is built in a valley beyond a huge dam, and on a fault line, so likely to be hit by earthquakes. Asking for trouble... In Dunedin I stayed in what felt more like a fridge than a hostel. It was pretty new and looked quite nice but heating wasn't on the agenda obviously! So I caught a cold, but I think I've thrown it off again. I explored Dunedin, which has some architectural gems and lovely cafes, and checked out the art gallery and cinema. I didn't tour the Cadbury factory because the bus driver advised us that there weren't any Oompa Loompahs left there after 'they staged a revolution and were shot' and that 'Oompa Loompah flavoured ice cream was good for a while but they've run out'. Instead I took an Elm wildlife tour out to the Otago Peninsula, which was another really lovely area I wouldn't have seen otherwise. We were a group of about twenty, with two guides, and drove in a minivan to the Royal Albatross sanctuary (which I hear my grandparents went to as well!), where we spotted one Royal albatross (it's not their season). On the drive over private farmland to see penguin, sea lion and fur seal colonies we were informed it was our 'patriotic duty' to run over possums if we saw any (never mind that we're not Kiwis), or if we were too squeamish we should throw apple cores or other pieces of fruit into the middle of the road and then let someone else do the dirty work! Classic Kiwi advice. Our guide also gave us some info about the very rare Yellow-Eyed Penguin, which is in fact a forest-dwelling bird (!) - hence New Zealand's deforestation along the coastline has contributed to their rarity, but Elm are replanting bushy plants such as harakeke ('grass on steriods') near the beach to get the shy penguins to hide in. Apparently they are even shy of their own species and 'will only visit their neighbours to beat them up if they are watching them make babies'. The penguins were standing in a fairly large group when we saw them though, and some of them were trundling in twos or threes from the sea to nest for the night. The way they toddled up the beach and then hopped up the rocks to stand on the hill was really funny! Also really funny (as described by the guide; unfortunately we didn't witness this) is when they're trying to attract a partner, which they do by sticking out their flippers straight ahead as if to hug their prospective partner, storming straight past them, then coming to an abrupt halt and staring up at the sky to let their prospective partner admire them. They will do this over and over again to each other, and then sometimes discover that they've been performing this little mating dance for the same sex - in which case they will smack each other in disgust. They will also smack the sheep if they come too close, which makes me feel very sorry for the sheep, as a penguin is pretty strong and I remember having a large purple penguin-flipper-inflicted bruise on my thigh for a long time in Capetown. However the sheep are quite capable of head-butting the penguin and pushing them over, which apparently also happens a lot and is very comical to watch! We also saw sea lions in that area, which I'm now enlightened enough to know are a type of seal. They were lying about in the dunes and some were pretty massive so we kept our distance. As we were walking away from one of them he (male, of course!) decided he would shuffle off too. As he got up he let off the most disgusting rotting-fish fart I have ever had the misfortune to smell. The females have a separate beach where they hide from the males and now I think I know why! Yuk.
After that we headed over to the fur seal colony, where there were lots of babies, camouflaged by the rocks (the males are grey, and the females slightly more sandy-coloured, and the babies are rock-coloured). As we were all armed with binoculars and sitting in a hide we got a very good look at them (though my photos look like pictures of rocks). Some of the young ones were darting about in one of the rock pools which was brilliant to watch, as they really come alive in the water and look rather clumsy on land. Another really good tour.

Dunedin doesn't really look like Edinburgh by the way, apart from the odd Gothic church, but it's quite hilly and has the steepest street in the world, where the Magic bus stopped for us to walk up (hard work first thing in the morning!) on the way to Lake Tekapo. On the way we stopped at the Moeraki Boulders, which are perfectly round lumps of rock on Moeraki beach. Very photogenic! I don't believe the dinosaur-egg theory or the Maori story of them being stale bits of bread (how big was that loaf!?). The Tekapo area was very beautiful but bitterly cold so I spent the afternoon curled up in front of the fire reading my book ... Off again early the next morning to Christchurch, where I spent the afternoon at the Arts Centre (the Fudge Kitchen in particular drew me in! thanks for the recommendation, Lyndsey) and the art gallery. Like Bangkok, I liked Christchurch better the second time round, but it was another flying stopover and I left this morning and got to Kaikoura at lunchtime. It's a lovely little coastal town, where whale watching and dolphin swimming are the main tourist attractions, but I'm just going to enjoy the free pursuit of walking about! Once again the weather is playing along so I'm going to make the most of it now. From here I'll be going to Picton, on Sunday or Monday, to stay a night and then get the ferry across to Wellington and check out the North Island.

Wednesday, 6 August 2008

Queenstown, New Zealand

I'm glad to report the Tranzalpine journey was as beautiful as I'd hoped. Even though it rained throughout the journey! It was a great way to get up close to the snow-capped alps and enjoy the scenery as we trundled over huge viaducts. Of course I saw some sheep! as well as cows and deer, which they seem to farm here. The mountainous landscape reminded me of Switzerland and the ferns, birches, rolling hills and winter colours were more like the Scottish countryside. We stopped at a couple of small stations to stretch our legs and occasionally to drop off or pick people up, and our witty driver kindly informed us that "if you climb onto the coal train, you will be shot in the leg". Not sure if he was joking.
In Greymouth I stayed in a nice animal-themed hostel - in the 'Penguin' room! Which was decorated accordingly...quite funny. They had a naughty Golden Retriever puppy called Bez who tired to eat my shoes while I was watching TV, but I got them back relatively intact, if a lot smellier! Greymouth was definitely not very exciting, but interesting to see one of the bigger places on the West coast - everywhere else I saw along the way was similar but on a smaller scale.

In Franz Josef I did the full-day glacier hike, which was brilliant. We started out at 8am with two teams of eleven. I chose to go with the slower group, 'for those who haven't had that second cup of coffee this morning', not so much because I hadn't had coffee but because I wanted to be able to stop for photos. Definitely the right decision! It was still pretty intense walking, but very enjoyable and rewarding. We crawled through ice caves a couple of times, edged our way through narrow crevasses, hopped over cracks in the ice, and used ropes to help us clamber up or down steep steps hacked into sheer walls of ice. Our guide taught us the handy 'Franz Josef shuffle' for this, to stop us from tripping over our own feet (which were encumbered by big boots and clamp-on spikes). People have been hiking on Franz Josef since the 1940's but the equipment has improved a lot... it used to be hobnail boots which the guides drove the nails into the night before people went on the hike. We were very lucky with the weather as we had sunshine all the way up. It rained throughout our 50-minute descent and by the time we got on the bus to go back to the village we were all pretty uncomfortable despite waterproof gear, so I was very glad to get out of it and into the shower that day! All the hostels have been very homey and comfortable so far, with duvets, heaters, hairdryers, and some with open fires in the lounges.
The Magic bus experience has been pretty good until now. Unlike the buses I took in Australia they don't just get you from A to B but stop off along the way at tourist stops (viewpoints, museums, towns). You also get a fair bit of commentary from the drivers, who so far have been male, Kiwi and mad - either secretly (watch out for the quiet normal looking ones!) or obviously (with a blue mohawk...). That one advised us at one point that we should look to our right for the 'annual downhill sheep race', then honked the horn and the poor sheep in the field next to us stampeded down the hill in fright! Apparently he once had a shepherdess on the bus who told him off for it. He argued that he was doing the sheep a favour because now they would have something else to talk about. Instead of just commenting on the quality of the grass they would go, "What the heck was that godawful noise the other week?". Boys will be boys...

I've also stopped off in Wanaka for a night, from where there are great lakeside views of the surrounding mountains. Most people here, as in Queenstown, stay to go snowboarding or skiing at this time of year, and my hostel seemed to be overrun with wealthy snow-seeking Japanese kids! I resisted the snow-activity temptations and went to Puzzleworld with Japanese Katsushi, Australian Maria and Canadian Caroline. We got lost in the maze... it was good fun.

Queenstown is also situated on a lake and close to the alps, but it's a bigger flashier version of Wanaka with lots of restaurants and bars and snow-gear boutiques, and popular with holidaying Australians. Quite upmarket and touristy, but quite nice to wander through and have a hot chocolate. I also went up the gondola and had some good views. Unfortunately I've run out of things to do and when I tried to book my bus to Dunedin this morning I was informed they don't run a service on Fridays! Very annoying as it means I lose a day in another town (probably Auckland) and will be sleeping, reading and drinking hot chocolate tomorrow but I suppose it could be worse! I don't have any more big adventures planned until I get to Waitomo caves in the North Island, where I'd like to go abseiling, but I'm also looking forward to some penguin or whale watching along the way and maybe even dolphin swimming in Kaikoura if I dare to plunge myself into waters that are about 9 degrees Celsius...