I have never been a big fan of boats. I get seasick on ferries, I tried kayaking once on the Thames but found it dull and tiring, and I don’t see the appeal of going on one of those big fancy cruises… but white water rafting, as I discovered yesterday, is bloody AWESOME.
I did it with Rangitata Rafts, a bunch of very experienced and fun guys who clearly love their job. Allan, our raft guide, was rather sceptical of us after we navigated the first of the rapids, a Grade 2. Based on his comments, I felt sure we were going to flip when we got to the Grade 5’s – apparently the highest grade a commercial raft is allowed to ride.
Some of the other boats did, and from behind, we watched in horror as one of the rafts ahead of us seemed to be sliding down the river on its side…and then upsidedown… then the same rapids were upon us. Somehow, we pulled it off, and after successfully navigating several Grade 3’s, 4’s and two Grade 5 sets of rapids, we made it down as the only team who didn’t flip over. Achievement!
It was fantastic fun, I never imagined enjoying it as much as I did. And to top it off, we even stopped to do a couple of cliff jumps. One a mere 4 metres high, which I didn’t even flinch at. The second, a considerably higher 10 metre drop… well, this year I’ve bungee jumped, thrown myself out of a plane, but jumping into a river from 10 metres was more nerve wracking than it had any right to be, and it took me a couple of hesitated tries to compose myself enough to leap off. Seems like I haven’t quite conquered that fear of heights yet. I’m not sure I ever will!
Mt Cook is New Zealand’s highest mountain, and rises out of the Southern Alps surrounded by a few of his smaller brothers. Mt Cook village is a small settlement near the base of the mountain, surrounded on all sides by steep peaks. I’m staying here for a few days, along with a few other fellow Stray travellers who also decided to hop off the bus. The first day we went on a 3 hour walk to the Hooker Glacier, which runs down from the base of Mt Cook into a ice-berg filled lake at the bottom. The walk crosses over three big suspended bridges, and is generally very pretty. We kept guessing which mountain was actually Mt Cook because nobody knew. The walk was mostly flat, and stayed at the base of the valley. It was the warm up for what was to come the following day…
So, yesterday. Liv knew of a hike to a hut at the top of a mountain, called Mueller Hut. At 1800 metres up, the view was supposed to be incredible, so we got up nice and early, waved the Stray Bus off and set out. The weather forecast said there was supposed to be rain at some point in the day, but as we walked from the village to the base of the track, there was barely a cloud in the sky. A real hot summer day in the mountains. We reached the track, and it said ‘ß Mueller Hut - 3 hrs.’ We came to some steps. Someone had written ‘1900 steps’ on the bottom of the first one, as a joke.
We began to climb.
We realised it might not be a joke. I wasn’t counting, but after we had climbed to what I guessed to be about 1200 metres, I said to Irene and Liv that we must surely be over halfway. The steps were gruelling. I’ve never come across a steeper staircase, god only knows how they were built. As the sun beat down, we had absolutely no shade the entire way up, and finally we reached a flat plateau with a small pooled lake. I splashed my face, and wondered how on earth the lake could be made of sea water, as it tasted salty. Then I remembered I was a sweaty mess. Ah.
We weren’t at the top, though. Now we were about half way. Cripes.
The next stage of the track did not have any steps; instead it was simply a steep climb up the mountainside, using what seemed like an avalanche path of loose rocks and boulders. I dreaded to imagine coming back down, later. We made it to the magical 1600 metre mark (the DOC lady at the village said this was the height at which the snow starts) and had to clamber up a steep snowy slope about 100 metres high. It felt like climbing George RR Martin’s Wall, frankly. It was worth all of the effort. At the top of the wall of snow, our efforts were rewarded with this magnificent view.
We sat here for about 15 minutes, taking in the sight of bare rock faces and snowy peaks. Now and then, we’d hear thunder, but it wasn’t thunder. We were watching avalanches. Yes, plural. An unmistakable roar would bellow out from across the valley, and we’d all turn to see a stream of powdery snow tumbling down the rocks like a waterfall. I’d never seen an avalanche before the Hooker Valley walk yesterday, but sitting here admiring the view of Mt Cook and everything else, I lost count of how many I saw. I could have stayed there forever, just watching the ridiculous power and beauty of nature.
The hut was a further 20 minute climb across rocks, and up another snowy slope, more gentle than the first. After 4 hours of agonising climbing, we enjoyed a well earned rest at the hut, and a lunch break, then set off once again heading back down the same way we had come up. In total, it took us just 2 hours to get back down, literally twice as fast as coming up. By far the highlight of the trek came when we reached the top of that steep snowy section I mentioned earlier. From the bottom, it looked like an impossible wall of snow. From the top, however… I put on my waterproof trousers, but it still wasn’t raining yet, they would simply make a better sledge than my khaki shorts. I slid down the mountainside screaming. It was amazing. I got a bit of snowburn on my arms from trying to use them as a brake, but it didn’t matter because I JUST SLID DOWN A MOUNTAIN.
The three of us trekked the rest of the way down the rocky path, the endless staircase (much easier going down), and back to the village. In total, the trek took us about 7 hours. The sun never left us all day, and I got rather sunburnt on my left leg, for some reason. I made it to the room and passed out in bed.
I just went for a midnight stroll with some girls on the bus, in search of spotting the rather timid national bird of New Zealand. They are extremely rare. Here, in Oban, a tiny rural village on Stewart Island, we went out to look for a small park where we’d been told you can sometimes spot them.
We grabbed headlamps, and set off. The stars overhead look amazing. It’s a clear night and there is a sea of lights looking down on us. FFollowing signs for a track that we knew was near the park, we walked for about half an hour in the dark, along the streets. It was the wrong way…
Slightly miffed, we turned around and began walking back the way we had come.
Something was moving up ahead…
Everyone fell silent.
We crept closer, and out of the shadows came a round ball of brown fur, bigger than a football, with a long beak…
HOLY CRAP ITS A KIWI. Spotted here in the wild, er, suburbs.
He, or she, waddled along right in front of us sniffing the ground, and looking rather afraid, as if anything might jump out and eat him any moment. We were standing in a line in the middle of the road, as he trundled past, staring at us with a beady little eye reflecting our headlamps, and continued past, down the street and round the corner.
That is the first time I’ve ever seen a kiwi, and it could well be the last. What a brilliant moment. And all because we got lost!
I’m back on the Stray Bus once again, finishing off my tour of the South Island. Right now, as I type this, I am at the furthest most southern point I have ever been in my life (again!). I’m on Stewart Island, a rugged island paradise with only 60 permanent residents I’m told. It is a haven for rare birds, such as Kiwi’s, but on my evening stroll I didn’t see any unfortunately. I did see some parrots though, and was even lucky enough to see some penguins in the harbour on the way back to the hostel. I’ve never been much of a bird person in all honesty… but out here, I found at least some appreciation for them. They are by far the most commonly seen animal you’ll encounter in New Zealand, and there are many different types, but here is where my knowledge becomes pretty useless… on the ferry over here, I saw a big winged bird gliding along above the wake of the boat, and asked the old man next to me who was watching it with binoculars if it was a seagull. He told me it was an albatross. So, I can say I’ve seen an Albatross now, woohoo!
The bus picked me up from Queenstown this morning, and we drove back down along the Southern Scenic Route, but unlike the end of my roadtrip, today has been hot and sunny, so I got to see the area in a whole new way. And we had time to stop at numerous places for photos, including a beach brilliantly called Monkey Island. Didn’t see any rubber chickens though…
This is where Sauraman’s stronghold and great tower of Isengard once stood.
It is actually Paradise valley, near Glenorchy. Isengard was a huge accomplishment of digital effects mixed with stunning real landscapes of New Zealand. The shots you see in the films are usually from a helicopter, but even at ground level, it’s not difficult to imagine the tower looming up against the view.
Wednesday 27th November
I found myself sitting alone on a picnic bench overlooking the Forest of Lothlorian. It was actually Mt Aspiring National Park, near the Routeburn Track, but it also happened to be another beautiful Lord of the Rings filming location. It was my reward for a day of driving from Invercargil to Glenorchy, finishing my journey around the Southern Scenic Route.
I’m staying at Kinloch Lodge, a quiet, cosy place overlooking the northern end of Lake Wakatipu. It’s possibly the nicest location for a hostel in the whole country, just down the road from Paradise. Seriously, there’s a valley here called Paradise, and I can see why. It happens to be the location of another famous spot from the movies: the evil wizard Sauraman’s stronghold of Isengard was digitally planted into the scenery here after many painstaking hours of work by Weta’s special effects geniuses. The place is quite recognisable, even without the monstrous tower rising up out of the farmland.
I like this place so much, I have decided to stay an extra night. But my time with the car is all but over. My little Nissan thingamy is now utterly covered in dust from all the gravel roads I’ve subjected it to against its will. It’s served me well, as a way of getting to some of the places that even buses do not go. The South Island is truly one of the most spectacular places to drive that I have ever seen. After months of bussing about, staring out the windows longing to have a go at the glorious roads for myself, I can safely say that itch has now been scratched.
Tuesday 26th November
Today I saw Niagara Falls and stood upon the edge of the world.
Well, the edge of the South Island. Niagara Falls is actually barely a stream with some tiny rapids, humourously named by some bloke who passed through the region many years ago. And Slope Point is the farthest south you can go on mainland New Zealand (Stewart Island is the actual furthest). I only decided to go there because when I looked at the map, I noticed that the land there jutted out a little bit more than Bluff, even though it’s Bluff that gets all the credit. Out here, you might hear the phrase “From Cape Reinga to Bluff” meaning from one end of the country to the other, like you might hear “From John O’Groats to Lands End” in England.
I cruised along the coastal roads of The Catlins for most of the afternoon, enjoying the views of cliffs, beaches and forests. I parked up on top of a headland for a break, and while I was reading my kindle, a seagull came and landed on the bonnet of my car and stood there watching me through the glass.
I made it to Bluff in the late afternoon and drove down to the very end of Highway 1, where it came to a… carpark. And a cliff. Beyond, Stewart Island loomed in the hazy sun – unless I can visit it with the Stray Bus next week, its safe to say that today is the furthest south I will ever likely go in my life. Unless I make it to Antarctica one day.
After Bluff, it was a short drive back along the highway to Invercargil, a medium sized city which I was pleased to discover has a Hells Pizza like the one in Queenstown, and a cinema. I just got back from watching Thor 2, which was mildly entertaining. Not a patch on the first one, which was much more understated (a rare thing for the Marvel movies). Tomorrow is my penultimate day with the car…
Monday 25th November
It’s been a more chilled day of driving today, since I made the last minute decision to goto The Catlins today, which is just a few hours’ drive south of Dunedin. I passed on visiting the Cadbury’s chocolate factory because several people had told me it wasn’t worth the price, and since I’ve been to the one in England already, I decided to save the money. I did pay a visit to Baldwin Street, which holds the Guiness World Record for being the steepest street in the world. It really is steep. The pavement on one side is actually a staircase, and there’s a bench and a drinking fountain at the top. The road is used for an annual race called the Baldwin Gutbuster, where people raise money for charity, and Cadbury’s have recently started doing an event which involves rolling thousands of chocolate balls down the road. I wish I was there for that. Photos never portray ‘steepness’ very well, but here’s a picture anyway.
I continued my drive along Highway 1, until I reached the Southern Scenic Route, which took me deep into the southern reaches of the southern South Island in the south. It started to feel like I was heading towards the very bottom of the world. I discovered a few beaches, and rocky cliff roads leading to views of the endless Pacific Ocean. Kaka Point is a nice little beach village, and I walked along a small trail to the lighthouse at Nugget Point. The rugged, rocky headland was home to a few sealions who were playing in the rock pools below. The overcast sky gave much of the area a sense of dreariness, but I can imagine it all being quite lovely in the sunshine. The Catlins reminds me of the hills around Oxfordshire, with a touch of Cornish coast thrown in for good measure.
A sign to ‘Cannibal Bay’ enticed me down a back country gravel road, and though the bay itself was not as exciting as it sounded, at least I wasn’t eaten. The road went on for miles and miles, winding its way through rolling green hills of sheep and cows. I still can’t get over how much SPACE there is in New Zealand. I drove for over 20km down this road and didn’t see another human being.
I’m spending the afternoon working on my novel in the comfort of this YHA Hostel, which I apparently have to myself – there’s no other guests tonight! I discovered a familiar brand of biscuits in the supermarket the other day and am now sitting in an armchair eating Huntley and Palmers crackers while writing. It says on the back of the box that they were established in “a small English village way back in 1822.” That small village happens to be Reading, my home town, on the other side of the planet. It really is a small world, these days.
I’m kinda over getting told to throw my hands up in the air. So there.