New Zealand: South Island

Mt Cook

Mount Cook

December 2003

Fox GLacier

This year's Christmas trip was special. It was my (well, I should use "our" from here on), first trip after marriage and hence, a honemoon. And the destination was New Zealand. An excruciatingly long flight dropped us in the largest city in the South Island, Christchurch. Thanks to there being no jet-lag, we immediately started our sight-seeing. First stop: the Christchurch Cathedral, located at the centre of the city. Built in 1864, it was quite impressive from both inside and the outside. We also climbed the 134 steps to go up the spire to have a look at the city skyline which wasn't very impressive, by the by. We then headed onto the top two tourist traps of the city - the gondola (the rope-way and not the Venetian boat) and the International Antarctic Centre - only the former being worth the effort.

Fox GLacier

Fox Glacier

Christchurch was also the place where our trip ended 21 days later. On the last day (thanks to the storm at Mt. Cook) we had enough time to check out the remaining highlights of the city viz., the Arts Centre, the Canterbury Museum, the art gallery and the Willowbank Wildlife Reserve. The art gallery and the museum, especially its stuffed birds and maori sections, were outstanding. Willowbank wildlife reserve, on the other hand, is more zoo than a reserve, but an excellent place to stop to catch a glimpse of the elusive kiwi - the bird and not the people or the fruit.

Lake Mathesen

Our first real day of vacation started off with a big scare when I found one of my car tyres deflated. Luckily, I was only a few metres from the rental company and was hence able to fix it without much ado. Apart from the minor hiccup, Apex, the car company, was pretty decent otherwise. We were soon on our way to Arthur's Pass National Park, located 2.5 hrs west of Christchurch. We spent the rest of the day doing some day hikes in the park highlights of which include the Devil's Punchbowl falls trail, the pretty Ottira Valley and the Scott's Track.

Lake Mathesen

Lake Mathesen

The next day we drove to west coast and met our biggest adversary of the trip, the weather. New Zealand weather, especially on the west coast, is one of the most fickle on the planet and it rains by the buckets during spring and early summer. A third of what we planned here on was drowned in rain. But the good days more than made up for the bad ones and ensured that we return with an overall pleasant memories from the trip. Our first stopover on the west was the Paparoa National Park, famous for its Pancake rocks and the blowholes. It was pouring when we reached there and all we could manage was to take a quick look at the famed "Pancakes" at the Dolomite Point and walk the Truman Track, the shortest trail in the park. We then slowly made our way to the glaciers stopping en route in couple of off-beaten path attractions, Lake Kaniere and Hokitika Gorge.

Fox and Franz Josef, also referred to as the "glaciers", are two most accessible glaciers in the country. The following day was spent day hiking at the Fox Glacier. However, our glacier walk which although started quite well, ended quite miserably. Fresh rain made our progress very dangerous beyond a point cutting short our day hike. The final hour on the slippery glacier had left such a lasting impression on my wife that we decided to cancel the following day's stint at the Franz Josef and head to the only other activity available in these parts: bird-watch the Kotuku or the White Heron. This rare bird nests in a bird sanctuary in Whataroa (located at about 50 kms from the glaciers) during the southern summer. The trip was fantastic and we were able to see these birds nesting from within 50 yards.

Skippers bridge across the Skippers Canyon
Skippers bridge across the Skippers Canyon

Skippers Bridge across the Skippers Canyon

The next morning, after a pleasant walk around the Lake Matheson, we made an early dash to Queenstown. The weather improved dramatically once we crossed the Haast pass and re-entered the leeward side of the Southern Alps. After a very enjoyable drive beyond the pass, we reached Queenstown in the early afternoon. Queenstown is the adventure capital of New Zealand, home to one of the biggest bungy jumps and fastest river rafting in the world. Given the high aversion level of high adrenaline stuff that I am blessed with, we decided to do the two of the least scary ones available on the menu: a 4 WD adventure to the Skippers Canyon and a jet boating trip across the Shotover river. The Skippers Canyon, carved by the Shotover river, is an old gold mining site. The road to the canyon has been carved out of near vertical cliffs and in sections have extremely dangerous blind curves and sheer drops. The entire route was very scenic with a dramatic view appearing after every precarious turn. Our other adventure, the jet boating trip on the Shotover river, is pretty famous and needs no introduction. The 70 km/hr ride through the narrow canyons and the 360 degree turns were all as advertised - pretty exhilarating.

Tramping ("hiking" for the non-kiwis) is such a popular activity in New Zealand that the government is forced to regulate the trampers on the most sought after tracks. These tracks are designated as "Great Walks" and most of them needs to be booked months in advance to ensure a chance to "walk" them. In return for your troubles, you get to stay in huts, sleep on bunker beds and cook using gas stoves - a much better option to camping in these wet regions. We decided to walk the two most popular walks in the south island - the Routeburn Track and the Milford Track.

Moeraki boulders
Moeraki boulders

Moeraki Boulders

Our first tramp, the tramp on the Routeburn, started off with two damp days where all we did was get drenched during the day and try to dry overselves by the stove during the night. But the third day made up for all the troubles. We had clear skies for the first time on the west coast and it was the day we had kept aside for the highlight, the dramatic Key Summit. The day ended with a scenic drive to the town of Te Anau.

Te Anau, situated on the banks of lake Te Anau, is a small sleepy town where we spent the two nights between our tramps. "Te Anau" means "cave of roaring water" and the cave that gives the place its name is located across the lake in an uninhabited island. The cave is a popular spot for seeing the famous New zealand glow-worms, creepy little creatures that uses bioluminescent light to attract insects. We spent the afternoon visiting the caves. Looking at the 100s of these creatures in a pitch dark cave was absolutely enchanting. You can't be blamed if you inadvertently start looking for the big dipper or the southern cross!

Mt Christina
Mt Christina

Mount Christina

Te Anau is also a good starting point to visit the Doubtful Sound, one of the many sounds that dot the Fjordland National Park in the south west coast. The Doubtful Sound is named so because one Mr. Cook was "doubtful" about venturing into the place as he thought the wind wasn't strong enough to blow his ships back into the sea. A "sound", by the by, is a river valley flooded by the sea while a "fjord" is a glacial valley flooded by the sea. Since all the valleys in these parts were glacial carved, all the "sounds" here are nothing but misnamed "fjords". We were blessed with fine weather for the third day running when we visited the sound. In fact, this day was so perfect that we were able to spot all the "big three" living in the sound - Bottle-Nose Dolphin (the second largest dolphin in the world), Dusky Dolphin (the second smallest dolphin in the world) and the New Zealand Fur Seals (which are infact misnamed sea lions!). The most staggering piece of information, however, is that the region does not have a spec of top soil, the glaciers having carved out all of it. All the thick rain forests are actually growing on moss covered rocks!

The following day we started the Milford track, billed as the "finest walk in the world". We, however, were not able to verify the veracity of the claim as we were paying dearly for enjoying 3 consecutive fine days. What followed was 5 days of incessant drizzle, rain and downpour completely drowning all the possible views on the track and on the cruise that followed it. the mother of all waterfalls, the Sutherland Falls, is seen to be believed. At 580m, it is the tallest falls in the southern hemisphere and its roar can be heard over a mile away.

Bottlenose dolphin
Bottlenose dolphin

Bottlenose Dolphin, Doubtful Sound

Back to the dry east coast, our next adventure was to catch the slow scenic train to the Taieri Gorge. Billed as one of the great train journeys in the world, the Taieri Gorge train takes passengers 58 kms into the pretty gorge cut by the Taieri river, sections of which took years to complete and are considered to be engineering marvels. The following day was spent in visiting the top two tourist attractions of Dunedin, the Royal Albatross Colony and the Larnach Castle. The Albatross Colony is the only mainland breeding ground of the majestic birds. The birds get their "royal" title from their brilliant black and white plumage. The Larnach Castle, the only castle in the southern hemisphere, was built by a business man called Larnach in 1871.

In the afternoon, we drove to Mt. Cook National Park with a noteworthy stop at the Moeraki Boulders, some extraordinary giant hemispherical rocks sitting almost out-of-place on a beach. These boulders were formed by compression and later exposed by erosion by the wind and the water. We reached Mt. Cook late in the afternoon with a storm looming around the corner. In order to maximise the available good time, we completed the trails in the Tasman Valley before nightfall, keeping the Hooker valley (the only other valley walk) for the morning. In the morning we woke up to the now familiar sight of bad weather and completely cloudy skies. After a futile walk attempted towards the Hooker valley outlook, we decided to call it quits and head to Oamaru, the penguin capital of the country.

The city is the home for two types of penguins - the Blue Penguins, which at 30 cms are the smallest of its kind in the world and the much more rarer Yellow-Eyed Penguins. Since these creatures follow different "home-coming" timetables, one can watch both of them in the same evening. The yellow eyed ones return from work about couple of hours before their blue cousins. When viewing the yellow-eyed ones, we also happened to meet Jim, the penguin guide, who has been taking care of these fragile creatures for 22 years. He has an immense knowledge on these birds and it was really amazing to see his enthusiasm and dedication to take care of these creatures after 22 long years during which the numbers of these birds increased from dangerous 15 to an equally perilous 23! The blue penguins, on the other hand, seem to be thriving in these conditions and due to which, their viewing is charged and, hence, is also better managed. We were able to watch about a 100 of them trot back home under a soft artificial night lighting from the comfort of a viewing stadium. We were very pleased to have been able to finally view these pretty creatures at the fag end of the tour. It definitely made up for the disappointment at the Mt. Cook.

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