Friday, January 29, 2010

New Zealand retrospective

So far away from Europe, yet so familiar - New Zealand tantalises with a beguiling combination of the familiar and the exotic. Blackbirds hopping across lawns vs arctic parrots (keas) tearing your car apart in the snows; driving on the left with all the usual rules except when you're turning left and the car opposite is turning right; finding towns with overly British names like Nelson, Hamilton, Dunedin outnumbered by Maori names like Motueka, Rotorua or Tauranga; crossing landscapes apparently Scottish - until a gaudy jetboat packed with thrill-seekers streaks past on the shallow stream; walking along a familiar track when you realise that the ferns are trees and the water is geothermal.

Now "back" (for me) in Bangkok, I'll have a go at summarising the experience this time. Having previously enjoyed all the variety of New Zealand and its changeability, I had to learn that some people have more selective tastes. Remember first that the islands are located, a little like Britain's, between a sea and a large ocean, only that in New Zealand's case the proportion of water to land is more heavily biased to the wet side. As a result, instead of a static or slow-changing weather pattern, NZ's is volatile and hard to predict much in advance. Secondly, the islands span climatic zones from the modestly temperate to the subtropical (south to north) and from the drenchingly wet to the semi-parched (roughly west to east, although this year it's the Northland's turn to suffer drought). Topographically, it's more mountainous in the south (but not exclusively) and more volcanic in the north.

For the visitor, there's a considerable range of activities on offer, with an emphasis on the outdoors and the edgy, and a similar range of places to stay, from tents and camper vans through backpacker hostels, lodges, motels up to the ridiculously pricy. And price-wise, certainly for us Poms with a weak pound, NZ is certainly rather expensive (apart from fuel) and some charging levels made us speculate whether they could be pricing themselves out of some markets. Many tourist destinations these days seem to dream of focusing on the high-spending short-term visitor, forgetting perhaps that, in a pattern of normal distribution, their numbers are limited. Having said that, the spectre of mass (mainland) Chinese tourism continues to approach and we even met a Beijing-based backpacker, complete with Lonely Planet in Chinese (a new LP venture) at our last stop in Mangawai Heads. [Recommended, incidentally, as an appealing and varied seaside location, close enough to Auckland to make it a jumping-off point for afternoon flight departures]. As we found at Luang Prabang two years ago, the influence of that still-dormant source of travellers is growing and one day could overwhelm certin areas of tourism entirely.

J would say that NZ got better from Hokitika northwards, with her high point being the overnight boat trip ["cruise"] on the Bay of Islands. I enjoyed it all, even the rain (quite dramatic at times) but my high point was also North Island-based - the Tongariro Crossing. We were lucky with the weather from Wanganui onwards, virtually throughout the North Island, in fact, with the best at Hahei (Coromandel Peninsula), Paihia (Bay of Islands) and especially Ahipara and Mangawai, saving the best till last. Reassuringly, things seemed to be deteriorating as we left!

For myself, even after two visits totalling over 10 weeks, with some repetitions, there are still many things still to see and do, including 3/4 day tracks, especially in the South, remoter Southern regions, remoter (or less frequented) Northern regions too. What remained the underlying appeal was the gentler pace of life and people's friendliness, due in part (surely) to absurdly low population density.

In planning an itinerary, I had tried to be comprehensive and cover as large a range of variety and distance as we could. In the event, navigator's preferences took us north earlier and gave us almost exactly 2 weeks in each island. We still covered a lot of miles and eventually settled on a policy of at least two nights in any one place - that way we could balance ranging with unwinding. Having come so far, we would have wasted our opportunity if we had visited only two or three places - I think, anyway - but maybe we tried to do too much. Or maybe not.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

When 15 minutes cost $3 NZ ....

... the blogs get very short.

After 2 nights plus an overnight boat on the Bay of Islands, we had 2 days in Ahipara at the south end of the 90-mile beach. Then, after a scenic drive back via Hokianga and the Waipoua kauri forest we are now hovering close to Auckland (Mangawai Heads) to allow us minimum urban, maximum chill-zone time. Tomorrow, we drop the car near the airport in the afternoon, fly to Melbourne in the evening, onto KL overnight and then J gets the Air Asia flight to Stansted: cheapest way but complex, involving entering Australia and leaving it (in and out of customs/immigration etc) within a brief while: ditto in KL. After all that, I'll have about 9 more days before I have to do the same (from KL, I mean).

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Updating northwards, briefly

The sun's in the north - of course - and so in the last few days of our time here that's the way for us to head. I say "of course" but it's still easy to forget that fact when calculating directions - say, where west is, judging from the sun's position at about 5 p.m. (oh yes, the sun sets in the south-west in summer so ...) - and apparently the early Australians built their houses facing south, out of habit. It was even harder to navigate in Indonesia by the sun: was it to the north (no, not now) or to the south?

From the Eastern Cape we first went west (via Tauranga) then north into the Coromandel Peninsula (see pic from Tairua, taken from the top of a small relic volcano in the harbour mouth) and then through Auckland to the Bay of Islands (see other pics below. The second of the images below is from a nearby town where the public loos were designed by a man (suitably named Hundertswasser) who seems to have been inspired partly by Gaudi, partly by Mondrian perhaps, partly by Klimt, maybe others - but anyway providing a delightfully relieving experience!

Warmer, even more changeable, but some sun to be seen: compare the first two images - on arrival in the Coromandel and the next day . We hope to take an overnight boat trip tomorrow night - kayaks, dolphins, swimming, phosphorescence, fishing are promised: it's a hard life being a genuine tourist!

Monday, January 18, 2010

Ocean kayaking with Perception and Squirt

It was the only sunny day of three when we arrived at a Maori-run backpackers on the Eastern Cape, scenically located on the shoreline in a tiny bay but a touch chaotic in organisation and lay-out. The extended family owned this house and 2,000 acres of foreshore and inland bush. When we arrived we were confronted by a scene of butchery - a pig had been brought in from the hinterland - and similar scenes were enacted each day as the fishing boat returned (launched by the tractor in the centre of the picture) and the catch was cleaned and filleted. The rest of us, non-participants, were the beneficiaries of the surplus, as it was not allowed to be sold. So one night we had what they call crayfish (large rock lobster) and another fillet of Red Snapper.

Our own expedition along the coast (among rocks rather than in the open ocean, I have to admit) was tame by comparison but a small adventure nonetheless. We could have chosen "Escapee" or "Drift" but we found ourselves afloat on "Perception" and "Squirt" (the suitability of the names I'll leave for others to decide) and we navigated through the rocks and down narrow channels, sometimes having to turn back, sometimes unexpectedly finding a North-West Passage through to the next bay. No catch to bring home to be filleted but many eyefuls of small planktonic creatures drifting in the clear apparently viscous waters.

I'll get no sympathy when I report that the rest of the weather was drizzly, rainy and generally miserable. It was, nonetheless - but the small glimpse of a Maori family and a little bit of their life at the interface between their culture and the "pakeha" one was illuminating and made the 3-day stay out on the fringes well worthwhile.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Scotland, Wales, Wye Valley, Kent, Lincolnshire ..

[Symonds Yat, Wye Valley? - no, the Whanganui River Road, North Island]

Scotland, Wales, Wye Valley, Kent, Lincolnshire, Norfolk, rural France, Switzerland. One problem with New Zealand is the temptation to draw parallels to other places because the various landscapes of the two main islands are in turn reminiscent of familiar places in their antipodes. This was not a problem, of course, in Java - nor in Australia.

It can be a disadvantage, as when J's disillusion with Scotland blinds her to the beauty of the Queenstown/Wanaka area of South Island. For the settlers, it was probably reassuring - but also perhaps prompted the wish to populate the New islands with well-loved species from home.
[Symonds Yat - the real thing!]

A perfect day for the crossing

The Tongariro Crossing, that is. The same could not be said for our crossing of the Cook Strait between the islands (see earlier post!)

The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is billed as the best one-day hike in New Zealand - and with good reason. It is "only" 12 miles in length but there is a total climb of 900 metres and a descent of 1150. Within that there is such a variety of scenery: lowland scrub, alpine vegetation, volcanic scorched landscape, steam vents, blue lakes and vistas over great sweeps of North Island, away to Mount Taranaki (NZ's Mount Fiji) to the west and over Lake Taupo to the north-east. And just when you think all that's left is a long trudge downhill to the pick-up, there's a long stretch of native forest and a stream and waterfall to boot. It is listed as 5 1/2 to 8 hours and has various health and safety warnings so I was slightly apprehensive (wouldn't I be?) and set to it with determination. At the steepest parts, I had to rest after every 100 steps - but not for long. The highest point of all, on the top of the Red Crater, was steaming and the ground was hot - just to remind us that there's is still an active volcano under and around us.
And yes, the weather was perfect, perhaps a little breezy - and so often it is far from it. Today was the first hot day since the day after New Year's and we have been basking in it. J had her choice of day too and went white-water rafting - a perfect day for her too. And, sore legs (mine) and sore arms (hers) apart, we are in fine evening form.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Unicycling around the islands

[One of the beaches and coves that are sprinkled along the Abel Tasman Track]

Of all the strangest sights we've seen, a pair of robust folk unicycling through the rain along the Marlborough Sounds was one of the more illustrious. And they weren't just out for an excursion - with packs and all, they are going round New Zealand on holiday, so the papers say. We had reached the enchanted area of the Sounds via the vineyards of the Marlborough region (Sav Blanc, as they term it, their speciality - and we had to sample some (hic!) and buy some (ouch!) - but it was excellent quality! We had a night (alas more rain!) beside the atmospheric waters (cross the Lake District with the Norwegian fjords) in a small backpackers lovingly converted from a historic settler-style villa. J's favourite place so far.

Before that, the sun blessed us for our sample of the Abel Tasman trail. The full walk takes 3-4 days along some beautiful coastline on the north-west corner of South Island, sandy coves and native bush alternating. We had a little cheat, taking a boat along its length and then being dropped to do 3 1/2 hours of the most favoured middle section (and a boat home). Charming - and if the technicalities didn't overwhelm me against the clock on this hostel computer I would post a South-Sea image of blue seas and white sands - with yellow kayaks and red-faced backpackers thrown in. Two days later we repeated the cheat on the Queen Charlotte Track, walking the end bit near the Anakiwa hostel and then exploring a middle slice too, before making it finally to Picton to prepare for todays crossing of Cook Strait.

Allowing a good margin of leeway for checking in paid off unexpectedly: I had managed to book the crossing in the opposite direction, the boat leaving 20 mins after ours, so when the official kindly converted the booking with no fuss I woke up to the fact that we'd only just snuck in under the deadline for the earlier departure. Enough excitement for an early morning you might think, but the "moderate" crossing turned into quite a rough one and various people (no names but not including me) were less than well. But after 3 hours it was over and as we drove up North Island the sky lightened. Arriving in Wanganui, we were more than pleased to see the "historic" (old-style anyway) hostel and to secure a stylish first-floor room with a view out over the river (complete with practising scullers and eights) - and The Sun!

[J and a weka, indigenous species - the weka, that is - an inquisitive flightless bush bird]

Weather forecasts for two days ahead look good for the famous Tongariro Alpine Crossing so that's where we're heading tomorrow!

Friday, January 08, 2010

Moi apres la deluge

[top end of west coast, South Island: Punakaiki]

From people struggling out of snowdrifts or tumbling over on the ice I expect no sympathy - but after sending e-mails entitled "Dodging the drizzle", we were taught the real lesson about what the West Coast can really achieve - in terms of 24-hour rain, sometimes utterly torrential, resulting in broken bridges, flooded roads and widespread chaos. However, the West is more prepared for the rain than Britain is for the snow and so things were soon running again, smoothly if damply.

Before the rain set in, we got our glimpse of Franz Josef glacier, face-on: still impressive even under lowering clouds. After that, we could only nose our way north towards Hokitika and submit to being driven indoors to the shops and other indoor occupations. The town has many ways of occupying punters in the rain (no prizes for guessing why) and the shops selling New Zealand jade (aka greenstone or pounamu) do a good trade. The stuff is a Maori traditional material - they came south from their preferred tribal areas further north to collect it to fashion into weapons, tools, ornaments and jewellery - and they still have some areas of monopoly on it now. Ironically, their specific shop, beautifully arranged with wonderful examples of the craft, was virtually deserted - perhaps the exhibition-like layout, perhaps the prices kept people away.
Today, Friday, we pushed on up to the north coast of South Island, to the Abel Tasman Park area, with plans to walk part of the trail tomorrow. Dare I say that it's sunny, if cool, and that it's forecast to stay fair tomorrow?

Monday, January 04, 2010

Blogging against the clock!

[View up the west coast of South Island, north of Haast]

Lupins, foxgloves, blackbirds, goldfinches, poplars, elderberry bushes - just a few of the very many things the early British settlers brought in to make them feel at home. One thing they didn't have to import (indeed couldn't) was the weather. It must have been reassuring to find that it was quite as unsettled as it is at home - and indeed is quite as much of a talking point. We have certainly had a good range with fronts blowing across and giving us heavy rain and bright sunshine with very little time of each other. We were lucky enough to have the best of weather for the approach to Mount Cook, NZ's highest mountain, which looked spectacular in the brightness. It has also been sunny (amidst the rain) ever since, particularly the second day at Wanaka, the little sister of Queenstown (NZ's extreme sports capital). We did in fact venture down there this afternoon and dropped in on the original bungee jumping site, on an old bridge high over a swift river. For some reason it was the girls not the boys who got a soaking when they plunged down to its surface. [Incidentally, it's not being ageist to say that - very few of the jumpers were over 25, let alone half my age!]

We will be running the gauntlet of the weather from tomorrow as we work our way back up the west coast. We'd been advised to postpone that part as the weather of the last few days was not friendly - but it won't be much better after 6th: only tomorrow is sort-of guaranteed to be fair. So, for my birthday, we've booked a Jetboat (driven by jets of water) up a river from the coast into the interior. After that, it's glaciers and jadestone country but as for the weather, we'll have to take what we get!

[at that point the time on the computer ran out]

Later: The birthday ride on the jet-boat went well, quite exciting without qualifying for adrenaline rush really - and educational too. At $199 for less than 3 hours it still ranked as much better value than $175 for less than 10 seconds for a bungy jump, which we saw but declined (!) in Queenstown. NZ is in danger of pricing itself out of quite a lot of the market - although the exchange rate with the pound doesn't helps us Poms.