1. Christchurch or 101 Uses for Shipping Containers
It’s easy to see why southern New Zealand has always proven a Mecca for Scottish emigres. It’s mid summer, it’s cold (14C) and it’s raining! Must have felt like a home from home. It also has some superb scenery, but more of that later.
We had planned a couple of nights in Christchurch and then a couple of nights nearby at Akaroa on the Banks Peninsula, in order to recover from jet lag and and the stresses of packing. This was the area that was most hard hit by the earthquake of 5 years ago. Most of the commercial centre of Christchurch was severely damaged. Reconstruction is well underway and much still needs to be done, but ingenuity has come to the fore. ReStart is the name given to an interim shopping complex that occupies part of the old main shopping centre. It is constructed out of shipping containers just like you see travelling up and down the motorways! Here you find normal shops, fashion boutiques, cafes, a post office and bank branches complete with ATMs cut into the walls of the container. There are also funky art works and street musicians all adding to the atmosphere. Next door are new shops and arcades being built, and next to them closed older shops boarded up and with visible cracks running up them.
One of the most impressive new buildings is the Transitional Cathedral. The old cathedral was badly damaged by the quake and stands surrounded by barriers looking forlorn and sad with walls and towers gone or badly damaged. The Transitional Cathedral is better known as the Cardboard Cathedral and has as its base (guess what?) shipping containers but everything above them and almost everything structural within is made from cardboard tubes from a few inches in diameter and 3 or 6 foot long for dividing walls to giant tubes that create the roof of 18 inches in diameter and 15 foot long. It could be awful but in fact it has created a wonderful space, light and airy but also intimate and warm. A truly spiritual place.
Elsewhere in the city the surviving walls of old buildings were supported by tall walls of shipping containers. Great steel rods bolting them together pending redevelopment.
Necessity has definitely been the mother of invention here. Although rebuilding has gone on apace, most still remains to be done. Much of the city centre is a demolition site. Road overpasses are restricted (by number of lanes or weight) due to damage, many roads are being resurfaced or mended and many more remain to be done, and that is within the city. We had planned to take a high level scenic route to Akaroa but the high level roads were still closed due to damage, and this is after 5 years have passed. What it must have been like at the time is hard to imagine.
We left Christchurch for the nearby peninsular and at once we were into the countryside. Akaroa is another world. It had a significant number of French settlers at the beginning and markets this fact hard. It sits near the head of a long (about 10 miles) inlet from the ocean, consequently the sea is calm and ideal for all water sports. However although it is near to Christchurch it is not all that easy to get to but near enough to be a haven of second homes and holiday lets. For us it meant that we could get our boots on and get some exercise walking on the hillsides around the town.
Unfortunately it has been found by the cruise liners. Out of season it has a population of less than 1,000. On a day in season when a couple of large cruise ships are in town then the daytime population can exceed 10,000, although 6,000 will leave by teatime to return to their ships.
2. Mount Cook and why Blue Lakes are Green
We left the coast with the clouds still low on the hills. We drove through Christchurch and picked up the scenic inland route south west. We climbed through green valleys with tall trees and high hills on roads largely empty. We didn’t see much of the hills but occasionally the clouds parted and the views opened up only for them to close in and it start to drizzle. The scenery (and weather) reminded me very much of driving up the A9 in Perthshire.
After a long while we climbed a long rise under lowering skies to crest the hill and everything changed. All of a sudden the sky was crystal clear blue. In front of us lay a wide valley and to the right a gigantic lake of azure blue disappeared off into the far distance. This was Lake Tekapo and our destination for the next two nights was the town of the same name on its southern shores. This area has its own climate. Bounded to the east and west by ranges of very high hills it rarely rains here. The skies are so clear that to the west of the town at the top of a small hill is an observatory with telescopes to scan the night skies.
Lake Tekapo was a chance find. It was the nearest place I could find accommodation to Mount Cook (Aoraki), it was still over 60 miles away and even here the only place available was a 5 bed roomed house which the two of us rattled around in. But the location is stunning. We drove up to the observatory and scanned a horizon of snow capped peaks, of clouds pouring like waterfalls through the passes, and of the massive lake glinting in the sunshine.
The following day we set off through the hills and once again our breath was taken away when cresting a rise there lay before us another massive lake – Lake Pukaki, with on the far shore Mount Cook standing out in the morning sunshine and reflected in the azure waters.
It was another hour and 40 miles of driving around the lake margins before we got to the town of Mount Cook. Here we parked up and walked into the valley of the Hooker Glacier.
We climbed up and over small hills of moraine, crossing and recrossing the river on long suspension bridges.
We finally arriving at the glacial lake. Here the water was milky white from all the glacial dust in it, and ice bergs recently calved off the glacier floated by. At the far end of the lake was the dirty mud and dust filled glacier with towering above it the white peak of Mount Cook.
Above us on the hillsides clung smaller glaciers their melt-water streams pouring in long cascades down the near vertical cliffs. After lunch we climbed up a hill behind the town to get a better view of some of the other mountains and their glacier covered peaks.
In the late afternoon we drove up the valley of the Tasmin to see the Tasmin glacier and its terminal lake. From the carpark we climbed up over 300 steps to the top of a terminal moraine. In front of us lay another milky lake dotted with icebergs. At its far end was the mighty Tasmin glacier and above it the craggy and glacier covered slopes of Mounts Cook and Tasmin both towering over 11,000 feet. Another truly awe inspiring view.
But all is not well here. On the way up the moraine we passed the “Blue Lakes”. When they were named the milky waters of the glacier filtered down through the moraine to fill these lakes colouring them blue because of the very fine dust still held within the water. However since then the glaciers, because of global climate change, have started to retreat. Instead of the glaciers ending at the terminal moraine they now stop several kilometres short at the other end of the lake. In the last 15 years the glacier has shrunk by over 500 meters on average every year. It now ends over 6 miles short of the terminal moraine. Consequently the “Blue Lakes” are not replenished by glacial melt waters but by rain water, and rain water lakes will support algae that are green. So in living memory the blue lakes have become green!
Soon now we are off to Queenstown and some serious walking.
3. Milford Track
The Milford Track is a world famous hike. We decided to do it the easy way staying in lovely lodges with hot water showers, comfortable beds and meals cooked for us every day, and a bar! Having said that it was still four days of walking carrying our own luggage, water and lunches. On the first day we set sail from Te Anau Downs on a breezy afternoon with the clouds scurrying across the sky to land at the north end of Lake Te Anau and a short walk to our first lodge.
On the third day we crested the spectacular MacKinnon Pass. The sun shone and white clouds made the surrounding peaks play hide and seek. The hill dropped steeply on both sides into deep U shaped valleys with crystal clear streams.
The ice field on the mountain behind us in the photo avalanched a few minutes later. We were in no danger but it looked and sounded impressive.
These lovely falls we passed on day 3 of our walk on the Milford Trek. Although they are quite large they are not named. The reason the title is Renna Falls is because it was close to this spot that Renna did fall and badly cut and bruised a finger. As a direct consequence she was unable to do the daily clothes wash so I had to do it. The things some people will do to get out of work!
We walked from south to north, two of the original surveyors of the route; Sutherland and Mackay, started at the north and headed south and after passing many small waterfalls and a wonderful long and boisterous cascade (see photo above) they came upon these falls. Apparently they argued as to who should have the honour of having the falls named after them. Finally it was agreed on the toss of a coin with the looser getting the next falls named after them (if they found another one of note). Well the winner was Mackay.
But although Mackay won the toss he lost the game because soon after they came across another waterfall and Sutherland Falls is just out of the world.
These are the highest falls south of the equator and the fifth highest in the world at 580m (that is just short of 2,000 feet!). But it is not just their height that impresses you. To reach them is a 2km (over 1 mile) walk uphill off the Milford Track through the trees. You come out of the trees into an open space with just the falls crashing down a few feet from you. There is no car park, there are no gift shops or ice cream vans, no tea shops, no viewpoints, no ticket booths, no barriers, and nobody else.
There is just you, the wilderness and one of the greatest wonders in the world to enjoy.
You find yourself wrapped in the spray, the noise and the beauty.
Difficult to get to but definitely worth it.
On the forth day we ended the walk with a boat from Sandfly Point to Milford Haven.
A lot has been said about the Milford Track but it is a wonderful walk. True the path is well made and well graded and not a rough scramble over the rocks. True the lodges do give a high degree of comfort, but it is still a long walk with significant height gain and loss. It is not that easy, but it is a wonderful walk and a wonderful way to spend 4 days.
4. Milford Sound
After our four days of exertion walking the Milford Track we had a day of leisure. In the morning we had a cruise up and down Milford Sound. This area is part of the N.Z. Fiordland National Park and is renown for enduring up to 9m (30ft or 360+inches) of rain each year. That is 1 inch a day on average! You have to expect it to rain (it does 2 days out of every 3). But our luck was in and the weather was superb.
On either side the mountains rose up steeply. Snow still lay on the tops of the highest peaks even though this is high summer. Because of the regular rain the waterfalls looked wonderful. Many of them fell directly into the water of the Sound and the cruise ships like to give their passengers a close view.
As the mountain wall continues to fall vertically downwards beneath the water line they can come up to within inches of the rock face allowing the waterfall to crash onto the deck soaking those eager for a close look.
5. The Routeburn Track
Fans of the films of Lord of the Rings will already know that much of the magical landscape in the films was filmed in New Zealand, from the village of Hobbiton (more of that later) to the Misty Mountains, Lothlorien and Isengard. Over three days of some hard walking the Routeburn Track took us through some of that glorious country. We started it as soon as we had finished the Milford track but although nearby it is a completely different walk.
We climbed up through enchanted forests with lichen clinging thickly to boughs, branches and stones whilst waterfalls formed a curtain of sparkling droplets.
We walked through “Misty Mountains” as the clouds billowed and swirled around the peaks and clung to forests and hilltops.
Above the tree line the path clung to hillsides that fell precipitously away beneath our feet, whilst affording views to take your breath away.
Crystal clear rivers crashed and tumbled on their way downhill often pausing to form pools for elves to play in surrounded by great boulders and trees washed down in the floods.
Finally we came to “Paradise”.
Seriously that is the name of the valley where Isengard was created. The mountains rise up as walls around you, the river runs rapidly over the stones at your feet, the green meadows stretch away from you. Truly “Paradise” on earth.
6. Not the Franz Josef Glacier!
This newsletter should have been about the great west coast glaciers: Fox and Franz Josef, however some of you may have heard about the rain which hit the west coast of NZ. On the coast most places got at least 100mm (4″) whilst in the hills totals of over 400mm even 500+mm (16″ to 20″) were recorded. Consequently the paths to the glaciers were closed because of flooding, the helicopters and plane flights were grounded, and all you could see from the road was the rain falling steadily down! It wasn’t all bad as the rains turned the rivers into raging torrents that seathed and roared their way downhill. However with a shortage of photos to share of glaciers this update will focus on something else.
Our first day in Christchurch and the punt on the river Avon moved slowly through the ducks. Suddenly I realised that the ducks swimming on the river were Mallards and there were dozens more on the grassy bank next to Sparrows! Over there a couple of Blackbirds were squabbling whilst under the tree nearby was a Song Thrush hunting for worms, and in the trees around Chaffinches flitted. This was my first surprising introduction to the fact that introduced species have taken over NZ wildlife.
When Capitan Cook first came here he reported that the birdsong could be heard loudly over a mile out to sea. Not any more!
Before the Europeans came NZ had no real top predator, no lion, or wolf, or bear. Consequently most birds nested on the ground and were flightless. They did not have well developed defence mechanisms against a predator. The Europeans changed all that. Firstly they imported sheep and cattle and to feed them they cleared the local bushes and trees, then they sowed grass and thus destroyed vast areas of the local eco-system. The food and habitat the local wildlife depended upon was massively reduced. Then they imported birds and trees that reminded them of the old country, hence those sparrows etc in Christchurch. But these imported birds only came to dominance because of the predators that were also imported. Accidentally came the rat. Some cats became feral (along with goats and pigs). But the major issue came when rabbits were introduced for food and hunting. They soon became a menace, so stoats and possums were imported and released to control the rabbits. However they soon found that chasing rabbits was hard work compared to just eating the eggs and chicks of ground nesting birds. They have been highly successful and are now a significant problem over all the country. They have eaten millions of local birds and resulted in the extinction of some. Some (including the Kiwi) have been rescued from the brink by significant intervention programs run by the government and conservation bodies. Possums are now so common that they are the number 1 animal killed on NZ roads, hence the description of them being “speed-bumps”. You see their bodies frequently on and on the verges of all roads.
An American couple we met on the Milford Track had done it 15 years ago. They said that the first time they never heard, let alone saw, a native bird, this time they were amazed by the difference. Not only could you hear the Bellbirds and others calling from the trees but Fantails would land on a branch inches from your face and scold you for entering their territory. Robins (very similar in attitude to ours but with a white not a red breast) would come to greet you and fly down to disturbed soil around you boots to inspect it and your boots for seeds. Weka (a black flightless bird the size of a small chicken) walked off the track a few feet in front of you or on one occasion came up and pecked at my walking poles to see if they were edible.
This unafraid attitude of the birds was how it would have been for the first settlers except even more so, and not just in National Parks but everywhere. How has this been achieved?
As we walked the trails within the National Park we came across traps set on the ground for stoats every hundred yards or so and different traps attached to the trees for possums. This intensive trapping has obviously had an effect upon their numbers and thus their predation within the parks. So bird numbers are slowly recovering. But outside of the parks such birds are still rarely seen or heard.
Another introduced animal that has also been extremely successful due to it having no predator, is the Red Deer. Introduced in the early 20th century they had become a plague by the 1950s. In the 1960s many were trapped and became the basis for a large farmed deer population. However the wild population continues to grow. We met with a man in Te Anau who told us that that morning the helicopters had been out into Fiordland and had shot 127 deer for an order from Germany. However even shooting on this scale is not halting the growth in deer numbers. In a cafe/bar in Haast there were over 60 heads of antlers just hanging from the rafter beams, they are nearly worthless here. They have however found a use for the possums, apparently there fur is extremely soft and warm so they blend it with merino wool and/or silk to make some luxurious feeling knitwear with a price comparable to cashmere.
So the future is looking better for NZ native wildlife although not so rosy if you are a possum!
7. Queen Charlotte Track
Our time on the South Island is drawing to a close but before we leave there is time for one last long walk through the bush. The town of Picton lies just a few miles north of Blenheim at the head of the Queen Charlotte Sound. It fronts onto the water whilst girdled around by tree covered hills. Other than its location it has little to offer but it is the base from which to undertake the Queen Charlotte Trek. (It can also be done on a bike if you are suicidal! The path is steep, rough and exposed in places and I would never do it on a bike).
The trek is four days in length and follows the ridge line of part of a range of hills that form one side of the sound. Views are stunning. It also includes some NZ ancient history as you start at Ship Cove, the place of Capt. Cook’s first landfall in NZ, and a safe harbour he returned to on his next 2 visits.
So one sunny morning we met at the quay and boarded one of the regular ferries that service the remote communities and properties that are located around the shores of the sound. An hour and a half later, after watching gannets fish, penguins immediately dive out of sight and dolphins play around our boat we made it to Ship Cove and the start of the trek.
The start of the path did not fill us with joy. It went up at a ridiculous angle and was also slippery. It also seemed to go on up forever, however when it finally evened off the views of the sound started opening up. The sound looked lovely in the morning sunlight, craggy headlands covered in native bush falling into the blue waters. The land is so indented that around every corner there is a view to another bay, wrapped by hills, ensuring a safe anchorage.
Our accommodation the first two nights was in a large chalet set up high on a hillside with a double width balcony to soak up the view and to watch the sailing boats come in to the safe anchorage below. Furthermore the restaurant was further up the hill and the views from its balcony were even more extensive and provided a wonderful place to dine as you watched the sun sink below the hills.
After the first two days in glorious sunshine, the third day dawned cloudy and dull and the path became rather more strenuous and longer, but the views continued not to disappoint as we were now walking along the ridge and so got views down to the two sounds on both sides of the ridge and the sun soon came out to drive away the clouds. After a tough day we descended down to another resort hotel this time centred around a little bay. The views may not have been as startling as the previous night but the view of the sun setting down the sound was truly memorable.
The fourth and last day saw us continuing our walk through the bush enjoying the views, but as we were nearer Picton and a road there were more houses and holiday homes clinging to the cliffs and ringing the bays. Finally arriving at the end we sat in the sun and awaited the ferry to take us back to Picton, happy at having spent four glorious days but sad that they had now come to an end.
8. A Whale Of A Time
Our boat crashed into the wall of water sending white spray flying overhead before she rose skywards through the water only to fall into the next oncoming wave. Around me peoples’ faces were green. Was this a good idea?
Before we left the South Island there was one last thing we wanted to do, see a whale!
We drove down the coast to Kaikoura, a town set along a spit of land jutting out into the sea with mountains over 5,000ft towering behind it. It is world famous as it has a deep ocean trench lying just a few miles offshore that is a regular feeding spot for Sperm Whales. There is no guarantee of seeing them just a good likelyhood.
The day we got there we walked along the bay to the pier at the end and stopped to watch Dolphins perform acrobatic jumps out in the bay. With such a good start we were hopeful for what the morrow might bring.
A fresh morning with sunshine but a reasonable offshore breeze. This meant that it was flat calm as we left the harbour but that soon changed and our catamaran was soon riding the crests and ploughing the depths of long rolling seas. Hence the green faces! As we made our way out we passed a number of Albatroses, some looking at us with an affronted look from the sea whilst others glided by just over the tops of the waves on 3 meter long wings (10ft).
After 30 minutes of powering through the waves we came across two other catamarans from earlier departures. We now just had to wait and hope. Sperm Whales dive to great depths to feed, coming to the surface every hour, or 90 minutes, to breath. They stay on the surface for about 5 to 10 minutes to regain their breath and then they dive again and do not surface for another hour.
We were in luck! Within a few minutes the cry went up. They had spotted a whale blowing nearby. The “blow” is created when the whale exhales through the blowhole on the top of its back when there is still water above it. At such times the water is sprayed several meters into the air.
We stayed close by watching this giant slowly breathing and gathering its breath.
Suddenly the captains voice on the tannoy announced ” he is about to dive” and then he took one last deep breath, turned his head down and lifted his massive tail out of the water.
The wave of his tail would have been an appropriate end to our stay on the South Island, but the trip was not yet over as we returned nearer to the coastline to encounter hundreds of dolphins cavorting in the water. They raced alongside the boat, cut across right in front of the bows, or just ignored us and got on with leaping out of the water, often rolling over to land back in the water upside down, occasionally performing great leaps clear out of the water and turning full somersaults before crashing back down.
We could not get enough but sadly the time had flown by and we had to return to shore, and all too soon to leave the South Island.
9. An Apology
I have received some critical responses to my newsletters to the effect that, unlike on our walk to Santiago, on this trip I am depriving Renna of regular glasses of the local fermented grape juice. I must put a stop to this malicious rumour once and for all and state that we have both sampled a good range of the local produce and done our best to support local growers.
Time pressures are such that we have only been able to visit a few growers, The Wooing Tree on the outskirts of Cromwell (Central Otago), Hawesbury Estates at Wanaka, Vidal in Hastings (Hawkes Bay) and The Bridge (Gisbourne) but we can assure readers that they produce a good range of wines that justify many of the awards they have achieved.
We have been also hard at work regularly sampling other wines either at restaurants or sourced from local retail outlets or bars. In many cases we tried to drink wines made locally to where we were.
In the mountains of the South Island in Central Otago vineyards fill the bottom of small valleys or cling to the lower slopes, around bigger towns such as Cromwell they expand to fill larger areas but these are still relatively small operations usually family run where tastings of their wines, predominantly Pinot Noir and some Pinot Gris, are offered at the door. We walked to this one outside Cromwell.
Near the town of Wanaka we visited the vineyard of Hawkesbury Estates, producers of Akitu wines from Pinot Noir grapes. We had met the owner, Andrew Donaldson, at the NZ wine tasting we had attended in London 2 days before we flew out. We had been impressed with his Pinot Noir (they only make 2 wines) and he suggested dropping in on the vineyard (the highest in the Clutha Valley) where we would meet his brother. So after driving some distance down untarmaced roads we came to the vineyard, the only one in the vicinity, it clung to the lower northward facing slopes of a small hill and there we spent an interesting half hour chatting about the difficulties and successes of growing Pinot Noir in such a place.
In Marlborough and Hawkes Bay the operations were on a much larger scale than the family run businesses of Otago. Here they either didn’t do tastings for casual visitors or they offered an excellent tutored tasting often associated with an equally excellent restaurant such as we enjoyed at Vidal.
We spent so much time at Vidal (we tasted 14 different wines, plus a bottle with our lunch over a 3hour period!) that we never got to Esk Valley, or The Mission, but we still managed to try some of their wines.
10. Red Rocks & Green Lakes
They called this bit up into the Red Crater “the Devil’s Staircase”. To our right loomed the red rimmed crater of mount Ngauruhoe. Around us lay the debris of a recent eruption and the cinder like rocks crunched underfoot. Each step was a struggle to raise one foot, plant it and then to lift your body up the steep slope and then to do it again and again. This was going to be a long hard day.
We were attempting the Tongariro Crossing a day walk through the Tongariro National Park. The NP consists of three dormant volcanoes (the last eruption was mount Ruapehu 20 years ago) and the moonscape that surrounds them. One of them, mount Ngauruhoe is a near perfect cone and was used as Mount Doom in the Lord of the Rings films. Mount Ruapehu has a ski resort on it, and there was still snow in its high valleys, whilst mount Tongariro just sits and looms over the southern end of Lake Taupo belching steam from various fumeroles around its slopes.
It was an early start, we set off at 6:45 to get to the carpark at the end of the walk to catch a shuttle bus to the start. This was the first day that week that the walk was open, the walk is often closed due to low clouds or high winds and the weather forecast for the next few days was suggesting that this would be the last day for sometime before it was open again. Consequently everyone who was in the area wanting to do the Crossing was there with us. A long line of similarly sweating and straining walkers ranged ahead and behind us. You cannot do this walk and be alone it is just too famous and rightly so. For us the weather could not have been better. Clear skies and no wind gave us an experience to remember.
We took in the optional additional walk up to the top of mount Tongariro and the views were stunning. Because of this we walked a total of over 14 miles, climbed over 3,000 feet and descended over 4,000 feet. It was a long hard day.
Virtually nothing grows on the higher slopes and in the craters. Around you spreads the rocks and dust of numerous eruptions stained multiple colours depending upon their mineral content. A rainbow of desolation everywhere we looked.
Coming down a scree slope of clinker we had on our right a blasted crater all burnt red and black. Beneath us lay steaming lakes of emerald green. Around us the rocks were hot to the touch and gently steamed! It was like a scene from the earth’s creation. No wonder that not only was mount Doom filmed here but also several other scenes as they approached the mountain were also filmed here.
11. Hubble Bubble 1
As I drove into town the bushes to my right emitted a vast cloud of steam. From the road drain to my left vapour crawled across the road. The air had a tangible taste of bad eggs. Where were we? Rotorua!
This and more was normal.
As we entered the town a public park to our right had areas fenced off from which clouds of steam were appearing. Later we found these areas to contains pools of simmering water, or bubbling mud holes, or just piles of rocks from which steam gentle arose. The lake to the north of town had a vast corner in which nothing grew because of the volcanic activity there and along its shore ran steaming streams from boiling pools.
But although these things were viewable within the town the biggest and best lay just out of town.
We visited the Maori village of Whakarewarewa and after the cultural show we were guided around the village, passed people’s homes, garages and sheds, whilst steam erupted from rocks, boiling water ran over the stones to fill their outdoor communal baths, and passed their dinners being steamed in one of the many vents. Off to one side we watched the geysers blast boiling water far into the air.
12. Hubble Bubble 2
This has always been a volcanically active area but it became even more of a hotspot when in 1886 the local mountain split open and in the rift formed 27 separate volcanoes. After the eruptions had finished the area continued activity on an occasional basis. We visited Waimangu which is at the end of that original rift. Here are 3 of the old volcanic craters now filled with water. We walked down the valley through low bush as it had all grown up since the last eruption. A crater to the right was filled with green water and looked almost normal.
The next to our left was surrounded by steaming puddles, coloured bands of rocks, overlooked by rocks emitting steam, whilst the waters of the lake writhed and heaved as bubbles rose and broke its surface.
Out of it ran a steaming stream that ran downhill passed yet more steaming rocks and coloured deposits.
Off to one side was a third crater lake named The Inferno!. This was the most active, it’s blue surface writhing and heaving, the rocks surrounding it bleached white by the water that has a ph of 2.8 (very acidic) and a temperature that varies from 35C to 75C.
Downstream the path meandered passed raised terraces of coloured stone deposited by streams. Steam rose from rocks and hillsides. It may be some years since the last eruption but the threat is just beneath our feet.