The Island Of Superlatives

When we decided to come to New Zealand, we all knew it was going to be stunning but this is ludicrous.

One of the highlights of our trip so far was walking on a glacier near the south west of the South Island. The more southerly of the two is the Fox Glacier and we were taken on a guided walk from a valley near the base of the ice, up the side of the mountain and then up onto the ice by a humourless but informative Kiwi called Alice. Donning our crampons after the steep climb to the side of the glacier, we crunched up the steps that had been made by the guides that operate tours all day and were taken up for a general look around. The ice is really blue and there are interesting crevasses and several moulins where the water carves out deep wells in the ice and makes some superb noises and shapes underneath.

It was quite tiring, tramping up and down the glacier and the excellent pizza we had that night in the local town along with a few beers went down extremely well.

Our plan was to head towards Milford Sound, stopping at a couple of places on the way. We picked up some provisions in Wanaka, being directed to a local butcher by a very helpful elderly gentleman who, having discovered that we were from London, informed us that he had been to London! He stayed “near the museum” apparently. We tried to help him narrow it down for us but that was as specific as he was willing to get. You know the place – near the museum.

We found another beautiful spot to stay, next to Lake Wanaka, and sat by the side of the water, chilling a bottle of wine in the lake and chatting. Another superb dinner (food has been an integral part of this part of the trip, as it always is when us four get together, but more on that later), some more cards and booze and next morning we set off towards Queenstown.

We drove through the Kiwi capital of adrenalin, ignoring the myriad of hair-raising activities on offer, and parked up ready for an (according to the book) ‘easy’ walk up to Ben Lomond summit. Ubiquitous tuna sandwiches consumed, we began to climb the hill – it was pretty steep but a really nice walk, until we met a couple of lads coming down from the top, who told us that it was a good 3 hours to the top from where we were and we’d already walked for more than an hour! Abandoning our original lofty aspirations, we plodded on up to the cable car station, took in the views and took the easy way down. Maybe another time eh?

Milford Sound is not that far south-west of Queenstown but, due to the enormous mountains that obstinately stand in the way, the only road starts out east and goes round the long way via Te Anau. We did it all in a day, the last hour or so being the most amazing but in truth the whole journey was pretty spectacular. After Annika took over the driving, near the Mirror Lakes, the road wound around the mountains revealing views which were quite indescribable. In order to get down from the mountain to the Sound a crude, steep tunnel had been dug and Annika enjoyed driving through this almost as much as she enjoyed trying to work out who had right of way over all the one-way bridges we encountered – two of which came, confusingly, in quick succession.

Once at the bottom, we opted for a cruise of the Sound which turned out to be a good choice as there were very few people on the boat, giving us some good viewing and freedom – even if it was quite windy by that time and Annika, Adele and Damon had to spend at least some of the trip trying to avoid ‘Chatty Man’ who had previously accosted me to tell me all about himself before moving on to each of the other passengers in turn.

The two hour tour up the Sound to the Tasman Sea and back with great views of Mitre Peak and huge waterfalls was topped off with some good close-up views of some resting seals on the appropriately named ‘Seal Rock’.

After staying next to another stunning lake – Lake Gunn – and some superb sausages, we picked another walk from the book Damon had bought and tried another ‘easy’ one, up to Key Summit. This time it really was easy and finished up with me virtually running to the top as some sort of effort to challenge myself and maybe work off some of the pies, superb dinners, wine and cheese that we have consumed here. The views of Lake Marian from the top were, as we are becoming accustomed to here, superb and we stopped and took them in before returning to the vans for the mammoth trip back past Queenstown to our camp site for the night in Arrowtown.

New Zealand creates an awful lot of wine. We drink an awful lot of wine. These things combined the next day as we visited the first of several wineries in Central Otago, one of the South Island’s largest areas of wine production. Our first stop, however, was a quick chance to view idiots jumping off a bridge over a turquoise river in a ravine. I leapt out of an aeroplane strapped to another man in the North Island to impress a girl 10 years ago and it was the most terrifying, unrewarding and ultimately pointless (the girl was lost) thing I have ever done so why anyone would actually PAY to be allowed to partake in an activity such as this is totally beyond me. Having seen one macho fool waste his time and money, we drove down the road to something which is much more my kind of extreme sport – cheese!

Gibbson Winery is a vineyard which also makes its own cheese and, since all four of us are partial to the odd kilo of fromage after dinner (or indeed, at any juncture of the day), we popped in to sample and buy some stocks.

Levels of cheesey comestibles suitably improved, we wandered across to the winery and sampled some of their booze. Having been nominated to be our van’s driver for the day, I only had a few sips but even that was enough to make the drive afterwards – to Bannockburn – a touch more interesting, particularly in the roasting heat of what was the hottest day so far. Feeling pretty fazed, we drove up to a vineyard called Mount Difficulty where we tasted more wine (I no longer took part, Mum – don’t worry!) and ate a fantastic meal overlooking superb views of vineyards and moonscapes where gold was mined here many years ago.

In order to allow the sober drivers to drink, we decided to stay in Cromwell for the night, in the heart of the Central Otago wine area and apparently the hottest (and the coldest) place in New Zealand. Another wine tasting, more purchases, another superb meal and more booze and cards and our day was done.

I’d suffered in sober silence the previous day as Annika got slowly hammered in the sun and now it was payback time! Well, not really, but when we stopped the next day at Twizel to stock up on food I took the opportunity to buy a 6 pack of Monteiths Black Beer which, conveniently, was nice and cold – and once I’d downed the first one before lunch as we travelled north, the theme for the day had been set. By the time we arrived at our campsite, just north of our original start point at South Brighton, I had finished the lot and was nicely inebriated and finding the scenery even more stupifying than usual. The scenery for this particular day consisted of lakes with views of Mount Cook and whose water was the bluest I have ever seen. Slightly opaque and deep aquamarine due, apparently, to fluoride from the mountains the water looked incredible – especially when set against the blue sky with wispy clouds on a blisteringly hot day. That, coupled with my heady intoxication made this one of my favourite days in New Zealand. The photos may not do it justice but it was simply amazing.

The rain began to move in that evening and by the morning it appeared that our luck with the weather had run out. It started to rain just after Annika got back from her early morning run on the beach and, bar a few brief moments during our drive up to Blenheim it rained all day in that grey way that serves to remind us of the land which we call home. We stopped along the way at the Pegasus Bay winery, tasted yet more booze and had a superb 3 hour lunch which, for Adele and I, consisted of a whole duck, dauphenoise potatoes and a ricotta salad. Heaven.

On the way to Blenheim we saw one of the more bizarre road signs we have seen on our trip so far – a silhouette of a seal with ‘4km’ written underneath. Stopping a short distance further on, we braved the driving rain in order to stand and watch a hundred or so seals resting on the rocks and cavorting in small pools or fighting. Had the weather been a bit nicer, I think we could all have stayed here for a lot longer as it was a hypnotic sight, especially the fighting which involves bobbing and weaving the head, trying to bite your opponent or whack his head with yours. An Olympic sport in the making I think.

The next day, the weather gradually improved and, by lunchtime – spent near the beach at Rabbit Island, near Nelson – it was nice and sunny again. We stopped off at another winery for some more booze and cheese and ended the day in Kaiteriteri where we just had time for a short rest on the beach before the wind got up and blew sand into everything that wasn’t strapped down. Our culinary efforts by this point had almost reached ridiculous levels and a Thai monkfish curry cooked next to the vans on gas burners whilst under the influence of many bottles of wine was another high.

An early start was planned the next morning for some more kayaking. Our third kayak experience and this time it was sea kayaking down the coast. After three hours, stopping off at a beach or two we returned, sunburnt and exhausted for a burger and a beer which had been well earned. I like kayaking – I really do. But my 35 year old back is too knackered to cope with such exertion and frequent breaks had to be taken, causing some interesting ‘discussions’ between the lady and me and we have since made a decision not to do any more kayaking on this trip!

We drove to Picton via Havelock, cooked some green-lipped mussels followed by loin of pork with cream-cheese mash for dinner, washed it down with a couple of beers and we are now on the ferry from the South Island to Wellington in the North. We’ve just seen some dolphins and some superb views as we weaved our way out into the Cook Strait early in the morning but it’s cold out there so I’m indoors in the warm to write this.

So, the South Island is done. We didn’t have nearly enough time to do it properly but it’s been incredible. Annika said she has put New Zealand in her top 3 places she’s ever been and I can’t disagree. If you get a chance, come here – but leave at least 3 weeks to do the South Island alone!

On a final note, we’d like to congratulate the Milfords of St. Albans on the birth of their first child, Rose who managed to arrive barely 16 days late on the 5th! We wish you all well and look forward to seeing the new Milf (!) when we get back.