Friday, 28 February 2014

Sheer Drops and Awesome Rocks: Enter the Sound

Boats and Bros - Milford Sound

After staying for around a week in Queenstown, it was time to move on to the next part of our journey, to take in the spectacular Milford Sound and the surrounding area. Although it was initially very hard to move on again after meeting so many great people, it was much easier once we were once again driving through the stunning isolated beauty of the largely flat winding road, with very few other cars driving in each direction.

The Road through the Fiordland

Having lived in Sevenoaks; what I would class as a 'small' town in the south east of England, just off the busy M25 ring road around greater London, it was still very strange for me to see such little traffic for such a huge stretch at a time, and even then with only a couple of cars, it often made me wonder what driving must have been like not only recently before the motorways were opened, but even before that, as Cars are only a very recent invention. The ability to travel so freely, even on roads such as the two lanes in and out of the wilderness to the sounds is still truly remarkable to me and, coupled with the availability of cheap flights really means that, within reason, there really is nowhere on earth that it is, in the current age, impossible to get to.

The Alpine Flats

These deeper thoughts flicked through my head intermittently in between the awesome selection of classic rock and the freshest Australian hip-hop from last century provided by navigator in chief, MC Jonny Davies.

Stopping for several breaks to admire the view, and go for some easy circuit walks around lakes, which I would really recommend if you have time to get a feel for the area, we stopped to camp for the night before heading out early the next morning to see the sights of the Sound.

J.K. Davies enjoying a Coffee and Nature. His two favourite things

We drove up early, leaving the tent at the campsite, to get on a Jucy Cruze which we had  booked really cheap through the last minute ticket website bookme which I would highly recommend checking in Queenstown before booking a tour through a travel agent. The breakfast and UNLIMITED FREE COFFEE provided in the price was much more than we had hoped for, and while our boat didn't go all the way out to sea, the views and wildlife we saw were definitely worth the money. 

The tour guides and staff on the boat were very helpful and friendly, explaining not only the landscape, but also providing a lot of information about the area and answering any questions that visitors had. We even got lucky and got up close to some of the native penguins which was a particular highlight.

If I was only looking to do a shorter trip in New Zealand I would definitely put Milford Sound, or at least a trip to another Fiordland attraction in the top sights to see as the landscape truly is breathtaking.

Milford Sound

The feeling that I got on the cruise reminded me of the scene in the Fellowship of the Rings where the company are heading down the river after their meeting with Galadriel and the elves following their escape from the mines of Moria. Although not the same location, the sheer size and epic faces of the rock really give a sense of the vast power and force of nature.

Returning from the sound, we packed up the tent and car, and with glorious weather decided that as it was still morning we had time for the Key summit walk, which is signposted to take on average 2-3 hours. Although I regretted applying too much sun cream to the forehead, with the sweat making it run and sting my eyes for a short time (school boy error) the walk was a success and very enjoyable. There are several such walks along the route and I would highly recommend doing several or at least a few to experience the alpine wildlife and vegetation.

The view from the Key Summit

 The next step of our trip was to take us towards the south and Invercargill, and it was with a great couple of days behind us we headed towards the final stages of our visit to New Zealand.

Sunday, 23 February 2014

Onwards to Queenstown


Although Queenstown was the next major town on our journey, we decided that we would take a detour through the historic Arrowtown, which is located about halfway between Wanaka and QT. While New Zealand in general is know for its 'old England' feel, with the small being much more isolated than most of the UK, Arrowtown residents and businesses have focussed on this as the towns major selling point, and although it sounds like a possible non-event like so many similarly marketed towns I have seen, especially in America, I was not disappointed and it is definitely worth a visit if you were to have time. I highly recommend trying the micro-brewery in town, with a very passionate and helpful local brewer who explains the whole process on a wide variety of in house ale, it is hard to not want to get your own brew on as soon as possible after a visit.

The Lake - Queenstown

After a night at a less than scenic camp site, we headed into Queenstown itself, which is only a short drive away. Having had several recommendations from friends we had met along the way, the Black Sheep seemed to have the most passionate following among other backpackers so we headed straight there.

The Black Sheep is probably my personal favourite hostel that I stayed at in New Zealand, or at least on a par with the Brown Kiwi in Auckland. The mix of social space, room layout and relatively small kitchen didn't give great promise immediately, but as we agreed with many other guests from different times, the crowd it draws just always seem to work. The free Hot Tub out the back has no small part to play in this, and there were many rainy afternoons where 'Tubb Lyf' made a rainy day seem like paradise. (Tubb Lyf was a bunch of guys from across the world drinking beers in a hot tub.)

The Black Sheep Hot Tub

After the relatively small towns that we had been to since arriving on the south island, even including Wanaka, Queenstown appears immediately huge, but is actually relatively small compared to the cities and very easy to navigate. It is located on the edge of a lake, with a stunning surround of mountains with various activities available. Although there are some challenging hikes, and downhill mountain bike trails, these seemed like so much effort, but my recommendation would be to get a few people to head up onto the free luge on the mountain. While it does look immediately easy, the competitive nature soon comes out and normally the most unlikely driver (pilot) ends up winning but still never knowing exactly how. There are other more extreme activities available such as power boating and a bungee jump on the mountain, but there are lots of other leisure activities too, so all visitors have no excuse not to enjoy their stay.

There are a few places in the town itself that need a mention. The World Bar is probably the best club/bar, with a great dance floor and good, yet pricey, range of cocktails available in tea pots, which always makes things better. The bar crawls around the town are probably the best way to see everywhere, and although probably not the primary reason for signing up, don't expect a 'free pizza'. At least, expect A 'free pizza' between about 10 people, though the organised fun does mean that you don't have to worry where you go and get on with meeting new people.


The other main point is Fergburger. Recommended by lonely planet and pretty much anyone (excluding vegetarians and vegans, though the chips are also awesome) who has been to Queenstown, Fergburger has to be tried at any time of the day. Davies was a huge advocate of the morning range, but unfortunately I rarely had enough of an appetite to make them financially viable myself.  From the range of names (inc. the Codfather, Mr. Big Stuff, Bun Laden) to the great favour and value for money, everything here is as good as it looks and sounds. I would say more but there's too much to say. I'll leave it at IT'S AWESOME and YOU MUST GO. Enough said. 

Queenstown was amazing for me, though this was for the people I met there as much as the town itself. I think that the only way it could be better is if it was ski season, which I imagine would be fantastic. It is very easy to make Queenstown a hub for going on different trips if you don't have your own transport and I'm sure that anyone else who has visited would agree that it is a must see in the south island.

Thursday, 20 February 2014

Mountains and Mayhem

The Town by The Lake

The next stage of our trip was Wanaka, located just North of Queenstown on the South Island. The stunning location of this small town really is a sight to behold on the drive in, and the town really backs this up being big in hospitality and small town charm, while still being the centre of a lot of activity in the area. As I mentioned in my previous post, I had won a few free nights accommodation during our stay in Wellington which were only redeemable at the X-Base in Wanaka. With only a few hostels in the town, the X-Base plays host to several of the bigger bus tours which go up and down the island, and as a result, social activities are laid on heavily every night. The only drawback of this is that while you make great friends one night in the bar, which I rate highly at this particular base, they will move on the next day most of the time with the rest of the tour and be replaced straight away with a new group, which can be quite draining, especially when people are tired and can’t really be bothered to deal with new people with the standard conversation, not to mention the toll on the wallet.

This wasn't an issue for us as we’d been relatively isolated for a few days so were quite prepared to put in the leg work and meet some people. After a free BBQ (again highly recommended for the meat alone, without mentioning the free salad – also good), a few beers and a game of killer pool, we were well set for a great night with a great group of people. Although the night life at the hostel was great, about 10 of us decided to go into town, where we were surprised to see a good mix of averagely late opening places; and while many tourists we met previously had dismissed Wanaka as being too quiet at night I would beg to differ. A great night was had, although specifics fail me.

Davies admires the view of Lake Wanaka

The following day, I received a highly rated haircut at Ali-Barbers, the only barbers in town, and we rented mountain bikes and headed North East. Although we (mainly I) are not experienced mountain bikers, the routes are well made and professionally built with a good range of trails to suit all abilities. The lakeside track which you have to follow to reach them is great, although I'm not so sure I would say the same in inclement weather, in terms of scenery and readability.

Misty Mountains: The view from Mount Roy

Following another night at Base, we decided to try out the YHA in town as it seemed a bit quieter and didn't have an in house bar, which we were finding to be a major drain on financial resources. Located just over the road from X-Base, the front window offers a panoramic view of the Mountains over the picturesque lake on the shore of which Wanaka was built. This mountain range is classic Lord of the Rings Misty Mountains territory, and we planned to walk up one of the closer ones, Mount Roy, the following morning.

Me, Halfway up, Zipped off trousers

Setting out early, we loaded up on a good breakfast from the Car Boot Kitchen and headed to the start of the trail, only about 10 minutes outside the town centre. The trail was quite a steep walk; and although no challenge for International Tri-athlete I had to take quite a few breaks. Still, at a steady pace, and after several hours, the views are highly recommended, and for anyone looking for an easy/moderate walk with spectacular reward I would really consider doing this one, although I am sure the views would be equally good from any other trail. Although we would have loved to carry on to the trail which this was only the start of through several other hills, we knew that we had to get moving on, so after a return which seemed to take minutes, rather than the hours which it had taken to walk that morning, we headed back to town, picked up some coffees and headed on out; destination Queenstown.

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Glacial Pursuits

Greymouth to Wanaka

We headed off in search of the Glaciers early the following morning. Having never seen an actual glacier before, and only the ancient scarred landscape aftermath, I was intrigued for what was in store. Luckily, I had the field expert Jon Davies; BSc Environmental Studies with me so I was able to ask him many of my questions, which he seemed to enjoy no end. (What is a glacier being the first).

Fox Glacier Valley

 The glaciers were very impressive, but the thing that really shocked me was the amount they had receded in recent times. There are markers in the valley to show how they have retreated and even when we were talking to other visitors there were some were returning after only a few years and showed us where they had been up to previously. In my opinion, this is evidence of global warming, although at the same time so many other glaciers have melted over the past million years.

Franz Josef Glacier

The accessibility of the Glaciers also shocked me, and led to a debate between Jon and I about charges to see national parks and other similar tourist attractions. We drove our car to a car park, and were fully prepared for a long walk to see the sight as this was the impression that we got from the tourist information as there was a fee to drive your car or van up to the car park nearer the glacier, on both the Franz Josef and Fox Glacier. 

However, after packing a lunch and putting on our walking boots, it was a slight uphill walk and we reached the car park within about 20 minutes and the walk was very pleasant with great scenery. It is really shocking after the efforts to 'conserve' the glacier by fencing it off to stop it being damaged that they would then make it so accessible, but obviously the temptation to make so much easy money was overpowering.

Unfortunately we couldn't afford the heli-hike onto the glacier, but to put the extra car park in closer to the glacier seems to me to be an unnecessary and intrusive addition to what would be a rewarding walk for those who actually wanted to see the glacier and enjoy the natural wonder, but then maybe it’s just me who thinks that unlike supermarkets or a local convenience, some things are worth putting in a little work to get to.

I would highly recommend a visit to the glaciers, and from everyone else we talked to who had visited I believe that the heli-hike would be very interesting if you could afford it. However, this was not the impression I got from those who had just done a guided walk, and would recommend going up to see the glacier and checking any routes in the tourist information if you have time before booking onto these walks as you may be paying to see much of what you could for free, and the information provided can easily be accessed in leaflets and boards in the area.

As you may imagine, the Glaciers were located in relatively isolated beauty, and the next stop for us was Wanaka. After some time out of town, and with two discount vouchers for X-Base that I had won in a competition in Wellington, we headed for Wanaka and the start of a slightly different experience in the South.

Back in the Car to Wanaka