Three Old Farts wafted into Christchurch, South Island, Godzone. God’s Own Country. I was the last to arrive. Kevin O’Connell from Hamilton, North Island, and Nic Jaspers from Orange, NSW, Oz, were waiting for my Pacific Blue flight in from Melbourne, Victoria. A very Spartan flight; no included grub or liquid, and Security was pretty tight for 2004 – to the point where I had to remove my boots. But my first views of this stunning country through the clouds were the snow-covered peaks of the Southern Alps and the chequerboard pattern of the Canterbury Plains below. Little did I know, then, that my paternal grandmother had been born here.
They had hired a car to explore with, and Kevin had planned our route. We spent our first evening, and night, at The Bush pub, reminiscing the times the three of us had shared in London 1969 – see earlier posts of this blog.
Not that there was not a lot to see in the city of Christchurch, but we had to prioritise, so headed to Queenstown via Waimate and the inland valleys with the lakes of Waitaki, Aviemore and Benmore, where Kevin had worked 40 years before as a labourer. Amongst breathless mountain scenery that words are inadequate to describe, our route took us via Cromwell on Lake Dunstan where we hesitated for a beer and the chance to book our bus trip from Queenstown for the morrow. As we crossed and followed the Kawarau River, we could see the crazy river rafters in the rock-lined rapids below. We curled along the shore of the longest lake in New Zealand, Wakatipu, until we reached Queenstown in its mountain cradle. Hang gliders were catching the currents and drifting down from the surrounding heights. As an ex-skydiver, I was so envious.
We had to be up at 05h30 to catch our tour bus to Milford. Through Five Rivers and Mosburn; the tour guide, Tracy, was very informative about the elk and deer we saw on the farms we passed. Yellow flowered gorse and broom, with flax invading. A brief stop in Te Anau for snacks where there was a statue of a takahe, a flightless bird on the endangered list, of which there were only about 250 pairs left in the Murchison Ranges.
If anything, the scenery got even more breath-robbing as the bus twisted through the passes of Fiordland National Park, Lake Gunn, the Divides (500m above sea-level) and Lake Fergus. Then through the tunnel, at the exit of which we got out for a stroll over roped walkways and waterfalls among ferny dripping forests. Cabbage trees, whose leaves could be used for rope and whose roots taste like cabbage, according to Tracy, were abundant. Then Cleddae Valley where we saw droves of kea parrots, to Milford where we boarded the Milford Mariner and chugged into the unbelievable rock towers, oozing waterfalls, to Milford Sound under Mitre Peak. Words fail.
We happily retraced our steps to Queenstown; Tracy kindly overlooking the no-alcohol rule on the bus as we dealt with a few errant beers. By 09h00, we set off to Wanaka via the Crown Ranges with a view over Arrowtown. Over the top and down to Cardrona Hotel & Ski Resort where we saw a collection of bigfoot-type vehicles, presumably for traversing the snowy winter landscape with tourists and skiers. In Wanaka, beside the stunning lake, we briefly met up with Michael and Jill O’Connell, Kevin’s nephew and his wife, who were spending a brief holiday there.
Near Wanaka is the Warbirds Musem with superbly restored old fighter planes of yesteryear. We had to tear ourselves away. We passed Lake Hawea and the Haast Pass through beech- and rainforests until we parked at the Fox Glacier.
It was well worth the walk across the rocky valley floor to the base of the receding glacier. Our night stop was the Station Hotel, Hokitika.
After brekka, we walked to a little zoo which housed lizard-type beasties, tuatara, and some kiwis, of which there are six species in NZ. On to a jade factory to look at carvings and jewellery. Sitting in a corner, painting kiwis on the round river-rolled stones found here, was one William (Willem?) Steyn, ex-South African, and making a living from the sales to visitors!
Heading north again through heavily wooded, ferny country, we stopped to walk among curious limestone pancake rock formations on the sea edge, cleft with blow-holes through which the sea blasted, squirting spume high into the sky. A tame flightless chicken-sized weka bird followed us around fearlessly.
Kevin had to drag us away from our delightful visit to Shantitown near Greymouth. It’s a +/-1860 period village with gold mine, stamping battery, and a host of shops: post office, hairdresser, jail, school, hospital, bank, jewellers, butchery, printers, saloon, railway station with a real train and workshop with another train being worked on. I had a long chat to the sign-writer who was adding the delicate decorations to its trim. There were also stables, carts and carriages, and a Chinatown.
We headed up the Buller Gorge and the Wairau Valley to Blenheim and the Criterion Hotel for beer and our last night on South Island. Sadly… Pure beauty.