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Oktober Fest – The South Island of New Zealand

With Heike, Benno & Sandra

all seasons in one day 19 °C
View Around The World in More Than 80 days on phileas's travel map.

Zut Alors! I finally made it out of Auckland. After 4 months or so pickling my liver at the Fat Camel Hostel I’m ready to resume my travels - that is after all the reason I started this journey, or so I remember. The plan has become changed somewhat with the shoulder operation and all (that’s the last time I will mention it, promise) but all is fixed now - it’s time to get back on the road.

On 2 October 2006 I embarked on my last adventure in New Zealand with my new found German friends Heike (the love interest), Benno and Sandra. Mode of transport is Heike’s new campervan, a 1983 Mazda Bongo purchased from a friend (Charlie) from the hostel, friend as his promises that this was a sound purchase proved to be worth as much as the paper it wasn’t written on. Ce la vie.

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The adventure begins with a 12 hour overnight coach to Wellington to catch up with the gang, painful to say the least but some banter with some dudes on the bus makes it easier. Blue Bridge ferry ticket already in hand (a cool $240!!), we waste no time and catch the afternoon ferry to the south island. Sayounara North Island!

We arrive in Picton after the 3 hour crossing, the beautiful myriad of inlets and islands that make up the Marlborough Sounds are shrouded in cloud and hidden from view. Picton is a small nowhere town it seems whose only purpose is to accommodate the ferry passengers so we make a beeline to Nelson en-route cruising through the vineyards that the region is famed for.

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Nelson is a small town populated by artists and hippy types so the slow paced lifestyle is an instant hit with us. We stay at the BBH hostel ‘Paradiso’, an oasis in a troubled world featuring a hot spa (apparently the standard in these parts), swimming pool, hammocks and a funky green bus parked in the bottom of the garden which serves as a smoking/drinking venue all day and night plus any slots between. If you’re thinking of New Zealand as a cold, mountainous country then you’re missing a half the story – this is the sub-tropics baby, yeah - , blue skies, glorious! Unfortunately, it wasn’t set to last.

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With adventure on our minds, we head north along Highway 60 to check out the highlight of the region Abel Tasman National Park. En route we make an overnight stop at the small yet beautiful Kiwiana run by a rather eccentric spinster cat-crazy lady, and pass through Motueka and Kaiteriteri, finally arriving in Marahau. We enjoy our first taste of what Abel Tasman has to offer – golden sandy beaches, crystal blue waters and pristine coastline and lots of lazing around.

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After much debate and many coffees, we opt for a days guided kayaking with Kiwi Kayaks, an overnight stay in the DOC hut then a hike out the next day. The trip starts the next morning so we bed down for the night at Old McDonalds Farm (ee-i-ee-i-o). Taking on cooking duties for the night, I produce a delightful Tarte-e-Flette (?) - it gets a bit chilly in the kitchen so I close the window, never mind the lack of walls, doh!

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An early morning start, we meet up with our guide for the day at Marahau Beach and are sped off in a water taxi to the starting point of the kayak adventure - Onetahuti Beach. We kick-off with a safety briefing (Eskimo rolls, Orca defence techniques etc) and drink the all important cup of tea – I like this guy! Without further ado we paddle (with style and grace, ahem) across to Tonga Island to check out the resident Fur Seals. With breeding season in full flight, we spot some pups climbing on the rocks and basking in the shallow bays – how cute, if only I had my club with me.

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On the look out for Orcas, dolphins and stingrays (none of which I’m sad to say made an appearance) we paddle down the coast past Mosquito Bay (no mosquitoes live here), Bark Bay (no dogs live here) and Sandfly Bay (LOTS of sandflys live here, all over Abel Tasman infact, horrid little things) finishing up in our final destination for the day – Torrent Bay – home of the 5-star DOC Anchorage Hut. The coastline is unbelievable – golden sand beaches, crystal clear blue waters, blue skies – so beautiful!

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After an uncomfortable night (I forgot my sleeping bag) and experiencing what I can only explain as an alien encounter (a mysterious floating red light floating over the water way above the horizon) we set off on the trek back to base. More golden beaches and secluded bays, the human traffic gets a little heavy as the morning presses on but is bearable – I can’t quite imagine what this like in the summer with 100x the numbers.

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Some of the beaches are simply incredible and you have to keep reminding yourself where you are – I’ve never been to Thailand (yet) but I hope it lives up to this!

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After a well earnt cup of tea at the end of trail, we head further north to the most northerly point of the South Island ‘Farewell Spit’, stopping en route at the famous land mark Split Apple Rock. A word of warning if you ever visit do not attempt to climb the rocks to the left side for a closer look as Gannets next in the trees above and defend their nest site with tenacious ferocity.

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Farewell Spit itself is a 50km ish long exposed sand bar home to many varieties of sea bird and fully exposed to the might of the Tasman Sea, however any venture along it must be arranged with a guide with a rather hefty price tag so we decide to explore the beaches to the west and find an absolute cracker - Cape Farewell. With nobody else insight we trek just 1km from the road to find a dramatic wind swept landscape of rolling sand dunes and huge rocky outcrops with only ourselves and a few fur seals for company. Stunning!

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Our northern experience fulfilled, we begin on our journey south along the west coast first heading back inland to Nelson (no roads link to the west coast highway) but no harm as the an overnight stop at Paradiso is always a good thing,
The journey confirms New Zealand’s ‘all weather in one day’ tag as we leave basking in sunshine, hitting cloud, then fog, rain which then turns into hale then snow and back to sunshine again, strange. The first town we reach on the west coast is a rather unimpressive Westport then onto Greymouth which is equally enthralling although I bumped into an old work colleague (Lindsey) from my days @ GSK, Harlow. Random!

50kms south the weather closes in which unfortunately follows us for the next 7 days, but it makes the coast line all the more dramatic. We rest overnight at Punakaiki Beach Hostel next to the sacred Maori site come tourist attraction ‘Punakaiki Rocks’ or Pancake rocks as it is known which features rocks that resemble a stack of pancakes (shocker!) and some blow holes.

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The next major town south is Hokitika famous for Jade (Green Stone). We stay at Just Jade Experience, the Jade ‘experience’ itself is quite laughable in that you choose a shape for your pendant carved by the owner of the hostel then you spend the next 8 hours sanding and polishing - we gave it a miss and went to the pub instead craving some laughs and indulgence.

The next town south is one of New Zealand’s most famous attractions – the Franz Josef Glacier. The town is unimpressive but serves its purpose. We arrange a day hike with a guide to trek up the glacier and explore the blue ice wonders. The view from the bottom gives the impression that the glacier is dirty ice but this is just where the rock and debris collect before discharging (at up to a rate of 1.5 meters per day!). Once you hike for an hour or so the ice becomes cleaner, in places translucent up to a foot or so, still not a touch on the glacier at Chamonix!

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As we head south, the van breaks down (one of many to come) 30kms outside of Haast in the middle of nowhere with no phone signal, but no matter two extremely helpful kiwi dudes come to our rescue towing us off the road and driving to the Haast to arrange a tow truck. Such nice people! So we are rescued and the van fixed within the hour (a blow fuse, doh!) so we head inland through the cloud shrouded Southern Alps to Wanaka. According to the map we pass by New Zealand’s highest peak ‘Mount Cook’ however it is obscured from view by dense cloud – one of my biggest regrets but a good reason to return.

Wanaka is a cool little town situated next to a lake it feels like a laid back version of Queenstown and serves as home for mountain monkeys who ride at Treble Cone. Unfortunatley Snow Park (a purpose built snowboard freestyle mecca with jumps ranging from big to insane) closed for the season the day we arrive but probably saved my shoulder (sorry, not again!). A novelty stop at the edge of town well worth a visit is Puzzling World which is a collection of puzzles, optical illusions and trickery, quite unique and thoroughly enjoyable.

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After a couple of days chilling out we head to Queenstown, home of every adrenaline sport under the sun including the first ever Bungy Jump. Reading the history of the bungy you can only offer respect for these crazy pioneers who must have had balls of steel to test out their invention. I sit out but Benno drops from NZ’s highest a 134m monster called ‘The Nevis High Wire’. Crazy!

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Next on the list is Fiordland where you can take cruises through the dramatic landscape carved by glaciers. Visiting Doubtless Sound first, named by Captain Cook who doubted there’d be sufficient wind to sail through which should be replaced with the modern version ‘I doubt you can afford the trip’. Instead, we head to the more affordable Milford Sound, torrential rain lashes down making it hard to appreciate the grandeur scale of the surrounding cliffs but instead the place comes alive with waterfalls crashing down from seemingly every cliff top. We take a boat trip and you get a sense of how intimidating the place is, shame about the grey light but fun all the same.

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Time a ticking, we decide to miss the tip of the South and cut across to Dunedin, a town which feels like it should be in France. People rave about the place - it was nice but didn’t blow my mind. We visit landmarks like the Otago Peninsula famed for it’s resident Albatross population and Yellow Penguins, the Otago Museum with a special exhibit for Wildlife Photographer of the Year, and Baldwin Street which is the steepest street in the world (1 – 2.86 gradient). Sadly for me the highlight was a local graffiti artist who created silhouette type art all over the city which interact in some way with their surroundings, very clever!

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On the first attempt to leave town the van develops a strange grinding noise, as a result of the leaking engine coolant requiring the water pump to be replaced - not an easy thing on Labour Day weekend but we are saved but a legend called Mike who not only saves the day with the van but also arranges us some essential supplies.

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With the van fixed (for now) we head north following the East Coast road through spectacular scenery. We arrive at a Oamaru which is famous for hosting the largest breeding colony of Blue Penguins, a very timid and fragile creature. Not sure what to expect we investigate and find a wooden amphitheatre which faces the sea where the penguins land. The penguins must then hop, skip and jump their way over the rocks across the road into their protected nest site consisting of a series of partially buried wooden boxes. It all feels a bit too much like a circus and we have to wait till nightfall anyhow to see the ‘show’ so we decide to give it a miss.

Just up the coast is a rather bizarre spectacle the Moeraki Boulders which are a series of giant boulders with crystals inside. Many theories exist to explain the phenomena - Maori legend says the boulders were tossed from the sea by an angry god, some claim that they are dinosaur eggs, or perhaps a game of giant bowls that was never finished. The truth may lie in geology which says that they were created within the layers of sedimentary rock (limestone) and then eroded from the cliff over time - far less romantic than the Maori version!

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With the rain still on our backs we speed north to the largest city on the South Island - Christchurch. We visit the Art Gallery which features some great exhibits Kiwi artists and then to the Arts Centre to find the famous ‘floating house’ sculpture that is pictured in the Lonely Planet guide book. After following a maze of corridors we finally arrive at the place and are presented with a gigantic sign ’here it is’. It does look very cool but it opened a can of worms as to how unique traveling experiences can be if all we do is follow the guidebooks and tick boxes like it’s an eye spy adventure. Oops, sorry wrong soap box. We are feeling rather fatigued with city life and decide to head north back to the great outdoors.

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Following the highway north we hit Kaikoura which for me was the highlight of the South Island (save the best till last!). Shadowed by the snow capped Kaikoura Mountain range, the town is very small with only a handful of backpackers, hotels and a collection of cafes & bars, but what makes Kaikoura unique lies under the surface of the sea. 2 kilometers offshore is the continental shelf of the South Pacific tectonic plate which means depths of over 1500m just offshore, a phenomena usually encountered way out to sea. In addition, the shelf is shaped such that it creates a huge underwater inlet which acts as an overstocked larder of all kinds of tiny shrill and plankton. Both of these factors attract whales in abundance – Sperm Whales are resident all year round throughout the seasons you can expect to see Grey, Humpback, Southern Right and the mighty Blue Whale.

We took a sightseeing tour which is a very touristy affair and a little expensive at just over $100 but well worth it. Within 2 hours we saw 6 different Sperm Whales basking on the surface before they make their dive into the depths – just remember to take a camera with a large zoom if you can. I cannot understand how mankind continues to hunt these graceful creatures, gazing into their eyes as they swim by reveals an intelligence eons beyond that of a fish or perhaps even us. To boot, on the trip we are treated to a fine display of acrobatics by a pod of Dusky Dolphins. It still sends shivers up my spine when I think of this day, spectacular!!

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The next day I awake to a glorious view of the Kaikoura mountain range from the back of the campervan – truly I feel spoilt to experience this.

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The previous day I spotted a sign at the local airport to pilot a plane for the bargain price of $100 – how could I resist. True to word, I book my session and we speed off to the airport. My vehicle for the day is a single prop Cessna 150 which can hold 2 passengers aswell as pilot & co so I take Sandra and Heike up with me. The frighteningly young pilot takes the reigns for take off and landing but I do the rest as we cruise over the town of Kaikoura following the coast line then inland following the mountain range. As we rise above the tips of the mountains we hit turbulence which throws the plane into a spasm, pitching every which way possible and turning my fellow passengers a pale shade of green. I manage to regain control but there’s another scare in store as we circle around to return to base as I forget about the altitude and begin to pitch forward. The good news is we survived and are more than relived to have our feet back on the ground. Presented with my certificate I am now the proud owner of 0.25 hours flying experience – only another 300 or so before I get my pilots license, or maybe not.

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So with a short sprint up to the Malborough Sounds and the ferry across from Picton to Wellington, that brings the South Island Oktober Fest adventure to a close. As we sail north a new month begins that will no doubt be full of suprises, but New Zealand is not finished yet...

We arrive in Wellington, capital city of New Zealand and stay for a couple of days at Nomads Capital, the sister hostel of the beloved Fat Camel, and find that the old faithful from Auckland are here in abundance, that and a hundred or so beer swilling monsters here for the Rugby Seniors World Cup. Absolute carnage ensues but I find that 6 weeks on the road has lessened my alcohol tolerance which means an early exit on the session and a whacking hangover the next day. But it’s great to see old friends once again and a good time had by all.

The last leg of the journey is to be re-visit probably my favourite place in New Zealand – Gisborne and the East Cape. We make a quick stop off in Napier (art deco central) staying at a quaint hostel called Toad Hole backpackers, part backpackers, part wine bar, part art gallery (yes, it’s run by ageing hippies). True to form the van breaks down again but finally we meet a mechanic worth his weight in grease – he spots that the battery is 1/5 of the power it should be and likely the source of all the electrical problems that have hounded us for the last 6 weeks. Charlie, a friend, death threats are etched in blood on the receipt.

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Gisborne is just a short drive north along S35, the gateway to the East Cape. Glorious sunshine awaits us and yet again I fall in love with the place. The Surfers Lodge hostel has closed unfortunately so we’re forced into staying at probably the weirdest backpackers I’ve ever seen called The Flying Nun. A converted ex convent, the place is run by mother superior whose paranoia on security is a farce – a myriad of combination locks secures the outside of the building, everyone is given their own secure cupboard for food and another for your assigned 1 plate, 1 bowl, 1 cup etc. I was glad to leave before we were all smited by an unseen force.

The next day we arise to find that the engine coolant emptied itself which turns out to be a split bottom hose. Thanks to some top blokes at the local garage, Benno and I get to work and within 2 hours we’ve stripped the engine down and replaced the hose. They say you learn a lot when you travel but I never thought I’d become a mechanic.

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Before heading north we grab coffee and I’m stopped in the street by a reporter from the Gisborne Herald to comment on the Sterne Report as to whether New Zealand can become world leaders in sustainability. My facts are drawn straight from the Rough Guide but I sound pretty clever I think, for an Englishman.

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From Gisborne we work our way around the East Cape passing stunning golden sandy beaches, isolated coves, hot springs and not another traveler in sight. A brush with the Mongrel Mob (NZ’s equivalent of the Hells Angels) in Marahau Bay leaves no scars, we miss the sun rise at the East Cape but enjoy a lie in and we learn of the farce of the inadequacy and disastrous effect 1080 poison which is used to control the possum population has on the whole ecosystem. Oh, and Heike is looking mighty fine.

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One final stop off before I leave this blessed land at the Coromandel Peninsula, another stunning gem with more golden sandy beaches, coves, quaint towns and two famous landmarks Cathedral Cove and Hot Water Beach, the latter being a hot spring on the beach where you dig a whole and it fills with scorching hot water, so crazily hot I burnt my feet. My good friend Rob joins us for the final fling and we pickle our kidneys in true Auckland style.

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Road trip over, 6 months been and gone, many friends made and many more brain cells lost. I had such a great time here and would love to return, perhaps next year so I can actually snowboard instead of being sat in a hospital (doh, just one last mention). No gripes except to say please stay Kiwi and forget the American influence, that sucks and the Maori heritage is priceless, R&B and 50 cents is a gift from hell, just so no.. Rant over, I close this blog as I could go on forever much is the love but I’m writing this ending from a steaming hot hotel room in Sape, Sumbawa, Indonesia which I‘m sure you’d rather hear about than Jerry’s Final Thought. Next stop the tropics.....

Posted by phileas 19:09 Archived in New Zealand Tagged backpacking

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