Wednesday, 15 January 2014

He roa te wā kua kitea Aotearoa! - Long time no see, New Zealand!

Hey everyone and kia ora from New Zealand!

After almost seven years, I am back in the land of the long white cloud to spend a month here, travelling and catching up with friends around the country.
The first stop was Christchurch on New Zealand's South Island which is where Jackie and I were headed after a sleepless night and an eventful morning: despite the 15kg parcel that I had already sent home from Sydney, my suitcase weighed more than 30 kilos, not to forget the zipper wouldn't work so I couldn't even close it. With a half-broken suitcase, a laptop bag that must have weighed at least 10 kilos and my backpack, Roberta was prepared to drop us off at the airport. But there was no way I could travel with that suitcase. For those of you who know Sydney and the Australian bulk trash system (that is: if you don't want it, leave it in the streets until someone picks it up) - this time, it worked in my favour. A couple of blocks away from home, Roberta spotted a suitcase in the street, I hopped out of the car to inspect it and we took it to the airport. Apart from the broken top handle, it seemed to be fine. After an emotional goodbye at the airport ("Put some warm clothes on!", "Text me when you get there!", "Let me know how your trip goes!" - yes indeed, Roberta had been like my hostmother to me!), we discovered that a bottle of Aloe Vera gel had leaked into my suitcase. Disaster? No! That just made the decision of what to leave behind a lot easier. With a re-packed suitcase of 30.1 kilos (30 kilos is the allowance on Emirates flights), we began our journey across the ditch. Three hours later, we could see the coastline of New Zealand.
The east coast of the South Island -
descending into Christchurch!
After a considerably rough landing, it took us more than two hours to complete the immigration requirements: stand in line for passport controls, put our bags through an X-ray machine, stand in line to hand over the immigration forms and so on. When we had finally made it through and entered New Zealand, Ji and his girlfriend Toon were there to pick us up. For those of you who have read my other blog "Highschool in Aotearoa": Ji was at Nayland College in Nelson with me in 2007 and we went on a trip to the Abel Tasman National Park together with his hostfamily. Both him and Toon gave us a very warm welcome and kindly let us stay overnight at their place - there were a mattress, two duvets, slippers and two bottles of water waiting for us. Aaaand they insisted on showing us around Christchurch in the afternoon (such great hosts, I hope to make that up to you in Germany one day!). As some of you might remember, Christchurch was severely damaged by an earthquake three years ago so the city that I had known Christchurch as no longer existed.
Quake City - the transient container city in the middle of what used to be Christchurch.
Containers and huge parking lots - Christchurch in 2014
Christchurch Cathedral... well, the remains of it.
New Brighton Beach near Christchurch. The one place without ruins.
After this short stopover in Christchurch, Jackie and I headed off to Queenstown the next day. While Christchurch is New Zealand's third most populated city (390,000 inhabitants; after Auckland and Wellington) and the biggest city on the South Island, Queenstown with its 10,000 inhabitants should seem more like a village. However, in view of the earthquake, there's a lot more going on in Queenstown - compared to Christchurch, it's literally buzzing with life!

Air New Zealand - amazing journeys every day!
... and on the road! Driving along Lake Wakatipu on the way to Milford Sound.
Driving on the left-hand side of the road with the wheel on the right? Not a problem...
except for the windscreen wipers going off at every intersection =)
In Queenstown, we picked up our rental car and we were off to Milford Sound. Milford Sound was incorrectly named a "Sound" even though it is a "Fjord", the difference being that a "Sound" is carved into the rock by a river and the "Fjord" is carved out by glaciers and then flooded by the sea. Now, while the linear distance between Queenstown and Milford Sound is only 70 km (or 43 miles), there is no direct road which means that 290 km (or 180 miles) of road were ahead of us. Jackie's Christmas present - a cruise on Milford Sound - would depart at 3:45 pm so we were kind of in a hurry. We made it there in time though and the views were stunning.

A Kea near Homer Tunnel. Keas are an endemic kind of parrot
that rips the rubber out of car windows.
Mitre Peak in Milford Sound - at 1692 m / 5,551 ft above sea level
one of the highest cliffs in the world!
Bowen Falls
Reverse waterfalls: wind gusts blowing the water up in the air
before it can reach the sea.
The rest of that day turned out to be one of the most memorable and eventful ever - stories I will tell Jackie's children about ;-) The plan was to stay at Gunn's Camp in the Lower Hollyford Valley. I had stayed there before during my Flying Kiwi trip in April 2007. Gunn's Camp is a former miners' camp that consists of a few wooden cabins in the middle of nowhere. Firewood is needed to heat them as the electricity generator is turned off after 10 pm - all in all, a magical place with its own, rustic and cosy atmosphere. 

Gunn's Camp

Before leaving Christchurch, however, I got an e-mail saying the Lower Hollyford Road had been closed due to flooding and that access to the camp may be restricted. We tried our luck anyway and got to a car park with the following sign:
Road closed - Hollyford Camp: 7 km
Maybe I should mention that Jackie runs half-marathons... anyway, 7 km were "only 4 miles" (not that a smaller number would decrease the distance), so we decided to walk. On a closed road. In the rain. Letting the little rebels in us show. After a (short) while, we were both sopping wet - and we didn't even know if there would be someone at the camp or if the camp had maybe been closed, too. That would mean we'd have to walk those 7 km back in the rain. But that's only 8 miles. A nice hike. According to Jackie. I do have to admit that it was fun though...

Getting there...
When we got to Gunn's Camp, there was still someone at the reception. The road had been re-opened that day but only till 5 pm. They couldn't believe someone would walk that distance just to spend the night at their camp - but that's exactly what we did. Great promo. The camp is run by two couples that are each there for 28 days and then get a month off. "Should we get the fire going in your cabin?" - YES please! They kindly left the generator running for a bit longer that night so we could have a hot shower before sitting in front of the rusty old oven with our ciders, listening to the crackle of the fire and watching the flames. Could have been soooo romantic... but let's drop that idea ;-)
After a hot shower =)
Besides the fact that we had hardly any dry clothes left anyway, we had to dry our pants in one night which usually takes a day even in the hot Australian weather - only that we were caught in rainy and cool 12°C / 54°F. The decision was made: dry the clothes on the oven. When the generator was turned off and the comfortable warmth from the fire filled our cabin that was just illuminated by a head-torch I had brought with, smoke started to paint the most amazing patterns into the air above the torch. We could see Maori symbols like the Koru or gentle wads curling up like waves... as the air got thicker, I remarked that sleeping in that kind of smoke might not be healthy... wait what? SMOKE! What had looked like steam coming off our clothes turned out to be smoke from our clothes that were literally on fire. Jackie's only pants, my jeans and a polo-shirt were severely burnt but as we didn't bring any more clothes, we had no choice but wear them the next day.
Très à la mode: home-made Fire Fashion reveals it all!
The only thing we needed now was jewellery. Conveniently, the camp's store sold local greenstones, rare New Zealand green jade and other accessories to go with our outfit. But then, we really had to drive back to Te Anau, the nearest town, to find new clothes and have lunch before heading back to Queenstown. After a night in a rusty cabin, the superior hotel with views of Lake Wakatipu came just right to lean back and relax. Sushi dinner and a walk around town, discovering an amazing Argentinian café named "Patagonia" (Churros con Dulce de Leche, qué rico!), rounded the day of well-deserved luxury out.

Hotel Room
View of Lake Wakatipu
The next day was no less spectacular but a little more agreeable: a Gondola ride to the top of a mountain overlooking Queenstown, a luge ride with some truly amazing background scenery, a visit to an exquisite winery for some wine-tasting before heading on to Cromwell's fruit bowl and the wonders of Mount Cook National Park made for a perfect day:

We're going up, up, up. up, up =)
Luge rides in Queenstown
The idyllic winery
Vineyards and wine-tasting!
Cromwell's giant fruit bowl
Scenery along the way: from green pastures and sheep ...
... to snow-capped mountains and lush bush ...
... to raging rivers, ...
... from moonscapes...
... to lupin flowerbeds on the side of the road...
... and from dry prairies...
... to glacial lakes lined with pine trees: New Zealand has so much to offer!

That night, we stayed in the shades of Mount Cook, New Zealand's highest peak. While it was too rainy and too cold (6°C / 43°F, in summer!) for an extensive hike, we went up to the Tasman Glacier for amazing views of a glacial lake including icebergs and an amazing sunset behind the snow-capped mountain range.

Panoramic View of Mount Cook (click to enlarge)
Glacial lake with the glacier's snout far back into the valley

Before heading back to Christchurch, we visited one of the most remote filming locations of the Lord of the Rings trilogy: the set of Edoras, the capital city of Rohan. The rock on which the town was built can be found alongside the Rangitata River, about halfway between Lake Pukaki and Arthur's Pass in New Zealand's hinterland. It truly felt like Shadowfax was about to appear in the rolling hills.
Edoras filming location
Although so short, this roadtrip was one of the best experiences ever, with both the responsibility and flexibility that comes with renting a car! Both Jackie and I have seen places in New Zealand that we had never seen before (for Jackie, that means pretty much everything) - the adventure that we had both been looking for. After returning to Christchurch and staying with Ji and Toon for another night, Jackie caught her flight to Auckland (and then on to the States) and I went to Nelson. But that will be the topic of another post... So long everyone and I'll keep you posted and will see most of you in just over two weeks.

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