Our arrival at Christchurch airport was uneventful. We even managed to get our embargoed goods past the customs inspector without too much of a hassle! Then we got to the car rental. Not so smooth. We had booked with National and we couldn’t find their desk. Finally we asked someone and they said “oh yeah, you want Europcar”. That seemed odd to us since we didn’t book with Europcar but that is apparently how it is. They did have our National reservation so that was helpful but they were not able to give us a car at the price we had been quoted they would need to charge us $400 more than what we had planned to pay. Surprise! We eventually came to a compromise, found our roller skate in the parking lot and were on our way.
Our first night was in a little town of about 2000 people called Geraldine. We stayed in a self contained unit at a holiday park, that we picked because it was called Grumpy’s. It really reminded Andy of his childhood vacations at the Blue Dolphin Holiday Camp in Filey. Our reason for stopping here was to go to the Transportation museum. It was full of cars, tractors, motorcycles and even a bi-plane. We both wished that our Dads were with us to explain some of the finer points.
Our second night was in Oamaru. This is about half-way down the island on the east coast and people go there to see the penguins. There are two types: yellow eyed and blue. First we went to the area where the yellow eyed penguins nest. It is on an exposed cliff side above the sea and you can only reach it with a guide. We were able to get close to an adult penguin who had two chicks in the nest. We also saw one come ashore. I have really only seen penguins swimming underwater. In actual fact they also can swim on top of the water and look similar to a duck. That is what the penguin we saw was doing before it decided to come on shore. Then we went to the blue penguin nesting site, which is a much slicker affair. We were able to see many chicks in their nests using viewing tubes that don’t disturb the birds. Later that night we came back for the big show. At about 9:00pm when the sun goes down, all of the adult penguins that have been out feeding all day come home. They gather in groups just off shore. When there are enough of them that they feel safe they swim up onto the beach. This part is actually kind of funny because often times the waves knock them over and they have to try a few times before they get onto their feet. Then they climb up the rocks to the top of the hill. Here they wait again until a group forms, then they make a dash over the small patch of open ground into their nests. It is really cool because they use sodium lights which only put off light in the red/orange spectrum and the birds can’t sense it. So the people are able to watch but the birds are not disturbed. We saw about 170 penguins come ashore! FYI: It should tell you something about the weather here that we were watching penguins in the middle of summer. It is not spectacularly warm. We stayed at a bed and breakfast that was recommended to us by one of the girls at the penguin colony. It was ok, but it was less B&B and more just house. The owners were friendly but slightly vacant in the way of someone who did too many drugs in the 70’s.
Our next two nights were spent in Wanaka. This is on a lake surrounded by mountains in the center of the island and is very scenic and beautiful. Apparently both Shania Twain and John Travolta have houses nearby. We stayed at the Wanaka Motel, which was the first hotel built in town. Strangely, it has burned down twice, once in the 1920’s and once in the 1950’s. I made Andy find the location of our nearest fire extinguisher before we went to bed! From here we made our way to the historic Kawarau Bridge built in 1880. It is also historic as it is the site of the first ever bungy jump. A guy named AJ Hackett strapped a cord to his ankles and leapt! It was drizzling a little so it wasn’t busy. Before we even had time to think Andy had been signed up and was out on the bridge getting his ankles wrapped. We hadn’t even gotten to see anyone else jump! Andy walked out to the edge, waved to the crowd and without hesitation dove off, for the 43 meter fall (aprox. 130 feet). If he ever does something like that again someone else needs to be there to stand with me because I just about had a heart attack! When he finally caught his breath, he did say that it was scary but exhilarating. They send a little boat out in the river to catch you afterwards, so at least you don’t have to be hauled back up or swim for it. After that we both needed a drink! We went to a winery called Gibbston Valley that actually stores it’s wine in a cave that they blasted out of the hillside. The Central Otago region is a cool climate region and is known for its pinot noir. We did a tasting in the cave and then went to the adjacent cheese shop to have a bit of a snack. Yummy! Next we stopped at an abandoned gold field. It was quite interesting as you are able to walk all around the site. After our tour we even got to pan for gold. Andy will tell you he found a small flake, but it was too small for me to see! We stopped at another place on the way back to Wanaka, where you are able to taste Pinot Noir’s from several different vineyards. It was all very smooth and drinkable, not at all overpowering like cabernet and merlot can be. Back in Wanaka we ate dinner at a place called the Butchery (all steaks, guess who picked it!). After dinner we went to a bar in the same complex that has three giant log fires every night, which I enjoyed by sitting as close as humanly possible.
The next day we crossed the mountains to the west coast. It was all very scenic… for Andy. For me it was a never ending drive of hair pin turns, up,up,up and then down,down,down. It was also misty raining just to make it fun. Meanwhile Andy is in the passenger seat, camera clicking away, saying things like “it’s so beautiful” or “look another waterfall”, but if I looked away from the road for two seconds another nasty turn would quickly appear. The west side of the island is temperate rain forest, so it is green and lush. Moss grows on everything and the forest is full of ferns and other greenery. We finally got to the coast and made a quick stop at Fox glacier. We walked in the rain to view the bottom of the glacier. At times it is possible to walk right to the “face” but it was closed because of the weather. We continued on our way another 20 minutes or so to Franz Joseph glacier. We had scheduled a heli-hike for the following day and it didn’t look good. The guides told us that no decision would be made until the morning, so there was nothing to do but wait. When morning arrived it was fairly clear and not raining so we had high hopes. When we got to the center however, there was bad news. The weather was good so the helicopter could fly. Unfortunately since it had been raining for over a week, the landing spot on the glacier was gone. A new one would have to be hand carved by some of the guides which would take hours and by that time there was no guarantee that the weather would be decent enough to fly. We decided that it wasn’t worth it to do a short walk from the bottom because you get very little time on the actual ice. As we walked down the street feeling dejected we came across a place that did flights in a small eight seat plane. They had a flight leaving in 30 minutes so we booked onto that. The flight itself was a little bit nerve wracking as we seemed to be flying directly into mountains several times but the view was awesome. Andy even got to sit in the co-pilot seat and wear the headphones so he was privy to what the air traffic control and the other pilots were saying! We got great views of both the Fox and Franz Joseph glacier as well as Mount Cook, the highest mountain in New Zealand. This was especially cool because we were able to fly closely around the top of it where it was actually above the clouds! By the time we landed the clouds were already starting to come in again so we felt lucky that we had gotten to see anything at all. The pilot told us it was the first day that it had been clear enough to fly in over a week and I suspect it might be for some time as it has continued to rain. We did stop at Franz Joseph glacier after the flight. We walked out to the viewing platform and took some great pictures.
After our adventures we drove north to Greymouth and spent the night there, after having dinner at a restaurant with someone else’s Christmas party! The next day it was actually raining quite heavily so it took us most of the day to drive back across the island to Christchurch. This was up and over a different pass through the mountains, which was equally as hair raising as the other road.
We spent today in Christchurch, which is the biggest town on the south island. We saw the cathedral, went shopping, rode the tram, and went to the Canterbury Museum. The museum was interesting as it has a large Antarctica display because Christchurch is the last major stop in civilization, not just for the explorers like Scott and Shackleton but also for US and UK scientists who go there today. Tomorrow we continue our adventure when we head for the north island for five days!