Sorry for the delay (again) in posting another update...since the last one, thing's have been all go!
River Valley, a remote lodge set deep in a valley, was the next port of call after Taupo. So remote in fact that we had to walk the last bit down to the lodge because the hill was too steep for the bus to get down - fine going downhill on the way in, but very steep on the way out! The lodge offered dorms with a difference - giant bunk beds stretching across one wall of the room - and a huuuuuge roast dinner, which was sufficiently defeated. The next day was an easy morning with a game of golf on a PGA Masters-quality course...ok, maybe not quite, seeing as it was in a sheep field (extra points for the sheep, apparently!). We arrived in Wellington too late to see anything of the city and as we had to leave early the next day to catch the ferry across to Picton on the South Island, this is a stop to be done on the way back up.
The early start was greeted by our (worried) driver telling us that the bus wouldn't start and no replacements. Eventually, a shuttle bus was chartered to take us to the terminal. It wasn't quite so straight forward though, with some of us having a morning work-out sprinting down the street and across traffic lights to collect stuff from the bus to take back to the shuttle bus which was just pulling up - hearing the sound of a bus start to pull away as you are crossing in front of it is one of more interesting wake up calls, I reckon!
Once off the ferry in Picton, Nelson was next stop for the night - another point of interest for Lord of the Rings fans as it's where the jewellers who made the rings used in the films are based.
On the way out of Nelson, we visited Lake Rotoiti en route to Westport. That afternoon included jet boating along the Buller river - cold and wet, but a good laugh. Hard to comprehend that when a river floods in NZ it can rise by 17metres - especially when it's already 20m+ deep!
From Westport, a busy day was ahead. This started with a walk along the cliffs from Cape Foulwind to Tauranga Bay (the closest point to Australia) where there's a fur seal colony basking on the rocks below. From here, the blowholes and 'pancake rocks' at Punakaiki (which we weren't sure actually resembled pancakes too much!). Greymouth was the next stop to find some fancy dress costumes for the evening's event - the famous (or infamous?!) 'Poo Party' at Lake Mahinapua (aka the 'Poo Pub'). This is run by NZ's oldest landlord - 84 year-old Les, you're typical grumpy old man, but a good laugh too. Each Kiwi Experience bus has a different theme for their party and for us, 'Nationalities' was decided on. The 2nd-hand shops were raided...everyone in town seems to know about the parties...and a public school-boy outfit (of sorts!) constructed....even if it did have a slight similarity to a train driver! The road out of Greymouth features a one-lane road which also doubles up as a train track! An interesting concept! At the 'Poo Pub', a huge BBQ dinner was laid on, followed by the fancy dress party into the early hours.
Despite some of the scenery in the North Island (especially Bay of Islands) being quite striking, travelling down the West coast of the South Island really shows New Zealand's true colours. Flat plains and green valleys, backed by snow-capped mountains. Quite spectacular. Franz Josef was to be our next destination - after visiting a Bushman's Centre which unfortunately didn't have any possum pies :-(
Franz Josef has the feel of a small ski-resort, with a very relaxed atmosphere (as with much of the South Island) but lively at the same time. In the afternoon, some of us went Kayaking on a Glacier Lake. It was decided that this was one of, if not the best, value for money activity on offer (photos on my Facebook!). Kayaking across a lake (3km across!) with the glacier in the background and sun setting over the mountains was very surreal but very very cool. With the water running straight down the mountains and hils, the lake's water is very pure and despite its brown colour from the minerals it picks up along the way, actually tastes great.
Our second day in Franz Josef brought the heli-hike up the glacier. The helicopter ride to the top revealed an aerial view of the vast glacier plain which has been left bare as the glacier has retreated over the years. Once we landed high up the glacier, the blue ice was quite a sight. This colour is brought about due to the Oxygen content in the ice. On the ice, we were taken through crevises, tunnels and caves - and despite having crampons on, it was still slippery...resulting in people sliding backwards down the ice spikes first! Ouch! (Also, for those who know, I have purposfully not mentioned the band!).
From Franz Josef, we were treated to the most scenic drive of the trip, towards Wanaka. This included a stop at Lake Matheson which is known has having a perfect reflection of Mount Tasman and Mount Cook on its still surface.
Just realised I'm rambling, so I'll try to be a bit briefer. So much has happened, but I'll try to condense it a little!!!!
Finally we were en-route to Queenstown. This was the end of the trip for some and time to say farewell to them - with an appropriate send off! In Queenstown, I decided to book some skiing lessons at Coronet Peak (I survived but I'm not sure I would say I mastered it yet!). After a day skiing, it was off to Fergburger for dinner - some of the best burgers ever which have a worldwide reputation! After 3 days at Queenstown it was time for many to go separate ways and a nice meal was in order. This night rocked, quite literally, when somebody noticed the table moving...and then the pictures on the walls and the whole building. With earthquakes reasonably common in the area, the waitress' laughter sudddenly turned to concern and we realised it was quite a big one (we later found out it was 7.8 on the richter scale)! Whilst many ran for doorways (apparently the safest place) or outside, it seems I was more concerned as to when I was going to get my pudding and stayed put at the table! Maybe next time I should seek safety?!! Have to say it was quite cool to have experienced it (and free, too!) but not on a regular occurance, thanks!
From Queenstown, a few of us moved onto the bottom tip of the South Island, taking in Dunedin, Invercargill and Te Anau before heading back to Queenstown via Milford Sound. The (long) drive to Milford is another great one, taking in mountains, hanging glaciers, mirror lakes all in one go. It's also one of the most dangerous with all vehicles required to carry snow chains - you can see why when one moment it's sunny on clear roads and the next it's a blizzard along an icy road! Unfortunately it clouded over just as we boarded the boat at Milford Sound (which is apparently wrongly named as it's a fiord rather than a sound) but the size of the mountains surrounding it was still mightily impressive.
Now in Christchurch and heading back up the East coast of the South Island in the coming days and weeks.