Dunedin to Blenheim
This was a really bustling city, with an edgy, funky vibe. Parts of it reminded Tim and I of Bristol, around the bohemian Park Street area. New Zealand's oldest university is here (out of 5 in the country), lending the city a youthful exuberance. The city was settled by Scotts, and the name itself apparently means 'Edinburgh' in Celtic. There was some very elegant and familiar-looking architecture, with large, Victorian terraced houses with generous bay windows, and grand-looking municipal buildings. We spent a couple of days pottering around, and visited the excellent art gallery there which is well-worth a visit. The lower floors has some interesting European exhibits, including 14th century Italian religious paintings, and a number of European portraits from Victorian times. Upstairs were more contemporary pieces, and a fascinating exhibition about the life and works of Rita Angus - one of the most famous artists in New Zealand. We learned about her somewhat reclusive and troubled life, and how she devoted her life to her art and peace-keeping causes. It was fascinating to see how the changes in the life were reflected in her artistic style.
We also visited Baldwin Street, the steepest street in the world!! It was so steep, that none of the residents parked their cars on it, and there were steps to climb to the top. We witnessed a couple of drivers put their foot down and make it all the way to the top. Hilarious! We refrained from taking our lovely Phoebe up, as we did not want to subject her to unnecessary torment, preferring instead to give our thighs a workout!!
The Otago Peninsula is like a very picturesque oasis, jutting out into the South Pacific within an easy drive from Dunedin. It was impossibly beautiful as we drove to the end, with the road clinging on to the edge of the coastline, on a route that would not at all look out of place on a Top Gear shoot. The water became increasingly blue and clear as we drove to the end, and the rolling hills were draped in a patchwork of fields. We drove to the very end of the peninsula and admired the majestic Royal Albatross circling effortlessly overhead. At the far end of the peninsula, the land rears up steeply and forms a precipitous cliff, home to a colony of these impressive birds. The birds rode the currents of air directly above us, as I craned my neck upwards and gazed in awe at their vastness. Their wing span can reach 3.3 metres, and some live until their 60s. The Royal Albatross is the largest sea-bird in the world, and treads a fine line in their relationship with fisherman. They fall prey to the fast-sinking long-lines cast out by fishing boats, and we learned about initiatives to try and reduce the incidence of drowning of this beautiful bird. The Royal Albatross Centre on the Otago Peninsula is doing sterling work trying to educate the public and the fishing industry about this endangered bird, to try and ensure they do not become extinct.
The journey to Mount Cook took us several days, and proved a fascinating part of the road trip. The road took us through mountain ranges where the foothills were covered in thousands of wild rose bushes, all heavily laden with rose buds. There were also wild apple trees, with branches bending under the weight of the nearly-ripened fruit. The sun shone for us for most of the journey, and cast its warm light onto the tussocky hills giving them an orange glow. There was also a bizarre hydro-electric power station, with numerous outlets and races, and massive dams. Tim discovered this was a prime fishing spot, and fly-fished for enormous rainbow trout in the bizarrely blue water. The water around here has rock sediment in it, which reflects the blue of the sky, causing it to be a very intense milky blue colour. Quite pretty really. Tim came back with 2 substantial trout (both rainbow) which we feasted on for a few nights!! The fish were fat from tucking in to the food given to the salmon at the near-by salmon farm.
Our first glimpse of Mount Cook was suitably impressive. The mountain is the highest in New Zealand, and was still covered in a generous coating of snow. The sunset on our first night in the area gave the mountain the illusion of glowing like embers in a fire. It looked magical. Unfortunately, when we drove to the mountain itself, the weather took a turn for the worse, and we walked up the foothills near where we were camping at the base, and were rather disappointed that the mountain was not as amazing close-up as we had imagined. The mountain looked cold and grey and unappealing, with grey rocks, and a grey sky. What was interesting however was the array of beautiful alpine plants that succeed in growing here, with tiny waxy leaves to protect the plants from the harsh conditions. We also saw an avalanche, and heard the thunder of a few others, with the sound bouncing off the rocky valley walls. This is commonplace in the area, and emphasises the need to bear such factors in mind when exploring the mountain faces! We did not actually walk on the mountain itself due to the poor weather, and found it was much more impressive admired from afar, where we could truly appreciate its spectacular form and majesty.
The best view of Mount Cook we saw was from a popular view point at the far end of Lake Pukaki. From here, we could enjoy the full view of the mountain, with the lake in the foreground. On a clear day, the mountain is even reflected in the waters.
I loved this city!! It was so leafy, green and beautiful, with such a cosmopolitan feel to it. The city itself was deliberately designed to be quintessentially English, and there are indeed a lot of immaculately maintained parks and gardens, with a picturesque river meandering between weeping willows, with people enjoying a relaxing evening punt. The architecture was very elegant, and peering up above the shop-fronts was rewarded accordingly. In contrast with the English deign for the city, there was also a street of very quaint Spanish missionary style houses, and a whole array of other quirky and interesting buildings designed by people of many nationalities who have moved to the city over the last decades. The city is now very mutli-cultural, with an energising vibe.
Tim and I strolled through beautiful botanical gardens and parks, full of lush, mature trees, and ambled along the river in the evening sunshine. We also visited the very impressive neo-gothic arts centre. This was fascinating to go to, and offered a selection of galleries, studios and workshops, set around a number of courtyards. We saw Slumdog Millionaire in an art deco cinema at the arts centre, which we simply loved, and which brought back vivid memories of our time travelling through India. We also saw the famous wizard, who is an eccentric local who offers his philosophies of life, the universe and everything at around 1pm each day outside the cathedral!!
Akaroa and the Banks Peninsula
This was another stunning peninsula, this time reaching out into the South Pacific near Christchurch. I really could have lived on this peninsula, surrounded by gorgeous, lush countryside, rolling hills and great beaches, yet with the trappings of the culture and fun of Christchurch nearby. We spent a happy day exploring the French town of Akaroa, full of delicious French bakeries and butchers, and pretty French-style shuttered houses. We then walked up into the hills of the peninsula, through pine forests and out across the fields, with spectacular views over the very pretty harbour. We saw little fledgling birds playing in the dirt, an enormous wild wood pigeon silhouetted against the evening sun, and some beautiful white doves relaxing on the roof of a romantic tucked away cottage, with a friendly feline sleeping on a gate! It restored our faith in the South Island, as we had experienced such dire weather all down the west coast and across to Milford Sound and even Mount Cook. Driving through mountain ranges is very impressive and spectacular, but after a while the novelty wears off and it can seem unforgiving and bleak. Tim and I were both ready for some scenery tat was a bit easier on the eye, and the Banks Peninsula turned out to be the balm that we so needed!
The drive into Kaikoura was very impressive. The road clung to the coastline, which was wild and rocky, and full of fat sea lions lazing on the shore. The scenery in this area is spectacular. The small town of Kaikoura itself is situated on a peninsula, with a spectacular mountain backdrop. The coast is very rugged, and we passed through tunnels blasted int the cliffs. We stayed at a very tiny, tucked away DOC site, where inquisitive fantails darted out of apple trees to come and check us out.
I had always dreamed of swimming with dolphins, and this was the main reason we came to Kaikoura, as it is famous for its whale and dolphin encounters. After arriving in Kaikoura in glorious weather, I woke up on the day of the dolphin swim to hear fat drops of rain falling on the roof of the van. I tried to be optimistic and think that it often rains inland with better weather over the coastal areas. We drove sleepily into town after getting up at 05.45, and sure enough the rain cleared. Sadly however, it was too windy out at sea for the swim to go ahead, so we left the area with sinking hearts, wondering if this bad weather that had followed us around much of the South Island was determined to spoil all the main highlights we had been looking forward to. We were able to take a stroll along a cliff down to a bizarre beach, where we could see ridges worn into the ground where the whaling ships used to be hauled out of the ocean, laden with their prize catch. I am just glad this terrible industry is now long over in New Zealand, and replaced by an industry that encourages positive whale encounters, while working to research into preserving the various whale species that frequent the waters off New Zealand.
This area is famous for its prolific wine growing industry. It was an interesting area to visit, as mile upon mile of vineyards stretched towards the mountains in the distance, and the sun shone down. We visited Cloudy Bay, St Clair and the Montana wineries., and drove past many more. The latter was the first commercial winery to establish itself in New Zealand, and is now the largest in the country. We joined a Danish coach group for a translated guided tour (don't ask!!), which was thoroughly informative. We walked passed literally millions of litres of wine as we learned about the various process involved. The best bit of course was the wine tasting at the end, where we sampled various different wines produced on the Montana estate, and learned how to taste wine in a more educated way. I felt quite tipsy by the end!!