Having shed my orange dressing gown and disturbing silk pyjama top we headed on to a small town called Franz Josef. The town is basically one large tourist mecca. There are backpackers, internet cafes and tour operators as far as the eye can see and most of them are in the business of accommodating for the main attraction, the Franz Josef glacier. There are a number of ways to enjoy the glacier including skydives and helicopter rides but we all plumped for the no. 1 mode of transport: our legs. Most of us went for the full-day glacier hiking option. We got fitted out in numerous layers and given a bag each which contained our crampons. In my experience there is no such thing as average weather in NZ and so it proved as we were treated to some truly atrocious weather! Our guide literally hacked steps out of the ice as we walked upwards past great walls of ice and even greater crevasses. We were all glad of our crampons as conditions were fairly precarious. There were a few ocassions when members of our group lost half a leg down a deceptively deep puddle! Things got interesting when we stopped for lunch as it suddenly became clear how cold it was up on the glacier. We were also soaking wet head-to-toe, the state of my sandwiches paying testament to this! As conditions steadily detoriated it became more and more precarious to stay on the glacier. In the end our guide got the call to turn round before the river and waterfalls became so heavy flowing that we would have to be helivacked off. On our way down we got caught in a burst of horizontal hail so vicious it stung the face and body. At this point we had to do our best emperor penguin impressions. We all huddled together and trudged slowly over the glacier, making our emigration to dryer land. As we made our way down, all that was left was to negotiate the final steep downhill steps, all the more interesting with a nice layer of water running over the top of the ice. Once back in the town and out of layers of soaking wet clothes our free hot chocolates came as a real tonic. All in all, an absolutely fantastic day though which I won't be forgetting in a hurry.
The following day we moved on to a place called Wanaka, a small town by the beautiful Lake Wanaka. A few friends (Ken and Henry) and I liked it so much there that we decided to stay on another day and embark on an epic adventure. Our first port of call was the tourist info centre where we learnt of the walks in the area. We were reliably informed that there was a lovely walk up a hill which overlooked the lake and surrounding mountains. The impression we got was that the track started not far down the road but after labouring for a good fifteen minutes we decided to get a second opinion at a hotel reception. At this point we were informed we had about an hour to the start of the track. This came as a bit of a shock but we decided, with varying levels of enthusiasm, to walk and see if we could hitch a ride to the base. We didn't get any luck and ended up walking the whole way! Thinking we had stumbled across a shortcut we headed straight up the mountainside, unknowingly straying further and further from the main track. We stumbled half exhausted across a field of sheep and cows and knew we were seriously lost and needed to get back on the trail. After a period randomly aiming ourselves in the direction we thought we should be going we eventually found the track. It was nice to discover that it was a far more pleasant experience than our shortcut because we were no longer climbing at a ridiculous angle! The climb was well worth it as the views were absolutely stunning and we actually got high enough to be in the snow. It got extremely slippery though so we decided not to go to the very top, or that is our excuse anyway, and headed back down. At the bottom we successfully managed to hitch a ride back in town which we were delighted about. We met up with a few other friends (Vicky and Marta) and our curries that evening were well deserved.
The following day we set off for the extreme sports capital of NZ, a place called Queenstown. From there you can take on more absurd activities than you could possibly think up. There was no way I would be jumping off a ledge from a stupid height so my extreme sports were confined to happy hours and a day of skiing. Skiing was all the more interesting for me as I hadn't done it for nearly nine years and was going with Henry and Marta, who were seasoned skiers. By the afternoon I was on the black (advanced) slopes, hanging on for dear life. I spent a fair bit of time on my arse, back, ear, nose, you name it, but overall I was pretty pleased with how quickly I'd picked it back up. By far the funniest thing to happen over the course of the day was not on the slopes but at the ski lift. Henry, Marta and some other guys we knew were in front of me in the queue so I took my place in the next batch to go with three Kiwi girls. I lined up at the gate alongside them but as we moved forward to get on the ski-lift they obviously hadn't seen me and so didn't give me enough room to line up alongside them. This wouldn't have been a problem if it wasn't for the fact that a ski-lift was behind us at that very moment. We all got sent in various directions but managed to stay on the ski-lift which the operators had to halt so we could disentangle ourselves. I had one arm under one of them and a leg draped across another. As a way of introducing yourself I don't think it gets much smoother, it was certainly a conversation starter!
After a few days in Queenstown, Henry, Marta, Vicky and myself were booked on a four-day bus tour of the very southern tip of NZ. It was a nice escape as it was far less touristy and a welcome relief for the wallet! On the second day we got to see both sealions and penguins which was really cool, especially the penguins. They are so funny, they just stand around for ages then waddle a couple of metres then repeat. We were informed they had spent the whole day fishing which I found hard to believe as they were so lazy when we saw them the only thing I could imagine them catching was a cold! Later that day in Curio Bay, next stop Antartica, two of us went for a walk to take some photos on the coastline and in an attempt to take some close-ups of the waves we got too close and a huge wave came over the rocks and soaked us almost to our knees!
Our penultimate stop on the route was at a place called Te Anau. Te Anau followed a familiar NZ town formula I'd seen = a small town situated next to a picturesque lake and surrounded by snow capped mountains. This time the four of us decided to hire bikes. The weather was stunning, there was a brilliant blue sky and once again stunning views. The only problem with NZ in winter on a sunny day is that once you lose the sun it is freezing!
Te Anau was our pick-up point for a day trip to the highly rated Milford Sound. Our bus was late to pick us up as the driver had to fight his way through snow to get to us. We soon saw some for ourselves on our drive through to Milford Sound. The drive itself is absolutely stunning and takes you through Lord of the Rings country. At one point our driver had to put on the chains to get us through a particularly wild mountain pass. Once through the worst part we had to go through the pitch dark, single-lane Homer tunnel which measures roughly 1.4km. On the otherside we had a downhill moutain road to the boat terminal. We had a three-hour boat cruise to look forward to and after an iffy start the weather fined up wonderfully for us. Milford Sound is situated in the Fiordland National Park and it runs in from the Tasman Sea. It is bordered on both sides by sheer snow-capped moutains which often have waterfalls running off them. At the time I didn't truly appreciate its beauty but in hindsight it was an amazingly stunning area. The problem is NZ is so beautiful you lose a realistic point of reference. A big problem I know!
At the end of a very long day we made our way all the way back to Queenstown. Having said goodbye to my mates I am now heading back up the South Island and will be crossing over to the North Island tomorrow. I will be sad to leave the South Island but am looking forward to my final week in NZ and my last 12 days travelling. Excuse my sentimentality!
Anyway, that is all for now I think.
Take care everyone,