And so to New Zealand....arriving in Auckland from a crazy city like Ho Chi Minh was a bit of a culture shock - all so quiet, calm and ordered. Even the weather was very English summer - after a beautiful first evening the next day it was raining so unfortunately we didn't see Auckland at it's best but did enjoy the Museum where we started our education on New Zealand's 'short' history, people and beautiful landscapes! Also enjoyed a great evening and dinner with Jean & Malcolm's friends, John and Nicky, who now live in the hills overlooking Auckland.
The weather did improve as we made our way south from Auckland first to Hobbiton - a must for Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit fans like Paul, although I really enjoyed it too - then on for a whole week in one place.....(bliss!!) .....an apartment at Turangi, just south of Lake Taupo near Tongariro National Park, with the dramatic backdrop of the volcanic mountains Tongariro, Ruapehue and Ngauruhoe (Mt Doom in The Lord of the Rings films). From there we did a couple of day trips, first to the amazing glow worm caves at Waitomo where we spent quite a surreal 45 minutes floating on a raft in complete darkness apart from millions of glittering glow worms covering the walls and ceiling of the cave. Another day we drove to Orakei Korako (think that means 'Hidden Valley), between Taupo and Roturua - thermal hot springs for an incredible 2 hour wander around silica terraces, boiling pools & geysers. We also had a brilliant 'wet and wild' afternoon white-water rafting on the Tongariro River - I think we travelled over 60 rapids through a beautiful unspoilt part of the river only accessible by raft or kayak. Obviously, we had to concentrate on following the instructions to negotiate the rapids but in between there was sometime to enjoy the peace and tranquility. At one point Paul got out of the raft and just floated down alongside...pulling him back in was more difficult.....and I got to jump off a boulder about 6m high into the river....never again....because I was fully kitted out in wet-suit, fleece and life jacket, just how cold the water would be didn't occur to me - big mistake but I survived to tell the tale!
For a view of the volcanic peaks, live craters and beautiful Emerald, Blue and Tama Lakes we splashed out on a 35 minute flight over the national park rather than do the Tongariro Alpine Crossing - an all day 20km trek (apparently the best trek in New Zealand). Perhaps a bit lazy but a definite highlight of our trip so far. We had perfect weather, a lovely calm pilot (the best part of his safety instructions was 'if you see another plane just tap me on the shoulder'). The landscape was amazing to see - the colours were so vivid and we flew so close to the mountains. Hopefully the photos do it justice.
After our supposed week of relaxation, we headed west to Napier for a couple of days. Although chosen for it's proximatey to a place called Waimarama, in the Hawkes Bay region, where Paul's great, great grandfather settled back in 1860's .....we really loved the art-deco architecture, the beach and relaxed feel of Napier. We spent a lovely day in Waimarama, including our first dip in the sea, finding out more about Paul's ancestors who actually played quite a part in the history of the area. All so interesting and whetted Paul's appetite for some further research - any excuse not to get another job.
We moved on to Wellington next.....enjoyed probably our best meal of the whole trip so far (crab and fish on the dockside) and also applied for our visas for India - not such an enjoyable experience but despite having to leave our passports there to be returned to us by post ( a bit stressful) - it all worked out and we received our passports with visas back in time for us to have a relaxed Christmas Day. Another little hiccup was not being able to book the car ferry between North & South islands due to the backlog of vehicles caused by one of the ferries breaking down a few weeks before...wasn't due to be fixed before the New Year! Managed to sort out it out ( at a price and some inconvenience) but that's 'travelling' you!! We picked up a smaller manual (rather than the automatic) car at Picton and was asked if we knew how to use a gear shift....haha.
We thought the scenery in the North island was fantastic so on arriving in the South Island we were amazed to find it even more so! We really hope that the photos show just how awesome it is. We drove from Picton to Kaiteriteri, a small bay close to Abel Tasman national park and spent a couple of nights there just taking in the scenery. Atfer that we headed down the West Coast toward Queenstown (our Christmas destination), stopping a night in each of Hokitika (on the coast), Franz Josef (for the glaciers) and Wanaka, beside a beautiful lake. It was a bit of a whistle stop tour and a shame that Paul was driving so couldn't experience the stunning views as well as me ( Paul- that's what she thinks...we were lucky to stay on the road sometimes as the views do catch your attention...and the roads are very twisty) but as you'll see from the photos we managed quite a few stops for the beautiful beaches, glaciers, sunsets etc.
We arrived in Queenstown on December 23rd, tired but very pleased to have a room overlooking the Lake ....but no respite we're up and off on a coach trip to Milford Sound at 7am on Christmas Eve. Although we were a bit concerned by the weather forecast of heavy rain to our amazement it turned out to be a fantastic trip as the rain triggers literally thousands of waterfalls rather than just the two permenant ones, so despite getting absolutely soaked, the sight of so much cascading water from such high mountains was awesome in the true sense of the word. The boat trip allowed us to see the falls from a different perspective, including almost underneath, and a seal colony. All in all, although a long 13 hour trip, it was well worth it as the driver gave a running commentary throughout and we learnt so much especially about farming, geography and geology.
Christmas Day.....just wasn't the same in 26 degrees, t shirt and shorts. I can honestly say that it's better in the cold. Church and carols in the morning was the real highlight of the day and the only time that we felt like it really was Christmas and unbelievably we missed all our family and friends....who would have thought. I even missed all the hard work that goes into preparing for it. Next Christmas will definitely be in the Northern hemisphere. The evening meal was nice and they did play a few Christmas tunes but it's not the same.
We left Queenstown on Boxing Day heading further south to Invercargill - the world's most southern city and it must have the widest streets as well. Stayed just one night then started our journey, via Bluff, right at the tip of New Zealand and the scenic coastal road, back North to Dunedin and then on to Christchurch the following day.
Here our plans came a little unstuck as we had to return the car at the airport late afternoon and because our Sydney flight had been brought forward we didn't have much time for Christchurch. As it was raining, although still warm, Paul decided he was not going into town to look at more shops so I ventured in alone for a few hours and then we camped down on a beanbag in the airport lounge to await our early morning flight to Sydney and the next stage of our adventure - really are getting too old for sleeping on the floor.....a long night.....
Summing up New Zealand is a really beautiful country...and very underpopulated which means plenty of space and open roads. On the downside lots of little sand flies(even Paul got his fair share) and the Internet was archaic.