After leaving Christchurch I boarded the first of my Kiwi buses to spend the next five days travelling down the west coast of the south island towards Queenstown. I'd heard various reports about the whole 'Kiwi experience' bus mentality and was wondering if I'd made the wrong decision about the way to travel here, but I soon found I had nothing to worry about. The nightmare of a bus full of 18 year olds never materialised and right from the start I met a great group of people.
Our first journey was from Christchurch across to the Southern Alps to the west coast. There were only 11 of us doing this bit, so we had a small minibus for the first part of the day to take us over to meet up with a bigger coach later.?This was my first chance to see some of what New Zealand has to offer and I wasn't disappointed. The scenery was fantastic as we went through the Lewis pass, passing rolling hills,?snow capped mountains and aqua blue rivers. We stopped for a couple of walks and to see Mansia falls before we arrived in Murchison to meet up with the rest of the crew.
Our destination that night was a little town called Westport, not really much to do there other than chill out but the hostel was really nice, just like staying in someone's home, with no bunk beds and a roaring log fire! So far so good after day one on the road, although I have to say I wasn't liking the cold weather much. After spending five months in hot hot climates, the fact that I'd had to hunt out my fleece and proper shoes was a bit of a shock to the system!
The next day was Good Friday and in New Zealand that means pretty much everything is closed. It was kind of nice to remember the times when it was also like this at home, rather than now where the only days when the shops aren't open is Christmas Day and Easter Sunday, although I'm sure you could find some if you looked hard enough..!
So in typical bank holiday fashion we had a lie in as the bus didn't leave until 9.30am. Then it was off to the coast for a lovely scenic walk at Cape Foulwind past?a seal colony. The Tasman coastline all the way along was rugged yet breathtaking. The landscape changed frequently from farmland to bush to rainforest always with the southern alps mountain range in the background. We also passed plenty of sheep as well as huge farms of deer - I hadn't realised the New Zealand was also famed for it's venison farming.
After a stop at the most westerly point in New Zealand (so also the nearest point to Australia) and another kodak moment at Irimahuwhero viewpoint, we drove on until we reached Punakaiki for lunch. This is also the point to view the pancake rocks and blowholes. The pancake rocks?are stratified limestone stacks that have eroded over time to look like big stacks of pancakes - pretty impressive.
We did stop briefly in Greymouth later in the afternoon to pick some?more people up and the true reality of Good Friday set in as there was absolutely nothing open, other than one small cafe and a backpacker's hostel. No capitalising on the bank holiday tourism rush here then! And then we finally arrived at our accomodation for the night at Lake Mahinapua - a small pub with some cabins, a very strange owner called Les who looked like a hobbit, a lake and a beach - nothing else around for miles. We had time to walk out to the lake and the beach before dark, but the prospect of sitting and waiting for the sun to set was not so appealing as we'd first thought as the beach was more black than golden sand and the wind was whipping across making it more than just a little chilly. So instead we went back into the pub for it's warm fire and cheap beer during happy hour. We had to enter through the back door though as apparently they'd been granted a special license to open just for our bus - no-one just passing by was allowed to come in so we had to make it look like it was actually closed for the day!
That night after a great feast of steak and venison we had a fancy dress party - theme cartoons and superheroes. The fancy dress selection was fairly limited but everyone made an effort and it was a good night - a great chance for everyone to get to know each other properly.
The next morning there were a few sore heads on the bus and our first stop of the day didn't do much to help. The Bushman's centre at Pukekora was a peculiar place where we were treated to a video all about how venison farming started in New Zealand (lots of men jumping from helicopters in an attempt to catch the wild deer and start official farms), got to feed a giant pig and see possums - a very bizarre combination?! After than somewhat confusing stop we travelled straight through to Franz Josef to book our activities for the next day. I signed up for the full day glacier walk, although we weren't able to catch our first glimpse of the glacier as it was too cloudy that afternoon. Instead we took a short walk through the bush to the Tatare tunnels and were rewarded with fantastic views down the river and cold toes from the freezinf water in the tunnels! Then it was an early night ready for the next day's expedition...
Easter Sunday arrived and I had chosen to spend mine climbing a glacier. Thankfully we had a beautiful sunny day and I caught my first glimpse of the massive lump of ice before we even left town - it looked stunning nestled in between the mountains. After collecting all our gear for the day - boots, talons, raincoats, hats, gloves...etc etc - we were bused out to as near to the bottom of the glacier as transport can take you. We still had a 2km walk through the bush and along the river bed to even reach the bottom of the glacier (or the terminal face as it's more technically called!) but with everyone's eyes cast firmly on this amazing natural phenomenon in front of them it didn't take us long to get there. We had a brief rest while we put on our talons and then the climb began. It wasn't as tough as I'd expected it to be as the guides cut out kind of steps in the ice so with your talons providing plenty of grip it's not too strenuous. The first part of the climb was the steepest and after we stopped for an early lunch we spent the rest of the day weaving in and out of the spectacular ice formations, marvelling at the structures and climbing higher and higher, squeezing through tiny crevases and crawling through little tunnels. As you got higher up the ice became so blue in places it just didn't look real and you had to keep pinching yourself to make yourself realise you were actually here. This glacier is one of only three glaciers in the world that are still growing (there's one a few kms down the road, and the other is on the Chilian/Argentinian border), but this one is unique as it's only 240m above sea level. Glaciers are usually at least 200m+ above sea level. And of course being Easter Sunday I had to have the customary Cadbury's creme egg, so it travelled up the glacier with me for that classic kodak moment!
After a long hot shower and plenty of rest to recover from the climb, the next day we headed Lake Matheson in the morning, a beautiful lake where if the weather is right you get a perfect reflection in the lake from the mountains in the background. Fortunately after a delay for coffee the early morning cloud cleared and a quick walk around the lake allowed me to get some great pictures. Then we settled back onto the bus for a long drive back over the southern alps through the Haast Pass towards Wanaka. On the way there were a few photo stops as we got our first look at Lakes Wanaka and Hawea. It's hard to explain to someone just how amazing these views are, the photos just don;t do them justice and to anyone who hasn't seen them I'm sure it just looks like another stretch of water with more mountains in the background, but I honestly can't rave about the scenery enough..!
When we eventually arrived in Wanaka I was disappointed I only had one night here because the town itself was beautiful - a real little apline ski village. We didn't have much time so I went for a walk down by the lake and then after dinner went to the cinema...what's so interesting about that I hear you all saying...well this is a cinema with a difference. Instead of the usual uncomfortable seats where your knees are rammed into the seat in front, in this one everyone sits on sofas, with cushions, just like being at home. And if you're feeling particularly adventurous you can even sit in the car which is also in there, just like being at a drive in. But if that's not enough to induce you, at half time they bring out the most delicious homemade cookies - I had white chocolate and ginger and they really are to die for, warm, gooey and too good for words!