Our last post was from the warmth and comfort of Verandas hostel in Auckland. Since then we have driven extensively round both the North and South Island in our 2 litre Toyota campervan named Ponce. A name which came to be surprisingly apt when trying to drive up steep steep hills to ski area car parks. Such routes are normally only tackled by 4X4's, nevertheless Ponce never let us down, despite a leaking radiator, dodgy electrics, a broken heater, wobbly steering and balding tyres!
But we are getting ahead of ourselves, let us take you back to Auckland. The day we picked Ponce up, we headed to Mercer airfield, 50km South of Auckland city. Here we both thought it would be fun to jump out of a small aircraft, so small there was only room for the pilot and his lunchbox, at 12,000 feet. From this height we could see both the Pacific Ocean and the Tasman Sea. From 12,000 feet, 50 seconds of freefall followed and before we knew it we were back on the ground whilst the plane was still a tiny white speck in the sky.
From here, we travelled to the Coromandel Peninsula for our first chilly night sleeping in a van (here we discovered the heater didn't work). Despite this, we fell in love with the Coromandel with it's deserted beaches and blue skies. On a good day, the NZ winter is possibly more stunning than a summer's day due to the complete lack of tourists. On a bad day, it is cold, wet, windy and foggy! Luckily we all but avoided the bad days.
After spending a couple of days exploring the Peninsula, we continued South to the smelly town of Rotorua (smelly due to the abundance of sulphurus geothermal activity, so abundant many locals tap into the natural resources to heat their houses). Here we saw NZ's largest geyser, the Pohutu Geyser, which at it's peak spurts boiling hot water and steam 30 metres into the air.
80 kms South of Rotorua is the lakeside town of Taupo. Lake Taupo is NZ's largest freshwater lake caused by the biggest volcanic explosion the world has ever known (quite a few years ago mind). We quite fancied doing the Tongariro Alpine Crossing from here, however we discovered we needed ice-picks and crampons due to the time of year so decided to put it off until our next visit (which will hopefully during the summer!). We did see some spectacular waterfalls here though - the Huka Falls. We also did a day walk up the river to the Aratiatia rapids. These used to be very impressive, apparently, until the NZ Government slapped a hydroelectric power station across them. However they do still open the dam gates a couple of times a day and we were careful to plan our walk so we could see this happen and watch the creation of the rapids. Taupo is also a geothermally active place and gave us the chance to view the boiling mud pools, mineral terraces, geysers and caves of the 'Hidden Valley'. We also had our very own hot mineral pool at our campsite.
From Taupo, we headed South to the capital city of Wellington where we spent a day looking around an impressive museum called Te Papa (the main attraction of Te Papa is that it is free and warm and dry, much needed in Windy Welly) and the Botanical Gardens. The next day we boarded a ferry to the South Island. The ferry ride was a bit choppy so Rachel stayed inside and felt ill while Simon chatted to random unlucky Germans and tried in vain to photograph the Queen Charlotte Sound and a school of dolphins who accompanied the ferry into the harbour at Picton.
That night we stayed in Motueka on the edge of the Abel Tasman National Park. Here we planned to go on a three day sea-kayak and walking trip and stay in huts in the National Park. Due to exceptionally rough seas, we were told the kayaking must be cancelled as we would not have been able to leave the bays. The weather showed no signs of improving so we headed South to Kaikoura. Stopping on the way to admire huge waves and NZ fur seals, thinking we had stumbled across a rare wildlife encounter when in fact the fur seal is found all around the coast.
Kaikoura is the place to see different species of whales so this is what we did! The boat trip was very choppy (swells of 2m) and after successfully crossing the Cook Strait, Simon decided not to take any sea-sickness tablets, a big mistake... However we did get to see 4 sperm whales on the trip. They visit this area of the East coast of the South Island due to the Kaikoura Canyon. This is where relatively shallow water meets very deep water providing nutrient rich currents, normally only experienced far out to sea.
From Kaikoura, we decided to travel West, over the Southern Alps. On our way across the country, we stayed in a little place called Hanmer Springs (more thermal pools) where it snowed! This made crossing the mountains tricky as we had to wait for the roads to be cleared. By lunchtime we were on our way over the Lewis Pass (this was Ponce's first big test). We stayed for a night in a little town called Westport before travelling South along the coast, stopping at 'Hokitika Gorge' and the 'Pancake Rocks and Blowholes'.
Our next stopping point was the spectacular West Coast glaciers: Franz Josef and Fox. We saw both glaciers but could only go up to Franz Josef as the path to Fox was closed due to ice and rock fall. There wasn't much more to do in this area and we were getting sick of being cold so decided to embrace the cold and snow and ski! We skied from a town called Wanaka which has two ski areas: Cardrona and Treble Cone. The lift pass we decided to buy allowed us to ski at both areas so we did 2 days at Cardrona and 3 at TC. Simon had not skied before but was unsurprisingly good by the end of the 5 days, so much so that he was the one doing the waiting (even though Rachel has skied quite a lot before... grr).
5 days later (and with lighter wallets) we moved on to the Fiordland National Park (SW coast) where we drove through fantastic scenery to Milford from where we took a cruise around the famous Milford Sound. Pleasingly this boat ride was much less choppy than the Pacific Ocean. In case any of you were wondering, we missed the earthquake by a day. This didn't seem to be a big deal to locals as there are around 10,000 every year!
Since then, we have made our way to Christchurch along the Southern Scenic Highway. We don't have much else to report except we are currently uploading our photos which is taking forever! We aren't going to put them on this blog but will post a link on here when we (finally) get them sorted. Apologies it has taken so long.
We fly to Sydney tomorrow where we will stay a few days while we try to sort out our Indian visas. After that, our plans are a bit sketchy! Please stay in touch, we do read our message board and our emails whenever we can. Hoping you're not enjoying the summer weather too much... love Rachel and Simon xxx