When someone innocently asks us on the phone 'how's your trip going?' or 'how's your trip been so far?', unbeknown to them, they throw us into quite a quandary, because where do you even begin answering a question like that?? We, of course, usually opt for the standard and expected 'really great, thanks' but this, naturally, does not even scratch the surface of how we feel about the, at times, unimaginably beautiful scenery we have encountered or the inspirational people we have met on our journey; and then there's New Zealand. A whole extra level of incredible, so maybe it's best no-one ever asks us again because it's just too damn hard to capture the spectacle and majesty of this country in a 10 second sound bite! Nevertheless, we will endeavour to tell all about part one of our south island adventure, in the hope it will encourage you to come and see for yourselves!
Having waved goodbye to Mum and Maria at Auckland we set off on our own flight to Christchurch in the south island. We picked up our new hire car (yaris-tastic!) and headed to our hostel. We were curious see just how much damage 2010's February earthquake had done and it didn't take long once we were out of the airport for the bumpy ground and extensive road closures to start giving us an idea. It wasn't until we headed towards the city centre the next day though that we realised just how massive the quake had been, evidenced quite effectively by the fact you cannot get anywhere near the city centre anymore. The whole area is now a red zone, the cathedral is falling down and is subject to a huge national debate about what should be done with it, and whole buildings still lie in rubble waiting for decisions to be made about what should be done next. Clearly we are not going to patronisingly wax lyrical about the bravery of Christchurchers here in 'living through' the disaster or 'staying strong for their city' as various government campaign posters would encourage locals to do, it is enough to see the impact of thousands of homes and livelihoods being destroyed in a matter of seconds and just to see it. What we will say however, is what a good job is being done of trying to encourage consumers back to the area, largely in the form of the 'container city' that now stands on the edge of the red zone. We have included photos in our new album, but basically numerous shipping containers have been stacked alongside each other and painted in bright colours for shops and cafes to operate from whilst their main buildings are refurbished. Almost certainly it was only ever designed to be a temporary measure but there is a really cool and trendy vibe to the place now, a cross between Covent Garden and Camden, and certainly the people we have spoken to, along with us, think it would be a great area to leave as it is, even once the refurbishments are complete - living testament to how change can be a good thing perhaps, whatever forces us to action it.
Another highlight of Christchurch for us was a truly touristy visit to the Antarctic Centre in the city. Christchurch is New Zealand's gateway to the Antarctic and the country is very proud of its contributions to the conservation efforts there from its Scott Base station. Having read all the interesting icy facts and learnt about some of the measures which need to be taken in conditions such as those encountered at the bottom of the earth, it was our turn to try it out! We donned a very thick coat each and even more fetching pair of rubber shoe covers, and headed into the ice room, where we had the opportunity to experience what an Antarctic storm would feel like. In a word, cold! The temperature in the room was -8® before the 'storm' started and that was bad enough (particularly for Nick who had the good sense to don shorts that morning!) but when the wind chill took the temperature down to -18® enough was enough - we bottled it and went schmoozing with some little blue penguins at the centre instead! Equally as fascinating but less likely to make your flesh freeze, thus killing you in a matter of minutes!
Arguably the feature of our time in Christchurch however, in that we will carry a reminder of it with us always, was the productive afternoon we spent in Zealand Tattoo (see Nat's FB page for link - well cool!). His and hers tattoos may sound a touch desperate and sad but these are, in the words of the Bishops kids we miss so much 'sick'! 'Aroha mai, aroha atu', meaning 'love received, love returned', combined with our wedding date in roman numerals, on the wrist for Nat, on the upper arm for Nick, was a fitting reminder for us of what we have achieved in the last 2 years, culminating with our wedding on 3rd April. Not gushy, just right. Nursing stingy tattooey bits we then headed down the Banks peninsula on our last night in Christchurch and enjoyed a gorgeous dinner watching the sun set behind the mountains in Akaroa, all of which are remnants of a one enormous volcano, making the peninsula so interesting (if you're a geeky Geographer, google it!).
Then it was off up the East Coast to Kaikoura, know to all as THE place to go whale watching in New Zealand, so whale watching we dutifully went. An early start meant we were less likely to experience conditions that might make us sea sick so at 7.15am we were ready to board. First of all we came across a pod of dusky dolphins, quite near to the coast, feeding and playing. There was easily a hundred dolphins in the area and, try as we might to get a photo, they were just too quick for us so we settled back to enjoy their entertainment! After a bit of searching by the captain and the crew though, we jetted towards a large male sperm whale who had surfaced for air. Only the males head as far south as New Zealand, as it is too cold for the females, so they stay in the sun getting their nails done, whilst the boys head south for some serious crill action. They only stay on the surface for up to 10 minutes at a time though, before diving down for their next feeding session so seeing one is quite a lucky event. Again, we could spend hours going on and on about what a privilege it is to see creatures as beautiful and powerful as that in their own habitat, unspoilt and perfect, but the bottom line is, if you have ever seen anything like it you will know and if you haven't, you should get off your arse and see it - soon…then you'll know! Interesting fact people - sperm whales have massive throats but tiny tongues, unlike many other species of whale. He would therefore be unlikely to lick you to death, but he could swallow you whole! After our nautical morning adventure, we docked, only to be confronted with perhaps the most glorious weather you could imagine. It was cool, crisp and so clear you could see the snow on the tops of the nearby Kaikoura Ranges perfectly, so as we debated what to do with our afternoon Nick came up with the bright idea, 'let's go to the top of that mountain in a helicopter'! Cue Nat pooping herself and fearing this would be the very last day she spent on earth. Never one to volunteer to travel by air unless necessary, despite having flown all over the world quite safely in her life this far, and always the first to grab Nick's arm in horror when the seatbelt sign comes on mid-flight, the thought of going up, into the sky, in a 4 man helicopter was enough to require several chocolate bars and bottles of wine as bribery to do this daredevil stunt that would defy the laws of logic and good sense! The crux of Nat's argument of course, was that people don't survive helicopter crashes. Nick's argument was that you only live once and we may never get such perfect weather again for seeing such beauty. Nick won and, for the record, Nat is eternally grateful that he did. She will always remain a little bit scared of teeny tiny choppers (no sexual innuendo here please) but will undoubtedly travel in one again if the rewards are as glorious as those she received at the top of that mountain (Mount Ffyfe to the geeks to whom this matters!) The views were quite simply breathtaking, more stunning than anything we had seen so far and worth every moment of watching the ground fall away from under your feet in an almost entirely glass bubble of a helicopter (even Nick admits he got the willies a bit!). Indeed, we lived to tell the tale and have even booked our next trip, up and onto Franz Josef glacier at the weekend - twice in one week you say?? Anyone would think we were married!?!
Our day of fun did not end there though, oh no. We had been given a recommendation from our helicopter pilot that there was a waterfall along the coast that was really worth the half hour trip, as it had become home in the last couple of years to a colony of baby fur seals. Nobody quite knows how or why but the seals seem to have ventured upstream from the sea to the safety of the waterfall, where they play all day until they get fed by Mum at night. It defies Science, in that they are salt water creatures making the most of their predator-free fresh-water environment, but somehow they have adapted and lead a very merry life playing in the pool at the base of this waterfall all day long. Once again too, we were forced to recognise just how well New Zealand does wildlife tourism and how effectively it balances the conservation needs of the animals it monitors with the visits of countless tourists whose contribution makes the conservation sustainable. There were no fences, no barriers preventing you from getting close to the seals, nothing in fact to stop you jumping right in with them should the mood have taken you. Just a sign asking you not to touch the seals as they bite and it hurts! Everyone we saw there just got it and was really respectful, enjoying the clowning around they were seeing from the seals, who were so tame you could have reached out and touched them if you were feeling brave, without needing to ruin it for the seals and everyone else and it is just lovely that New Zealand trusts people to do this. The experience is so much more involved and consequently so much more rewarding than anywhere else we have been that we hope we will be able to enjoy more close-up encounters like this (still on desperate look out for a Kiwi! Determined to see one before we leave that doesn't live in a zoo!).
All this fun and excitement needed celebrating with a glass of wine…or 20…so we headed further north to stop in the midst of wine-tasting country - Marlborough. To those of you who enjoy the odd cheeky glass of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, you will fully appreciate it when we say that this was like some sort of holy pilgrimage for us. To drive past vineyards, whose wine we drink by the bucket load at home (Cloudy Bay, Villa Maria, Mount Riley, Brancott Estate), was almost orgasmic, so getting ourselves on a wine tour (yes, that's right, a tour FULL OF WINE) was compulsory. In total we visited five vineyards, tasting approximately five wines at each so by late afternoon things were getting a little bit hazy shall we say, but we have discovered possible our favourite wine of all time - the Sauvignon Blanc by Bladen winery. It is very hard to get in the UK as it is a really small vineyard, but not impossible, and we will definitely not be defeated in searching it out when we get home. These delicious tastings, coupled with the amazing views of mile upon mile of vines stretching as far as the eye can see made the day really quite special…but we needed to walk off all that alcohol as soon as we could!
Life is good people. New Zealand is nothing short of incredible and life is good. Travelling changes you. Life is all around you and it's yours for the taking. So take it.
So it was off to Arthur's Pass National Park. Again, stunning. Just stunning. There is little else to say about driving through vast mountain ranges with the sun beaming down on you. Or about hacking through the bush to get to an awesome waterfall, or about climbing for three hours uphill at Bealey Spur just to savour the immaculate views of the river valley from the top. Hopefully the photos will show you just how awesome this place is.