It is official…the prize for 'Scourge of the Earth 2012', beating all rivals, including the Asian mosquito, goes to the south island sandfly! The fact that such a teeny tiny bug can bring about such an intense and unimaginably itchy bite in a matter of seconds really should, we suppose, be applauded. If we were bug geeks perhaps we would, but we are not so we won't. Everywhere we have been in the last week has brought us into contact with the little critters and we have had enough! We have been forced to bring the DEET back out so it is going to be a toxic few days avoiding providing blood meals for egg-laying females looking to further the species as we head back towards Christchurch!
Nevertheless, and bites aside, it has been a week full of so many adventures, in the Famous Five sense of the word, that we don't really know where to start. With the quad bikes perhaps, or the horses, or boating through the fiords? No, let's start with the glacier! After our last jaunt in a helicopter being so successful, we were up to our old airborne tricks again, this time heading to the top of Franz Josef glacier. After togging up in warm, wind-proof coats, thick socks, humungous boots which Postman Pat would have been proud of and carrying our cramp-ons in a not so stylish bumbag (yes, bumbag, 80s/90s revival style) we hopped into our second chopper of the week and headed skyward! When we landed, we were surprised that it did not seem as cold as we had expected; not quite an Antarctic wilderness, rather a very big ice cube with sunny views! At least our fingers did not freeze as we attached our cramp-ons to our boots and marched about getting used to being able to walk down sheer sheets of ice without ending up on our bums, before setting off on our hike. Our guide, a lovely Mancunian called Tom, led the way in a T-shirt (he has clearly been here too long, calling the day 'warm for autumn') and it was off towards the glacier face. It was only when we got going that we realised the truly vast scale of the glacier we were tramping on and became totally fascinated by the glacial streams and crevasses we were clambering over. At one point, Tom dropped his axe into an ice cave so set up a system of screws and ropes in the ice to allow him to climb in and fetch it then, more importantly, be able to climb out again! Cue Nick enthusiastically volunteering to follow suit, but just for kicks rather than under the guise of rescuing anything important! He survived the endeavour, but despite the picture of him smiling at his success in our new album, he did admit it was 'a bit awkward'! Ice tunnels and imposing glacial waterfalls followed, making us feel we were heading towards the edge of the world. Perhaps only our photos can tell the true story of how all we could see in every direction was ice and how experiences like this one rarely come more than once in a lifetime, particularly since the ever-lengthening summers in New Zealand due to global warming are forcing glaciers like Franz Josef to retreat at a shockingly fast rate.
Having survived our helicopter ride back off the glacier, there was little to do other than enjoy a glass of wine as we thawed out, before heading south to Wanaka. The icy theme continued in this chilled out little town, as we set off on a half day hike to the Rob Roy glacier. This walk, described as 'easy' in the Department of Conservation literature began beautifully, heading across farmland and across a very wobbly suspension bridge (Nick's challenge to Nat being to see if she could walk all 80 metres of it without touching the handrails - her parting shot to him as she set off being 'on your bike'!). On the safety of the other side, a gentle climb ensued, taking us gradually around the side of a mountain along a well-worn track we were led to believe would comfortably lead us to the face of Rob Roy glacier. The steady climb however, soon became a climb of epic proportions. Neither of us are averse to steep climbs, in their place, when we know they are coming and have psyched ourselves up for them, but nigh-on vertical slopes that require you to climb on tip-toes, which pop up unannounced are not our favourite party trick. Indeed, they continue to lose their appeal even further when they go on for TWO HOURS! No stopping and no flat bits, despite how often we were sure there was going to be a let up 'just around that corner', just relentless climbing until we couldn't climb anymore. And then New Zealand did what it always does…it made it all worth it. Around our final bend we saw the face of Rob Roy glacier and, as we should have come to expect from New Zealand landscapes by now, we were entirely humbled. The cap of ice perching on the top of rugged mountains in the beautiful afternoon sunshine was something else and, having donned a few extra layers to combat the chilly wind coming off the ice, we settled down to our picnic, only to be joined by some cheeky Kea (very naughty and notoriously clever alpine parrots who are so tame the will steal anything you don't keep your hands on) and a family of mice who seemed to be living under the rocks we were sitting on - you are not allowed to feed the Kea in New Zealand, as they get lazy and forget how to forage for themselves, but the mice were well pleased with a few crumbs of Nick's muesli bar. Then, of course, all was forgiven as the entire hike home was all downhill.
Wanaka was also host to the very cool Puzzling World which Nat dragged Nick to the following morning. He could distinctly be heard uttering the words 'but I hate puzzles', only to be the first one loving it up with his camera in the hologram room, and the following faces room, and the tilting room, and the room that makes big things look small and small things look big! He did, of course, admit Nat's idea to spend a morning bending our brains with optical illusions was a great one and we had massive fun trying not to fall flat on our faces after getting dizzy and disorientated in the sloping room where water ran uphill and you appeared to be able to lean both forwards and backwards at least 45 degrees without falling over. Nothing a fat chocolate muffin in the café couldn't mend however.
Then it was off to Queenstown, beautiful Queenstown, the closest we have come to a big town, let alone a city, in some considerable time. Its quaintness instantly made us fall in love with it and we were able to enjoy it all in style, thanks to a free night at a 4* hotel, courtesy of the manager of the hotel who messed up various requests of friends and family on our wedding day! We continued the icy theme of the last few days even further by heading to the Below Zero ice bar, where those of you who have been to the ice bar in London's Mayfair will know is just that…a bar made entirely of ice! Big coats and gloves make sure you don't freeze to death as you enjoy vodka cocktails out of glasses made of ice and have your picture taken with various ice statues whilst trying to prevent too much ice forming around your dripping nose! London very much needs to up its game however, as the Queenstown version is bigger and so much better. The sculptures are better, there is a photo booth for a bit of drunken icy craziness and there is an ice chandelier. 'Nuff said.
Queenstown also helped us finally live out one of our dearest kiwi dreams - to see an effing kiwi! The stuff of legend, kiwis are plastered absolutely everywhere in New Zealand. Dogs have been outlawed in National Parks to protect them, there are special road signs asking you to take care not to hit them and every single souvenir shop in the entire country prides itself on its collection of cuddly kiwis large and small. Have we seen even a single on in our five weeks here though? No, we have not. Feeling cheated, it was only fitting that we ultimately took the cheat's way out and sought one out in a bird sanctuary, and we were not disappointed. Kiwis being nocturnal, we were ushered into a very dark kiwi house just in time for the first feeding session of the day and as our eyes grew accustomed to the dim light we finally saw what we had been waiting for. A bird with a hairy body the size of a human head and a long, thin, ludicrously straight beak at least two thirds the length of its body, pecking through the barky ground in its enclosure. Weirdly unexpected? Yes. Mesmerising? Absolutely. We were captivated by the male and female pair we were watching, particularly as the female started to 'flirt' with the male, running around like a crazy person and leaping around, although sadly avoiding on this occasion that well know flirting technique, lying on her back and kicking her legs in the air, which led one visitor to recently report to park wardens that they thought she has having a fit! At last we have ticked that box on our kiwi adventure. Native birdlife, done.
Heading to Manapouri, further south still, we realised we were as far south both in New Zealand and on the planet as either of us had ever been before. Until we win the lottery and manage the Antarctic trip we have been talking about, Manapouri will always hold that special title for us. It will also be the place that provided us with the opportunity to head out to Doubtful Sound. Most tourists head for Milford Sound, a little further north in the Fiordland National Park than Doubtful, but Doubtful is bigger, a shorter drive away and is not overrun by tourists, as they are all at Milford. Again, pictures are probably the only thing which can begin to do justice to this imposing and rugged glacial creation which we sailed through for a whole afternoon. The stillness and beauty of this totally untouched area, created millions of years ago by tectonic movement and glacial flow was just charming and, yet again, provided a peaceful reminder of how tiny a cog each of us is in the grand scheme of the turning global wheel. Science lovers would also have been salivating over our brief trip into the underground hydroelectric power station in the area - staggering statistics about water flow and generator capacity abounded and the 'oohs' and 'aaahs' Nick so desperately tried to swallow brought a smile to Nat's face, as she glanced adoringly at her geek chic husband! Jokes about 'Watt-age' on a postcard please!
Then today we went properly outdoors-y, cramming both horse trekking and quad biking into one very action packed day! Nat's horse, Babe, was like her Laos elephant, in that she loved to be up front and Fred, Nick's trusty steed, was introduced to him as 'the old man of the yard, can't run and will be happy to plod along behind Babe' - Nick immediately identified with him and the bond of brotherly love meant Nick had the time of his life on the three hour trek through fields, over hills, and through forests and rivers. Babe and Nat were loving tripping around too, despite Nat's feet getting extremely wet when Babe fancied a splosh in the river, until Babe cornered a bit close to a small tree, which got caught between Nat's leg and the saddle and whose trunk was subsequently bent over and Nat's leg was dragged the entire length of the trunk before it broke free, leaving Nat with a deep purple and black bruise the size of a small country on her thigh - nice! Nevertheless, the trek was stunning and was the perfect precursor to an afternoon going up hill and down dale on a quad bike! Neither of us had driven a quad bike before so, after a full 60 seconds of instructions on the different gear shifting and how to make sure we stayed roughly on track, it was down to s to navigate the track behind Aaron our guide, as we enjoyed countryside which had played host to several scenes of the Lord of the Rings movies. Remember when Frodo gets stabbed by a black rider I think, and Arwen rescues him on horseback?? We rode that very track, but in 21st century style and without the black riders! There was an awful lot of mud though, although only one occasion of us nearly getting stuck in it and thanks to the oh so sexy boiler suit, wellies, hard hat and goggles we just about managed to stay clean on the inside! An absolutely great way to spend an afternoon and to see the scenery, despite the numb bum from all the bumping around, and it has definitely inspired us to perhaps give it another go when we get home.
Sadly though, we are now heading towards the end of the New Zealand leg of our adventure. We have a very long day of driving ahead of us tomorrow to break the back of the journey to Christchurch, but will at least be breaking overnight at Lake Tekapo, where we will definitely be making the most of the thermal hot springs. Next stop - Cook Islands. Hopefully a good way to top up the tan before hitting Chile! x