So after enjoying a fabulous BBQ at Jane and Mark's gorgeous house in Wellngton - where we were completely spoilt (thank you both!) and had the opportunity to meet lots of wonderful New Zealanders - it was time to leave the North Island and venture south. Thankfully, the rough seas that had greeted us when we arrived in Wellington had been blown away and we were blessed not only with a smooth crossing of the infamous Cook Strait but also were able to enjoy the stunning views as our ferry weaved its way into the picturesque Picton Harbour. A very quaint harbour village with a wonderful ice cream shop - hokey pokey being the local 'must have' flavour!
You would think that, as a daily London commuter, boarding a train when on holiday would be my idea of hell and I have to admit to feeling somewhat dubious when Stu told me that we would be spending a lot of our time in the South Island travelling by train ... but, I have to say, the TransAlpine rail journeys have been a surprising treat and a real pleasure!. Designed for tourists, and definitely not commuters (slow with lots of delays but with coffee and ice cream - please take note Southern trains!), the views initially of the Pacific Ocean and then later of the glacial valleys - from the train are completely stunning. The fact that there are observation carriages makes it even more enjoyable, especially if you happen to be one of those lucky people who are tall (Stuart!) so that you can fight your way to the front to get the 'shot of the day'! I decided, as one of the more vertically challenged passegers, that the best view came from the uncrowded windows of the very cosy cafe-bar with a G&T in hand. As a seasoned commuter, I have learnt it's always important to take any opportunity that presents itself to grab a 'refreshment' en route ... hard to change the habit of (almost) a lifetime!
Disembarking the train at Arthur's pass, we travelled a very scary piece of road to get to Franz Josef - am only pleased I wasn't driving! - and to one of the most fabulous places we've stayed so far. An ecologically friendly forest lodge with wonderful rooms and a fabulous restaurant with its own tasting menu - we are so incredibly lucky! On arrival we took a walk to the base of the glacier which, Stuart tells me, has receeded significantly since his first vist here around 15 years ago. I have always loved physical geography but have never seen a glacier close up before. But I have now! Somewhere along the line (I think a glass or two of Sauvignon Blanc were involved) I agreed to go on a helicopter trip over the local glaciers up to Mount Cook, landing on the top of the Fox glacier. Those of you who know me very well will appreciate that, after a very frightening experience in my late teens, me and mountains do not go well together. In fact, 'accident waiting to happen' is the first phrase that comes to mind and, as such, I try my very best to avoid them. Add to this the fact I've never been in a helicopter before, and there was one highly excitable person waiting to climb on board the helicopter when it arrived. Somehow I managed not to embarass myself (or Stuart) and was able to remain calm and relax enough to enjoy what really was an awesome experience. I am so pleased I did it. I suspect in years to come it will be a memory I treasure ...
You'd have thought that an early morning trip to the glacier might have been enough of an adrenaline rush for one day but, refreshed by a Flat White (I've almost drank as many of these as I have glasses of Sauvignon Blanc!), we then headed off to the Haast River valley where we boarded a jet boat. Great fun was had as we were competently sped along the river by Brian, a very laid back local fisherman whose main job nowadays is as a 'Possum Plucker' (not something to try and say after a drink!). A very lucrative profession in this part of the world, I understand, though not one I'd be keen to do! The highlight of the river trip were the 360 degree spins that Brian really threw himself into - they were great fun! Back on dry land, it was time to embark on the incredibly picturesque journey to Queenstown.