Friday, May 27, 2005

Back in the temp cycle

Hyde Park, Sydney - part of my new walk to work

It's tough to come home after a good holiay, but I've found the perfect solution - go on holiday somewhere, and then take another holiday from that. When you get back from holiday 2 you're still on holiday 1 and the disappointment is eased somewhat. If only people knew about this. Anyway, so here I am back in Sydney - currently in the grip of an evil Autumn chill (high of 'only' 19C today, still t-shirt weather for me). Not much happened in the three weeks I was away, apart from one of my flatmates slipping a disc in her back on her bus to work, although she's since recovered.

Speaking of which, I finally managed to get through to my temping agency this afternoon, and they found me another job within two hours, which is pretty good. If you work long hours, temp agencies love you for the cash you make them - so when I turned up there fo a chat three of them were there to ask how I was getting on. I like to think it was because of my personality rather than my 50hr weeks, but I'm not so sure. Anyway, they almost immediately found me another job starting on Tuesday at the Australian Blood Tranfusion Service, which sounds mildly interesting (although it is a temp job, so it can't be that interesting). It's more money than the pensions place, but is a 45 minute bus ride from the centre of Sydney (North Ryde for Mr.106) - so I'll have to take a book, and avoid slipping any discs...

Monday, May 23, 2005

Three weeks are over

The awesome Franz-Josef glacier advances

Well, that's it - my three weeks over here in New Zealand are up. This afternoon I fly back to Sydney to carry on with my 'other' holiday though, so it's not all bad. Although I will be back on the temp ladder for another three months of work, but it's all to put towards the next of my journeys (to Japan in September). Until then hopefully I'll make it over to Melbourne for a week or so, but we'll see how things pan out. Certainly I'll not be able to go anywhere like NZ for a while. What an amazing country, it's been an incredible few weeks. A huge thanks to Jules and Mel in Christchurch, and Edd and Meesh in Wellington for letting me invade their living rooms for a few days. It really made all the difference to what I could do on the trip.

The highlights are easy to pick out - walking on a glacier is something I'll not forget in a hurry, as was the fjord cruise into Milford Sound. Getting within touching distance of all those rare birds in the deep south, and the various walks and views are staggering - I've managed to avoid going on and on about the Lord of the Rings (because there are plenty of people here who do), but the scenery in the film is very real, and it's everywhere you look. Anybody who likes doing things outdoors has to come here, it's stunning. I'll certainly be coming back, there are still large parts of the country to explore (like most of the North Island), and of course I need to go back to Taupo in summer and see if it improves. But I've got several other places to visit in the meantime...

The treasures of Te Papa

Your author and a giant fossilised Ammonite

Perfect museum weather today, so for my last day in Wellington I paid a visit to the city's largest attraction - Te Papa, New Zealand's national museum. The guidebook suggested a full day to explore, which was about right as I was in there for 5hrs and rushed a few sections. It had everything from geology to photography, with a hefty chunk of maori history too, of course. As usual it was the stuffed animals that got my attention, particularly the birds I'd been looking at on my travels down south. I even managed to identify a spider we saw in the house the other day (a black-headed jumping spider). As you can see, they had the largest fossil ammonite I've ever seen, and plenty of other interesting stuff. Anyobdy thinking of coming to Wellington - it's a must-see, simple as that. But then I've always been a museum geek.

Which brings me nicely onto Star Wars - tonight myself and Edd went to the Embassy Theatre to watch the final Star Wars film, Revenge of the Sith. The Embassy is a local legend, it was refitted for the World Premiere of the Lord of the Rings in 2003 and is massive, with leather chairs and 1920's decor and fittings. It's a long way from the Preston Odeon where I saw the first Star Wars film all those years ago. How apt that I saw the final part on the other side of the world. I can still remember being taken by my Dad to see the Return of the Jedi (and I'm fairly sure the other two, earlier, films on the same day). Like any impressionable 10yr-old I wanted to jump into the screen and be a part of it - I immediately set about collecting all the figures (still somewhere at home in a battered cardboard box). So what did I think of the new film? Well, considering how much I hated the two previous new films I really liked this one - it was a great way to end my trip. But more of that tomorrow...

Sunday, May 22, 2005

Sunday in the sanctuary

The Wellington funicular railway makes it's way to the Botanic Gardens

Taupo was unfortunately let down by the weather - in summer I'm sure it's a great place to be, but in the incessant heavy rain it wasn't really. I'm not sorry I went, but with hindsight I could have used those couple of days in Kaikoura to wait for the whales - but hey, these things happen. I'm now back in Wellington, my final stop on the trip. Today was Sunday, so we had an easy day and started off with a couple of bacon rolls before heading out for a drive.

We rolled around the harbour road, looking at the views of the cityscape on the other side. Along the winding road were native Wellingtonians going about their Sunday routine - running, surfing, biking, sailing, fishing. Like Australia people here obviously get out when they can and take advantage of their location. We continued to the surfing beach at Lyall Bay and had fish and chips (or 'fush and chups' as the locals say) standing on the seawall watching the planes roar off from Wellington airport. After that we paid a visit to the Karori Wildlife Sanctuary - the world's first urban wildlife refuge. Surrounded by a Jurassic Park-like chain fence (to keep the predators out), it's a 250 hectare conservation area for native plants and birds. There are no cages inside - the birds go where they like and it's up to you to spot them. We saw a few, and had a good walk through the dank, green forest. The highlight for me were the hollow trees which you could open to reveal weta - NZ's largest native insect - a finger-long striped cricket with large jaws and serrated legs - very Jurassic Park...

Friday, May 20, 2005

Taupo in the wet

The Craters of the Moon Geothermal area, just north of Taupo, in the rain

When I got up this morning the heavy rain had eased off and been replaced by thick, grey clouds. It wasn't a question of deciding to risk it, I'd come all this way North so I had to get out there. I walked up to a natural hot springs just out of the town centre, and dunked my hand in - it was the temperature of a warm bath. The River Waikato flows from Lake Taupo all the way to Auckland, making it NZ's longest. It's also one of the clearest I've ever seen - you could see the bottom up to a depth of several metres, it was amazing. I walked along the bank to the Huka Falls, a narrowing of the channel that funnels the river through in a raging torrent. Unfortunately I had to share the viewpoint with two busloads of American schoolkids, but they soon left and things quietened down.

After the Falls I walked on to find a geothermal area I'd been reading about, just as the rain started again. I got to the Craters of the Moon area and was able to walk around the boardwalks with nobody else in sight. It was really eerie, the dense coulds of steam mixing with the rain and hanging in the valley. Large holes belched steam and vapour, giving off that characteristic sulphurous smell. The rain was really annoying though, and as I was leaving it got even stronger. Thankfully on the road out I was rescued by a battered grey Ford that stopped and offered me a lift. Inside were three backpackers (always the most trusting of people) who I found out were staying at the same hostel as me. So we lurched off in the $200 car and drove back to Huka Falls for a look, and then back into Taupo and the dry hostel...

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Volcanoes young and old

Mount Ruapehu (2797m), NZ's most active volcano

Up early today for a commuter jostle on the way into Wellington to catch my bus North. The train I was due to get from Porirua was late, but I managed to just make the bus in time - which promptly drove to Porirua to pick people up. Ah well. The trip took just under six hours, but there were plenty of stops and a lunch break. The service I was on went straight across the Central Plateau of the North Island - an almost alienesque landscape which has been alternately carved and blasted by volcanoes. We passed Mount Ruapehu, the highest and most active volcano in the country. I remember doing a case study on the 1995 eruption there when I was in college - you can clearly see the jagged summit where it ripped apart.

After another couple of hours we arrived in Taupo (pronounced Toe-po), the main town in the region and the centre of the tourist trade around the Tongariro National Park. Today Taupo is known as a trout fishing centre, but the lake it stands on (the largest in NZ) was formed by one of the greatest volcanic explosions of all time. 26,000 years ago a 'supervolcano' erupted here (much like the one brooding under Yellowstone at the moment). It blew out 800 cubic kilometres of rock - for a comparison the eruption of Mt St Helens in 1980 produced 3 cubic km. The Taupo eruption destroyed most of the North Island - even islands 800km away were buried in ash 11cm deep. Yikes. Thankfully it's now extinct, and the 600 square km lake formed in the crater...

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Back in a capital

Myself and young Mr. Jack Ballinger, aged 5 months

After my disappointment in Kaikoura with the weather I managed to get a second free ride up with the Stray bus to the tiny coastal town of Picton for the ferry. It was still pouring with rain, so I don't think the whale watchers would have been out, but our ferry had no trouble ploughing across the Cook Straight to the North Island. The crossing took four hours, and typically the Stray passengers lodged in the bar for the duration. At the other side, I said goodbye to the rest of them, as they were hostelling overnight and then driving up to Auckland today. I took the free bus into the city and met my old friend Edd who I was staying with for my time in Wellington. Edd, Michelle and baby Jack emigrated here just after Christmas and I'd obviously not seen them since my leaving night in Edinburgh last October (I'd not seen Jack ever, of course).

After a hearty breakfast I caught a lift into the city with Meesh the next morning. We had a quick walk around, looking at the sights of the city before meeting Edd for lunch. Young Jack, who's five months old, was asleep by this time - although a bagpipe parade for Wellington Uni graduation soon put a stop to that. We ate in a food court and then split for the afternoon as Edd had to get back to work and Meesh and the baby had baby-stuff to do. I went for a walk, and then up a funicular railway to the top of one of the major hills overlooking the city. Wellington has a reputation for being windy, but the weather was really mild, so I walked around the gardens for a bit taking pictures before I went to the Museum of Wellington, the City and the Sea. Or rather I tried to, as I was politely informed the museum was closed for renovation. So I went to a pub and had a pint before I was due to meet Edd and go back to his house.

Tomorrow it's off on the road again, up North on a 6-hour bus journey to the alpine town of Taupo. I'll be there for two nights, before it's back to Edd's sofa for a couple of days and the end of my trip...

Monday, May 16, 2005

Too wet for whales

What I was missing

My first majorly bad news on the trip today - the whale watching trip I'd booked and was looking forward to had to be cancelled because of the weather. So I'm here anyway in Kaikoura with not much to do for an afternoon. It's a real shame as I'm the only member of my family not to have seen a whale and this was my chance - a major pod of Sperm whales live just off the coast here. But the rain and cloud came in this morning, and although a boat went out earlier (and saw loads of whales, apparently), they won't risk going back out. What a bugger. Ah well.

So my Stray trip came to an end - although Spike kindly gave me a lift up here from Christchurch this morning (and I'll jump on his bus to Picton tomorrow for the North Island ferry). I had such a great time on that bus trip - I was going to do that route on my own, but going on the bus was a much better idea. I've still got over a week left in NZ, and arrived in the coastal town of Kaikoura this morning. 'Kai' means food and 'koura' means lobster in the local maori - not that many backpackers get to try them. The major industry here is whale watching (but not today). It reminds me of a grey English seaside town, lots of hardy people trying to enjoy themselves despite the pouring rain. Eat the sandwiches in the car weather, that kind of thing.

Yesterday was my last day in Christchurch staying with Julie, so her boyfriend drove us out into the Waipara Valley for some wine tasting. It was a very civilised way to spend an afternoon, and although I'm no wine expert (although I do know not to put Red Bull in) I still managed to appreciate the difference between the basic types. The wine-makers we talked to were bemoaning a difficult Autumn that cut back their crop, but I presume they just put the price of the wine up. We visited five wineries and had tried a fair few by the end of the afternoon, but by that point my basic wine palate had been so overloaded it was all I could do to keep saying things like 'Hmmm, this is slightly more oaky than the last one'...

Friday, May 13, 2005

Where flightless birds once ruled

A very blurry Yellow-Eyed Penguin - the rarest penguin in the world

The Foveaux ferry was less crazy than the day before, much to the relief of some on board our bus. We left at dawn, as we had a long day heading through the south-eastern tip of New Zealand. The coastal region here forms part of the Catlins Wilderness Area - a region of isolated forests and wildlife reserves. The area was once the haunt of the Moa - a gigantic flightless bird that reached 3m (9ft) in height.

Our first stop was another first for me - one of the world's most extensive petrified forests, at Curio Bay. From the cliff top it looks like any other rocky shore - but when you get down amongst the ankle-high boulders it hits you that they are tree stumps. 160 million years ago a cataclysmic event felled an entire forest, and then another immediately afterwards covered the remains forever. As with other fossils, the trees at Curio Bay are incredibly detailed - it's even possible to count rings on some of the stumps.

After a few more scenic stops at waterfalls, bays and inlets we finished the day at the aptly named Roaring Bay, to look at a very speical bird. The Hoiho is the world's rarest penguin as fewer than 3000 remain, living only in the sub-Antarctic islands and the southern tip of NZ. Every evening they come ashore from long feeding trips and clamber up the hillsides of Roaring Bay. Also known as the Yellow-Eyed Penguin, they are the only known solitary penguin species, preferring to live in single burrows - and they are very timid. Spike told us we'd be lucky to see two or three, but within an hour we counted ten emerge from the surf. Crouching quietly on the windy hillside, we were probably 100m from the knee-high birds as they staggered up the path to their nests. It was great - these were truly wild birds, and rare ones at that, going about their business in front of us. I just wish they were easier to photograph!

Thursday, May 12, 2005

As South as I'll ever be

The weka - a flightless kiwi-type bird found only in Southern NZ

Take a look at a map of New Zealand - most people know there are two main islands, North and South. But if you look at the bottom of the South Island you'll see another, tucked away like an afterthought. This is Stewart Island, probably the most southerly point I'll ever reach. The maori legend has it that the demigod Maui caught a huge fish from his canoe using a bone hook baited with blood from his own nose. This fish - Te Ika a Maui (the fish of Maui) - became the North Island of New Zealand. His canoe - Te Waka o Maui - became the South Island, and Stewart Island was the anchor that held his canoe in place.

Stewart Island is roughly triangular in shape and is 65km by 40km wide. 85% of the island is national park, and thanks to it's isolation has developed a variety of wierd and wonderful wildlife (and locals). The only settlement is called Oban (after the Scottish town), and we got there by ferry from the mainland town of Bluff (NZ's most southerly). The crossing took an hour, and was in a small but high-powered boat that plunged through the famously violent seas of the Foveaux Straight. The water out there was a brilliant dark green, and boiled to about 3m, throwing the small boat around. Thankfully I've always been good on the water, and it was good fun having the old stomach lurch as the boat breached wave after wave. Oban really reminded me of a small Scottish fishing town, that kind of off-season, rundown feel, but still with people going about their business. After putting our bags into the cottages we were staying in, a few of us caught a 6-person water taxi to a sheltered island called Ulva - a bird watcher's paradise.

Despite being only 250 hectares, the island is renowned for wildlife as there are no predators at all. As a result, the rare NZ ground-living birds can survive here undisturbed. Within seconds of getting off the taxi, a weka sidled up to us - a kiwi relative that looks like a round, flightless grouse. We also saw the wonderfully named tui, kaka, kakariki and kereru. Some of these were only introduced as a dozen or so pairs, and have slowly colonised the island. Midway along a path in the cold-weather rainforest (everything was green and covered in thick moss) we stopped and waited for five minutes. It was amazing, birds appeared from everywhere - from small robin-like birds to the kereru (a black and white pigeon the size of a chicken). It was a great trip - and a fitting one too, seeing as I'm about as far from home as I can get, you'd certainly hope the wildlife would be on the unusual side...

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Water that falls up

Milford Sound - hard to appreciate from this, but it was incredible

An early start out of Queenstown today. I did like it, for such a small place there's loads going on. It's a bit too backpackery for me (slightly rich I know), summed up by something I overheard in our hostel. A group of young lads were drinking wine in the corridor before going out. As I walked by them, one of them cheerfully turned to his mate and said "I'm not a fan of wine - but if you put a bit of Red Bull in, it takes the edge off"

Milford Sound is one of New Zealand's biggest tourist attractions. A 22km long glacial fjord (or fiord as they call it), it's very popular with us sightseers. After today, I can see why. Firstly the weather was absolutely shocking - the sunny weather of the last three days gave way to heavy downpours. But that's to be expected - Milford is one of the wettest places in the world, averaging 8 metres of rain a year. Most of it seemed to fall today, as we took a two hour cruise down the fjord in the company of dozens of Chinese bus trippers. The Sound is famous for it's sheer cliffs - the highest of which (Mitre Peak) plunges almost 1700m straight into the water. It was awesome - I went on the roof in a howling gale and stood there getting soaked, open-mouthed at what I was seeing. Massive waterfalls tumbled over the cliffs, the water falling less than a third of the way to the fjord before the wind blew it away and up into the clouds. You could actually see this - a circular pattern of water falling, spraying sideways, and then becoming finer and rising back into the cloud. Larger waterfalls crashed into the black sea, sending us through huge plumes of water like you see at Niagara. All around there were vertical walls of rock hundreds of metres high, all being blasted by water - either as white falls, grey mist or black seas. It was utterly mind blowing - and after the Grand Canyon, Milford Sound is the most stunning thing I've ever seen.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Action stations in Queenstown

Queenstown - Lake Wakatipu with the Remarkables mountain range

Day five of the tour is the only one not to involve bus travel - it's a free day in Queenstown. The epitome of a big budget resort town (according to my Lonely Planet guide), Queenstown is totally driven by the booming industry in dangerous sports. If they've got it, you can jump off, over, under, onto, or into it. So what adrenalin-fuelled crazyness did I get up to?

Erm...I went for a walk round a lake. Oh, and I went to a kiwi sanctuary. I did see somebody do a bungy jump - but I was safely standing on a viewing gallery on the side of a hilltop. I dunno, dangerous sports just don't appeal to me. What's the point of paying $150 to jump off a platform on an elasticated rope? A Dutch bloke off our bus did a bungy jump so we all went to watch. To be honest, when he launched himself out of what looked like a garden shed bolted to a hillside, it did look fun - but 10 seconds later he was being winched back.

Maybe a skydive would give me more money's worth - but for the price of that I could extend my trip here by three days. Anyway, full credit to the people that have a go. A middle-aged Chinese man who jumped before our Dutch mate hesitated just as he was about to leap off. As a result, he whacked the bungy platform with his backside and flopped over the edge like a starfish being thrown back into the sea by a fisherman. After a few painful bounces, they pulled him back up and he walked off. As he passed us, he said that he'd enjoyed it.

Monday, May 09, 2005

Round NZ with a dictionary

The Stray Bus group, with dictionary pride of place

Not surprisingly I slept very well indeed after my ice-walking antics of the day before. We were on the road again quickly, in what turned out to be a transit day between destinations. On the way we stopped at Makaroa for breakfast and had a close encounter with a deer. About as close an encounter as you can get - at one point the deer walked into the cafe and up to our table before the staff came out of the kitchen and herded it out of a fire exit.

The bus also stopped for photos at Lake Hawea, and a bemused Danish tourist was ambushed and coerced into taking group shots. The tour is run by the driver Spike (above, with dictionary) and his friend Mike (centre of top row), who runs a kayaking business up in Coromandel. He's along on a free junket in the guise of training, and together the two of them are pretty funny. As this is Mike's first Stray Tour around the South Island, Spike bought him the dictionary and everybody they meet is asked to pick a favourite word, and then sign it*. The dictionary (particularly the cover) is now seriously battered, as it goes on all their nights out, and all the activities - including bungy jumping and up the glacier.

However, as this is an off-on tour, about an hour after that picture was taken half the people got off the bus at Wanaka. But we were filled up again, and had nine on board when we rolled into the adventure capital of the world, Queenstown.

* My word was, of course, squalor. Despite meaning dirty and filthy it's the closest thing to my nickname until I merit inclusion in the dictionary myself...

Sunday, May 08, 2005

Walking on Franz Josef

Gleaming ice on the Franz Josef glacier

An early start this morning, for a 7:30 meeting and equipment collection for our walk up the glacier. Amazingly, the weather had totally cleared from yesterday and was gloriously sunny and clear, but of course very cold. We trooped into town to the Glacier Guides place and received our equipment - boots, crampons (called Talonz), coat, trousers, hat, gloves etc. After a short minibus ride we were at the Franz Josef National Park, and there it was. It looked only a few hundred metres way, but actually took us an hour to walk to the ice face along the valley. The actual face was very dirty, as all the rocks and gravel garried along are deposited here when the end melts. The glacier was named after the Austrian Emporer in 1865 by a group of sycophantic Austrian explorers, and it is one of the lowest glaciers (in terms of sea level) in the world. It is also one of the fastest moving, rumbling along at an average speed of 1m per day - although it can reach 5m a day (10 times the speed of Alpine glaciers).

We stopped at the ice edge to put on our Talonz - metal crampons that clipped to the bottom of our boots. Our guide led the way, chipping out steps with a massive pickaxe and knocking in ropes with a hefty mallet. We were also given ice axes, but only really for using as walking sticks. It was slippery, but banging the foot down helped the crampon lock into the ice, so none of us fell over. It was a good job too, because some of the ice steps we climbed up and down had crevasses to one side. Nothing crazy, but you wouldn't want to fall down them. We even stepped over a few higher up on the ice - which even though they are small still gives you something to think about.

The ice colours were incredible, all shades of white, blue and grey. The sun sparkled off the ice too, and in places you could even see water running past underneath. We moved upwards between ice blocks, sometimes pushing through clefts that were only just passable - leaving you wet and cold, but it was absolutely worth it. Our guide had no real plan of our route, he just went where the ice looked strong enough - and eventually we got near a few overhanging blocks that were too dangerous to pass, so we turned back. We were on the ice for 5 hours though, so there was a lot of climbing and hacking done. The way back was easier, because the sun had melted some of the steps and softened the ice, making the going better. What a day though, the whole trip was fantastic - walking on a glacier is really like nothing else.

Saturday, May 07, 2005

Southwards, into the rain

Lake Mahinapua

Well my luck with the weather ran out today. It was still sunny when we rolled out of Barrytown, but almost immediately the clutch failed and our bus broke down. So we had an unscheduled hour wait in a tractor garage whilst the other bus was brought up for us to move onto. The tour is led by a typically energetic guide called Spike (because of his mohawk haircut), and there are about 12 of us on at the moment - most of us staying on until Franz, today's destination. A couple of the guys are going all the way round like me, but most have planned extra days in some of the places and will 'drop off' our tour and then join the bus that follows us tomorrow, or the one after that. But the people on the bus seem good fun - and it's not like the enforced wackiness of the Kiwi bus I mentioned yesterday.

About an hour south of Greymouth is Hokitika - the centre of the New Zealand greenstone (jade) industry. Plenty of tourist shops and jewellers, but we were only there for an hour or so, just to buy provisions for the next few days as there's precious little between Hokitika and Queenstown, three days away. Just after we left the rain started, and quickly it became a downpour that fogged up the windows and made everything hard to see. We stopped briefly at an old gold-mining town to get a cup of billy-tea (brewed on the fire in a billy can) and we were off again - we could have panned for gold, but it was really belting down.

The final stop of the day was Franz, where I am now. I'm sitting in an old red bus, converted into an internet place. Franz is the stopping off point for the Franz-Josef glacier, which we're walking up tomorrow. In the meantime, there's not much else to do other that avoid getting wet. Franz is like Aviemore, only about 1/10th the size - we walked around it in 20 minutes. Still, you don't come here for the town, you come for the glacier - and more of that next time...

Friday, May 06, 2005

Coast to coast

Barrytown beach, with the dog and the riders

The bus trip started today - nine days of travelling in an anti-clockwise direction around the South Island, from Christchurch to Christchurch via everywhere. I'm on a trip organised by Stray Travel, which is a more 'grown-up' version of the typical backpacker tours that go round - like the pea-green Kiwi Experience buses which are universally described as the 'Little Green F*ck Bus' because of the randy 18yr olds that go round in them. I'm told Stray are for the 'mid-20's traveller' - whatever that means. Is 28 mid-20's? Don't answer that.

So the first of these buses left at 7:30am from Christchurch's Cathedral Square and took about 5hrs to crawl up the mountains I had seen from the air when I arrived. The journey was nothing short of spectacular, through the Southern Alps at Arthur's Pass. We were in a clapped-out minibus run by another company, and it was the driver's first day, so we were late arriving in the West coast town of Greymouth - but I still made my onward connection. On the way we passed a valley where there were so many avalanches blocking the road, they built a giant funnel over the route, so any rocks would tumble over this and into the canyon on the other side, missing the traffic. I should have taken a picture, it was pretty amazing.

My second bus dropped me at the hostel for the first night, in Barrytown. I say town, more collection of a few buildings and a pub. The bus group I was meeting were away for the day on an excursion, so I had 6hrs to kill waiting. I ended up walking down to the beach - a huge flat expanse of black sand with large waves crashing into the shoreline. A local dog followed me down the track and kept me company - as apart from two women on horses there was nobody for miles. Once they went and the dog lost interest I walked around for hours in utter solitude, apart from the waves and the blackflies. Eventually the flies became too much and I went back to the hostel to wait for the group. There are about 10 of them, but people come and go on the bus as it's more a series of linked days rather than a tour - so people tend to jump on and off. More about them tomorrow I guess, when we're off down the coast.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

A day trip to France

Akaroa Harbour backed by mist-shrouded hills

About an hour south-east of Christchurch is the small town of Akaroa (pop. 900). Sitting at the bottom of a massive volcanic crater long-since filled with water, it used to be a small fishing village. It now caters mostly for tourists, as there are views, cafes, walks etc...and something more interesting - Akaroa has a secret. In the rush for land during the 1800's, most of the Australasian continent went to the British - but it nearly didn't go all their (or our) way. A boatload of French pioneers arrived in Akaroa harbour, and cheekily claimed the area for themselves. After agreeing terms with the local maori group, they all lived peacefully together and started to build the town. Yes, Akaroa is a tiny part of France in New Zealand.

Well, that's what they say. The streets aren't exactly full of French-speakers - when I was there the streets were hardly full of anything (although they do have French names, Rue Lavaud and Rue Jolie are the two main arteries). There was a torn tricolore fluttering outside a cafe by the water, a plaque to the original settlers...and that was about it. Still, it was a nice enough place - not really that French, but the Brits kept most of them down after the maori signed NZ over to them. They allowed the locals to keep the street names though, which was frightfully nice. And it makes an interesting day trip from Christchurch - but could really do with a bit more French atmosphere to liven things up a bit...

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

A cold day in Christchurch

Your author on the summit of the 500m Mt Cavendish (cable car)

10C in Christchurch today - boy do you feel that after six months of Australian weather. When I left Sydney it was 25C and almost starting 'winter'. Here it's only autumn and already as cold as the UK. I'm definately a cold-weather person, today was a glorious crisp day - sunny, cold and still. In fact it was so nice I immediately abandoned my plan of wandering the city and went out on a bus to the Mount Cavendish cable car to see what the views were like. Well, they were stupendous. You could see all the way to the Alps I flew over yesterday, the Pacific Ocean, and down into the next valley (behind me in the above picture). There was hardly anybody around, so I walked along the ridge for a bit and had something to eat. The wind was whipping over the summit, but to me the cold was such a novelty it didn't bother me at all.

Back in the city I walked around, looking at the various parts of Christchurch. It's about the size of Edinburgh, and has an interesting mixed feel to it. It really feels like an English city, with the street names (Gloucester, Hereford, Oxford, Cambridge Streets), and the punting on the river (the Avon) - but to me it looks like an American city - the wooden clapboard houses with white fences, the rigid block street system, an outer ring of malls and fast food chains. Plus of course all the trees are turning that impressive New Englandy red/orange colour. It's a cheerful place, everyone seems friendly, tourists are well catered for. I'm not sure what the weather's doing tomorrow, but I did all my outdoor things today so if it's bad I'm off to the Kiwi Aviary...

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Off across the Tasman

Cathedral Square, Christchurch

Well, here I am across the Tasman in New Zealand. After the week of waiting for something to do, I've now got literally hundreds of things to do (according to my Lonely Planet). The flight over was fine, I managed to get an entire row to myself after moving seats. I was glad I did too, because when we started flying over the Western coast of the South Island the views were amazing. At first I thought there were low clouds along the coastline, like you see sometimes when you're flying about - but when we got nearer I could see that they were snow-capped mountains. The Southern Alps pretty much run the length of the South Island's West coast, plunging into the sea on one side and giving way to farmland on the other. But seen from the air, they look incredible - massive jagged peaks with glaciers pushing away down the slopes. It was one of the most amazing things I've ever seen from a plane. After we landed, I got a bus into the city centre to wait for Julie who's given up her living room floor for two days. I liked Christchurch immediately - I think in part because it's so cold over here, coming from the Australian 'autumn' it really seems like I'm in another country...