Ok, so last time I was in touch was from Wellington in early November. I continued living and working in Wellington until mid-February. Thinking back, I guess I didn't really do a whole lot in that time as I was starting to try harder to save money for my travels down on the South Island. But a few important things happened that are worth mentioning during that time... The first was a two week trip with two of my dad's sisters who came over to visit for Christmas. I met them in Rotorua and drove down to Wellington and then went over to the South Island as far as Christchurch with them. It was lovely to see them and catch up with all the family gossip. We did lots of great stuff, like walking the Tongariro Crossing (on Christmas Day in pretty awful weather!), kayaking in Abel Tasman and whale watching in Kaikoura. It was pretty sad when I had to leave them to go back north for work while they continued on their merry way around the South Island. The second was a bbq party I had celebrating the beginning of a new decade in my life and the end of my time in Wellington... It was lovely having a birthday in the summer time - a novelty for me. I wish I could have a bbq celebration every year! The final thing that's worth mentioning is that I met a lovely Frenchman by the name of Antonin while volunteering at the Marine Education Centre in Wellington one Sunday not long before I was due to leave Wellington. But more of that later…
Anyways, finally on Feb 16th, after over 8 months living, working and having lots of fun in Wellington, I decided I’d better head south before the summer ended. So I did, and I ended up spending 3 months altogether travelling around the South Island – it’s a fabulous part of the world. The first month I was travelling by myself in my car with a tent…now I’ve never really been a big one for camping, preferring to have a proper roof over my head and disliking the cold dampness that goes hand-in-hand with camping, but budgetary constraints were such that I had to put up with it. As it turned out I got quite accustomed to it – you could even say I enjoyed it a lot of the time…as long as it wasn’t raining!! Most of the time I camped in the grounds of backpacker hostels, where you get all the comforts (decent well-equipped kitchen compared with campsites where they expect you to have all your own pots and pans etc..) of the hostel as well as the privacy of a “single room” (albeit one where your head is touching the ceiling in a sitting position!) at a third of the cost of a real single room…sweet!
My favourite way to see the countryside quickly became tramping thro’ it.. Tramping is Kiwi for hiking/trekking. Multi-day tramps are very common and there are lots of tracks around the country where you can lose yourself (quite literally if you’re not careful….and for days!!) if you so desire. When you’re tramping you have to carry everything you need for the duration of the tramp with you. This includes sleeping bag, clothes, food, cooking/eating utensils, all-weather gear, emergency/first-aid stuff and, if you need it, a tent, sleeping mat and gas stove. DOC (which stands for the Dept. of Conservation and is spoken as a word as opposed to spelt out as letters..) have built huts along the lengths of most of these tracks, generally at distances of a half to a full days walk apart. These are pretty basic: they have a sleeping area with bunk beds (no bedding) and a kitchen area that often has running water and sometimes gas. There’s also often an area where you can camp close to the hut. You do have to pay for these facilities, with camping naturally being cheaper than staying in the hut. Prices vary depending on the track. Nine of the country’s tracks have been classified as ‘Great Walks’ by DOC – these are the most popular (altho’ whether they became great walks due to their popularity or whether they became popular due to their status as great walks I’m not sure!), especially with tourists, and therefore the most expensive. To spend a night in the “luxury” of some of these huts (namely those of the Great Walks in Fiordland) you need to fork out twice what you would spend on a dorm bed in a backpacker hostel with its fewer roomies, hot running water and a fully equipped kitchen! I can tramping sounding quite crazy to some people; but it really is the best way to get out into the countryside.
Tramping like this was a very new experience for me. While I’d done plenty of hiking before this, including multi-day hikes, I’d never had to carry all my food, cooking and eating utensils or a tent, camping mattress and gas stove before… Yes, once again my financial situation dictated that I chose the cheapest option despite the fact that this meant carrying the most weight… I decided to pick two relatively easy tramps to begin with to test how much I could carry, what items were really essential and how far I could walk with a big pack. So first off was the Queen Charlotte Track in the Marlborough Sounds. This track is about 70 km long but due to the weather forecast, I decided to do it in three days rather than the optimal four! I really didn’t want to get caught out in the rain they were predicting for later on that week… My first day started off quite well – I covered 26 km!! This, as it turned out, was WAY TOO FAR to walk with a pack on my back, especially when I’d never done it before and I’d two more days ahead of me!! It was fairly flat tho’, so I guess that’s how I managed it. On the second day I had to cover 23 km – I made that too but my knees were fairly fecked by the end of the day. On day 3, with a mere 20 km to the end, I had to give up at the 8 km mark – my knees were so sore that I could barely walk downhill at all… Uphills and flats were still fine, but as the track was undulating, I struggled every 20 minutes or so…not good! Fortunately, the main reason I’d chosen this as a “training track” was because there’s a very good water taxi service offered at various points along the track to take you back to Picton (the closest town). I had to call the water taxi and get them to pick me up from where I’d had to stop, 12 km from the end of the track… It was a lovely walk tho’ – maybe someday I’ll go back and finish the last section. Most people who walk along the Queen Charlotte Track do so with day packs, utilizing the water taxi service to take them back to Picton after just a few hours of walking, or to take their big packs from one campsite to the next while they walk. In fact, I only met two other people tramping with big packs on and one morning I met some DOC workers maintaining the track who congratulated me on being one of the last “real trampers” out there…HA! If only they knew!!
After a few days of relaxation, wine tasting and a serious massage, I was ready to begin my second tramp and my first Great Walk: The Abel Tasman Coastal Track! Again this track has a really good water taxi service so there’s always an out if you feel you can’t make it to the end. This time, having learned the hard way from the previous experience, I walked more slowly, took more breaks and planned to cover shorter distances each day. As with the Queen Charlotte Track, I’d walked parts of the Abel Tasman track before, but had never gone from beginning to end. I really enjoyed the track – it’s gorgeous apart from the sandflies! And I didn’t get great weather either – but I did get to test my waterproof gear!
After the Abel Tasman Track I chilled out at a lovely hostel in Golden Bay that I’d stayed at a couple of years before – it was very relaxing. I did some kayaking in a nearby rainforest and wandered around Farewell Spit. From there I headed down the west coast stopping at all the mandatory tourist sites, the biggest one being the glaciers. I did a day walk on Fox Glacier – quite enjoyable but I’m not sure I’d bother doing it again… I had amazing weather all the way down the west coast – very lucky as the scenery is stunning when you can see it! From there I headed inland over the Haast Pass to Queenstown to meet up with Kate, an Australian friend of mine that I’d met the last time I was in New Zealand, to do the world famous Milford Track.
The Milford Track is by far and away the busiest tramp in NZ. It’s one of the great walks in Fiordland and to walk on this track you need to book about 6 months in advance…totally crazy given the very large volumes (up to 12 m per year!!) of rain that can fall at anytime of the year. There’s no such thing as waiting for a good weather window on the Milford Track – rain, hail or snow, you start the walk on the day you’ve booked or forfeit your place altogether. This track is also the most expensive one to walk as there’s no camping allowed so you have no choice but to stay in the extortionately priced huts – along with the 39 other so-called independent walkers (as distinct from the guided walkers that pay truly ridiculous prices to have their bags carried for them and to have hot showers and a 4 course meal with wine served up every night…we’re talking 1000s of dollars here) that have also booked months in advance. The scenery is spectacular, altho’ I’m not sure if it’s really worth being herded along with no freedom (you can’t skip a hut even if you feel you’ve the energy to go on to the next one as 40 other lucky trampers started the day before you and 40 more the day after you – it’s a bit like a factory line really!), but I realize I’m saying that from the privileged position of having done the walk… We got fairly decent weather for it, certainly by Fiordland standards
Almost immediately after finishing the Milford Track, I met up with Cushla (my friend that I’d originally met in Nepal but who lived in Wellington and with whom I hung out a lot for the first 8 months in NZ) to walk the Routeburn/Greenstone Circuit. These are two tracks that almost form a circle, and in that part of the world having the starting and finishing point relatively close to each other can save a couple of hundred kilometers of driving to get back to your vehicle/luggage/starting point/whatever.. They traverse both Mt. Aspiring and Fiordland National Parks and again the scenery was pretty spectacular (quite different to the Milford Track) and we were pretty lucky with the weather – just one day of rain. We celebrated St. Patrick’s Day on the second day of this track – we had carried just one beer each for the occasion. Not much I know, but when you have to carry everything on your back, and remembering you have to carry out everything you take in (there are no bins in NZ’s national parks), one beer was enough! Needless to say it was in a can so that when empty it would be really light.
At the end of this tramp I headed for the third time in as many weeks to Queenstown – the capital of everything adrenalin related in NZ. The plan at this point was to go up to Christchurch to meet the afore-mentioned Antonin, with whom I had kept in touch (he’d spent that month in Tauranga doing his dive instructor course) and spend some time travelling about with him. However, being the romantic Frenchman that he is, he’d bussed his way from Tauranga all the way to Queenstown (a long way) in order to surprise me when I finished the tramp. And yes, I was very surprised and delighted to see him… We ended up spending a lovely weekend in Queenstown. As it was his birthday that weekend, one of his old flat-mates from Wellington flew down to join us for the weekend and we had a lovely time walking, eating, drinking and chilling
From Queenstown myself and Antonin headed north to Christchurch via Aoraki/Mt.Cook National Park (where we did a fantastic two day tramp up to the Mueller Hut from where there were amazing views of Mt. Cook – the highest mountain in NZ at almost 4000 m) and Lake Tekapo. In Christchurch we spent about 10 days shopping for a van (fortunately I had a friend there who was very happy to mind my car for me…thanks again Roisin!) and from there we headed north in our newly converted van (we bought it with 8 seats and replaced 6 of them with a bed…) to spend Easter weekend with some friends from Wellington in Nelson Lakes National Park. We did another fabulous two day tramp there, this time to the Angelus Hut. With 55 people in the hut that night (plus about 11 campers) and just 26 beds, this was by far the busiest hut I’d stayed in – I guess that’s what happens at a long weekend when the weather is fab. For huts on non-Great Walk tramps, there’s no such thing as booking your bed in advance – it’s first come first served and the rest can sleep on the floor/tables/benches..! After our tramp we did a little bit of wine-tasting – such a great way to spend a sunny day and then said good-bye to our friends who had to go back to Wellington to work…!
From there, myself and Antonin headed back to Christchurch via the Lewis Pass after a couple of days in Nelson. It was more van stuff in Christchurch – the fan needed to be replaced and our van needed a new WOF (NCT/MOT equivalent). From there we headed south along the east coast stopping at all the mandatory tourist spots. We started at Akaroa – the peninsula just south Christchurch. It was very pretty but the folks at the tourist information place weren’t a bit friendly… The next place on the way south worth stopping at was Oamaru with its old town part (has some of the oldest buildings I’ve seen in NZ) and its colonies of yellow-eyed and blue penguins. We went to the yellow-eyed penguin colony and waited patiently with the rest of the penguin spotters for the little fellows to come ashore for the night. Fortunately we were rewarded with maybe 10 individuals…they were pretty cool!!
After Oamaru we stopped in Dunedin. I thought Dunedin was a fabulous little city and it would definitely rank second as a city worth living in in NZ (after Wellington of course). Altho’ I will admit we got great weather while we were there and that always makes a place look good. While we were there we visited the Otago Peninsula which also has a colony of blue penguins aswell as an albatross colony. Unfortunately we didn’t make it to Cadburys chocolate factory because we went there at a weekend and, as the factory part is closed at weekends, we didn’t see any point in doing a tour despite the free chocolate!! While we were in Dunedin we were kindly put up by an old friend of mine Teresa from way way back who has ended up married to a local man and has been living there for a few years now – it was lovely to spend time with them (and thanks a million again guys for the hospitality…it was much appreciated ). We spent about a week in Dunedin in total, but spent most of that time planning the next stage in the adventure…where to go and what to do after NZ…
From Dunedin we headed to the south eastern corner of NZ to an area called the Catlins. It’s a very pretty area and not half as touristy as it’s southwestern counterpart, namely Fiordland. We spent a couple of days driving around there visiting some of the sights. The most interesting for me was the fossilized forest. The most southern point on the South Island (Slope Point) is in the Catlins area and we stopped there too for the obligatory photo!
After the Catlins, we hit the largest town on the south coast – Invercargill. There’s pretty much nothing to do there but it’s the jumping off spot for Stewart Island. Unfortunately by the time we got to Invercargill our plans for where to go after NZ were confirmed, flights were booked and suddenly we had a deadline – we had less than a month to get from the far south of the South Island to Auckland (pretty far north on the North Island) and along the way we had to organize what to do with our van and sort out all the stuff we’d left in various places in Wellington, so we had to pass on our trip to Stewart Island . So from Invercargill we headed back to Picton for the ferry to Wellington via Fiordland, the west coast, Arthurs Pass and Christchurch…nope, it certainly wasn’t the most direct route and we did fly thro’ it, but unfortunately we had little choice in the matter…
We spent a lovely, albeit way to brief, week in Wellington organizing our stuff and catching up with friends. And from there we headed west to Taranaki where we had a good storage location for our van (the plan at that stage being to come back to NZ within 12 months and visit the parts we missed this time). After a few days in Taranaki, where we almost went skiing for a day as Mt. Taranaki ski field had opened a couple of weeks earlier than usual (this was the last week or so in May), we took a bus to Auckland to catch our flights out of NZ. We were, again very kindly, put up by my friends Karl and Liz while we were in Auckland (thanks a million guys – much appreciated ) and generally just spent our time there catching up with a couple of friends and trying franctically to find some typically kiwi gifts that didn’t weigh too much (we were over our weight limit in the luggage department already!) for our families that we were due to meet up with the following week..
And that was the end of NZ. On May 31st, 4 days short of a year since I’d arrived there, I left the country with Antonin in tow… Destination: Egypt! What a change of plan! But the whys and hows can wait until next time as this email is, as usual, way too long already! But it has been over 8 months since the last one, so what of it
Take care all,