SOUTH ISLAND - ABEL TASMAN TO FOX GLACIER - robmellors

In my last post I said that we were in Wellington awaiting the ferry. We had about 6 hours to look around this city located right at the bottom of the North Island. It wasn’t really fair to rush our visit as there is so much to do there but we did it anyway. At the suggestion of the B&B owners we took a drive out along the sea front. The central district of Wellington is compacted into a very small area but the ‘burbs spread out for some distance. Indeed, we were staying in one such suburb, Johnsonville from where it was remarkably quick and easy to get into the centre. Auckland’s traffic had been a bit hectic but Wellington was very easy to negotiate and there was ample, free parking (UK cities take note!). We drove out around Wellington Harbour. The speed is mostly restricted to 40kmph and virtually everyone sticks to it so you can drive at leisure, taking in the sights, looking at the lovely houses which occupy little bays, with the sun reflected on the blue waters of the sea. It was so relaxed and enjoyable like being in a big village not a busy, bustling port city. Mind you, don’t get the impression that Wellington is all hippy and laid back because there was some serious weirdness going on there on that Saturday night. What we hadn’t appreciated when we scheduled our trip was that we would be in town for the Rugby 7s World Series. So town was full of rugby supporters all doing the usual thing of trying to drink the bars dry. Except, these lot weren’t your average Gloucester Rugby Club supporter with their Cherry and White hoops (or have they changed kit again this season?) and their cries of ‘Glawsterrr’. No, the city was full of groups of fans all kitted out in fancy dress. There were bare chested blokes in fig leaf skirts and not so bare chested gals in the same green fig leaves only shorter. There were ballerinas and fairies (of both sexes!); there were Red Indians with their inebriated squaws, there were gladiators, lions, flappers and a whole madcap whirl of strangely attired lads and lasses milling about, singing, dancing and generally having fun. There was even a brilliant Brazilian style drumming band. But, you know what?; it all seemed to be good natured fun. I’m sure there was some trouble somewhere; there always is. But there were no hoards of riot police trying to keep rival factions apart. In fact, it seemed to be just one big party and I did briefly think of going back to the B&B, donning all my hiking gear and claiming to be Hillary (with Jane as Sherpa Tenzing, of course!) but I thought better of it. So, although our sojourn in Wellington was very short it was quite sweet and I’d happily spend more time there. But the InterIslander was calling so the next day we got up early and had breakfast. Our B&B (the excellent Cherswud) had their own live in chef who had prepared a meal the previous night for a dinner party. He asked us if we would like to take some left over lamb curry to take with us for that night’s meal. He would have plied us with fish curry as well but we thought it wouldn’t travel too well in the 29 degree temperatures! These Kiwis are such kind, generous people. Everyone who has ever travelled in NZ has told us the ferry ride from Wellington to Picton is an adventure in itself and they were not wrong. We had nigh on perfect weather; a little windy perhaps but bright blue sky none the less and our crossing took less than 3 hours. And, yes, it is true. If you think the north island is beautiful, wait ‘till you see the south. The ferry docks at Picton, which is a charming little place with a lovely waterfront and, we discovered, a great bakery. Decent bread seems hard to come by in North Island (the B&Bs often make their own) so we are hopeful that the South will have a few more bakeries left; it’s the little things that make all the difference when you are on a long trip. After lunch we motored slowly up the Queen Charlotte Drive, a scenically lovely drive up the northern sounds to Nelson, The twisty road revealed tiny bays and inlets, all sparkling in the sunshine. Our destination was the small town of Motueka in the Tasman Bay and gateway to the Abel Tasman National Park. We had booked into a ‘backpacker’ lodge called the Laughing Kiwi, which might have turned out to be a joke but thankfully didn’t. These lodges have a range of accommodation, from dorms and double rooms with shared kitchens and bathrooms to self contained units called a Bach. This is pronounced as in batch not as in Johan Sebastian. The Kiwis have some interesting pronunciations; a ‘min’ is a man, ‘tin’ isn’t something baked beans come in but ten, ‘be ggage chicken’ isn’t some exotic chicken dish it’s the place you leave your bags in the airport and if you hear a woman in a cafe saying ‘I’m having sex for dinner tonight’ it means she’s got half a dozen guests coming round for a meal! Anyway, we went for the bach so that we could have our own space. And what a space it was – really a small house with 3 bedrooms, a large lounge/dining room/ kitchen and a roomy bathroom. Normally it sleeps 6 people but we were able to rent it for just the two of us and had a great space in which to spread out and cook some food, as Motueka doesn’t have a great range of places to eat. And our evening’s entertainment was watching young backpackers taking a spa bath just outside our door. It was really amusing to see them sitting up to their necks in water whilst sipping beer or wine. We never had spa baths when we were in our twenties – these kids just don’t know when they’re born! Abel Tasman is New Zealand’s smallest national park and is there principally to protect the fantastic coastline. It has numerous small bays separated by steep headlands and beaches of deep golden colour. At the very far end of the park is Farewell Spit, not something Johnny Rotten did at the last ‘Six Pestols’ gig but New Zealand’s longest sand spit stretching for 26 km and is the northern most part of the South Island. You can only walk the first 4 kms without joining an organised tour but we spent a wonderful day walking first along the southern side before crossing incredible sand dunes to get to the northern side. On the way I made Jane run down several dunes to get a good photo of her as Jane of the Desert! It was like being a kid again!. The northern side is much wilder; it’s wind swept and wave battered and we were the only two people for miles around. Like most of NZ, there was a feeling of a vast space with the blue sky arcing above you like an infinite dome. It was a magical place and we had a great day out. The following day Lucy organised a boat taxi trip so that we could walk part of the Abel Tasman Coastal track. We began with what must be one of the most bizarre sea trips of my life because our boat was on a trailer attached to a tractor. We all got on and the captain then proceeded to drive us for about 10 minutes to the launch point. We’ve never been sailing on dry land before. We were then backed into the sea, the captain jumped aboard and we were off!. It was a lovely trip along the coastline, visiting a fur seal colony on the way before we were landed at Bark Bay. We then had a five hour walk along the coastal track which climbed up into the hills and back down to the coast to visit little bays with pristine clear water and golden sand. It was another of those great days out and was a fine end to our stay on the north coast of the south island. We then proceeded down the West coast of the island as we wanted to visit the Franz Joseph and Fox Glaciers. These are a very long drive from Motueka so we decided to split the journey about half way. The first part of the trip to Murchison went through lovely rolling countryside and then increasingly mountainous land following the incredibly beautiful Buller River. This was a great drive along twisty narrow roads but we were rewarded with some great views. Towards Westport the road becomes a little less interesting until you hit the coastline towards Paparoa National Park. Here the coast becomes quite wild again with rolling waves and sea spray. The beaches are littered with trees which in winter storms are brought down by raging torrents and which are then rolled about in the ocean before being washed up on the shore. The locals collect this free driftwood, chainsaw up the trees and use them year round to heat their homes and to cook with. Perfect free fuel and some of the wood burns better than coal. We eventually fetched up in the tiny settlement of Barrytown, a community of about 100 souls where our B&B, Kally House, was situated. Like a lot of Kiwi homes this was built almost entirely by its owners, Alistair and Kath. Out here a building plot is called a section and most of them are huge. The foundations of our house could have fitted easily into just the lounge of Kally House and that isn’t an exaggeration. The place is massive and has a big, well stocked and tended garden to go with it. As ever, we got a fine Kiwi welcome and were made to feel very much at home. Barrytown was something of a stop over on the long drive down to Fox Glacier. Close by, in Punakaiki, there are pancake rocks – large rock formations made up of sediments laid down millions of years ago in layers and looking like a giant stack of pancakes. As the rock is soft it has been eroded by the sea and channels and caverns carved out. At full tide the sea rushes in and spouts up these blow holes creating spectacular water spouts. Unfortunately for us high tide occurred well after the sun had set so it was too dark to see the most spectacular blows but it was an interesting area none the less. We drove down the west coast for some time watching the sea spray and trying to avoid the sand flies whenever we got out of the car. The blighters are a real menace and most nights are spent scratching away at our bites. They’re going to look lovely for the wedding we’re going to after we get back! At the rather delightful ex-mining town of Ross (that is, town to New Zealanders, hamlet to the rest of us!) the road climbs inland away from the coast, across the Wanganui Flats and up to Harihari (a great name and a nice, relaxed place) through Whataroa where we branched off to have lunch at Okarito as it has a lagoon which holds a colony of White Stork in the breeding season; regrettably it isn’t the breeding season so we saw few birds but it was a good stop. We then drove on to Franz Joseph, not a rival band to Franz Ferdinand but gateway to Glacierland. The Franz Joseph glacier comes down from the Southern Alps and here the views of Mount Cook and the lesser mountains are stunning. It was a slightly overcast day but we hiked up to the glacier, or at least as near as one can get to it. The glaciers in NZ, as elsewhere, are in retreat due to global warming so you can’t get onto the glacier itself except in organised trips and much higher up. Still it was impressive enough and a good introductory hike. There were hundreds of people doing the same thing and helicopters constantly buzzing overhead but we enjoyed getting out of the car and stretching our legs. We then made our way to the next glacier village, Fox Glacier, where we were staying for the night. one motel, Mount Cook View, whilst full was able to offer us B&B in the owner’s mum’s house! So it was here that we met the exceptionally friendly and wonderful Murray and Irene. I’ve said before that some of the places we’ve stayed in have exceptional views and you think things can’t get any better. Well think again. From Murray and Irene’s huge picture view lounge window there was an incredible view of Mount Cook, now bathed in sunlight and shining like a beacon from Lord of the Rings. Incredible. So we took in the views, had a meal out and retired to bed with the alarm set for an early start, Just down the road from the B&B is Lake Matheson. One of the smaller lakes in NZ it might be easily overlooked but for one amazing feature. It is ringed by trees and very sheltered and if there is no breeze, if there is no cloud, if the time is right you can get the most perfect views of the mountains reflected in the still waters of the lake. But you have to get down to the lake by dawn and there’s no guarantee that fortune will smile on you. So we got up, crept out of the B&B and drove down to the lake, hurrying to be in position. The previous night had been clear and starlit so we were hopeful. Could our luck last. The answer to that came in a glorious dawn with the pink light bathing the scene and the mountains lit perfectly. Photos done, we were going to pack up and go back to the B&B for breakfast when came the sun over the mountains. In front of us was the lake, now partly covered in a rising mist that was turning golden in the sun’s rays, the snow capped mountains stood proud and clear, suffused in golden light. It was truly an awe inspiring, amazing sight but New Zealand just keeps giving you these moments. We returned to our B&B, much later than we had said we would and over breakfast Murray and Irene suggested that as the day was so perfect weatherwise we should take a heli-flight up to the glacier. We dithered a bit but at 9am Irene put in a call to her daughter Stephanie who ran the motel, and before we knew it we were told to get ourselves to the Heli office for a 10am flight. Quick breakfast, even quicker shower and away we went. Now I’ve flown light aircraft and I wasn’t certain I’d really enjoy a flight in a clattering helicopter with a load of other tourists. Well, I don’t mind admitting that I was wrong. It was a fabulous flight in near perfect weather. The chopper was much smoother than I had anticipated and the close up views of the mountains and glaciers and of the surrounding lands was nothing short of spectacular. Sorry I keep using the same superlatives but that’s NZ for you. We landed on the mountain in a wide valley with snow all around and the peaks rearing above us. For the first time ever I really appreciated why mountaineers do what they do to get such views and to have the feeling of being on top of the world. Jane couldn’t stop grinning from ear to ear and I just couldn’t stop marvelling at it all. Next year Everest then?! As if we hadn’t had enough for one day, we hiked to a viewpoint for the Fox Glacier in the afternoon and completed our hectic 48 hour sojourn in the village in style. Irene had already asked us if we would like her to cook us evening dinner and we eagerly said yes. Now Murray and Irene are really great company and we hit it off straight away. So at about 6pm we sat down with them and opened a bottle of Bombay Sapphire which we’d bought in Auckland airport as we came through. Irene provided pre prandial snacks, then served up a wonderful roast lamb with all the trimmings, some excellent Nautilus white wine which just kept coming every time your glass was empty. We all somehow managed to put away a slice of pudding before all disappearing to bed swearing eternal friendship. What a great end to a fabulous day, even if on the ‘morrow we were all just ever so slightly a bit tired! As ever, we had to pack up and leave but somehow a small bit of us seems to stay in the places we have visited. We already long to return to NZ and we’ve still got three weeks to go here! We are now at Lake Tekapo but that, and our journey here, will have to wait for the next blog.

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